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Society & Culture

Americans Need to Learn More about China

Dec 17, 2019
  • Ma Shikun

    Senior Journalist, the People’s Daily

Peter Walker is a member of board of directors of the China Institute, which works to promote understanding of China by people in all walks of life in the United States. With his extensive relationships with Chinese officials and the business community, Walker has been following developments for a long time. His in-depth research on Chinese and American cultures have given him a solid understanding. He has visited China about 90 times over more than a decade.

Not long ago, in an interview with a Chinese reporter, Walker commented: “Until very recently the U.S. interest in China has been modest at best.” He said that countries, just like individuals who develop ties, can minimize and remove misunderstandings, make proper judgments about the actions of the other side and thereby respond appropriately.

When the reporter asked why many U.S. politicians harbor a Cold War mindset against China, Walker replied;

“First, the U.S. has enjoyed the strongest economy globally for the last 150 years, and it’s going to lose that position to China in the coming decades. Politicians view that outcome as unacceptable and will do whatever they can to prevent it.

“Most global economists see China as ultimately prevailing. And as that becomes more apparent, the position of U.S. politicians is likely to harden.

“The second core reason is that U.S. politicians know little about Chinese history and culture and consider its model of a strong central government as unacceptable, rather than a natural outgrowth of China’s history and culture.”

Some people in the United States regard China as a strategic competitor, or even an enemy, for a variety of reasons. From the perspective of history and culture, the lack of understanding of China and poor judgment are key reasons. Such Americans are not objective or rational in viewing China’s growing prosperity, are unwilling to accept it and will do whatever they can to prevent it.

In fact, they may not know that China was the most powerful country in the world for most of its history. At the height of the Tang Dynasty (circa 618-907), China’s economy accounted for more than half the world economy. It had also been leading the world for a long time in the fields of military, technology and culture. It lost that position during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) when the government was corrupt and incompetent, and China missed the industrial revolution. The country became poor and was bullied by foreign aggressors.

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and thanks to 70 years of effort, the country’s strength rapidly increased in all respects. It has now become the second-largest economy in the world.

China’s rise is logical and consistent with the laws of history. It is the natural result of the Chinese people’s pursuit of a better life, and itself is a contribution to world peace and progress. If one makes irresponsible remarks about China’s development and tries hard to suppress its success — without a good understanding of its history and the reasonable aspirations of its people — it only demonstrates one’s ignorance and narrowness.

Further, China did not seek hegemony in the world even when it was the strongest; on the contrary, it treated other countries kindly. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), Zheng He led the world’s most powerful fleets seven times on ocean voyages westward, visiting many countries in Asia and Africa. But he did not seize a colony or establish a military base. Today, China pursues an independent foreign policy of peace, and Chinese leaders have repeatedly emphasized that China will never seek hegemony even if it becomes mighty in the future.

What China is pursuing now is national rejuvenation, so that it can get the respect it deserves internationally while at the same time shouldering greater responsibility in the world. Those who are worried about a China threat or who spread that theory either lack a true understanding of China or willfully ignore the facts with bad intent.

Walker said in the interview that China and the United States are extremely imbalanced in their mutual understanding.

Since the start of reform and opening-up in 1978, China has quickly learned from the West. In addition to economic measures, it has also encouraged its top students to become educated in the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Currently, more than 350,000 Chinese students are studying at American universities.

American fashion, movies and music have permeated the Chinese market. English is taught in virtually all Chinese schools.

“In summary, over the past 40 years, China’s exposure to and understanding of the U.S. has exploded,” Walker said. “Until very recently U.S. interest in China has been modest at best and limited to missionaries, academicians and global corporations.”

He continued:

“The vast majority of Americans, including senior government officials, believed for many years that China would inevitably become a democracy. Any understanding of Chinese history and culture — rooted as it is in collectivism, not individualism, as well as in Confucian values — would see that China and the Chinese people on the mainland have little interest in electoral democracy at other than the local level. In fact, according to the highly respected Pew Foundation, the Chinese government is among those with the highest level of support from the people of any major country.”

Walter added that the Chinese people attach great importance to “face,” or personal reputation or honor, and that it’s a cornerstone of Chinese culture. Yet the U.S. government on trade issues and Hong Kong acts as though face does not exist: “It threatens China to accede to its wishes or accept the consequences. Even a modest understanding of Chinese culture would suggest that the Chinese will not respond to such pressure.”

Walker knows well why China has chosen a development path and political system suited to a Chinese context and will stick to that path unswervingly despite external pressure.

Some questions raised by Walker may be worth exploring by the Americans. These questions include:

• If freedom in China is restricted, why is the support for the government so high compared with all other major countries?

• The U.S. government positions China as a major military threat. How does that square with China’s military budget, which is a fraction of what the U.S. spends, for a population four times larger? How does that square with the U.S. having spent over $10 trillion in current dollars on foreign wars over the past 20 years, while China has spent next to nothing?

• We have been taught that a centrally managed economy will significantly underperform a capitalistic system. How has China succeeded where the Russia failed?

• China’s education system has been criticized as dominated by rote learning instead of critical thinking. Why do Chinese students in the U.S. often outperform many others?

• The U.S. criticizes China for its handling of the environment. How does that square with China’s global leadership in renewable energy, high-speed trains, improving air quality in major cities and commitment to the Paris climate accord, which the U.S. walked away from?

If you put yourself in others’ shoes your answers to questions may differ from preconceived opinions.

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