The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Engagement with China is failing. Time for ‘constructive vigilance.’

President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing last year. Trump will meet with Xi again at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires on Friday. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

John Pomfret is a member of the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States and the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom.”

Is the five-decade-old American enterprise to shape China’s rise dead? Are China and the United States headed toward a clash of civilizations? These crucial questions implicitly lie at the heart of a new report that 32 of the world’s top experts on China have spent the past year researching and writing, and which is set for release Thursday in Washington.

The report, titled “Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance,” was convened by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. It comprises the most comprehensive study of China’s influence operations in the United States to date. Divided into eight sections, the report details, among other things, Chinese government attempts to monitor and censor the political views of the 350,000 Chinese students living in the United States, China’s covert efforts to subsidize Chinese-language media operations in America, and public relations campaigns in Congress and with state and local governments. The report also highlights how Chinese academics,  journalists and media companies have exploited the openness of the United States, while their American counterparts have faced increasingly tight restrictions, blocked access, denied visas and unequal investment opportunities in China.

The report arrives in the midst of a profound reexamination of U.S. relations with China, led by the Trump administration, which has launched a trade war with Beijing over China’s failure to fully open its economy to American business and to rein in its operations to pilfer and exploit American technological secrets.

It wasn’t long ago that many experts in the United States believed that just about any kind of engagement with China was good. Born in part from America’s centuries-long belief (first stoked by capitalists and Christian missionaries) that America had a unique role to play in China’s modernization, the United States pursued a policy that sought to “manage China’s rise.” Many Americans involved in fashioning U.S.-China policy functioned under the impression that China’s system would inevitably converge with that of the West’s.

Chinese officials encouraged those beliefs. As the report notes, for almost four decades after the end of the Maoist era, China adhered to Deng Xiaoping’s policies of “reform and opening to the outside world” and “peaceful development.” After Deng retired and then died in 1997, these principles continued to guide China’s behavior under Communist Party bosses Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. Admonishing their followers to “keep your heads down and bide your time,” party leaders contended that China’s rapid economic development and its accession to “great power” status need not upend the existing global order.

However, the situation began to change dramatically in 2012 when Xi Jinping came to power. He has accelerated the more assertive policies initiated by Hu, his predecessor. These policies not only seek to redefine China’s place in the world as a global player, but they also push a “China solution” — a more efficient developmental model than liberal democracy.

This has led many experts to suspect that what underpins China’s moves – from its militarization of the South China Sea, to its persistently mercantilist behavior and its efforts to export to overseas Chinese communities its domestic crackdown on dissent – is a desire to be more than just a competitor with the West. Perhaps China really seeks to be an economic, military and even political rival. Ideological struggles, which were believed buried with the collapse of the Soviet Union, are now being disinterred.

In this context, what areas of engagement should be maintained — cooperation to combat climate change and the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for example — and what areas should be reined in? For years, American universities welcomed Chinese researchers in physics, even in specialties with applications to nuclear weapons and rocketry. Should U.S. schools continue to be open to them now? If we’re indeed heading toward a clash where American decline and Chinese ascendancy is real, what does that mean for the struggle to maintain American values?

It’s important not to exaggerate the threat of China’s initiatives in the United States, just as it is important not to demonize Chinese Americans and lurch into a new McCarthyism targeting a 21st-century version of “reds under the bed.” China is not Russia, our report emphasizes; it has not sought to interfere in a national election in the United States, or to sow confusion or inflame polarization in our democratic discourse.

In addition, the debate over China’s direction is not over in China either. Just a few weeks ago a former senior official in China’s ministry of commerce all but acknowledged that China has failed to keep its promises to continue reforming its economy. Nonetheless, as this report acknowledges, sadly in my personal view, the United States and China are at an inflection point in their relationship almost 50 years after the Nixon administration reached out to Beijing. If engagement is failing, what is the alternative? If a clash of civilizations is looming, can it be carried off short of a wider conflict?

Read more:

The World Post: China’s “responsive” authoritarianism

John Pomfret: As China-U.S. feud enters uncharted territory, Beijing can only blame itself

Max Boot: How Trump is making the world a very dangerous place

John Pomfret: China’s debt traps around the world are a trademark of its imperialist ambitions