On the Value of Cultural Openness

by Reihan Salam

I like to think I’m not naive about diversity. As Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam has famously argued, there are clear downsides to living in neighborhoods defined by ethnoracial diversity:

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam — famous for “Bowling Alone,” his 2000 book on declining civic engagement — has found that the greater the diversity in a community, the fewer people vote and the less they volunteer, the less they give to charity and work on community projects. In the most diverse communities, neighbors trust one another about half as much as they do in the most homogenous settings. The study, the largest ever on civic engagement in America, found that virtually all measures of civic health are lower in more diverse settings.

Speaking only for myself, I prefer the endless potential for novel experiences and encounters that I find in the diverse neighborhoods I’ve had the pleasure of living in to the correlates of civic health one finds in more homogeneous neighborhoods. It’s possible that my preferences will change if I have children, etc., as parents tend to place a high premium on the perception of security. And that’s part of why I strongly believe that no one should be condemned for choosing to live in a more homogeneous neighborhood. Diversity-lovers will continue to concentrate in places like New York city and stretches of southern California, where civic health might suffer but the quality of life will nevertheless remain high. Diversity-skeptics will continue to concentrate in places like Prince Georges County, Maryland, home to a number of middle- and upper-middle-class African American suburbs, and states like Vermont, Idaho, and Montana. 

But I do believe that societies like ours that have a capacity for welcoming newcomers will have an advantage over societies that don’t. This is one reason why I can’t imagine China surpassing the United States in anything other than aggregate GDP. I wrote about this last year, during a visit to East Asia:


As the political scientists Valerie Hudson and Andrea van den Boer noted in their book Bare Branches, China also has tens of millions of so-called “surplus males” thanks to a strong cultural preference for male children. This means that large numbers of Chinese men will have a difficult time finding wives in the near future. One obvious way for the China of 2025 to address this dilemma would be to embrace mass immigration. Because China remains a poor and populous country, the idea that it will become a magnet for immigrants seems faintly ridiculous, not least because millions of Chinese are desperate to emigrate. Of course, the same was once true of Ireland, which is now one of Europe’s most diverse countries.

But like South Korea–and, for that matter, Japan–China is not terribly hospitable to ethnic outsiders, including members of non-Han minorities native to China. Observers tend to overstate the level of ethnic homogeneity in China, not least because the Han category masks tremendous cultural diversity. “Hanness” is as broad and contingent a category as “whiteness.”

But as Frank Dikötter of the University of Hong Kong argued in his brilliant 1992 book The Discourse of Race in Modern China, traditional notions about culturally inferior “barbarians” intermingled with Western forms of scientific racism to form a distinctively Chinese racial consciousness in the 20th century. The “yellows” were locked in a struggle with their equals, the “whites”–and both were superior to the “blacks,” “browns” and “reds.” The dislike and distrust of Europeans was always mixed with envy and admiration. The disdain for dark-skinned foreigners, in contrast, was and remains relatively uncomplicated. Maoist China railed against Western imperialism, and saw itself as a leader of the global proletariat of Africans and Asians.

Now, as China emerges as an economic and cultural superpower, those notions of Third World solidarity, always skin deep, seem to have vanished. It is thus hard to imagine China welcoming millions of hard-working Nigerians and Bangladeshis with open arms. This could change over the next couple of decades as China’s labor shortage grows acute. I wouldn’t bet on it.

If China remains culturally closed, the Chinese Century will never come to pass. Instead, the United States–a country that has struggled with race and racism for centuries, and in the process has become more culturally open and resilient–will dominate this century as it did the last.

A recent article in Le Monde tells me that we have a significant openness edge over France and Germany as well:


“The trend created by young Germans who pull up stakes and return to the old country is now a growing phenomenon. With the economic crisis in Europe, there aren’t enough job opportunities for young graduates with an international profile,” explains the young woman with large pale-coloured eyes. In contrast, Turkey with its Chinese style growth rates and dynamic society “offers much better prospects,” insists Emine, who was born in Ankara, but brought up in Germany where had parents emigrated. She defines herself as “a model of social integration.”

Fifty years after the arrival of the first Gastarbeiter (guest workers) in 1961, the migratory flow between Turkey and Germany has changed course. More than three million Turks live in Germany. But in 2009, the number returning to Istanbul (40,000) now outweighs the number of new arrivals (approximately 30,000). The children and grandchildren of Anatolian immigrants are now traveling back. A phenomenon which goes against fantastic theories of an invasion of Turkish workers in the event of Turkish accession to the European Union.

Many Europeans will say “good riddance,” yet it’s worth noting that many of the young returnees are young skilled professionals:

Migration to Turkey is a growing trend among highly qualified under-35s who find better opportunities than they would in Europe. They are sensitive to the issue of discrimination in European society and political debates on the question of social integration. 

These are precisely the workers who are best placed to keep pay-as-you-go social welfare systems intact. Of course, one could argue that what we’re seeing is a form of “brain circulation,” with European-Turks serving as the carriers of ideas back and forth between societies at different stages of development. But I’m not sure there isn’t an element of rejecting a Europe that has proven unwelcoming, for a variety of complex reasons. (To understand what I have in mind, check out Christopher Caldwell’s 2007 take on the evolving identity of Germany’s Turkish-origin community.)

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.