Reflections on China

China and the United States are poised to clash, unless a better mutual understanding is reached once they overcome their rigidities and prejudices. 

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In my previous article, written on the eve of the 2020 American elections, I spoke of the increasing rivalry between two super-powers –China and the US—and said that they were both “in transition.”  I have little to add to my diagnosis of the American transition.  The election results indicate that the country’s political system is in transition from its traditional liberal democracy to a configuration for which we do not have a name yet, but which is characterized by a tense game between a weakened democratic coalition and a popular but anti-democratic party/movement –in Max Weber’s phrase “a plebiscitary leader democracy” (Plebiszitaren Fuhrer Democratie), or in Viktor Orban’s words, an “illiberal democracy.”

In the last four years, the rivalry between America and China has sharpened, and tensions have increased.  A change in the American executive will modulate, but by no means eliminate, the conflict, at the doorstep of a new Cold War, without necessarily entering there.

In very general terms, and paying careful attention to the history of the two powers, I venture to say –paraphrasing the American political scientist Lucien Pye—that it is a contest between “a civilization pretending to be a nation-state” [1](China) and a nation-state pretending to be a civilization (the US). 

American civilization is modern and dynamic, though young and superficial; Chinese civilization is ancient and resilient.  The American nation state is a flexible invention that has combined a democracy with a republic –a successful experiment during 244 years, unique at its inception and powerful as an inspiration to other nation states.  That experiment is under severe strain today.  The Chinese state, in opposition to Chinese civilization, is much more recent, and still very much a work in progress.  It combines an authoritarian republic –Platonic except for the corruption—with contempt for democracy. Since 1990, it has succeeded in blending a single-party polity with a capitalist economy.

Each of these two super powers tends to misunderstand the other.  The Chinese leadership (whether collegiate or personalistic) can be flexible and experimental but adamant when it comes to national elections and the prospect of competition between parties. It fears chaos and national disintegration, that is, the potential undoing of a nation state that is more an internal empire than a compact unified society.  The political elite holds to power tenaciously determined to improve the standard of living of the population but keeping it under strict surveillance to avoid even the slightest hint of independent thought and organization.  From this perspective, Chinese elites tend to view American-style democracy as anarchic and inefficient –a recipe for chaos and potential decadence.  In doing so, they neglect to appreciate the creativity and dynamism of an open society, both as a technological and as a continuous social experiment.

On the other side of the divide, Americans tend to view a contest with China in the mold of the old Cold War between the US and the defunct Soviet Union that is a struggle between “communism and freedom.” They neglect to consider the argument that Chinese, as opposed to Soviet, communism is a vehicle for the revival of the pride and centrality of an ancient empire –the (in their eyes) eternal “kingdom in the middle” or central state. The goal of the CCP is to revive Chinese civilization. The humiliation of China by the West and its hegemony is hurtful but nevertheless only a 200-year-long aberration in a longer history of several millennia.  In the words of Yan Xuetong:

“The Rise of China is granted by nature.  In the last 2000 years China has enjoyed superpower status several times . . . Even as recently as 1820, just 20 years before the Opium War, China accounted for 30% of world GDP.  This history of superpower status makes the Chinese people very proud of their country on the one hand, and on the other very sad about China’s current international status.  They believe China’s decline to be a historical mistake which they should correct.”  (The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes[2]).

The double misunderstanding between a rising power and an established but declining one entails the risk of war.  This situation is a logical consequence of the fact that the rivals are both in transition –one up, one down—and has come to be known (an popularized) under the label “The Thucydides Trap.”  My own opinion is that the trap is not inevitable. Whereas transitions and misunderstanding can lead straight into it, knowledge of the trap may help to avoid falling into it.

Twenty five centuries ago, even before the Greek historian described the trap into which Sparta and Athens allowed themselves to fall, the Chinese strategist Sun Tzu (The Art of War) formulated his own version of what could happen in three scenarios:

So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.

It is in this spirit that Henry Kissinger has declared being “troubled” by the erratic behavior of the Trump administration (emblematic of the American transition) vis-à-vis China.  In his view, the United States has launched a Cold War without a strategy.  Its so-called “transactional” style can be translated into a more colorful and blunt expression: “Tit for Tat”, which is a recipe for bumbling into war.[3]

At this juncture, it is important to remember a central demographic fact and its geopolitical corollary: the return of Asia, and not just China, to the center of planetary politics is irreversible.  Its 6 billion inhabitants are increasingly able to have their views considered and their voices heard, whether through elected or self-appointed representatives, and this in the face of a United States that represents only 4% of the world population.  Mutual accommodation between the two “transitions” (US and China) is necessary, and is not beyond reach.[4]

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought into stark relief both the virtues and the faults of such different societies and political systems.[5]  A win-win situation depends not only on diplomatic concessions, but especially on the willingness to learn from each other, as the rest of the world watches. 

On the one hand, the United States (and the West more generally) has quite a bit to learn from China’s capacity for central decision making and rapid coordinated mobilization.  On the other hand, China has quite a bit to learn from the capacity for innovation and the not often visible advantages (if only in terms of innovation) of a more open and accountable society.  The asymmetry between these two blocs is both evident and correctible.  The Chinese pyramidal power structure was ineffective or late in recognizing the emergence of a serious health threat, but very effective in containing it once it spread.  Public health management is honored in that system, but prevention and open discussion are lacking.  Western societies (when properly run) are capable of earlier prevention and knowledge but deficient or late in their capacity for coordinated and central mobilization.  Private and/or uncoordinated health services are woefully inadequate.  In short: less state is needed in one, more state in the other.   

With these elementary but difficult corrections in their internal “transitions”, the superpowers together could guide the rest of the world in three areas: confidence, assistance, and leadership.  My use of “could” instead of “can” means that there is still a long march ahead towards that goal.


[1] https://www2.gwu.edu/~sigur/assets/docs/scap/SCAP1-Pye.pdf

[2] Journal of Contemporary China Volume 10, 2001 – Issue 26

[3] See Henry A. Kissinger, “Avoiding a U.S.-China Cold War,” The Washington Post. 14 January 2011.

[4] A useful discussion can be found in https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OfYGVDzJ2hM&feature=emb_rel_end

[5] There is an interesting discussion of comparative reactions to the pandemic in https://www.csis.org/events/online-event-chinese-politics-wake-covid-19-leadership-dynamics-and-political-prospects

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