Skip to content Skip to navigation

Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations – A Book Review by Jonathan Mirsky

July 25, 2014

Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations reveals what American and Chinese academics think about both countries’ values and policies. With exceptions, the Chinese insist that whatever is wrong in China stems from foreign exploitation and interference. They see, too, U.S. plots to bring China down. The Americans, by contrast, lodge many accusations against China but acknowledge that U.S. society is also guilty of domestic and international bad behavior.

This is best shown in the conversation in which Professor Andrew Nathan of Columbia University, a member of the board of Human Rights in China, takes the American side. His interlocutor is Zhou Qi, a professor at the Institute of American Studies in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the key government think tank, with a Ph.D. from an American university. Prompted by the editor, Ms. Zhou starts straight in on values. The U.S. refused for years to recognize the People’s Republic of China, she correctly notes, and, in 1960, “identified China as a springboard for the expansion of communism in Southeast Asia . . . [,] blockaded the Taiwan Strait,”[1] and protected Taiwan. Fortunately, she continues, in the 1960s, Beijing and Washington united in their conviction that the Soviet Union was a serious international threat. But now there are “deep differences”[2] between the two countries, Ms. Zhou contends, based on the American view of China as a threat. This makes mutual trust “almost impossible,”[3] a common Chinese charge throughout this book.  Furthermore, she says, while Americans insist that China is bound by ideology, they deny that ideology binds the United States itself as well. They are convinced of America’s “‘special destiny,’” “national mission,” and “‘exceptionalism.’”[4]  There is much in what Ms. Zhou says on this matter. U.S. convictions drove America’s “bloody territorial expansionism”[5] in the 19th century and its search for “global dominance”[6] after the Second World War.

Turning to human rights, Ms. Zhou contrasts Western and Chinese views. Westerners, she says, believe that human beings possess rights. Chinese and many East Asians see things differently, basing their views on Confucian concepts of duty rather than individual freedoms. (This overlooks democracy in Japan and South Korea.) She concludes, therefore, that while “Chinese like the idea of democracy,”[7] they put first the political stability that leads to higher living standards. And while Chinese believe that ordinary Americans live in a considerable democracy, they observe the economic crisis in the U.S., the “congressional paralysis, decision making inefficiency, bitter partisan conflicts, and the increasing flow of money in congressional elections.”[8] Finally, Ms. Zhou adds, Beijing’s own White Papers note U.S. human rights violations.

Countering Ms. Zhou’s assertion of a Chinese preference for stability and living well rather than democracy and individual freedoms, Andrew Nathan lists three famous examples: Wei Jingsheng, sentenced in 1979 for calling for democracy in essays posted at the Democracy Wall in the Xidan area of Beijing; Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, now serving eleven years behind bars for demanding that Beijing adhere to the rights stipulated in China’s Constitution; and Chen Guangcheng, imprisoned and then placed under house arrest for defending women who refused to adhere to China’s one-child policy. Chen is now in the U.S. These three names never occur in the Chinese contributions to this book.

Mr. Nathan then confronts the issue of human rights and whether they can be defined by differing national values. They are defined, he asserts, by international law, particularly in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “a body of law that the Chinese government recognizes.”[9] Abuses of internationally defined human rights, he says, “violate the Chinese Constitution. . . .”[10] Most of all, insists Mr. Nathan, such abuses “violate the Chinese people’s sense of fairness when they learn about them (which they often don’t because of censorship).”[11] Nor are China’s rights violations mere incidents. They are violated at every political level, from the Communist Party of China to the police, to the state security ministry. “These [state] agencies . . . have unchecked power.”[12]

Ms. Zhou brushes all this aside, including the concrete examples. She repeats that developing countries place a higher value on “economic and social rights.”[13] She also repeats her assertions about Americans’ concept of “exceptionalism,” their need to “spread” their core values, and the brutal regimes the U.S. tolerated and protected, including South Korea, South Africa, the Philippines, and Haiti.

Mr. Nathan replies that Ms. Zhou and he are “talking past each other.”[14] He admits, “We agree that the United States also violates human rights. That view is widely shared across the American human rights movement.”[15] He mentions Human Rights Watch, where he serves as a member of the Advisory Committee of its Asia Division. It regularly criticizes U.S. human rights behavior at home and abroad. He says, “I share your criticism of American double standards in the application of human rights principles in foreign policy”[16] and says, further, that groups like Human Rights Watch forced President Reagan to change U.S. policies on repressive regimes.

