Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Yasheng Huang said it is in America’s interest to find a middle way with China. (Photos by Lindsay Heald)
Massachusetts Institute of Technology researcher Yasheng Huang said it is in America’s interest to find a middle way with China. (Photos by Lindsay Heald)
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“Look, John,” I said to my Chinese co-worker Yuehàn, pointing out the window of the city bus as we passed a small, walled neighborhood with a courtyard and single-story gray stone houses. There was laundry hanging out to dry and chickens pecking in the yard. The neighborhood looked old in a historically interesting way, similar to the thousand-year-old neighborhoods, or hutongs, that were being rapidly torn down in Beijing. It was a rare sight here, in the seaside city of Dalian in northern China.

Yuehàn, who preferred I call him John, worked as a teacher’s assistant and interpreter at the language institute where I taught English.

We were both standing, holding straps, as the bus hurtled down the boulevard away from downtown. John didn’t seem to notice or care that several of the passengers were staring at me. It was 2003, there were very few Caucasians in the city, and I was never thought to be an American.

He was tall, as many of the Chinese in Dalian were, and bent down to peer out the window. He wrinkled his nose at the sight of the hutong.

“It’s dirty,” he said. “It’s probably left over from the Japanese.”

After a brief Russian occupation, the Japanese had occupied Dalian for 40 years in the first half of the 20th century, building the fishing village up to a port that today has a population of over 6 million people—more than twice the population of Los Angeles. O’Hara Corporation, the fishing company based in Rockland, now does regular business there.

“That’s where I would live,” said John, pointing out the opposite side of the bus to a new 15-story high-rise gleaming with chrome and glass.There were no other buildings around and it looked unoccupied.

“There’s nobody in it,” I protested.

“There will be,” he said, with a confidence in the future that reminded me just how far China had come since Deng Xiaoping engaged in pingpong diplomacy in the 1970s during the Nixon years. In the decades since, the Chinese, who had been almost illiterate by the end of the Maoist years, had become increasingly educated and, by 2003, had become a manufacturing powerhouse.

After two months in China, the culture shock had started to wear off. I was no longer surprised when people stared at my nose (which is not big) or my feet (which are) or grandparents clutched children pointing at me and saying: “Look, look. A laowei. A foreigner.”

I had also become acquainted with the practice of guanxi (Gwon-jee), a networking system based on mutual respect and obligation that permeates Chinese society and which all American businesses must establish to succeed in China.

Networking for advantage is common enough in the West; in China, it is an art form that includes gift giving, banqueting, introductions to important people, and smoothing the way through the sticky Chinese bureaucracy. To have guanxi is to be a member of the club, though it isn’t always clear what the club is or what is expected in return. It has nothing to do with legality; it is more of a social code with opaque, unwritten rules about politeness, influence, connections and obligation. Guanxi knits together those who share it, even if the thread is thin.

In my experience, relying on the kindness of strangers did not work in China. Guanxi, no matter how thin the connection, did. The language institute where I worked had guanxi with the police. When I registered with the local authorities, as required, they knew I was working illegally on a tourist visa and looked the other way. Later, when traveling outside the city, I had no such protection and was politely detained and interrogated for several days until the authorities were convinced I was an innocent tourist who had just happened to visit two cities with military installations.

This by no means meant I understood the Chinese.

I had first thought the Chinese generally had no regard for history because they didn’t seem to care for old things. I could not have been more wrong. I was just starting to peel back the layers of the dominant Chinese worldview. It seemed full of contradictions: deeply steeped in ancient history, identity, and relationships, yet careless about historical objects and embracing all things shiny and new. Big tech hadn’t hit Dalian in the early 2000s, but China was changing fast and the Chinese I met did not seem nostalgic. They adapted fast.

Even though the hutong held no historical interest for John, he embodied just how much ancient China was present in modern China.

That day, on a cold sightseeing outing in Dalian, our dominant worldviews — American and Chinese — kept bumping into one another. It was gentle. There was no argument. It was just that as the afternoon wore on and I paid attention, the day became a lesson in cultural literacy. “Oh, this is interesting,” I thought, more than once reflecting on my own worldview that day. “I assumed this was a universal human value, but no. It’s an American value.”

It’s pretty simple to figure out cultural priorities, it turns out. Often, when you meet someone, it is the first question after initial politenesses. What do you do for a living? That is an American question. Do you believe in one god? was a common question in Muslim parts of the Middle East where I traveled. They wanted to know if I was Christian.

