America’s ties with China are now centuries old. The first ship to fly under the United States flag, the merchant ship Empress of China, left New York’s harbor in 1784 bound for Canton to swap American-grown ginseng and silver for Chinese tea. Since then, as U.S. journalist and author John Pomfret has noted, Americans and Chinese have been enchanting each other and disappointing each other in seemingly perpetual cycles.1
From the American perspective, there was the potentially vast Chinese market to tap into, millions of Chinese to preach the Christian Gospel to, and cheap Chinese labor to help build the American West. Conversely, the Chinese saw the Americans as fair traders, when compared with the European mercantilist powers. They saw the U.S. Open Door policy as an attempt to keep China from being broken into pieces.
Moreover, like other immigrants, thousands of Chinese saw the American West as a land of opportunity. And when Sun Yat-sen founded the first Chinese republic after the fall of the imperial dynasty, he used Abraham Lincoln’s paradigm that government should be “of the people, by the people, and for the people” as the core for his own “Three Principles of the People.”2
But expectations on both sides of the Pacific have never fully been met. China has never developed into the nation Americans hoped it would become, and, from Beijing’s perspective, the United States has never fully backed China’s attempt to reclaim its once great standing on the world stage.
This cycle of hope and disappointment was seemingly broken for good when Mao Zedong’s Communists drove Chiang Kai-shek’s forces off the Chinese mainland in 1949 and Mao established the People’s Republic of China (PRC). With China’s entry into the Korean War in 1950 and years of support for insurgencies aimed at American “imperialism,” relations were virtually nonexistent. The United States was the PRC’s implacable foe, and, for Washington, the PRC was an enemy only slightly less threatening than the Soviet Union.
America’s Modern China Dream
Yet as bad as relations were between Beijing and Washington, there remained a number of Americans among the foreign policy elite who believed that China should be treated less as part of the Communist bloc and more as a separate civilization. By the late 1960s, as the harshness of the Korean War faded from American minds, the contest between Chiang Kai-shek’s Republic of China and Mao’s PRC settled into a standoff, and the Sino-Soviet split hardened into a fact, there were calls within American policymaking circles to develop a new relationship with the PRC. Even the ardent anti-Communist Richard Nixon, writing a year before being elected U.S. president, argued that the United States needed to “urgently” come “to grips with the reality of China,” pull it back within “the family of nations,” and “induce change” to alter its “imperial ambitions.”3
Although President Nixon and his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger framed the “opening to China” in 1971–72 as a realist gambit to counterbalance the Soviet Union, their expectations for the policy change outpaced any pragmatic analysis of what might reasonably be accomplished. Nixon viewed the opening as a revolution in world affairs, “a turning point in history,” while Kissinger saw it as already producing an “extraordinary situation” in which, other than the United Kingdom, “China might well be closest to us in its global perceptions.” President Nixon told his hosts on his first visit to Beijing that “a strong China is in the interest of world peace. . . .If China could become a second superpower, the U.S. could reduce its own armaments.” It was, he concluded, “the week that changed the world.”4
From a geopolitical point of view, the opening to China did not radically change the strategic environment to the extent Nixon and Kissinger had hoped. China continued to send armaments to North Vietnam throughout the Vietnam War and did little, if anything, to moderate Hanoi’s behavior. And whatever headaches the new ties between Beijing and Washington might have given Moscow, they did not make the Kremlin any less aggressive on the world stage in the years immediately following the U.S. opening to China.
