The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why the United States doesn’t need to return to a gentler China policy

Chinese President Xi Jinping greets President Trump before a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan, on June 28. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Near the end of the Vietnam War, American historian Barbara Tuchman came up with a theory on how the United States got into the ill-starred conflict: It was, she said, because of a failure to cultivate Chinese leader Mao Zedong in the 1940s.

Tuchman’s supposition, which she spelled out in an essay in Foreign Affairs in October 1972, argued that had the U.S. government seized the opportunity to befriend Mao during World War II, it could have mellowed Mao’s radicalism and averted the Vietnam and Korean wars. Never mind that Mao was an avowed Marxist-Leninist who idolized Joseph Stalin. Tuchman viewed the Chinese Communists almost as if they were a whiteboard upon which Americans could map out China’s future.

Subsequent work by Chinese and Western historians has debunked the theory. But the impulse behind it remains relevant today because it is indicative of something else: a profoundly paternalistic strain in the U.S. view of China.

I was reminded of this story last week when I read the open letter signed by scores of prominent experts on China. Like Tuchman, they deny agency to the Chinese Communist Party by placing the bulk of the blame for the current crisis in U.S.-China relations at the feet of the Trump administration. The letter nods to China’s misbehavior but focuses far more attention on what it calls the "many U.S. actions” that “are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations.”

To be sure, it’s easy to criticize the Trump administration when it comes to China. Pulling the United States out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership weakened U.S. leverage over China. Tariffs are on one day and off the next. And the failure of federal agencies to make their case to the public has sparked fears that Chinese Americans are going to be racially profiled as U.S. law enforcement cracks down on espionage.

But to blame the president for the current crisis with Beijing is redolent of an old view of China that has been around since the days of Christian missionaries. Treat China as an enemy, the tired chestnut goes, and China will become one. Treat China as a friend, and China will become a friend. It’s as if China has no role to play in this drama whatsoever. Can’t we bury that notion once and for all?

The CCP is far more responsible for what happens in China — and for the current crisis with the United States — than any American. Since the financial crisis of 2008 and the rise of President Xi Jinping, China has stopped market-oriented economic reforms, launched a massive crackdown that has resulted in the incarceration of more than 1 million Uighurs in Xinjiang, ramped up efforts to steal Western technology, broken a promise made to a U.S. president not to militarize the South China Sea and tried to export its system abroad. It has squeezed aspirations for democracy in Hong Kong and launched a campaign to undermine the democratic system in Taiwan.

The main fruit of a generally cooperative policy from Washington, at least during the Obama years, has been an emboldened China eager to reach for more.

Last week’s letter continues in this wrongheaded vein by repurposing the tired trope that we should tailor our China policy to support “Chinese leaders who want China to play a constructive role in world affairs.” But all the evidence I have seen from living in China for nearly 20 years indicates that there are no such “Chinese leaders” waiting in the wings. Xi has purged many of them, and others — reading the tea leaves — have changed their tune.

At root, the letter seems to misunderstand the nature of power in a Marxist-Leninist system such as China’s. Many in the American China-watching community have what former assistant secretary of state for East Asian affairs Kurt Campbell has called a “romantic” attachment to China. They want to be friendly toward China and, in truth, there are millions of everyday Chinese people who feel the same way.

What many of these experts fail to grasp is that the people who run the Chinese Communist Party are of a different ilk. “These guys think and go to school on power on a regular basis,”Campbell noted in a wide-ranging interview last year on the Sinica Podcast. Campbell also had another observation that was unusual for a former official in a Democratic administration: “President Trump has basically received and gotten more Chinese leverage,” he said, “… by this brutal approach than we got by treating China as a partner and with deep respect.”

Indeed, when Trump bellows about China, as he has over and over, he doesn’t blame his “good friend” Xi or previous Chinese leaders for stealing our lunch. He blames past U.S. administrations for allowing it to happen — and he is talking about the very people who signed this letter.

As is often the case, China’s reaction to these types of proposals is telling. China’s state-run media lauded the open letter and cherry-picked some quotes. A spokesman for China’s foreign ministry called it “rational and objective.” The China Daily praised it, and it even made the nightly national news.

It’s not clear that Trump is going to be able to carry out his strategy to introduce reciprocity into U.S. relations with China. To accomplish this, the United States is going to need help and, given Trump’s mercurial nature, cooperation with our allies has been scattershot. But the Trump administration is the first one in decades to tell China that the status quo is broken. What China watchers should be doing is building on that insight, and not returning to promises of a kinder, gentler policy that wouldn’t have worked in the 1940s and won’t work today.

Read more:

M. Taylor Fravel, J. Stapleton Roy, Michael D. Swaine, Susan A. Thornton and Ezra Vogel: China is not the enemy

Josh Rogin: How Mike Pompeo became Trump’s China hawk

Josh Rogin: China’s efforts to undermine democracy are expanding worldwide

Catherine Rampell: Team Trump should be careful what it wishes for on China

Josh Rogin: To avoid conflict, the United States must deter Chinese aggression

Stephen K. Bannon: We’re in an economic war with China. It’s futile to compromise.