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March 6, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright March 6, 2008. Used by permission.


An NPR report yesterday on the opening of a new session of the National People’s Congress in Beijing began with a disparaging comment to the effect that China is still a long way from democracy. As a statement of fact, this is no doubt both true and lamentable. As an attempt to convey useful knowledge to American listeners about China’s current situation, however, it seems to me nearly useless. Like many such statements, it is based on an implicit comparison between the Chinese political system and Western-style democracy. And like many such implicit comparisons, it falls victim to a particularly seductive and misleading form of comparative fallacy.

Any time we set out to compare two things, we need to identify and describe the differences and similarities between their corresponding parts. There’s no problem if we are comparing two equally familiar and equally distant objects by applying a neutral, objective standard of comparison. If I assert that granny apples have a green skin and sour flavor, while fuji apples have a golden skin and sweet flavor, I am unlikely to raise many hackles. If I claim that the average American’s diet is relatively high in saturated fat and low in fiber, which the average Chinese diet is the reverse, I’m again on reasonably solid ground. As soon as we allow one of the two objects under study to represent, implicitly or explicitly, a normative standard of comparison, we’re much more likely to produce skewed results. Imagine how a Washington apple would appear to a provincial Floridean who had encountered only naval oranges: as an abnormally hard orange with a dark smooth surface, lacking in internal sections and a readily peelable skin.