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Foreign Policy

How to Influence China

May 08, 2021
  • Wang Fan

    Vice President, China Foreign Affairs University

In the past few years, Washington has been depicting China as a country with original sins — namely that it is a backward and even barbarous state whose system makes for uncivilized behavior and stains its human rights record.

Yet the narrative is untenable. The U.S. has a system different from that of China, but its human rights condition is worsening. While racism and discrimination continue to haunt the country, the American people’s right to life and health are under strain. The country has the worst case of economic inequality in the developed world. In this context, the U.S. argument that China's human rights issues are the workings of the Chinese system is unjustifiable. When it comes to human rights, Washington is in no position to accuse China.

From the end of World War Ⅱ until 2001, there were 201 U.S.-initiated armed conflicts globally, accounting for 81 percent of the total (248). Furthermore, the accusations of “genocide” in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region — leveled recently by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on domestic and international occasions — were both extremely hostile toward China and irresponsible. Blinken is of Jewish descent and is therefore supposed to know the history of the Jewish people — especially the fact that China is the only country that officially offered refuge to Jews during the Holocaust. By accusing China of genocide, Blinken betrayed the painful memory of his people.

“Malicious” is a word that accurately describes Washington’s practice of exaggerating ideological differences and stigmatizing China’s political system. “Ridiculous” describes the U.S. effort to persuade China that the American model is the only right way forward, even though China has made itself the second-largest economy in the world through 40-plus years of independent development.

There is a paradox in Washington’s China approach. On one hand, it sees China as a rival; but on the other, it hopes that China will view its expectations and requirements as something beneficial. It still believes that it can effectively influence China by sticking to current practices.

Yet how could China believe in the sincerity and goodwill of a country that sees itself as a rival? And how can the two powers build basic mutual trust in this ongoing rivalry? To influence China, the U.S. should stop viewing it as a rival or even an enemy. Otherwise, all efforts including aggressive measures will be useless.

If Washington hopes to be free of challenges from other powers, then it should respect other countries in the first place. A country’s right to development is to be respected, not contained. Constant suppression can only invite the resistance of countries that originally had no intention of challenging the authority of other powers. Pressure campaigns of the U.S. not only greatly weaken the moral authority of Washington but will force other countries to challenge it as well. No country in the world is willing to become the vassal state of another.

Apart from this paradox, there are two mistaken assumptions in Washington’s China policy. One is the belief that the U.S. can definitely weaken and defeat China, as it succeeded in breaking up the Soviet Union. (The White House views the dissolution of the Soviet Union as the result of America’s efforts). Yet as Kishore Mahbubani, a Singaporean scholar, pointed out, the U.S. is overly confident to think that a young country with a history of 250 years can change with its own will a country with 5,000 years of civilization and a population four times greater.

The other is that while China has been learning from the U.S. in science, technology, economic management and more, Washington takes it granted that it can lecture China in every respect. America used to believe that once China adopted a market economy, its political system would turn toward the American model.

Reality turned out otherwise. China did realize an economic miracle, but instead of adopting the political system of the U.S., it blazed a distinctive development trail based on its own national conditions. In this context, Washington concluded that a China that doesn’t copy the system of the U.S. is dangerous and poses a natural threat.

But there is a fallacy in this argument. Had China chosen a political system similar to that of the U.S., it would still be viewed as a challenge by Washington as long as its economy boomed and its power rose.

The U.S. negative perception of China has nothing to do with the differences in ideology and political systems. Washington sees China as a threat simply because it cannot tolerate a scenario where a country’s strength approaches or even exceeds its own. The U.S. suppression of Japan in the 1980s is a good example. Washington could not allow the emergence of Japan as a giant even though Tokyo is its ally. This episode makes it impossible for China to believe that amity will prevail in Sino-U.S. relations if it adopts the U.S. political system.

Why, after all, should China follow the instructions of the U.S.? Russia once transformed its system as requested by Washington. However, when the Russian economy later faced major difficulties, the investments originally promised by developed countries were not delivered.

Therefore, the U.S. must reject the rivalry mentality. This is the key to rebuilding trust and resuming effective communication between the two countries. Ideological differences should not be any excuse for confrontation.

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