The Big Ideas

'Neither China nor the US fits neatly into any one box’ Yuen Yuen Ang

Project Syndicate

Yuen Yuen Ang | University of Michigan
'Neither China nor the US fits neatly into any one box’ Yuen Yuen Ang
'Neither China nor the US fits neatly into any one box’ Yuen Yuen Ang
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March 9, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘Binary narratives lie behind the common misconception that China’s economic success has vindicated autocracy. (The simplistic logic is that if China is not a democracy, it must be an autocracy, and when it prospers, that prosperity must be because of its autocracy). For liberal democracies, this raises the fear that the “China model” poses an ideological challenge to democracy.’
‘This is not the case. The key lesson is this: China prospered under Deng because it took a democratic turn while maintaining political stability – not simply because of authoritarian rule.’

One of the reasons, as mentioned earlier,  I don’t like to characterize the tensions between the U.S. and China as a ‘Cold War’ is that this, by a sort of foreign policy muscle memory, frames the core of the conflict as ideological.

  • And hard as we try, especially those of us who participated in international affairs during the Cold War, we will be sucked into making false comparisons between the Soviet Union and China as ideological foes.
  • This, as I just contended, leads to sloppy analysis and bad policy.  
  • That is why I think Yuen Yuen Ang provides the right nuance to help us avoid this.  

Project Syndicate: You warned against portraying today’s Sino-American rivalry as “an epic battle between autocracy and democracy.” Such binary thinking defined the Cold War, with the US and the Soviet Union being positioned as clear ideological rivals. Does China present an ideological challenge to the US today?

Yuen Yuen Ang: ‘People tend to be comforted by simplistic binaries: countries are either democratic or autocratic, capitalist or communist.’

  • ‘But neither China nor the US fits neatly into any one box.’

‘Under Deng Xiaoping, China remained a one-party authoritarian regime, but it embraced certain “democratic characteristics” that liberalized society and paved the way for its phenomenal economic rise.’

  • ‘Conversely, under Trump, the US became a democracy with illiberal characteristics.’

‘Complicating matters further, under their current leaders, both countries have again undergone political shifts.’

  • ‘In China under Xi, the pendulum has swung back toward authoritarianism.
  • ‘And in the US, Biden has vowed to restore adherence to democratic values. So at different times, both China and the US have fallen on different points of the political spectrum.’

‘Binary narratives lie behind the common misconception that China’s economic success has vindicated autocracy. (The simplistic logic is that if China is not a democracy, it must be an autocracy, and when it prospers, that prosperity must be because of its autocracy).’

  • ‘For liberal democracies, this raises the fear that the “China model” poses an ideological challenge to democracy.’

‘This is not the case. The key lesson is this:’

  • ‘China prospered under Deng because it took a democratic turn while maintaining political stability – not simply because of authoritarian rule.'

Let's say you don't buy Thomas Christensen's argument in the post above that the U.S. and China are not in a global ideological struggle,.

  • Even then you would still find that although there may be ideological differences, they are, as Dr. Ang suggests, too nuanced to be the basis for a U.S. strategy.

To track any changes in ideological stances, we should adopt something like the framework Dr. Ang suggests.

  • That framework if developed would permit us to situate China and U.S. as political entities individually and in relation to each other.
  • And the better we do that the clearer our understanding of where China is a threat and where it isn’t.