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Andrew Singer Talks About China
Vol. 1, Issue 30
Happy Year of the Tiger! Today I wrap up my series on attempting to better understand, or at least frame, the underlying issues between China and America beyond the headlines. From the Chinese perspective. I hope I have been able to stretch comfort zones and briefly walk a mile in another’s footsteps.
Walking a Mile in China’s Shoes, Part IV: China and America Moving Forward
One More Thought (Driving Under Water)
Walking a Mile in China’s Shoes: Part IV Summary
Parts I and II looked at the Chinese people’s perceptions of America and China. Part III dealt with the Chinese leadership’s view of China’s role at home and abroad and also its role in leading China. In this wrap-up, Part IV looks at China and America and our relationship moving forward. My takeaways are that:
Notwithstanding often incompatible methods and ideology, the parallels between China and America are striking.
To best understand and respond to China (and the world), America needs to understand and respond to America.
Walking a mile in each other’s footsteps will help both sides along the journey.
Part IV: China and America Moving Forward
China is the all-consuming topic of this early twenty-first century. Her rise has been spectacular. Her every statement and non-statement, every action and inaction, reverberate around the world. This series has looked at today’s China through China’s own lens. Standing in Chinese shoes to view America and China. Sitting in the seat of the Chinese Communist Party to glimpse differences that might exist between the Chinese people and the Chinese government and the power of the office.
The goal is to foster deeper understanding of China, the Chinese people, and the Chinese government on this side of the Pacific Ocean. Amidst the noise of strained domestic and global politics and pressing daily life, this can be a daunting task. However, if we are better educated and can more fully appreciate China, we will be better able to appropriately and wisely respond, communicate, and co-exist.
So what did I learn? A lot actually. Here are my Top Ten:
China’s people are patriotic and want better lives for themselves and their children.
China is proud, opinionated, and confident.
China believes that its system of governance and society are superior to other models.
China is resistant and defensive to outside pressure.
China feels picked on and misunderstood by the world.
China’s economy is vibrant yet buffeted by short and long-term perils.
China’s society is plagued by severe income and social inequalities.
China’s international activity is dictated in large part by domestic political concerns.
China is a superpower struggling to wield soft and hard power effectively.
China is a maelstrom of conflicting desires, thoughts, and actions.
Each of these statements is illustrative. They help us understand how the Chinese government and the Chinese people think, what they want, what they face, and, thus, how they might act. At the same time, something about this China sounds familiar.
Substitute “America” for “China” in each of the above sentences, and read each sentence again. Think about them for a moment. Each sentence still rings true. They are interchangeable.
Here, then, is the biggest takeaway for the two countries moving forward. Notwithstanding often incompatible methods and ideology, the parallels between China and America are striking.
The parallels between America and China are striking.
Thus, here is the second takeaway. To best understand and respond to China (and the world), America needs to understand and respond to America. What we see in the other, we so often fail to recognize in ourselves.
There are no easy, definitive or comfortable answers. China is not a single organism, and while it sounds cliché to say that the Chinese take a longer view of history and culturally seek harmony, consensus, and stability above individuality, the statement is still generally true. Is the Chinese population’s overall tolerance of stringent and intrusive rules and regulations and top-down shaping of society enhanced by the enforcement prowess of the current government? Yes. The current government and society are indeed highly authoritarian, paternalistic, and ritualized, as well as both centralized and diffuse, but they are also the direct progeny of the same style of governance, law, and social structure that has characterized China throughout much of her long history.
Relations between China and America cannot rely on language alone. The Chinese Communist Party maintains that China is a “people’s democracy” and that “[i]n China, the people’s status as masters of the country is the bedrock of all the systems of the country, and underlies the operation of all the systems for state governance.” This is China’s version of Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation at Gettysburg that America’s was fighting a civil war in part so that “…government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Both sides believe what they say, but politicians speak many things and bring their own definitions and biases to the terms. One good metric might then be action. What is the goal of government? If it is to support, nurture, and provide for a nation’s citizens, then China appears to be meeting its goal pretty well. Public opinion matters in China. It lies at the heart of the so-called Mandate of Heaven. Essentially, when the populace loses faith in the rulers, the dynasty is not long (historically-speaking) for continued rule. From all evidence, the vast majority of China’s citizens today have faith.
