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Interview with David Lampton

January 17, 2019, Atlanta


David Lampton is Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow at Stanford University and Director of SAIS-China at Johns Hopkins University.

JAMES CHAU: David Lampton, it’s a great pleasure speaking with you. Earlier, I asked you why you are sometimes called David and why sometimes Mike, because you're known to everybody orally as Mike Lampton. You told me this great story about how when your mother would be angry with you, she would call you David, and when she was happy with you, she called you Mike. So, may I call you Mike?

DAVID LAMPTON: You may, I’d be happy to have you do that.

JC: Is it a ‘Mike’ relationship right now between China and the United States? Or is it really ‘David’ as so many people have been warning, including eminent figures such as Jimmy Carter, who have that historical long view of the relationship?

DL: I think that's the popular characterization or relationship, but when my mother was really upset with me, she called me David Michael Lampton. So, I think we're somewhere between ‘David’ and ‘David Michael Lampton’ in terms of the evolution of domestic politics and attitudes towards the relationship in both countries. One of the many reasons for this is because we're both going through demographic transitions. I'm of the baby boom generation post-World War Two and the biggest conflicts of the Cold War where we're with China, directly in Korea, and then later in Vietnam. So, when my generation came through and we've had the last 40 years of peace with China my generation remembers that, but now we're passing the torch and both our societies to a generation that has no experience with the downsides of bad U.S.-China relations. They've lived in a bubble of a growing economic and cultural ties, and I don't think they have a full appreciation of what poor or counterproductive U.S.-China relations could mean.

JC: Let’s say you're speaking to someone now in your class who is 28 years old, born well after normalization in 1979. What would be the one or two messages that you would give them about the alternative you know too well?

DL: First of all, I started out in my career in the late 1960s and the very way I learned about China was essentially to read documents that were Xinhua documents. I went to Hong Kong, which was my first trip to Asia, for the purpose of interviewing people who left China. I planned my career on the presumption I would never go to China and I would never talk to Chinese people that were in China.

JC: Why?

DL: Because Nixon hadn't gone, there was the Cultural Revolution. There were a few people that literally swam down the Pearl River into Hong Kong harbor, and those were the people you could talk to. So, my whole research strategy was basically to read a very limited media that came out of China and talk to people who were unhappy enough to leave China. Now, most people stayed in China and that meant that they either were happier about that, but they certainly had a different experience. But I had to try to learn about China under the presumption I would never go to China. My career has turned out to be rather different, and my greatest source in the end has always been the opportunity to talk to Chinese people, both common people and leaders at various levels. So, I would tell students now that you have an opportunity by virtue of normalization and everything that followed to go to China to understand it, the opportunities you have, were not even conceivable when I started my career. I think that's the first thing I would say. And secondly, war is a very costly thing. I was in the U.S. army reserves as a medic and I saw the human casualties of a mismanaged relationship. Those are not abstract. When you see people that are damaged by war, this is very tangible. Our generation, of course, we've had a lot of experience in the Middle East and Central Asia, but China is of an entirely different scale. If we have trouble managing wars in small states, imagine the problems we would have with a big state like China. I think it's just extremely important for the welfare of our young people to find ways to manage this relationship.

JC: Your first contact with Chinese people was via Hong Kong, which of course at the time was British-ruled. It was very different and that's where people escaped to at the time. Where does the story with the mainland itself begin and how different was that experience?

