Collision Course

For the American student of China, these are interesting times.

Domestically, repression is on the rise: It is now common to turn on the television in China and see free-thinking individuals, days or weeks after having been “disappeared,” confess woodenly to crimes for which they have not yet been legally charged. Equally striking is China’s assertive behavior abroad. Beijing has declared a million square miles of the South China Sea to be a Chinese lake, with swiftly constructed artificial islands now starting to be fortified and The Hague’s adverse ruling brushed aside with contempt.

“One Belt, One Road” and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank are two enormous long-term projects that aim to replace Western international institutions of finance, trade, and development with Chinese ones.

Billions have been spent around the world to create or acquire media outlets that voice the official line of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Someone walking to work in a U.S. city today is likely to pass a vending machine selling China Daily, and satellite television offers Americans, and everyone else, more than one English-language channel from China Central Television.

“You’re bumping into a China,” remarks former ambassador Jorge Guajardo, “that has no interest in pleasing. It only wants its way.” President Xi Jinping has accelerated the modernization of the military, with an emphasis on amphibious landing craft, anti-ship missiles, and a new generation of nuclear submarines. President Xi has also taken to visiting his troops in camo and telling them to prepare for mortal combat.

You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Yet American officials are still urging China to become a “responsible stakeholder” in the international order, still offering pointers on transparency and the rule of law, still letting it be known when they are “deeply concerned.” They don’t seem to grasp that, as T. Greer has pungently written, China does not want your rules-based order.

Last year Christopher A. Ford brought out a magisterial account of China’s evolving views of the United States and of Western institutions and values generally. China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations is an ambitious undertaking—and a remarkably successful one, for it digests a large scholarly literature to elucidate long-term trends that can help us make sense of the changing Sino-American relationship. This review will touch on the book’s highlights, while also noting limitations that partly explain, but do not justify, the insufficient notice that the book has so far received.

Dr. Ford does not try to gauge authentic public opinion in China, and in chapters devoted to the country’s “managed information space,” he cogently explains why. I have never seen a more thorough or nuanced treatment of the whole apparatus (it involves much more than censorship) by which the Party-State controls the discussion of sensitive topics.

Likewise he carefully explains why America has always been a sensitive topic, and why he has taken as his theme the range of official or officially tolerated views of America. This choice skirts methodological pitfalls and yields useful data, since, cynicism notwithstanding, both the Chinese people and their leaders have been deeply influenced by the propaganda, and the purposes of a regime can to some extent be inferred from its efforts to shape perceptions.

In Ford’s account of evolving attitudes, he adduces three Chinese philosophical ideas as master keys: 1) the “virtuocratic” premise of power; 2) hegemony discourse; and 3) Taoist nationalism.

Chinese remember the 19th century mainly as the time of the Qing Dynasty’s traumatic and humiliating encounter with the brash forces of Western imperialism. To understand the psychological burden of this history, and the pain with which Chinese discovered themselves a backward nation, it is not enough to invoke a vaguely glorious ancient past. Ford rightly emphasizes the impact of a theory of government enshrined in China for more than 2,000 years: the virtuocratic basis of political legitimacy.

Confucius taught that the ruler is the ruler on account of his wisdom and justice and piety. By these qualities, a successful prince attracts people and tribes. The Emperor to whom a person kowtowed was better than that person; that is what made him the Emperor, or at least his power was rationalized on this basis. Ford notes how this conviction has persisted even in changing social and ideological contexts.[1]

Having expounded this Confucian idea that “political authority self-organizes in concentric circles around the virtuous ruler,” Ford suggests (a bit cursorily, I think) that the circles, though centered on the apex of Chinese society, were presumed to expand across borders into other societies. He quotes the Confucian Doctrine of the Mean on the sage-king:  “His fame overspreads the Middle Kingdom and extends to all barbarous tribes . . . all who have blood and breath unfeignedly honour and love him.”

From here it needed only one further step to conceive of China as the virtuous monopole of the world. For the author, this is the foundation of “the extraordinarily high — but apparently dangerously brittle — civilizational self-regard in which the Celestial Empire had for so long insisted on holding itself.”

