On being a Panda Slayer and a Dragon Hugger

(yes, you read that correctly)

”Truthful words are unpleasant, pleasant words are not truthful.” (“信言不美,美言不信”) – Dao De Jing

Many people are familiar with the terms Panda Hugger and Dragon Slayer. Journalist Rob Gifford, who’s wonderful travel journal China Road was one of the first books on China I read, once defined the two extremes as follows: “A panda hugger is someone who says that almost everything going on in China is good, that China’s progress is a great thing for the world, and that any problems are peripheral. A dragon slayer is someone who says the situation in China is terrible, that China is a threat to the world, and that any positive developments are just window-dressing.”

In an article for the Beijing Review Jeanine Ivanov, an expat living in China, gave her own explanation: “Panda huggers are total China advocates—people who feel that the world’s future rests on the country’s massive, burly shoulders, that the Western media gives the Chinese Government a raw deal and that China is simply the most exciting place in the world to be right now. Dragon slayers simply don’t believe the hype: China will not be the world’s next superpower because it does not play by fair economic rules, and all the social unrest caused by rural poverty or human rights abuses will eventually cause the country to ‘do a Soviet Union’.”

Reading this, there are several people that come to mind for both stereotypes. Especially for dragon slayers you won’t have to look far. You’ll find many among the current and former staff members of Donald Trump’s administration. Think Peter Navarro (as well as his ‘alter ego’ Ron Vera) and Steve Bannon.

It’s often the dragon slayers that label others ‘panda huggers’. But whereas most dragon slayers won’t mind the label, people don’t really appreciate being called a panda hugger since it implies a soft stance on China. One could label Eric X. Li and Martin Jacques panda huggers, but I’m not sure if they would agree. People won’t like being called a panda hugger just because they have a more nuanced, less critical or more open-minded view on China. The label also suggests that they are apologetic about China regardless of the topic. I myself have been called a panda hugger just because of my stance on one particular topic, while I certainly don’t consider myself to be one.

Ten years ago, Gifford wrote about the question which of the perspectives on China is correct: “Which is the real China? The answer is: it all is, good and bad, and we must make sure our views on China reflect the complexity of the reality on the ground. (..) The point about China today is that it has become infinitely more complex than it ever was before and being either a panda hugger or a dragon slayer is becoming increasingly untenable.” He was of course right. He would be even more right if he would repeat those words today. And that’s the other problem with the terms dragon hugger and panda slayer. The views of both are not completely wrong. Neither are they completely right. The truth is often somewhere in the middle.

So, what do I consider myself to be? Since I don’t feel comfortable with both extremes, I would label myself a dragon hugger and panda slayer. Let me explain …

Why am I a dragon hugger

Before 2011 I knew very little about China. I was asked by VSO, the international volunteering organisation I had signed up with, if I wanted to go to the Middle Kingdom. I had expected – maybe even hoped – they would send me to a country like Laos, India or Cambodia but decided to accept the challenge anyway. China seemed like an interesting place to spend a couple of years volunteering. During my preparation for the assignment I was already reading up on the country and I quickly became engrossed in its culture. I spend my first weeks in Beijing followed by two years in Xi’an, the perfect place for further exploration since it has so much history and is considered to be the cradle of current day China.

In those two years, I travelled on every possible occasion and visited many diverse places, from Xinjiang to Guangxi and Shanghai to Chongqing. Even after returning to The Netherlands in 2013 I have continued to visit a new province or two every year, by now having only six left unexplored. With my Chinese and international friends, I got hooked on KTV (karaoke), hotpot and Chinese food. Back in The Netherlands I found there were very few authentic Chinese restaurants outside the bigger cities and I picked up Chinese cooking. In Xi’an I also met my Chinese wife and although it certainly wasn’t planned that way, I returned a married man. She is very happy to have a husband that despises the food from his home country and has prepared more than 500 different Chinese dishes for her.

Ever since picking up the first book on China I haven’t stopped reading about the country. I consume about 4 hours of media in the form of news, podcasts, articles and movies every day and try to improve my Mandarin skills whenever I have time and enough perseverance to deal with the constant frustration and painfully slow progress. And all the time I realise that there is still so much to learn. That I will never quench my thirst for knowledge in one lifetime. While some dragon slayers would prefer to see the Chinese becoming more ‘like us’, I think we should cherish and celebrate our differences. It makes the world all the more interesting!

If a dragon can be considered the symbol for Chinese culture and people, I am a passionate dragon hugger. What’s more, unlike the fire-breathing and often evil western-style dragons, the Chinese dragon (link in Dutch) is a kind and wise creature. Much more likeable than ‘our’ mythical depictions.

Why I’m a panda slayer

On that same, most literal level, I have to admit I don’t really care all that much for pandas. Yes, they are cute and funny, but I have a difficult time understanding why enormous amounts of money are being spend on keeping this libido-depleted species alive, while less cuddly lifeforms that are more important to our ecological system go extinct.

I also don’t care much for the ‘panda diplomacy’ that the Chinese government uses to reward countries that have maintained ‘friendly relationships’ with China. As a matter of fact, I am not much impressed by any of the Chinese government’s ‘soft power’ attempts to build a positive image around the world. Although I don’t really have an opinion on individual Confucius Institutes the worldwide scrutiny about their possibly censored approach seems justified. And even on the most innocent level, is endless papercutting and calligraphy what students should be doing to better understand China? I also find it highly questionable that the reason so many schools work with Confucius Institutes is the lack of funding for Chinese lessons in our own educational system.

