China and America in the New World Disorder

China and America in the New World Disorder
Remarks to a Chinese Academy of Social Sciences Seminar
on Forty Years of Sino-American Relations

Ambassador Chas W. Freeman, Jr. (USFS, Ret.)
Senior Fellow, Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University
Beijing, China   11 December 2018

Today is December 11, 2018, five days short of the fortieth anniversary of Deng Xiaoping’s announcement of US-China normalization.  Two days after Deng announced this, he convened the famous Third Plenum of the 11th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Central Committee and launched China’s “reform and opening” – 改革开放.  These two actions defined a single grand strategy.

  • They replaced ideologically derived deductive reasoning with inductive reasoning – 实事求是;
  • They liberated the Chinese mind to enable exploration of new and unorthodox ways of doing things;
  • They relaxed ideology and party controls to release the Chinese people’s entrepreneurial spirit and talent for innovation – 白猫黑猫只能抓耗子的就是好猫;
  • They legitimized the eclectic borrowing of foreign ideas and practices to accelerate China’s rejuvenation under the slogan: 以实践为真理的唯一标准 – practice is the sole criterion of truth;
  • They fostered local and regional experiments with new policies and programs under the slogan, 摸着石头过河before introducing the best features of these experiments to the national and international policy levels;
  • They introduced checks and balances as well as age and term limits to limit one-man rule and ensure that politics reflected a disciplined diversity of opinion; and
  • They ended confrontation between China, its neighbors, and the West, replaced self-reliance with interdependence, and integrated China into the American-led international order.

Deng’s redirection of China broke it out of isolation and stagnation and propelled it forward at an unprecedented pace.  Successive Chinese leaders’ strategic resolve and tactical flexibility earned them global respect and admiration.  The world was astonished at the Chinese people’s willingness to endure the stress and sacrifice of wrenching change to improve the lives of future generations and rebuild their country’s wealth and power.  Four decades later, Chinese face a test of their ability to continue to make painful short-term adjustments in the Chinese Communist Party’s policies and practices.

The architect and longtime manager of the international order in which China has flourished – my country, the United States of America – is currently withdrawing from that order and sabotaging it as it departs.  The cause is American malaise and populist backlash born of rising inequality, economic demoralization, political futiliry, and the stress of demographic change from past and present immigration.  The American people believe that China has not played fair.  Neither country trusts the other.  The dissatisfaction of Americans with our political venality, gridlock, and decadence has led not to determination to reorganize ourselves to recover “our groove” – 卷土重来使得我们的东山再起 – but to our election of a demagogue who is fostering deliberate chaos, discrediting expertise and authority, and replacing strategic reasoning with tweeted edicts and assertions. A little orange book – 小橙皮书 – may yet be on the way.

You Chinese – at least the eldest among you – are familiar with governance by anarchic nihilism.  It did not make China great again when you tried it.  “Drain the swamp” – 排出沼泽 – is the American version of 炮打司令部 – “bombard the headquarters.”  It is not likely to be quite as destructive to the United States as the Cultural Revolution was to China.  But, given the centrality of America to the established world order, it will do a great deal more damage internationally.  In the short term, it leaves the world to deal with a “quantum president” – 量子总统 – an American leader whose position and values are inherently indeterminate and undeterminable (又不一定又无法确定).

The United States has now dropped out of efforts to deal with global climate change, launched worldwide trade wars against countries with which it has bilateral trade deficits, abandoned its commitment to the WTO, left plurilateral trade arrangements, denounced treaties and agreements, and imposed unilateral sanctions.  These and related deviations from the inherited world order are making the world much less stable and predictable.  No one can now say when or in what the new world disorder will end.

China could wait this evolution out, acting on Napoleon’s theory that one should “never interrupt one’s enemy when he’s making a mistake.”  But China is not itself without blame for the current crisis.  And doing nothing will leave the future to be determined by chance, without Chinese input.

China has a lot of reasons to want a peaceful environment along its borders, to seek the most cooperative possible relationships with its neighbors, to preserve the best features of the world and regional orders in which it has prospered so spectacularly, and to avoid conflict with America.  Perhaps China should let the United States isolate itself, but as much as possible avoid a fight with it.

China could seek to join with others who wish to conserve the world order that fractious American policies are now impairing.   The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a model for such an approach.  The AIIB complements and supplements rather than replaces existing Bretton Woods-derived institutions.  Its management is multinational.  It is widely seen as having not just preserved best practices but marginally improved them.  Its members have left the light on and an empty chair for the United States to take when it is ready to come home to its original principles.  A similar approach to other international trade and investment regimes might preserve them in altered form.

Sino-American relations may have entered a ninety-day timeout, but China once again has fundamental decisions to make about its future.  Forty years ago, Beijing was diffident, not hubristic, but it was remarkably good at making tough choices.  It also had the diplomatic skill to enlist the support of the outside world for its peaceful development.  Perhaps it is impertinent for a foreigner to ask whether this is still the case.  Still, once, when we were arguing, Deng Xiaoping asked me what use foreigners were. (老外有什么用处?)   His answer to his own question was that we foreigners would tell him what we thought, not what he wanted to hear.

This foreigner has been concerned for fifty years to see China as well as the United States prosper and advance.  Some people have told me they fear China may be giving up a winning peaceful development strategy for one based on untried theories or practices that have failed in the past both in China and in other countries.  Perhaps they are wrong.  But, as an American well-wisher of China, I dare to ask.

Is “reform and opening” now rhetorical rather than real?  Has it run its course, or will China now actually make and enforce the hard decisions needed to respond to the challenges before it?  Are experiments with new policies still being launched at the provincial and local levels?  Can China still take on and defeat vested interests opposed to change?

Is the espousal of foreign ideas and practices still acceptable in Chinese political culture?  Is inductive reasoning (归纳推理) still favored over ideological orthodoxy by the Chinese Communist Party?  Do results still count more in Beijing than sycophancy and political correctness?  Are Chinese companies expected to be internationally competitive or will they be shielded from competition by their government?

In short, is China still wise, dynamic, and determined to up its game, or has it become smug, complacent. and committed to protectionism with Chinese characteristics?

Only Chinese can answer these questions, and then only with actions, not just words.  The world has learned the hard way from dealing with China to 听其言观其行 [pay more attention to its actions than its words].   What answers this generation of Chinese come up with in practice matters greatly not just to China but to my own country and to the world.

Despite the current unpleasantness, China and the United States need each other to accomplish many of our respective national objectives.  When the time is ripe, we will need to reforge our relationship.  It will be hard to do that if reform and opening are neglected or set back as a result of our current quarrels.  If we lapse into tit-for-tat mode, it may not be possible to get back together at all.

The tremendous geopolitical advantages of the United States have not disappeared.  The potential of a uniquely diverse America has not been exhausted.  The United States is and will remain a formidable partner or competitor.

The same is true of China. We have much to lose and nothing to gain from adversarial antagonism (敌对的对立).   In both our interests, we need above all to keep cool heads and leave the door open to future cooperation.

The United States helped create a better world than the one into which it was born 242 years ago.  In my view, China’s reemergence on the global scene forty years ago has done the same.  We are now in a bad period.  But, in time, together we can still hope to surpass what we have accomplished over the past forty years both separately and in partnership.  We must act in ways that enable us to realize that hope.  And, if our governments cannot do this, our civil societies must step into the breach.