John Loscheider and Chang Wang on Parallel Universes
Chang Wang, chief research and academic officer with Thomson Reuters – and a regular contributor at Legal Current – has just released Parallel Universes: Essays and Conversations. This, his latest book, is a compilation of essays, conversations, speeches and interviews published from 2012 to 2017 in China Insight, the exclusive English-language American newspaper on US-China relations, and this blog. The book features articles on constitutional law, Chinese law, contemporary art and film, diversity & inclusion and more.
John Loscheider, a captain in the United States Army and a former law student of Wang, did a recent Q&A with the author about the book, a comparison of China’s “rule by law” vs. America’s “rule of law,” and more.
Note: Any views expressed in the following conversation do not represent the views of the Department of Defense, its components, Thomson Reuters or its subsidiaries.
John Loscheider: Why is the book titled Parallel Universes?
Chang Wang: For the past few decades, I traveled between different time zones and parallel worlds: from East Asia to North America; to Western Europe. I believe I inhabit simultaneously in parallel universes, such as law, business, and the arts. Born in Mao’s China, trained as an artist in Beijing’s cultural renaissance, a student of law and admitted into law practice in the U.S., I have first-hand experience in the 1984-style “alternative reality” and have witnessed unprecedented challenges to ideas like universal values and common sense.
JL: Who is the intended audience of the book?
CW: The book is dedicated to all Chinese Americans, but the book is for anybody who is interested in U.S.-China relations, comparative law, art and politics.
JL: I think one of the articles I found most intriguing was “Truth and Lies in Chinese Culture.” The intent of the article seems to be self-explanatory; identifying the relationship to truth and its roots in Chinese culture. How do you think the Chinese relationship to truth currently impacts China in the business world? For example, does it serve as an impediment to Western investment or is it something that’s increasingly understood by Westerners as simply “part of doing business” in China?
CW: Lying is not a Chinese patent. Everybody lies in different ways, be it a Western way or Eastern way, an ancient way or modern way. Chinese’s understanding of truth and lies are different from westerners, which could become an impediment to Western investment if they are not aware of the difference. However, the real impediment comes from the distorted version of modern history – the nationalist narrative shaped Chinese understanding of the West, and cultural mistranslation as illustrated in the “Doing Business with China and the Chinese People: A Conversation on Cultural Challenges.”
JL: I’d like to talk about Cai Guoqiang. Beyond deception in battle, my second thought about his work is that it expresses a sentiment, especially in Communist or post-Communist countries, about economy and problem solving.
According to some old Soviet anecdotes and stories, Americans or Westerners tend to solve problems by spending money whereas the Soviets idealized common sense and thrift to solve problems. I think of the near-mythical story of the creation of “space pens” – Americans spent an immense amount of time and resources to develop a pen that could write in space, where the Soviets just used a pencil. Do you think “Borrowing Your Enemy’s Arrows,” on some level, expresses this sentiment? Arrows would have been expensive, both in terms of production and the logistical cost, to bring into battle, and in the story, the cunning general used a cheap fisherman’s boat with straw figures to reallocate arrows to his army.
CW: You are absolutely right. As one of my Chinese colleagues summarized the problem-solving style of the American and the Chinese: Americans do things right, but Chinese do the right thing. In other words, the American way is more procedural or bureaucratic; the Chinese way is informal, but could be innovative.
JL: Some of your literary substance and tone seems immune from the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) willingness to suppress opposing viewpoints. How have you been able to be so forthright without jeopardizing your life or liberty in China?
CW: I think I know where the line is, and I do not cross it. The CPC is very sophisticated and cruel, yet reasonable. I think they know I am not one of them, but I am not their enemy either.
JL: As I read the luckiest generation articles Rick King and you co-authored on the baby-boomers in the US and the Generation’89 in China, I felt like my generation might be even luckier, perhaps even blissfully ignorant, because most of the reasons cited as examples of ”luck” apply to us with even stronger justifications, such as wars that only impacted a very small percentage of Americans, low unemployment, a robust economy by most metrics, high-speed internet, etc.
CW: Good for you. But I think your generation faces tremendous uncertainty, economically, politically and environmentally. The liberal democracy as we know it is being challenged, we are counting on your generation to save it and the planet.
JL: I was surprised to see Fang Lizhi on your list of people to you’d like to accompany you on a deserted island. I assume that choice was based more on your personal connection to him and less on his role in shaping modern China (or U.S.-China relations, science, etc.)?
CW: He was my neighbor; a fun, smart man and a beloved mentor to young students. But unfortunately, I doubt any young people in China now have ever heard his name.
JL: There have been several important developments in China since your book was released, such as the elimination of presidential term-limits in the Chinese Constitution. What are your thoughts on this, and how significant is this development?
CW: It is expected, but I don’t believe it is as significant as has been reported.
President Xi has three main positions: General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party; Commander-in-Chief of Chinese military; and President of People’s Republic of China. The first two positions are much more important than the third, which was largely symbolic until President Jiang Zemin’s time. The first two positions have no term limits and could already be held indefinitely. So I am a bit surprised by the overreaction by Western media.
I have very low expectations when it comes to Chinese politics, so I don’t get disappointed or shocked easily. That said, I do have very high expectations for the American system, so I am very concerned about the future.
JL: I see many striking similarities in your views on “parallel universes” vis-à-vis the CPC’s revisionist agenda to the bipartisan political debate on “alternative facts” that has dominated American politics and media relations over the past few years.
CW: As I say in the book, “I consider myself most fortunate to be able to appreciate the beauty of the Chinese language and culture. At the same time, I am able to function in the American system of justice and fundamental fairness. I feel obligated to serve as a bridge between these two cultures: I am a lineal descendant of Chinese arts and intellectual tradition, and, at the same time, I am a zealous advocate for the democratic values, equal protection and due process of the American system. In fact, only two things can bring me close to tears: Chinese literature and American law.”
I realized that even the most self-evident truths have been, and are being, distorted and manipulated, so I chose America as home. I see even the most unalienable rights can be exploited and deprived, so I swore to uphold the U.S. Constitution and to defend the rule of law.
In contemporary China, it would be unthinkable for a public figure to openly challenge a leader’s authority. While I sometimes worry about the domestic and global political climate, I still manage to find reassurances in the American system of governance. To paraphrase former CIA Director John Brennan’s recent tweet in response to the firing of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe: America will not be destroyed, America will triumph.