The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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An Exceptional Obsession

Beijing’s elite can’t stop reading about America.

Published on May 1, 2010

According to the U.S.-based Global Language Monitor, which tracks the top 50,000 print and electronic media sites throughout the world, the “rise of China” was the most read-about media theme of the past decade, surpassing even the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Iraq War. One reason for this, we may presume, is that the ubiquitous subtext to “China’s rise” is America’s decline. We know a good deal less than we should about what attentive and educated Chinese read in a land where the press is not free, but we do know something about how the Chinese elite sees the world—and while the subject matter overlaps a good deal, the substance is not what many attentive and educated Americans suppose.

Debate among the Chinese elite today is framed around whether the international structure of power will soon change from “one superpower, many great powers” (yi chao duo qiang) toward a state of genuine multipolarity (duojihua), or not. For example, in February 2009, Li Hongmei, the editor of People’s Daily online, confidently predicted “an unambiguous end to the U.S. unipolar system”, arguing that America was “pushed to the brink of collapse as a result of its inherent structural contradictions and unbridled capitalist structure”, and that the international order was thus shifting toward genuine multipolarity.1 Unofficial but apparently authentic transcripts and exchanges from the Eleventh National People’s Congress (NPC), held in March 2009, reveal that officials spent much of their time discussing how best to continue “China’s peaceful rise” and manage “America’s peaceful decline.” Indeed, Chinese confidence in a rapidly emerging multipolar world reached feverish levels in the spring of 2009 as American stock markets and other economic indicators continued their freefall.

But despite an especially difficult past decade for America, no enduring sense of triumphalism has emerged in Beijing. Having poured over more than a hundred major articles and memos written during the past decade in both Mandarin and English, about a third of which were published since the onset of the global financial crisis, I have found a literature obsessed with all things American. These writers—the most influential Chinese scholars and Communist Party officials on international relations theory, global and regional outlook and foreign policy strategy—are focused not just on U.S. hard power but also the nature of American leadership, values and society. At least four out of five articles aim to understand the sources of American strength so that China might counter them. Serious people in China do not count America out. Indeed, knowing something about China’s own vulnerabilities, the feeling that comes through more clearly is not hubris but fear.

This judgment is supported by the December 2009 edition of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ (CASS) Yellow Book, which assesses the “comprehensive national power” of the top eleven nations in the world and is regarded as the authoritative document on informed Chinese views of the global environment. America comes out on top in every category except for “natural resources”, while China is ranked seventh overall. Even in military power, Beijing’s self-assessed 56.78 points is a distant second to America’s 90.08 points. According to one of the lead authors, Li Shaojun, in addition to military dominance America enjoys “unparalleled” advantages in key categories such as economy, social and civil society, science and technology, geostrategy, geography and in international institutions.

To be sure, then, the phrase “managing the peaceful decline of America”, which appeared so frequently throughout the first half of 2009 in Chinese elite discourse, is atypical overall. Although Chinese leaders believe that the future environment, especially in Asia, will naturally trend toward multipolarity—hence the decline of American unipolarity—Beijing sees this as neither imminent nor certain.2

This brings me to the American experience of exchanges with counterparts in China in which American visitors generally leave Chinese shores none the wiser about what leaders and elites in Beijing really think. Chinese officials and state-sponsored intellectuals generally deal with Americans respectfully but warily. After all, Beijing still views “Westerners” with suspicion, and Chinese officials are, for the moment, meeting counterparts from a higher rank in the global geopolitical pecking order. In contrast, being “not American” and having been born in Asia (Malaysia) from an ethnic Chinese background bring advantages. In particular, one thing is apparent in my speaking several times each year to Chinese officials based in Beijing, Washington, Singapore and Canberra: Rather than the formality and respect that is shown to Americans, one is offered informality and candor from the same officials who generally proffer practiced responses to American counterparts.

