I can’t explain China. I don’t know it well enough, and sometimes it seems to me that the Chinese are experts on their country, but they’re experts that don’t agree. Still, China is an American adversary, and an adversarial relationship between these two countries is dangerous even if it doesn’t lead to war. Therefore, I have to try to understand China.
I have been to Shanghai and Beijing, which I suspect are as representative of China as New York City and Washington are of the United States. In that sense, I have not been to China. Still, these are the country’s political and economic centers, so I will begin there.
I traveled to Beijing last fall as the guest of a bank that wanted me to speak to Chinese investors. It was at a time when the economic confrontation between the U.S. and China was just heating up, and the meetings were tense. Everything I said was met with suspicion. The local people I met with were filled with bravado, of how they would retaliate against the U.S. and the price they would exact. A quiet drink with one or two of them later in the evening brought out another dimension, as such late-night encounters often do. The investors were afraid of the United States and wanted to send back a message that while the U.S. was overreacting, there was nothing that couldn’t be managed. The Chinese simply wanted to know what the Americans wanted.
These were important men. They were well connected to Chinese political power; they wouldn’t be handling the funds they were handling without political blessing. They had been to many countries, including the United States. One of them, who led a particularly large fund, had been confrontational in public but admitted in private that he didn’t understand the Americans – not the government, not President Donald Trump, and not what he took to be the animosity of the American public. In his view, Trump was the prisoner of massive social forces. (In some sense, this was the old Marxist in him searching for the social basis of things.) But he couldn’t understand how American society had turned on a country that had done it no harm.
There was something profoundly strange in his understanding of the U.S. On the one hand, he felt that Trump was a prisoner of social forces. On the other hand, he asked that I deliver him a message. Why deliver a message to a trapped man? The confusion was compounded by the idea that I could deliver a message to any senior official. I tried to explain that I was not connected with the government and that officials would not give me the time of day, assuming they had any idea who I was. This was also incomprehensible to him. How could I be in Beijing, speaking of matters as sensitive as those I addressed, and not be authorized by the government? The more I protested, the more he assured me that he understood. This is a dance I have done in many countries whose citizens cannot conceive of a private citizen knowing things and not being answerable to the government. (The assumption is that I am CIA, and the more I protest that I am not, the more I get a wink and knowing look.) But this man had been to and done business with the United States. How could he not tell that I was merely watching from the bleachers and putting forth my best analysis of the situation?
The truth is that while it can be said that Americans don’t understand China, even the most sophisticated Chinese simply don’t know how to read the United States. Yes, Trump was elected by social forces, and yes, he is president. But he has to deal with Congress and the courts. His hands are free and tied in a very American way. As for me, the U.S. is filled with people who go to China and act as if they know something. Washington is a city filled with people who would claim to know important people, but mostly they don’t.
Years ago, well before today’s mutual fear, I met a Chinese businessman who wanted to sell some goods to the Department of Defense. He wanted to meet with a senior government official, at least the secretary of defense. He was told that he needed to meet with a lieutenant colonel, the project manager, based in Colorado – that was the key to the sale, not the secretary of defense. The businessman recounted this story to me with anger, because he had clearly been rebuffed without courtesy. All I could do was tell him that he better hurry before the lieutenant colonel was rotated to a new job, and his job left open for six months.
While I was in Beijing, I was given a guide who would take me around the city. One of the places she took me was a small traditional neighborhood in the midst of Beijing called a hutong. It is not a museum but a small village with people living there, shopping there and raising families there. The cottages, if they can be called that, were small and my guide told me that she had lived in one of them when she first came to Beijing. She had a room with access to a shared stove for cooking in a hallway but no plumbing. When she wanted to take a shower or use a toilet, she would have to walk down the street to a communal bathroom. She told me many people wanted to live in this neighborhood but that rooms are very expensive.
Earlier that day, I had had lunch with an Australian friend in a shopping center, which would be quite upscale for the United States – all the international brands were there and then some. The mall was crowded with mostly younger shoppers. I was told that there were many such malls in Beijing. In the hutong, my guide told me that there were many such villages in Beijing. I find it incomprehensible that the capital of the second-largest economy in the world would have malls that would make Beverly Hills blush, intermingled with peasant villages from a bygone era. My guide could not understand my bewilderment.
This is the point where I am supposed to say that we should all work toward better understanding each other. If we have time, we should. But the fact is that we will not, on the whole, understand each other. I have met many U.S expats who had spent years in China and confessed that while they understood China better than I did, they still had large blank spots in their knowledge. Same for the Chinese. Each of us reasons through the prism of our own societies looking for analogs from our own countries. That includes those who admire the other country as much as those who fear and distrust it. The two countries have different geographies, histories and fears rising from different places.
It is also not necessary for us to understand each other, which is just as well since we won’t. What is necessary, however, is that the citizens of each understand their own country and its needs. I couldn’t explain to the Chinese fund manager how the U.S. works, but I could tell him what it wants from China: access to the Chinese markets on the same terms as we give them, and recognition that the Pacific is under American control. It is most important that we understand what we need and leave it to the Chinese to understand what they need, and the system will take care of itself, mostly peacefully and sometimes violently. But the idea that if we understood each other better we could work things out misses two points. First, that we won’t understand each other. And second, that the vast internal pressures in each country will determine what each will do – not a think tank, not the close friends of presidents. But if we know what we want, then at least we can understand what is going on.