Michael H. Hunt: How Beijing Sees Us: Policy Insights from the Past

articles by Michael H. Hunt[This article is crossposted at the author’s website, michaelhunt.web.unc.edu.]

What is China going to do? Now that our Middle East wars are winding down, this question has fixated the U.S. policy community and policy commentators. Even aspirants for high political office feel compelled to have an answer. Will a rising China accommodate to international norms and institutions or try to reshape or undermine them? Is Beijing predisposed to cooperate with countries along its long land and maritime border, or will it seek domination? Are the Chinese bent on displacing the United States as number one internationally, or will they limit their aspirations the better to focus on domestic affairs?

While everybody has an opinion, no one has a compelling answer. And with good reason. China’s Communist leaders make their decisions behind closed doors so outsiders are necessarily left in the dark. In any case leaders at the top may not have a shared, coherent notion of the path ahead. And even if they do, their plans like all plans are hostage to contingent events.

Arc of Empire, by Michael H. Hunt and Steven I. LevineIf the future is fuzzy, the past is not. A substantial historical literature offers solidly grounded insight on how Chinese officials and commentators have viewed the United States from the nineteenth century to the 1970s. (The single most helpful work is David Arkush and Leo Lee’s Land without Ghosts; for other relevant works see the bibliographical essay in the forthcoming Arc of Empire: American Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam.) Let me suggest three conclusions drawn from my reading of that literature. Each is pertinent to any attempt to interpret recent developments and predict the future.

First, Chinese views are not free floating, constructed from thin air, or fixed. Since the outset of the twentieth century they have shifted in a way that corresponds closely to phases in the U.S. drive to stake out territorial positions on the western side of the Pacific. (This is the subject of Arc of Empire.) As the drive took shape, Chinese observers shifted from ambivalent to distinctly hostile.

The older, ambivalent view had been heavily influenced by American missionaries and the relative U.S. passivity in the imperial game. Early in the nineteenth century, officials along the coast counted U.S. envoys “most respectful and obedient” while foreign affairs intellectuals saw in the new nation an admirable development model characterized by sage rulers and rapid economic growth. These positive views were qualified by visitors shocked by political corruption, racial violence, and improper gender relations.

The U.S. seizure of the Philippines, the crushing of nationalist resistance there, and the transformation of the Caribbean into a U.S. zone of control fed a sense of the disillusionment and threat nicely captured in an essay from 1901 (quoted in Rebecca E. Karl, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, 64). It reported Americans were in the process of betraying their founding principles “in order to compete on the world stage with the other powers.” They had made their ambitions clear in their decision “to swallow Cuba, annex Hawaii, defeat Spain, and take over Luzon [the Philippines]” and also to join in “the allied troop assault on our country” against the Boxers.

These views became part of an international affairs literature that placed the United States within a “robber’s world” in which the great powers victimized weak countries like China. This perspective was popularized by the influential public intellectual Liang Qichao, reinforced by blatant discrimination against Chinese in the United States, embraced by the young Mao Zedong on the eve of his conversion to Marxism in 1919, reflected in attacks on the unequal treaties, and accepted by observers across the political spectrum by the 1920s.

The rising Japanese threat between 1905 and 1945 moderated suspicions of U.S. imperialism. But Chinese views turned back to the distinctly hostile after 1945. The common enemy was gone, and Washington became active all along China’s periphery, working with colonial regimes (most notably the French in Indochina) as well as with regional clients (the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea). Amidst rising Cold War tensions, The Truman administration marked Beijing as part of a global Communist threat. The counterpoint to U.S. encroachment was Mao Zedong’s determination to “beat American arrogance” and thus demonstrate that “weak and oppressed” countries could fight back and shape their own destiny. These concerns lay behind substantial commitments that Beijing made in 1950 in Vietnam and Korea and again in Vietnam in the early 1960s.

Chinese views again moderated in the 1970s. The U.S. retreat from South Vietnam and President Richard Nixon’s scaling down of U.S. ambitions (the Nixon doctrine) played a role. So too did the gradual weakening of the U.S. global position in relative and absolute terms. But an unsettled U.S. policy over the last four decades has left Chinese perceptions unsettled. The Nixonian approach meant acceptance of China as a world power with legitimate interests to pursue in a multi-polar world. On the other hand, a lingering Cold War conception of China as an ideological mutant to be contained and ultimately transformed by U.S. pressure has generated tensions over human rights and the state’s role in economic development, the legitimacy of settler colonialism on China’s vast inner-Asian periphery, and of course the future of Taiwan. The U.S. insistence on the universality of its norms and values collides with a long standing Chinese preoccupation with securing respect due a cultural giant and maintaining a sprawling, multi-cultural territory. At the same time, Washington’s attempt to shore up slipping regional influence is at odds with Beijing’s concern with coastal security, regional influence, and claims to Taiwan.

Second, Chinese readings of the United States cannot be considered in isolation. They should be seen in the context of an evolving nationalism. A rich literature made easily accessible in Lloyd Kramer’s Nationalism in Europe and America stresses the ways nationalism is subject to constant debate and redefinition, the critical role the state plays in the nationalist program, and the importance of dangerous outsiders in defining the nation and galvanizing the faithful.

