Chinese Premier Li Keqiang addresses the National People’s Congress in March 2022, with President Xi Jinping, centre, seen on the screens

And never the twain shall meet?

A lineup of new books tackle the thorny China problem

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The American feminist Betty Friedan identified what she called the “problem without a name”, in The Feminine Mystique (1963). In our own era, China has also become defined as such a problem for the West — but as in Friedan’s era, the fact that it’s not easy to specify doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The heart of the issue is two radically different viewpoints from the world’s two superpowers.

Getting China Wrong, Aaron L. Friedburg (Polity, £25)

In 2012, on a visit to Mexico, Xi Jinping, as the new leader of China, declared: “Some foreigners, with full bellies and nothing better to do, engage in finger-pointing at us.” He added: “First, China does not export revolution; second, it does not export famine and poverty; and third, it does not mess around with you. So what else is there to say?”

Washington, and the wider liberal world, has had plenty to say, but the response has conflated a range of issues. Some are to do with what China does to itself (domestic repression). Some are to do with perceived unfair economic practices (keeping key markets closed). Still others are questions of national security (cyberattacks on western targets). Other countries can be accused on all these fronts: Saudi Arabia on the first, India on the second, North Korea on the third. Russia, since its invasion of Ukraine, can be clearly portrayed as an aggressor state.

Yet the reason that China is judged as “messing around with” the West is that it is the only country that combines highly authoritarian government, mercantilist economics, and active attempts to influence global order — and is achieving significant success on all fronts.

There’s a rare bipartisan consensus in Washington that the era of “engagement” with China has come to an end. There is far less agreement on what the next phase should be. New books by Aaron Friedberg and C. Fred Bergsten examine the current dilemma, mainly from a US point of view, and come to significantly different answers.

Friedberg is an experienced analyst of US foreign policy, based at Princeton, who argues in crisp, compelling prose that it got most of its calculations of Chinese behaviour just plain wrong over the past 30 years. Bergsten is a highly regarded economist, based at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. His lucid and measured book suggests that mutual economic interests can still provide some means for the two sides to work together. The former viewpoint is now dominant in Washington policy circles, though the latter is more audible in some parts of the business world.

Friedberg analyses the long trajectory of the American policy of engagement with China, including efforts by Clinton and Bush Jr to encourage it to take a role in the global community through institutions such as the World Trade Organization. He argues that this was an error. Rather than opening up its own markets, China took advantage of globalisation to make much of the world dependent on it, and was able to increase the size of its economy to fund its growing military and economic influence around the world.

Friedberg takes China’s politics, economics and strategic outlook in turn, and reaches a bleak conclusion: “three decades of earnest efforts” by the West to bring China into the system have “ended in failure”, with the democratic world likely to become “fragmented and weakened” in the face of China’s challenge.

The United States vs. China: The Quest for Global Economic Leadership, C. Fred Bergsten (Polity, £25)

Bergsten, in contrast, fully acknowledges the human rights violations and other repression that China has committed, as well as its willingness to steal intellectual property. He does not regard China, however, as the sort of “existential threat” that Friedberg does. “Barring a highly improbable turn toward aggressive military behavior [sic] by China itself,” he argues, a policy towards China that seeks to equate economic threats with a security threat “would be very unlikely to succeed.” Instead, he argues, there should be a system of “conditional cooperative competition”, which would see a greater intermeshing of China and the US in the global system of trade.

Both books make strong arguments. Isaac Stone Fish, however, points out one fundamental complexity with the broad strategies that they advocate: a policy that might lead to overall benefit to the US is vulnerable to the losses in particular sectors. Stone Fish is a rising star in the younger generation of American foreign policy commentators, who lived in Beijing for several years and became proficient in Chinese. He argues that over the past few decades, prominent figures in US business and media have pulled their punches and accommodated restrictions on their own freedom to access the China market.

America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger, Isaac Stone Fish (Knopf, £16.99)

One prominent case is Hollywood, which has decided to adapt its content to prevent any chance of offending China. The evidence is clear: there has been no truly critical portrayal of China in a big-budget Hollywood movie since the early 2000s. In a film such as the multi- Oscar-winning Gravity (2013), starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney, Bullock’s astronaut is brought safely down to earth courtesy of a Chinese space station. Disney ended up apologising to China for releasing Martin Scorsese’s Kundun (1997), with its sympathetic portrayal of the early life of the Dalai Lama.

The book is stuffed with jaw-dropping examples; yet he is firm in his belief that calling out individuals and companies who bend to China’s demands must not mean the US lessening its willingness to welcome Chinese students or learn from Chinese culture.

This sort of partiality isn’t new. Back in the 1930s, the nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek had an official in its Los Angeles consulate whose job was actually to go to the studios directly and change elements of plots that were considered insulting to China (with the threat that China’s fledgling but lucrative audience of millions would be denied to films that did not comply).

The Ukraine crisis has shown the importance of understanding ideation

Today, as in that earlier era, the problem is at heart an American one, rather than a Chinese one. We might (and should) disapprove of the level of censorship in China, and deplore the fact that the system seems so brittle that it can’t take on the thought of a foreign film criticising it. (Incidentally, many Chinese film and television series are highly critical of aspects of China, within limits: see the recent hit series Nothing But Thirty, which attacks sexism in the workplace, or In the Name of People, which was startingly open about the level of corruption in the Communist Party.)

