I have been observing U.S.-China relations for more than 70 years. During that time I have met and interacted with dozens of experts, both American and Chinese, who have dedicated their careers to the study and analysis of this vital relationship. I have also met those making policy decisions or advising the policymakers.
During most of this time, and throughout the various government administrations, I believe I had a pretty good understanding of who the experts were and who, in fact, was influencing the decision makers. Today, however, the lines between advisers and policy decisions seem to be ever more blurred and individuals claiming expertise are crawling out of the woodwork.
I have lost count of the number of “experts” I have seen quoted and giving sound bites in both Chinese and American news sources. It seems that every day there is a new alphabet of acronyms to learn as an ever increasing number of think tanks and research institutes fight for prominence in the field. How is the casual observer of U.S.-China relations supposed to know whose comments and analysis to trust? Which of the many words actually hold influence and meaning?
I have read editorials where a reporter has spent a week in China and, yet, somehow seems to now know it intimately. I’ve heard Chinese scholars claim to understand the actions of U.S. policymakers without ever having stepped foot in Washington, DC. It is easy to feign expertise when there is no one checking your credentials. It seems everyone with a pen, an opinion, and an audience is suddenly somehow an expert on arguably the most complex bilateral relationship in the world. Even after my decades of study and experience, I would be loathe to claim the level of absolute authority these charlatans assert.
So, where does that leave us, the readers and watchers and interested parties who are inundated with a cascade of opinions masquerading as fact? How are we expected to sort through it all? Unfortunately, it leaves us with the responsibility of deciding whom to trust and the job of sorting through the names and articles to find the true scholars and experts. We are tasked with asking ourselves, first, what the so-called expert’s qualifications and experience are in the field and, second, what level of influence this individual has on those actually crafting policy decisions.
Pundits aside, the lack of true China experts is even more pronounced when looking at our policymakers. Who in the current U.S. administration has a true, in-depth understanding of China? While some of the White House advisers have strong views about China, these stances are not necessarily founded on a deep knowledge of China as a country or any true insights into how China and its leaders will behave. The old China hands — who grew up in China with missionary parents, who studied the country for decades, or who spent a full foreign service career posted in Asia — are either getting older or are already gone. A comparable group of trusted China hands has failed to take its place.
This can be clearly seen in the way Chinese officials still turn to Dr. Henry Kissinger to discuss relations with the United States. China’s Vice Premier Liu He met with Kissinger when he arrived in the U.S. for trade talks earlier this month, even before his meeting with President Donald Trump. Kissinger just turned 95 and is not an official member of the U.S. administration and, yet, he is still the go-to China hand.
At least the China side is turning to someone to help them understand the U.S. perspective. Who do Americans turn to when they want to better understand China? Where are the Chinese-Americans or the friends in China who provide a sounding board for U.S. leaders, to see how the Chinese leadership and people might react to potential policies?
After the most recent trade talks between Chinese and American officials, a photo was widely circulated on Chinese social media. In it, a side-by-side comparison was made between a photo of the May 2018 talks, with gray-haired American officials across the table from their much younger Chinese counterparts, and a photo of the 1901 signing of the Boxer Protocol where the roles are reversed, with the younger Americans facing the aging Chinese. Commenters used the photos to make remarks about the changing role of the United States and China in the world.
The 1901 photo was taken at a time when the once strong Middle Kingdom was facing humiliation and fading from its prominent role in Asia while the United States and other Western nations overtook China. Parallels could easily drawn to current U.S. power being overshadowed by the growing Chinese behemoth. Another takeaway from this imagery, however, is the differing emphasis each country places on understanding the other. China’s rising leaders are studying the United States, even studying at American schools, in increasing numbers. A wider understanding of the United States, its political system, and its motivations are all valued skills for Chinese officials.
The U.S. administration, however, puts much less emphasis on China when creating their leadership teams. This is made painfully clear when you see how disorganized and disjointed the White House policy and rhetoric on China is. Whether we acknowledge or prepare for it or not, China is a rising and influential country that cannot and should not be ignored. The United States should be ensuring we have the experts in place to make sound decisions and analysis regarding China. The administration should also prioritize creating a broader and more structured plan for operating in a world where China is a large power.
Responsibility lies with the U.S. policymakers and officials to ensure their advisers are well vetted and truly are experts. We cannot expect to continue to rely on old China hands. That is simply not an option. We should be fostering new experts and making scholarship and experience in U.S.-China relations a government priority. The geopolitical and national security value of promoting education is not a new concept. During the Cold War, the National Defense Education Act provided funding to ensure U.S. education met the country’s needs in dealing with the Soviet Union. And after 9/11 there was a spike in research and study related to the Middle East.
It is time for the government to do more to encourage the growth of a new generation of China hands. When dealing with the most important and likely most complicated bilateral relationship in the world, we need true expertise and insights. These pseudo-experts clamoring for their voices to be heard only add to the noise and make it increasingly difficult for policymakers and the average reader alike to come to informed conclusions about China and its relationship with the United States.
Dr. Chi Wang is President of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation and previously served as the head of the Chinese section at the Library of Congress.