Because the opening had not produced significant change in Soviet behavior, President Jimmy Carter’s administration eventually moved to double down on the counterbalancing strategy. In exchange for helping China’s entry into the World Bank, allowing exports of once-restricted American technology to China, ending formal ties with the Republic of China, and normalizing them with the People’s Republic, the United States established intelligence listening posts inside China aimed at the Soviet Union and garnered some modest covert support from Beijing for the anti-Soviet effort in Afghanistan. Quid pro quos to be sure, but they did not, by any means, add up to the Administration’s hoped-for strategic partnership. As President Carter remarked upon Zbigniew Brzezinski’s return from a trip to Beijing, his own national security adviser “had been seduced” by promises of what deeper ties might bring.5
Perhaps the Carter Administration’s most significant policy step was its support for legislation granting the PRC most favored nation (MFN) trading status, which, when passed by Congress in 1980, lowered tariffs on Chinese imports to levels otherwise limited to U.S. allies and partners. Coming in the wake of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform proposals in late 1978, the legislation established the idea within American policymaking circles that facilitating China’s economic growth would put it on the path to political reform. As one member of Congress stated upon passage of the MFN legislation, “Seeds of democracy are growing in China.”6
Although Ronald Reagan was personally skeptical of the effort to deepen strategic ties with the PRC, his administration as a whole supported moving forward—and did so. Arms sales were approved, as well as programs to assist China with the export of advanced technologies, including those tied to nuclear energy. The goal, in the words of a 1984 presidential directive, was “to help China modernize, on the grounds that a strong, secure and stable China can be an increasing force for peace, both in Asia and the world.” In exchange, Beijing was willing to assist the United States in covert programs in Afghanistan, Cambodia, and Angola aimed at complicating Soviet and Vietnamese interventions in those countries.
However, during Reagan’s tenure, China also transferred nuclear weapon designs and nuclear material to Pakistan and sold missiles to Iran and Saudi Arabia, suggesting Beijing’s own strategic views were not as aligned with the United States as Washington expected. But, at this point, a second key feature of America’s China dream arose: Near-term divergences between U.S. and Chinese policies could be put aside in the belief that the partnership would coalesce over the longer term as Beijing grew increasingly confident about America’s benign attitude toward China once again becoming a great power.
The great stress test of this attitude occurred almost immediately after Ronald Reagan left office and George H. W. Bush became President. In June 1989, the PRC leadership crushed the mass gathering of pro-liberalization Chinese in Tiananmen Square. Although Congress and the American public’s views of China turned decidedly negative, the Bush team attempted to limit the damage to U.S.-China ties. The president sent National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft on a secret trip to Beijing “to keep open the lines of communication” and assure Deng that Bush would “do my best to keep the boat from rocking too much.”7
So, while the end of the Cold War removed the geostrategic logic behind the rapprochement between America and China, the United States shifted the case for close ties on the grounds that engagement, particularly economic engagement, would profoundly affect China itself. Fighting to keep ties with Beijing on track, Bush argued that “as people have commercial incentives, whether it’s in China or in other totalitarian countries, the move to democracy becomes inexorable.”
With public opinion about China having changed in the wake of Tiananmen Square, candidate and then President Bill Clinton initially attempted to tie the annual waiver to grant China MFN trade status to improvement in its human rights record. However, by 1994, the Clinton Administration abandoned that policy in favor of what it now termed “constructive engagement.” It did so despite China’s increasing truculence toward Taiwan, its assertion of territorial claims over the South China Sea, its significant increase in military spending, and its little help in curtailing North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The Administration’s expectation was that having been invited into a mesh of international forums—especially the World Trade Organization (WTO)—Beijing would come to see the benefits of being part of the liberal international order and would gradually have an interest in helping sustain it.
Moreover, the resulting requirement to liberalize its economy would, according to the president, “more fully liberate the potential” of the Chinese people and, in turn, lead them to “demand a greater say” in how they were governed. It was an argument repeated by members of Congress, including Republicans, who voted by clear majorities for the legislation approving China’s membership in the WTO.
The George W. Bush national security team’s initial intention was to take a more skeptical approach to U.S.-China ties, with candidate Bush even calling China a “strategic competitor.” There was still to be engagement, but it was to be balanced by more hedging on the security front, including more robust arms sales to Taiwan. But 9/11 and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq reduced the time, attention, and resources available to the Administration to carry out those hedging plans.
