Understanding China

Nov 30, 2023

This dispatch is coming from 35,000 feet over the Pacific, comfortably settled into my Cathay seat enroute to Hong Kong for the umpteenth time. This particular trip is actually a transit through Hong Kong on my way to Guangzhou, where I will be participating in the 7thUnderstanding China Conference,” a forum that brings together a broad international cross-section of senior statesmen, strategists, scholars, and business leaders with their counterparts in China.

These days, I often get asked about my treks to China, “Why bother?” It is precisely because of that negative mindset that I believe it is so important for both sides—Americans and Chinese, alike—to make genuine efforts at re-engagement. This puts me squarely at odds with the increasingly strident anti-China views of a now hyper-hawkish Washington consensus.

Previously, I have singled out Rep. Mike Gallagher, Republican from Wisconsin and Chairman of the new House Select Committee on China as the new leader of this pack. It’s not just his op-eds on “zombie engagement” objecting to any meaningful dialogue with China. It’s also that his Committee has also become a forum for a series of biased congressional hearings, subsequent pressure on US capital flows directed toward China, attempts to embarrass the organizers and attendees at a recent dinner for Xi Jinping in San Francisco, and the interrogation of Apple for canceling a lousy TV show because its host, Jon Stewart, wants to play the China card as a lame excuse for bad ratings.

Maybe it’s time for me to stop picking on Gallagher. He is a young, articulate, aggressive politician trying to make a name for himself as America’s leading China basher. He certainly did a pretty good job of that recently on CNBC. But this issue is much bigger than Gallagher. He, in fact, is really nothing more than a stalking horse for a view that has gained considerable traction in the broader US body politic. The extremes of the anti-China view, according to Pew Research, resonate strongly in both political parties, the young and the old, the college-educated and the less-educated, north and south, east and west.

I have spent the better part of the past twenty-five years looking at the US and China through a relationship lens. The subtitle of my latest book, Accidental Conflict, speaks for itself: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives. Contrary to what the anti-China crowd says about me, I have made an assiduous effort to be even-handed in assessing culpability in the US-China conflict. I have concluded that the complaints of both sides largely reflects the confluence of politically expedient false narratives about each other. For example, the US blames China for a trade deficit that is an outgrowth of America’s own shortfall of domestic saving. Similarly, China’s leaders blame slow economic growth on US containment rather than the structural problems (like excess saving) their own reforms (like social safety net enhancement) have failed to address.

If I’m right in arguing that this worrisome superpower conflict is premised on the mutual misunderstandings of false narratives, then it follows that it makes a great deal of sense to attend a conference focused on “Understanding China.” I would even go further in arguing that it might be in our interest to hold a companion event, “Understanding America.”

Just as I believe that it is important for Americans to develop a clear and honest understanding of China, I think it is equally important that the Chinese do the same about the United States. And I will say precisely that in Guangzhou. Relationship conflicts will never be resolved until, or unless, both sides are honest in owning up to our own shortcomings that lie at the heart of a politically expedient blame game. I am looking forward to what I will learn in Guangzhou. For someone who has never been to China, I daresay that Mike Gallagher might benefit from such an experience as well.

You can follow me on X/Twitter @SRoach_econ

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