How America's China watchers misread China
Robert Lawrence Kuhn says analysts who see Beijing conducting a more muscular foreign policy and curbing freedoms at home have failed to account for the steps being taken to improve the rule of law
President Xi Jinping's state visit to Washington came at a time when most China experts in America had turned pessimistic about relations. Worse, some had come to believe that it has been all along an illusion to expect US-China relations to improve fundamentally, and that US policy on China must adopt more strategies bordering on "containment".
Such pessimism was as pernicious as it was pervasive. If we want a "new kind of major power relationship", as Xi has called for, not a new kind of cold war, we should start by understanding why America's China experts had turned negative.
Don't blame American politics. Although political campaigns engender tiresome China-bashing, leading analysts are not much swayed by political rhetoric. Don't blame "foreign media conspiracies". Free media attacks all abuses of power; they harbour no hatred for China.
Here's what did happen. The general perception among foreign China watchers was that China had become both more aggressive abroad (for example, the South China Sea and cybertheft) and more autocratic at home, regressing with respect to political reform and civil society, fostering a kind of recidivistic Maoism, with focus, of late, on "hostile foreign forces", stricter regulation of the media and non-governmental organisations, and the detention of human rights lawyers.
It is this combination that counts - greater assertiveness internationally and fewer freedoms domestically. It is critics' misconstruing of this confluence that led them to misjudge Xi's intent and China's direction. While no one was equating China today with the Soviet Union of yesteryear, there were worrisome moves in this counterproductive direction. Correct understanding lies in counterexamples.
Internationally, critics suspect China's "belt and road" initiative to be Beijing's reach for regional dominance (about 60 countries). Yet, building infrastructure in developing countries facilitates global stability, and because these countries are often not very stable, projects will be challenging and risky. In addition, China's economy depends on trade, which depends on the international order, and so to argue that China seeks to disrupt the international order makes no sense.
Domestically, I give two counterexamples concerning the rule of law, the third of Xi's "Four Comprehensives", his overarching political philosophy. While critics focus on isolated cases, recent judicial reforms are a milestone. The power to control the court system - from financing the judiciary to selecting judges - is being transferred from local levels to provincial levels and judges are being held to higher standards. The objective is to prevent interference in the fair adjudication of cases and administration of justice.
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Another advance in civil society, underappreciated in Western media, is China's absolute prohibition, backed by senior leaders and finalised recently, against using executed prisoners as a source of organs for transplants. (The commercial trafficking in human organs had become an immoral "industry" run by powerful interest groups.)
Xi's focus on rule of law undermines the false narrative that China is regressing domestically. By not appreciating major reforms, critics misinterpret or exaggerate what they do see.
It is good that Xi and President Barack Obama put their personal credibility on the line to improve Sino-US relations. Their agreement that neither country will conduct economic espionage in cyberspace addresses (but does not resolve) a prime generator of bilateral tension.
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All issues were reviewed: on contentious matters of maritime sovereignty, I find their open disagreement more promising than artificial harmony or face-saving silence.
Most important is economic stability and growth. Prosperity will be enjoyed by both China and the US - or enjoyed by neither. With their economies intertwined, it is simply impossible for one country to succeed and the other not to. Other common issues include controlling climate change, stopping regional wars, fighting terrorism and organised crime, preventing pandemics, promoting alternative energy and green technologies, and increasing tourism and student exchanges.
I don't think the two presidents interpret a "new kind of major power relations" in quite the same way, but the summit seems to have achieved its goals.
Now comes the hard part. How to build China-US relations? In three words: transparency, communications, inter- dependencies - high-level visits, military exchanges, scientific cooperation, the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, mutual investments (the bilateral investment treaty is crucial), and people-to-people contacts.
In today's world, the real conflict is not between opposing political systems but, rather, between, on the one hand, the forces of modernity, competence and development, and, on the other, the forces of ignorance, exploitation and oppression. That's the reason that, despite their differences, China and the US must make the relationship work.
Robert Lawrence Kuhn is a public intellectual, political/economics commentator, and international corporate strategist. He is the host of Closer To China with R. L. Kuhn on CCTV News