At the same time, Chinese domestic and regional behavior gave Washington little reason to believe the PRC was changing its behavior as hoped. As a sign of that dissatisfaction—but also as an appeal by Administration proponents of engagement to China’s leaders to recognize that a policy crossroads was fast approaching—Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick gave a speech in September 2005 calling on China to become a “responsible stakeholder.” China had greatly benefited from the international order, Zoellick suggested, and it was time for Beijing to recognize its responsibilities to that order by ending policies that either abused or challenged it.
President Barack Obama came into office determined to lower the priority given to national security affairs and focus more time and resources on America’s domestic needs. To carry this plan out, the Administration moved to reset relations with Russia and China. In the case of Beijing, this meant a policy of “strategic reassurance” in which Washington indicated that it had no intention of challenging either the regime’s human rights record or its core interests, believing, in an echo of the Reagan Administration strategy, that doing so would remove Chinese worries that the United States was trying to contain the PRC’s rise to great power status. Once reassured, other policy interests, such as tackling global warming or weapons proliferation, could become the building blocks for a deeper, more satisfactory relationship.
Obama’s outreach to China—coming as it did on the heels of the 2008 Great Recession—was read by the Chinese leadership as a sign of American weakness. U.S. power was widely said to be in decline, and China no longer had to “hide” its capacities or “bide” its time, as Deng Xiaoping had once recommended.8 China became even more assertive with its neighbors in the East and South China Seas, with the Chinese Foreign Minister infamously telling the Association of Southeast Asian Nations members in 2010, “China is a big country. Bigger than any other countries here.” By the end of 2011, the Obama team realized its attempt to deepen engagement with China was not working as planned. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, writing in Foreign Policy, called for a “pivot” to Asia, with a goal of developing a “web of partnerships and institutions” clearly intended to check Chinese assertiveness. Not long after, the President announced his strategic “rebalancing” to the Asia-Pacific region, which would include finalizing a region-wide free trade agreement and expanding American military assets in theater. With the President’s decision, for all intents and purposes, Washington had finally awoken from its China dream.
China’s China Dream
The goal of resurrecting China from its Mao-imposed impoverished depths is often dated to Deng Xiaoping’s speech on December 13, 1978, calling for reforms in defense, agriculture, science and technology, and the economy—the “Four Modernizations.” No longer, Deng indicated, would Maoist philosophy dictate policy; rather, government policies would be judged by their practical success.
Yet, as Deng later admitted, “opening the windows” to let in fresh air would inevitably bring in flies as well. One such immediate “fly” was Wei Jingsheng, the Chinese electrician whose call for a “Fifth Modernization”—democracy—had been perhaps the boldest of public appeals for political reform. Wei was subsequently arrested and sentenced to 15 years in prison.9 In a speech following Wei’s arrest, Deng stipulated that there would be no questioning the continued leadership of the Communist Party and that those who employed such “sensational slogans” as “give us human rights” would be judged by the government as “counter-revolutionaries, enemy agents, criminals.”
Deng’s admonitions notwithstanding, having opened the door to reforms, discussions of broader, more fundamental reforms inevitably arose—especially within the universities. By the mid-1980s, there was a spike in pro-liberalization demonstrations among university students across China. This was met with a government crackdown in January 1987 (the “Anti-Bourgeois Liberalization Campaign”) and the subsequent purge of Communist Party head Hu Yaobang for his reformist sympathies and his failure to deal with the students strongly enough.10
In retrospect, the Deng-led government’s order in June 1989 to use the Chinese military to clear Tiananmen Square should not have come as a surprise, even if the brutality that followed was. In Tiananmen’s wake, the Communist Party ordered a large-scale purge of party members who showed “serious tendencies toward bourgeois liberalization.”11 Several million members were investigated, tens of thousands were culled from the party’s ranks, and Zhao Ziyang, the general secretary of the Communist Party, was put under house arrest.12
Given Deng’s determination to keep the Communist Party of China (CCP) in control, combined with the rhetoric and substance of the demonstrators’ demands, it was perhaps predictable that China’s leaders would look to blame the West, and the United States in particular, for the turmoil, accusing them of engaging in “a smokeless world war” against China.13 To counter this threat to the regime, the government adopted a national “Patriotic Education Campaign.”14
The program was to address, in Deng’s words, the “worst omission” the party had made in ideological matters—insufficiently guarding against bourgeois sentiments infecting not only the party but also Chinese society.
