On May 11, 1785, the three-masted square-rigged sailing ship The Empress of China returned to New York harbor carrying tea, porcelain and other goods purchased from Guangzhou during a 14-month mission to the China coast. It was the beginning of trade between the Qing Empire, then in its second century of rule, and the newly established United States of America. It was also the start of a relationship which, 200 years later, is destined to define the world order for decades to come.
Last month, the Tsinghua University Academic Center for Chinese Economic Practice and Thinking invited Thomas Friedman, Niall Ferguson, Martin Wolf and other “thought leaders,” a truly bizarre and vain title if there ever was one, to attend a conference with Chinese political and business leaders. The result has been a spate of dutiful platitudes on how China sees things differently than the West.
(Here’s a leading thought: A VIP pass, pseudo-exclusive access, and a half-decent spread of booze are excellent solvents on morality and sound judgment. A technique which seems to have paid dividends for CCP spin masters of late but that was first perfected by the roadies for Mötley Crüe.)
There is of course, some truth behind the platitudes and much has been made of the differences between China and the United States, their history, culture, and political systems. Yet what strikes me as an American who has been living in China for over 15 years are not the differences, it is the similarities. It is also the similarities which have the highest potential to create the kinds of misunderstandings and disconnects that can threaten smooth US-China relations.
The potential for an awkward handshake
China and the US are both large countries who self-identify as anti-imperialist and yet have borders shaped by a history of westward expansion. Both are revolutionary governments utterly infatuated with their own political system. More importantly, Americans and Chinese share the disease of overly exuberant exceptionalism: “The Shining City on the Hill” vs. “5000 years of continuous civilization.” Neither trope is true of course, but dogged belief in a fundamental exceptionalist myth as a litmus test for patriotism is yet another character flaw in common.
That China and the US are built on empire is ideologically inconvenient, and yet both countries reject the mantle of imperialist power. From the beginning, the US has claimed a special relationship with China that implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) draws a distinction between the actions of the European powers in China and the Americans. The Open Door Policy, the Boxer Scholarships, and the missionary enterprise of the 19th and early 20th centuries are all part of this mythology. In the 1950s, the question became how the US “Lost China,” the implication is that China had been something for the Americans to lose. China’s contemporary rejection of the imperialist label begins of course with the depredations against China during the 19th and 20th centuries. And yet, Qing imperial history, particularly in the western regions of what is today the PRC, suggests that it is indeed possible – as it was in the case of the Ottomans – to be both subject to imperialist aggression and to be an expansionist empire.
American Business and Chinese Nationalism: Lessons from 1905
There’s also something about revolutionary governments that lends itself to overweening pride in those governments’ chosen political system. When legitimacy is divorced from history, when being distinct from whatever was before becomes its own legitimizing narrative, there exists an even greater need to mythologize and idealize a system whatever its merits. This was certainly true in China in the 1950s and 1960s, perhaps less so later as the practical realities of development often overshadowed ideology, but ideology – like a severe case of herpes – appears merely to have rested dormant. This spring’s odes to Karl Marx and continuing propaganda on national security and “cultural self-confidence” are the most recent examples of a resurgent emphasis on ideology under Xi Jinping. In the US, an uncritical assumption in the superiority of the US system, whatever its flaws in other contexts, has long been a part of the national DNA. Little wonder that observers and pundits from both sides of the Sino-US divide continue to be blinkered by ideology posing as national identity.
Finally, for the reasons outlined above but also by virtue of their size, China and the United States suffer from related cases of Big Country Exceptionalism. This affliction is characterized by a belief that “what is mine” is, by definition, “that which is true.” It manifests as a severe inability to accept as valid any censure from beyond their borders even as, perhaps more insidiously, it renders internal criticism subject to ridicule and hostility on the grounds that such criticism is unpatriotic. “Hurting the Feelings,” “Witch Hunts,” “troublesome foreigners,” “propaganda,” “false news,” “media bias,” it’s getting harder and harder to differentiate the bleating complaints coming from the White House and Zhongnanhai.
Boycotts and Barroom Brawls
This exceptionalism also affects the behavior of citizens abroad. The stereotype (and reality) of the Ugly American has never really gone away. It has just been joined by a stampede of Chinese tourists, many as unwilling as their American counterparts to adapt to local customs away from the Motherland and, as Americans have done for decades, seem all too eager to throw their economic clout around by way of half-hearted apology to the bruised feelings of the local populace.
As the flames of trade wars die down, momentarily, to embers, it is striking the extent to which the similarities between the US and China seem to cause the most significant stumbling blocks to mutual understanding. There will always be differences, of course. Cultural misunderstandings. Historical experience. Economic realities. Social structures. But in reading the rhetoric between Washington and Beijing over the past few years, and particularly the last couple of weeks, part of the problem just might be that the two sides are a little too close for comfort.
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