Understanding an argumentative piece of writing requires skills that are different from understanding other pieces of writing. Particularly at university it’s important to read argumentative writing more carefully and in more detail than you might otherwise so as not to misunderstand what the writer is trying to persuade you to believe. You can only evaluate and respond to an argument effectively if you have understood exactly what the writer is trying to say and if you can see how the argument is constructed.

In these activities, you will develop your ability to identify an argument and to analyse how it is constructed. You will then be in a much better position to judge whether you think the argument is a good one or not.  One technique often encouraged by experts of critical thinking is to build a visual representation of the argument – an argument map. Practising this technique will force you to read more critically and by the end of these tasks, you should be able to draw your own maps of arguments that are not too complex.



The argument that follows is not particularly difficult, but you may find some of the vocabulary quite advanced. You should be able to work out what many of the words in the article mean from the context, but there are other words that you may need help with before you start reading. First, take a look at Task One below.


Task One

All of the words below are taken from the article, Is China more legitimate than the West? Match the new words with their meanings by dragging the correct meaning on the right to the new vocabulary on the left. Use a dictionary to help you if you need to and don’t forget to read any example sentences your dictionary gives.  You will find these words in blue in the reading.

Understanding Words in Context

Words in green in the article are words that you may not understand when you first see them, but if you look carefully at the vocabulary nearby as well as the previous and following sentences, you should be able to work out what the word means. You may also be able to understand the word, because it is simply a different form of a word you already know such as legitimacy, ubiquitous or governance.  Understanding part of a word (e.g. downfall) may help you to work out its meaning. Remember, you don’t always need to understand the exact meaning of the word to be able to understand what the writer is saying.  

Task Two
1.Skim the article below to locate Martin Jacques’s argument or thesis. Write this in the box at the end of the article. Your answer does not need to contain exactly the same words as the example answer provided, as long as the meaning is the same.
The writer’s argument is likely to be somewhere near the beginning of the article. Decide where any background information finishes and where the writer starts to present the argument.

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BBC Magazine
November 2012
A Point Of View: Is China more legitimate than the West?
China and the United States are about to choose new leaders via very different methods. But is a candidate voted for by millions a more legitimate choice than one anointed by a select few, asks Martin Jacques.

Reprinted with permission from the

This week will witness an extraordinary juxtaposition of events. On Tuesday the next American president will be elected. Two days later, the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party will select the new Chinese president and prime minister. The contrast could hardly be greater.

Americans in their tens of millions will turn out to vote. In China the process of selection will take place behind closed doors and involve only a relative handful of people. You are probably thinking, "Ah, America at its best, China at its worst - the absence of democracy. China's Achilles heel is its governance. This will be China's downfall." I want to argue quite the contrary.

You probably think that the legitimacy and authority of the state, or government, is overwhelmingly a function of democracy, Western-style. But democracy is only one factor. Nor does democracy in itself guarantee legitimacy. Think of Italy. It is always voting, but the enduring problem of Italian governance is that its state lacks legitimacy. Half the population don't really believe in it.

Now let me shock you: the Chinese state enjoys greater legitimacy than any Western state. How come? In China's case the source of the state's legitimacy lies entirely outside the history or experience of Western societies. In my first talk I explained that China is not primarily a nation-state but a civilisation-state. For the Chinese, what matters is civilisation. For Westerners it is nation. The most important political value in China is the integrity and unity of the civilisation-state. Given the sheer size and diversity of the country, this is hugely problematic. Between the 1840s and 1949, China was occupied by the colonial powers, divided and fragmented. The Chinese refer to it as their century of humiliation. They see the state as the embodiment and guardian of Chinese civilisation. Its most important responsibility - bar none - is maintaining the unity of the country. A government that fails to ensure this will fall.
There have been many examples in history. The legitimacy of the Chinese state lies, above all, in its relationship with Chinese civilisation.

But does the Chinese state, you may well ask, really enjoy legitimacy in the eyes of its people?
Take the findings of Tony Saich at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. In a series of surveys he found that between 80 and 95% of Chinese people were either relatively or extremely satisfied with central government. Or take the highly respected Pew Global Attitudes surveys which found in 2010, for example, that 91% of Chinese respondents thought that the government's handling of the economy was good (the UK figure, incidentally was 45%).
Such high levels of satisfaction do not mean that China is conflict-free.

On the contrary, there are countless examples of protest action, such as the wave of strikes in Guangdong province for higher wages in 2010 and 2011, and the 150,000 or more so-called mass incidents that take place every year - generally protests by farmers against what they see as the illegal seizure of their land by local authorities in cahoots with property developers.
But these actions do not imply any fundamental dissatisfaction with central government.

If the Chinese state enjoys such support, then why does it display such signs of paranoia? The controls on the press and the internet, the periodic arrest of dissidents, and the rest of it.
Good point. Actually, all Chinese governments have displayed these same symptoms. Why?
Because the country is huge and governance is extremely difficult. They are always anxious, always fearing the unforeseen. Anticipating sources of instability has long been regarded as a fundamental attribute of good governance.

