The New US Perception of China
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By Richard Cullen

The New US Perception of China

Apr. 26, 2018  |     |  0 comments

The American perception of China has gone through an intriguing transition over the last century. Once, compassion was dominant. Today, increasing hostility is prominent with rumbles of a serious trade war in the air. These US views have significantly shaped the discernment of China around the world over the last 100 years. They continue to do so.

A high point of American empathy can be seen in the work of the 1938 Nobel Prize-winning bilingual novelist, Pearl S. Buck. She wrote The Good Earth almost 90 years ago, in 1929, when living in Nanjing. The daughter of American Christian missionaries, she spent the period from 1892 (from 5 months old) until 1934 living in China. Her Chinese name was Sai Zhenzhu. The Good Earth, set before World War I, was published in 1931 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932. The 1937 Hollywood film of the same name, based on the book, was nominated for five Academy Awards in 1938 and won two. The book compellingly narrates the drama of Chinese village life with deep understanding. (Throughout her life, Buck was an avid reader of Charles Dickens — arguably the best storyteller in book-form).

Pearl Buck died, aged 80, in 1973. Her love for China and its people was intense. She was condemned during the Cultural Revolution as an “American Cultural Imperialist” and was banned from entering China. Later, after her death, her former residence at Nanjing University was converted into the Sai Zhenzhu Memorial House.

The Good Earth is widely regarded as having shaped a popular, cordial understanding of China as a vast, poor, peasant-based country possessed of a remarkable history. It influenced US concerns about Imperial Japan prior to those concerns being completely galvanized by the stunning Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

My aim in this essay is: to look at how this discontented transition from empathy to antipathy has come to pass; to examine what it has to tell us about the state of China and the US today; and to consider where it may be leading.

It is a fact that China, within its remarkable and enduring history, did not develop a system of governance where the governed played any sort of democratic role in selecting those who would govern. Such a system did evolve in a partial but significant way in ancient Greece around 200 years before China’s unifying Qin Dynasty was established in 221 BC. That experience in Greece has, over many centuries, fundamentally shaped the development of Western views (especially during The Enlightenment) on the best form of political governance. China meanwhile has retained a top-down authoritarian governance system to this day, in keeping with its millennial, traditional understanding of how best to govern. As we will see, that governance system has performed exceptionally well over the last 40 years by delivering an unparalleled improvement in the livelihood of millions, notwithstanding any democratic deficit.

As the American perspective on China has moved from bewilderment to increasing antipathy, the American account of what has happened constantly stresses that the US and its allies are engaged in a recommenced battle to protect democratic values from a fresh authoritarian challenge spearheaded by China. In fact, this outward justification is energized, above all, by the deeper challenge to US global political supremacy now unfolding. The focus on telling the enfolding story, as seen from Washington, makes very good sense: a respected Harvard academic and former senior member of the State Department, Joseph Nye, recently observed in the journal Foreign Affairs that “a strong narrative is a source of power.”

The current edging towards a Sino-American trade war is one manifestation of the significant, geopolitical mood change being examined in this essay. This very important trade quarrel is mentioned peripherally but it is not dealt with in any central way, here.

The Rise of a Superpower and the Retreat of Another

One widely used comparative estimate shows that in 1820 the UK economy was three times the size of the US economy. By 1870, in GDP terms, the UK and the US were almost level pegging. By 1913, just before World War I, the US economy was 2.3 times larger than that of the UK.

In 1820, both China and India had economies which were far larger than those of Britain and America. These, however, were static economies compared to both the UK and the US. Moreover, they were based on pre-modern economic systems which had to support vastly greater populations.

In terms of global ascendancy, the UK was, thus, the dominant world “superpower” for most of the 19th century. In less than 100 years, from 1820, that position had clearly been lost to the US.

