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Traits Of A Nation? Blind Spots Of The Old China Hands

How is it that analysis of the rising world power is reduced to an abstract notion from the field of genetics? Established experts on China are not looking at the future.

Chinese President Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping


WASHINGTON — Presenting the latest report of the China Task Force, Susan L. Shirk, a research professor at the University of California, San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy, asked the following series of questions: "Is the pragmatic gene that we saw in Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and even at the beginning of the Hu Jintao, still alive in China? Is Xi Jinping motivated and able to modify its policies to reduce the cost China is bearing because of the current backlash? Or, are this kind of overreaching policies – statist, mercantilist and aggressive foreign policies – hard-baked into the Chinese Marxist-Leninist Communist Party rule? Are the Chinese leaders still able to make the changes in a practical, pragmatic manner to reduce their own cost?"

The China Task Force was founded in 2017 to advise the Trump administration on China. For two days in February, the group toured Washington, visiting Congressional offices and intelligence agency safe rooms; they met with members of the Administration and reported to the National Security Council.

At the end of their visit, they also met with a select group of experts and journalists on the top floor of the prestigious National Press Club, just a few blocks away from the White House, around the corner from the FBI building, and a half mile from the shiny dome of the Capitol. As Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at Asia Society, and co-chair Susan Shirk introduced the report, they apparently tried to add some flavor to the dry academic language of the document.

Sponsored by the Asia Society in New York, the task force currently includes 17 well-known experts on China, a select group of academics, journalists and former diplomats. All the members of this advisory group are accomplished experts and have been well-informed China hands for decades. They are the finest minds the U.S. possesses in the topic of China. And yet, why did the final words of Professor Shirk, the main speaker of the task force, sound incredibly naive?

For a scholar who has done significant research on contemporary China, Shirk missed the opportunity to deliver a more comprehensive judgment that could illuminate the reasons for recent Chinese interference, a term that the task force uses frequently. How is it that otherwise excellent analyses and observations were reduced to an abstract notion from the field of genetics, a hope that perhaps one day our Chinese competitors might somehow reactivate their well behaved nature – a gene! – that will put things back in order and reestablish the harmonious relationship between East and West. Can one rely on the goodwill of the competitor, after pages of accurate descriptions of unfair trade game played by China that protect its market and favors its enterprises, thus enabling exponential domestic growth and military build up?

Back then, it was the West who had a massive appetite for reaching the Chinese market.

The economy section of the report contributed by Charlene Barshefsky, former United States Trade Representative, criticizes China's intentional disrespect of the rules they signed on for when entering the World Trade Organization. Barshefsky's no-nonsense analysis demanded that the U.S. revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, extend it to Europe and thus assemble 60% of the world GDP, allowing the U.S. and its partners, now under economic strain, to reform the rules of the WTO with China.

I have no way to know whether this assault plan of Madame Barshefsky could work or not. I remember that back in 2001 when Barshefsky was head of the U.S. Trade delegation, the negotiations with China in Beijing were tough, complex but full of promises. Back then, it was the West who had a massive appetite for reaching the Chinese market, hoping to get shares of Chinese telecoms, insurances, banks and other big business. Did they relent in exchange for cheap labor and highly profitable offshore manufacturing that made the rich in the West even richer?

Joining the WTO helped China grow enormously. They were able to create their middle class while the West's shrunk dramatically, and then U.S. voters vengefully elected populist President Donald Trump in 2016. Is Barshefsky now seeking her revenge? She speaks plainly, far from the formula that imagines a solution in a presumably "good" Chinese nature, like Shirk, or in metaphysics, as did the otherwise energetic and entertaining Orville Schell.

Schell, who is putting his face and reputation forward in the effort to enable the U.S.-China dialogue, came out with a similar solution to Shirk:

China, as it increases the scope of its pretensions, globally in almost every realm, and expands outward, has also begun to elaborate a picture in which it is seeking to protect its interest as it describes it — in a global way. And that is both, military and culturally, with propaganda and media.

But I also think that buried in these pretensions there is some notion that has come of age in 2008 and 2009 during the financial crisis, and maybe China does have a better model, a better way of doing things. I think its efforts to expand broadly are sort of calculations to protect itself at home, because the world is no longer one in which China could move in autarchy. So it sees its own national interest as a begging broader and global protection and thus the project like One Belt One Road and myriad other ways with which China projects its power.