To wit, in a rare admission that misplaced hubris exists in Beijing, several senior Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials pointed out to me recently that earlier triumphalists in Beijing erred during the onset of the global financial crisis by focusing on America’s problems without looking at how the rest of the world—including China—was faring. Indeed, twenty to forty million Chinese workers lost their jobs in the export-manufacturing sectors alone throughout 2008 and the first half of 2009 (compared to 7.2 million jobs lost across America since December 2007). Premier Wen Jiabao subsequently repeated warnings to colleagues in December 2009 about enormous “structural problems” with China’s economy worsening due to over-reliance on fixed investment and exports, and about China’s economy still being “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unstable.”3 Moreover, as Chinese finance officials have privately admitted, China’s self-mandated 8 percent minimal growth as the level needed to sustain Chinese Communist Party legitimacy is a sign not of strength but of weakness in politics, economics and civil society.

More recent events have not convinced Chinese leaders that any decisive shift in the international order is nigh. To the contrary, despite occasional bluff and bluster, Chinese leaders still fear America and see the ongoing challenge posed by the United States as distinctive, daunting and exceptional.

America Obsession

Chinese leaders have been interested in America for a long time, but for most of the Communist period they were even more interested in the Soviet Union, Japan, India and other countries nearer by. With the end of the Cold War and the relaxation of the grip of orthodox Marxism on the minds of Chinese analysts, things changed. Ever since the early 1990s, Chinese leaders and strategists have evinced a singular interest in America. This interest has translated into massive increases in state funding for America studies through the CASS system of think tanks. More intensive economic and political engagement with the West has also brought much greater intellectual engagement with Western theories and concepts of international relations. As the Chinese read more about America, they read more American self-analysis in the process.

The results have been interesting. With the yoke of faux-realist Leninist orthodoxy removed, there has been a burst of interest in non-material forms of “power” and “influence” in the international system. But the Chinese seem also to have become engrossed by, and even to some extent taken sides in, the American debate over U.S. foreign policy, decline and a host of related issues. Americans seem to fascinate them to the point that many Chinese cannot resist suspending their objectivity from time to time, having become vicarious participants in the sort of debate many are still constrained from having about China’s role in the world.

In this light I recall several recent conversations, one with a former senior Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs official, some with other officials, and some with dissidents formerly in Beijing’s foreign policy apparatus. I asked them which American foreign affairs authors or books were the most widely read by leading Chinese experts and senior officials over the past five years. Two names caught my attention in the responses: Joseph Nye and Walter Russell Mead.

Realist and neo-realist authors like Hans Morgenthau, Henry Kissinger and John Mearsheimer had taken pride of place on Chinese readings lists before the 1990s. They offered Chinese thinkers orthodox variables for comparison (that is, hard power resources) and “structural” reasons why China and the United States were bound to be competitors. But as time passed these approaches grew less popular for the limitations they displayed. American foreign policy had since World War II depended on a combination of hard power preponderance and a formal network of strategic multilateral and bilateral alliances in Asia and Europe. But realism failed to capture other key themes in U.S. policy: the nurturing of “special relationships” with fellow democracies and the promotion of an open trading and financial system. These pursuits were meant not only to enhance U.S. hard power and strategic reach, but also very explicitly to undermine authoritarian polities. As Averell Harriman put it during testimony to the House Committee on Foreign Affairs in 1947, in a trope that the Bush Administration borrowed in 2005, U.S. foreign policy aims to create “a balance of power preponderantly in favor of the free countries.”

In contrast to realist authors who offer a disciplined but limited range of tools with which to assess national power and character, thinkers such as Mead (notably in his Special Providence, which is required reading for many CASS American studies researchers) have provided Chinese scholars with a new, richer set of heuristics with which to understand America and its eclectic mix of foreign policy traditions. For example, CASS researchers have told me that it was Mead’s approach to American foreign policy traditions—those of Jacksonians, Jeffersonians, Hamiltonians and Wilsonians—that they read to better understand the Bush Doctrine in its several permutations. It is how they figured out that George W. Bush was not sui generis but linked firmly to the thinking of American Presidents in the second half of the 20th century, and even to the thinking of those who came much earlier.

Moreover, Chinese assessments of America’s rising comprehensive national power since the mid-1990s reflect a belief that Washington successfully exploited its 15-year “window of opportunity” at the end of the Cold War at the expense of other competitors. In a 2005 article, the influential scholar Yaqing Qin summarized the thoughts of his peers by arguing that the “theoretical problematic” of post-Cold War American international relations thinking—the ultimate purpose of American IR theory—was “hegemonic maintenance” rather than mere state survival and maintaining the balance of power. According to Yaqing, having “won” the Cold War, the U.S. leadership is now obsessed with “the problem of how to establish, consolidate, and consummate its international hegemonic system . . . with its purpose to safeguard America’s leading role [and] the order and stability of its system.”

