Return of the Dragon
Bloomberg Businessweek|November 02, 2020
Return of the Dragon
China is rising in the eyes of the U.S. and the West. But in its own historical perspective, this is a restoration
Michael Schuman

No foreign policy issue will plague the winner of the White House more than China. There’s already a debate raging among China watchers over what Washington’s next steps should be. Some favor a “reset” to tamp down tensions and return to more constructive diplomacy. Others are fearful of that very reset and argue the U.S. mustn’t stray from the hard line.

The choices made by the next administration will be critical. As the U.S. struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak and restart its economy, China appears to be gaining strength. Its gross domestic product expanded 4.9% in the third quarter, an astounding rebound in a world still mostly mired in a pandemic-induced paralysis. (Official Chinese data have to be taken with several grains of salt, but economists generally agree the economy is rapidly on the mend.) In its own foreign policy, Beijing has barely flinched under U.S. pressure and instead has become more assertive—enhancing its influence in global institutions such as the World Health Organization, crushing the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, turning up the heat on Taiwan, and brawling (literally) with India along their disputed border.

But before the U.S. and its allies can move forward, they have to look back to figure out how the world got to this point with China in the first place. The consensus holds that Washington’s policy of engagement was a grave error that created a dangerous adversary to the U.S. and democracy itself. But that’s certainty born of hindsight.

The West really got China “wrong” by understanding the country’s arrival as a major power within the confines of its own—not China’s—historical experience. Because of that, we in the U.S. and the West talk and think about China the wrong way and craft policies mismatched to the deep historical trends shaping today’s China and its role in the world.

The key is to see the country as the Chinese see it and to place China within the context of its history, not ours in the West. With that, another China emerges that demands a different set of policies. Without this altered understanding of China, Washington policymakers will struggle to contend with Beijing and its intensifying challenge to American global primacy.

The problem starts in high school. Mine, in Clifton, N.J., offered the option of U.S. history or U.S. history. We learned about other parts of the world only when they drifted into the American narrative. China made an occasional cameo: John Hay’s Open Door Policy, or Chiang Kai-shek’s World War II alliance against Japan. A lot of us were probably taught history in a similar manner—through the prism of our own story.

Prisms, though, distort. It just so happens Americans encountered China at one of the darkest points in its history. China in the 19th and early 20th centuries was politically decrepit, militarily inept, economically archaic, and, as Westerners saw it, socially backward. We were left with an image of the country that at best was an unmodern realm of quaint rice paddies and silk-robed mandarins; at worst, a war-torn basket case drenched in destitution and decay. Sure, we all know something of China’s glittering past—of bejeweled emperors, their grand palaces, and the engineering genius of the Great Wall. But that China is beyond our prism.


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November 02, 2020