Trans-Pacific View

New Potus Brief: Getting US-China Relations Right

Recent Features

Trans-Pacific View

New Potus Brief: Getting US-China Relations Right

Insights from Kaiser Kuo

New Potus Brief: Getting US-China Relations Right
Credit: meet the media Guru

The Rebalance author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into the U.S. rebalance to Asia.  This conversation with Kaiser Kuo – founder of Sinica Podcast, most recently director of international communications at Chinese search engine, former member of metal rock band Tang Dynasty and director of digital strategy (China) for Ogilvy & Mather, and columnist of foreigner-focused English-language magazine The Beijinger from 2001-2011 – is the 50th in “The Rebalance Insight Series.”

As a seminal Chinese American voice in the U.S.-China dialogue for 20 years in China, what three observations would you offer regarding China’s emerging global role and influence?  

1)  Beijing isn’t interested in pushing its developmental model. China has been far more of a rule-taker than it has been a rule-maker, and has conformed to the extant international order to a far greater extent than it has actually reshaped it. China has its own exceptionalism, sure, but it’s quite the opposite of its American counterpart. Where American exceptionalism tends to see the values and institutions of the U.S. as universal and appropriate, ultimately, for all of humanity, China tends to view its own values and institutions as unique and only really applicable to China. The two forms of exceptionalism may be equally arrogant. But there is no “Beijing Consensus” that the PRC is keen to push out into the world.

2) Of late some analyses of China insist on couching Beijing’s intentions in terms of revival of the imperial “tribute system,” or assume that a latent Chinese belief in China as the natural center of human civilization will somehow shape Chinese foreign policy as China’s relative power rises. These are unhelpful and misleading, and ignore the tremendous extent to which China has accepted a place among Westphalian nation-states, has internalized that thinking, and has played according to those rules. That said, in China’s own backyard Beijing will likely continue to push for primacy, and will bristle at interference. It’s important to remember that the international order to which I’ve suggested China has largely acquiesced was created in a time of Chinese weakness. This doesn’t mean we can expect aggressive Chinese revanchism, but Beijing will continue to be very prickly about the sovereignty of borders it claims.

3) 2008 saw the end of the age of taoguang yanghui – Deng’s maxim, translated often as “keep a low profile and bide your time.” From the perspective of American national interest, from the perspective of anyone who wants to see expansion of civil society and the public sphere in China, or from the perspective of many of China’s Southeast Asian neighbors, China is not off to an encouraging start. Beijing’s initial confidence and buoyancy in this new period has waned appreciably since. Much of Beijing’s behavior is better understood, I believe, as defensive – stemming not so much from newfound confidence as from a lack of it, and from a sense of crisis. I see much of China’s “New Truculence,” as I’ve taken to calling it, as essentially reactive. Beijing believes that liberal interventionism of the sort it believes brought about the color revolutions and the Arab Spring is very much on the march, and that the unstated goal of American policy is regime change in China. That is certainly not the dominant view, even among relatively hawkish people in Washington. And Beijing greatly exaggerates the extent to which there’s coordination among disparate American institutions. The White House is not coordinating press coverage, human rights advocacy groups and other NGOs, big Internet companies, and so on. But it’s easy to see, from Beijing’s windows, how there might appear to be coordination.

What worries and encourages you most about the future of bilateral relations?

What worries me most is the apparent global rise in nativism, which we’ve seen in several countries of Europe, including most recently in the U.K. with the Brexit vote; in the U.S. with the rise of Donald Trump; and in many parts of Asia, to include China. The deleterious effect this is already having on bilateral relations is huge. Beijing has shown a distressing willingness to dance with that devil nationalism, and to deploy the “rally-round-the-flag” effect and fan the embers of national indignation whenever it suits. In the U.S. too – and not just among Trump supporters, but even among more traditionally liberal segments of the American polity – there’s a new confidence in the universality of American values that is no longer tempered, as it once was among liberals, by cultural relativism. Instead of recognizing our own values and institutions as highly contingent, the product of very specific historical experiences not shared by many countries outside the developed West, we’ve embraced a rigidly teleological view of history. Unfortunately the forces of nativism and absolutist thinking are amplified by digital media. We no longer read from the same corpus, no longer agree on basic facts, and this has rapidly eroded common ground and created dangerous fragmentation and tribalism.

What encourages me most about the future of bilateral relations is physical integration: Well over 300,000 Chinese students are now studying the U.S., and hundreds of thousands of Americans are studying, working, and living in China. In my own observations, the scales tend to fall from the eyes of Chinese living in the U.S., and that they come to a more realistic picture of both – less idealization and less unwarranted demonization. The same, I think, can be said for Americans of my acquaintance living in China. I’m especially encouraged by the new generation of China-watchers I’ve met living in Beijing: Younger people who have come of age during the post-Cold War era, with terrific language skills, a solid grasp of history, and a strong sense of empathy.