Moreover, according to Wang Jisi, there is a close link between American hegemony and American liberalism. Quoting American scholars such as Mead, Wang argues that Americans, unlike “postwar” Europeans, “worship violence” and have a “warlike disposition.”4 Unlike fundamentally realist powers such as Russia, the key to their readiness to use force is the construction of “a universal collective identity” that upholds liberal (democratic) values and systems.5 Elsewhere, Wang has written that the idea that American “greatness depends on a world made safe for freedom” is an “immutable American tenet.” He has also argued that “the enlargement of America’s hegemonic ambition since World War II coincides with the gradual enlargement of the American democracy and the growth of diversity in the United States.”6

China’s leading thinkers on world politics also believe that the relative advances in China’s own comprehensive national power have re-energized the muscular liberal traditions in U.S. foreign policy, and that this will likely continue under President Obama, although perhaps in a softer rhetorical package. Hegemonic liberalism, they believe, is embedded deeply into American political culture. The Chinese agree that wars such as those in Korea, Vietnam, Kosovo, Afghanistan and the second Iraq War are all in some way related to the promotion of American values rather than simply the pursuit of material interests, a view very much at odds with the obligatory interpretative framework of the pre-Deng era. This prevailing interpretation of American values and its foreign policy framework has nevertheless not changed the bottom line. Rather, it has convinced many in Beijing that America will always view non-democratic states as “outsiders” and potential threats to the liberal order, no matter how deep pragmatic day-to-day engagement may become.

This, in turn, is why the Chinese political elite fears the United States. Although the CCP speaks privately about “transforming” the U.S.-led open, liberal global system “from within”, the Party realizes that the existing system is powerfully equipped to undermine authoritarian polities instead, as recent history illustrates. Chinese leaders know the various hues of the color revolutions, and they remember well the model of the Statue of Liberty at Tiananmen Square. It is not lost on them either that the immediate post-Cold War enemies of America remained authoritarian states such as Iraq, Iran, Libya, Syria, North Korea, Burma, Russia and, presumably, China. In a July 27, 2009 article in the Global Times, Wang Jisi argued that genuine cooperation between Washington and Beijing is limited by the gap between their respective ideologies and social systems in addition to conflicting national interests. And as one former Chinese official told me, “After the Soviet Union fell, engaging China was always designed to ultimately change its political system.” In this regard, Chinese thinkers see little practical difference between Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama from earlier, successful American leaders such as Truman, Kennedy and Reagan.

Why Beijing Reads Joseph Nye

If America’s liberal “will to power” is so deeply embedded, it has also been highly successful in winning widespread global approval for U.S. liberal leadership. Chinese thinkers believe that the United States has two unparalleled advantages in this regard.

The first of these advantages is America’s leadership within global institutions. Beijing still takes a somewhat Leninist view of corporations (that is, all such entities are really “instruments” of the state rather than genuinely independent entities) and a Marxist view of international institutions, including nongovernmental organizations (these have been designed by economic superpowers to perpetuate their leadership position and increase the dependency of undeveloped countries on the developed West). China is too weak to challenge and replace existing institutions. Therefore, although its leaders recognize how their country has benefitted significantly from economic engagement with the West and from membership in institutions such as the World Trade Organization, the rule of thumb remains to join and then “subvert American leadership or else participate but resist becoming dependent”, in the words of one Chinese finance official. As the 11th NPC transcript reveals with particular reference to the International Monetary Fund, “We will work with the Americans when we can, alongside them in rule making and institution building, and replacing them when useful and necessary.”