The “brittle” quality of this self-regard is often seen today. When the New York Times disclosed in 2012 the staggering wealth amassed by the family of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao during his time in office, the paper’s websites were blocked in China. They remain so. Also the Times reporters have had trouble renewing their visas. The offending story’s lead reporter even received politely worded death threats concerning his family. Does the reaction seem overwrought? Think what it means to expose a lack of integrity in the number two official of a regime whose very legitimacy rests on an ideal of virtue.

Ford makes other interesting connections. China hungers for Taiwan, and for 11 years has claimed the right to compel unification by “non-peaceful means” if persuasion should fail. Why is the independence of this island nation, never governed by the People’s Republic of China, so galling? Ford points to the Confucian model of governance by attraction. If the ruler is virtuous, people with any cultural connection to him will want to be ruled by him. If the Taiwanese actually don’t, the implications are unsettling. Hence the drive to unify, and hence the mainland’s insistence that the status quo is due to foreign interference rather than the wishes of the Taiwanese.

We read here that in its extended application—China as the world’s virtuous monopole—the virtuocratic premise supplies Chinese policy with its guiding star: the recovery of a global preeminence that the nation does not merely desire but is convinced it deserves. This is “the Great Telos of Return,” to use Ford’s phrase, and in its light the author can correct and refine the commonplace observation that Chinese have a love-hate relationship with America. Two different Chinese attitudes are indeed in tension with each other, says Ford, but they are not love and hate. They are conflicting judgments about what America may mean for the Great Telos of Return.

On the one hand, 20th century America was economically developed, technologically advanced, and prestigious to the point of making rules for the rest of the world. This was what China wanted to be, and believed it deserved to be on the strength of its intrinsic virtue. Thus America represented China’s deepest aspiration.

On the other hand, America is a source of ideas considered inimical to Chinese tradition. There is a long history here, from the suspicion directed at U.S. missionaries in the early 19th century, through the “Campaign against Spiritual Pollution” in the 1980s, to President Xi’s command last year to cleanse Chinese universities of Western ideas. Deepening the sense of opposition is the conviction in the minds of Chinese that America seeks to thwart their country’s return to greatness on the world stage.

As Ford points out, either of the two views, aspirational or oppositional, can motivate friendly or unfriendly behavior. An aspiring China might court the United States to gain from it and learn from it. But if the thing aspired to is something they can’t both have—say, naval dominance in the Pacific—eventually the watchword will be nǐsǐwŏhuó: “You die, I live.” At the same time, a China that sees America as opposed to its interests has reason to fight, but, so long as it also views America as being overwhelmingly powerful, it is likely to take a mollifying approach.

The complex of a uniquely virtuous nation destined and entitled to return to greatness constitutes a longstanding and intense Chinese exceptionalism. It has been alloyed at different times with various forms of thought. Ford recounts the lengths to which the CCP has gone in recent decades to promote a selective version of Confucianism that is congenial to a Leninist organization of society. He is scathing—and often witty—in his description of the “axiomatic blamelessness” with which Chinese official spokesmen clothe the Chinese side in all disputes. In what to me seems a crucial and haunting insight, he notes that this Chinese exceptionalism must clash, inevitably, with American exceptionalism.

Now for the second philosophical idea. It was hard to apply virtuocratic theory during the 5th to the 3rd centuries BCE, an era called the Warring States period, because there was then no central authority in China. Seven principalities vied for power; when one of them achieved a temporary dominance, it was called a ba, a hegemon. The Confucian sense of hierarchy continued to operate even in a political scene that had lost its grand central sovereign. Lesser states owed deference to the hegemon and followed its rules.

In later times, when the imperial system had been reestablished and needed to be upheld as a norm, the word ba became derogatory and the period was framed as something of a dark age.[2] The hegemon was judged as, at best, amoral, since no virtuous principle guided its conduct or justified its preeminence. It gained an edge from various strengths and resources which could be weighed to rank the states.