Mr. Nathan maintains that “[a] government does not need a high level of economic development to stop abusing civil and political rights. Such abuses don’t do anything to benefit economic development, social order, or any of the other legitimate goals of government.”[17] So much for the notion that “stability” and economic growth trump human rights.

For many years no one has striven harder to be fair to China and to understand it than Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution. In his remarks, he describes the degree of successful management of the China-U.S. relationship as “truly remarkable.”[18] I had no idea, until I read what he says here, about the range of U.S. official bodies, in addition to the Departments of State and Defense, that deal with Beijing every week, such as the Department of Education. But Mr. Lieberthal warns that damaging mutual distrust “has actually grown in recent years.”[19] In addition to the very different histories and cultures of the U.S. and China, he writes, China distrusts the U.S. as one of the Western industrialized nations seeking to prevent rivals from “knock[ing] them off of their perches.”[20] This distrust exists, he continues, despite the U.S. welcoming many thousands of Chinese students and its efforts on behalf of China to enable China to join international bodies, such as the G20, the group of finance ministers and central bank governors of the top 20 economies. He says, however, that, “Americans have an innate distrust of authoritarian, one-party systems (especially if the party calls itself ‘communist’). . . .”[21]

In response, Wang Jisi of Peking University says many Americans hold China to blame for U.S. job losses, and he accuses the U.S. of supporting separatist movements in Xinjiang and Tibet. He charges, surprisingly, that American media and NGOs create instability within China “by fueling anti-government sentiment.”[22] As for the U.S. sponsorship of international integration for China, the motive, according to Mr. Wang, is to make China more like the U.S. He provides an example of U.S. insensitivity. An American military officer, he alleges, suggested that officers of the People’s Liberation Army be sent to the U.S. so that in the event of something like the Arab Spring occurring in China, U.S. and Chinese military forces could cooperate. Mr. Wang condemns this notion. Anything like the Arab Spring is “the very last thing the Chinese leadership wants to see happen in China. Furthermore, the PLA will spare no effort to prevent Americans from influencing the internal affairs of China, not to say the internal affairs of the Chinese military.”[23]

In the troublesome matter of military developments, Christopher P. Twomey of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School begins by suggesting that Beijing’s military spending, though far less than that of the U.S., is probably “40 to 70% higher than China’s official figures.”[24] He refers to “constant threats [to the U.S.] from Chinese [cyber] network penetrations.”[25] If this becomes sabotage, he warns, it would be “an act of war.”[26] The reason for the American “pivot” towards Southeast Asia, he continues, is because of China’s “provocative behavior in 2009 and 2010,”[27] which resulted in other countries in the region calling for a greater U.S. role in the region.

Xu Hui of the National Defense University responds by insisting that “China’s peaceful development model is an unprecedented experiment in the world.”[28] He rebuts the charge that China is responsible for cyber warfare: “[T]his accusation needs to be reconsidered for the simple reason that it is technologically not yet possible to locate the real source of attacks.”[29] The main obstacle to better security relations between the two countries is the U.S. misconception of what China does and intends, he argues.

In the best example of the normal U.S. two-sided approach that Chinese academics cannot manage, Mr. Twomey says, “Reconnaissance and espionage are facts of life between our two countries. Let’s not pretend that China does not spy on the United States. . . . I take issue with your assertion that it is ‘technologically not yet possible to locate the real source of cyber-attacks.’ There is plenty of evidence of Chinese involvements in many cyber-activities.”[30] He says that “the Politburo is said to have supported such operations”[31] as the kind that compelled Google to leave China. He concedes that, “[o]f course the United States also engages in espionage over the Internet, and in some cases, even more disruptive cyber activities.”[32] Mr. Twomey offers Mr. Xu the sources for his allegations. Mr. Xu refutes these allegations, quoting instead Chinese sources that favor his denials, and goes on to charge that “[cyber]attacks originating from the United States rank first among foreign hackings of Chinese targets and the Chinese military in particular.”[33] In what must be one of the—unintended—funniest observations in recent scholarship, Mr. Xu follows up that accusation with: “But we do not point fingers at the United States based on the abovementioned findings.”[34]

