Interview

by Malcolm Riddell

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5 | 'It is premature to say that engagement has failed.'

CHINADebate

Malcolm Riddell
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Founder of CHINADebate

&
July 25, 2021
5 | 'It is premature to say that engagement has failed.'
5 | 'It is premature to say that engagement has failed.'
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Cheng Li

Director, Brookings Institution, John L. Thornton China Center

5

BIG IDEA | ‘It is premature to conclude that the U.S. engagement policy with China under the eight presidents prior to the Trump administration has failed.’

Malcolm Riddell: 'One of your most interesting and important points is your contention that it is premature to say the engagement policy toward has failed. Would you please explain?

Cheng Li: ‘Many believe that America’s long-standing engagement policy towards China has failed on two major grounds.’

‘First, the premise that global integration would lead China to a sort of free-market capitalism.'

  • Instead, China has retained much of what Chinese Communist Party leaders call “socialism with Chinese characteristics” or what critics describe as “state capitalism.” ’

‘And second, the premise that four decades-long, multi-dimensional American-Chinese cultural and educational exchanges would make China more democratic.'

  • 'This has turned out to be just the opposite. Members of China's middle class are often seen as political allies rather than challengers to authoritarian rule.’

‘I contend, as you say, that it is premature to conclude that the U.S. engagement policy with China under the eight presidents prior to the Trump administration has failed.’

‘That's because the two pessimistic views, just noted, overlook the complexities and contradictions of China’s ongoing transformation.’

  • ‘Let me focus on the Chinese middle-class to challenge a few of the underlying assumptions of these views.’

‘First is the so-called “whole of society threat” championed by some U.S. policy makers.

  • 'This assumes that China is a monolithic entity with no distinction between state and society.’
  • 'But there is an actual – and very real – distinction that exists.’

‘True, China’s nascent middle class tends to emphasize the status quo and is risk-averse in political views and behavior.'

  • 'But this may be only a transitory phase.’

‘We saw, for example, the nationwide criticism of the government response to the tragic death of Dr. Li Wenliang, a whistle-blower who exposed the coronavirus at the outset of the outbreak, displayed in part the middle class’ intriguing political role.’

'So, the relationship between the middle-class and the Chinese communist government is, in fact, not stagnant but ever-changing.'

  • 'Rather than seeing a "whole of society threat," U.S. policy makers should be aware that China's middle-class is not necessarily in step with the state on any given issue - and never to the extent that the middle-class constitutes a part of a seamless alignment between it and the state that endangers America.'

‘Second is the belief that the Chinese middle-class is the political ally of the party state.'

  • 'This belief arose, I believe, because, in the past few years, both Chinese nationalism and anti-American sentiment have indeed skyrocketed at an alarming speed and scope.'
  • 'But both nationalism and anti-American sentiment are largely reactions, not only to Washington hawks who have labeled China as a “whole-of-society threat”, but also to a new McCarthyism targeting Chinese and Chinese-American scientists, as well as growing anti-Asian hate crimes and racism in the US.

As for nationalism: Yes, a high degree of nationalistic sentiment certainly exists among members of the Chinese middle-class, including foreign-educated returnees who studied in the U.S. or west.'

  • 'But remember, these views among the Chinese middle-class co-exist with cosmopolitan perspectives on various important issues, such as climate change, public health, food and drug safety, and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as well as middle-class values such as the protection of property rights, entrepreneurship, government transparency and accountability, and consciousness of taxpayer rights.’
  • ‘These are universal aims and values shared by the middle-classes of both China and America - and are at odds with nationalistic fervor.'

'As for anti-American sentiment: This is largely a reaction, as I said, to the U.S.'

  • ‘U.S. policy makers should recognize that Chinese middle-class views of America are neither homogeneous nor fixed.’
  • 'And those views could change with changes in U.S. attitudes and actions - and this perceived alliance between the middle-class and the state would diminish accordingly.'

‘Third is the belief that paints the large number of PRC students and scholars in the U.S. as spies, who are being weaponized by Beijing, and therefore, assuming bilateral educational exchanges benefit only China and may even undermine American supremacy and American security.’

  • ‘National security and the intellectual property rights should be vigorously protected on the part of the United States.'
  • 'But racial profiling of PRC-born scientists, Chinese-American researchers, and young Chinese students fails to serve the interests of America and also does not align with American values.’
  • 'And, as mentioned, this stokes both nationalistic and anti-American sentiments.

‘In sum, unlike the view of foreign business that China's middle-class presents an opportunity, the pervasive view in Washington about middle-class development in China is no longer one of hope for positive change but rather one of fear that this development may undermine American supremacy and security.’

  • ‘But I say again, U.S. policy makers should neither underestimate the role of the Chinese middle-class nor alienate this force with policies that push it toward ultra-nationalism and anti-American authoritarianism.’

'Then perhaps they will come to agree that it is premature to conclude that the U.S. engagement policy with China has failed.’

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