A note from Dome publisher Chuck Perricone
Michigan resident “China expert” Tom Watkins has been a regular contributor to Dome Magazine and many other statewide, national and international print and electronic news outlets going back decades. Tom, is quick to point out he is no expert on China and doubts there are few that can wear that badge given China’s 5,000 year continuous civilization and its continuous (r)evolution. He is by far the most vocal person in Michigan about building cultural, economic and educational bridges to the fastest growing large economy in the world after the U.S. and home to 1/5 of all humanity.
Tom has written a lengthy piece in today’s Dome about his lifelong interest in China, his three decades of travel and work there and why it is important to us all. It is part reminiscing, travelogue, history lesson, sprinkled with policy and politics and foreshadowing of things to come.
Readers may wonder why Dome, which covers the people, policies and politics under our State Capitol dome allows Watkins, who has served the citizens of Michigan by astutely leading two major departments in state government (former Mental Health director under Governor Blanchard and Education during the Engler and Granholm years) as well as serving Blanchard as deputy chief of staff to opine so frequently about China? This is a fair question.
I do, because as Tom Watkins so forcefully has demonstrated over decades that China’s and America’s collective future are inextricably linked. The relationship between our two great nations will and is shaping the world. No one connects the dots about what is happening in China and how it will impact us today and our kids and grandkids tomorrow better than Tom Watkins.
As Tom points out, “China matters”.
We all need to grasp the gravity of the changes taking place in the world today understanding as Tom has frequently said: “We are living in a hyper-competitive, disruptive, technologically-driven (think Automation AI/artificial Intelligence and big data) world economy where ideas and jobs can and do move around the world effortlessly. The China/US relationship is the most important bilateral relationship in the world today; gong forward, all major issues will intersect at the corner of Beijing and and Washington, D.C.”
So, grab a cup of tea, or something a bit stronger and take another gulp of our cover story of Watkins on China.
Chuck Perricone, Publisher
The China story continues to unfold. What happens in China will impact us all.
October 1st marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of modern/communist China.
The China transformation we have witnessed from a poor backward society into one of the world’s most powerful economies and rising military might is nothing short of amazing.
As the 21st century rolls on one thing is certain: China, the Middle Kingdom, will cast its giant shadow over the world. What happens in China will not stay in China. It will wash up on shores across the globe. Of this I am certain.
2019 marks the beginning my fourth decade of travel to China – a land of joy, contradictions, and convolutions. This milestone harkens back to the time I became enthralled with all things China. I ponder the participant observations I have made over the past 30 years and can’t help but wonder what the next 30 years will bring.
What follows is my China story. My participate observations of growing up with joy, laughter, contradictions, and convoluting as I have attempted to understand and share my China observations and experiences.
We need to take a broad view of the world.
Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher born in 544 BC said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” So too Lao Tzu reminds us, my “journey of a 1000 steps” began many years ago and provides one boy-to-man’s observations on a sliver of China’s rich history. China has moved on, became richer and more powerful, and I am not the same man.
I clearly recall as a young boy that I just knew I would travel to China some day. This may seem a strange thought for a child of the 60’s – a time when China was as dark and mysterious to Americans then as North Korea is to us today. The US had no formal diplomatic relationship with China since Mao Zedong’s Communist government came to power in 1949. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Mao-Zedong
My childhood thoughts came a full decade before ‘Nixon’s gone to China’ ping-pong diplomacy.
My passion about China, like many interests, was sparked by a great teacher. Her description to our 4th grade class of the unknown China made me want to know more. Why did she call the Chinese “Red” China with such disdain, when, if anything, they looked yellow to me? Why did she tell me communism was bad and then describe a communist country as a place where they “believe everyone is equal?” “What is wrong with that?” my young mind pondered. Why did she tell us “in America everyone is equal,” when I only needed to swivel my head around my hometown, the nation’s capital of Washington, DC, to discern that this was simply not true. Even my young, myopic eyes could see that rich people were treated differently than poor people and black people were clearly not treated equal to whites.
As a child, I wanted to believe that China was a magical place, a place like the fictional Lake Wobegon, (https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culture-conscious/201205/occupy-lake-wobegon) where everyone was truly equal.
As I matured and learned, I knew this not to be true as I took my first of many trips to China in 1989. Yet, It was the first step on my journey of many miles that has taken me to every corner of China.
