China’s upper hand over the US

Take a look at this refreshingly original and too-true opinion piece on how China understands us way better than we understand them. It’s really a breath of fresh air at a time when we’re bombarded daily with alarmist “China threat” warnings. A healthy excerpt:

We’re losing the intelligence war against China.

No, not the one with spy satellites, human operatives and electronic eavesdropping. I’m talking about intelligence : having an intelligent understanding of and intelligent discussions about China — where it’s heading, why it’s bidding to buy major U.S. companies and whether we should worry. Above all, I’m talking about formulating and pursuing intelligent policies for dealing with China.

The Chinese government today understands America much better than our government understands China. Consequently, the Chinese government is much better at pulling our strings than we are at pulling theirs. China’s top leaders, diplomats and bureaucrats have a clear framework from which they view the United States, and they are focused and unified in formulating and implementing their policies toward us.

In contrast, our government’s viewpoint on China is unfocused, fractured and often uninformed. Is China still the Red Menace of the Cold War or a hot new competitor out to eat our economic lunch? Both views as well as a hodgepodge of other interpretations can be found in the halls of the White House, Congress and the Pentagon. Add to that confusion a vicious domestic political culture that brooks no compromise, and the chances of formulating a coherent China policy approach nil.

Playing the barbarians off against each other has been a core tenet of Chinese foreign policy since the imperial dynasty days when China’s maps depicted a huge landmass labeled the “Middle Kingdom” surrounded by tiny islands labeled England, Germany, France, America, Russia and Africa. China was the center of the world and everyone else was a barbarian. That’s why the Chinese are delighted by spectacles such as when rival members of a U.S. congressional delegation screamed at one another in front of their Chinese hosts in the Great Hall of the People. And what should they think of the time top Chinese officials laid out clear policy objectives to an American business audience and a U.S. cabinet member responded by saying “Jesus loves the Chinese people”?

Read the whole thing, as we like to say — I haven’t seen such an intelligent article in the mainstream media on China and how the US perceives it in a longtime. The author, former head of the American Chamber of Commerce in China James McGregor, sees things with an unusual clarity and honesty. While chiding us for our propagandized image of China as bogeyman, he also reocgnizes China for what it is, a rising power struggling to keep its head above water and nothing even close th being the superpower to which it aspires. At least not yet.

Still, China isn’t even a fraction as powerful as it pretends to be. Beneath the bluster, it is a nation beset with internal problems. Pollution chokes its air and water. The growing gap between the haves and have-nots and rampant government corruption are triggering almost daily demonstrations. And China has no ideology other than enriching itself. The relentless commercial drive that has shaken China out of its imperial and socialist stupor has now become an end unto itself, leaving a population that is spiritually adrift.

It’s nice to see some balance. America has to relax. We are not in danger. And China has a lot of growing up to do. The country’s growing and getting better but it’s a mess. And as the writer says, China understands us way better than we do them. They pull our strings every day, and we react like automatons. We don’t need to.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

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The Discussion: 14 Comments

Grab a brew, sit back and watch them self- destruct.They always do.

July 30, 2005 @ 11:07 pm | Comment

Richard I agree that China is not the threat it is made out to be. Even the NYTimes, in trying to paint the administration and Pentagon as incompetent and being outmaneuvered by China ends up supporting hawks with a story about 50 new subs China has launched in the last year, but the U.S. has only 48 total. Except they neglect to mention that China has launched 50 diesel subs. Ours are nuclear.
The problem is, as this writer admits, no one can be sure what China will be. So while I wouldn’t turn policy over to the hawks, we can’t silence them either. I think it’s clear that most US hawks view China as a)the Red Menace but b) as the aggressor. The best policy here is make friends, but keep the big stick.

July 30, 2005 @ 11:16 pm | Comment

Matt, I won’t disagree with you. I’m just so wary of scare tactics and alarmism.

July 30, 2005 @ 11:24 pm | Comment

The article has a major flaw in my opinion. It is true that there is no unifies approach to deal with China in the US. But the same can be said of most other countries as well.

“In contrast, our government’s viewpoint on China is unfocused, fractured and often uninformed. Is China still the Red Menace of the Cold War or a hot new competitor out to eat our economic lunch?”

This type of question exists in France, in Germany, in Australia, and certainly in Taiwan. It exists not because of any flaw on the part of the people in those countries, but because China’s status IS ambiguous. I can’t blame anyone who fears for the worst or welcomes the best in China. Why? Because either of them could be right. We just don’t know yet. Should we be alarmist? Probably not. But lacking any clear evidence to assuage fears (and no, that evidence doesn’t truly exist), it is easy to be alarmist. On the other hand, should we just throw open our arms to China? It is easy to assume that things will turn out well. But too many disturbing factors remain to blindly adopt this approach. What is left but to say thaty we should guardedly, but not in alarmedly continue forward. But who can make a unified approach with such a stance.