In China there were three questions: The first was about family. They wanted to know who I belonged to. The second, which was not considered rude, was about how much I earned. They wanted to know my status. The third, which was also not considered rude, was about age. Unlike in the U.S., age generally denoted seniority and status, and elicited respect.

The conversations John and I had on our outings around Dalian came back to me 16 years later, to the month, at the 2019 Camden Conference on global issues and foreign policy. This year, China experts who work around the globe had come to instruct, debate, and engage with the audience on whether America’s place as the dominant global power would be taken by China during the 21st century.

The three-day annual forum for civil discourse is held every February at the Camden Opera House and streamed live at an increasing number of remote locations in Maine and, this year for the first time, in New Hampshire. Audio recordings of each speaker will be available on the Camden Conference website in coming weeks. As is typical every year, some things discussed during the weekend have never made it into the media.

Generally, the China experts concluded, “No, China would not take America’s place as the top superpower in the 21st century.” But neither would the U.S. fully retain its seat. It was already slipping due to isolationist tendencies. It was not helping shape trade agreements in southeast Asia; instead it was reacting to them.

“It’s not just Trump,” said Yasheng Huang, an MIT economics professor and China expert who spoke at the conference.

Even under the Obama administration, which had helped shape the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that Trump withdrew the U.S. from after he was elected, the American position towards China was more punitive than positive, according to Huang, who said the U.S. acted to contain China rather than finding ways to cooperate that benefitted both countries.

There is no stopping China’s rise, the China experts concluded. The only positive way forward is to work together.

Robert Daly, a China hand at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington and a former U.S. diplomat, said there were good lessons from the Cold War.

“It’s a useful model: ‘I don’t like your face and I don’t like your face either.’ Okay, well let’s sit down, and on that grounds we know the limits of competition. We can compete when we must, we can cooperate when we must.”

But to effectively engage with China, they said, it’s important to understand that the Chinese view of the world and the American view of the world are deeply and distinctly different.

Confucius and the Middle Kingdom

“The Achilles’ heel in the West has been that, really, we don’t understand China,” said Martin Jacques, author of the 2009 global best-seller “When China Rules the World.” Jacques, the keynote speaker for the 2019 Camden Conference, teaches at Cambridge in England, and in Beijing and Shanghai.

Even though Americans are highly critical of their political leaders, there is a fundamental belief that the American political system is superior to any other, said Jacques.

“There is a belief that one day everyone should be — be required to be — like us,” he said. “China has never been like the West … and it never will be like the West. I don’t mean that there aren’t connections, similarities and so on, but there are some fundamental differences.”

Unlike the U.S., which has an identity as a nation, China’s identity is that of a civilization with ancient roots reaching back 5,000 years.

During the Han Dynasty, which started over 2,000 years ago, rulers adopted the teachings and philosophy of Confucius, a scholar, writer and political theorist, as a guide to governance.

Confucianism, now deeply embedded in modern Chinese culture and identity, is not a religion, but has a doctrine that evokes the same kind of devotion. Its core values include a strong respect and loyalty to family. The individual’s place is understood as a role within the family structure. Think of an extended family where Pa is in charge and, in his absence, Ma. It is a top-down patriarchal structure where every individual in the family has a role and a responsibility to the others.

In the Confucian model, the state is the guardian of society, and governance is drawn from the family structure, Jacques told the Camden Conference audience. It is not a democratic structure where all members of society have the same ability to voice disagreement or shape policy, as they theoretically do in the U.S.

It is not that individual desires are not important in Chinese society, but if they conflict with filial duty, they are not generally valued as a creative expression of free will, but of selfishness that disrupts the balance of things.

This is a simplification, of course, said Jacques, but generally it is important to remember that this very old system has worked effectively, with some major exceptions noted, for over two millennia in China. It did not end with the fall of the last dynasty in 1911.

The love of the shiny and new Chinese inventions doesn’t contradict the historical sense of Chineseness, according to Daly. If anything, they are an extension of a long history of innovation that includes paper, printing, monetary systems, compasses, gunpowder, deepwater drilled wells, alcohol, modern agriculture, and acupuncture.

It might surprise Americans who have a short view of Chinese history that modern China has moved from being the world’s factory floor to imitators to now becoming the world’s innovators. It is happening.

