It’s starting to feel like the old days. In the past three months, I have made two trips to China and two trips to Hong Kong, interspersed with a quick jaunt to Dubai. The purpose, in all cases, was to engage (i.e., speak), listen, and learn. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I offer three tentative observations from my recent travels—all focused on my latest impressions of China.
China is in denial. The general view inside of China is that their growth problem is manageable and that conflict with the United States has been effectively addressed by the “San Francisco vision” of leader-to-leader summitry. I had numerous opportunities to present the other side of the debate on both issues. With a reputation as a long-standing optimist on China, my now-cautious views came as a disappointment to my hosts in China and Hong Kong. Apparently, my seemingly compelling arguments didn’t seem to change many minds. It is quite possible, of course, that my logic wasn’t as compelling as I thought.
With denial comes isolation. China seems increasingly determined to go its own way. Yes, Xi Jinping stressed in San Francisco that, “Planet Earth is big enough for two…” He went through the motions of posing two options for the US-China relationship—a win-win collaboration or a zero-sum great power competition. But the White House readout of the summit narrowed the focus to the second of the two options—competition. The view I picked up in China is if that is what the US wants, that is what it will get. Since I first returned to post-Covid China back in March, I sensed a new insularity in the climate—tighter information control, fewer visitors from Western countries, and a strong determination to push ahead on its own terms. A planet that is big enough for two, certainly offers that insular, more isolated, option to China.
Isolation is a recipe for misunderstanding. The final leg of my three months of travel—last weekend in Guangzhou—tied the whole package together. The venue was the 7th Understanding China conference, a high-level exchange between Chinese and international interlocutors. I found the “understanding” part of the program particularly disconcerting. The opening speaker, Li Shulei, set the tone. As head of the Publicity Department of the Central Committee of the CCP, Minister Li sits astride China’s vast propaganda effort of information control, the ultimate mechanism of isolated discourse. The message was unmistakable.
The very concept of understanding is a one-way street in such a strictly censored society. Yet that is also increasingly the case in the United States, with information distortion in a highly polarized political climate amplified by social networks, now turbo-charged by artificial intelligence. There was no room for my message on the confluence of false narratives on both sides of the US-China relationship. Both sides believed their narratives to be true. I was left with a troubling question: How can we ever reach the common ground of mutual understanding when the US and China are unwilling to be open to a more truthful and honest discourse?
One other thing: The travel is tougher on me than it used to be. That’s especially the case when it comes to China, where one-way door-to-door travel times this year between my home in Connecticut and Tianjin and Guangzhou have averaged about 27 hours. The only silver lining is China’s astonishing high-speed rail network, which shortened my trip to Guangzhou dramatically. There is nothing even close to it anywhere in the world. I was reminded of that the other day when I had to hop on the Metro North commuter rail to New York City—and saw America’s “high-speed” Acela train slowly limping by. Ugh!
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