Spending many childhood summers in Hong Kong, I always heard the same complaint about Americans: we are clueless about Chinese history and culture, but presumptuously confident about the superiority of our own Western principles and heritage.
Perhaps this belief among many Chinese is just envy of American prosperity, but it was clear from their standpoint that Americans have little grasp or fluency when it comes to understanding China. They have largely been proven correct. American corporate, academic, and political leadership have a collective lack of knowledge and experience of China’s culture, history, economy, and governance.
The necessity of an effective China strategy in American foreign policy has never been greater. Increasing antagonism between the U.S. and China and increasing Chinese aggression towards Western allies in the Pacific requires a measured and coherent response. China is no longer a poor, agrarian nation, but a hegemon in the East. Partisan bickering on Capitol Hill endlessly blames the opposing side for American failures in China, but the truth is that neither Republicans nor Democrats have enough skilled and experienced personnel to develop and execute a comprehensive China strategy. Apart from fueling an incoherent China strategy, the scarcity of China-fluent personnel has led to counterproductive paranoia on Capitol Hill, and an increasing risk of US-China war.
While American political leadership recognizes China’s growing power, few have been frank with the American public about the nation’s astounding growth. In 2007, China’s economy was 10 percent the size of the US (in GDP PPP terms). It is now over 115 percent and estimated to be triple by 2040. China’s GDP growth rate has been triple that of the United States’ for the last two decades. In a pandemic-ridden and disastrous 2020 where U.S. GDP was estimated to shrink by four percent, China’s GDP grew by two percent. That sort of seismic shift in economic power cannot simply be met with anti-Beijing rhetoric and draft proposals. But rather than mobilizing support for greater personnel and resources for a proper China strategy, politicians and media seem to rest on America’s laurels, presuming that our current capability to contain and counter China is sufficient. Meanwhile, Beijing continues to aggressively extend its economic and political reach.
Because public opinion towards China has turned drastically sour over the past year, (73% of Americans held a negative view of China in 2020), there is no shortage of American politicians who have been quick to vocalize concern over China’s economic practices and human rights issues. A bi-partisan bill imposing sanctions on Chinese officials over human rights abuses against Muslim minorities was passed unanimously last May. Another, pressuring Chinese companies to comply with specific auditing requirements, was recently passed on the House floor. While bipartisan attention is a start, the conversations have failed to develop a clear vision on American priorities in Asia.
Our ignorance of Chinese culture has led to an imbalance between rising American and Chinese elites. Many young Chinese leaders in business and government have spent significant time in the United States studying, can speak fluent English, and adeptly understand American culture, governance, and institutions. In 2019, almost 400,000 Chinese students were enrolled in American undergraduate, graduate, non-degree, and optional practical training programs. In contrast, American elites visit the Great Wall, watch some Bruce Lee, and drink boba.
This has led to an exceptionally low amount of relationship-building between Americans and future Chinese leaders. Growing numbers of Chinese students that might otherwise stay in the U.S. and help build our economy are returning to their homeland. At elite American universities, many international students from China are socially confined to the enclaves of their Chinese communities. Few American students seek to connect, befriend, and empathize with them. At Stanford, I distinctly recall computer science classes where Chinese graduate students would sit with their own fellow international cohort, and the rest of us seemed to avoid them. These social dynamics are as absurd as my old middle school cafeteria, but the consequences are significant. Chinese leaders know how the U.S. operates and how its people think, whereas we do not know the same of China.
Institutions throughout the American public, private, and educational domains need to build networks of China-fluent personnel. Corporations must learn to consider unforeseen consequences of their growth strategies disrupting American priorities in Asia. Future foreign policy leaders should seek to spend time working or studying in Asia, gaining experience dealing with Chinese leaders, and future ones, on the ground.
As a starting point, educational institutions such as Stanford, which are responsible for cultivating the next generation of American leaders, have an obligation to encourage engagement with and absorption of Chinese history, governance, and culture. Liberal education programs such as the new Stanford core should incorporate key texts to understanding modern China, such as Ezra Vogel’s biography of Deng Xiaoping. World history courses should dedicate significant time to understanding the Chinese psyche through studying classical Chinese scholarship. Political Science and IR departments ought to organize classes and/or internships traveling to China, learning and interacting with Chinese professionals and leaders (Law1066 is a great “field study” model from the Stanford Law School). Engineering courses should do the same, to learn how Chinese companies were able to develop leadership in the field of artificial intelligence with such groundbreaking speed.
Beyond the university, programs like the Schwarzman Scholars that immerse students with Chinese culture ought to be replicated and grown (whilst carefully avoiding the potential for complicity that the Schwarzman program has accrued!).
It is my hope, along with many other Chinese and Americans, that we see a more compassionate, fair, and free China in the 21st century. Many have said that this is impossible, but if there is anything the nation and its people have demonstrated over the past century, it is their capacity to change and evolve in spite of the greatest adversity. From the Nationalists to the Communists, from Mao to Deng, from the collectives in the farmlands to the heights of Shenzhen, China has pushed the realms of possibility in its own context. If Americans seek sustained influence in Asia, and desire to play a significant role in shaping its development, it is time we invest in a better understanding of China and its people.