Does Amy Chua Understand China?

The Triple Package, the book released Feb. 4 by "Tiger Mom" author and provocateur Amy Chua and her husband, constitutional law expert and novelist Jed Rubenfeld, is unsurprisingly controversial. The authors, both professors at Yale Law School, take on the taboo topic of explaining the success of certain cultural groups in the United States -- namely, Jews, Mormons, and Asian-, Lebanese-, Indian-, Cuban-, and Nigerian-Americans. A reviewer in the Los Angeles Times wrote that the book "will convince few and offend many."

I'm not going to wade into the domestic issues, except to say that Chua and Rubenfeld's argument for explaining the success of these minority groups -- a cocktail of superiority complex, insecurity, and impulse control -- does an excellent job of describing some of the successful Jews I know, including my Grandfather Louis, a successful insurance salesman, who can be engaging, if not a bit morose. Rather, Chua and Rubenfeld's so-called "triple package," especially the first two points, is a useful way of explaining China's itch for greatness, a point the authors make later in the book. (Caveat: I'll be painting, I think unavoidably, with a very broad brush.)

While national exceptionalism is common throughout the world, the Chinese seem to especially adore their motherland. Of the many clichés used to explain China, the explanation that in Mandarin the country's name itself means "Middle Kingdom," a testament to the belief that their nation and its accomplishments deserve to sit in the elevated center of the world, is a fairly accurate one. Accompanying this feeling of superiority is resentment over the way the Chinese perceive they have been treated by the rest of the world for much of the last two centuries. Chua and Rubenfeld quote China experts Orville Schell and John Delury, who write that a deep sense of humiliation has "served as a sharp goad urging Chinese to sacrifice" so that the country can return to its former grandeur. It's a notion that Chinese Communist Party Secretary Xi Jinping has utilized as well, with his calls for the "rejuvenation" and "revival of the Chinese nation." William Callahan, a professor of international relations, has called China the "Pessoptimist Nation," one struggling with both extremes of feeling. "For most of its history America was an upstart, an underdog," Chua and Rubenfeld write. "China is exploding today in part because it's so insecure." 

For the third element of the triple package, the authors cite the Chinese propensity to use and embody the expression, chi ku, which literally means "to eat bitterness" and refers to enduring hardship. "For a thousand years, these virtues -- which include discipline, self-control, resisting the temptation to complain, wallow, or give up -- have been fundamental elements of child rearing and education in China and Confucian-influenced societies."

It's here, however, that Chua and Rubenfeld misstep by paying scant attention to the role of government and society on national character. In China's case, they mostly ignore the roughly 150-year interregnum in Chinese impulse control, that only ended after the effects of then-leader Deng Xiaoping's reforms started to show in the 1980s. Perhaps the most obvious of the many reasons for this was the opium epidemic that swept the country in the early 1800s during the Qing dynasty. It reached its height later that century, when an estimated 25 percent of the male population used the drug.

The overthrow of the Qing in 1912 ushered in nearly four decades of chaos and civil war. And let's not forget the treatment of women in traditional Confucian culture. The average parent in early 20th century China was less likely to force his daughter to practice the violin -- as Chua and Rubenfeld approvingly state is so common today -- than to force them to have their feet continuously broken and bound into a small nub shape considered attractive. Poorer families were more likely to send their children to work or beg on the streets after school rather than submit their offspring to the hours of "additional study and tutoring" that occurs today.

Mao Zedong took power in 1949, and while he eradicated some of the "old" ways that hobbled China -- like opium addiction and foot-binding -- much of his 27-year reign consisted of shifting from one crime against humanity to the next. After his death in 1976, a combination of confidence, insecurity, and self-control, as well as a host of other factors, began propelling China forward. But it's a new phenomenon. 

The point is that culture matters little when hobbled by bad governance. Chua and Rubenfeld understand this with some groups they write about in the book -- "most of America's Jewish immigrants probably had the Triple Package before they got to this country, but that didn't do them much good in the shtetls of Eastern Europe" -- but seem to miss that point for East Asia. It's ironic that the citizens who might most perfectly display the Triple Package -- a history of victimization and insecurity, a deep and abiding belief in their own superiority, and amazing self-control that comes from survivng in the world's strictest Confucian society -- live in North Korea.

That said, the book does a good job of explaining, albeit in very general terms, where China is today. On a national level at least, the Chinese pass the impulse control test with flying colors. They study hard, have low rates of drug abuse, and delay gratification. The average Chinese saved an estimated 30.6 percent of their disposable income in 2012, far higher than the global average.

The best example of the insecurity Chua and Rubenfeld describe that I have witnessed was in 2008, a few months before the Beijing Summer Olympics that many in China saw as a chance to show the world their greatness. While I waited for a taxi outside of a building that housed CITIC, an important financial firm, the bellhop, probably 60 years old and making $400 a month, walked up to me and pointed to a luxury car in the parking lot. Apropos of nothing, he said, with a patronizing smile, "You see, Chinese people have money now too."



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