Ford tells how this way of thinking was dusted off to help make sense of the modern era, when China felt itself constrained by barbarians. Liang Qichao (1873-1929) was the first to call America “the Hegemon.” When relations soured with the Soviet Union, till then the CCP’s patron, Mao Zedong decried Russian hegemonism. Both superpowers were contrasted with China, the truly virtuous nation.

In the 1980s, the concept of Comprehensive National Power[3] offered an ostensibly objective and quantitative measure on which to base China’s perceptions of its and other countries’ geostrategic rankings. Such rankings became, and remain, an obsession. You may recall how prominently, during the 2008 Olympics, China updated in real time the count of gold medals won by each of the leading countries. But perhaps most suggestively, Ford finds in this revival of hegemony theory an explanation for why China after Mao was eager to work within the Western system of trade and business, and often seemed to attach exaggerated importance to the validation of foreign experts. In the kind of hierarchical thinking that hearkens back to the Warring States period, even though the top-ranked power may lack the legitimacy of virtue, thanks to his position he gets to make the rules for everyone else.

Of course, if another player (especially one credited with true virtue) should reach the top, then he will get to make the rules.

Ford’s third interpretative key is Taoist nationalism. Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism let him see China’s place in the modern world more realistically than did Mao, and Deng knew that China’s advancement could not be achieved by a great leap forward fueled by virtue alone. About economic growth and modern technology, China had a lot to learn.

Like the 7th century monk who made an epic journey to India, whence he brought back the sutras of Buddhism, China in the late 1970s needed the sutras of modernity and realized it must get them from America. Ford traces carefully, almost year by year, how this imperative—which had to be pursued without letting American democracy ever appear desirable to Chinese—shaped the Party’s representation of the United States, and shaped its non-confrontational foreign policy.

Deng’s approach came to be known by a terse phrase meaning approximately “bide our time and hide our capabilities.” It must be grasped that this strategy was always in the service of the Great Telos of Return. Eventually China’s time would come, and would render the low-key approach no longer necessary. As Ford exhaustively documents, the financial crisis of late 2007 to 2009 (in the midst of which Beijing held the above-mentioned, and dazzling, Games of the XXIX Olympiad) convinced the Chinese elite that America didn’t have much more to offer and was no longer to be feared. It was at that time that China’s tone and actions changed.

These three keys to understanding—the virtuocratic premise leading to Chinese exceptionalism, the perception of an environment shaped by unvirtuous hegemons, and Deng’s time-biding strategy in service of the Great Telos of Return—are valuable takeaways from this weighty book. But there is much more.

Ford shows how the Chinese have redefined democracy as the State’s consultation and communication with, as opposed to empowerment of, the people. He has a knack for summarizing complex developments coherently, as when he recounts Deng’s growing distrust of the Westernizers (and the ambiguous role played by Zhao Ziyang) in the years leading up to 1989. As he turns to what we might expect in the future, he eschews firm predictions but sketches five widely divergent scenarios that could unfold over the next decade or two. These seem grounded in observation, soberly thought out, and neither wishful nor alarmist. His bottom line for U.S. policy is that Washington can’t do much to influence Beijing except impose costs on provocative self-assertion (and in one of the scenarios we wouldn’t even be able to do that).

As I mentioned, this insightful 638-page work on a topic of vital public interest has attracted little attention since it appeared 14 months ago. From what I have been able to tell, it has been reviewed precisely once. I have not picked up a single reference to it on any blog or in any newspaper. It is worth considering why.

To be sure, it’s an expensive offering from an academic press (the University Press of Kentucky, which is charging $60 a copy[4]), and it must be admitted that its prose does not woo the general reader. Lacking vivid details, such as the worldwide theft of manhole covers with which James Kynge opened his 2006 China Shakes the World, or the kinds of personal stories that enliven the reporting of Evan Osnos and Peter Hessler, this work moves on a high plane of wonkery. The style, while elegant, precise, and correct, is dense and intricate. Ford often packs into a sentence what others would labor to express in a paragraph. (I’ll furnish two examples in an end note.[5])

Such reading should not be attempted after a glass of wine. But in the academy, surely these traits would not be held against it? Well, other factors militate against the book’s acceptance by scholars.

