The history, culture, and world view of China are very different from that of Europe and North America. Some background refreshment is needed before assessing current events and suggesting policy positions.
Important guidance is contained in Sun Tzu's Taoist classic, The Art of War. Written some 2500 years ago during a period of warfare between competing Chinese kingdoms, the short book is a staple of Chinese education and American business schools. Two themes recur throughout the short 13 chapters: the importance of profound knowledge about yourself, your adversary, and the terrain in which you are engaged; and the goal of winning through maneuver, with conflict a last resort. Consider the advantage of having over 300,000 Chinese students in the United States, up from 100,000 a decade ago. Consider the advantage of broad English language proficiency on the one hand, and the lack of Westerners' ability to read Chinese newspapers on the other. Consider the 2014 Chinese hacking of the the US Office of Personnel Management's records of some 22 million Americans, including sensitive background check information - who can be blackmailed?; who can be recruited? Consider Chinese government-connected telecommunications manufacturer Huawei which has been banned by the US and intelligence-sharing allies. We start with a major disadvantage in the "profound knowledge" dimension.
A brief Chinese history is also enlightening:
- 1839-1860: The Opium Wars with England and France which resulted in ceding territory (Hong Kong), legal rights over foreign nationals, commercial concessions, freedom of navigation on Chinese waterways, and unfettered prosteletyzing by foreign missionaries.
- 1850-1864: The Taiping Rebellion, led by Christian millenarian Hong Xiuquan. Millions killed.
- 1862 - 1877: The Dungan "Muslim Rebellion" in western China. Millions killed; survivors moved to Russia.
- 1911: The collapse of the Qing Dynasty, with the eventual emergence of the Koumintang party under Sun Yat-Sen, and the Chinese Communist Party.
- 1927-1949: Civil war between the Koumintang under Chiang Kai-Shek and the Chinese Communist Party under Mao Zedong, with an interruption for World War II. Communists win; Koumintang retreats to Taiwan. Millions killed.
- 1942-1945: World War II. Japanese occupation of northern and coastal China. Millions killed.
- 1950 - 1953: The Korean War. 180,000 Chinese soldiers killed.
- 1958-1962: The Great Leap Forward. Forced collectivization of agriculture. Some 30 million died, largely of starvation.
- 1962: Brief war with India which secured Chinese position along mountainous border. Preceded Chinese support for Pakistan in the India-Pakistan War of 1965.
- 1966 - 1976: The Cultural Revolution. Youthful Red Guard - led effort to exorcise remaining elements of pre-communist thought. Ended in 1976 with the death of Mao and the ascention of Deng Xiaoping. 1.5 million killed.
- 1969: Brief clashes with Russia in the Far East and in central Asia.
- 1979: China invades Vietnam in response to Vietnam's deposing the Chinese-aligned Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. Small clashed continue for a decade.
- 2001: China joins World Trade Organization as an advantaged "developing nation", with the US and Europe hoping to spread Western trading practices, including restrictions on state-owned or sponsored enterprises. By 2020, the global Chinese trade surplus was $535 billion - $317 billion with the United States.
- 2009: China issues extensive sovereignty claims to the South China Sea and begins to build military facilities in the Spratley and Paracel Islands. Minor skirmishes with Philippine and Vietnamese fishermen.
- 2012: Xi Jinping (age 59) assumes leadership of Chinese Communist Party. Exempted from term limits in 2018.
- 2013: Belt and Road Initiative adopted by Chinese Communist Party to invest some trillion dollars in infrastructure projects in Asia, Africa, and Europe to create trading network, recruit allies, and employ Chinese labor and manufacturers.
- 2015: Made in China 2025 Initiative adopted by the Chinese Communist Party to move manufacturing toward high technology with mostly domestic produced components in information technology, robotics, aerospace, pharmaceuticals, semiconductors, rail, agricultural equipment, new energy vehicles, advanced materials, and ocean shipping. Intellectual property targeted.
- 2017: Forced assimilation of Muslim population in western China begins with construction of concentraion camps for some 1,000,000 Uighurs.
- 2020: New Hong Kong security law, which contravenes the 50 year "One Country, Two Systems" agreement which underpinned the turnover of the former British colony in 1997.
- 2020: Amid the coronavirus disruptions, China surpasses the United States as a destination for foreign direct investment from other countries. Based on current exchange rates, the US Gross Domestic Product is 50% greater than China's, but at projected growth rates, China will catch up by 2028. On a per capita basis we remain well ahead.
That is a lot to absorb. A few themes can guide next week's assessment of the Trump administration approach and the early indicators of the Biden administration approach:
1. After centuries of carnage and humiliation, it is logical for the Chinese people to accept a trade-off between stability and growing prosperity on the one hand, and restrictions on individual liberty on the other.
2. The Chinese have a long history of modest-sized military border disputes. An American military presence is appreciated by many of China's neighbors.
3. A centrally planned, well disciplined industrial and financial system can achieve strong results (at least in the span of decades), particularly if trading partners and competitors are fragmented and undisciplined. The contrast with the decentralized, entrepreneural, capitalist system of the United States is intellectually interesting, and of global importance.
4. Up until 2016, American presidents were preoccupied with the Middle East while Chinese leaders laid out clear plans to surpass the United States economically, and to dominate their neighbors militarily. Trump brought the focus of American foreign policy to China.
There is much to ponder in this most important relationship ... and whether ther Biden team will have the skill, interest, and fortutude to take it where it needs to go.
bill bowen - 2/4/21