It’s a problem.
The term ‘China Watcher’ has a history and it’s not great. It refers to so-called experts watching China from afar during the cold war, parsing political speeches, analyzing photographs, doing whatever they could to figure out China while not being there. They tended to hold anti-China views, or at least anti-Communist Party of China views, so their reports emphasized problems and controversy.
China Watchers replaced an earlier breed called, ‘China Hands,’ a term which goes back to the opening of China to western trade in the early 1800s. China Hands were actually There, mostly doing business, but also conducting research and working as journalists. Many were Americans and they told the western world what was happening in the mysterious orient.
By the 1930s and 40s, what-was-happening increasingly meant describing the Communists under Mao and the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek. Grounded in the real world and not ideology, many prominent China Hands of the time, such as John S. Service ad Edgar Snow, saw the Communists as the likely winners.
Correctly predicting the unpopular outcome was career-ending for some. ‘Who Lost China?’ was a preoccupation of the McCarthy era, and by telling the truth, the China Hands became a lightning rod for blame.
I am dwelling on this earlier shift in China narrative control because
Here We Go Again!
The main story being told in the West about China is changing. Right Now.
The new one comes from China Watchers who are for the most part Not There and who have an ideological interest (a particular form of Capitalism) in representing China as a frightening adversary.
Between the time of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s meeting with Chairman Mao Zedong, through the economic opening under Chairman Deng Xiaoping and even during the early years of General Secretary Xi Jinping — China was not portrayed in the West as a frightening adversary. The basic idea for the past 50 years has been that China is gradually reforming and becoming, if not identical to Western economies, at least very compatible with them.
This image may or may not have had any basis in fact ever, but it’s looking pretty quaint at the moment.
There have been plenty of China Hands all over the country for decades. Watchers and Hands, ideologues and unbiased observers, everyone has sung the same tune. Seeing China’s Future Trajectory as an existential threat to the United States was a crazy fringe position.
Now the crazy fringe China Watchers are in charge of U.S. foreign policy.
Expats working, studying or just plain living in China were kind of a canary in the coal mine. According to the Wall Street Journal, twice as many expats were leaving as were coming to China as far back as early 2015. They cited pollution, product safety, increasing censorship, and consistently — a change in the overall atmosphere regarding foreigners.
Was the West being sold a phony story all along, or did the Chinese leadership’s attitude change due to internal dynamics involved in the rise of the most populated nation on earth? Could those dynamics and changes have been foreseen?
It feels so abrupt. As recently as 2008, all eyes were on Beijing and the spectacle orchestrated there for the Summer Olympics. It seemed like China had completely joined the club.
One stock market crash, one paralyzed USA, and one MAGA campaign later, there are obviously two clubs on the planet. One club is the America’s Way Club, which China’s leaders may never have intended to join in the first place. But it is definitely clear now that the Communist Party of China (CCP) is taking its own enormous domestic market, plus whoever else they can sell stuff to, and starting their own club.
China 2025 is the new club’s mission statement and business plan.
I really don’t know what this very recent plot turn means for you and me. Even if I had a theory about how to help the America’s Way Club and the China’s Way Club get along, I wouldn’t know how to act on my theory and try to make it happen.
I have half-baked ideas. I’m a Junior Varsity-level China Hand and China Watcher. I have traveled in China for months at a time on business. I have stayed with friends there. I have been in people’s homes. But not in ten years.
I read blogs, listen to podcasts, watch documentaries, and absorb e-books about China. I am working on a project in Cambodia, where I see the impact of Chinese economic and cultural expansion.
I am also a student of history. I know about the Opium Wars and the Century of Humiliation that is felt as an ever-present motivating factor when you interact with people in China about what matters to them.
I never believed the CCP would let China join the America’s Way Club on America’s terms.
The terms suck.
One big non-negotiable term is the U.S. Dollar as the World’s Reserve Currency forever. This privileged position allows the U.S. to print money at will to further its goals — and to control important transactions like buying oil from sources under U.S. sanctions.
China has been slowly developing an alternative reserve currency concept involving a combination of several national currencies. You’d think that might have been a tip-off as to China’s long-term game plan.
What are my half-baked ideas as a couples counselor for the two nations?
I’d say, ‘keep doing what you were doing.’
But that may not be possible. Chinese students will not be able to attend U.S. universities as easily as they have for at least twenty years because US-China Transnational Education is being discouraged by both countries, starting with more red tape. Young Americans will not be able to live in China teaching English or doing business as easily as they have because all foreign workers and businesses are coming under heavy scrutiny of every sort.
Disengagement makes it harder to Be There as a China Hand. It also helps the China Watcher themes grow darker, less hopeful of rapprochement.
I’m not an international couples counselor. I know that I cannot let the China Watching Narrative Managers tell me how to think about China. Since I’m not there, I have to be my own China Watcher.
I have to read and listen and take in content from many sources, making sure I check into where they get their funding. I have to think about what I take in, talk about it, test my ideas with people much more knowledgeable than I am in places like the SupChina Slack Channel.
Not to mention writing about Following China on Medium.
Self-fulfilling prophecy is real. China Watchers can make China an enemy by the stories they tell. Since China will never accept the America’s Way Club terms, the only alternatives to Enemy status are peaceful, separate non-involvement or peaceful, separate-but-equal co-operation.
The idea that America as presently constituted would ever accept China as a non-threatening equal partner is preposterous. I am in no position to comment on the reverse. I don’t know if it is preposterous to think that China as presently constituted would ever accept America as a non-threatening equal partner.
One of the reasons I put in the time as a Junior Varsity China Watcher is precisely to understand that question and the forces behind it better. I don’t think anything else matters.
I’m 70. Like all mortals, I don’t know how long I will live, but I am currently using 3,000–5,000 days as my most reasonable planning horizon. That’s basically the 2020s, a decade that will supposedly see millions, maybe billions, of people underwater, literally as well as financially. due to climate change.
It gets worse from there unless the U.S. and China can accept each other as non-threatening equal partners, able to work cooperatively to mitigate the worse aspects of what humans, mostly in developed and developing nations, have created.
I do not see a pathway from where we are now to where we need to be in order to avoid the hellscapes associated with three and four degree temperature increases. My plan is to do whatever I can to recognize the outlines of that pathway as soon as it appears — I’m pretty good at that — and then to help build it out so it’s sturdy enough to carry lots of people to a better future.
It’s not much, but I enjoy active China Watching a lot, which has to be an upgrade over fear and avoidance.