Finally, in their debate on Tibet, Peking University’s Jia Qingguo and Alan D. Romberg of the Stimson Center, differ greatly. Mr. Jia says that while Tibet is under full Chinese authority, “international anti-China forces”[35] make the situation more complicated. This situation centers on the Dalai Lama, who only pretends to seek “genuine autonomy” for Tibet but actually “promotes Tibetan independence.”[36] Although the U.S. has no standing in the Tibetan question, Mr. Jia notes that most U.S. presidents, including Mr. Obama, have met the Dalai Lama as a “spiritual leader.” The U.S. also makes allegations about human rights in Tibet, and urges Beijing to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. In fact, Mr. Jia emphasizes, the “human rights situation in Tibet has improved tremendously over the years.”[37] He concludes that the U.S. is not genuinely concerned with human rights, but works to “undermine the Chinese government.”[38]

Mr. Romberg replies that the U.S. government “has consistently accepted that Tibet is a part of China,”[39] and does not support Tibetan independence. He adds that despite U.S. values in the realm of human rights, “[o]ur own record is, of course, hardly perfect.”[40] But the U.S. struggle against discrimination within its own borders, Mr. Romberg contends, “makes us painfully aware of the costs of degradation of minority populations.”[41] He suggests that respect for human rights in Tibet “would enhance the acceptance by Tibetans of the legitimacy of Beijing’s authority there.”[42]

The shining and exemplary exception to the other Chinese debaters, all academics, is Wang Shuo—notably a satiric novelist—who debates with the University of California’s Susan Shirk. Considering that the media are among the most sensitive and potentially dangerous subjects in China, it is indeed astonishing to read Mr. Wang’s flat assertion that the solution for public disbelief and confusion “is simple but not easy: a freer press.”[43] His description of the present state of affairs is equally blunt: “[T]he government applies heavy-handed pressures on the professional news media, deciding what stories are off-limits, what government policies can be scrutinized, and so on.”[44] In short, the result of the pressure is to “prevent [the professional news media] from doing their jobs.”[45]

As an American who for decades has condemned much U.S. activity abroad and the shameful acts within its borders, I find dispiriting the near-total inability of the Chinese academics in Debating China to look honestly at their own country. (The only exception is a novelist.) Even more dispiriting, this inability is evident among elite Chinese students at Western universities. China’s best and brightest have learned their lessons at home all too well.


Editor's Notes:

[1] Nina Hachigian, Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), 44.

[2] Ibid, 45.

[3] Ibid, 45.

[4] Ibid, 45.

[5] Ibid, 46.

[6] Ibid, 46.

[7] Ibid, 49.

[8] Ibid, 51.

[9] Ibid, 53.

[10] Ibid, 53.

[11] Ibid, 53.

[12] Ibid, 54.

[13] Ibid, 58.

[14] Ibid, 62.

[15] Ibid, 64.

[16] Ibid, 64.

[17] Ibid, 65.

[18] Ibid, 2.

[19] Ibid, 4.

[20] Ibid, 4.

[21] Ibid, 5.

[22] Ibid, 9.

[23] Ibid, 19.

[24] Ibid, 153.

[25] Ibid, 155.

[26] Ibid, 155.

[27] Ibid, 158.

[28] Ibid, 165.

[29] Ibid, 165.

[30] Ibid, 167.

[31] Ibid, 167.

[32] Ibid, 167.

[33] Ibid, 171.

[34] Ibid, 171.

[35] Ibid, 183.

[36] Ibid, 183.

[37] Ibid, 184.

[38] Ibid, 184.

[39] Ibid, 190.

[40] Ibid, 190.

[41] Ibid, 190.

[42] Ibid, 190.

[43] Ibid, 72.

[44] Ibid, 70.

[45] Ibid, 71.


© All Rights Reserved. For permission to reprint articles, please send requests to:

Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations

Edited by Nina Hachigian
Oxford University Press
Publication Date:  2014
Softcover: 253 pp

About the Reviewer

Jonathan Mirsky (梅兆赞) is a historian and journalist specializing in Chinese affairs. In 1990, he was named British International Reporter of the Year for his coverage of the 1989 Democracy Movement in China. Until 1998, he was the East Asia editor of The Times of London.