China and US: Five First Thoughts

Brian at the Great Wall

Brian recently visited China on a trip for journalists sponsored by the Committee Of 100. He and his fellow travelers will be posting reflections on the blog over the next week.

Five American journalists went on a one week trip to China sponsored by the Committee of 100, a group of prominent Chinese-Americans founded by I.M. Pei, Yo-Yo Ma and others with a foot in both worlds who are dedicated to having our two countries understand each other better. They conduct and sponsor tours like this for journalists each year. I want to start by thanking the C-100 for leading an ambitious and supremely organized trip, introducing us to so many many top people in different walks of life, and exposing us to so many different points of view about China (and us!) It was a very rich experience and I'm sure it will add great value to all our readers/viewers/listeners through the more sophisticated understanding we will now have of China (and us.)

My fellow travelers, by the way, were Clive Crook, senior editor of The Atlantic, Winnie O'Kelley, deputy business editor for The New York Times, Gary Silverman, U.S. news editor for The Financial Times, and Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor at Foreign Affairs.

We were having such interesting conversations on the bus between stops every day, a few of us thought that other people might like to eavesdrop on some of our banter and with any luck we'll say an interesting thing or too. Not everyone may be available to participate but some will, along with two of our C-100 hosts on the trip:

Angie Tang, executive director of the C-100, former director of the New York City Office of Immigrant Affairs, and former U.S. Labor Department Representative for the Northeast and Caribbean, and

Mercy Kuo, managing director of the C-100, policy expert and historian, Oxford Ph.D. in Modern History, contributor to the forthcoming book, China In The 21st Century: History, Security and International Relations (Praeger)

Below are five thoughts that may also serve as conversation starters.


1. A Basic Duality

In this country, we often think of China first as an authoritarian state that engages in human rights violations. It was chilling to stand in Tiananmen Square as a tourist. But that said, I came away with the impression that China's leadership sees its form of government as less like, say, Kim Jong Un's and more like Michael Bloomberg's: a non-ideological technocracy. They've had all this economic and educational success, peacefully turned away from Mao's brutal revolution, gotten so many people out of poverty, conducted public opinion polls to determine people's needs, and imposed term limits on their top officials. And yet, the argument some people made that China is better off without political freedom still revolts me. I wonder how others among us are thinking about China's unique mix of repression, pragmatism and advancement.


2. Some Freedom of Speech

People in the business and cultural elite seem fairly free to speak their minds as long as they don't organize around their complaints. As one knowledgable person put it to me, it's not like the Stasi is lurking behind every door, or censoring every critical social media post, but the government doesn't want the masses informed about elite questioning of state policies. Did others get that impression? The state tightly controls the popular press but seems to think elite opinion is relatively unthreatening to its power!


3. A Freedom Too Little Discussed

Freedom of association, such as to form interest groups, seems very restricted, but gets less attention than internet freedom or harsh working conditions. I came away thinking that in the U.S. we are captives of special interest politics but in China, they need more of it. Any thoughts?

Read Clive Crook's Response to This Post

4. A Contradiction

Proponents of China's system argue that it has the support of most of the population, as backed up by opinion polls, so the West shouldn't push for our version of liberalization (and besides, with the mess that the U.S. and Europe are both in right now, we're in no position to lecture others very much about how to organize successful societies.) But it seems like a contradiction to me that the government defends itself with claims of support while also arguing that elections or more freedom to organize would cause the country to explode in social unrest. Can anyone square these ideas?


5. The Rules?

The U.S. and China are two major powers with tremendous need for energy resources who tend to throw our weight around in pursuit of our economic interests. The U.S. complains that China doesn't just compete, but breaks the rules, like condoning intellectual property theft or manipulating its currency. I wonder how much this conflict over the rules will come to define the two countries' relationship and how serious it might become. I hope we can both defy history and be a rising and a declining power who can work together for mutual benefit.

Thanks for reading. I'm curious to hear anyone's reactions. And what else are you thinking about since the trip?