This transition from one dominant world power to the next proceeded with minimal resentment. Although the superpower “torch” was moving out of the British Empire, the new dominant power was closely related in terms of ethnicity, language and deeply shared traditions. Moreover, the UK soon enough found itself in need of vital US assistance to secure the defeat of Germany in World War I. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the UK was able to rely on its own mature understanding of the changes underway and thus avoid too much counter-productive, national swaggering.

It is now around 100 years since that fundamental international transition. During this period, the US has played a pivotal military role in stopping the German–Central Powers’ assault on Europe in World War I. In World War II, the US role was still more crucial in defeating the unspeakable rise of Nazism and destroying the barely less horrific Japanese onslaught across East Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Much blood and treasure were sacrificed by all the Allied forces in defeating the Nazis and the Japanese but it is fair to say that without the overwhelming US commitment, allied ascendancy would not have been secured. These achievements demonstrated how much general good the US was capable of in times of existential crisis. Consider Australia. The bombing of Darwin in early 1942 was the first of over 100 Japanese air raids on Australia. That the US, above all, stopped a threatened Japanese invasion remains imprinted on the collective Australian DNA.

Pax Americana & Sharp Power

By the end of World War II, the US was outstandingly dominant, despite the cost of fighting the war. The narrative of how it has deployed that strength since has a positive side (the Marshall Plan in Germany, for example) plus an accompanying, grim side, which gathered distinct momentum as the Cold War began.

This US supremacy ushered in an era within the Western Hemisphere, especially, of continued peace subject to American oversight. It also facilitated foundation building for the new global trading system. As we will see, China has, over the last 40 years, taken exceptional advantage of this comprehensive global restructuring.

This US ascendancy was built on immense power, which included the capacity, regularly used, to shape transnational outcomes to a remarkable extent.

This era has regularly been referred to as Pax Americana drawing on terminology extending back the Pax Romana of the early centuries of the Roman Empire (after 27 AD). In like manner, it was said, the clear dominance of American military, economic and political power provided the means for the US to oversee an era of extended peace particularly after World War II.

Fairly recently, certain leading US commentators have critically analyzed what they call China’s sharp power. This sharp power is juxtaposed with two other long, commonly used, political terms — soft power and hard power. Christopher Walker and Jessica Ludwig in their article “The Meaning of Sharp Power” in the journal Foreign Affairs in November 2017 argued that sharp power “is not principally about attraction or even persuasion; instead, it centers on distraction and manipulation.” Soft power is a term coined by Joseph F Nye in 1990, which he has more recently defined in the following way: “soft power is the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than through the hard power of coercion and payment.”

In fact, the US has itself deployed all three powers — soft, sharp and hard — for many decades.

One respected public policy analyst in the US, George Sciallabba, argued in 1985 that Third World regimes following policies considered unacceptable to the US were “subjected to American hostility, subversion or even invasion.” Sciallabba continued that “rhetoric aside, promoting democracy, self-determination and human rights has little to do with American foreign policy.”

According to a 2013 Pew Survey of Global Attitudes, 85 percent of Chinese were “very satisfied” with their country’s direction compared to 31 percent of US citizens.

In another essay, in 1983, entitled “Indian Country,” Scialabba argued how one binding US national myth (chiefly crafted by Hollywood) was centrally important. This pivotal aspect of American folklore related to the extraordinary feat of coast-to-coast nation-building which underpinned the creation of the US as we know it today. During the Vietnam war, as Scialabba notes, American GIs, drawing on this Wild West imagery, called those parts of South Vietnam controlled by their adversaries “Indian country.” Another essayist, Pankaj Mishra recently observed, when writing for the London Review of Books, that “Welcome to Injun country” was a bonding-term still widely used by US service personnel deployed in war zones.

The case being made is that the exceptional national experience of “Winning the West” — as the modern US was being forged in the 19th century — has served as an enduring motif within the template for making and deploying US international policy ever since.

A recent estimate by another commentator in Australia, Joseph Camilleri, is that the US has, over this post-war period, been involved in more than 50 attempted regime changes and military interventions outside of the US.

