China in Waiting
Questions for Yu Zhou
The Chinese geographer addresses Obama's appeal from a Chinese perspective, ways for the new president to engage China, and potential areas of future collaboration between the two big powers.
How do you assess George W. Bush's legacy for U.S.-China relations? Do you expect Obama to build on what Bush has done or take a new direction? The Bush administration had a rough start with China, including a spy plane collision incident in the South China Sea in 2001, and the remarks by Donald Rumsfeld that China would be the future enemy of the United States. However, neither seems to have caused long-term damage. In fact, it's fair to say that during the Bush administration, the United States has developed unprecedented high-level strategic dialogue with China, led by Secretary of the Treasury Henry Paulson. The close working relationship would not have been imaginable a few years earlier. So, ultimately, Bush did more than Clinton in terms of engaging with China at the leadership level. Obama has inherited this close working relationship with the Chinese government, and most China observers expect that Obama will continue this track and even strengthen the relationship. Given the current financial crisis, there seems little possibility for other choices.
Do Chinese people share the rest of the world's excitement about an Obama presidency? Obama represents a clear break from the ideology-driven Bush, and many Chinese people look forward to that. Careful Chinese observers of Obama have already noted that his pragmatic approach to issues are more in line with the thinking of Chinese classic philosophy than with the western-style black/white dichotomy of the Bush era. Also, Obama's impeccable Ivy League credentials are important to Chinese people. Chinese people tend to admire people with elite educations. His sophisticated articulations on international relations give hope that he will be more cautious and take a more balanced approach to foreign policy.
What do they think of the fact that he spent his childhood years in Indonesia and Hawaii? Many Asians can relate to his international upbringing. Chinese people feel that Americans do not understand China, so to have someone with such a strongly Asian-influenced background, who spent his childhood in Indonesia and Hawaii, is exciting. Obama probably understands Chinese food better than most previous presidents, to say the least! Chinese people are also excited to find that Obama's half-brother has been living in China for many years and speaks Chinese. His brother-in-law is also of Chinese descent. These connections may not mean much in politics, but we must not underestimate the kinship and goodwill that these connections may generate for Obama.
Do the Chinese see Obama's victory as a mark of racial progress? Chinese people are intrigued by Obama because of his race, and the Chinese media has been celebrating his election as a victory of non-white people. But beyond that, Chinese people do not know much about him. Ultimately, most people expect that Obama will speak for America, and work for American interests. In this essential aspect, race does not matter.
Traditionally, Democrats in Congress have been critical of China's
human rights violations and unfair trade practices. Do you expect the Obama
administration to keep up the pressure? In previous presidential
elections, almost all the new presidents came with a China-bashing
attitude—this was true both for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Obama,
however, will come in with a clean slate, given that China was not a major
topic in this election. I do expect that Obama will continue to embrace these
causes, but I hope that he will define human rights in much broader terms than
in the past. For most Chinese, the U.S. rhetoric on human rights has little
credibility. This is in part based on past U.S. actions; the invasion of Iraq
is only the latest, and the human rights abuses committed by the United States
during the war are now common knowledge.
But what about China's record in Tibet and Darfur, both of which have been issues in the past year? Most Chinese believe that Americans have a poor understanding of the situation in Tibet or Darfur due to the manipulation of Western media. They are also wary of U.S. rhetoric on human rights because the political establishments in the U.S. have historically defined human rights in extremely narrow terms—it is almost exclusively based on political rights and rights of dissidents. As a result, the U.S. is blinded to the tremendous improvement of rights for Chinese people: the right to live, to travel, to migrate, or even to pursue legal action against government, and the growing political freedom of Chinese individuals.
In the very first Democratic primary debate, Barack Obama said that the center of gravity in the world is shifting increasingly to Asia. Here is what he said about China: "Japan has been an outstanding ally of ours for many years. But, obviously, China is rising and it's not going away. They're neither our enemy nor our friend. They're competitors." Do you think this is a fair assessment? Are we competitors or collaborators? The world cannot solve most of its problems without collaboration between China and the United States. This is simply a fact. So if we were to list all the areas of potential collaboration, it would be endless. But let's start from the most obvious:
- Financial collaboration: The United States is in deep debt, and China has the most foreign currency reserves in the world.
