There remain few US Sinologists worth following, especially since the reversal embodied in the Donald Trump administration’s willingness to decouple the American economy from China’s. This fundamental break with the People’s Republic of China is a rupture that will endure for decades; it will characterize and dominate US relations in Asia for the next several presidencies.
Reversing a half-century of engagement isn’t a policy call Chinese leaders ever envisaged. Nor was the failure to manage American perceptions of Beijing. But China’s dominant political class hasn’t acknowledged serious shortcomings about its own policy failures.
Under its current leadership, China failed to secure prominence of the yuan as an international currency, in effect weakening its ability to manage any crisis that is easily afforded to nation-states with fiat money. The current pandemic is one of several that have rocked the Chinese polity in a way difficult to measure yet prominently discerned among Sinologists. Still, there remain a few “China hands” worth listening to as the US economy seeks decoupling as permanent policy.
England’s own great Sinologist Roger Garside has characterized recent Chinese-led overtures to the US as epoch-defining. Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania along with Michael Pillsbury at the Hudson Institute anticipate deeply fraught relations between Beijing and Washington.
The way forward does not mean constructive engagement, it means relinquishing any US-led effort sustaining detente. What’s required now and for the immediate future is to permit Chinese-led domestic events to dominate Beijing’s political class. It means ending swap lines between the US Federal Reserve and its Chinese counterpart. It means permitting political unrest to dominate China’s leadership.
Food shortages, price spikes and social dissatisfaction over slow economic growth with repression in the interior all serve to inform China’s political class that it needs to field market-related institutions. China remains highly vulnerable to any exogenous shock because its reigning political class still thinks of policy proposals in terms of autarchy. By any measure, China under President Xi Jinping is suffering breakdown. How does this end?
China’s governing class needs better, more aligned market institutions that can fortify its policy responses in a way that strengthens a growing civil society. This has dangerous political implications that must be addressed, for China remains dependent on the world in a way that it cannot control.
For Xi Jinping’s talk on Chinese self-reliance, China needs foreign competitors with discrete knowledge to frame its global ambitions. If Beijing wants its own global brands to compete with Apple and Raytheon, then it needs a politics grounded in ethics, not absolutism. How else is China to reform its governing system and capacity?
China’s self-declared miracles of central authority and meritocratic leadership are in dangerous tension. The fawning adulation over Xi’s leadership isn’t efficacious. It reflects an isolated mindset devoted to self-preservation. Possessing control over the party and its attendant apparatchiks in state-owned enterprises will not save China.
To square self-preservation with a quest for a globally driven economy means living with deep abiding irreconcilable paradoxes.
Marxists remain beholden to contradictions. This one will not serve to underwrite the global ambitions China has for itself.
William Holland is North American recruiter for Wikistrat global consultancy monitoring Pakistan’s nuclear program.