Think ‘Sanctions’ Will Trouble China? You’re Stuck in the Politics of the Past

The complex history of how China and the US once embraced each other should inform how the current showdown is tackled.

By and cross-posted from The Guardian.

The Trump administration has floated the idea of sanctioning Chinese officials and members of the Communist party of China. Before we ask whether this is a good idea, let’s ask how Sino-US relations got to this stage.

The US cold war with the Soviet Union was over ideology, but today’s standoff with China is different. The Chinese state has no ideology, no religion, no moral agenda. It continues wearing socialist garb but only as a face-saving pretence. It has, in fact, become a state-capitalist dictatorship. What the world sees today is a contest between the US system of free-market capitalism and Chinese state capitalism. How should we read this chessboard?

The post-Mao dictatorship in China has lived by the principle of “repress at home and be open to the world”. It has imported knowhow from abroad. There are an estimated 360,000 Chinese students currently enrolled who have come through America’s open door. Over 40 years, at least a million have returned to China and fed their new technical knowledge into the existing authoritarian structures that have built the dictatorship. It might be the most momentous personnel transfer in history.

When I applied to study in the US in the 1980s, I filled out a questionnaire that asked if I had ever been a member of the Communist party. The point of the question was presumably to avoid ideological risks. But it is beyond doubt that the Chinese students coming in with me included many party members who were headed to some of the US’s finest schools, often with scholarships. Americans generally assumed that these students would feel the appeal of liberal values, which they would then take back to China. What happened more often, though, was that Chinese students were quick to see the cultural differences between the two countries, and to draw the very logical conclusion that American values are fine for America but would never work in the Chinese system.

If those US hopes for the exportation of values had panned out, much of China would have been won over by now. But what has actually happened? Returnees are now leaders in much of Chinese business and industry, but anti-American expression in China is as strong today as it has been since the Mao era

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