Australia is quite possibly included within this tally. We may never find smoking-gun evidence but there is significant circumstantial evidence that the CIA helped influence the sacking of a democratically elected Australian Government in 1975. This was the Whitlam Government which, without US agreement, recognized the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1972 and which, wary of the deep influence of the US within Australia, advocated a measurably more independent foreign policy.

The Rise and Decline of Modern Sino-American Relations

China’s new “open door” policy began to be applied in 1978 after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. For around three decades after the commencement of this pivotal policy shift, the US generally welcomed the rise of China. Immense business opportunities were recognized and trade boomed. At the same time, there was rapidly increasing academic, intellectual and general interest in China. The spoken and unspoken expectation, especially viewed from the US, was that a modernizing China would follow a path of economic and political convergence over time. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the formal end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama’s End of History theorizing seemed to confirm that this must be so. And the primary end-point for this convergence would surely be a version of US model of liberal democratic individualism wedded to dominant, private capitalism.

This is not, though, how matters have unfolded: China has not adhered to this Washington-shaped, macro political-economic script. Today we find that the US mood has gone from being sorry for China, then being helpful, to being increasingly bewildered by and hostile to China. Before we consider the acrimonious consequences of this growing animosity, it is good to consider what within the US worldview may have animated this comparatively sharp change of outlook.

How the US has addressed perceived threats to its self-asserted (and largely effective) global hegemony during the 20th century follows a clear pattern. Defeated competitors (Japan and Germany) are now firm allies. Japan and South Korea remain quasi-tributary states harboring very large US military outposts. The USSR is no more, and brooding Russia, whilst still powerful in certain ways, no longer presents any sort of dominant existential threat. The rest of the leading economies in the world (outside of China) are allies or at least largely share certain primary political values — with common membership in the OECD and overlapping membership in NATO in many cases. India, for all its recent added GDP, remains mainly a huge Third World country with a similar population but a GDP less than 25 percent that of China’s. The remaining nations around the world present no significant challenge to US global supremacy in view of their small sizes, terrible poverty, or habitual local conflicts. Often a combination of these factors grimly applies.

This leaves China. The US is facing a challenge today in China, the like of which it has never faced before over the last 100 years. China’s economy is now over 50 times the size it was 40 years ago. In raw US dollar GDP terms, it is already around 60 percent of the size of the US economy and more than double the size of the Japanese economy.

In the history of US foreign policy experience, China is thus sui generis — in a class by itself.

The Contemporary Chinese Context

To adopt a term used by Professor Joseph Weiler in his analyses of the crisis besetting the European Union — What does an inclusive (good and bad) measure of the general Political DNA of the PRC tell us about China today?

Between 1978 (the beginning of the Open Door policy following the death of Mao Zedong in 1976) and 2017, total GDP in China rose more than 50-fold from USD 218 billion to over USD 12 trillion. The Economist noted in 2016 that the PRC had expanded its middle class by a total of more than 220 million in the period between 2000 and 2016. The Economist also reported that the PRC lifted almost 700 million people out of extreme poverty between 1981 and 2010. In fact, China alone was responsible for 75 precent of total world poverty reduction over this period.

According to a 2013 Pew Survey of Global Attitudes, 85 percent of Chinese were “very satisfied” with their country’s direction compared to 31 percent of US citizens. That level of satisfaction has edged lower in China since (in keeping with a further worldwide downward trend) but it still remains comparatively high.

Professor Weiler sets out three types of governance legitimacy, which can fairly be summarized as: process or input (democratic) legitimacy; performance or output legitimacy; and messianic or vision legitimacy.

Applying these broad legitimacy measures, the PRC today remains poorly rated in terms of process legitimacy. In terms of performance legitimacy, however, it is impossible not to concede that the PRC rating is exceptional. China also, today, has settled on a systematically articulated long-term vision — the “Chinese Dream.”

