China in the Times to Come

How can Americans understand China as it is — not as politicians and pundits prefer to depict it?

May 21, 2007

How can Americans understand China as it is — not as politicians and pundits prefer to depict it?

China had a couple of bad centuries, but it is back, and it is on the way to the center of global affairs. As China restores itself to wealth and power, its leaders display a resolute confidence in the future.

China in the Times to Come
by Chas W. Freeman
Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4

But they are also mindful that no one has ever before tried to govern a republic of 1.3 billion people in a territorial expanse the size of a continent. And they are humbled by the task of transforming so many ambitious individuals and obstreperous regions into a harmonious but innovative whole. What are the implications of China’s success or failure at this task?

The United States came into being as the age of Atlantic dominance and the Industrial Revolution began to eclipse China and India. Americans therefore have no experience with the more normal condition of human history, in which Asia was for millennia the global center of gravity.

One way or another, in the 21st century, China and its neighbors will determine what the resumption of Asian leadership in more and more fields of human endeavor means for an emerging post-industrial world, including for Americans.

Despite the challenges of doing so, we have ample reason to try to understand China and other Asian countries as they are, not as our politicians and pundits prefer to depict them.

At the birth of the United States of America, what some then called “the Celestial Kingdom” loomed large in our imagination. At that time, China was well over a third — nearly two-fifths — of the world economy.

America’s forefathers were soon enough obsessed with breaking past their former British rulers into a direct relationship with the Chinese economy.

They knew little of China itself, but they had inhaled the European idealization of it as the most ethically advanced and orderly, as well as the most populous, realm on the planet.

As they designed the U.S. system of government, the brilliant political engineers who were America’s founding fathers drew on Leibniz’ and Voltaire’s musings on the secrets of the good society China exemplified to its Jesuit admirers.

And they took note of Montesquieu’s condemnation of China’s reliance on civility and the rule of manners rather than the rule of law to assure public tranquility. Of course, none of them really knew what they were talking about.

China has now once again captured the American imagination. And, as always, it is a place where ignorance remains no impediment to confident prediction. So it is not surprising that politically expedient assertions about China have become as American as fortune cookies, and as sententiously meretricious as the prophecies and advice these encase.

Almost every ideological faction and interest group in our country now asserts its own vision of the People’s Republic. Some do so out of fascination, others out of dread. Many seek to use China to prove their point in our political process or to raise money for the cause to which they are committed.

Sometimes, for example, in the matters of Taiwan, Tibet or the democracy movement in Hong Kong, Americans are enlisted by lobbyists acting on behalf of separatist or dissident movements in greater China. Those who wish the United States to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy can always find one worthy of our attention there. China has become a screen on which Americans can project both our reveries and our nightmares.

Some points of discord can’t be helped. The fact that the majority of Chinese are agnostics has always been an affront to American Protestant evangelists. Chinese, for their part, have bad memories of gunboats escorting foreign missionaries up their great rivers and of tens of millions of deaths from rebellions instigated by cult religions like the Taiping version of Christianity.

Some Americans will always stand with his Holiness, the Dalai Lama, against Chinese sovereignty in Tibet. Meanwhile, Chinese proponents of Tibetan independence are rarer than British advocates of discarding Wales. China’s family planning practices are anathema to the abortion-obsessed religious right in the United States.

The Chinese, for their part, explain that if the United States had their ratio of arable land to population, as many as three billion people would live in the United States — and Americans might well see population control as a public policy imperative too. And so forth.

These and other tensions deriving from things that China rightly or wrongly regards as its own business rather than ours, rest on honest differences between Americans and Chinese.

This will not be resolved unless we or they change. Neither side is likely to do that anytime soon. So if we are to cooperate to mutual advantage in less contentious arenas, we must manage the bilateral tensions that differing moral judgments about more controversial matters make inevitable.

To do this, we must not only understand why each side feels as it does, but what it is and isn’t actually doing and what the real — as opposed to the imagined — consequences of what it is doing are likely to be.

Such insights are even more clearly essential when it comes to elements of our bilateral and global interactions that affect our vital interests in economic prosperity, national well-being or security. Here the stakes are considerably higher for both societies.