A visit to China is always exciting – a kind of glimpse into the future, both for better and for worse. Earlier this month I made my fifth trip to the People’s Republic, this time as a member of a U.S. delegation invited by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and organized by the American Foreign Policy Council (AFPC), a respected think-tank in Washington, D.C. The nine-person delegation was comprised of former senior U.S. military and diplomatic officials, academics, and entrepreneurs. The itinerary included Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province, and the national capital Beijing.
Our interlocutors were high-ranking party, government, and military officials; institute researchers; and executives of industrial corporations — both strictly Chinese and binational joint ventures. Four topics dominated the discussions: U.S.-China trade relations; the South China Sea; North Korea’s nuclear weapons program; and Beijing’s repression of Uighurs and Kazakhs in Xinjiang.
The conversations were candid, substantive, occasionally quite edgy, but never overtly hostile. Strict confidentiality and non-attribution rules prevent me from giving more than a brief overview of the talks.
The Chinese vigorously defended their claims to vast swaths of the South and East China Seas and, therefore, their right to militarize them. The Americans equally vigorously disputed the Chinese claims, citing recent international legal decisions and pointing out that U.S. ships and planes had been traversing these international waters for decades.
The Americans complained that China has been consistently unwilling to pressure North Korea to make good faith efforts at the nuclear negotiating table. The Chinese, on the other hand, insisted that the Trump-Kim talks in Singapore had improved the security situation, so improved relations between China and the DPRK was not surprising.
The Chinese defense of their government’s “re-education centers” in Xinjiang was a formulaic recitation of familiar anti-terrorist arguments. I’m not even certain that many of our hosts were aware of the scale (c. one million people incarcerated out of a Uighur population of 10-12 million) or of the violent, Orwellian suppression of any hint of Islamic belief.
Our counterparts seemed genuinely perplexed by and worried about the possibility of a trade war between the U.S. and the People’s Republic. No amount of documentation would convince them, at least publicly, of Beijing’s predatory trade practices and theft of intellectual property. Unlike the South China Sea, Korea, and repression in Xinjiang — three issues on which there was little, if any, give — I felt that China may be willing to compromise on some aspects of trade.
Before the trip we had been warned that our hosts in the provinces would size up our arguments and then communicate them to Beijing in order to prepare our counterparts in the capital for the discussions there. In one Changsha meeting I criticized China for its zero-sum mentality, a product of the doctrine of the class struggle. China’s “rise” would inevitably mean that rivals like the U.S. would decline. Instead I urged them to realize that the world is big enough for a capitalist “win/win” framework in which both sides could prosper.
Later in the week in nearly every meeting in Beijing we were told that China believes that a “win/win” scenario is desirable and possible. After the third or fourth such recitation one of my American colleagues could barely contain his laughter.
A few words are in order about atmospherics, literal and figurative. Much has been written about the poor air quality in much of China, especially in Beijing, a problem freely admitted by our hosts. The smog in Changsha, a city of more than seven million inhabitants, was truly unpleasant, combined as it was with damp, cold weather. To our surprise, however, one of our days in Beijing featured sun and cloudless, deep blue skies. From our 22nd floor hotel rooms the rugged mountains ringing the outskirts of the vast city on two sides were clearly visible. On the next day a haze returned, obscuring all but a dim outline of the mountains and even other tall buildings.
The “human atmospherics” were remarkable. Beijing, of course, is ultra-modern on an immense scale. The sheer numbers are overwhelming. Greater Beijing now has 21.7 million people, and many of them are newly prosperous. That means private automobiles — a lot of them — and world-class traffic jams. As a Northern Virginian, I felt right at home. In the midst of the cars there were still some brave souls who peddled around on bicycles, but it was a different world from April 1989 when on streets with little automobile traffic I rode on the back of a student assistant’s bicycle to give my first lecture to a workers’ continuing education class — an assignment which itself would be highly improbable today. Acutely aware of gridlock and pollution, the authorities have put restrictions on private vehicle usage, and more importantly have greatly expanded mass transit. Beijing has 372 miles of subway, making its system third in length in the world behind Seoul’s and Shanghai’s.
In the 1990s and 2000s so hectic was the construction in Beijing and other coastal metropolises that people jokingly referred to the building crane as China’s national bird. To me, however, the striking feature is not the quantity, but the high architectural quality of many of the new sky-scrapers. Comparing Beijing’s massive, glistening airport to all but a few in the U.S. is simply painful. And the amazing infrastructure isn’t limited to the capital. Provincial Changsha has linked its airport to its central railway station by a maglev train. We possess the same technology, but a proposed maglev train between Washington and Baltimore remains stuck on the drawing board, immobilized by squabbles over right-of-way. Admiring China’s infrastructure, an economist in our delegation commented ruefully that the funding for America’s 21st century infrastructure sank in the Iraqi desert. A far-reaching, bipartisan infrastructure bill must be a top priority for the 116th U.S. Congress.
Like every other large country, China is a study in contrasts. Everywhere one looks there are people hanging around, most of them men, seemingly doing nothing and usually smoking. Yet the place is also suffused with dynamism. China’s age-profile may be skewed toward the elderly, but young people in great number are also everywhere, and a large percentage of them seem to be in perpetual motion. Silent, spotless factories we visited were full of youthful technicians busily working at wages far below Western standards and with a negligible rate of absenteeism. Our hotels — both of them excellent — featured employees almost over-eager to guide, accompany, or otherwise be of assistance. It goes without saying that a certain segment of the hotel employees is primarily concerned with “observation.” A person usually appeared at the door to my room the moment I stepped into the hall. Still, the surly communist apparatchik in service garb is but an unpleasant historical memory.
One people-to-people surprise carried personal meaning for me. The former mayor of Changsha proudly declared to our delegation that his city’s Xiangya Hospital was the finest in all of southern China. He went on to explain that it had been co-founded at the turn of the 20th century by the Chinese government and Yale University, my undergraduate alma mater. In fact, he claimed that the “ya” in the hospital’s name was an abbreviation for “Yale.” 7000 miles from New Haven, this old grad shared the mayor’s pride.
I came away from the trip more convinced than ever that China is America’s principal rival and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Nonetheless, the pragmatism of the Chinese gives me a modicum of optimism. A firm U.S. policy grounded in American values and Realpolitik in close association with like-minded allies can, I believe, prevent armed conflict and eventually lead to increased prosperity on all sides – the “win/win” result that our hosts in Beijing were so eager to advocate.
The views expressed in this blog are solely its author’s, and do not necessarily reflect official endorsement or position by the Transatlantic Leadership Network.