Given the steadily rising living standards of so many and the extraordinary reduction in abject poverty levels, it is not surprising that China is a state which enjoys comparatively high, continuing levels of general, unassuming confidence and optimism. One American commentator based in Hong Kong put it this way, using a space travel term: China’s economy has now achieved escape velocity.

China has managed to rebuild itself relying fundamentally on its most abundant resource, its own population. It has traded and educated itself to be where it is placed in the world order today. China has taken the best advantage of the Western developed world trading system, it is true (unfairly, argue the US and other Western nations). But every other large impoverished nation has had the same opportunities, and in a number of cases, blessed with natural resources China can scarcely dream of. Only China has managed this astonishing level of real growth for the benefit of hundreds of millions — despite many handicaps.

China, historically, throughout the Imperial Era, did not rely on or feel a messianic need to convert widespread-others to the Chinese-way in order, in significant part, to validate the inherent superior, universal wisdom embodied in that Chinese worldview.

China still faces a huge range of problems which need to be addressed, including severe challenges related to: housing, education, medical services, environmental damage, governance-transparency, corruption, public finance, excessive debt levels, rising public expectations, and a vast ageing population.

The notable military development of the PRC has properly been a topic of serious discussion. The territorial, defence-boosting reclamations in the South China Sea have generated critical analysis in the West and regionally. Controversial as this build-up of military power may be to the US and a range of other powers, non-military means clearly dominate the blueprint for the rebuilding of modern China.

As Professor Nye points out: “Soft power … when coupled with hard power … is a force multiplier. That combination, though hardly new (the Roman Empire rested on both the strength of Rome’s Legions and the attraction of Rome’s civilization) has been particularly central to US leadership. Power depends on whose army wins, but it also depends on whose story wins.”

US world leadership experience (built, inter alia, on the Monroe Doctrine, and concepts such as Manifest Destiny) luminously demonstrates that any major rising power will seek to protect itself militarily, above all within its own region. The humiliating (regularly terrifying) experiences China suffered during the last 200 years not surprisingly underline China’s contemporary military focus.

China’s new leader since 2013, President Xi Jinping, has introduced a potency to the leadership not seen since Deng Xiaoping was in charge. For the purposes of this review, what is most significant is that Xi Jinping combines an immense sense of messianic purpose with deep political experience and an uncompromising determination to tackle what he considers to be China’s paramount concerns. Xi recently (and controversially) secured constitutional confirmation that he will not be confined to two terms as China’s dominant leader.

The Contemporary America-Plus Context

As immense as China’s difficulties are, they remain less intractable than the range of acute challenges facing many advanced liberal democracies, especially the US. Increased societal polarization (sometimes characterized as identity-politics) is now an embedded part of the political landscape. Just what are the core values of the US is matter of far greater debate, partly as a consequence of worthy projects to seek a fairer society. Today several Americas seem to co-exist uneasily within the USA.

One result of this souring of agreement on what should lie at the pivot of the collective US identity was the bitter contest evident during the most recent Presidential Election in 2016, which saw Donald Trump emerge as a divisive — for many — victor. Thomas Friedman argued recently in The New York Times that President Trump is the “biggest threat to the integrity of [US] democracy today.” Madeleine Albright, meanwhile, describes President Trump as “the most anti-democratic leader that I have studied in American history” in her new book, Fascism: A Warning. Another New York Times columnist, David Leonhardt, argues that Donald Trump is “the most dangerous, unfit American President of our lifetimes.” A new book by former FBI Director James Comey argues that President Trump is someone who is “untethered to the truth.”

This is the thorny context within which China has gone from being seen, above all, as a huge, prima facie likeable, offshore neighbor, to being a vast and rapidly growing nemesis.

