The drastic deterioration of China-U.S. relations in recent years has led to unprecedented cynicism, fear, and disappointment among students, researchers, and scholars on both sides of the Pacific. In America, out of growing concern that the prevailing “outcompete-and-beat-China” mindset in the White House was making U.S. foreign policy “suffer” from an unhealthy focus on China, the scholar Jessica Chen Weiss spent her sabbatical year as a senior adviser on the policy-planning staff at the U.S. Department of State in the Biden administration, hoping to help shape the U.S. policy toward China.
In August, Weiss, a young professor of government policy at Cornell University, published her concerns in a Foreign Affairs article detailing her worries that “every [U.S.] interaction with China is now seen as a zero-sum game.” The article, “The China Trap,” catapulted her to the front ranks of the growing number of public intellectuals who have emerged “as a kind of loyal and measured opposition to a rare case of bipartisan consensus in Washington – that China must be countered at all costs.”
In sharp contrast, in China today, in an atmosphere increasingly filled with anti-American sentiment and hypernationalism, a widely respected IR professor with over three decades of expertise specializing in the China-U.S. bilateral relationship has been smeared as Qinmeipai, or a “pro-U.S. element.” Professor Shi Yinhong stands accused by the country’s hawkish intelligentsia of using his writings to appease the United States and undermine the worldview of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
What is ominous and scary about the targeting of Shi is that xenophobic anti-Americanism is no longer the exclusive domain of the young Chinese who have been particularly chosen by President Xi Jinping as the focus of “enhanced ideological indoctrination” to challenge and defeat the U.S.-led anti-China forces supposedly dispatched especially to subvert CCP rule. A nationwide survey of 17,000 college students conducted in the spring of 2020 found that the recent tensions between China and the United States have drastically enhanced interest in geopolitics among Chinese college students and promoted growing nationalistic sentiment.
The Case of Shi Yinhong
Shi Yinhong has long been engaged in research on IR theory, the history of international relations and politics, contemporary IR history and strategic affairs history, and the foreign policies of the United States and China. Besides being a famous international political scientist, and a globally respected expert in the history of international relations, Shi has been a top-grade professor at the School of International Relations at Beijing’s Renmin University; an adjunct professor at the School of Politics and International Relations at Tongji University in Shanghai; a counselor of China’s State Council; and chairperson of the China-America History Research Society.
In spite of these accolades, last Monday, in an article specifically targeting Shi, another well-known academic specializing in China-U.S. relations lambasted the Renmin University professor. “As the world is witnessing severe changes unseen in a century, several Chinese scholars have offered invaluable advice and suggestions based on their expertise. Many of these concrete inputs have effectively contributed to the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” wrote Liu Changming, a professor at the School of Marxism, Shandong University of Finance and Economics, China.
“However, the same can’t be said of a few scholars of great repute,” Liu continued. “For example, Professor S of one of the most prestigious universities in the capital has all these years not only served to undermine the foreign policy of China and the worldview of the CCP but has been rather consistent in his writings to appease the U.S. government.”
Continuing to use the unsubtle pseudonym “Professor S,” Liu claimed that Shi Yinghong’s “ultimate goal has been to weaken the country and contribute to creating conditions to subjugate China to the United States.”
The Anti-American Wave in China in the 1990s
It is pertinent to remember, even before Xi was elevated from an unassuming provincial-level leadership role into a coveted position on the CCP Central Committee in the late 1990s, academics within China and in the West had noted a reemergence of anti-American sentiment among the Chinese amid the drastic expansion and strengthening of economic and cultural ties between the two nations. According to Hongshan Li, the increasingly strong anti-American feelings were first revealed in public polls conducted by Chinese media outlets in 1994, then articulated through a large number of popular books published in 1996, and culminated in mass demonstrations held in major Chinese cities after the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in May 1999.
In the year 1996 alone, six book-length studies were published in Chinese in mainland China, including the most popular one called《中国可以说不》 (“China Can Say No”) by Song Qiang et al.
The surge of anti-American sentiment, especially among young Chinese students and scholars, remained strong throughout the 1990s and lasted into the early years of the 21st century, posing a major threat to the development of strong and healthy bilateral relations. Although the unprecedented strong anti-Americanism wave aroused great attention from media, diplomats, and scholars, as observed by scholars including Hongshan Li, most existing reports and studies lacked a deep historical and cultural perspective. For example, an earlier study by David Shambaugh in the late 1980s, claiming that anti-American movements in China during the Cold War were “orchestrated by the government to serve political purposes” had been dismissed by critics as “oversimplifying reality.”
Xi’s Anti-American Paranoia
In present-day China, on the other hand, the current resurgence of anti-American sentiment is largely attributable to the CCP, especially under the leadership of Xi, deliberately adopting an attitude of hostility toward the West in its political propaganda for domestic consumption.
Last May, Reuters columnist Pete Sweeney wrote an article arguing that Xi’s anti-Americanism was “blinding Chinese policy.” According to Sweeney, damaging policies from the crackdown on tech firm Didi Global to China “endorsing Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine” are seen in Beijing as “necessary to prevent Washington from ‘splitting China into puzzle pieces.’” Even the drastic zero-COVID policy was motivated by this paranoia, Sweeney wrote: “Officials are willing to risk a recession to eliminate COVID-19 within the borders to show up American epidemiological incompetence.”
A Global Times poll in April this year claimed over 90 percent of people believe America to be a bully and hegemon, and that the U.S. is pursuing a coercive policy towards Beijing. Some U.S. academics dismissed the results, arguing that in China, where public discourse is tightly controlled and people are well-accustomed to giving “politically correct” answers, polls are not representative of what people really think. Instead, poll results are more a reflection on the CCP’s preferred propaganda line.
According to Chen Dean, who teaches political science at Ramapo College in New Jersey, the CPP “has deliberately adopted an attitude of hostility toward the West in its political propaganda for domestic consumption, stirring up strong nationalism and xenophobia, and making young people feel anti-American, with the aim of diverting young people’s sense of powerlessness about the future.”
Not content to drown out other views, however, hyper-nationalists are now attacking anyone that dares to diverge from the CCP line – especially when it comes to China-U.S. relations.
Curiously, the article attacking Shi Yinhong does not single out any specific piece of writing, and instead sweepingly alleges the professor to be generally anti-China and pro-America. However, according to a section of the Chinese media, Shi’s recent comments in the Global Times were seen contradicting Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s stern warning to the United States “to responsibly stop feeding into ‘gray rhino’ of Taiwan conflict.”
Wang is supposed to have made the comment a day before meeting his U.S. counterpart on the sidelines of the 77th U.N. General Assembly in September this year. While Wang’s use of the phrase “gray rhino” was interpreted by some in Beijing as meaning the worst-case scenario – a military conflict – was “highly likely.” At the time, Shi had commented that “the U.S. wanted to test China’s attitude on the Russia-Ukraine crisis through the Friday Wang-Blinken meeting and make sure China will not support Russian operations,” in Global Times’ phrasing.
The vicious smearing of Shi is so far not linked to a state-sponsored or party-backed coercive plan to target those accused of defending the U.S. design to contain China. Yet the episode encapsulates what U.S. academic Weiss pithily observed in another article, that “Chinese people today are more hawkish in their foreign policy beliefs than older generations.”
Under these circumstances, it is impossible to imagine a parallel to Weiss – someone vocally and publicly cautioning her government against an overly confrontational approach to China-U.S. relations – emerging on a Chinese campus.