I have alternately been astonished, bewildered, disappointed, saddened, angered and disillusioned through the years of this thin slice of my journey, considering it has been just a few decades of traveling here to learn about China’s rich 5,000-year history. My eyes have always been wide open as I have tried to understand and explain what I have experienced. I have made it a quest to educate people on both sides of the ocean while striving to build cultural, educational, and economic bridges between our two nations.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
I have seen a great deal of China. But the more I learn, the more I realize I have much more to know and understand. Clearly, while I have absorbed much about China, I realize that what I see and experience is through Western eyes and values.
I have been criticized and praised by both the Chinese and American people for my observations that don’t comport with what either side would like the world to see, feel, and believe.
I have experienced frigid cold in the northeast cities of Harbin, Shenyang, and Changchun and walked the alleys of Mao’s home town in Shoshan, being offered Amway or “American Way” products by local Chinese entrepreneurs. I have experienced the beauty of the enchanted lands of Jiuzhaigou with its multiple-colored blue serene lakes and plunging waterfalls and Zhangjiajie, home to the famed Wulingyuan Scenic area.
I smiled and laughed while watching the pandas in Chengdu and Woolong, had my belly set afire by the hot pot in Chongqing, and my face and tongue set tingling by the Ma-la spices of Mianyang and Beichuan, home to the 2008 Great Sichuan earthquake.
Visiting Hong Kong, I see the city come alive from the “Peak” – Victoria Peak, a hill on the western half of Hong Kong Island. My first time climbing the Peak was in 1989 and just recently I was there again. With an elevation of 552m, it is the highest point on Hong Kong island with stunning views. A former British colony, Hong Kong reverted to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. Between 1904 and 1930, local law designated the Peak as an exclusive residential area reserved for non-Chinese. Hong Kong is now an autonomous territory in southeastern China, largely free to manage its own affairs based on a “one country, two systems”, a national unification policy developed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. Its vibrant, densely populated urban centre is a major port and a global financial hub. My first impression of Hong Kong, and it has not changed, is its entrepreneurial and freedom loving-spirit.
As China’s leaders continue to flex its economic and military muscles, some fear that the considerable autonomy Hong Kong has enjoyed over the last three decades will slip away.
The protests in Hong Kong have yet to slow down as they enter their fourth month. What is transpiring in Hong Kong has me worried and many in the world worried.
I walked the halls of Nankai University located in Tianjin, where Zhou Enlai – the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China – attended, laughing along with my son, Daniel, as aging Communist alums sang their school song to the tune of “O Tannenbaum” or “O Christmas tree”.
I experienced Shangri-La located at the point where Yunnan Provence, Tibet, and Sichuan all meet. I have felt the agony and sorrow in the ancient capital of Nanjing, recalling the Rape of Nanjing.
In Kummin, I met an 85-year-old man who thanked the American/ Měiguóren people for helping to drive the Japanese from his country when he was just a boy. Back then the American ‘Flying Tigers’ began military action against the Japanese in the skies above China and Burma.
I have visited the front door of China, Shenzhen, a modern metropolis that links Hong Kong to China’s mainland. In 1979 Shenzhen was a small border city of some 300,00 inhabitants that served as a customs stop into mainland China from Hong Kong. That year, it was declared a special economic zone, part of China “opening up.” Today, Shenzhen is one of the most modern cities in the world with an excess of 10 million people. https://www.britannica.com/place/Shenzhen
I have experienced all kinds of Chinese culture, from the Sichuan Opera and musical concerts, to puppet shows, paper cutting, tea ceremonies and enjoyed the relaxing comfort ancient Chinese foot reflexology.
I have watched the ancient game of Xiqngqi (pronounced “shyahng chi,”) sometimes translated as “the elephant” game or a form of chess being played in alleyways and parks throughout China. It has been enjoyed for many centuries throughout the country. Although only beginning to become widely known in the west, Xiangqi is probably played by more people than any other board game in the world — including the familiar western “international” chess.
I can recall the time when there were no private phone lines in Chinese homes. Today, cell phones are ubiquitous, even in the most rural Chinese villages. Wireless Internet coverage in China is far better than many places in Northern Michigan and the UP. I recall being in Xi’an in the 90’s and first identifying a public washroom by the sense of smell, immediately noticing the morning rush of people leaving their homes with wooden, metal, plastic buckets –night soil in one hand (they did not have indoor plumbing) and cell phone in the other. The old and new in one momentous morning ritual.
