The well-known American columnist Thomas L Friedman wrote an article in The New York Times on Nov 1, 2022, bearing the title How China Lost America. Susan L Shirk, an American scholar and former deputy assistant secretary of state, is at pains to explain why “China lost the West” in her new book Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise. The views of these two scholars are quite representative in the intellectual circles of the United States and the West.
Today, most US and Western intellectuals, including many formerly friendly toward China, are increasingly unhappy and hostile about the changes in China in the past one and a half decades. Their writings and remarks are often used by anti-communist and anti-China politicians and organizations in the US and the West as the “theories” and the “facts” for attacking and containing China. They also play an important role in stirring up anti-China fervor among the Western public. One of the reasons for the resentment and bitterness of these Western intellectuals against China is that it is becoming more and more difficult for them to conduct “China studies” in the country, undertake research in collaboration with Chinese experts and scholars, or establish research teams led and funded by them in China. They are also frustrated by the declining influence of those Chinese experts and scholars who embrace or are sympathetic to Western values and institutions in Chinese politics and society. However, in my opinion, since Western intellectuals now can only observe China from a distance and have negative feelings about China, their “research” findings and conclusions are often the results of “seeing flowers through the fog” and being too swayed by their own beliefs, prejudices and frustrations. They appear also to be overly trustful of and dependent on those Chinese officials and scholars who are close to their political positions and are willing to share with them their thoughts. Consequently, their “theories” are incomplete and biased, and the “facts” they put forward are oftentimes distorted and interpreted out of context. Moreover, some facts are deliberately discounted or simply ignored.
When the Western intellectuals bemoan that China has “lost” the US or the West, they of course do not think that China has ever “owned” the US or the West. However, looking back on the past, at the time when the Kuomintang regime strongly supported by the US collapsed in China and the People’s Republic of China founded by the Communist Party of China was established, a fierce debate on “Who has lost China?” among political parties and in society in the US did indeed break out. Then-US president Harry Truman was acrimoniously attacked by the Republicans and the supporters of the Kuomintang for having “lost” China. At that time, many Americans did think that China “belonged” to the US as China was treated as a junior strategic partner that would faithfully do the bidding of the US and was a “virgin land” where the US could spread Christianity and American culture at will and effectively.
Today, Western intellectuals who raise the question of “how China lost the United States or the West” certainly do not think that the US and the West “belong” to China, but they are very clear in their criticism of China that the country has lost the trust, support, understanding and goodwill of the US and the West, inevitably directing the US and the West to regard China as a “strategic rival” and an “existential threat”. Therefore, it is primarily China’s fault and responsibility for having “lost” the US and the West. Simply put, they believe that the Western system, values, and development model are unquestionably superior and are the only choices for all countries pursuing progress and development. In essence, their criticism and resentment against China are because China has not followed their requirements, suggestions and expectations for development, but has instead successfully constructed a Chinese-style modernization path that is very different from or even opposed to the Western development path, but still can make world-renowned achievements. Many Western intellectuals’ dissatisfaction and accusations against China mainly come from their self-righteous and dogmatic use of Western viewpoints and perspectives, and their selective perception and evaluation of China’s development and situation. Here I briefly respond to some of their biased views.
First, most Western intellectuals “foresee” the prospect of Chinese-style modernization as bleak, and obstinately believe that China’s economic development model, increasingly dominated by the State and with the market and foreign investment sidelined, would never succeed. This assertion ignores the Chinese government’s longstanding commitment to reform and opening-up, and is oblivious to the Chinese government’s determination to build a large domestic market through reform. The remarkable achievements that China, under the leadership of the CPC, has made in the past few decades in economic development, social stability, improvement of people’s livelihoods, poverty alleviation and eradication, anti-corruption, science and technology, human rights and freedom, the rule of law, and environmental protection have been kept low-key or simply glossed over. They will not even admit that as a proud nation, China would never accept that the Chinese economy is “permanently” trapped at the middle and low end of the value chain and industrial chain in the global economic system, and that China would not “forever” submit to the so-called “rules-based international order” that is meticulously constructed and dominated by the US and its Western allies. In the eyes of many, the international order caters mainly to the interests of the US and is unfair to non-Western countries. What is more is that the US itself does not sincerely respect this order, as it oftentimes blatantly and unilaterally changed and violated the rules it set up. If China is to achieve long-term sustained development, it must enter the high end of the industrial and value chains through the acquisition of cutting-edge technology. To achieve this all-important goal, China can only rely mainly on State inputs and promotion. Self-reliance is the only choice as China cannot bank on the market mechanism and foreign investment to achieve technological supremacy. The heavy-handed technological blockade imposed on China by the US and some of its Western allies makes self-reliance even more imperative and urgent. From a historical point of view, in the scientific and technological development of the US and other Western countries, the State’s leading role, especially in the fields of national defense, aerospace development and information technology, is crucial. In addition, in the context of anti-globalization, protectionism, unilateralism, and shrinking markets in the US and the West, the role of the Chinese State in promoting China’s economic and technological development will only increase unabatedly. Almost all Western intellectuals now believe that Chinese-style modernization will inevitably fail, but they will likely “continue” to be disappointed and frustrated by an increasingly prosperous and powerful China.
