Discover more from The East is Read
Chairman Rabbit on Elon Musk's China takes: Yes, it's internally focused & not acquisitive
The Chinese public intellectual reviews Musk's 4th appearance on Lex Fridman and advises less ideology from China and more visits by foreigners.
Before meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping recently in San Francisco
Elon Musk also returned for his fourth guest spot on the Lex Fridman Podcast, where he was asked about China.
That caught the attention of REN Yi, better known by his pseudonym Chairman Rabbit 兔主席 [links to his Twitter], a well-connected, influential public intellectual in China with a significant social media following.
In his WeChat blog post, Chairman Rabbit found gold in Elon Musk's comment, especially that China is internally focused and not acquisitive. Chairman Rabbit also suggests that China's international image would greatly improve by reducing the emphasis on ideologies, giving precedence to historical context, and incorporating a more prominent Western perspective into the narrative, rather than allowing it to be overwhelmingly dominated by Chinese voices.
Elon Musk's interview and "China's stories”
Lex Fridman has just released a new episode of his program, featuring Elon Musk for the fourth time.
The interview touched upon China, although not delving into details. Nevertheless, it provides valuable inspiration on the development and promotion of China's stories.
Lex Fridman's show offers in-depth interviews lasting several hours each episode. It's conducted in a conversational format without mid-interview editing, featuring scientists, tech workers, entrepreneurs, and other well-known personalities in cutting-edge fields. Musk, a frequent guest on the show, seemed at ease yet somewhat fatigued during the interview, occasionally appearing aloof.
I. What did Musk talk about China?
In this episode, Lex Fridman asked Musk about the China issue: Is it possible to avoid clashes between China and the U.S.? How can they be avoided? For instance, could they be avoided by enhancing communication between both sides? Given Musk's investments and business operations in China, and his interactions with numerous Chinese government officials, he is expected to have valuable insights in this regard. Additionally, Lex asked Musk to share his own understanding of China.
Here are Musk's views:
China has an incredible number of smart and hard-working people, far more than in the U.S. And they’ve got a lot of energy.
The architecture in China in recent years is far more impressive than the U.S.: the train stations, high-speed rail, buildings, etc. Musk recommended going to Shanghai and Beijing, looking at the buildings and taking the train from Beijing to Xi’an, where the terracotta warriors are. China has a very long history, and is arguably one of the oldest in terms of the use of written language from a written standpoint.
Historically, China has been internally focused and not acquisitive. They’re not going to go out and invade a whole bunch of countries.
For example, China has had many brutal civil wars throughout its history, which were very violent. The Three Kingdoms war, where China lost about 70% of its population, make the U.S. Civil War look small by comparison. People in China think about China 10 times more than they think about anything outside of China; 90% of their consideration is internal.
China is not monolithic; it is not one entity of one mind.
(This 5th point is crucial because many in the West tend to depict or imagine Chinese people as brainwashed, having uniform thoughts, lacking personal autonomy, and being either afraid or unable to nurture a free will. This is the most demeaning portrayal of Chinese people, reducing them to "human-like animals," depriving them of human agency.)
To explain Sino-American relations, Musk also talked about the U.S.:
(1) Historically, a lot of very powerful countries have been acquisitive, but the U.S. is one of the rare cases that has not been acquisitive. For instance, after WWII, the U.S. could have taken over any country in the world relying on nukes and without having to lose soldiers. Instead, the United States actually helped rebuild Europe and Japan. This is very unusual behavior, almost unprecedented.
(2) America has done bad things, but one needs to look at the whole track record, and generally, the United States has done good. (Musk was comparing the U.S. with various empires in history.) The U.S. did many conspicuous acts of kindness (a concept repeatedly brought up by Must during the interview, which suggests that Musk believes that Israel should have done similar things after the Hamas attack, rather than vengeful retaliation) like the Berlin Airlift (which is the largest air transport operation in history). Also, the treatment of prisoners of war (POWs) is one test of telling the morality of a country. For example, assume it's Germany, 1945, and one got the Russian Army coming on one side and the French, British, and American Army coming on the other side. Musk strongly recommended being a POW with the Americans because the United States treats POWs somewhat better than other countries -- it is a practical consideration.
