Sunday, September 25, 2005

A Deeper Look at China Watching

Today is a special day at MeiZhongTai. In honor of this day, we will take a look at China watching and some of the pitfalls that we face, and try to avoid. But first, an anecdote:

Journalist Roy Rowan, in his travels in China during the Chinese Civil War, came in contact with Sir John Keswick, who headed Jardine Matheson and the Sino-British Trade Council. Keswick gave Rowan a book entitled What I Know About China, which he had published at his own expense. Upon opening the book, Rowan found all of its pages to be blank.

Many of us in the English-language China blogosphere like to think of ourselves as 'China Watchers,' China analysts, or something akin to the 'China Hands' of yesteryear, but few of us would claim to know any more about China than Sir Keswick. We tend to avoid the title 'China expert,' not just out of humility but because no mere mortal could truly claim to understand so much.

Being China analysts, we must be wary of falling prey to the same mistakes and biases as other regional specialists. I recently stumbled across an interesting article from the CIA's Studies in Intelligence entitled "Thinking Straight: Cognitive Bias in the US Debate about China." It is a quite interesting look at the pitfalls that analysts make in trying to understand and predict the actions of another country and their foreign policy implications, using China watching as a case study.

One quote I found to be particularly enlightening:
[T]he more blurred and multifaceted our perceptions of China become, the closer we may be to that most elusive thing: the truth.
-Jonathan Spence

The author, Josh Kerbel, encourages us to "stop trying to think straight." I'll do my best.