It is this indecision that so angers me when I look at the government of Taiwan. They are face-to-face with a country that is so bent on taking them over, yet they do nothing because of a cultural indecision about what China represents (and what they represent themselves — as to why I call them a country, it is because the identity of the people is clearly different from that of the Mainland. Even if they all called themselves Chinese but of a different China, I would still classify it as a country…my opinions are my opinions).

The US has a bit of this syndrome too, even though they are in no current danger of being taken over.

As for China, any identity complex is outweighed by the desire to retake what they feel is rightfully theirs. Add a government-influenced news media that feeds this nationalism, and the path is clear. You work to take down the big guy and do it by exploiting his weakness.

The indecision on the parts of the countries mentioned above is an ideal way to do it. Does it represent some flaw in the countries who experience it? Perhaps. But I don’t think it is something to go into a rant about to the tune of: “I can’t stand how people in the US/Taiwan/Australia, etc get alarmist over China.”

And one more thing, the article makes reference to the Chinese emperors playing their rivals off against each other. This is true, but remember the “center of the universe” mentality is what got the Chinese so far behind in the first place. Sure they can use it to claw their way back, but can they use it to stay on top once they get there?

July 31, 2005 @ 12:03 am | Comment

Well said Thomas.

Let’s remember that China has proved to be very skilled in projecting itself in the way that it wants, fact and truth just don’t come into it. I’m thinking about many comments in Joe Studwell’s China Dream here. Foreign companies lost millions (and still are in many cases) chasing a China dream (i.e China market) that simply didn’t exist.

Again, look to Sun Zhu’s Art of “Deception” (sic).

July 31, 2005 @ 6:55 am | Comment

“Foreign companies lost millions (and still are in many cases) chasing a China dream (i.e China market) that simply didn’t exist.”

Would these companies lose billions instead of millions if they hadn’t been chasing China dream? You never know.

July 31, 2005 @ 7:35 am | Comment

Bing, you gotta read the China Dream mate.

July 31, 2005 @ 8:15 am | Comment

I agree – this is a smart, balanced commentary. Read in its entirety!

July 31, 2005 @ 12:00 pm | Comment

The CIA needs to stop overblowing the “China Threat” and start being honest. They are an intelligence agency, not a political group.

just my two cents.

July 31, 2005 @ 12:57 pm | Comment

I agree with Lisa. It’s a smart, smart, article, and reading it fully will save you from 10 other fluffy, or alarmist articles.

And good follow-on comment by Thomas. Everybody’s feeling their way, rather than taking a unified stand, because they don’t know how to feel about this behemoth.

August 1, 2005 @ 3:34 am | Comment

One might also mention that it’s natural we seem to have a more disorganized and diverse system because we are a pluralist liberal democracy. One could say we seem similarly “unfocused” and “fractured” with abortion, social security, or any other controversial issue in American politics.

China gets to keep all this stuff to itself. For all we know, maybe there is a large internal schism between some genuine liberal internationalists and nationalists with dreams of Pax Sinica…then again, I doubt it. Not to say that there aren’t political divides in the CCP, but you get what I mean.

August 1, 2005 @ 4:51 am | Comment

I agree that Chinese certainly know more about us than we do about them. However I think that might change. In the next ten years, thousands of American students will graduate college and join an growing group of people who have spent a semester or a month studying in China. These people mostly come from privileged backgrounds in the U.S. and will probably become movers and shakers in the future. They get the Chinese mentality and many are moving back to cash in.

August 1, 2005 @ 10:41 am | Comment

let me join in and say I too thought this was a good article and thanks for writing about it Richard.
I guess I liked it because I agreed with so much of it. the only thing I thought was wrong was for the writer to get so worked up about intellectual property.

as for the comments by Thomas: my feeling is that if the US alternates to extremes, eg “we must stop the China menace” one moment, and “we must do more business in and profit out of China” the next moment, then it will inevitably be weak on China and unable to engage/defend against/consummate with the country (whatever choice the US makes) properly.

it’s this oscillation that is perhaps damaging. surely there is a more consistent approach the US could take, even if it can’t decide now if china is a good or bad or something-in-between thing.

August 1, 2005 @ 12:39 pm | Comment

I disagree. There is not a more consistent approach because everyone has their own opinions, and in the US, they are allowed to express them at free will. Perhaps in the future, as things become clearer, there will be a more consistent approach.

In terms of China, it is far closer to the Borg mentality at the moment. The Borg have one voice (officially in this case…i am not really saying that Chinese are all zombies), and that voice control. That voice directs the Borg.

I think though that we are in agreement in general.

You will be assimilated!

August 2, 2005 @ 8:44 am | Comment

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