“A Chinese start-up just launched the first foldable smartphone,” said George Yip, co-author of “China’s Next Strategic Advantage: From Imitation to Innovation.”

“It opens up to be like an iPad and folds up to be like a smartphone. They have beat every other company in the world,” said Yip. “Haier, the world’s largest major appliances company, which recentely bought GE Major Appliances, developed the world’s first waterless washing machine.”

Even as recently as the last couple of years, American politicians were saying democracy was an essential element in innovation. It simply isn’t the case, according to Yip, who said an authoritarian country like China has competitive advantages in areas like artificial intelligence, which requires vast amounts of data. China has lots of people to track to provide that data and virtually no privacy laws to keep the government out, said Yip.

To my Chinese co-worker John, the mistakes of Mao and the backsliding of Chinese supremacy in the 20th century was a blip. China would get back to its place as the Middle Kingdom.

John was a natural scholar and analytical thinker who spoke English with a faint accent and was deeply versed in both American and Chinese political and cultural history. He could quote Thomas Jefferson as easily as he could Sun Yat-sen, the democratic-leaning founder of the Chinese political party that launched Chiang Kai-shek’s leadership in 1925. John was tall, good-looking, articulate and self-motivated. His dream was to work in foreign policy.

“Would China be expansionist, then?” I wondered aloud at his comment about Chinese supremacy and whether it would take a colonial approach to the region.

“China is big enough,” John said.

This, too, fit in with the general view of the speakers at the 2019 Camden Conference who saw China’s influence in the world expanding culturally and economically, but not geographically in terms of taking territory or establishing military bases around the world, in spite of their claims to tiny islands in the South China Sea.

The Shining City on the Hill

John and I had gotten off the city bus at Xinghai Square, the largest city square in the world — three times the size of Tiananmen Square in Beijing — and walked up a broad avenue that bisected it. It wasn’t really a square. It was a huge circle of winter-dried grass with a white totem pole in the middle. Every place I had been in China was crowded to the breaking point, with people shoving to get on buses, pushing others aside in grocery lines. Often, trying to get somewhere on public transportation felt like a bar brawl. In Xinghai Square, a frigid winter wind blew off the Bohai Sea and there was no one in sight. Not a person. Not a car. It was strangely and eerily deserted, this model public park by the sea.

I pulled a little notebook out of my pocket and started scribbling notes.

“You’re going to get me arrested,” he said. I looked around. The closest thing to us was a deserted tea house about a half mile away. I put the notebook back in my pocket.

Deng Xiaoping had opened the door to democratic principles and eased civil restrictions, but allowing a free press wasn’t one of them. Now, under Chinese leader Xi Jinping, surveillance is increasingly a part of Chinese life, said conference speaker Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of “The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State” (2018).

“The numbers range from 176 million to 200 million cameras that are capable of facial recognition, but (they) are also moving toward voice recognition and gait recognition, so that you can identify people by how they walk,” said Economy. “So, it’s really extraordinary. And, the … number they want to have to roll out in the next year or so is up to 600 million cameras.”

Could I live with constant surveillance and without a free press if the government made the argument that it was for public benefit? I didn’t think so. Not willingly.

What of our American mainstream worldview? What are the American cultural-political assumptions that Ronald Reagan characterized as the Shining City on the Hill?

Individualism is at its core. The assumption is that each individual should determine their future and role in the world and pulling away from the family to do so was right and appropriate. Youth is valued over age. There should be freedom to speak your mind without fear of repercussion. There should be a multiparty political system. Each American should be able to vote. Each vote should count. These truths we hold to be universal.

And yet, they’re not.

This was not to say that neither John nor I took issue with the worldviews we had been handed. We did. I thought individualism had gone too far in America so that selfishness and privilege too often prevailed over the common good. He thought restrictions on the press did not help China rise and took credibility away from the government. Still, mostly we adhered to our assumptions. We had genially bumped up against our cultural identities, over and over, on that cold winter day. Even when we finally were inside and served lukewarm tea in the freezing tea house that John could only enter with a foreigner, since it was not for the Chinese, I was perplexed. “Why not?” I asked. He shrugged, glancing at the Chinese waiter, then remained silent.

John would be 40 years old now. I would like to have seen him at the Camden Conference to compare notes. Much of what he told me on those outings around Dalian, much of what we discussed, has come to pass.