Not surprisingly, the Chinese have a quite different attitude towards government to that universal in the West. True, our attitude depends in part on where we stand on the political spectrum. If you are on the right, you are likely to believe in less government and more market. If you are on the left, you are likely to be more favourably disposed to the state. But both left and right share certain basic assumptions. The role of the state should be codified in law, there should be clear limits to its powers, and there are many areas in which the state should not be involved. We believe the state is necessary - but only up to a point.

The Chinese idea of the state could hardly be more different. They do not view it from a narrowly utilitarian standpoint, in terms of what it can deliver, let alone as the devil incarnate in the manner of the American Tea Party. They see the state as an intimate, or, to be more precise, as a member of the family - the head of the family, in fact. The Chinese regard the family as the template for the state. What's more, they perceive the state not as external to themselves but as an extension or representation of themselves.

The fact that the Chinese state enjoys such an exalted position in society lends it enormous authority, a remarkable ubiquity and great competence. Take the economy. China's economic rise - an annual growth rate of 10% for more than 30 years - has been masterminded by the Chinese state. It is the most remarkable economic transformation the world has seen since the modern era began with Britain's industrial revolution in the late 18th Century. Even though China is still a poor developing country, its state, I would argue, is the most competent in the world. Take infrastructure - the importance of which is belatedly now being recognised in the West. Here, China has no peers. Its high speed rail network is the world's largest and will soon be greater than the rest of the world's put together. And the state's ubiquity - a large majority of China's most competitive companies, to this day, are state-owned. Or consider the one-child policy, which still commands great support amongst the population.

The competence of the state is little talked about or really valued in the West, especially in the Anglo-Saxon world. Indeed, since the early 80s, the debate about the state in Britain has largely been conducted in terms either of what bits should be privatised or how it can be made to mimic the market. Now, however, we are in a new ball game. With the Western economies in a profound mess and with China's startling rise, the competence of the state can no longer be ignored. Our model is in crisis. Theirs has been delivering the goods.

As China's dramatic ascent continues - which it surely will - then China's strengths will become a growing subject of interest in the West. We will realise that our relationship with them can no longer consist of telling them how they should be like us. A little humility is in order.

One of the most dramatic illustrations of this will be the state. We think of it as their greatest weakness but we will come to realise that it is one of their greatest strengths. Beyond a point it would be quite impossible for a Western state to be like China's. It is the product of a different history and a different relationship between state and society. You could never transplant their state into a Western country, and vice versa. But this does not mean that we cannot learn from the Chinese state, just as they have learnt much from us.

China's rise will have a profound effect on Western debate. In about six years hence, the Chinese economy will overtake the US economy in size. By 2030 it will be very much larger.
The world is increasingly being shaped by China, and if it has looked west for the last two centuries, in future it will look east. Welcome, then, to the new Chinese paradigm - one that combines a highly competitive, indeed often ferocious market, with a ubiquitous and competent state. For us in the West this is an entirely new phenomenon. And it will shape our future.

The writer’s argument:

Your answer:

Possible Answer:
2. Now read the article in more detail. How many claims does the writer make in support of his argument and what are they?

Your answer:

Possible Answer:
  I. Democracy does not guarantee legitimacy.
  II. Reputable surveys show that the Chinese are satisfied with their government.
  III. Chinese people see their government as the head of the family.

So far, the argument can be mapped like this.

3. What evidence does the writer provide to support arguments I, II and III?

Your answer:

Possible Answer:
  I. Italy has a democratic system, but half the population does not believe in it.
  II. Harvard surveys show 80-95% of Chinese people are satisfied with the central government. According to Pew Global Attitude surveys (2010), 91% of Chinese respondents thought the government handled the economy well.
  III. What matters to China is the unity of the civilization-state.

The argument map now looks like this.

4. How does the writer develop his third argument? What points does he use to support it?

Your answer:

Possible Answer:
  • The Chinese government is competent.
  • The Western model is in crisis.
  • China has had a 10% annual economic growth rate for the past 30 years.
  • The superiority of China’s infrastructure is now being recognized.
5. Now put this supporting information into the map below.

Your answer:

6. The writer also includes counterarguments in his article. How many can you spot?

Your answer:

There are two.
7. What are they and how are they refuted to give more strength to the writer’s argument?

Your answer:

  • Counterargument 1 - China is not free of conflicts.
  • Refutation - However, this does not imply a fundamental dissatisfaction with the central government.
  • Counterargument 2 – The Government displays many signs of paranoia.
  • Refutation - Anticipating sources of instability is regarded as fundamental to good governance.
8. Now add these to your map.

Your answer:

9. What reason is given to support the second refutation?

Your answer:

  • China is a huge country and so governing it (governance) is difficult.
10. Now add this to your map.

First steps in evaluating an argument
Take a look at the argument map you have completed. Now that you can see and understand Martin Jacques’s argument very clearly, do you think his three claims are well supported? What do you think his argument should include to make his claims stronger? And what about the counterarguments? Are they attacked or refuted in a way that convinces you? Can you think of any counterarguments he does not include? Is all the evidence given explained sufficiently? By asking yourself these questions and thinking about possible answers to them you are starting to judge for yourself how strong the writer’s argument is and whether or not he provides enough evidence for you to believe him. This is the next step in critical thinking.

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