Contemplating China: Ignorance Breeds Fear

Contrary to the popular expression, ignorance is not bliss; ignorance breeds fear. Think about the debate over health care reform that raged through town hall meetings last summer--I stopped counting the number of times someone went on a rant about "death panels" or the impending nationalization of medicine. Neither rumor was true, but the average American apparently had little interest engaged in fact-finding. Better to act from ignorance and pitch the baby out with the bathwater. A similar situation arises when it comes to conversations involving China. I am routinely dismayed by the visceral response Americans offer to all things China--with little apparent regard for the ground truth.

A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll provides a case in point. During a survey of 1,004 Americans conducted between 4 and 8 February 2010 respondents were asked the following three questions: (1) As you may know, some people referred to the 20th Century as the American Century because of the dominant role the United States played in world affairs and the world economy. In the 21st Century do you think the U.S. role will be about the same as in the 20th Century, larger, or smaller? (2) Just your best guess, in terms of the dominant role do you think the 21st Century will be more of an American Century, more of a Chinese Century or what? (3) If the United States does have less of a role in the 21st Century than it had in the 20th Century, do you think that would be a good thing for the United States, a bad thing, or neither good nor bad?

I'm going to pass on judging weather the entire last 100 years should be characterized as the American Century. Suffice it to say we didn't really hit our stride until the mid-1940s...and the boys in Moscow gave us a pretty good run for the money until at least the late 1980s. What I want to focus on is the response to these questions. According to the Post-ABC poll, at 53% of Americans believe Washington is going to have a smaller role in global economic affairs and 46% think we will have a diminished say in world affairs. On the question of dominance, 43% thought the coming 100 years will be the Chinese Century. And 43% thought our declining dominance would be bad on the economic front...39% came to the same impression when considering overall world affairs.

Let me see if I can boil this down to a single sentence. A majority of Americans now believe China will be the coming century's dominant international actor and a significant number of my fellow citizens think this bodes ill for our future well-being. This, by the way, is not the first poll to discover such sentiments. In February 2008, the Gallup annual world affairs survey found 40% of Americans thought China was the globe's leading economy. Only 33% of the U.S. respondents assigned that role to their own nation. Furthermore, when asked to look 20 years ahead, 44% of the American respondents predicted China would be the world's leading economic power. While Gallup did not ask about political might, I suspect the figures would have been comparable. In America economic clout equals political heft--and so we can conclude a Chinese domination of international economics would be accompanied by Beijing's ascendance to the top of the global political hierarchy....which just has to be bad for America.


Let's talk facts for a moment. In 2009 the United States' gross domestic product came to a grand sum total of $14.270 trillion. The Chinese gross domestic product during the same year was a third--allow me to repeat--a third of that figure. So much for the perception China had already become the globe's leading economic power. Now let's consider the question of political might. Beijing's current leadership retains its claim to legitimacy by continuing to improve the lot of 1.3 billion constituents. This primarily translates into a requirement for continuing China's economic development. As the Congressional Research Service and many other scholars have previously argued, this mission is best accomplished by maintaining the existing international order. A regime, I would be quick to note, that largely reflects Washington's cultural, economic, and political mores.

As best I, and a number of far smarter people, can tell, the Chinese leadership has no intention of attempting to change that situation--in the near or distant future. So even if American economic and political power declines over the coming 20-50 years, it seems highly unlikely the international environment is going to become unfavorable to our continued existence. China will continue to seek business opportunities in the United States and is likely to be more than happy to share responsibility for ensuring international peace and stability.

Before I am accused of being an elitist, I should note the average American is not alone in suffering through ignorance. In June 2009, I had the opportunity to teach a seminar on China's future for students enrolled in a master's degree program at the National Defense Intelligence College. The 15 individuals in the seminar came from a wide swath of U.S. government agencies and were typically well on their way to a successful career in Washington. What they all surprisingly lacked was something more than a cursory understanding of China. Over the course of two weeks, I heard arguments ranging from "China doesn't matter," to "Beijing is Washington's coercive competitor in waiting." In short, it appears as though even well-educated Americans have ignored developments in China for the last 10 years.

This is a shame, as there is now very real debate over how the West--and China--should evaluate Beijing's rise to global prominence. Is China the next great threat to the West? Or is Beijing a responsible international actor who should be invited to join the Group of 8? Is the China model a viable alternative to liberal democracy? Or is the China model simply an ongoing experiment that facilitates the survival of an authoritarian regime? I would argue that Beijing certainly wants to be perceived as a responsible international actor--albeit one with national interests she is willing to defend, diplomatically, economically, and militarily. This does not mean China intends to go toe-to-toe with the United States. Rather, Washington can expect cooperation when it is in Beijing's interest to work with us. And, Washington can expect belligerence when Beijing believes China's national security, however defined, is endangered.

In short, the Middle Kingdom of 2020 or 2050 will neither be imperial nor exclusionist. The Chinese harbor no colonial aspirations and see little benefit in refusing to establish relations with states that adhere to a different ideological perspective. This open mind--even if driven by little more than business concerns--suggests the Middle Kingdom is not intent on driving the United States out of Asia or in changing our form of governance. Stated more bluntly, the Middle Kingdom of 2020 will not be a revival of the former Soviet Union. Beijing is not seeking a renewal of the Cold War.

So I see little reason to fear China or the Chinese. I am, however, more worried about how the perceptions of average Americans will shape our foreign policy. As with health care reform, I suspect Washington's relationship with Beijing will careen down a path that serves to highlight political friction rather than serving to foster a greater social good. A fate that suggests ignorance--on any front--is anything but bliss. It is, however, a recipe for poor governance...particularly when our leaders feel compelled to pander to a constituency that finds slogans and ideology more appealing than old-fashioned learning.