(3) No country is morally perfect, but the U.S., while far from being perfect, has been generally a benevolent force. Nevertheless, it should always be self-critical.
Overall, neither China nor the U.S. has been acquisitive in a significant way, so that’s a shared principle (which provides space for cooperation and peace as long as it exists).
China does feel very strongly about Taiwan, considering it a fundamental part of China. China has been very clear about that for a long time. Taiwan is to China what a "state" is to the U.S.; it is much more important to China than Hawaii is to the U.S., even though Hawaii is also pretty significant to the U.S.
China has been very clear that they’ll incorporate Taiwan peacefully or militarily, but that they will incorporate it from their standpoint is 100% likely.
Musk did not offer specific suggestions for improving Sino-American relations. He discussed the Israel-Hamas war at the beginning of the interview, recommending that ”Israel engage in the most conspicuous acts of kindness possible”, following the same logic for Sino-American issues: both sides must break the cycle of tit-for-tat.
Why is this interview important?
As a leading global entrepreneur, Musk's words carry weight.
Musk has a good understanding of China, having invested there, paid many visits, and interacted with top-level individuals in China.
Musk's interest in China goes beyond business, showing respect for its history and culture.
Musk himself is a person with broad interests, keen enthusiasm for learning and thinking, and a knack for offering insightful viewpoints.
Long-term observation of Musk's viewpoints, especially on major issues, reveals him as a person of vision, culture, and integrity, a "good person" striving to do good. His actions and concerns, even those possibly affecting his "main business" (Tesla), indicate his broad-mindedness, although he might not see himself as having a "main business".
He has consistently spoken for China on the international stage, which is noteworthy considering the anti-China sentiment in the U.S.
Lex Fridman's program, unedited and featuring spontaneous reactions, offers a genuine platform. Its deep content and niche audience of intellectuals make Musk's comments all the more significant.
Insights for "telling China's stories":
China's cultural soft power holds great potential: Musk mentioned the terracotta armies and Chinese characters. China's rich and ancient history and culture hold great appeal for individuals from other countries who possess a deep spiritual and intellectual curiosity. It has the potential to ignite their thirst for knowledge and garner their admiration and respect. In terms of leveraging cultural soft power, China possesses enormous potential.
There is a significant difference between foreigners who have visited China and those who haven't. It's essential to invite foreigners to China: Simply by visiting and seeing China for themselves, people can learn more about what China is really like. Otherwise, their perceptions will be clouded by the biases of Western mainstream media. Elon Musk, with his investments and factory establishments in China, regards China as a significant market and thus has a different understanding and impression of the country. In this aspect, there is an information asymmetry between China and the U.S.: Chinese people learn English, watch American TV shows, and understand American popular culture, whereas Americans generally lack an understanding of China. Therefore, it is crucial to encourage more foreigners to visit China and actively engage in dialogue with them. Without such exchange and interaction, the gap and misunderstandings will only be more and more entrenched.
When discussing China's strengths and achievements, it's effective to focus on a few core and easily understandable aspects. While Musk's appraisal of China may not be exceedingly high, his observations are grounded and realistic. First, he notes the admirable qualities of the Chinese people: intelligence, diligence, and vitality. Second, he highlights China's excellent infrastructure. For a country to develop, these are fundamental necessities. Delving too deeply into systems, ideologies, or abstract concepts can be confusing. It's more effective to discuss these simple, direct, and tangible elements. The people are good, and so are the physical assets (infrastructure), which are developed by the government as concrete actions for the nation and the people. These points are sufficient to convey the message.