But there is a solution: Hollywood could make films that have Chinese villains (hopefully avoiding the racist Fu Manchu clichés of an earlier era), or praise Tibet, and acknowledge that they will sacrifice the Chinese market. Saying that, of course, is easy: doing it is much harder. Hollywood films are ludicrously expensive and a single flop could bankrupt a studio. Knowing you have the Chinese market wrapped up might be the difference between profit and loss.

The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict between the US and Xi Jinping’s China, Kevin Rudd (PublicAffairs, £15.99)

So are there solutions? A pathway to one might come from the new book by former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, to date the only high-ranking western politician to be a fluent speaker of Mandarin. His thoughtful and deeply-researched book is concerned with one very particular issue: how to prevent an imminent war between the US and China. Friedman and Bergsten make material factors paramount: geopolitical power politics for Friedberg, economic power for Bergsten.

Rudd is keener to understand the ideational power that underpins the Chinese side, believing that the West needs to do more to understand changing ideas in Beijing of how the world works. He does this by interpreting Xi’s complex ideological world view, aided by the fact that he is one of the few western analysts who has met Xi and conversed with him directly.

The Ukraine crisis has shown the importance of understanding ideation and history in interpreting foreign policy in authoritarian states. Prior to the Russian invasion, many thought that Putin was motivated by a sort of cynical rationality. That’s clearly not absent, but it is now more widely understood that a distorted understanding of Russian history, and a mystical sense of identity espoused by nationalist intellectuals such as Alexander Dugin are part of the mix in his mind.

Xi’s equally eclectic mindset is characterised by Rudd as “Marxist-nationalist”: in other words, it does draw on ideas of “struggle” and “contradiction” that are drawn directly from Marxist theory, but Xi also speaks of the glories of China’s ancient history and the humiliations of its modern era — the “collective consciousness of an ancient people to the politics of the present”, as Rudd puts it, drawing on a detailed reading of Xi’s many speeches.

A poster for the Chinese TV series In the Name of People

Rudd’s arguments sit between the worldviews of Friedberg and Bergsten. His proposal that the US and China should seek to find “irreducible red lines” and stick to them acknowledges that western compromise cannot be endless, but he senses that managed competition in areas of economics and technology, with strategic cooperation in limited areas (such as climate change), could provide some room for compromise.

Still, there will be serious challenges in defining the dividing lines between China and those who want both to engage with and confront it. Friedberg argues that it is time to be clear about what divides liberal democracies and autocracies. I think this is harder than it looks: the 2020s will have some of the moral fuzziness of the old Cold War. Then, the western world, in service of opposing the Soviets, embraced plenty of non-democratic regimes in southern Europe (Franco’s Spain, Turkey), Latin America and Southeast Asia.

It may sound less stirring today to say that the project of rethinking the West means engagement with non-democratic states, such as Vietnam, or ones with chequered records on civil liberties, such as India, but it is probably inevitable. It also means more precision and caution about what the agenda actually is regarding China: if it’s not regime change, and it’s not (presumably) saying that China has no role in the Asia- Pacific, let alone the world, then what is it?

This isn’t just a job for the Americans

We may have to venture into yet more uncomfortable areas. Friedberg is right to question those who thought that China might have become a liberal democracy — that was always unlikely. But there was plenty of empirical evidence that, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, China was likely to become a relatively more liberal authoritarian state. Just over a decade ago, China had scholars writing books with titles such as Democracy is a Good Thing, there was a trend within the party to move bureaucrats away from party structures and toward governmental institutions such as the State Council, and there was a constrained, but recognisable civil society, investigative journalism, and lively and quite political social media.

It was a stretch to think that China would turn into Denmark. It is not unreasonable, even today, to suggest that China might revert to looking more like its predecessor from around the early 2010s. “Becoming less authoritarian” doesn’t have the ring of “promoting democracy”. But it might just be more realistic — and safer for us all.

All the writers end their books with a reminder to the liberal world that it still has plenty of capacity to turn the story around economically and militarily, but, more importantly, in terms of ideas and values. This isn’t just a job for the Americans. In the UK and the wider liberal world, understanding which of our institutions China would most like to see disappear might just get us to value them more.

Parties in democracies could stop promoting leaders who are, at best, sceptical of NATO (there are examples on both left and right). #defundthebbc is a meme whose sentiments are principally shared by voices associated with the Chinese Communist Party and the British Conservative Party; if your country happens to host the world’s most respected broadcaster, supporting it rather than undermining it might be in order.

The final thing that all these impressive books hint at — but will need to revisit in their second editions — is that there is a rapidly changing set of questions about the China-West relationship that simply don’t match anything that happened in the 2000s. Here’s one: what are the ethics of artificial intelligence, and how will they shape the relationship between the West and China in the 2030s and 2040s? Not so much a problem with a name; more a problem that is hard even to wrap our imaginations round, wherever we are in that arc between Washington and Beijing.

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