How are Chinese nationalism and global digital culture shaping the aspirations of China’s youth and middle class?  

Chinese Internet users – now half the population of the country – are not easily classified. In my years involved in the Chinese Internet I’ve seen three basic types emerge in popular commentary about them: They’re either apolitical pleasure-seekers whose time online is mainly spent with shallow entertainments or shopping; or they’re latent democrats who thirst for freedom and long to break free of the chains of online censorship; or they’re strident, angry nationalists – the fenqing –  who will overwhelm online comments sections with their patriotic ardor or will organize DDoS [Distributed Denial of Service] attacks against websites that offend the honor of the motherland. We need to understand that the “average” Chinese Internet user, if such a thing exists, is a mix of all three: An individual may spend lots of time playing online games, or watching cat videos on Youku, but she may chafe when a video she wants to see gets taken down and casually jump the Great Firewall to watch it on YouTube – only to encounter, say, a group of Taiwan-independence types in the comments section, and may spend the next few hours sparring indignantly with them. To assume, as the more techno-utopian types did early on, that the Internet would prove to be a force for liberalization –  whether at an individual level or for the polity overall – was sadly quite mistaken. In my experience many Chinese, even those of a fundamentally liberal disposition, get very defensive on encountering online criticism of China, even if that criticism is limited to the leadership, or the Communist Party.

The Chinese Internet is becoming increasingly separate from the Internet dominated by American companies and believed (correctly or not) to be “the” Internet. Part of this is because of the Great Firewall and other policies. Much more of it is because of linguistic and ethnic proximity, as one researcher named Harsh Taneja has shown in papers he’s written. And as indigenous Chinese Internet companies offer more and more compelling services within China, catering to the specific preferences, habits and tastes of Chinese users, the separateness only looks to be more and more total. So-called “global digital culture” will I fear become less relevant to China. China’s digital culture will need to be understood increasingly on its own terms.

Explain the strengths and weaknesses of Beijing and Washington in communicating their country’s identity and intentions.

A veteran China-watcher – John Holden, former president of the National Committee on U.S.–China Relations – once told me that the U.S. fails to understand China because of China’s opacity, and the very closed nature of its leadership. Conversely, China has a great deal of difficulty understanding the U.S. for the opposite reason: Because of the very openness and pluralism of the United States. Beijing has trouble deciding which voice carries weight: Is it the White House? The State Department? Congress? The Pentagon? I think there’s a lot of truth to what he said.

Beijing seems to see coordination among state- and non-state actors like NGOs, Internet companies, and the American media where in fact there may be none at all. They see the Pivot, support for Japan on the Diaoyu/Senkaku conflict, support for Manilla on the Scarborough Shoals, the Indian nuclear deal, the push for global Internet freedom, pressure by NGOs on human rights, and the New York Times editorial line as somehow coordinated – all part of a grand plan to contain China’s rise. Americans might smile at this and dismiss it as paranoia, but better security dilemma sensibility wouldn’t hurt: Washington needs a better sense of how its actions, and even the actions of totally independent institutions, are perceived in China, and how that perception impacts Beijing’s behavior. The U.S. might endeavor to communicate better just how separate and uncoordinated these things actually are – that they come spontaneously from shared values in an open, pluralistic society, and not out of deliberate strategy. My sense is that the more international (read: U.S.) pressure China feels itself to be under, the more repressive its internal policies tend to be, and the more belligerent its posture in foreign policy. There’s good reason to convince Beijing that it isn’t in America’s sights – that we don’t want to “pull an Arab Spring.” That said, the real onus is on Beijing, to come to clearer understanding of American intentions. Problem is, the pessimistic and paranoid view that sees it all as American machinations, has its political uses within China.

Why is it crucial for the next U.S. president to get U.S.-China relations right?

The simple answer is that these are two frightfully well-armed nuclear powers, and the cost of actual conflagration is absolutely staggering, just unthinkable. Likely trouble spots are few right now – really, only the South and East China Seas – but in the next four or eight years that number may well grow. The possibility of a severe economic dislocation in China raises the specter of political instability, which might have disastrous consequences that would be felt globally. The next U.S. president will need to make U.S.–China relations a real priority and “get it right” so that we have some hope of tackling, together, the very biggest issues facing this planet, not least of which is anthropogenic global warming. Without the world’s two largest greenhouse gas emitters working together, I truly fear the worst.