Today the use of technology by average Chinese citizens – young and old – far surpasses what we see in America. The WeChat app brainchild of Tencent, a giant China tech company is often referred to as a social media app, equivalent to Facebook or WhatsApp. But this is to grossly undersell the power of WeChat with its more than 1 billion active users.
WeChat is both lifestyle and social ecosystem with seemingly endless applications. Beyond the typical social media functions of messaging and Twitter-style feed, it is used for financial transactions of almost any type. Developers can slot their apps directly into WeChat and tie them into the social and payment functions. It is a translator, phone system, and more. It is the new business card as business associates and strangers alike will share their contact info electronically. To say it went from being unheard of to becoming a nearly universally-used, overnight sensation is an understatement. It is truly ubiquitous to the point where vendors looking puzzled when you attempt to use RMB (Chinese currency) and in fact, there are places that don’t accept cash, only electronic payment.
Commerce payment transactions are moving from cash to electronic mobile phone assisted and even to a new way to pay in China. No card, no phone, just look at the camera and facial recognition payment. The future has arrived in China.
There are some that worry about how all the data that WeChat and others are accumulating will ultimately be used by an increasingly authoritative Chinese government that has little history with individual rights and privacy.
Make no mistake, this is an authoritative government that controls the access to information and has “firewalls” around the internet to limit the knowledge the masses can be exposed to. The old adage, knowledge is power is certainly at play in China.
Speaking of payment systems and currency, when I first came to China in 1989 it was illegal for foreigners to have the “People’s money” or RMB which was restricted, for use only by Chinese. China had a two-tier currency system with foreigners having to buy Foreign Exchange Certificates (FECs). It was forbidden for non-Chinese to possess RMB. This was designed to restrict the movements of foreigners in China. Only certain special “Friendship Stores” and specifically designated hotels could accept FECs. Because it had greater value and could be used to purchase items not readily available to average Chinese, a black market sprang up. I would exchange my FEC at a handsome financial benefit and had little trouble spending the “People’s money.” As one shopkeeper repeated an old Chinese saying, “The emperor is so powerful, but he is also so very far away,” as he winked and exchanged my FEC for his “People’s money.”
This meant that foreign visitors in China were restricted in where they could stay and where we could shop. This system was in place from 1980-1994.
China’s minority problem is a global problem.
I have felt the repression of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang Autonomous Region while visiting Ürümqi, Turpan, Kashgar, and several villages in between.
The world is witnessing the evaporation of Uighur customs, beliefs, and freedom. It is reported by many reliable news and human rights organizations that over a million of these minority Muslim Uighurs are being detained in “re-education or internment camps” across the region, “being held incommunicado and often for long periods, without being charged or tried, under the Chinese pretext of countering terrorism and religious extremism.” It is reported that a million or more Uighurs are being detained.
These “transformation through education” camps must “wash brains, cleanse hearts, support the right, remove the wrong” (xinao jingxin fuzheng quxie洗脑净心扶正祛邪).
The Chinese government appears to have forced the Uighur people, and other Turkic Muslims into four narrow categories: compliant subjects, separatists, extremists, or terrorists. China claims that its use of surveillance and re-education camps in Xinjiang fights separatism, Islamic radicalism, and terrorism. There are many that believe the repressive Chinese Communist Party policies put in place to control ‘terrorism’ are spurring it – creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Killing the Chickens
From a Uighur perspective, it seems that the Chinese government does not differentiate between legitimate grievances that they once raised and terrorist behavior.
China leaders will tell you their actions are to prevent terrorism. But my observations and that of many others is that it is repressive, wrong, and overkill – a clear act of “killing the chickens to scare the monkeys.” In Xinjiang, the supposed sins of a few cause punishment for many.
Gend Shuang, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, responds that those who criticize China about their treatment of Uighurs “lack the most basic knowledge and understanding of China’s Xinjiang”. He continued, “The so-called “re-education camps” do not exist in Xinjiang. The vocational education and training centers in Xinjiang, launched in accordance with the law, aim to help those who are eroded by terrorism and extremism to return to the right track, and help them obtain skills to support themselves and reintegrate into society.”
