April 26 2018
The American perception of China has gone through an intriguing transition over the last century. Once, compassion was dominant. Today, increasing hostility is prominent with rumbles of a serious trade war in the air. These US views have significantly shaped the discernment of China around the world over the last 100 years. They continue to do so ...
My aim in this essay is: to look at how this discontented transition from empathy to antipathy has come to pass; to examine what it has to tell us about the state of China and the US today; and to consider where it may be leading.
It is a fact that China, within its remarkable and enduring history, did not develop a system of governance where the governed played any sort of democratic role in selecting those who would govern. Such a system did evolve in a partial but significant way in ancient Greece around 200 years before China’s unifying Qin Dynasty was established in 221 BC. That experience in Greece has, over many centuries, fundamentally shaped the development of Western views (especially during The Enlightenment) on the best form of political governance. China meanwhile has retained a top-down authoritarian governance system to this day, in keeping with its millennial, traditional understanding of how best to govern. As we will see, that governance system has performed exceptionally well over the last 40 years by delivering an unparalleled improvement in the livelihood of millions, notwithstanding any democratic deficit.
As the American perspective on China has moved from bewilderment to increasing antipathy, the American account of what has happened constantly stresses that the US and its allies are engaged in a recommenced battle to protect democratic values from a fresh authoritarian challenge spearheaded by China. In fact, this outward justification is energized, above all, by the deeper challenge to US global political supremacy now unfolding. The focus on telling the enfolding story, as seen from Washington, makes very good sense: a respected Harvard academic and former senior member of the State Department, Joseph Nye, recently observed in the journal Foreign Affairs that “a strong narrative is a source of power.”
The current edging towards a Sino-American trade war is one manifestation of the significant, geopolitical mood change being examined in this essay. This very important trade quarrel is mentioned peripherally but it is not dealt with in any central way, here.