Many argue, the Chinese loudest of all, that China has been the subject of Western imperialism and humiliation, most pernicious since the nineteenth century--destructive, racist, and punitive. This is sadly an all-too-accurate statement, and America (and the West more broadly) should not get a pass for its prior actions. By the same token, this historical fact does not reflexively mean that America is unilaterally wrong in its relationship with China. Similarly, China’s past suffering at the hands of others does not mean that everything China does now is thus justified and beyond reproach. China should not get a pass for all of its current actions either.
The above is part of what can be so frustrating with online posts, tweets, and commentary about U.S.-China relations. The responses to any criticism of China (even the milquetoast variety) are often simply declarations that the criticizers (Americans in particular) have no right to be critical because of their own past and current bad actions. This is a useful way to shut down dialogue and does not meaningfully advance a discussion.
The Chinese government is working overtime to control the Chinese narrative, both for its owns citizens and to the world. Discouraging, limiting and regulating contacts with the outside world and trying to shape those that enter (long a Chinese desire) have been assisted immensely by the Covid-19 pandemic. Physical connections (trying catching a flight between the two countries) have been slashed and are hanging on by threads. Academic, business, and community connections have each in turn been squeezed hard.
The Chinese government seems to sincerely believe that isolating more will make China stronger, more secure, and more stable. Isolationism as foreign policy is not a new phenomenon, but it has not traditionally worked out so well for its adherents. The potential irony in this could ultimately be that it was over the past forty years when China opened more to the West in all of the above regards that the economy revved, society flourished, and the country excelled. Time will tell if the government’s current efforts are prescient or self-defeating.
China and America view the world differently, and neither of us at this time is apparently willing or able publicly to change. We want the same things and are each quite preachy about declaring our positions, but we do not agree on the road to getting them. We value different qualities in trying to achieve similar outcomes. This being said, we can learn from each other if we are willing to listen. Now, I am not suggesting that America become more authoritarian (though there is a substantial segment of the American population and political apparatus that clearly favors the practice), but China’s ability to marshal willpower and resources to build the country and to provide basic (and more) amenities to most of its people is impressive. I am also not suggesting that China become a liberal democracy (though there are outposts on the Chinese internet that would like to see this happen), but more slack in society would likely lead to further improved standards of living and unlock even more potential. What would be beneficial on both sides of the Pacific is a middle way between two extremes.
The world is suffering from an information problem. Americans are bombarded with too much information (much of it false or misleading). Chinese face an information deficit (again much of it false or misleading). Hawks on both sides of the Pacific are calling for sterner responses. Militaries on both sides of the Pacific are training and sending messages. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army has built training mockups of US aircraft carriers and other ships and planes in China’s far west desert. A powerful, US ballistic missile submarine made a rare, open visit to Guam this month. Misjudgments among the politicians on each side of the Pacific, bolstered by primed populaces, could lead to outcomes that no one should want to see.
If the U.S. wants to remain a strong leader with a powerful economy and position, then we must focus on improving ourselves, mitigating toxic divisions, and rebuilding the country. The last half century in America has seen grossly inadequate investments in and care for people, education, research, and infrastructure and a seemingly intractable inability to coalesce around the concept of shared community responsibility and national civic pride. In terms of creating and maintaining influence in the world, being a role model is ultimately more compelling and sustainable than being a bully. This is something both America and China should heed.
My final takeaway. Walking a mile in each other’s footsteps will help both sides along the journey.
One More Thought (Driving Under Water)
China’s longest underwater highway tunnel is now open. The six-lane, two-way Taihu Tunnel stretches 6.65 miles (10.79 km) under Lake Taihu in Eastern China’s Jiangsu Province, not far west of Shanghai. Connecting the cities of Suzhou, Wuxi, and Changzhou, the Taihu Tunnel is one of the longest underwater tunnels in the world. Check out the LED ceiling (above). For more, see this article at cnn.com.