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Breaking the China

Jan 14, 2019
  • Tom Watkins

    President and CEO of the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, FL

Today’s heated rhetoric may be shaping a new generation of Americans’ beliefs and attitudes about the fastest-growing economy in the world. One with the largest standing army, nationalistic fervor, a huge focus on technology (big data and AI), and an optimistic attitude. Home to one-fifth of humanity.

If it seems that I ponder and fret about these issues more than the average Westerner, it is because I have been enthralled by all things China from the moment it entered my consciousness at the tender age of ten. I can clearly recall my mom, in an effort to get me to eat my vegetables, imploring me to “eat your peas, children are starving in China!” Who were these children, I recall thinking, and even if starving, would they really want to eat these nasty peas?

At this time in the mid-1960s China was depicted as North Korea is today: sinister, evil, vile, mysterious, and an enemy. We were taught to feel sorry for the “lost souls of China” and to fear the Communist government as a menacing threat to all things right and just. My dad, told me to stop digging in the back yard, or the “hole would be big enough to let the Chinese in!”

As the 70’s unfolded, along came “ping-pong diplomacy” from the Kissinger-Nixon era of engagement with Mao followed by the Carter-Woodcock diplomacy, springing forward with the explosive opening of China by Deng Xiaoping’s “capitalism with Chinese characteristics”.

My enthusiasm was piqued in 1989 with the first of my many subsequent trips to China. I spent 2-3 nights in mid-May 1989 with students gathered in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I viewed their enthusiastic calls for an end to corruption and for American-style “freedom and democracy” as idealistic, innocent, and naive. I am still haunted by a student’s request that I “describe freedom [and] democracy.”

From Shut Down to Open Up

The 80’s ended with the West’s belief in China’s “democratization” being snuffed out. Memories of Tiananmen Square etched into Western memories, fading into history even as China began erasing the incident from China’s own history and collective memory.

China was and remains too big to ignore for long. Memories of Tiananmen slowly faded even as the West reestablished political and economic relations.

As I was about to become the Michigan State Superintendent of Schools in late 2000, I read a quote in National Geographic magazine that I never forgot, paraphrased: “Most Americans are dangerously ignorant about all things Asia, especially China”. Sadly, it seems little has changed since then.

Today, perhaps worse than being ill-informed, the information being fed to Americans has seemingly taken on a  Cold War tone, that of finding a “commie around every corner”.

Today, books like Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower and President Trump’s China advisor, Peter Navarro’s provocative books: Death by China: Confronting the Dragon – A Global Call to Action and The Coming China Wars: Where They Will be Fought and How They Can be Won are setting the stage for many modern China thinkers.

“Our prosperity and place in the world are at risk,” said Bill Priestap, the FBI’s top counterintelligence official.

Doing business with China has not resulted in them playing nice or automatically making them want to emulate America’s form of government.

Early on in the bilateral relationship, American politicians made a bet that China’s economic liberalization would result in its political liberalization. Now, American policymakers fear that they may lose this bet.

A “Chinese democracy” has been an ongoing fantasy for much of the last 30 years, and as the dream fades, the more moderate voices in the Trump White House are being drowned out by the hawks.

China has morphed from friend to enemy over the past two years under President Trump.

Flip the Switch

Today we are entering scary territory. It seems we are reverting to a Cold War mentality through the US government’s attitude towards China, now spilling over to embed itself into average Americans’ feelings and beliefs about China.

In what will be viewed as a turning point in US-China relations, US Vice-President Mike Pence stepped up attacks on China at the conservative Hudson Institute in late 2018. Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute on the United States and China at the Wilson Centre called the speech, “a declaration of a comprehensively adversarial relationship with China”.

While there is little doubt that China is flexing its economic and military muscles and seeking to regain its wealth and power the thought of a new cold or hot war with China is unthinkable.

Trump’s trade war reflects his administration’s hardline policy, and the idea of a peacefully rising China has become viewed by the administration as a fairy tale.

Going Forward

The US-China relationship need not be a zero-sum game. Clearly, we are moving from a unipolar world where America dictates to China and the world, to a more bipolar world order – one where China flexes its political, economic, and military muscle.

I agree with Chi Wang, president of the US-China Policy Foundation and former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, who says, “I find the recent dominance of hawkish views about China in the US disappointing. Academia and the media should prioritize conveying knowledge and understanding, not fear and mistrust.”

American opinion about China has ebbed and flowed over the past 40 years. There are times when the optimism between the Chinese and American people is palpable and the connections seem like they will continue to deepen. Yet, growing American economic anxiety and Trumpian calls for “America first” have stoked growing fear and resentment among many Americans, which is spilling over into nearly all things China today. Currently, many people are once again developing an unhealthy fear of China.

It doesn’t help when Rear Admiral Luo Yuan, who has a history of bellicose statements, dredges up thoughts of China attacking America.

But history reminds us of the better angels of our nature. As explained by Kenneth Quinn, a retired US foreign service officer of over 30 years and the president of the World Food Prize Foundation, Chinese and American leaders have enjoyed a good working and personal relationship for long periods of time, and we should hope that this constructive relationship can serve as our foundation for a better bilateral future.

Clearly, we need cooler heads to prevail on both sides.

How President Trump and Xi ultimately resolve the trade war tensions over the coming weeks will set the stage for the next 40 years of relations between our great countries.

Average American and Chinese citizens need not allow the tensions between our national leaders to impact people-to-people exchanges and interactions that have been developed since China’s opening up.

There is no ‘win-win’ by having Americans fear that China is going to ‘eat our lunch’, that every Chinese person in America is here to ‘steal our technology’, or that a Chinese spy is lurking around every corner. Creating a 21st Century Red Scare will not serve anyone well.

Is China going to continue to prevail and attempt to dominate their hemisphere going forward? Of course, just as America will continue to attempt to hold on to its status as number one in the world.

The best defense and offense against a rising China remains a rising America. This requires more than trade and rhetorical wars with China. It requires hard work on the part of America to develop a coherent, rational, national plan. A plan that invests in Americans, rather than the current plan that wastes resources whining about China.

Perhaps the one thing more devastating to the US and the world than a dominant China, would be a new generation of mothers in America imploring their children to eat their peas, because children are starving in China.

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