The second advantage, identified by a host of CASS Yellow Books and other reports as possibly America’s greatest asset, is unparalleled “soft power.” Since the mid-1990s, Beijing has realized that winning over foreign populations not just through economic inducements but also through admiration and respect for Chinese culture is an essential element in building and sustaining future Chinese leadership, especially in Asia. Consequently, Joseph Nye has been required reading for any aspiring Chinese foreign affairs official for more than a decade. Likewise, Walter Russell Mead’s 2005 book Power, Terror, Peace and War: America’s Grand Strategy in a World at Risk—which makes additional distinctions between “sharp” and “sticky” hard power and “sweet” and “hegemonic” soft power—became mandatory reading for many senior strategists and officials. Some Chinese thinkers have even attempted to outdo Mead, and each other, by expanding the number of soft power categories. They now number ten, and we’re still counting.

Despite the perceived errors and excesses of the Bush Administration, China’s foreign policy analysts realize that American soft power is still by far the most formidable of any country. The appeal of America as a land of freedom, opportunity and achievement has helped perpetuate acceptance of U.S. leadership, not least throughout Asia. As Wang Jisi admits, even though China opposes America imposing its value system on other states, democracy, diversity and tolerance have not been imposed; they are admired by way of example, and this has done much to promote American power and influence throughout the world.7 Chinese leaders are also well aware that America’s technological and academic leadership is frequently attributable to its open, tolerant and diverse political and social system, as well as to its dynamic private sector-dominated economy.

In contrast, despite China’s rising economic clout, few foreign elites seek Chinese citizenship and fewer still profess commitment to “Chinese values” or admire China’s Communist Party-dominated society. Beijing carefully watched the election of a black U.S. President, mindful of the troubled history of race relations in American society, and it has seen how this development has energized the appeal of America in the eyes of much of the world. No one anywhere takes seriously the prospect of a non-Han leader in China, whether democratically elected or not.

Beijing further understands that the Anglo-Saxon nations enjoy a huge advantage in soft power resources because of the prevalence (including in Asia) of the English language in the conduct of global affairs, intellectual discussion, literature, the media and popular culture. English has official or special status in around 75 countries. The establishment of more than 260 Confucius Institutes for the teaching of Chinese language is very much an instrument of foreign policy in response. Beijing is aiming for 500 Institutes by 2010 (teaching 100 million foreigners in over 100 countries) and 1,000 by 2020. This in a way is Joe Nye’s doing; it is a deliberate investment in Chinese soft power.

Finally, enhancing Chinese soft power is seen as a necessary self-defense against any “China threat” thesis emanating out of Washington, Tokyo, Delhi or other capitals. Just as America’s soft power continues to play an important role in sustaining its global leadership, Chinese leaders hope that widespread admiration for Chinese culture will help dissuade other powers from bandwagoning with the United States in any future containment effort. More specifically, securing approval of its status as an authoritarian great power leading a great civilization goes to the heart of China’s search for security and legitimacy within what CCP leaders perceive to be a hostile international liberal order. As one of the Yellow Book lead authors, Li Shaojun, puts it, “China will not be able to stand firm in the world and will be humiliated” unless it can substantially develop all forms of power—hard and soft.8 Thus we are likely to see a Beijing Consensus manufactured to contend with the Washington Consensus.9

In sum, most Chinese strategists, especially those of a certain age, yearn for the world of Morgenthau and Kissinger. Genuine multipolarity within a system of several realist-oriented great powers balancing against each other offers Beijing more strategic options and fits better within its intellectual comfort zone. But most Chinese observers now realize that this world is no longer available, if it ever really was, so long as the United States dominates the global system. As influential Peking University Professor Zhu Feng argues, “The unipolar American system and ongoing efforts to make its hegemonic position unchallengeable have reduced China’s balancing options and have even compelled China to bandwagon with the United States.”10 America remains the superpower within an order largely of its own making, especially in Asia, where it remains the preferred security partner of all major powers in the region.

Since Chinese thinkers believe they exist in an embedded liberal system with unique rules and values that favor its American creator, virtually all of them argue that China has no choice but to engage with America and make the best of the current situation. If we can call China the most self-conscious rising power in history, we may also be able to call it the loneliest. It has few genuine allies and is distrusted by all the other major powers, including neighbors Japan, South Korea, India and even Russia. Well aware of its potential isolation, Chinese thinkers make frequent references to the ancient lessons of the Warring States Period (from the 5th century BCE to the first Qin Dynasty in 221 BCE), as well as to the experiences of Germany and Japan in the 1940s and the Soviet Union in 1991. The main lesson they take from all of these cases is that a state which rises too fast will likely suffer attack, dismemberment and perhaps even extinction.