Second, in terms of politics, Western intellectuals constantly accuse China of not following the democratic path of the West, and, more “disappointingly”, even “abandoning” the past policy of gradually expanding “political openness”. They castigate China for embarking on “authoritarian politics”, “power concentration at the top”, and “strongman rule”. They condemn China for “trampling on” human rights and freedoms. Surely, I would not consider China’s political system to be flawless, but objectively speaking, the Chinese government’s performance in terms of effective governance, promoting development, improving people’s livelihoods, maintaining social stability, fostering social justice, and promoting national unity is superior to that of the US and the West. According to surveys conducted over the years by American and Western opinion polling institutions such as the Pew Research Center, Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, and the Edelman Trust Barometer, the Chinese people’s trust in the government led by the CPC, confidence in China’s political system, evaluation of the government’s performance, optimism about the country’s prospects, and support for the country’s development path are all at the forefront of the world. The Chinese people are prone to give more emphasis to the country’s prosperity, unity, security and international status than Westerners are. They tend to conceptualize individual freedom and human rights in a context where national interests, national security, national unity and social stability are prioritized. They are perplexed and repulsed by the plethora of “licentious” and bizarre “freedoms”, including the freedom to own firearms, in the West. The intellectual circles in the US and the West harshly criticize Xi Jinping’s reelection as the general secretary of the CPC and the removal of term limits for the president of the country from China’s Constitution, but they are oblivious to the warm support of most Chinese people for these developments. Western intellectuals purposely overlook the fact that the positions of the general secretary of the CPC and the chairman of the Central Military Commission do not have term limits and the fact that most of the political leaders of Western countries (prime ministers, premiers, parliamentarians) do not have term limits (term limits for the US president were not established until 1951). They simply do not understand the ardent desire of the Chinese people for a strong CPC and a powerful general secretary who can effectively navigate the complex, severe and volatile situation at home and abroad, pursue economic and technological development, build a fair and just society, and gain the respect and trust of leaders of other countries.
Finally, Western intellectuals continue to accuse China of “unscrupulous use of military force”, “incessantly expanding its military power”, “challenging” the military and geopolitical hegemony of the US, “bullying neighboring countries”, and “threatening” to use force against the Taiwan region. They deliberately neglect that China needs a strong military force to deal with the all-around military containment of China by the US since more than a decade ago, counter the support and protection rendered to the separatists in China’s regions of Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong by the US and the West, to achieve complete national reunification after the exhaustion of peaceful means, to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to protect the far-flung interests and security of China and the Chinese people around the world.
In the end, stemming from “Western ethnocentrism”, the narrow conceptions of the national interests of the US and the West, and discrimination against other nations and cultures, Western intellectuals will never accept another great power that can shoulder the responsibilities of the world on an equal footing with the US and the West, be it China or another non-Western nation. Even if China rises with a Western model of development and piously upholds and adopts Western institutions and values, it will still be mistrusted and ostracized by the West. For this reason, even if China is “deplored” by Western intellectuals to have “lost” the US and the West, the Chinese people should not only feel regret but should regard it as a blessing in disguise, because it essentially means that, as the Chinese-style modernization path attracts the opprobrium of people who are biased against China, it is most likely that China is on the right development track. Meanwhile, the jury is still out on the question of “who has lost whom”.
The author is a professor emeritus of sociology, the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and vice-president of the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macao Studies.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.