Countering Western liberalism became all the more pressing following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With communism as a governing theory lacking legitimacy at this point, the “education” would focus on generating a heightened sense of Chinese nationalism.15 The party’s new mandate would be reclaiming China’s place in the world—a place outside powers, it was said, previously denied it. This China dream was not only ambitious, indeed imperial, but also was to be sustained on the basis of resentments aimed at the United States and the West.
From Beijing’s point of view, America’s underlying hostility toward China was confirmed by the American government’s decision in the wake of Tiananmen Square to ban, among other things, arms sales and further nuclear cooperation. Despite the Bush White House’s effort to keep ties between the two countries on an even keel, and the subsequent waiver of most of the imposed sanctions, China’s leaders already read the United States as an ideological threat and as a democratic power that could not be trusted not to resist China’s rise.
Accordingly, one of Beijing’s first moves after Tiananmen was to reduce tensions with Moscow and buy advanced Russian weaponry. This new relationship took on even greater urgency following the surprisingly easy American military victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces in the First Gulf War and China’s own internal assessment of its military weakness.
Having to deal with both the repercussions resulting from Tiananmen Square and the new, post–Soviet Union hegemonic position of the United States, Deng’s immediate strategy was to concentrate on increasing China’s “comprehensive national power” by further opening up the Chinese economy to stimulate economic growth.16 Given the PRC’s relative weakness at that point, Deng’s advice for the country was to be cautious—that is, to “hide its capabilities and bide its time.” Given the untapped potential within China—high personal savings rate, a vast pool of labor, and an untapped domestic market—it was thought that even partial economic liberalization could produce substantial growth, which it did. From 1992 to 1997, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) doubled.
But Deng’s advice only went so far and was itself bounded by the party’s increasing reliance on Chinese nationalism for popular legitimacy. As the Republic of China (Taiwan) moved away from being a state ruled by one party (the Kuomintang) and prepared for the first democratic election of a president, Beijing reacted by conducting a series of missile “tests” off Taiwan in the summer of 1995 and the following spring. The Chinese leadership understood the change in Taiwan to be a challenge to both its nationalist vision of “one China” and the CCP’s own legitimacy as the ethnically Chinese population of Taiwan moved toward self-rule. The Clinton Administration responded by sending two aircraft carrier groups to the surrounding waters, including sailing one through the Taiwan Strait. Struck by its inability to influence Taiwan’s voters or respond in any serious way to the American naval challenge, the Chinese government accelerated its military modernization effort, buying new ships, submarines, and planes from Russia and laying down specific plans to challenge America’s dominant air and naval power in the region.
Given that the United States justified economic engagement with China on the grounds that it would become more politically liberal as it grew more prosperous, Beijing increasingly believed that Washington would not accept China’s rise to great power status if it remained a country governed by the CCP. However benign Americans believed their intentions were toward China, and no matter how often the Chinese spoke over the next decade about theirs being a “peaceful rise,” expectations about China’s future were inevitably diverging.
The next decade began with China joining the WTO. Taking full advantage of the opening to the world’s markets to become an export powerhouse, China saw a new burst in economic growth. Nevertheless, while economic liberalization had proved immensely beneficial in raising living standards and providing the government with new resources, there was the ever-present concern that continued liberalization would jeopardize the party’s control over the country.
Accordingly, keeping control over key sectors of the economy through state-owned enterprises (SOEs) was necessary for noneconomic reasons. SOEs’ continued existence gave the party’s claim that China was still socialist a patina of credibility, it gave the government an institutional foundation from which to moderate unemployment and implement industrial strategies, and it provided a ready resource for a vast patronage system that kept party members and their families loyal to the regime. In any case, the growth in government resources provided by the economic reform decisions made in the 1990s and China’s increased access to U.S. and global markets reduced pressure to push for further reforms as Hu Jintao’s new leadership team came into power in 2002.