Chinese foreign policy has thus been cautious and selectively subversive rather than confrontational. Beijing remains eager to avoid direct conflict with a much more powerful competitor, but its reticence should not be mistaken for compliance with or support for American objectives. China’s grand strategy has not changed since Deng outlined it in the early 1980s: Avoid ideological conflicts, develop a pragmatic rather than a doctrinal view of strategy, and maintain good relations with Western countries that can help China modernize. Neither has there been any change in its grand purpose since the days of Mao Zedong: Supersede the relatively recent American interloper in Asia as the region’s natural leader.

Compound Exceptionalism

Like it or not, China believes itself to be stuck with an exceptional adversary. It would rather play old-fashioned balance-of-power world politics, but with America it knows it cannot do so. Facing so novel a predicament, China has turned itself into an ardent student of American policy, politics, society and strategic literature, and the result has had a peculiar recursive effect: Because America thinks itself exceptional, it is exceptional; and because China studies the exceptional, it sees itself in an exceptional situation. This has created a form of compound exceptionalism, and it has several important practical implications for those who wish to understand the underpinnings of U.S.-China relations.

Above all, Chinese leaders are anxious about having to deal with a society so different from their own, and by different we don’t mean a superficial contrast between communism and capitalism. China’s is a communal culture; America’s is individualist. China is rooted in its land longer and more deeply than any society on earth; America is an immigrant society and an unprecedentedly mobile one at that. China has never institutionalized the rule of law; America is fundamentally based on it. China has never experienced deistic religion; America, as Chesterton once said, is “a nation with the soul of a church.”

On top of these basic differences, which the Chinese are striving mightily to comprehend, are other, obvious contrasts. America is wealthy in virtually every relevant measure. Although the Chinese state is rich and its military increasingly formidable, its people are poor, with a per capita GDP not even in the top one hundred globally. American institutions are both venerable and have proven very flexible over time. Beijing’s approach to economics, politics and social order is still in the experimental phase and has been much less successful than it tries to make out.

China tries to shield its domestic problems from outsiders because it is acutely aware of how serious and debilitating they are. It is still struggling to meet the challenge of enormous dislocations and dysfunctions in its economy and society. For example, the Chinese government deals with an estimated 124,000 instances of “mass unrest” each year, and that number is rising. The country’s civil society and institutions are weak, corruption is worsening and Beijing finds it almost impossible to effectively implement policies in the majority of its provinces and administrative zones. China knows it is attempting to defy history by modernizing without robust rule-of-law and property-rights regimes, since no large country has successfully done so.

Contrary to what many Americans believe, then, it is actually China, not post-Bush America, that is the insecure power. Indeed, one could even say that, because of compound exceptionalism, China’s improved understanding of America’s strengths has also led it to a better understanding of its own weaknesses.

In this light, America’s lecturing China on the need for political reform not only annoys Beijing but terrifies it—because Chinese leaders know it is true. President Hu Jintao wrote in a recent editorial in the China Daily, “Hostile forces have not abandoned their conspiracy and tactics to Westernize China and to divide the country.” Such is the Party’s public line. But a growing number of individuals privately admit that China’s authoritarian system is dysfunctional: incapable of effective governance and implementation; and a source of its worsening social, economic, institutional and environmental problems.

The obsession to increase all its forms of power and convince Americans and the world—in that order—that it will be successful without basic political reform is one pillar of Beijing’s strategy. It has no choice, really: It has learned from the Soviet experience that controlled political reform is an oxymoron in such a system. Gaining a deeper understanding of the competitor, or potential enemy, is the other pillar. And it is here that Chinese thinking has become the most dynamic in recent years.

