After 40 years, the US and China are still trapped in their own political bubbles

  • Robert Delaney says China’s state-controlled media environment has never been conducive to Western values, despite hopes that trade would change China. Meanwhile, in the US political bubble, few understand why Chinese accept one-party rule
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 3:01am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 3:54am

The United States marked the 40th anniversary of official bilateral relations with the People’s Republic of China with a warning to US citizens visiting the country to beware of its “arbitrary enforcement of local laws”. A day later, Chinese President Xi Jinping ordered the People’s Liberation Army to prepare for combat and war. 

The anniversary, the travel warning and Xi’s order are not directly related to each other. But the confluence of paranoia and militaristic jingoism at this moment is about as difficult to ignore as a swastika at a peace rally.

How did a trade war, multiple arrests of Chinese citizens by the US government on espionage charges and sabre-rattling become the backdrop to the 40th anniversary of bilateral relations? That is the wrong question. Here’s a better one: how did two countries with political systems that are irreconcilable on just about every level become interconnected so quickly?

And the answer is: the US’ idealism, in hindsight, was unreasonable. The 40-year bilateral relationship was mostly a geopolitical game that China played brilliantly and won. And no one can take that victory away from Beijing without upsetting global peace and security.

In 2005, when then US deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick asserted that China’s integration into the global economy would make Beijing a “responsible stakeholder”, he failed to take into account the depth of the ideological chasm between the two countries.

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Those who welcomed China into the World Trade Organisation in 2001, including former US trade representative Charlene Barshefsky, assumed that the wealth created by newly established trade and investment flows would incline Beijing to adopt an industrial policy that was blind to national origin.

Barshefsky even posited that embracing China and cutting the country some slack as it transformed its bloated and inefficient state-owned sector would also usher in the rule of law and greater respect for individual political rights.

But the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 was born of hatred of the US and all the Western countries that exploited China for more than a century. The Communist Party leveraged this hatred in extreme ways for more than two decades, and the China-US rapprochement didn’t completely stop it. China’s state-controlled media has since then only adjusted the flow of invective as a political tool.

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This created an environment that was never going to welcome protection for Western companies or respect for Western values.

French thinker Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “habitus” – a set of dispositions that incline agents to act and react in certain ways – helps explain how the benefits of more trade and investment would not overcome resistance to the outcomes that Zoellick and Barshefsky thought they were engineering.

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Bourdieu explicates in his landmark work Language and Symbolic Power how ideological inclinations become physiologically reflexive through linguistic tendencies and thought patterns. In particular, the idea of “political habitus”, which defines “the universe of what can be said and thought politically”, helps explain what compels an individual, and by extension an entire political culture, to cling to an ideology.

Theoretically, this works both ways. It is difficult within the American political habitus, for example, to understand why 1.4 billion Chinese people accept a system in which, as Xi put it last month, “the party leads everything”. Many in the US ideological bubble discount the fact that the Communist Party pulled hundreds of millions of Chinese out of extreme poverty, even as US income inequality has steadily increased.

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Americans might be frustrated by how a fight over US$5 billion for a border wall has shut down a portion of their government, but few may see how, in the eyes of many Chinese, this reveals a fundamental weakness in American-style democracy.

But China’s heavily censored media, on top of an educational system that ensures the teaching of what is in the Communist Party’s interests, strengthens the effect of the Chinese political habitus more than the US media and academia support the US political habitus.

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This is not to say that bilateral accommodation is impossible or that a “hot war” between China and the US is inevitable. There are varying views within the highest levels of China’s government about whether it should broker a deal with the US.

It’s just that those advocating such a move can’t do so in public. And until they can, the 40th anniversary of Sino-US relations might coincide with their undoing.

Robert Delaney is the Post's US bureau chief