The Washington Post

How China and the U.S. misunderstand one another

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Chinese Leader Xi Jinping and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meet in Washington. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Fellow Washington Post blogger and Great Wall Szechuan House enthusiast Ezra Klein has a great post on what China's hackers got wrong about Washington. Like many of the city's own denizens, he writes, the hackers seemed to assume that there must be some sort of top-down master plan, which they actively sought to uncover, driving policy and politics here. Part of that may have been a product of the hackers (or, presumably, their allegedly military bosses) buying into Washington's myth of itself, and part may have been China perceiving and misperceiving the American system through the lens of its own.

But the reverse is also true: Washington sometimes has a habit of misunderstanding China's internal machinations by assuming, just as China so often does with the U.S., that their system is more like our own than it really is. Klein's post, which mostly focuses on Washington, also repeats a few of its common misapprehensions about China. This only further proves Klein's point, of course, but it's a reminder that the reverse can also be true.

The question of why China hacks American businesses and government offices is a complicated one. It's informed by China's insecurity, its sense of itself as a nation that's weaker than it should be and that needs any edge it can get. It's about the Chinese leadership's perception that America is a hostile force bent on the Communist Party's destruction. And, yes, it's about stealing valuable information because that information has value.

Securing a qualitative military edge in the case of all-out war is probably not high on the list of motivations. "China and others are looking for a weakness, in case they ever feel they need to use it," Klein writes, suggesting that China might try to shut down the stock market or electrical grid in the event of war. It's true that China, like the U.S., would like to prepare for extremely unlikely but worse-case contingencies. But preparing for trans-Pacific war does not appear to be a high priority for China, whose leaders give every indication that they fear American political and cultural meddling far more than military conflict. In any case, China tends to appear all too aware that it is militarily inferior to the U.S.

Despite all this, the view that China is quietly preparing for war with America is surprisingly common in Washington's domestic policy circles. I've never really understood why, but perhaps it's because U.S. foreign policy assumes military hegemony. The idea that a great power would naturally desire the ability to win any possible war, no matter how remote, makes sense in the American worldview. But not really in the Chinese.

There's also a common view in Washington, where process and infighting are enormous focuses of attention, that China has basically solved these problems. Here's Ezra again:

The Chinese look at Washington, and they think there must be some document somewhere, some flowchart saved on a computer in the basement of some think tank, that lays it all out. Because in China, there would be. In China, someone would be in charge. There would be a plan somewhere. It would probably last for many years. It would be at least partially followed. But that’s not how it works in Washington.

That's not exactly how it works in Beijing, either. Here in Washington, we see our problems with process and infighting, look to China and see that they don't have these same problems. And that's true: China has a top-down system with one party and clear lines of command. There are no filibusters, no posturing to win elections, no exploiting public dislike for the other party. But, just as Chinese officials often misunderstand the U.S. system and its faults, so too can Americans sometimes misperceive China's. And both countries tend to overemphasize the other's strengths, which they see relative to their own weaknesses.

China does have a public, official, master plan – the latest five-year-plan – but it's not a detailed policy document like, say, the health-care law. It's more of a wish list. And the problem China has isn't agreeing on broad policies, it's figuring out how to implement them. Pretty much everyone in the Chinese Communist Party agrees that they have to transform their economy from export-led to domestic consumption. And they put it down in the Five-Year-Plan. But there's not a secret master document on how to do it, because they can't agree on how.

China's officials will probably still be arguing about how to implement their policies long after the actual implementation has begun. In the U.S., we lament our problems with process and infighting, but we have taken for granted that, once the U.S. government decides to reform health care a certain way, it's basically capable of carrying that out. China – and the country's leaders are very aware of this – doesn't have that luxurious ability.

An example of this problem that I like to cite is steel production. A few years ago, China announced that the country would cut steel production. I asked a journalist who covers Chinese industry if this was good news. He responded that it probably would be if not for the fact that China had been announcing this policy for years and, for years, Chinese steel production has been rising. Beijing, he said, could make all the declarations it likes, but there are a lot of high- and mid-level officials, not to mention the powerful state-run industries, who might not see it as in their interest to go along. Often, they don't, sometimes rewriting policy as it happens.

A major problem of the Chinese system, which can look efficient and monolithic from the outside, is that local officials, mid-level officials and senior officials sometimes have divergent incentives. (This problem might be familiar to close observers of America's two-party system.) Beijing might ban forced abortions, for example, but it still happens in places where the local official thinks he or she knows better. And even when everyone does follow orders, the people at the top might change their minds or even their hierarchy.

None of this is to criticize Ezra, of course, only to supplement his "myth of scheming" – the idea that Washington has successfully convinced the world that its leaders are constantly running sophisticated schemes, when in fact they're usually struggling to keep up – with Beijing's own myth of harmony.



Success! Check your inbox for details. You might also like:

Please enter a valid email address

See all newsletters

Show Comments

Sign up for email updates from the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

You have signed up for the "Confronting the Caliphate" series.

Thank you for signing up
You'll receive e-mail when new stories are published in this series.
Most Read



Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Your Three. Video curated for you.
Next Story
Caitlin Dewey · February 26, 2013

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.