Chinese analysts tirelessly seek evidence of American weaknesses that could open “windows of opportunity” to advance China’s own relative standing, or even to hasten the beginning of the end of “one superpower, many great powers.” For example, some more strident commentators and officials privately argue—as do many Chinese bloggers—that the American political economy has become a dysfunctional “plutocracy”, thereby undermining the foundations of a liberal democratic system that gave rise to American preponderance. Chinese elites frequently cite authors such as Noam Chomsky to support their assertions of American decadence. I have also been told that Kevin Phillips (American Theocracy) and William Pfaff, both authors who have written about manifestations of an emerging U.S. plutocracy, are widely read by Chinese elites.11

By contrast, however, more seasoned analysts as well as senior officials argue that these are overly simplistic analyses still subconsciously relying on crude Marxist-Leninist caricatures. They contend that these perspectives fail to account for the extensive role the private sector plays in American society, something untutored Chinese are prone to overlook since China’s private sector plays no such comparable role. Moreover, older and more senior voices in China realize that predicting long-term trends for U.S. government and political economy is difficult because the democratic process allows for a type of political agency with which the Chinese are still unfamiliar. Thus, many hardline Chinese commentators have shifted suddenly in their criticism of the American political economy as a more or less closed plutocracy under George W. Bush to a dangerously “populist” one under Barack Obama. Such hardliners see Obama’s reputation as a trade protectionist lacking a free-trade agenda for Asia as part and parcel of this populism. They therefore see a window of opportunity that can be exploited by Beijing, and so behold the China-ASEAN Free Trade agreement that came into force on January 1, 2010.

Wiser heads in China don’t credit such interpretations and recognize China’s own form of plutocracy, one in which more than 90 percent of the country’s 10,000 richest individuals are Communist Party members. China’s Gini coefficient is now worse than that of the United States. Indeed, it has become the most unequal country in Asia according to this measurement. Also consider the call by People’s Bank of China Governor Zhou Xiaochuan in March 2009 to replace the dollar as the global reserve currency with an IMF-backed substitute. This was interpreted as verbal aggression in the United States; in fact, it was an admission that China had few options but to accumulate American dollar assets. Not surprisingly, China has since backed away from Zhou’s idea and remains caught in a “dollar trap” largely of its own making.

It is ironic (but then, so much about politics is) that China is perhaps more aware of American strengths than many Americans themselves appear to be. Just as it is dangerous for America to overestimate its bargaining position in the bilateral relationship, it is equally foolish for Washington to underestimate the extent to which it is respected and feared by Beijing. And so America ought to try to understand China at the deepest level, just as China is trying to understand the United States. Perhaps that will turn out to be the competition that ultimately matters most.


1Li Hongmei, “U.S. Hegemony Ends, Era of Global Multipolarity Begins”, People’s Daily online, February, 24, 2009.
2For example, see “Contemporary International Financial Crisis and Transformation of the international System”, Xiandai Guoji Guanxi 4 (2009); Xu Jin, “It Will Be Difficult for the Economic Crisis to Overturn the Structure of One Superpower, Many Great Powers”, Shijie Jingji yu Zhengzhi 12 (2008); “China’s relations with the world in the post-Olympics Era”, Xiandai Guoji Guanxi 9 (2008).
3“Wen: Science, technology key to China’s economy”, China Daily, December 28, 2009.
4Wang Jisi, “The Logic of American Hegemony”, American Studies (December 10, 2003). See also Wang, “Sino–U.S. Relations Seeking a Stable New Framework”, Zhongguo dangzheng ganbu luntan, January 6, 2005.
5Yaqing, “Theoretical Problematic of International Relationship Theory and the Construction of a Chinese School”. Social Sciences in China, Vol. 26, No. 4 (2005).
6Wang Jisi, “The Logic of the American Hegemony.”
7“Wang Jisi interviewed by Zhao Lingmin”, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, November 16, 2008.8Li, Theories of International Politics (Shanghai People’s Press, 2005).
9Indeed, we already do. See Thomas Friedman, “Never Heard That Before”, New York Times, January 31, 2010.
10Zhu Feng, “China’s rise will be Peaceful”, in Robert S. Ross and Zhu Feng (eds.), China’s Ascent: Power, Security and the Future of International Politics (Cornell University Press, 2008.
11For example, I am told that William Pfaff’s short article “The United States of Plutocracy” in the International Herald Tribune, September 7, 2009, was widely read by Chinese officials and intellectuals. The article also figured prominently in several Chinese blog sites.

John Lee is the foreign policy fellow at the Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. He is author of Will China Fail?