Since to a great extent Ford is summarizing and synthesizing the work of such writers as Andrew Nathan, Susan Shirk, Michael Pillsbury, David Shambaugh, and Kenneth Lieberthal, some might call his book derivative. That would be unjust, for a creative synthesis is itself a contribution to scholarship. Moreover, Ford conducted interviews in Beijing and appears to have commissioned, through the Hudson Institute, at which he was previously a senior fellow and director of the Center for Technology and Global Security, some of the research he cites from other experts.

In his 2010 treatise, The Mind of Empire, Ford said that he did not know the Chinese language —which, if still the case, may account for the typos to be found rather frequently in the transliterations sprinkled throughout China Looks at the West. In truth, that should not be a disqualification, either, especially in a writer who holds a doctorate in international relations from Oxford.

Then there is the matter of the author’s partiality. He is no friend to the CCP, and writes as a U.S. strategic arms expert, former State Department official, and current legal counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who perceives a threat to his country and its influence and is not inclined to give America’s adversaries the benefit of the doubt.

Most of the time, I found the author’s candor refreshing. Yet I occasionally wished he had tried to be less of an advocate and more of a judge. Three times I came across a purported fact that didn’t ring true and found, after a little research, that it wasn’t true. In each case, Ford’s source had been slightly unclear, and he had interpreted the source erroneously in a way that cast the Chinese government in the worst possible light. In a book that is 638 pages long, these mistakes are sufficiently minor that I will relegate the details to a lengthy end note.[6] A more knowledgeable reader than I, however, may detect additional errors, and such mistakes will be magnified in minds predisposed to reject Ford’s incisive exposition. As a matter of rhetorical approach as well as of principle, it behooves the opponents of a cruel and mendacious regime to strive for fairness and accuracy.

If this whiff of parti pris has hurt the book’s academic reception, though, we should be frank that it is not the visibility of the author’s sympathies, but where they lie, that would prove a stumbling block to the average Western professor. As I wrote in a review for Law and Liberty of another work, bias is hardly unknown in academic writing on the topic of China and the West, but it is usually an anti-American bias. This book’s provenance, moreover, will win no cachet on campus: Ford’s study was funded by a strategic research office at the Pentagon. In a milieu where “Cold-War mentality” remains a potent dismissive epithet, China Looks at the West had to expect a chilly reception.

But the real reason this book appears not to have reached a wide readership is, I fear, that it is not only a difficult book but a hard one—that is, with implications that people would rather not accept, and not only people on the Left. It casts a disturbing light on a historical process that for more than a generation we thought we understood.

The wiles of the American Metternich who isolated the Russians; the dreams of a vast and open Chinese market that justified huge transfers of technology; the expectation of Beijing’s help in restraining North Korea, and the tactfully muted representations on human rights; the confidence that the Internet would bring about a convergence of values—now, as these clever hopes expire, we are shown in these pages that something else was happening all along. And this interpretation of the past implies a bleak prognosis.

To avert our eyes from China Looks at the West is understandable in such a tragic context. Even the author’s striking articulateness fits the classic pattern of a message doomed to be disregarded. When the Chorus says that it cannot understand Cassandra, she replies sadly, “And yet, here you see, I speak Greek well.”[7]

[1] Under Mao, it was the Chinese Communist Party whose revolutionary virtue made it the vanguard of the world communist movement (a claim that chagrined the Soviets). Closer to the technocratic present, the CCP presents its monopoly on power as the prerogative of the best and the brightest, in what Ford amusingly calls the “meritoligarchy.”

[2] Magnus Fiskesjö offers a different reading of the Warring States period, perceiving a small world of independent states that had achieved a balance of power and that could have evolved into something like Europe. See his “Terra-cotta Conquest: The First Emperor’s Clay Army’s Blockbuster Tour of the World,” in Verge: Studies in Global Asias 1.1 (2015), 162-183.