But the halt in reforms would have consequences. President Hu’s 2006 call for China to become a “harmonious society” was a signal that China increasingly was not. Large-scale protests were far more numerous than just a decade prior. There were growing problems involving the environment, income inequality, and poor governance and associated corruption. Plus, there was a growing recognition that the existing Chinese economic model was, in the words of then-Premier Wen Jiabao, “unsteady,” “unbalanced,” and “unsustainable.”17 China was becoming, in the words of Sinologist and former U.S. national security official Susan Shirk, a “fragile superpower,” whose leaders were feeling increasingly insecure about the present and the future.
Even after the Great Recession in 2008, during which China initially gained global prestige in contrast to the performance of states in the West, there was a sense that this gain was something of a Potemkin village. China was facing a tightening global market for its goods, and, to keep the recession at bay within China, had doubled down on its debt to finance an array of costly domestic projects of marginal benefit. Overall growth slowed, and individual income still lagged behind. Given Chinese demographics, it was becoming clear that China would, unlike an earlier generation of Asian Tigers, become old before it became rich.18 Also clouding China’s future was the continuing unrest in Tibet, Xinjiang, and the fall of autocratic governments in the Middle East (the Arab Spring). By the end of Hu’s term in office, many Chinese elites were moving more of their personal wealth out of the country.19
Capturing the country’s mood before the leadership change in late 2012 was the news that some members of the Politburo were reading Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution, an analysis of the causes of the French Revolution. Chinese readers were presumably most interested in Tocqueville’s thesis of “rising expectations,” in which a population, freed from the worst abuses by its rulers and having begun to prosper economically, will come to expect a continuing rise in incomes and, failing that, resent even more the inequalities and government burdens that remain. Readers, especially among the governing elite, would have taken note that France’s failure to address this issue led to the overthrow of the government and a violent revolution.
As Xi Jinping took control of both the party and the Chinese government in late 2012 and early 2013, he faced a fundamental question of which road to take with China’s future. He could choose greater liberalization to get the economy moving again but risk the party’s control, or he could double down on the party’s control over the country in the name of stability. Xi picked the latter—consolidating not only his own power but also strengthening the party’s sway over key elements of China’s economy and society. Universities, think tanks, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), the media, and the internet have all seen a significant ideological tightening in what they can teach, say, do, or be used for. Coupled with Xi’s directive to eliminate the discussion of Western ideas of press and political freedom domestically, this has resulted in a substantial increase in internal repression.
On the economic front, the country under Xi has scaled up its mercantilism. Xi’s “Made in China 2025” involves government subsidies, local content mandates, and restricted access for foreign companies unless and until they share technology. As for the SOEs, instead of being divided into smaller, more competitive companies they have actually grown larger through consolidation, remained tied to the party through cross-level appointments at the highest management levels, retained privileged access to state banks for below-market credit, and, according to Xi, been understood as “national champions” (a.k.a., effective monopolies) in their key industrial sectors. To help legitimate this sharp turn with the broader Chinese public, Xi has, on the foreign policy front, pushed an agenda that is more aggressive and nationalistic. On the domestic side, he has engaged in an extensive and popular anti-corruption campaign against government and party officials.20
It is tempting, of course, to read Xi’s ascendancy and program as a distinct version of the China dream. And arguably there are unique aspects to his rule. But it is also the case that key fundamentals—such as keeping the party ascendant, never seeing economic liberalization as an end in itself, not allowing political reforms to truly take hold, desiring to see China rise once again to its previous imperial preeminence, and believing this ultimately means butting heads with the United States—have long existed within the upper echelons of the Communist Party and Chinese government. Xi’s policies are different less because they are a fundamental change in course but rather because they have made far more explicit what has always been there. Even the abandonment of Deng’s “bide” and “hide” advice in foreign policy is a recognition that Deng’s advice was tied to China’s then relative weakness and, accordingly, could be put aside when China achieved its dream of becoming a great power once again.
