Thoughts from the Chairman: The Ambiguous Benefit of Meetings in China

The October 2016 issue of the Thoughts from the Chairman newsletter features recent Freeman Chair event videos, podcasts, publications, analysis, and a featured essay analyzing the the benefits of meetings in China.

The Ambiguous Benefit of Meetings in China
By Scott Kennedy

I’ve been to China a half dozen times this year, and I still have at least two trips left to bring me to the lucky number of eight. After 28 years, making the trek across the Pacific—or over the North Pole —doesn’t bring the same excitement it once did, but I still enjoy seeing friends and colleagues, seeing the sites, and learning new things about one of the most fascinating places in the world. My hope on each visit is to walk away surprised at something I saw or heard.
But I have to admit, on occasion I wonder how useful these trips are. I don’t mind the jet lag, which I view as a good opportunity to get through piled up work and catch the sunrise, and I’m not really bothered by the traffic in Beijing (where I stick to the subway as much as possible) or the pollution and inconveniences you run into in almost any Chinese city. What is starting to eat at me is the seemingly limited value of the events I attend. Now, of course, public meetings in China have never been the most opportune time to debate complex ideas and achieve breakthroughs. Andrew Walder’s fantastic study, Communist Neo-Traditionalism (1986), noted that meetings were venues for displays of political correctness (biaoxian, 表现). That said, my initial unscientific instinct is to conclude that we’ve reached a new low and that public gatherings seem even less productive than in years past.
Here are three examples.
In early June, I attended the U.S.-China Innovation Dialogue, which is a component of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue. Now in its eighth year, the American side’s original goal was to use the meeting as a vehicle to promote the norm of market-based innovation, as opposed to government-directed support (and opposition) for certain technologies. During this year’s meeting, both Americans and Chinese, officials and business people, enunciated this norm. At the same time, several Chinese speakers unapologetically defended the need for government support in certain instances for emerging industries. When pressed on the specific case of preferential credit for e-vehicle battery development that has gone exclusively to Chinese companies, an official responded that such support was entirely legitimate and that if non-Chinese companies wanted access to such support, they should invest in China. Other speakers stressed the importance of international cooperation to spur innovation, which is code for the transfer of American technology to China for free or at subsidized rates. This may be laudable, but the implied expectation made is that this should occur even as the Chinese government continues to provide extensive funding for indigenous technology development. In short, the original purpose of the Innovation Dialogue, at least from the American point of view, was largely blunted and in some ways turned on its head.
In late June, I attended a conference on governance cohosted by two American and Chinese universities. Political science has never been the most progressive scholarly discipline in China, but this gathering felt like a trip back in time to the 1980s when Chinese scholars were just beginning to become familiar with social science theories and methods. Several Chinese attendees stressed that China needed to find its own governance model and not accept “Western” social science theories, which they suggested were universally critical of countries that are not multiparty democracies. One highlighted that the Chinese government, under the Chinese Communist Party’s leadership, has become a thoroughly “service government” aimed at helping society, without regard for itself. There were counter voices, mostly by non-PRC experts, who complicated this picture, but disagreements were exercises in speaking past one another than directly addressing opposing views.
And finally, in mid-September, I attended the Binhai Forum on Peace and Development in Northeast Asia. Graciously hosted by the Tianjin municipal government and several Chinese foreign policy organizations, the public presentations by the Chinese attendees did not break stride with official positions on economic or security issues. The Belt & Road, and its ancillary arm, the China-Mongolia-Russia Corridor, received great praise. North Korea was criticized for its recent nuclear test, but the United States was encouraged to do more to reassure the DPRK and to not go forward with deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system. I could have—and did—read all of this in Xinhua reports. Moreover, the meeting was held at a swank conference resort center, but it was surrounded by a high wall and located far from downtown Tianjin, which kept attendees isolated from ordinary Chinese.
In each of these three meetings, there was a dearth of substantial give-and-take between Chinese and international participants, and when there was, it felt more like attendees reflexively resorted to knee-jerk defenses of their initial views. I wonder whether any minds were changed by any of the public exchanges. In the past, I’ve attended meetings in China that had more open and engaging exchanges, between Chinese and foreign participants and amongst the Chinese participants themselves. But these more recent events left the impression that public discourse in China has become stale and of limited value.
The question is why. My initial reaction is that the most likely answer is that maintaining a common position in public is expected even more in Xi Jinping’s China than in earlier eras. The penalties for going off script may have risen. But there is another possibility—that my initial impression is wrong or at least not the full story. It is entirely conceivable that I inaccurately imagined greater genuine engagement in years past. That may be because China’s official line on many things was more liberal under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and even Hu Jintao, and I mistook a greater level of agreement that I heard in meetings during these periods as a sign of more in-depth interchange. Relatedly, it is possible, even likely, that in the wake of the global financial crisis, the difficulties of the United States in its fight against terrorism, and the relative economic and diplomatic success of China, attitudes in the People’s Republic have decidedly changed. People aren’t necessarily parroting the party line as much as simply expressing a genuine different point of view. And rather than accept that possibility, I may have rationalized it as Chinese political correctness.
My conclusion is that it likely is a combination of both increased pressure for political correctness on the one hand and more heartfelt doubts about liberal economic and political approaches on the other. In any event, I think the wrong conclusion would be that public meetings in China are entirely irrelevant and that we should avoid attending them. Even if they are filled with seemingly boring recitations of official policy or heartfelt defenses of those positions, there is still a lot to learn and observe. You cannot have a genuine dialogue without fully understanding the official positions of all parties. And simply hearing Chinese positions has the beneficial effect of pushing us to become more familiar with U.S. policies, the pros and cons of each side, as well as the positions of others. Being pushed and prodded, whatever the motivation of others, is almost always a good exercise that we should welcome, not reject in frustration.
Finally, even public events have their private moments, when one can hear both defenses of public statements and also more complex analyses that reflect a wider range of views in China than one hears emanating from speakers standing on a dais in front of microphones and cameras. Talking with scholars, business people, and officials on the sidelines of these meetings was illuminating by any standard, as we could talk about macro topics and micro issues. During breaks of the Innovation Dialogue, informal conversations yielded a range of views about the government’s proper role in spurring innovations. During meals at the symposium on governance, local analysts were more willing to exchange gossip and speculation about elite politics. And in Tianjin I had the good fortune to meet new friends from Mongolia and Russia, two countries with which I have little contact. Their perspectives on China were not consistent with each other or typical of what one would hear in the United States.
So perhaps not as much has changed in attending meetings in China as I had initially believed. The one thing that was different from the late 1980s is that now I like tea, and my Chinese friends are coffee drinkers. Although I dread the upcoming flights, on further reflection, I’m now looking forward to what will take place after I land.

Scott Kennedy is a deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies and director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy at CSIS.