DL: For my first trip to China, we were supposed to go in early September 1976, I was part of a National Academy of Sciences group. It was on steroid chemistry, steroid chemistry being the ingredient for birth control pills, and China was very interested in that. One of the first delegations they invited was a steroid chemistry group, and I had written a book on the politics of medicine in China, so the National Academy of Sciences asked me to go along with this group. Between the invitation and our departure Mao Zedong passed away, and so China put a 30-day halt on foreign groups entering China. We were the first American group to go into China after Mao died and we landed in Beijing on October 10th, 1976. At that moment the Chinese people really didn't know who their leader was. Hua Guofeng had not yet even appeared. We weren't quite sure who was in charge of China at that moment. Finally, they were sufficiently worried about us, that we went down to Guilin, and they didn't tell us why we went there other than to look at the scenery. We stayed there a few days and then on, I think it was the 21st of October, they took us to Shanghai and Shanghai was celebrating the fall of the Gang of Four in Beijing. And there was what was called the 'little Gang of Four' in Shanghai itself. My first exposure to China was to see it after Mao had gone, when the Chinese people weren't quite yet certain what the new situation was and where the Cultural Revolution was very rapidly becoming denounced and rejected as the path forward. So, the Chinese people were coming out of a long period of internal dissent and conflict, and they were very interested in a group from the United States at that moment.

JC: Even Jimmy Carter said that in 1978 he still didn't know who was in charge in China in the way that you expressed. Of course, you predated that experience by a number of months. My reference in terms of the Chinese people coming out, as you put it, would be in a more contemporary period, the Beijing Olympics and also some of the tragedies like the Sichuan earthquake that happened that same year. What for you is ‘China’? What for you captures who the Chinese?

DL: I'll always remember an old man in one of the Beijing hutong on that first trip. At that time China was a city of alleyways. I got up early one morning and at that time people weren't quite sure whether they should be talking to foreigners. I had spent all this time trying to study Chinese so I could talk to Chinese, but people on the streets were a little reluctant at that time. I got up early one morning and he was out brushing his teeth on the corner because the water pipes were outside, not predominantly in many of these buildings, and I came around the corner and surprised him and he was a little nervous talking to a foreigner that spoke Chinese. I noticed next to him was a pile of dirt, just a big pile of dirt. So, I asked him, why, what's this dirt? I thought I would ask something not sensitive. As it turns out, Beijing was having a tunnel digging. They were worried about an attack from the Soviet Union and still some worries about the United States, and there was an underground tunnel building. It turns out this dirt was from these tunnels. Suddenly, I was asking him the most sensitive question instead of the least sensitive. So he looked at me, and he looked at the dirt, and then he looked at me and then he looked at the dirt, and he says, “What dirt?”, as to deny the existence of it so he didn't have to answer the question. This always struck me as a very sophisticated reply to an unwitting foreigner who didn't quite understand the situation. I've always remembered that old man.

JC: One of the books that you wrote is The Three Faces of Chinese Power: Might, Money, and Minds. Why ‘might, money, and mind?’

DL: There's an intellectual reason and that is that people who study power would generally say that there are three kinds of power. There's what you would call coercive power, the capacity to force you, perhaps even physically or psychologically to comply. Then there’s what you might call remunerative power, the capacity to bribe people to affect their material incentives, and then there's the third form of power, normative ideological power, which is the power to persuade you to you do something because you think it's right. So might is the coercive, money is the remunerative, and mind is the realm of intellectual persuasion. I've always felt that the realm of intellectual persuasion is the most efficient form of power. It's the least resource intensive. Coercive power is extremely expensive as I indicated about war, and of course economic transactions, as part of human nature. Deng Xiaoping essentially restored the economic incentives, Mao wasn't big on economic incentives or material incentives – he was big on spiritual, ideological. I guess the central point of that book really was that Americans tend to place their emphasis on course of power, but I think China in its modern development, while it hasn't ignored coercive military power, puts the emphasis on economic power and the support that intellectual power can give it. So, my basic point is, the United States should not exaggerate the military coercive component, but should focus on a positive, healthy competition in the economic and intellectual realms. And I think I ended the book essentially saying something like, if the United States exaggerates China’s coercive power, we will be playing the wrong game in the wrong place with the wrong country.

JC: There seems to be elements of that right now: the China ‘threat’, the China ‘rise’. Where is this going to head next? Beyond the economy, these two countries that have such influence on the way all of us interact with one another, be it technology or be it cultural. To decode them will be to understand and anticipate where we as a humanity are likely to head towards next. What's coming up next in terms of a major trend and how can we best prepare ourselves for that?