At 24, John was convinced of China’s resurgence as a world leader, even as many analysts saw failure due to a propped-up monetary system. He took the long view of his country, but he had personal concerns about his own future. His official schooling was over and, in spite of his intellect, his options seemed limited. His intellectual mother had been a young victim of Mao’s student paramilitary thugs, the Red Guards, and had been sent to a rural work camp to do manual labor, where she had met John’s father. They both worked in factories. In 2003, John shared a sixth-floor walk-up — a cold-water flat — with his parents in one of the sooty neighborhoods of Dalian. Like many of the Chinese teaching assistants and institute students, John went to the neighborhood bathhouse once a week to bathe and, lacking a refrigerator, hung plastic bags with fruits and vegetables outside the apartment windows to keep them cold. The family did not have a washing machine.

John’s father wanted him to go to work in the factory, but John wanted to take the civil service exam, a grueling five-hour test with tough math, science and essay questions. Those who pass are allowed to apply for highly competitive government jobs. Right then, no matter how hard he studied, he could not even take the test. He would need another year of college to qualify to take the exam.

The exam that allows entry to the bureaucracy was established in ancient China and this meritocracy model and the Confucian model based on family unity and responsibility were deeply entwined in John’s decisions, dreams, and dilemmas.

The Need to Find the Middle Way

How could these two very different ways of being in the world that John and I loosely represented on a human scale come together as competing superpowers? They are so different.

Because, noted Huang at the Camden Conference, American and Chinese interests are also entwined.

It is not just Chinese interests that are harmed by the increasingly isolationist American stance to foreign policy with China, said Huang. For example, the U.S. is already seeing the damage in terms of shrinking scientific expertise at American research institutions. That doesn’t help China. It harms the U.S.

“Forty percent of the MIT faculty are foreign born. Of that, the largest contingent are Chinese. The graduate student ratios are even higher,” said Huang. Trump plans to cut the number of visas to Chinese professionals in half and this will seriously undermine US research capability, he said.

“No one is really talking about this,” said Huang. “You don’t see this in the news.”

Huang briefly outlined the economic reasons that had led to Chinese moving into physics and science positions in the U.S. In the post-World War II economy, science research was underfunded, so American graduates headed into finance for the larger salaries, thus opening the door to foreign graduate students in math and sciences, many of whom came from China during the post-Mao era when their own educational opportunties were expanding.

It is not well known that today American venture capitalists invest in two sectors that promise returns: life sciences and software.

“It is the Chinese who are investing across the board in material science and hardware development, manufacturing and all of that, right? So essentially, by stopping Chinese from doing these things, you are depriving capital to U.S. entrepreneurs,” said Huang. “We need to be very clear about the harm the current administration is inflicting on the United States.”

Restrictions on U.S. visas came in the wake of the arrests of two Chinese nationals accused of spying in the U.S., a claim that has turned out to be as false as the news reports of rice-sized Chinese spy chips inserted into Apple and other motherboards during the computer manufacturing process.

Be wary of embracing a McCarthy-style view of the Yellow Peril, warned Kaiser Kuo, who worked as head of international communications for Baidu, a Chinese tech giant, for two decades before recently moving back to the U.S., where he was born. “It will damage American democracy far more than it will China,” said Kuo.

“Spies and espionage?” said Huang. “For me, that’s a law-and-order issue. That’s not an across-the-board foreign policy issue. And, by the way, the two Chinese-born scientists who were charged with espionage, each one of these two cases was thrown out by the courts for lack of evidence. The FBI destroyed their careers.”

“I think the right response to the rise of China is for the U.S. to invest here at home in sciences,” he said.

To move forward means sharing power as global leaders.

“This contentious relationship is not primarily the fault of either one nation or the other,” said Daly. “It’s a historic dynamic. China must learn to be a truly integrated world power, despite its extremely deep civilizational instinct for insularity. And the United States must adjust to the fact of Chinese power, despite our preference for continued preeminence.”

The U.S. does not have a choice, said Daly. China is in the process of transforming the world, much as the U.S. did in the 20th century. It’s rise will profoundly transform the United States, he said, no matter what policy the U.S. pursues.

In answer to the question posed in the title of this year’s Camden Conference — “Is this China’s Century?” — Daly noted that the more important question was whether and if both the U.S. and China can accommodate their dissimilar worldviews while remaining flexible in their approaches to doing so.

“I think that if both nations find ways to change over the very long term, then we can both find ways to prosper in this century, no matter who ends up claiming it,” he said.