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The Myth of the China Expert
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I was just reading a very good writeup of the Obama visit on China Beat when I noticed an odd reference there to a speech by US Ambassador Huntsman. Following the link, I found this interesting passage:

"Don't mistake me for being an expert, because I've been here for three months," Huntsman said. "And I've come to the conclusion that 'China expert' is kind of an oxymoron. And those who consider themselves to be China experts are kind of morons. So you take what you can, you learn what you can, and you begin to pull all the pieces together, and still it kind of remains sometimes a somewhat confused environment."

This may appear a tad bizarre, but hold on for a second. By downplaying his own China knowledge, he is engaging in very Chinese behavior. The self-deprecating comment is endemic here. To wit:

Person 1: Wow, your English is really good!

Person 2: Oh no, I can hardly say anything.

Or this one:

Person 1: This is an amazing meal! It must have taken you all day to prepare this.

Person 2: No, this? I just threw this together a few minutes before you arrived.

Now, I'm not sure it's appropriate for the US Ambassador to China to state publicly that he doesn't know anything about China (folks elsewhere may get the wrong impression), but it certainly is spot on for the domestic audience.

However, there is a problem with where Huntsman's logic leads us. If you'll allow me to elucidate on this problem in some detail:

1. Self-identified China experts are morons (i.e. not really China experts).

2. Logically, then, a real China expert would not call himself a China expert.

3. That suggests that only people who self-identify as not-experts may be qualified to actually be China experts.

4. So we have three groups out there: a) self-identified China experts (i.e. not real China experts); b) self-identified not-China experts (might be China experts); and c) everyone else (no ID – may/may not be China experts).

5. It follows then that China experts may either be self-identified not-China experts or people lacking in any identification as either China experts or not-China experts.

6. The only people we can definitely cross off the list as being China experts are the self-identified China experts.

7. We have no way of distinguishing between self-identified not-China experts who are actually China experts, and self-identified not-China experts who are not China experts. I mean, we can't very take them at their word, can we?

8. Similarly, we have no way of knowing whether people lacking in any identification of China expert status are China experts. Sure, we can ask, and if they say they are China experts, then yes, that would take them out of the running. But if they respond with identifying as a not-China expert, then we are back to the problem discussed in #7 above.

9. In conclusion, unless a person says that they are a China expert, at which time we would know that they are not a China expert, there is no way of knowing for sure who is a China expert or not.

I think Huntsman may have single-handedly put a lot of China consultants out of business.

In the interest of full disclosure, I refuse to identify myself as either a China expert or not-China expert. However, I am a self-identified moron (and insomniac).

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© Stan for China Hearsay, 2009. |
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