New Paradigms Forum Proliferation Issues and Much More …


Learning about China from its Narrative of America


Below appears the text of remarks Dr. Ford delivered on September 9, 2015, at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C., at an event for his latest book,  China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations.

Good afternoon. It’s a pleasure to be here, particularly since although I have been to many events here and have even helped organize a few, this is the first time I have myself been up here as a speaker.  I am looking forward to our discussions.  Before we get any further, however, let me emphasize that whatever I say here today will be entirely my own views, and will not necessarily reflect those of anyone else in the U.S. Government.

That said, let’s talk about China.  Some of you may have seen footage of the huge military parade in Beijing on September 3.  A remarkable spectacle, it featured not just Soviet-style displays of modern military hardware but perfect choreography by endless ranks of shouting and goose-stepping soldiers.  It seems clear that a key objective of all this militarist pageantry was to overawe domestic and foreign audiences with the degree to which – channeling the similarly insecure but revisionist pride of Wilhelmine Germany right down to the microphone-amplified goose steps – China now aggressively demands for itself a “place in the sun” as a central player on the world stage.

For many years, the principal tenet of Communist Chinese strategy was Deng Xiaoping’s admonition to “bide our time and hide our capabilities.”  This was not actually a peaceful slogan, of course, for it revolved around quietly building up China’s strength in preparation for some anticipated period of greater confrontation ahead.  While this strategy lasted, however, its tactically non-provocative approach did conduce to peaceful relations with the outside world, and with the United States.  But the regime’s militarist chest-thumping in the big parade – on top of its recent self-assertion in border regions – is yet another illustration how far modern China has traveled from Dengist strategic caution.  Modern Beijing seems increasingly confrontational, even revanchist, and it is natural to wonder why.

I try to tell much of this story this in my book, China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations.  The PRC’s foray into regional bullying seems to have caught much of our traditional China policy community somewhat by surprise.  China experts today seem to be casting around for explanations for why the rising China we actively encouraged for so long has turned out to be not a prosperous and liberal friend, but rather an increasingly well-funded antagonist and competitor.  But this should not have been so surprising, for the PRC’s strategic ambition has never been much of a secret.  Its tactics have varied with the circumstances, but its strategy has long been driven by a perceived imperative of national “return” – return, that is, to the top of an imagined international totem pole of geopolitical power and status.

Part of what I do in China Looks at the West is look at the interplay of “aspirational” and “oppositional” elements in the PRC’s official propaganda narrative of the United States.  But it is crucial to remember the considerable – perhaps even predominant – degree to which China’s America narratives have not been fundamentally about America.  Instead, they have been about China.

Chinese feelings towards the United States reflect Chinese assessments of China’s own situation – and its imagined fate – vis-à-vis America and the whole non-Chinese world.  From the very first years of China’s encounter with the West, America has provided both a model and an anti-model for Chinese actors struggling with their own domestic issues as well as with matters of international affairs.  Perceptions of the United States have been deeply entangled with, and are not separable from, questions of Chinese politics, and what Chinese actors hope (or fear) for their own country.

In period after Deng came to power in 1978, it was the Chinese Party-State’s ambition to acquire the power and vigor of Western modernity by learning from the United States its secrets of success in economic matters and in science and technology, while avoiding analogous emulation in the political realm.  At the time, aspiration and opposition dovetailed in support of good relations, for Chinese officials believed they needed a placid relationship in order to acquire from America, and the rest of the outside world, the knowledge needed for China’s return.

That ultimate objective, of course, was by no means necessarily consistent with the long-term maintenance of good relations, since the notion of “return” was conceived in zero-sum status-hierarchical terms that inherently implied an eventual diminution or supplanting of America’s own geopolitical centrality.  But for a while, at least, this ultimately confrontational ambition actually counseled restraint in relations with the Americans.  China was weak and still had much to learn about modern power, while we Americans remained far too strong for it to be safe for Beijing to start making the demands it wished eventually to make.  And so we got along well, for a while.

But clouds soon appeared on the horizon.  After the massacre on Tiananmen Square, the CCP began to invest heavily in more darkly anti-American conspiracy theories and threat narratives, and jumped headlong into the encouragement of nationalist fervor, in order to boost its perceived legitimacy at home.  It tried to avoid allowing these more negative narratives to overwhelm Dengist caution, but strategically cautious time-biding – which encourages dreams of glory but keeps asking that they be deferred – requires a lot of patience.  Such patience eventually turned out to be in short supply, especially as China’s power grew.  Many Chinese came to feel impatient, less and less inclined simply to keep waiting for the payoff of self-congratulatory national “return” at some indefinite point in the future.

The inflection point, I would argue, came a few years ago with several successive or coincident events: the U.S. financial crisis; a new U.S. administration committed to scaling back U.S. military engagement in the world; and a period of American economic malaise and political dysfunction in Washington.  With all this, the balance in China between “time-biders” and confrontationalists tipped sharply in favor of confrontation as the Chinese leadership decided that they were now strong enough and we were weak enough – and no longer particularly worth learning from cooperatively – that it was finally safe to begin more openly acting on the oppositional sentiments that had been there all along.

Though this prism, China’s turn to militaristic, nationalistic assertiveness is not surprising, being instead just what one should expect from an ambitious and ultimately revisionist power in response to perceived shifts in what the Soviets used to call the global “correlation of forces” and Chinese theorists refer to as “comprehensive national power.”

What lessons can one draw from this for Sino-American relations and U.S. China policy?  I point out in China Looks at the West that Chinese perceptions of the United States are today both grim and increasingly oppositional, and argue that they are largely the result of internal Chinese factors.   Specifically, they grow out of three main dynamics: (1) the fascination of Chinese political culture with a zero-sum, status-hierarchical conception of national “return” that sees China as destined to reclaim the first-rank global status it once had in Imperial times;* (2) the Party-State’s fixation upon such national rejuvenation as a key performance metric by which regime legitimacy should be judged; and (3) an insecure Party’s cultivation of malevolent foreign bogeymen as a way to bolster its claims to power.

Significantly, these are principally Chinese drivers, and are likely to be resistant to any “cooperative” American diplomatic or politico-military overtures, at least short of Washington’s outright concession to the PRC of the global status and centrality that Beijing’s dream of “return” has long encouraged it to desire.  The “warmly outstretched hand” model of American congeniality in Sino-American relations, therefore, probably won’t work, and might even be counterproductive, being liable to be interpreted as a sign of further weakness and decline that would encourage (rather than discourage) Chinese self-assertion.  Such U.S. leverage that remains, I would argue, probably lies in the negative direction: in shaping intra-elite debates in Beijing over the wisdom of throwing off Dengist strategic caution through the development of American competitive strategies that increase the perceived costliness to the Party-State of provocative self-assertion.

-- Christopher Ford

*  [The reader interested in Chinese conceptions of global order should also consult my earlier book, The Mind of Empire: China’s History and Modern Foreign Relations, which has just been republished as a paperback. China Looks at the West is in many ways a follow-on volume to the first.]

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