To be clear, this is not how the detainees or their families view the situation. Like many highly sensitive issues in China and the sporadic and limited verifiable information, together with disinformation campaigns being perpetuated, it is hard to discern the absolute truth.
Perhaps the nicest response would be a quote attributed to Groucho Marx, “Who ya gonna believe, me or your lying eyes?”
My most recent visit to the area in late 2018 left the impression of it being in a police state with massive security presence, police constantly in sight, every person’s moves being monitored by the Chinese’s ubiquitous electronic surveillance, including cameras in taxies. Our private car was stopped at multiple check points and our passports and phones checked. To enter the bazaar, hotels, shopping malls, and even tourist sites, our bags were X-ray scanned, searched, and identification or passport papers studied with facial recognition cameras snapping yet another picture.
China is now forcing tourists to install a phone-scanning app at the Xinjiang border. The malware reportedly seizes all the text messages on a phone and scans them for a variety of files linked to Islam. The app, called BXAQ or Feng Cai, collects all of the phone’s calendar entries, contacts, call logs, and texts and uploads them to a server. The app also checks more than 70,000 predetermined files searching for extremist content, academic research, and music. Officials in Xinjiang have been using this invasive technology to monitor the Uighurs, and only recently have turned it on tourists visiting the area.
Yet, there are Chinese citizens, both within and those that have lived outside of China that agree with the harsh crackdown by the Chinese government on the Uighur and other Muslim people. As I was departing China I met a Han Chinese woman, who grew up in Xinjiang and was just back for a visit after a ten year absence. She spoke glowingly of the “control” the Communist Party has instituted in her hometown, the capitol city of Ürümqi, to keep peace by the “violent and terrorist” Uighurs. She continued, “Americans learned on 9/11 what happens when you are soft on a violent and terrorist people.” “Even the old people, women and children can’t be trusted, she continued — they are terrorist all!”
I don’t accept her analysis or conclusion and worry about what will be the eventual outcome of the mass incarceration of the Uighur people, China and a world that seems willing to look the other way.
There is, among some people in China, home to one-fifth of all humanity, or 1.3 billion people a willingness to trade off others individual liberty for stability, control and “socially order.” For a nation that is only a blink away from the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward, revolution, foreign occupation, mass starvation, war-and War Lords perhaps this is a little bit more understandable while remaining unacceptable to a Western mind.
Clearly, not all of us view the world through the same lens.
Beauty and the Beast
I have seen heaven in West Lake in Hongzhou and heard the wind whisper to me in the bamboo covered hills of Moganshan. I have wandered the magical gardens and glided down the canals of Suzhou, known as the “Venice of the East”, drinking wine and reading the poems of Li Bai https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Li_Bai) in Mianyang.
I tried to imagine the pain, desire, and despair of Lu Xun, a leading figure of modern Chinese literature, as I walked the alleyways of his birthplace in Shaoxing.https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lu-Xun
I have slurped world famous Lanzhou beef noodles in Lanzhou, the capital city of northwest China’s Gansu province and viewed artifacts from the area’s Silk Road past. I crossed the Zhongshan Bridge, the first permanent bridge over the Yellow River finished in 1909 and traveled back in time to the BinglingTemple – ‘ten thousand Buddhas’ in Tibetan. The starting construction of Bingling’s Thousand Buddha Caves dates back to the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316).
I have been to the far eastern ends of the storied Silk Road, to the world famous city of Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi Province in central China and taken in the grandeur of the Terracotta Warriors – one of the must-see attractions in China. The museum reveals secrets behind the 2,000-year-old army of clay statues that guarded the tomb of China’s first emperor, hidden until a chance discovery in 1974 unveiled them to the world. I have walked the streets between the Bell and Drum Towers enjoying the bazaar and the street food. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Xi%27an
I witnessed cities sprout up seemingly overnight in what were once fields across the country even as Chinese people laughed at the joke that China’s national bird is the “building crane.”
There are countless experiences of chance encounters with Chinese people I did not know, who hours later, after laughter, tea and perhaps a meal, departed each other’s “friend.” The genuineness of the connection, often not understanding each other’s language but finding ways to communicate nonetheless, is heartfelt. Lasting memories and reminders that simple pleasures and genuine human interactions are the best life has to offer no matter what country or region we are in.
