Finding the right messages about China

I have spent plenty of time over the past year examining the rivalry between the United States and China. Of course, much of what I have written, read and studied has focused on the insatiable need American politicians and other elites have in demeaning China.

In their eyes, China can do nothing right. It is a country run by an unethical and amoral group determined to threaten the Western-created world order and eager to disregard human rights at every turn. The mainstream media quickly align with these beliefs, rarely offering commentary or reports that view China favorably. 

The U.S. media appear to have a kind-of revolving door of negative issues to report: Stories today about China and human rights are replaced the next day by stories of the Chinese military that the next day morph into critical stories about China and its successful Belt and Road Initiative and so on. The American public is fed a daily diet of hostile reporting that fits hand in glove with the propaganda emanating from the government. 

Of course, the negative assessment of China can be found in other nations as well. And the Chinese government’s decision to maintain the zero-COVID policy that has prevented thousands, if not millions, of deaths remains under heavy scrutiny. The U.K. is one example. In late December, the Guardian blared this headline: “Chinese police parade suspected COVID rule-breakers through streets.” A couple of days later the Sun claimed the lockdown in Xi’an was not working (even though the evidence told a much different story). The U.K was joined in this attack on China by WION. The Indian television network discussed the “lockdown horror” throughout China. 

Thankfully, a much more nuanced view of China often can be found elsewhere. 

Consider a recent story in Beijing Review, which summarized a conversation between Wang Huiyao, the founder and president of the Center for China and Globalization, and John Hamre, the president and CEO of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. At one point, Hamre acknowledged his frustration over the simplistic opinions about China in the U.S. 

He said, “Washington basically features two camps. One believes that China is racing ahead; it’s going to be dangerous. We’d better stop them anyway we can. The second thinks this is a huge unprecedented competition. We’re out of shape—like a runner who hasn’t been keeping up with their training. We’re going to have to get in shape before we can hold our own in this competition. So instead of trying to trip up China because it’s running ahead of us, we need to work harder to run faster. I’m in the second camp.”

Good luck getting any American politician to acknowledge America’s internal weaknesses. Such talk would lead to vitriolic responses on social media and elsewhere. These “leaders” seek to maintain their cocoon of power and greed rather than open their eyes and explore a fuller view of American-Chinese relations.  

Next, consider a recent essay in Foreign Policy written by Richard Fontaine, the CEO of the Center for a New American Security, another U.S. think tank. He noted that while successive U.S. administrations have talked tough, they have failed to articulate “the endgame that Washington ultimately seeks with China.”

Fontaine compares the absence of clarity now to the decades of clear policy the U.S. set toward the Soviet Union. He asserts that U.S. efforts vis-a-vis the Soviet Union were clear: Break up the USSR or ensure that it could not be a global power. Washington lacks such strategic thinking now.

Of course, well-written and deeply researched books provide another opportunity for Americans to better understand China. One such example is “The Light That Failed”, written by Ivan Krastev and Stephen Holmes. The authors dissect why democracy has fallen into disfavor throughout the world, complicating U.S. efforts to use political leverage to gain allies in the developing world.

The authors identify the vision China has for the developing world and why that message rings true in places that have grown tired of America’s empty claims to exceptionalism. That message: China will not require any country to adopt specific political or economic agendas in order for a relationship to be built and sustained.

China’s domestic and international message has remained consistent, and it has been backed by actions. China does not seek to engage the U.S. in a battle for global hegemony. It does not seek military confrontation with the U.S. in the waters surrounding Asia or anywhere else in the world. It wants to explore trade and other economic partnerships anywhere in the world and without the consistent Western-delivered lectures about human rights. It wishes to further expand the economic and physical well being of its people. It is proud of its phenomenal development over the past roughly 45 years and wishes to continue it. It seeks a shared future for all of humanity. 

You should not waste your time looking for those messages in Western – and especially U.S. – media; you are not going to find them there. Nevertheless, there are plenty of examples from think tanks and the academic world that provide a more balanced and accurate assessment of China and its goals. 

Pay more attention to those. 

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