A Dark Future With China?

Apocalyptic visions of Sino-U.S. relations are a road to nowhere.

By Julian B. Gewirtz

Forget the daily news stories—an upcoming apocalypse in U.S.-China relations is already on video in both countries.

In the American video, Death by China, a serrated knife plunges into a map of the United States. Blood spurts out of the heartland, splattering across the map and pouring out of the borders. The presidential baritone of actor Martin Sheen warns that an “increasingly destructive trade relationship with a rapidly rising China” is demolishing American economic security. The voice-over condemns the Communist Party for “victimizing both American and Chinese citizens.”

In the Chinese video, promoted with the hashtag “Who most wants to overthrow China?”, images of refugees fleeing the Middle East fill the screen. Forbidding violins thrum in the background as a message appears against a dark background: “‘Color revolutions” have already successfully pushed many countries into the flames of war and division. These devilish claws are also reaching into China!” After further denunciations of the United States, the video concludes with martial images and calls for all Chinese to prepare for “a long war” against hostile infiltration.

Are these screeds the work of fringe extremists? If only. These films express what are now mainstream views among some members of the leadership of the world’s two largest economies.

Death by China is a documentary directed by Peter Navarro, a prominent adviser to U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. He has just been named assistant to the President and director of trade and industrial policy, leading Trump’s newly created White House National Trade Council. The Chinese video, in turn, was publicized by a verified social media account of China’s Ministry of Public Security.

Melding violent imagery, paranoia about hostile infiltration, and a sense that terrible things are secretly afoot, these two films offer apocalyptic visions of U.S.-China interconnection. Reflecting a mutual hostility that risks overtaking the relationship in the Trump era, they illustrate how provocative actions by one side play into the most fearsome imaginings of the other.

The viewpoints of each film have existed for many years but have barged into the mainstream only recently. Trump is mainstreaming radical views that had previously existed only on the fringes of American political life. Some of Navarro’s radical views now seem to be the incoming Trump Administration’s views as well. (Trump called the film “right on.”) In September, the Trump campaign issued a white paper co-authored by commerce secretary pick Wilbur Ross and Navarro, with arguments coming directly from Death by China; announcing his appointment last month, Trump called Navarro “a visionary economist,” making clear that he is central to setting the agenda on trade and industry, issues of great importance to the President-elect.

On the Chinese side, members of Xi Jinping’s administration, such as successive education ministers Yuan Guiren and Chen Baosheng, have publicly and angrily denounced “hostile foreign infiltration.” After Navarro’s appointment, China’s state-run media called on the Communist Party leadership to “discard any illusions and make full preparations for any offensive move by the Trump government.”

Watching these two videos shortly after my 27th birthday, as an American scholar of contemporary China, I felt a particular dread take hold. In the United States, we tend to regard Trump’s demonization of China as fodder for his base, which has seen jobs disappear as companies shifted to lower-cost production in overseas locations, such as China and Mexico. But this demonization also plays into the hands of high-level voices in China that believe the “devilish claws” of U.S. influence are seeking to rend China apart.

Equally, the hostile propaganda of films like “Who most wants to overthrow China?” not only stokes Chinese nationalism, but may also seem to confirm the paranoia of Trump and his advisers that “death by China” is a real threat. These are apocalyptic visions that agree with each other, a grim concordance that can only hasten catastrophe.

The United States may never be able to have a completely trusting relationship with a China led by the Communist Party. But this does not mean we will have to be adversaries.

This worsening of U.S.-China relations is not what my generation wants. Yes, a 2015 Pew survey found just 38 percent of Americans had a favorable view of China, but when you break up those figures by age, Americans aged 18 to 29 are more than twice as likely as those over 50 to view China favorably.

That’s a dramatic generational divide. My generation in the United States includes large numbers with China expertise, good ties with its people, and not given to paranoia and loathing toward China. They include not just policy professionals, but also people in the technology, business, health, environmental, educational, and cultural sectors.

Looking at the problems that confront the Sino-U.S. relationship, we can see neither side is wholly culpable or wholly blameless. The United States must seek to remedy China’s unfair trade practices and destabilising security provocations, but not in a spirit of demonising China; the United States must project strength and protect its interests and values in the Asia-Pacific, but not in the spirit of making an enemy of China. We see Sino-U.S. cooperation helping to address climate change, nuclear proliferation, the spread of lethal diseases and many other global challenges. We don’t want the Trump Administration to blow up a relationship with China that’s full of possibility as well as challenges.

To a certain degree, perhaps it’s understandable that some older Americans are willing to burn the bridges between the United States and China.

Everyday Americans have seen jobs vanish, and cheaper consumer goods can’t ease the pain of losing a respectable livelihood. China has deeply disappointed those who hoped that the country’s economic reforms would lead its political system to liberalize. The United States may never be able to have a completely trusting relationship with a China led by the Communist Party. But this certainly does not mean we will have to be adversaries.

Apocalyptic visions fill the minds of some officials in both the United States and China. But the American public and elected representatives must not fall prey to these fearsome imaginings, which will make the world even less safe, stable, and prosperous. Today’s baby-boomer leaders may be able to escape the full repercussions if Sino-U.S. relations sink into enmity. My generation will have to live with the consequences.

This essay original appeared in the South China Morning Post.  

Julian B. Gewirtz is the author of Unlikely Partners: Chinese Reformers, Western Economists, and the Making of Global China, published this month by Harvard University Press.

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