I have watched with delight as senior citizens gather by the hundreds in cities like Huizhou, Beijing, Xi’an, Mianyang, and Jurong in public parks, under freeway viaducts, and city squares to “square dance”, or more aptly, to dance the night away in a public square.
I imagined the Mongols attacking from the North as I stood on various sections of the Great Wall that I have visited so many times that I now I teasingly say to my Chinese friends it has become an “Ok Wall.”
Over time I have watched a sea of bicycles in China replaced by a non-stop ribbon of automobiles stuck in never-ending traffic jams. China went from no private ownership of autos in late 80’s to the world’s largest automaker today.
Take A Broad View Of The World
I recall standing on the Bund in Shanghai and watched Pudong grow from rice fields to modern iconic Chinese skyline dazzling people from around the globe.
I recall on my first trip to China in 1989 walking down the hall of a government office building on the Bund when I noticed a map of the world that seemed distorted to me. It was the first map of the world that was not “America Centric.” This world map had China, the Middle Kingdom more centered. It was and is a reminder that not everyone in the world see it through the same lens or filter.
They Wanted to Know
Tears well in my eyes as I think back to those heady days in mid-May of 1989 as I stood in solidarity with the idealistic students in Tiananmen Square who asked me to “describe democracy – describe freedom.” I wonder if today they feel the economic miracle that has transformed China – lifting hundreds of millions of their fellow citizens from abject poverty to the middle class in the four decades after China’s opening to the world – was a fair trade for not ever having this question answered.
In the Peoples Republic of China, the memory and history of the People’s Liberation Army crushing that pro-democracy movement in 1989 is suppressed even to this day.
I shared a sleeping train car with a young Chinese soldier, a Chinese priest, an entrepreneur, and a peasant girl as I traversed the country by rail from Beijing to Lhasa, Tibet. Riding the rails in search of spirituality only to find a gentle people so desperate that over 100 Tibetans self-immolated in a protest of the cultural genocide they were experiencing. Being in Tibet reminded me of the eradication of the American Indian as the US government “opened the West to civilization.”
When I first arrived in China in 1989, steam engines trains were still common, and it was at best an uncomfortable experience to ride the Iron Rooster. August 1, 2008 marked the introduction of a high-speed 350kph train, starting with the inaugural Beijing-Tianjin line. Today, there is a vast array of these fast, efficient, comfortable trains, subways, and buses to provide inexpensive public transit, whisking people from major cities to small towns.
This is a stark contrast to Detroit, Michigan – the largest major metro area in the world today – without a public mass transit system and roads that make third-world country roads appear smooth. China deserves to take a bow for what it has accomplished in the transportation arena.
Visiting old friends in Taizhou, a city with a 5,000-year Chinese history located at the middle of the East China Sea coast of Zhejiang province, I experienced both the past and future, visiting Guoqing Temple and Kawei – places likely no one in the West has ever heard. Kawei is just one of the many electric vehicle manufacturers elbowing for a place of relevance in the 21st century.
As I reflect on the inhumanity of how some Chinese minority groups have fared under Communist rule I have also witnessed the many steps taken to address poverty since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. The Chinese Communist Party has lifted hundreds of millions of its citizens out of abject poverty to the equivalent of a Chinese middle class over the past 40 years. Imagine, they have eliminated poverty for more Chinese than America has people! This is truly remarkable– it has never before been accomplished in human history and is universally acknowledged.
These are just some of my Chinese experiences in my never-ending quest to learn and understand. I am as fascinated today with the history, culture, and people of China as I was as a 10-year-old schoolboy. Like most of the world’s history, not everything I have witnessed has been pretty. Yet, much of what I have seen has been as amazing as it is remarkable. I have experienced the good,the bad and the ugly.
Nor are my observations meant in any way to “interfere with China’s internal affairs.” While I respect China’s sovereignty, my criticism and observations are not offered as a means to hold China back or push them down but rather to propel the people of China forward.
No individual, nor country likes to have its blemishes highlighted. Yet, based on my experience as a Westerner, an American, valuing individuality, freedom, democracy and the rule of law there are practices by the Chinese government I find reprehensible and feel a moral responsibility to point out and within the laws of both of our nations attempt to influence and change where possible.
