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The Spirit of the Qianlong Emperor Endures

Jun 02, 2022

“Asymmetric decoupling” is one of those buzzwords that sounds obscure and abstract at first, but turns out to be both vivid, useful and precise  in describing real world dynamics. 

When U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken invoked “asymmetric decoupling” in his May 26 speech about U.S.-China relations at George Washington University, the term gained currency overnight in an electrifying way. Put in plain terms, Blinken was calling China out for its policy “of seeking to make China less dependent on the world and the world more dependent on China.”  

There’s a whiff of something unreasonable there, a binary imbalance, something akin to “have your cake and eat it too” or, more precisely “you may want our cake, but we don’t want yours.” 

“This lack of reciprocity,” Blinken argues, “is unacceptable and it’s unsustainable.” But where did Blinken get this odd term from? 

A cursory search for “asymmetric decoupling” on various search engines shows a preponderance of scientific applications for the term, and virtually nothing in any other context, until May 26, that is. The coinage is now well on its way to establishing a firm foothold in newspaper and academic discussion of China’s foreign policy. Before that, the term was mainly used in obscure scientific journals and patent applications with titles like: 

“Asymmetrical Decoupling Model of Six-Phase Autotransformer and its Application” 

“Integrated circuit including asymmetric decoupling cell” 

In the political realm, only two references showed up in the first few pages of a Google search immediately after the speech, but the search page is now rapidly being inundated and replenished with new references to the term in the wake of Blinken’s far-reaching words.

The State Department’s speech-makers may well have lifted the concept as it applies to China from a December 2021 Economist article on global capital that states: “China is pursuing a strategy of asymmetric decoupling: reducing its dependence on the West even as it seeks to increase the West’s dependence on China.”

So why does the obscure engineering term “asymmetric decoupling” seem such a natural fit for a political discussion about China? The term “barbarians at the gate” inadvertently offers an important clue, because being unwanted was exactly how the early foreign envoys, such as Britain’s Lord Macartney, seeking an audience with the emperor were made to feel. 

The ‘you-need-us-but-we-don’t-need-you’ dynamic is a vintage Chinese “wine.” It’s an age-old spirit that’s been put in a new bottle called “asymmetric decoupling.” 

Chinese Emperor Qianlong’s 1793 letter to England’s King George III is one of the best illustrations of the concept: 

“Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its own borders. There was therefore no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.” 

Qianlong kindly goes on to note: 

“Tea, silk and porcelain which the Celestial Empire produces, are absolute necessities to European nations and to yourselves.” The haughty emperor goes on to say that the heavenly kingdom of China is willing to permit trade “so that your wants might be supplied and your country thus participate in our beneficence.” 

Updated, the highly desirable product list that a latter-day emperor might cite would include rare earths, steel, vitamin C and freight containers. There’s also the question of manufacturing dependence built on state subsidies, economies of scale and a huge pool of adept low-cost labor. 

The difference, of course, is that Lord Macartney was knocking at the gate of an untapped empire, whereas the U.S. and China are so closely integrated now that it takes an active “decoupling” to get China back to where it wants to be, inspired by the Qing Dynasty, in trade terms. 

Call it asymmetrical trade, call it the Qianlong way, China has long aspired to establish itself as the world’s middle kingdom, to make itself the indispensable country that is willing to share the fruits of its civilization as a sign of “beneficence” to others, but is otherwise utterly self-contained and dependent on no one.  

One can easily imagine a contemporary Chinese trade official using Emperor Qianlong’s exact words when he says, “we have no use for your country's manufactures.” 

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