Engaging with China under President Biden
By Peter Walker  ·  2021-05-17  ·   Source: NO.20 MAY 20, 2021
Peter Walker

Soon after taking office, questions began to swirl around President Joe Biden and his team of advisors, about how they might lower the temperature and resume a cordial, constructive relationship with China after the incendiary rhetoric of the Donald Trump-era. Now, several months in, the heat might be lower but little else has happened beyond a few pledges from the two superpowers to work together to improve the environment. Some of this immobilism is surely explained by President Biden's focus on the American economy and COVID-19 recovery. Some of it might also be written off as a wish not to be perceived as being soft on China. Still, such a slow shift toward constructive engagement may well reflect deeper problems having to do with some fundamentally flawed assumptions about China, perpetuated by American policy makers and reinforced by the media.

The flawed assumptions

Among the most persistent of these assumptions is that China is looking to replace the U.S. as the number one global power when the plain facts seem to prove otherwise. Over the last 1,000 years, China has engaged militarily on foreign soil only three times: twice with Viet Nam and once on the Korean Peninsula.

Its attitude toward foreign engagement explains in part the difference in its military budget with the U.S.—China's is about half that of the U.S., for a population at least three times larger. The U.S. has over 70 military bases outside its borders, whereas China has one. China has been aggressive in the South China Sea, but that is right off its own borders. These aren't the actions of a country looking to become the dominant global military power.

Further, despite all the criticism directed at China's Belt and Road Initiative, China has always maintained its purely economic nature, which is fundamentally about trade and securing access to energy and raw materials. This leads us to another persistent falsehood: that the Chinese economy is vulnerable, and its growth not sustainable. The weaknesses most often cited are excessive debt, a growing and unproductive state-owned enterprise (SOE) sector, an aging population, the lack of innovation, capital flight, and a property value bubble. But, again, a simple look at several facts on the ground refutes many of these assertions. Take, for starters, the 10-percent average GDP growth over 40 years. Sure, much of this past growth was driven by low-cost manufacturing, and aided by Western technologies, but massive government investments and top-down coordination among SOEs, private enterprises and universities give China a major advantage over the U.S.'s reliance on a purely competitive private sector model. Simultaneously, the Chinese education system graduates over four times the number of students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics than the U.S. system. Finally, while the U.S. has led in breakthrough technologies such as search engines, social media, nanochips, the Internet, and the iPhone, China is leading in renewable energies, quantum computing, payment systems and high-speed rail construction, and is at least at parity with the U.S. in the field of artificial intelligence—the technology expected to be the most economically powerful development of the future.

A third flawed assumption was a hallmark of the Trump years, and sought to slow down China's growth through tariffs, which didn't merely fail, but backfired by accelerating China's efforts to become independent of the U.S., while hobbling the U.S. economy.

But this idea persists, implying the U.S. can simply limit China's growth economically through its ongoing policy of curbing China's access to technologies—namely advanced nanochips—and convincing developing and developed countries to side with the U.S. against China. But countries simply do not want to be forced into this choice, as various leaders have stated again and again.

Finally, among the more persistent and pernicious assumptions about China within the U.S. is that the people of China are oppressed, have few freedoms, and do not support the government. Two well-known global research firms—Pew Research and Edelman—conduct surveys at the country level asking people to rate their government performance, their trust in the government, and whether they expect their quality of life to improve in the future. China's ratings are amongst the highest of major countries. My personal experience suggests the same thing. In the over 80 trips I have made to China, my contacts with Chinese people confirmed their pride in their country, their hard-work ethic, their high level of education and their love of family. When asked about personal freedoms, and the right to protest against the government, they dismissed its importance relative to the reforms introduced in the areas of work, travel, right to choose where to live, and anti-corruption actions.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers a speech to a joint session of Congress as he marks 100 days in office on April 28 (XINHUA)

The causes

Why, then, are these flawed assumptions so readily embraced by policy-makers, media, and U.S. citizens alike? The underlying reasons are many, but among the most powerful is the fact that the U.S. is a dualist society where the world is divided in good/evil,

winners/losers—a zero sum game. Therefore, if China is winning, we in the U.S. must be losing. The political gridlock of our system makes it tempting to blame China for our challenges instead of tackling the domestic need to invest in education, infrastructure, and science, as well as addressing income inequality and racial inequities, and reduce the drain of military expenses promoted by the military industrial complex.

All of us in the U.S. might also do well to invest in some understanding of China, and the core differences between our two countries, grounded in our unique histories and cultures. The Western and Japanese invasions of China, the immoral opium wars, the pain suffered by the Chinese people during the warlord period and the civil war are taught in Chinese schools and referred to in part as the "century of humiliation." The historic context is fundamental to China's worldview, as opposed to a very present and future focused, ahistorical view favored within the U.S. Our lack of understanding of China within the U.S stands in sharp contrast with China's understanding of the U.S. within China. Millions of highly educated Chinese have attended U.S. universities, including numerous political and industry leaders. In contrast, the number of Americans educated in China or who can speak standard Chinese is but a small fraction.

Hopefully, as the months wear on and President Biden's domestic crises abate, he will return to the position he has expressed in the past, allowing that "China is not our enemy." Or he may feel compelled by political pressure to continue to challenge China. If it's the latter, as China continues to progress, we should expect its motivation to pursue a "constructive engagement" with the U.S. to wane. We should not wish for that day to arrive. BR

The author is a frequent writer and speaker on China-U.S. relations since retiring as senior partner at McKinsey & Co.


Powerful Different Equal

Powerful Different Equal


My first connection to China was a spiritual journey over 35 years ago. I wanted to identify with and learn from the lives of individuals who 'died with a smile.' That journey took me east, to Taoism and the Tao Te Ching written by Lao-tzu in the 6th century B.C.

Since then I have taken over 80 trips to China, connecting with hundreds of individuals: Chinese business executives and managers, regulators and other governmental officials, experts in a wide range of social and economic fields, and many individuals interested in Taoism.

I gained a very positive impression of China through three and a half decades of relationships and interactions. I witnessed highly competent and educated executives and government officials, happy and optimistic people with a high level of pride in what China has accomplished, a high level of confidence in the central government, a profound awareness of China's history and culture, and a strong commitment to family, the future of China and its people.

Over the last 25 years I have read extensively on Chinese history, philosophy and literature, including many books on China written by Western authors. I also closely followed articles and editorials written in the Western press, specifically The New York Times, Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Economist. While I believe some writers deeply understand China, Thomas Friedman, Henry Kissinger and Hank Paulson for example, the larger, emerging picture of China based on my readings is very different from my personal experiences.


The Founding Fathers created the U.S. as an electoral democracy with the approval of the Constitution in 1789. The ultimate goal was life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for each individual American. This goal is supported by the ancient Judeo-Christian belief that each individual, as a son of God, has dignity and worth and is equal to every other man.

During one of my visits to China, I was surprised when a senior government official responded to my description of democracy in the US with the statement, "China is also a democracy, but we have a different definition. For us, democracy means, 'responsive to the people'." What he means here is, while China has no free elections except at the local level, the government invests great effort to understand and meet the needs of the people.

The goals are similar: the people's wellbeing. However, the focus of America's definition is each individual, reinforcing the individualistic culture of the US. The Chinese definition focuses on the 'people' collectively, reinforcing its collectivistic culture.

The means are also different. In an electoral democracy, the focus is on actively participating by voting to create a government by and for the people. The means in China are not through popular elections. Instead, the Chinese use polling and other tools to learn the needs and priorities of the people and use the feedback to shape government's decisions and actions.

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon

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