Yet, as the world grows increasingly chaotic Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group points out, “many governments and citizens around the world see China as a source of security, stability, and opportunity while Europe and America represent political dysfunction and public disgust with government”. President Xi Jinping is happy to promote his authoritarian, state-capitalist economic model around the globe.
Let Those Without Sin….
America, too, has a lot to answer for: the genocide of Native Americans, slavery, Japanese concentration camps during WWII, discriminatory laws against people’s race and gender, perpetual war and involvement in other country’s elections and leadership, and now the reprehensible treatment of immigrant children at our southern border just to name a few.
These US “sins”, coupled with anti-Chinese sentiment, dating back to the 1880’s culminating with the Chinese Exclusion Acts, a series of laws that restricted immigration from China and limited Chinese-born people’s civil rights within the U.S. Despite Chinese labor that helped build America’s intercontinental railway system, they were viewed as “inferior” and had little or no rights upon their arrival in the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Some of my Chinese friends and certainly some Communist party officials I know will, at a minimum, wince at some of the descriptions I have shared here. Some are undoubtedly angry with me for daring to pick the scabs to reveal part of China’s evolutionary reality. They may argue with my observations but deep down they know that what I have witnessed and shared is true.
I have also experienced the inexhaustible kindness, hospitality, friendship, and humor of the Chinese people. I have witnessed the country go from black and white drabness of the late 80’s Mao era to the technicolor of China today. I have seen the human rights’ success of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of desperate poverty and watched a modern transportation system grow up – a means of whisking the Chinese effortlessly across their country. I have seen everything from the meager rationing of food to glutinous banquets where the food seems like a bountiful river that flows on and on. I have seen a proud people, historically humbled by Westerners, now stand tall in their newfound riches and national pride.
China has clearly shaken off the shame of its “century of humiliation,” and regained its fuqiang “wealth and power”. They have brushed aside the setbacks of their self-inflicted wounds from the Great Leap Forward, Cultural Revolution, and Tiananemen Square “incident” to march strongly, boldly and proudly into the future once more.
The triumphs of hosting the 2008 Olympic Games and the World’s Exposition and the eye-popping economic gains are exclamation points on China’s steady rise since Deng Xiaoping cast off Mao’s ideological chains to open China to the world in 1978.
I know a history of the Chinese people setting sail to the new world in search of the “Gold Mountain” and now finding great riches at home. I have met the children that were starving in the 60’s and survived the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution whose children and grandchildren are now economically eating our lunch.
In 2001, National Geographic Magazine declared, “Americans are painfully ignorant about all things Asia, especially China.” Little has changed in the intervening years. There is willful ignorance of far too many Americans about China, its history, culture, customs, geography, language, politics, or people – a frightening proposition.
Henry Kissinger captured the essence of the value of knowing and understanding China when he said, “China is one of the central challenges of our time and we need to forge a deeper understanding between the U.S. and China.”
America needs to connect, engage, ponder, create,and enlighten our youth so they understand our strengths, weaknesses, and our differences – all the while learning to embrace our collective humanity in a way that eventually helps shape the world.
Working with educators on both sides of the Pacific to build connections between students and teachers has been one way I and others have strived to build two-way subnational connections between our two nations. I believe one of the best ways to build relationships and forge a shared vision and common agenda is around education.
I believe that it is likely that a future leader of China is studying in a U.S. high school or university today. Connecting our youth and proving a broad-based liberal education is a way to stitch our futures together. America is at its best when we are a welcoming nation, seeing Chinese students as adding value and culturally enriching our university, community college and yes, even our high school campuses must be encouraged.
Confucius once said of the value of an educated person: “A gentleman should not be a utensil.” An educated person needs many skills rather than one so as to avoid being used as a tool of others. The wisdom of ancient Chinese scholars reaches across the ages and is echoed by the modern concept of general or liberal arts education. Building an educational bridge with China today will provide dividends for us all tomorrow.
I am proud of the work I have done over the decades building cultural, economic and most especially, educational bridges between our two nations. Knowing and learning from each other is the super glue that will hold this vital relationship together as we navigate the 21st century.
True friendships have been formed and mutually beneficial. Win-win partnerships have been created that are all about building cultural, educational and economic bridges between to great nations and people.