The existing tension between China and the United States was largely inevitable. It would perhaps have been less inevitable if reformist voices within China had had more influence, but they did not. Nor is this to deny that, during the 1980s and 1990s, Beijing experimented with various reforms, such as allowing village elections and the creation of NGOs to work in society. But, as these examples also show, Beijing set limits on their expansion nationally and, in the end, did not allow them to grow in such a way as to challenge the party’s primacy. Similarly, when Jiang Zemin spoke of expanding the party’s ranks to include private entrepreneurs and rich individuals, it was read as a sign of his desire to reform party thinking along more pragmatic lines. No doubt this was true, but, implicitly, it was also a way of reaffirming the party’s leadership over a growing Chinese commercial elite.
Of course, given how little we actually know about what is happening within China’s ruling circles, it is always possible that voices of reform could come to the fore at some point in the future. But, so far, that does not appear likely. China’s dream has been imperial in scope, and the party has never wavered in its intent to be in control when China realizes that dream. The combination of those two ambitions meant that the PRC’s understanding of its interests, history, and security were virtually certain to run afoul of American hopes and expectations.
In turn, America’s expectations about China were driven initially by a desire to help China rise as a counterweight to Russia, but there was always more than a seed of hope that it would become more of a partner than just a strategic piece on the global chessboard. But for that to happen, Americans had to convince themselves that China would progress beyond one-party rule and, failing that, somehow behave as though its authoritarian nature would not prevent it from becoming a “responsible stakeholder” in an international order designed by the West and consistent with its values. Neither of the American expectations was particularly realistic.
President Trump and President Xi have undoubtedly put in place policies that have intensified the competition between the two countries. But, as was noted above, this strategic competition was well underway before either came to office. Given a state’s natural desire to establish, when it can, an international environment that helps support the security and prosperity of its own particular regime and given the fundamental differences between the U.S. and Chinese regimes, it should come as no surprise in either Beijing or Washington that the current relationship is where it is today.
1John Pomfret, The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present (Picador, 2017), pp. 6–7.
2Lyon Sharman, Sun Yat-sen: His Life and its Meaning, a Critical Biography (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1934), pp. 94, 271.
3Richard M. Nixon, “Asia After Viet Nam,” Foreign Affairs 46, no. 1 (October 1967): pp. 121–22.
4Pomfret, The Beautiful Country, pp. 462, 466.
5Pomfret, The Beautiful Country, p. 479.
6Pomfret, The Beautiful Country, p. 486.
7George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), p. 156.
8For Deng’s quote and China’s view that 2008 was “an inflection point in world history” and “the moment” to right “China’s one hundred years of humiliation,” see Elizabeth C. Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State (Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 188–89.
9Pomfret, The Beautiful Country, p. 481.
10Pomfret, The Beautiful Country, p. 504–05.
11Joseph Fewsmith, China Since Tiananmen: The Politics of Transition (Cambridge University Press, 2001), pp. 21–43.
12Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 49.
13Pomfret, The Beautiful Country, p. 519.
14Pomfret, The Beautiful Country, p. 535.
15Suisheng Zhao, “A State-Led Nationalism: The Patriotic Education Campaign in Post-Tiananmen China,” Communist and Post-Communist Studies 1, no. 3 (1998): p. 297.
16Ashley J. Tellis, “China’s Grand Strategy: The Quest for Comprehensive National Power and Its Consequences,” in The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition, ed. Gary J. Schmitt (Encounter Books, 2009), pp. 25–52.
17Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 49.
18Nicholas Eberstadt, “Will China (Continue) to Rise?,” in The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition, ed. Gary J. Schmitt (Encounter Books, 2009), XX.
19Economy, The Third Revolution, 32.
20 Economy, The Third Revolution, 10, 33, 186–230.