[3] Ford notes that Comprehensive National Power, though taken from the work of American analyst Ray Cline, also had roots in the Soviet concept of the correlation of forces.

[4] And judging from WorldCat, very few public libraries have purchased it. May I suggest to the University Press of Kentucky that it make Ford’s Introduction, which is really an excellent executive summary, freely available on the web.

[5] Page 176: “First, hegemony theory involved attribution to the Cold War superpowers of the unvirtuousness that was a distinguishing characteristic of the classical hegemon, thus permitting them to be cast as the objects of oppositional political motivation without seeming to be so utterly dangerous that expeditious cooperation with one or the other was madness or that it was a mistake for the Dengist reform agenda to seek to learn from these foreign powers and emulate what had made them powerful.”

Page 318: “In this state-encouraged push—which in its CCP-friendly disinterest in electoral democracy departed from the thinking of New Confucian giants such as Mou Zongsan, who had felt constitutional democracy, with a system of separated powers and checks and balances, to be the highest stage of political development and one to which the Chinese people should commit themselves—we see the origin of an essentially new group of political ideologists who explicitly model themselves after ancient thinkers who promoted Confucianism as the official ideology of the imperial state as early as the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE).”

[6] Page 175: Of the 1989 massacre in Beijing, Ford writes, “in went the tanks. As they did their bloody work, loudspeakers blared the message: ‘This is not the West: it is China.’” He cites Osnos–but Osnos is vague about the announcement’s context and fails to cite a source. The ultimate source must have been a report filed by John Simpson, then working for the BBC, on June 4, 1989. He heard the announcement made over loudspeakers near Tiananmen shortly before the tanks went in and the statement “This is not the West, it is China” was a criticism of the demonstrations, not a justification of their bloody suppression. “Go home and save your life. You will fail. You are not behaving in the correct Chinese manner. This is not the West, it is China. You should behave like a good Chinese: go home and save your life.” John Simpson, “Tiananmen Square,” reprinted in The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda (Touchstone, 1997), pp. 347-53.

Page 19: While noting that the Party relies chiefly on subtler forms of controlling discourse about America, Ford writes, “..traditional coercion does remain available and […] there are estimated still to be between fifteen and twenty million prisoners in the PRC’s gulag of political prisons.” He has a footnote citing Lieberthal. Lieberthal cites Harry Wu’s Laogai: The Chinese Gulag (Westview Press, 1992) with caveats. There are two problems here. One is that Ford is applying to the present (“still”) an estimate made in 1990, which already in 1992 Wu admitted was “possibly a bit higher than is actually the case today” (Wu, p. 143). The other is more grave, and that is that Ford misidentifies Wu’s estimate, which concerned the entire population of the Labor Reform Camps. Like the Soviet gulag, these were not exclusively or even principally for political offenders. It is incorrect to call them political prisons or suggest that most of their inmates are political prisoners. Wu himself wrote in 1992, “The number of political offenders in the LRC’s has decreased sharply and now stands at approximately 10 percent of the total population” (Wu, p. 144).

Page 168: Of anti-American propaganda in the late 1980s, Ford writes, “Every effort was made, moreover, to associate cultural Westernization with decadence, corruption, and decay. (Not for nothing, for instance, was the transliterated Chinese word for the then emergent disease HIV/AIDS rendered as ‘Love-Capitalism Sickness.’)” Our author has been led astray by a muddled bit of psycho-linguistic speculation on the part of Richard Madsen. The Chinese word for AIDS, aì-zī-bìng, does indeed sound like “love capital sickness,” but it is written with different characters. It also sounds just like “narrow gesture sickness” and, for that matter, “dubious hard-working merger.” Chinese abounds in coincidental homophones to a far greater degree than any Western language. The ai-zi sound was a decent approximation, to Chinese ears, of the English word “aids” and there is no need to posit ulterior motives in the choice of it.

[7] Aeschylus, Agamemnon l. 1254, translated by George Theodoridis.