DL: I agree with the anxieties that lay behind your question and I agree with the observation that we're headed in an unhealthy direction. I think we're at the early stages of what I would call an action-reaction cycle. Essentially the security apparatus, whether it's in China or the United States, France or Britain, they're paid to think about what could go wrong. They're not paid to think about all the things that could go right. They are charged with preparing for things that can go wrong and therefore they're always looking for what we would call the worst case. What if the other country, whether it's China or, before that the Soviet Union what if they acquire certain capabilities that disadvantage us? And because acquiring new capabilities often takes 10 or 20 years to develop a new system, whether it's China and an aircraft carrier or hypersonic missiles, you have to look 10 and 20 years out and say, "what could go wrong?" The answer is a lot of things could go wrong, and then you'll begin to plan for those and allocate resources and budget. Technology, of course, is always providing new opportunities for future problems. Just look at cyber. Twenty years ago, nobody was talking about cyberwar. Now everybody is talking about it. What you get is an action-reaction cycle: I see what you are doing, and I begin to develop new means to deal with that. You see what I'm doing, and you develop new means to deal with that, and pretty soon you almost have an autonomous process in which each side is reacting, not to what is, but reacting to what could be.

JC: Is that the basis with what's going on with the trade war?

DL: Well, certainly I would say we're in the early stages of an arms race. But then you begin to ask, what is the basis for technological development and its economic wherewithal, and I think the United States is worried about the degree of economic competition. China, by virtue of having so many people, has a lot of data. If you're going to build a new artificial intelligence capability, the more data you have, the more advantage you have in research. So, I think we're beginning to understand some of the advantages China has in economic development. We look at the development of whole new industries like a high-speed rail. China had no high-speed rail industry in 2000, and now it's a world leader in 2019. In less than two decades, China has developed something that was something the French, Germans and the Japanese only had before, so I think economic power is a basis for military power. We see this growth dynamic, we see China's innovation in some of these technological areas, and we wonder what this means to the previous dominance that we had in the world.

JC: So how do we now harness this? You have the second biggest economy that's not close, but getting closer in terms of…

DL: The World Bank say China passed us in 2013 by purchasing power parity. Now, China doesn't use that measure for those purposes. But if you look at the calculations of the World Bank, that's old news. China already passed the US in 2013. Now, there's a debate whether the World Bank measure is accurate and, or a good reflection of relative power. I think the World Bank measure probably exaggerates China's power a bit, but it's only if you don't believe China's already passed us. It's only a question of when it happens.

JC: Okay, it's getting close. In some ways it may have already passed and surpassed the United States. With two economies so close together, how do you provide a solution to a relationship that is then constructive? In the past, that relationship may be more paternalistic. The United States was a sole power and China just climbed out of the Cultural Revolution that you just described. They were still thinking about how, and what, to eat the next day. Now they're thinking about which smart phone they're going to upgrade to next. So, where do you find a happy situation and is that even possible?

