Conflicting messages about China

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I have spent considerable time over the past few weeks reading multiple books and opinion pieces written by U.S. scholars and journalists that examine various elements of the U.S.-China relationship. As you might guess, many of these authors paint a highly negative portrait of China and most especially of the Chinese government. Combine these harsh voices from higher education and the media with those from the political class and you understand why a majority of the American people believe China is not to be trusted; that is the message they too often receive from people identified as educated and informed, and sitting in positions of power. 

This chronic negativity explains why Beijing can with solid justification argue Washington has dragged China into a new Cold War.

Adopting what I will call the “China is a danger” theme, these writings make bold claims that China is determined to undermine democracy, committed to becoming a global power, excited about the prospect of usurping the United States and eager to use its money to buy allies around the world. 

The authors often choose one of two strategies to make their case for “bad” China. In one, they highlight “sins” they accuse China of committing but ignore that the United States has done the same. As one example, China’s expenditures on its military are identified by critics as “proof” the country is not interested merely in a defensive posture. Just the opposite, the critics contend: Beijing is ready to be an aggressor. However, these critics omit that the U.S. spends much more on its military. And we know the U.S. record of military aggression is quite long.

In the other strategy, these books and opinion articles gloss over the reality that Washington has damaged its reputation around the world through efforts such as trying to force democracy onto Middle East nations and endorsing crippling economic sanctions on countries deemed hostile to America. 

Furthermore, according to this “danger” idea, China will seek alliances with any country that can provide the resources Beijing needs in order to sustain the economic standards it has provided the Chinese people. As you might guess, the alliances the U.S. has made with dubious regimes in order to receive copious amounts of oil conveniently is forgotten in this part of the “bad” China narrative.

Next, the authors of these “danger” writings assert China does not care if its economic partners do not adhere to democratic standards, and in fact China would prefer those countries did not espouse democracy because such beliefs could threaten the trade these nations undertake with China. 

Put it all together and these authors want their readers to believe Beijing lacks any scruples as it continues on the path to hegemony, and all the while the U.S. stands tall as a beacon of freedom and liberty around the world.

Thankfully, there is at least one other significant theme to the information Americans can read about China.

Though they are in the minority, there are authors who push a different narrative about China, one that affirms strident attacks on the country are often flawed. According to these writers, too many Americans fall into the “Americans don’t understand China”crowd, which causes them to jump to inaccurate conclusions about Chinese motives.

These writers suggest that even a cursory examination of U.S. and Chinese history will identify numerous similarities between the countries. I mention just a couple here: Both enjoyed bursts of economic development that elevated the overall quality of life for their citizens at home and allowed for the countries to become global economic powerhouses. Next, both have acknowledged domestic political mistakes that took place during the second half of the 20th century (the sometimes violent opposition to civil rights in the U.S. and the Cultural Revolution in China) and continue to examine what took place so as to ensure they are not repeated. 

Next, these authors state it is critical to understand that just because China is different from the United States does NOT mean Beijing is hostile to Washington. Here, readers often are reminded of the influence of Confucianism on China. That philosophy maintains that rulers and the ruled have responsibilities to each other with hierarchy and deference essential to the success of society. In addition, these writings advance the idea that there is no history in China of the individual-rights ideology so ingrained into American citizens’ thinking. Just the opposite, in fact: The good and the needs of all supersede the good and needs of the individual in Chinese culture.

Finally, these books and editorials state perhaps the most important point in aiding U.S.-Chinese relations: More interaction between the people of both countries is essential. And these interactions must be with people who do not have powerful economic or political interests. They are people like you and me — private citizens who recognize the critical need for a shared future that is positive. Yes, I know I am one of those professors I mentioned at the beginning of this essay, but I promise you that I am not part of the elite class that some of my colleagues find favor with.

These authors are the ones with whom I agree. America must better understand China in the coming years, and China must better understand America in the coming years. 

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