The change of perception is most evident in the US, where official, semi-official, academic and media questioning of China have all been briskly accelerating. The wave of predominantly anxious commentary has raised many questions, including: To what extent is China growing at US expense? How far is China unfairly standing on the shoulders of the US-Western intellectual property advances and the US-Western shaped and policed world trading system? Is China growing into a new existential threat to the US (and the West)?

Some of this rush of re-examine is relatively sober, analytical and informing even if the discussion is regularly shaped by the conclusion. The materials on offer range through to fairly wild-eyed fear-mongering at the other extreme. The “Beware of China” narrative has now been advanced across the developed West (and beyond) not least in Australia plus Canada, the UK and parts of the EU. In Australia, Professor Clive Hamilton has recently published an alarming book arguing that Australia is already on the way to becoming a puppet-state of China.

Germany and Japan showed the depraved madness of adopting a militarized route to national growth. China’s rapid modern rise has shunned aggressive, international military posturing as a fundamental component in its planning. Confucian statecraft has for more than 2,000 years regarded the military as a necessary aspect of large scale governance — but one which must be controlled. The experience of China over the last 200 years has underlined the need for powerful military defense, of course. The build-up of military power by the PRC has been controversial, especially across the South China Sea — but, as noted above, non-military means dominate the blueprint for the rebuilding of modern China.

There is one further aspect associated with the growing Sino-antipathy phenomenon which should be mentioned. In 2012, as the London Olympics progressed, Ross Clark wrote an article in The Spectator UK weekly entitled: “Sinophobia, the last acceptable racism.” The success of Chinese swimmers, in particular, was annoying to their Western rivals, he noted, and their unfounded, critical responses reflected an irrational suspicion of China.

It would be inaccurate to say that the relatively recent growth of the anti-China narrative in the West, led by the US, derives from the sort of Western racial superiority norms dominant 100 years ago. It remains a fact, however, that China is different in this way. It has created a remarkable civilization which is both the world’s largest and its most enduring — and it is not Caucasian.

Implicit in the grand narrative of the European Enlightenment, shaped as it was by transforming Christianity, was the conviction that (Caucasian-crafted) rationally-based, liberal principles offer a foundational best option for the exercise and control of political power. It follows from this worldview that these principles have universal application and their universal standing is best confirmed by their increased application. This perspective still shapes how the West — and especially the US — apprehends China.

Liberal elites in the US are, in fact, feeling two levels of primary anxiety: externally there is the rise of China; internally, President Trump is in the White House.

However, the Trump-elite and the liberal elites both share measurable common ground when it comes to alarm over China. Both elite groups appear convinced by the new account of China as being a central trading partner, but also, more than ever, a threat to US global hegemony. Moreover, there is a feeling China, in going its own way, is demonstrating a measurable lack of expected levels of gratitude for past US help.

Concluding Remarks

The current American “Beware of China” narrative repeatedly stresses how the US and its allies are engaged in a resumed battle to protect democratic values from a fresh, powerful authoritarian challenge. Far more pivotal, though, is the challenge to US global political supremacy which China now presents. In fact, had China, over the last 40 years, developed a form of East Asian political pluralism (such as we find in Japan with its near constant mode of single party governance), and if all other things were equal, American antipathy would surely be just as much in the air.

Professor Graham Allison, a political scientist from Harvard, has written at length about the Thucydides Trap. He argues, drawing on his reading of the history of ancient Greece, that the dominant city-state-based power, Sparta, was drawn into a terrible destructive war with rising Athens because Sparta feared the challenge to its hegemony posed by Athens. Professor Arthur Waldron, an American historian specializing in China, has challenged this Allison analysis both in terms of its reading of history and still more so, in terms of the applicability of this analysis to the Sino-American case.