DL: Of course, it's possible, particularly when you consider the costs of not doing so. Is this going to be easy to do? No. Is it possible we won't do it? Yes, it's possible we will fail to do it. But remember, this is going to be very costly because then we'll begin to throw barriers on trade, our economic engines will be less efficient than they would otherwise be. We will reduce exchanges and technology transfer, each trying to slow down the other’s capabilities. So, there's going to be a huge economic cost over what we could be if we were cooperating. Also, of course, it could become absolutely negative if you end up in conflict and war. But your question is, so how do we avoid this? That' the question. I think we have to try, and I think there are some avenues. First of all, we have to, in this case, and I don't mean to sound too ‘U.S.-centric,’ but we have to make room for China. China will play a bigger role in the multilateral world. Its role has already gone up in the IMF and the World Bank, And China's built new institutions like the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. We have to remember that in the case of the Asian Infrastructure Bank, we actually opposed its establishment. I think that was a blunder. We should have welcomed China participating in the solution of a big problem like the infrastructure in Asia. I think we, speaking as the United States, need to make room for China and not grudgingly, but in a positive spirit. I think that’s a problem we have to deal with. Secondly, we now have moved if you think of Nixon and Carter, Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. They moved towards each other and our two countries move towards each other too. You know, promote economic development but it was an elite-to-elite. It was just four guys, practically, that would get together, and they get a new relationship. But since then we've developed what I would call a society-to-society relationship. Yes, there’s the Washington executive, Communist Party links, but there are state governments, and there are firms or civil society. We are now knit together at many levels and much of what we are calling the problems of US-China relations are really elite-to-elite and government agency-to-government agency. They’re reflected in our societies. But the lower you go in each of these societies, towards civil organizations away from state governments, they have mostly the interest in cooperating. It's the national governments dealing with each other that fight the fights. But the lower you go in each of the societies, the more incentives there are for positive cooperation. I think as our two central governments, so to speak, have more and more difficulties, it’s more incumbent that our local governments, our firms, our civic organizations, they cooperate. Now at some point your central governments can become so antagonistic, they stop this societal cooperation. And, so, I would say if we see a process that is not just our government, the central government is having problems, but the central government then in each of our societies inhibiting cooperative activity at the lower level, then we’re certainly in trouble. I was very heartened when at this meeting you essentially had a former state governor say we got to cooperate at the local level.

JC: Bob Holden of Missouri?

DL: Yes, I think that’s just a reflection. I would say we’ve got to make room for each other in the international system. And we have to get as much cooperation at subnational levels as possible to get through this period until we get national leaderships that can deal better with each other.

JC: You all one of the foremost minds and understanding China and the United States and unpicking the nuances that oversee growth between them, and some of them are very beautiful as well, but I wonder whether we should return to the beginnings of what Deng and Carter did, in bringing students to each country. In doing so, investing in new beginnings, young people, keeping it local, keeping it basic, but at the same time sowing the seeds so that later on, there could be something better to look forward to. Or as the Chinese say, “A better tomorrow than the one today.”

DL: Right, well, if you think about it, even before Carter and Deng Xiaoping or Nixon and Mao and Zhou and Kissinger and all these people we've had, we had experience to build on when they were thinking about the relationship. And I go back to before 1949 there was a huge wave in the 1930s and '40s and even earlier of Chinese students that came to the United States, and for the Americans, it was often missionary educators going to China. But when we reestablished, in the 1970s and '80s, the educational relationship, it was all of these people who had participated before 1949 the provided the interface. If we keep these relations going, even if our national levels have difficulties, we're keeping alive, the pathways of interaction, so it's not all wasted. Even if it's a suboptimal, I would say also you said something very important just in passing. And you said before normalization, we began to move on the students. And that's true. In 1978, before there was no normalization in May, and normalization came on January 1st the following year in 1979. But seven months before that we agreed to exchange students and so forth. That was the first thing Deng Xiaoping did. And in fact, you know, when Deng Xiaoping, he came back more than once actually. And he came back to power in about 1973 and he placed a great emphasis on science and technology. And then of course after Mao died and the transition with Hua Guofeng, he wanted to restore these relations. So, I think it's extremely important that our national – and I give President Carter a lot of credit – he had a priority that was very different than when we dealt with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union Exchange Principle was, if you send one engineer, from Moscow to the United States, we have to send one U.S. engineer in the same field to the Soviet Union. And it was one for one. Everything was negotiated. President Carter said, send all you want as long as the US government isn't paying for it. It was a totally different principle of exchange, and I think that was one of the wisest and most important strategic decisions that was made at that time. Not to treat China like the Soviet Union.

JC: David Lampton thank you very much.

DL: Thank you.

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At Large is a new podcast series brought to you by China-US Focus, and presented and produced by writer and broadcaster James Chau. Each week, he unpacks the complex stories shaping China and the United States, covering major events shaping their relationship from technology to trade, and security to foreign policy. At Large is a unique podcast at a unique time in history. Subscribe to 'At Large Podcast' on Spotify, SoundCloud, Google Play Music and Stitcher or listen via our website.
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