In Search of Modern China
Internal challenges for China abound. Their economic challenges are exacerbated by rising minority tensions (particularly among Uighur and Tibetan people) and human rights issues, rising labor costs, corruption, environmental degradation, an aging society, soaring property values/bubbles, a significant outflow of capital, a shadow banking system, and local government debts that make bankrupt Detroit blush. All these are warning signs that China’s economy could come off track. All this is without considering the current Trump Tariff Trade War.
While I have not found equality, freedom, or democracy in my China journeys, I have found much good in my over three decades of travel in China.
Today, the relationship between China and the US is strained. We need leaders that can find a productive path forward that assures mutual respect and benefit. What we seem to be working towards today is at best an armistice or an agreement to stop fighting for a certain time: a truce. What is needed is a mutually agreeable strategic direction not a momentary truce.
The Council on Foreign Relations, an independent, non-partisan member organization and think tank points out that: “Since 1949, U.S.-China relations have evolved from tense standoffs to a complex mix of intensifying diplomacy, growing international rivalry, and increasingly intertwined economies.”
In 2007, task force reports organized by the Council for Foreign Relations concluded “that the United States should pursue a strategy focused on the integration of China into the global community and finds that such an approach will best encourage China to act in a way consistent with U.S. interests and international norms.” The report concludes with a series of recommendations aimed to reinforce recent efforts to deepen U.S.-China cooperation. The overall message was that while the United States should not turn a blind eye to the economic, political, and security challenges posed by China’s rise and should be clear that any aggressive behavior on China’s part would be met with strong opposition, U.S. strategy toward China must focus on creating and taking advantage of opportunities to build on common interests in the region and with regard to a number of global concerns.
To be clear, we are past a time where America can simply demand that China accept unequal treaties. They may bend momentarily but they will eventually, not unlike a river, seek its own level and take their own path.
The Trump Tariff Trade War
Today’s negotiations with China are clouded in over a century of distrust. Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation and points out in a recent opinion piece “The first agreement the US signed with China, the Treaty of Wanghia, (https://www.historycentral.com/Ant/wanghia.html was just one of what would become a series of unequal treaties forced upon China in the aftermath of the Opium Wars, the beginning of what the Chinese call their “Century of Humiliation.” (https://thediplomat.com/2018/06/chinas-second-century-of-humiliation/).
Lingering suspicions that Western countries saw themselves as superior and sought means to exploit the Chinese have haunted relations between China and America ever since.
The Trump Tariff Trade War seems tactically flawed alienating our allies and independently reacting to individual events rather than springing from a thought-out strategic direction. America seems to be playing checkers while China is playing the ancient game of Go.
A Washington Post editorial summed up the current US China policy under President Trump well when it concluded: “Mr. Trump’s tactics have failed to accomplish even his narrowest economic aims. Now he risks triggering a larger conflict whose dimensions and potential consequences ought to alarm Americans who hope for a peaceful and prosperous 21st century.”
Being angry with China for their unfair trading practices and responding with unilateral tariffs seems reactionary in driving our China policy today. I am looking for greater depth of integration of our interests and our values that will be sustainable over the long haul rather than a perceived momentary win, beating China with our tit-for-tat trade war.
Finding sensible, mutually respectful, win-win solutions to the trade dispute between our two countries is good for the people of China, America and the global economy.
Both sides must proceed with the understanding that no agreement can stand the rest of time unless both sides are invested in its success. This dispute can not proceed like a playground game of see-saw where one nation has to be down for the other to be up. The classic precondition for a successful negotiation- victory for both sides.
The challenge of leadership for both President Xi and Trump is to take our respective nations and the world in a positive direction, from where we are to where we have never been. We must never allow the immediate momentary issues to obscure the important long term success of the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. How our leaders solve this and other problems will impact the people of China, America and all of humanity.
For the sake of the Chinese and American people and the global economy all who are being hurt by this tit-for-tat tariff trade war, let’s hope for a sensible end soon.
If the ultimate end of the Trump Tariff Trade War is merely transactional rather than transformative, then American farmers and consumers will have paid a huge price. We must avoid the self-fulfilling prophecy of falling into the Thucydides Trap in which an existing power, fearing a challenger, starts a war for dominance.
A Change in Direction
We need to ask ourselves this fundamental question about our relationship with China: What are we actually trying to accomplish?
We need to not only assert our interests but understand China’s interests or we will be perceived as a pogo stick, jumping up and down, not getting anywhere.
