Commentator seeks nuanced view of China

Updated: 2012-06-18 11:13

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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Commentator seeks nuanced view of China

Kuhn finds China's optimism refreshingly different from the jaded outlook of the West. Feng Yongbin / China Daily

There is an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt. But Robert Lawrence Kuhn, a longtime China watcher and author, is convinced that the opposite is true for Westerners who want to know and understand China.

"I've often said that much of what the foreign media says about China is true," the American commentator said in a recent interview at China Daily. "The problem is, it's not the whole truth. So what the media projects as 90 percent of the story is really about 20 percent, 30 percent. And that's the difference.

'Some of my books have been criticized in the West, for example, for being too pro-China. And I challenge those critics and say 'Not so, all the problems you want to talk about are in my books.' But that's not the whole story."

Trained as a scientist with degrees in human biology, anatomy and brain research, Kuhn says he has "a great interest in how human beings exist in this world. I have a PBS television show on American public television on science and philosophy. So I'm really very much interested exploring in fundamental questions."

But "people don't pay you much to do that," he adds smiling, so he looks for a different track to support his family. "I've been very much interested in business, using the scientific background to develop corporate strategy. I was at MIT, studied business, and for 25 years have been an investment banker and strategist."

China hit his radar mostly by chance - and changed his life.

In the late 1980s, he and other scientists were invited to China when the leaders were "trying to restructure science in China, in terms of the beginnings of reform."

Kuhn has been invited to many countries, he says, "but when I came to China for the first time, I was really entranced by what I found. Many of the people had great enthusiasm for what they thought the country could do. Much of it was naive, but I liked that - because I was so used to the jaded attitude of so many in the Western financial community.

"I've been privileged to have a lot of inside information, and have friends at all levels of Chinese society," he says. But at the end of the day when I write, I try to tell the rich, nuanced, complex story that is China.

Kuhn understands why many in the West are obsessed with the idea of a "China threat", he says.

"Anytime the status quo of anything is disrupted, people who have a vested interest in the status quo are agitated. It's a natural circumstance but it's also bred out of a lack of knowledge.

He says China's leaders need to understand why outsiders think that way and do what it can to counteract it.

Kuhn says he's very impressed with the intellectual capability of most Chinese leaders. "I don't know of any country in the world where the career path planning for the senior leaders is better," he says.

"You have this very broad base of what is the equivalent of running the equivalent of middle-sized European countries. That's a wealth of experience to deal with modern issues - when they are running these provinces, they are dealing with foreign corporations, business issues, social issues. And that sophistication is really critical in today's world."

See Robert Lawrence Kuhn's regular columns online at

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