Xi Jinping shakes hands with Joe Biden in 2013. Photo: AP
Martin Powers
Martin Powers

Could Biden’s plan for unity in the US help patch relations with China?

  • Ties between Beijing and Washington frayed under Trump, but Biden’s goals and ideals are in line with some China policies in unexpected ways
  • ‘Lowering the temperature’ with China will not eliminate rivalry, but there is a basis for common cause with deep historical roots as well as contemporary relevance
It’s hardly news that relations between the United States and China deteriorated rapidly during the final months of Donald Trump’s tenure as president. As detailed in Political Science Quarterly, research shows that when the leaders of one nation acquire a negative image of another, that image tends to stick, and relations can get worse as each side exaggerates the threat posed by the other.

Beyond that, China’s political and economic power have begun to rival that of the US. Between close rivals, empathy slackens, along with deliberative thinking. Each side creates mythologies demonising the other as embodying values incompatible with its own.

In the US, for instance, we learn from an early age that democracy harks back to the Greeks, while China has always been despotic. American statesman and former president Thomas Jefferson flatly rejected the first claim, while the second is demonstrably false, but the myth continues to intensify already deep divisions between the US and China.

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Adopting a similar us-versus-them posture, the Trump administration managed to divide the American electorate along racial lines. In response, President Joe Biden’s inaugural address called out the “racism, nativism, fear, and demonisation [that] have long torn [Americans] apart.”

Racism has contributed to the deeply divided condition of the US electorate, but we should not forget that the Trump administration’s foreign policy was as racially charged as its domestic policies – so the xenophobia dividing America today also poses obstacles for US-China cooperation on global challenges.


As Biden enters White House, world leaders express ‘relief’ and welcome ‘friend’ and ‘mate’ back

As Biden enters White House, world leaders express ‘relief’ and welcome ‘friend’ and ‘mate’ back


Biden wants to moderate the divisions Trump magnified, so his inaugural address focused on unity. What he has in mind was nicely summarised by Merrick Garland, his pick for attorney general: “The essence of the rule of law is that like cases are treated alike. That there not be one rule for Democrats, and another for Republicans, one rule for friends, another for foes, one rule for the powerful, another for the powerless.”


In other words, unifying the nation means equality, treating similar cases the same. That requires equality before the facts, the common denominator necessary for unity.

Putting aside popular myth, we find that China, past and present, is no stranger to these ideals. Back in the 9th century, the statesman Bai Juyi wrote a policy document on laws that stated: “If laws are applied strictly to the poor but loosely to the rich, then they are not equal. If laws are enforced for people distant from power, but are not enforced for those near to power, then they are not equal … Do you think (laws) can be carried out successfully if they are not applied equally?”

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The sense of Garland’s comments scarcely differs from Bai’s. But that was imperial China; what about China today? Let’s look again at Biden’s address: “[We must] show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”

This is close in sentiment to Beijing’s slogan that it’s better to discuss and negotiate than force agreement to one man’s dogma. That slogan goes back to Confucius, who held that rational people discuss and negotiate while thugs try to subordinate everyone to their own will.

The slogan’s intent was to separate the China of today from the early days when everyone had to conform rigidly to “Maoist thought”. As in Biden’s address, that sentiment opens the door to a measure of negotiation, rather than forcing conformity or conflict.

Thomas Jefferson identified equality and the people’s happiness as the only legitimate objects of government. Biden’s address adopted this ideal: “We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome this deadly virus. We can reward work, rebuild the middle class, and make health care secure for all.”


This list comes close to one you’ll find in a classical Chinese text dating back more than two millennia – one which in recent years Beijing has adopted as policy. Like the philosopher Mencius, that work says successful government must shape policy to fit “the will of the people”.

Some of the lines the Communist Party has singled out include: “The people shun poverty and contempt; I [those in government] will enrich them and give them respect. The people shun danger and uncertainty; I will make them safe and they will have peace. The people shun death and destruction; I will nourish and care for them.”

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China’s leadership likes to cite that text when pointing to successes in fostering national prosperity, expanding the middle class, or protecting citizens from Covid-19. To this extent, Biden’s policy goals are compatible with China’s. His plan for managing the virus is largely the same as China’s. It’s hard to find any sharp, unbridgeable line between East and West as regards the aims of policy. The means of arriving at policy, to be sure, will differ.


It would be a mistake to attribute these parallels to happenstance. Any modern government responsible to its people is likely to adopt a similar set of ideas, but the kinship is closer than that. Broadly speaking, Biden’s political ideals sound Jeffersonian. Jefferson’s library at Monticello – his plantation in the state of Virginia – contained a book with translations of Mencius, as well as scores of Chinese law and policy documents advocating the same ideals you’ll find in that text admired in Beijing.

Jefferson also advocated policies that were being implemented nowhere at that time outside China. Suffice to say, that democracy/despotism story we learned as children fails a fact check.


No one imagines that recognising common cause with China would eliminate rivalry, much less genuine differences of opinion, but the prospect for improvement might look better if negotiations were based on a common respect for facts and equality.

Some acknowledge that China’s membership in the World Trade Organization has brought its policies more into line with international standards, but discrepancies persist. If China wants full equality in accessing the global economic community, it will need to share a common set of standards.

On the US side, respecting equality would mean discarding xenophobic stereotypes as a tool of diplomacy. Trump distorted the facts regarding China’s response to Covid-19, playing to the “devious Oriental” stereotype. This enabled him to provoke conflict between liberals and conservatives over mask usage, as well as arouse US-China antagonism on several fronts. Alex Lo, in the pages of the Post, has detailed the factual inaccuracies communicated to US audiences via Trump and his media supporters. Tactics like these rely on racial fantasy, not facts; their only purpose is fomenting division.

I doubt that Biden ever intended his address to aid in reducing US-China tensions, nor was he aware of Jefferson’s interest in Chinese political philosophy, but that doesn’t really matter. A basis for common cause exists with deep historical roots, as well as contemporary relevance. Echoing the president’s address, it makes sense for both sides to “stop the shouting, and lower the temperature”.

Martin Powers has written three books on the history of social justice in China, two of which won the Levenson Prize for best book in pre-1900 Chinese Studies. His recent book, published by Routledge, traces the impact of Chinese political theory and practice on the English Enlightenment. He is currently professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.