What did Schell mean by this? That Chinese nationalism, militarism, the economic and trade expansion, which in Africa has reached the threshold of a new colonialism, are the protective layers for what may in fact lie more profound in the body of China; some kind of embryo of a new China model, that we may not know about, but that might surprise us?

I wish Orville Schell the best. I appreciate his remarkable work when he was a reporter, professor and also managing a complex institution like Asia Society. His task force keenly observed that, for the first time, both aisles of Congress are united in pushing back on China. I shared with him the fear that the prevailing instinct for herding in America will not bring us better times.

During the discussion in the Press Club, someone mentioned the anti-Chinese storm that is brewing in Congress. Part of it comes from the fact that the Trump administration, with all its clumsiness, hit the nail on the head by being consistent in pushing China back. Just by saying things, by his nature, Trump shook the Chinese and got their attention. But his trade war, while perhaps a useful tactic, is not a strategy.

As for Beijing, they are losing time thinking about what's buzzing in Trump's head. And it is precisely this point that worries Schell and the rest of the group: the unpredictability of what might happen if the size of the current crisis is misunderstood and places additional stresses on the U.S.-China relationship, escalating an already tense dynamic.

Asia_Society_exhibition_ NewYorkCity

Art exhibit hosted by Asia Society in New York City — Photo: Ellen Wallop/ Asia Society

Currently, this is what the debate with the task force illustrated: U.S. politicians are anti-Chinese in the same way that they were pro-Chinese a generation ago when they were visiting China to get part of their cake. It is for this reason that the task force proposed a new type of relationship with China, calling it "smart competition." It can be named anything, but the effort should focus on finding the balance, to protect and preserve. To protect is to do everything to ensure that the U.S will be able to compete again with China. That is, to invest in research, infrastructure, education, technology, and to take care of the environment, which is just as much a question of national security as are cyber attacks.

The good advice that comes from the China hands is also to preserve what once was the American dream. In short, do not go ahead with the persecution of everything Chinese or Asian, as happened when Japanese residents in the U.S. were interned after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The group strongly advised America not to isolate itself from the talent and productivity that is coming from Asia. Be vigilant, build better security on industrial theft and tech transfer, but do not shut the door, as this president seems to be doing.

Winston Lord, former ambassador to China, who started his career as a very young adviser to Henry Kissinger during Nixon's visit to China, is the most pessimistic member of the group. He does not think that any twist towards the better and more constructive dialogue with Beijing is possible with Trump sitting in the Oval Office. It was hard to watch the veteran diplomat with his shoulders sunken, his voice slow and without energy. His carefully designed and constructed vision of the new world of coexistence, built over a half of century, had come to naught.

They perceive America as an underdeveloped country.

Not everybody in the room thought the same way, though. Susan Shirk, who seems to be the most outspoken person of the group, said that she does not believe that the Chinese have the formula and exact plan for their future. She is convinced that the controlling party interest and hegemony does not represent the interests of the entire Chinese nation. Aggressive foreign policy and an increasing military threat do not correspond with the interests of the growing middle class, who, according to Shirk, are well-traveled and have lived abroad, therefore expecting the Communist party and Chinese leadership to return to reform and create a better and more open civil society. We have to help them with this, Shirk said at the very end of the second public debate on the report, this time in New York at the headquarters of Asia Society.

And this is what worries me: how often Shirk and other China experts walk the streets of American cities, streets flooded with Chinese students. I see these young people, and try to talk to them. They have no interest in Shirk's ideas. They have no interest in America, per se. Coming from bustling China, where everything is faster, shinier, more modern and yes, even cleaner. They perceive America as an underdeveloped country. They think that New York is full of old and dysfunctional buildings, that American bridges are not safe and should not be trusted, that the trains are noisy and slow. They came to the U.S. ready to pay $60,000 per year for a college, buying experience and a degree. And then they want to go home, as soon as possible.

Once back in China, they don't care to discuss politics or the social order. They are China's millennials, the privileged millions who were born into the world with no political rights. They delegate them to the supreme body. This is the new pragmatic gene of China; the one the task force is searching for dissolved back in 1989. Perhaps the task force too should be suspended, because that China – that world – no longer exists. This, my friends and respected scholars, is the only point that makes me understand your confusion about your hope that one day the good gene will start to reason and lead again. It does so already — you just haven't found the right name for it.

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