Other soft power attempt, like the cringeworthy propaganda songs about the Belt & Road Initiative – why they didn’t just call it New Silk Road, which has so many positive connotations, is totally beyond me – or self-glorifying state-sponsored documentaries on innovation and paid ‘editorial’ inserts in western newspapers are also examples of pandas that deserve to go extinct as quickly as possible.

Balancing the panda slaying and dragon hugging

I have always felt that it is almost impossible not to have a love-hate relationship with China. I constantly try to balance the fascination with the culture and the frustration with pollution or lack of what we consider to be basics human rights. It can be difficult to explain your love for a country and culture when ethnic minorities are being locked up in re-education camps and people that criticise their government end up in jail, sometimes for the rest of their miserable lives. But that’s the thing with China. The country is so multi-facetted that it is impossible to like or dislike everything. You’ll always be slaying pandas while hugging dragons.

What I have found, especially in recent years, is that it is important to at least try to understand the other’s point of view, even when I don’t necessarily agree with it. A very good example is a recent Twitter thread by Sheena Greitens in which she explained why she understands that China has such harsh policies in Xinjiang, while at the same time saying it is morally wrong. As she says, trying to change the CCPs policies is going to work best if we understand why they are happening.

What my years in China have also taught me that while overall the Chinese people are very supportive (link in Dutch) of their government, it’s important to differentiate between China as in the Communist Party and China as in the country and the people. It’s like a Taiwanese internet celebrity recently said: “We need to let the Chinese people know that Taiwanese people don’t hate the Chinese people. What we hate is the CCP.”

Another way of finding the right balance is by confronting the dragon slayers and panda huggers. Especially the western media have become very biased in their reporting and I have personally experienced how they sometimes knowingly publish misinformation. I have gone out of my way in recent years trying to explain the social credit system. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this system might not be problematic, but at least we need to look at the facts and try to understand why it is being implemented and (probably) welcomed by a large part of the population. Related to this, instead of simply dismissing a whole country as being unethical, I put a lot of energy in trying to understand China’s implied moral crisis (link in Dutch). I have also written articles trying to debunk other myths like China being to blame (link in Dutch) for many bankruptcies of brick-and-mortar retailers in The Netherlands.

It’s all about nuance and seeking truth from facts. But this nuance is also needed when news about China is positively biased and detached from reality. Take for instance PR efforts of Chinese internet companies on Singles Day, New Retail or internet statistics. Sometimes these pandas need to be slain.

As a dragon hugger and panda slayer I deal with a lot of ambivalence in my views on China. I doubt if the Chinese economical miracle could have happened with a multi-party democracy. But I also doubt if rampant corruption and human right violations would have been so severe with a multi-party democracy. The surveillance state makes China one of the safest countries on the planet. But the surveillance state also comes with potential serious privacy infringements. Chinese internet companies are said to be exploiting migrant workers toiling the gig economy as couriers, meal delivery man and taxi drivers. At the same time, they earn more money than they did back in the countryside or in the factory and the money they send home helps improve living standards in small villages. There are potential risks in using certain Chinese technology. But should we downright ban certain suppliers that can offer new innovations at an economical pricing without any sign of a smoking gun? Didn’t we always preach innocence until proven guilty? As you can see, it is complicated…

This is the point we often try to make in our lectures at ChinaTalk and one which my Chinese wife hammers home whenever I myself make the error of generalised statements about China. There is no one China! And there are many different perspectives to look at things. At the end of the day China is much more complex than black and white. We need to understand its many shades of grey. Instead of resigning ourselves to hugging pandas and slaying dragons we need to be willing to hug some dragons and slay some pandas.

Epilogue: About the drawing

When I first thought of the term dragon hugger and panda slayer it filled me with a mischievous pleasure. I decided to use it in one of my lectures but could not find a suitable picture to go with it. Later I thought a good picture would make a great cover for one of my e-books. So, I decided to commission one. Through 99Designs I got in contact with Yang Cai Qiu, a.k.a. Zoey. I had specifically looked for a Chinese illustrator because I wanted someone that understood the concept and could draw pandas and Chinese dragons well. But I also needed a good sounding board for my ideas and someone to judge if the drawing wasn’t too offensive to Chinese people.

I sent Zoey a briefing about my idea of a caricature drawing of me hugging a dragon while stabbing – or at least threatening to stab – a panda. I was a bit worried that the aggressiveness towards the panda might rub some people the wrong way. But after discussing the thoughts behind the drawing with Zoey she came up with a great concept. She suggested have me wear the panda as a trophy, in the same way Hercules wears the head of a lion. After she sent me an example, I knew what she meant. It also reminded me of a picture of myself in which I wear one of those silly panda hats, taken during my volunteer years in China.

I have to say I had some great chat conversations with Zoey. She threw in a couple of very cool ideas, like giving the dragon a rather confused look as if he’s not quite sure what this foreigner wants from him. In the end I couldn’t be happier with the result and I’m glad to have supported a talented Chinese designer.

Suggested reading and listening

For an interesting discussion on the topic of labelling someone a dragon slayer or panda hugger, listen to the Sinica podcast show Benjamin Shobert On Dragon Slayers, Panda Huggers, And ‘Blaming China’.

To get a better idea of how difficult it has become to ‘choose sides’ and how much ambivalence this choice creates, read Rob Gifford’s article Panda- Huggers and Dragon-Slayers How to View Modern China Today.