It is crucial to emphasize that China has always focused on domestic affairs and has no intention of external expansion. The mainstream view among U.S. politicians is that China aims to replace the U.S. as the new global leader, engaging in economic and military dominance, exporting ideologies and social systems, establishing multinational blocks, and ultimately leading the global community. Every step China takes is perceived as having a purpose, such as its activities in the South China Sea being seen as a move to dominate Southeast Asia, and the unification of Taiwan being viewed as a step towards influencing Japan. The image of China in the American imagination is actually a reflection of the U.S. itself, or the concept of 'Anglo-Saxon Pirates.' This psychological mechanism is known as "projection," where one projects their own image onto others. As an ancient Chinese saying goes, it's like "measuring the stature of a great individual with a yardstick." Similarly, another traditional Chinese apt saying goes, "A dog's perspective tends to be lower when it comes to assessing people." [because the dog is smaller than people.]
Nonetheless, America's perspective on China has been significantly influenced by its experience with the Soviet Union, which was the exact opposite of the U.S. in many aspects. This has led America to believe that all great powers are like the U.S. This is a common human problem: hunters cannot understand farmers; pirates cannot comprehend peasants.
Thus, an important aspect of telling China's stories to foreigners is highlighting its history of internal focus and no intentions of external aggression. Musk's comment about Chinese people being "internally focused" underscores this aspect in favor of the Chinese people. However, his statement that the U.S. is not "acquisitive" is inaccurate: the U.S. remains fundamentally expansionist and imperialistic, but it employs more sophisticated methods than military force, which are economic and cultural means. This represents the art of war that defeats an opponent without fighting, a more advanced form of imperialism that is achieved by dominating others economically and culturally. Therefore, the fundamental paths of China and the U.S. differ, and they do not share as many common values as some might think.
The Taiwan question must be explained in a way that is easy to understand. Musk did a good job of elucidating the Taiwan question: his comparison of Taiwan to Hawaii is vivid and makes it easier for Americans to comprehend. He also clearly stated the expectation of China's unification: that unification is 100% certain and is a matter laid out on the table. Since the Taiwan question is a direct flashpoint for Sino-American conflict, it is essential for foreigners to fully understand the Chinese mainland's stance on Taiwan. A critical point to note is that a significant number of foreigners believe that China is "invading" Taiwan, viewing it as an act of external expansion, thereby proving China's territorial ambitions. Fundamentally, they fail to understand that Taiwan is part of China and therefore, in the view of the Chinese, a matter of internal politics. This ties in with what Musk said about China being traditionally focused on domestic affairs, having experienced many civil wars throughout history. The Taiwan question is a domestic matter, a continuation of the civil wars in China following World War II. From the beginning, it has had nothing to do with external expansion.
The promotion of China's stories is sometimes more effective when kept simple. As Musk discussed with Lex in the interview, the Chinese people are incredibly hardworking, striving to improve their lives, aspiring for betterment, and focusing on their own and their country's matters. This has been a continuous tradition for thousands of years, and China has never been a threat to other countries. This forms an excellent portrait that can serve as the starting point of everything. Foreigners could be shown the most common Chinese blessings, pursuits, and visions, such as "happiness, prosperity, and longevity," "may all your wishes come true," and "wishing you wealth and prosperity." These are all very practical concepts. The cultural soft power Japan has spread to the U.S. and the West, such as Zen, Eastern mysticism, traditional culture, manga, and games, are all non-political, depoliticized elements. These often prove more effective than politicized ones. China's political system and values can be promoted and explained, but this is a more complex task, and is best undertaken after establishment of a basic portrait of China and the Chinese people.
The Chinese saying that "a monk from a distant land does better in missionary tasks" applies to telling China's stories: China's sotries should not be told by the Chinese alone but also by foreigners. When someone like Elon Musk speaks about China, his words carry the weight of hundreds, even thousands, of sentences from others. Although he may not have an exceptionally deep understanding of China, the few points he makes sketch a clear outline, an effective portrait that is easily understood and well-received by listeners. Despite attempts by some, like the MAGA faction of the Republican Party, to discredit Musk by alleging that his business interests in China have compromised him, such anti-intellectual populist rhetoric does not affect the elite and well-informed groups (like Lex Fridman's audience, who represent the highly educated). Musk's words have significant penetrative power and influence among these circles.
In conclusion, though Musk's interview (on China) was brief, it offers valuable insights for developing and promoting China's stories. (Enditem)