In fact, Professor Waldron implicitly aligns the current rise of modern China with that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. He does this smoothly but dubiously. Professor Waldron provides a closely argued case which supports, on balance, the “Beware of China” narrative, arguing that China is “a country … run by the Communist Party, the police and the army.” He also argues that many well off, well-educated Chinese are migrating to the US, saying this may bring 10 million (presumably additional) such Chinese families to the US in 10 years. It follows from Professor Hamilton’s argument about Australia becoming a Sino-satellite, that this increased migration would create still better foundations in the US to increase Washington subservience to Beijing.

Professor Waldron is right when he criticizes Professor Allison. China is different; but not just in a somewhat opaque, now Leninist influenced, menacing way. The noted Belgian-Australian China-scholar Simon Leys put it as follows:

“From a western point of view, China is simply the other pole of the human mind. All the other great cultures are either dead (Egypt, pre-Columbian American and so on), or too exclusively absorbed by the problem of surviving in extreme conditions (primitive cultures), or too close to us (Islamist cultures, India) to present a contrast as total, a revelation as complete, an “otherness” as challenging, an originality as illuminating as China. It is only when we contemplate China that we can become exactly aware of our own identity and that we begin to perceive which part of our heritage truly pertains to universal humanity, and which part merely reflects Indo-European idiosyncrasies.”

China has long been comparatively open to the ideas of others. Notwithstanding the full-bodied insularity of both the Ming and Qing Dynasties, China’s traditional worldview has been significantly less ideologically hostile to outside ideas. The fact that, uniquely amongst the world’s major civilizations, and especially compared to Western civilization, China has relied on essentially secular governance systems for over 2,000 years, helps explain this. Moreover, China, historically, throughout the Imperial Era, did not rely on or feel a messianic need to convert widespread-others to the Chinese-way in order, in significant part, to validate the inherent superior, universal wisdom embodied in that Chinese worldview.

In any event, regardless of just how this Allison-Waldron debate should be resolved, there is a clear lesson to be drawn from the discussion: the US needs to find a durable way to engage with and allow the rise of China for the mutual benefit of both nations, and the world.

The demonstrated ability of the PRC, over the last 40 years, to meet and overcome so many varied, sometimes desperate ordeals strongly suggests that, despite its immense array of problems, China looks well positioned to maintain this rise.

China today has a very strong, centralized leadership structure in place, also. Its economic and social resource bases are far stronger and they are continuing to grow. Notwithstanding the strictures of the single-party political system, overall societal morale remains robustly high and supportive of the current political system based, above all, on its exceptional performance legitimacy.

In the US, meanwhile, for complex reasons, a number of which have been outlined above, endemic polarization means that collective morale is comparatively less full-bodied and coherent.

It is fair to expect that the “Beware of China” narrative will gather pace and run for a long time yet in the US and the West. The US, above all other major states, remains most wedded to the universalist political insights and liberal-template wisdom of The Enlightenment. The harm which can follow here arises from the way that this broad Enlightenment thinking can close out or discredit other ways of looking at the world. This frame of reference underpins the analysis which argues that, as China plainly cannot be controlled — like Japan or Germany, for example — it needs to be strategically contained. “A strong narrative is a source of power”, as Professor Nye accurately points out. As it happens, a contest of meta-narratives is now evolving.

China does not fit into any of the US (historically-shaped) foreign policy boxes used to date. Both China and the US face immense stresses in the coming decades as they each come to terms with the other. This unique trial, which is of singular importance for the entire world, will be most testing for US: its 100-year dominant superpower status cannot continue unmodified.

There is a plain lesson for the US in that historical shift from UK to US global hegemony over 100 years ago. Such a transition cannot be managed entirely without friction. But it can be accomplished with either greater or less ease — with major reciprocal benefits — when the impulse towards anxious or swaggering resentment is well controlled by both sides.


All responsibility for what is argued in the essay rests with the author. I have, however, had the advantage of exchanging views on a number of the matters discussed above with a range of thoughtful colleagues. My thanks to all of them, including: Henry Chan; David Campbell; Robin Edwards; Fu, Hualing, Harry Glasbeek; Albert Lin; and Christine Loh.


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