- Environmental issues: Both countries contribute the most to global greenhouse gas emissions. China has moved to alter policies to encourage green alternatives. I expect the Obama administration do the same. If they work together, it would benefit the entire world.
- Regional conflicts: China can contribute positively on issues that arise in North Korea, South Asia, central Asia and Southeast Asia.
- Economic development in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia: China has become a major economic player in all these regions. Thus it will be important to incorporate China into the development process, since it is the first and only large developing country that has actually managed to reduce poverty on a massive scale. The developing world has a lot to learn from China.
- The Middle East: China is not a central player, but if one
excludes China from Middle East negotiations, it could spell trouble in the
longer run since China has a strong relationship with Iran and other key Middle
But isn't there competition as well between us? Most Chinese do not see China as a competitor to the U.S., since the U.S. is a superpower and China is not. However, they do expect that China's interests will be respected and that China's voice will count in international issues. Also, they worry that the Obama administration is going to turn towards more protectionist policies. But the Chinese government has acted to promote development of domestic markets and hence to reduce the country's dependency on external markets. So competition is not necessarily always a bad thing. For example, competition to promote green technology is good for the world.
With the global economic downturn, China now has a smaller trade surplus with the U.S., which is better for American workers in terms of not losing as many jobs—but worse for China as Americans aren't buying as many of their goods. Also, China is holding fewer dollar assets to finance American spending/consumption. What impact will these new economic realities have on the U.S.-China relationship? My hope is that the current financial crisis will lead to a more realistic relationship between the two powers. China cannot count on the American consumers to forever buy goods from China, and America should not count on China to always finance their debt. Even though many Chinese people have lost jobs because of decreased consumer spending in the U.S., in the long run, it is better for China to have a more sustainable base for its economic growth. The current financial crisis provides an opportunity for countries to examine their economic systems more closely and make wiser choices for future economic development.
If you were an adviser to President Obama and Sec of State Clinton
during their first 100 days, what would you set as their top three priorities
for relations with Asia and particularly China? There are three things
I would say to the new administration:
1) Engage, rather than alienate, China by sending a clear signal that the U.S. is willing to work with China in a whole set of global issues—peace and security, environment and economic development.
2) Clearly indicate that the U.S. will stick to its principles of human rights and promotion of democracy but that it also understands that on a fundamental level, political freedom can only be achieved by the long-term efforts of Chinese citizens, who are already making some progress.
3) Develop and enhance meaningful communications between the top leaders of the two countries and their respective populations by working to reduce the influence of propaganda and interest groups who have been able to hijack U.S.-China relations for their specific causes.
SSRC President Craig Calhoun has written a statement for his Web site urging President-elect Obama to use area studies expertise in crafting his foreign policies. Are there any prominent China scholars or other social scientists with China expertise whose voices you think should be heard by the new administration? The Bush administration did not lack area specialists, especially on China. In fact, the Bush administration has actually used China experts to a greater extent than the Clinton administration. The problem is probably more acute in other areas where foreign expertise tends to be undervalued or marginalized. In any case, President Obama has many scholars and officials with decades of China experience at his fingertips, and I have every confidence he will use them. I will not name names, since plenty of people have already sent recommendations to him. The only thing I would say is that I hope he selects those who have a broad and deep background in China—not just those with a strong military background or whose past activities are limited to a particular area of activism. He needs people in his administration with historical understanding or geography training on China. China is a complex and rapidly changing country. Without understanding its history, one cannot understand the future. Without understanding its geography, one cannot appreciate the huge complexity of China.
Frankly, I'm not worried about whether or not Obama will use China experts in dealing with China—he will. The real problem is that, given the importance of China in most policy areas, do policy makers at large have some education about China? If they don't, do they know that they need to seek out this expertise? I worry that if they do neither, they will likely give in to prejudice, imagination, and the lobbying of particular interest groups. That's the area that I'm worried about. Furthermore, I believe that some appreciation and knowledge of foreign areas that is not exclusive to China is important for all American policy makers. And I hope Obama can make this point, given his international upbringing.
--Interview conducted by Jessica Chong and edited by Mary-Lea Cox