We must attempt to reconcile what is considered just and beneficial to the American and Chinese people together with what is considered possible with a strong and rising China.
It would be naive to think we are not in an era of great power competition with China. Going forward we must be able to simultaneously collaborate and compete with China. Given the level of integration between our two countries we are not going to prevent China’s rise without doing corresponding damage to America.
It is imperative that our respective leaders find a way through the problems that are driving a wedge between us. We know from history that no agreement can stand the test of time unless both sides are invested in its success.
As Deng Xiaoping, the leader who opened China to the world after Mao once observed, we will continue to move forward, uncertain of what the next step will bring as we “cross the river by feeling for the stones.”
Clearly it would be counter-productive to return to the Cold War days of the Red Scare or the promotion of widespread fear by a society or state about a potential rise of communism.
Of course, we must remain vigilant to protect against a rising China that would in any way hamper America’s national interest or interfere with our internal affairs. We also need to be equally vigilant to prevent a 21st century McCarthyism in this land of the free and home of the brave.
The rhetoric has been heating up and many see a wedge being driven between the US and China, the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. Vice President Pence made it clear there was a pivot in our China policy in a speech he delivered in late 2018.
The concerns outlined in the Vice President’s speech are driving many Chinese and Chinese/Americans to think of it as a witch-hunt, a 21st century return to McCarthyism. A series of actions, including the arrest of Chinese-born American scientists, the firing of several others and closure of their labs, frequent FBI calls and visits to many individuals without any charge, and a tightened visa process for Chinese students in general and in particular STEM students-have shocked the Chinese science and technology communities, raising concerns about racial profiling.
No, I don’t wish for China to fail any more than I want their rise to come at America’s or humanity’s demise.
Several US “Old China Hands”, members of the scholarly, foreign policy, military and business community, are deeply concerned about the growing deterioration in U.S. relations with China, and spell out their vision of a China/US future in a oped in the Washington Post.
America must not slip into moral laryngitis or allow China’s economic might to dull our commitment to freedom, human rights, and democracy as a shining beacon of hope in the world. Instead, we must continue standing tall and upholding democratic values at home and around the globe.
We must maintain mutual respect understanding and appreciate the other’s sovereignty, uphold our respective values and laws without interfering in each other’s internal affairs. A tall order to be sure. One that requires diplomatic and leadership skills that understands the nuance of this vital bilateral relationship.
Constant and Unpredictable Change
After 30 years of learning and traveling around China, and seeing first-hand China’s astonishing and rapid economic transformation, I understand why China poses a threat to American economic interests. Both countries must continue to push ahead with their eyes wide open, continuing their individual and bilateral growth and development but seeking to do so through cooperation rather than conflict.
I have come to believe that there is an even greater opportunity for mutual gain through collaboration and cooperation while following a rules-based international order. I am hopeful that in the coming years we will usher in a new era of economic and diplomatic partnership – not only for the good of our two countries and peoples, but for the good of the world.
The challenge of leadership for both President Xi and Trump is to take our respective nations and the world in a positive direction, from where we are to where we have never been. We must never allow the immediate momentary issues to obscure the important long term success of the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. How our leaders solve this and other problems will impact the people of China, America and all of humanity.
Whining about China is no plan.
These are some of my observations and awakenings after a lifetime of reading, exploring, enjoying, watching, listening and feeling my way through China. I have gathered many memories – more than most – all the while being humbled by all I do not know or fully understand about this rich, 5,000 year-old continuous civilization.
I have come to view China through the lens of a kylididsope: colorful, random and full of constant and unpredictable change,
I look forward to the next 30 years as we continue to refine and define the most important bilateral relationship in the world today. Going forward, all major world issues will intersect at the corner of Beijing and Washington, D.C. We need leaders on both sides of the Pacific that can navigate through the differences in our governing philosophies, working diligently to view our relationship not as a playground see-saw where one nation needs to be down for the other to be up.
We must find ways to share the planet and live in harmony, any other goal and outcome is unthinkable.
Read more about the China/US relationship by the author, Tom Watkins at https://www.chinausfocus.com/author/84/tom-watkins.html
Tom Watkins has an eclectic career in both the public and private sectors. He served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and director of the department of mental health. He has held leadership positions in higher education, business and behavioral health. Watkins has a interest and passion in all things China and has written hundreds of article on the value of this most important bilateral relationship in the world today.