Of the many cultural gaps between China and the developed democracies, criticism may be the most difficult to bridge. I sometimes feel, however, that it should be among the first that we try to bridge. A conversation in which only positive strains are allowed is only half a conversation. The project of finding ways to unite humanity in solving its own worst problems is difficult enough; it simply cannot be done without criticism of human weakness and past or present mistakes.
I grew up in an atmosphere of constructive criticism. An early memory from my childhood: my mother preparing a college seminar on critical thinking for Honors students. I wondered what this "critical thinking" could be, knowing that criticism is a negative thing, but guessing--from the very interesting games my mom prepared--that critical thinking was not an exercise in negativity at all, but the path to solving problems.
When I finally reached college, I found that all of my creative projects required constructive criticism as a necessary step, allowing me to push my writing and visual art further through the (often negative) observations of others. I can say with absolute certainty that my current artistic capability improved 10-fold by accepting others' criticisms and by training myself to criticize my own work. This is the basis of evolutionary adaptation, applicable to any human endeavor just as it is to the diverse creatures that thrive in the world.
As for China, let me start with a positive: there are at least two areas of discussion in which I find diverse Chinese taking on criticism without reflexive feelings of hostility or humiliation--even when foreigners jump into the conversation!
1) The Chinese natural environment, every Chinese person I've ever discussed the matter with agrees, is in a dire state. The smell, sight, and taste of urban smog cannot be ignored. The trash strewn by the side of highways and footpaths alike cannot be ignored. The scrim of algae (reacting to pollutants in the water) that covers once-beautiful scenic lakes cannot be ignored. Most importantly, exhortation to save China's environment has come from the government itself, signalling that criticism of this problem has been sanctioned at the highest levels and can be safely discussed. Thus, unlike the many problems glossed-over by the government, this is a criticism coming from Chinese as well, rather than an isolated imposition by foreign media.
2) The education system. As I've written before, all strata of Chinese society seem to agree that the education system requires reform. Students, parents, teachers, professors, and government administrators have all discussed this with me. This is an area where all have internalized criticism of the system as it stands, yet substantive reform has not yet taken place. Given the torpid bureaucracy and the doubtlessly numerous actors who benefit from the status quo, it may be decades yet.
I'm heartened that I can actually have full debate and discussion of these aspects of Chinese society and the China experience--without my Chinese friends taking offense and decrying me as a foul, critical, laowai! Some days it seems to me that there are few other subjects where critical thinking is as encouraged.
Perhaps it's just that outsiders,foreigners, are not welcome to criticize any aspect of China. Foreign media relishes open criticism--giving praise only where it is undeniably due--with a fervor that contrasts with the tame, state-owned Chinese domestic media. I'm sure, seeing this through the eyes of the average Chinese, the contrast must be shocking. What, newspapers that don't limit themselves to 30% negative news and 70% positive news? How crude! How gauche!
That shock I can understand, given the news environment. Likewise, I can understand how many Chinese might view global criticism, outside criticism, in view of China' humiliation by various Western and Japanese industrial nations in the past few centuries. Fenqing--young Chinese chauvinists--react particularly violently. The government hardly dissuades them from taking offense, of course, and even does its part* to fan the flames (most noticeably in its recent publication, "Global Times").
*The government can hardly distance itself from what Chinese news organizations do, given the level of government ownership and control over all media within the country.
All that said, there are a few realizations that would do a lot to improve the Chinese reception of outsiders' criticism--I think.
A) The "Western" tradition is that criticism is more acceptable when shared among all groups. Americans in particular have a historic distrust of government, going back to our relationship with the British central government, and thus have a habit of criticizing government--of any ideology or nation-state. All governments, including our own, merit being lampooned, so we are highly unlikely to make an exception for China--quite the opposite, any attempt to protest such criticism will only invite more concerted criticism. Some Chinese government bodies or news organs like to declare that western media have "hurt the feelings of the Chinese people" with critical reports of China or its government. Such declarations are destined to backfire.
B) With great power comes greater outside criticism. Example: Countries such as Eritrea or Equitorial Guinea have much more dictatorial, corrupt governments than China's, but come in for far less criticism in international fora. Why? Because most people are not likely to be concerned about such geographic, economic non-entities. Conversely, developed democracies such as the US, France, or Japan come in for quite a lot of criticism despite having high standards of living, many personal freedoms, responsive governance, and most other attributes widely considered desirable. So perhaps we could see criticism of a country, China for example, as a sign that people around the world actually care about it.
"China, you are important to us; now, why did you go to the KFC to eat junk food and hang out with your boyfriend instead of studying for your college entrance exam?"
C) A well-known dictum says, "problems cannot be solved until they have been accepted and faced". An alcoholic or other addict will never beat their addiction until they have admitted that they have an addiction. Likewise, when an outsider looks in on the situation in China--a situation where numerous problems may be discussed privately, but are commonly not allowed to appear in public fora--they see a lop-sided societal conversation where many important points (mostly criticisms) go unsaid. This is a vacuum that then draws the confident, criticism-comfortable outsider to express whatever he/she feels has not been said. This, then, may result in the impression that foreigners are far more critical of China than Chinese are, or that foreigners are negative by their nature.