China Whack-a-Mole

This week’s column is in two parts. The first is a brief history of my own evolution in thinking about China, and the second comments on recent China-related developments. So, if personal stories bore you, skip to paragraph eight.

My interest in China began in college, largely because it was this faraway place different from anything I had ever experienced. At the time the Cultural Revolution was in full speed, and I was trying to understand how something like that could happen. My graduate school thesis was on how Maoism was essentially an updated version of Confucianism—an attempt to put then-current events into their historical context. (Happy to defend that thesis if anyone cares.)

When I began working on Capitol Hill in the 1970s, China was not of primary importance, but after Deng Xiaoping began to open the economy in 1978, China became a more frequent topic of conversation. My first visit was in January 1985 as a member of the first congressional staff delegation to go to China. We arrived in bitterly cold weather, and I remember the first day when, being jetlagged and awake, I went out around 6:00 a.m. for my first view of China. I immediately saw thousands of people dressed in Mao suits riding bicycles to work. It was the most different thing I had ever encountered. The percentage of people wearing the approved uniform declined as we went south. By the time we got to Guangzhou, only party officials were properly dressed. As the saying goes, the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away.

That trip was followed by a congressional delegation in 1986, led by my then-boss, Senator John Heinz (R-PA); several visits when I was at the Commerce Department; and then near-annual trips from 2001 through 2015 when I served on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The commission trips usually included other destinations in the region because we quickly learned that if you want to know about someone, talk to their neighbors. They always have good stuff to tell you.

I was in the Clinton administration during China’s effort to join the World Trade Organization. That was not my portfolio, but I agreed with the president’s decision to support their accession after a long and difficult negotiation. There are plenty of people around today, some of them too young to remember that time, who think the United States made a mistake. Hindsight is 20/20. I believed then and now that based on the information available, we made the right decision. China’s leaders then, while not at all interested in democracy, wanted to integrate China into the global trading system and use the obligations they were taking on to force domestic economic reforms. That would have been good for them and good for us.

Unfortunately, Xi Jinping has taken a sharply different path, reestablishing state control of the economy, clamping down on anything and anybody that might constitute a source of power or influence outside the Communist Party, and pursuing a more aggressive foreign policy.

I watched that evolution from my position on the China Commission, where I began as an often-lone voice against hysteria and overreaction, dissenting from two of their first three reports. At one point I was accused of being a “lobbyist for the Communist Chinese” at a House Armed Services Committee hearing (which is actually a funny story I will tell another time). Over time, as China’s policy changed, so did my views, and I have come to share many of the concerns now being expressed about China’s actions and the threat they pose to us.

I have not, however, abandoned my dislike for hysteria and paranoia, and currently there is plenty of that to go around. We are plagued with whack-a-mole incidents—something new popping up every few months. In February it was balloons, then it was TikTok (still going on), and then it was Chinese cranes (the cargo-lifting kind, not the birds) at U.S. ports that are allegedly a security threat. I am waiting for someone to announce that the decision to split Ali Baba into six parts is a sinister plot to undermine our security.

The concerns around these incidents are not all specious, but neither are they apocalyptic. We are not doomed by any of them, or even all of them taken together. They do, however, further poison the well, encourage paranoia in Congress, and make it difficult to find ways to make progress on our differences. Last week, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen tried to puncture the hysterical balloons with a thoughtful, balanced speech. She outlined three principles: 

First, we will secure our national security interests and those of our allies and partners, and we will protect human rights. . . . Second, we seek a healthy economic relationship with China: one that fosters growth and innovation in both countries. . . . Third, we seek cooperation on the urgent global challenges of our day.

And then she closed on a hopeful note:

We believe that the world is big enough for both of us. China and the United States can and need to find a way to live together and share in global prosperity. We can acknowledge our differences, defend our own interests, and compete fairly.

These are needed, calming words, I hope we will remember them when the next mole pops up, as it certainly will.

William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.