The early-twentieth-century picture of the United States as a threat was the work of intellectuals committed to saving China from its deepening crisis and focused on creating a strong, secure, stable state. Their views gained more and more converts but their nationalist aspirations were not fully expressed in state policy until the Communist victory in 1949.

Once nationalists got their strong state, opposition to the United States took on more emphatic form. Beijing dominated the manufacture and circulation of ideas about the United States, especially during the long Cold War confrontation with the United States (1949-1971). The stand taken against the United States in Korea and Vietnam demonstrated the new state’s capacity for military and social mobilization and yielded successes that fed Chinese confidence in its role as the leading regional power. Views of the U.S. threat circulated widely and penetrated deeply into Chinese society conveyed by party propagandists using in all sorts of cultural forms from posters to plays to movies. So charged did images of the United States become that getting labeled pro-U.S. was tantamount to exclusion from the national community.

Perceptions as the sole province of the party-state may be weakening as vast social and economic changes have unfolded in recent decades and opened up the contest over national identity. A civil society is emerging in a more urbanized country with a more educated citizenry exposed to trans-national forces and drawn to a consumer lifestyle.

The rise of consumer values may be particularly important. They have altered the outlook of Americans and Europeans over the last half century. Citizens have come to be defined to a substantial degree by their role as consumers, and the state has increasingly made its business guaranteeing prosperity and the quality of goods and services and otherwise staying out of the way of consumer pursuits. This has meant making military service voluntary, keeping taxes low so as not to impinge on discretionary income, and in general letting individual choice trump collective needs or obligations.

Sizable and influential chunks of the Chinese population appear to be well embarked on a consumer path (to be sure with Chinese characteristics) with important implications for how Chinese see themselves and reciprocally other countries. How much might the new consumer citizen be willing to sacrifice the good life for emergency controls and military regimentation? How much might popular preferences even now inhibit party leaders? An emergent consumer society may well transform China’s state-dominated nationalism, and a consumer-inflected nationalism may in turn shape views of the United States.

Finally, while Chinese intellectuals and policymakers have had no trouble figuring out what U.S. actions meant to their nationalist project, they have struggled to find a good explanation for American behavior. They have repeatedly fallen victim to the commonplace tendency to embrace shallow, simplistic interpretations. Behind what Americans said and did there had to be some some rational calculation or material interest that might in turn provide clues for anticipating their next moves and manipulating their behavior.

This search for answers dates back to the early nineteenth century when it was thought foreigners came to Canton to trade for goods on which their very survival depended. It assumed more sophisticated form at the beginning of the twentieth century in Liang Qichao’s widely retailed reports of a capitalist leviathan bent on devouring the China market and in Qing officials’ conviction that they could turn to their own advantage American avarice or resentment over the gains made by rivals in China.

Reading these foreigners proved no easier for Communist leaders. For example, in a meeting on 17 November 1968 Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai attempted to fathom why Americans were fighting in Vietnam. Mao confessed, “I still have not understood why the U.S. imperialists went to Southeast Asia and what interests the American capitalists found there.” He toyed with the notion that they were bent on exploiting natural resources such as oil, rubber, and tea but then on reflection concluded, “I do not think that the US needs food or plants.” He then tried another tack. “[I]mperialists [like the United States] must have colonies. They want countries like ours [to] become their colonies. Before, China used to be a semi-colony of imperialists for over 100 years. What did they rob us of? China’s technology and agriculture did not develop.” At this point Zhou helpfully volunteered, “They robbed materials.” But when Mao asked “what materials?” the best Zhou could offer was “soybean.” Mao was back to square one with the only certainty that capitalists were behind everything including (he observed) the antiwar movement in the United States. Mao’s one-dimensional picture and the perplexity it created (recorded in 77 Conversations between Chinese and Foreign Leaders, pp. 144 and 198) may be striking but it is hardly unusual in international politics, especially where one party tries to read the world view of another across a broad cultural divide.

Subjecting Chinese images to historical scrutiny yields insights for those in the U.S. policy community. Their Chinese counterparts operate within a hardy frame of reference that is closely attuned to what Americans do. That frame of reference has been distinctly nationalist and, during the second half of of the twentieth century, state-dominated. While images of the United States are likely to remain tied to nationalist preoccupations, the massive cultural and societal changes generated by post-Mao developments are likely to generate views outside the ambit of the state. The final insight is that at every turn Chinese observers and leaders have failed to penetrate the cultural and ideological sources of American action in Asia. The chances are good that our motives will continue to puzzle.

Of course, U.S. policymakers don’t have to pay attention to the past. Indeed, the historical record suggests that those at the highest level won’t or that they will use the past selectively and superficially to fit preconceived policy goals. Strange how policymakers who like to describe themselves as realists can neglect an invaluable resource and attempt to manage a rising China with their eyes only half open.

Acknowledgments: A Hudson Institute workshop on Chinese views of the United States prompted me to formulate the propositions presented here. Thanks to the workshop organizer, Christopher Ford, for a stimulating session.

Michael H. HuntMichael H. Hunt is Everett H. Emerson Professor of History Emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. His latest book, co-authored with Steven I. Levine, is Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam (forthcoming March 2012). His ten previous books include The American Ascendancy: How the United States Gained and Wielded Global Dominance and A Vietnam War Reader: A Documentary History from American and Vietnamese Perspectives. His comments “on Washington and the world” appear here regularly and can also be found on his website.