Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations

Debating China

Editor:        Nina Hachigian

ISBN:           9780199973880

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Year:           2014

Price:         $21,95

Reviewed by Dino E. Buenviaje, Ph.D, University of California, Riverside

Given the atmosphere of “China bashing” that is all too pervasive in today’s media and politics, Debating China:  The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations is a refreshing work that takes into account the complexities in the global economy dominated by the United States and China and their ramifications in a wide spectrum of areas.  Edited by Nina Hachigian, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, the book aims to provide a forum in which Americans and Chinese can learn each other’s perspectives and to discuss how the United States and China both affect the global economy.

Hachigian, in her introduction, describes the inception of this work based on a lively exchange she had with Dr. Yuan Peng, a Chinese security expert at a conference in Beijing, and other experts, where they shared with each other their countries’ respective positions on a wide array of issues.  This conversation was then published in a British foreign policy journal called Survival, which would become the kernel for this work.  Hachigian underscored the importance of the relationship between the United States and China, which are the two largest economies and have the two largest military budgets, the most internet users, and are the world’s largest carbon emitters, wielding a great deal of influence in the international arena as nuclear powers and permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.  Because of this reality, she believed that it was imperative for the peoples of both countries to understand how each views the other in this relationship in order to establish a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous global economy.

Hachigan describes Debating China as a revival of the eighteenth-century epistolary novel, which shows an exchange of correspondences between two people in each chapter.  The book is organized into ten chapters, which focuses on one facet of the U.S.-China relationship:  an overview highlighting the strategic relationship between both countries; the economic relationship; human rights; the global roles and responsibilities of both countries; the role of the media; climate and clean energy; global development and investment; Taiwan and Tibet; regional security roles and challenges; and a conclusion, which recapitulates the points of each chapter.  At the beginning of each chapter are questions to be addressed by the correspondents.  For each chapter, there is an American and a Chinese counterpart who are experts in their respective fields.  For example, in the first chapter describing the overall U.S.-China relationship, the American perspective is represented by Kenneth Lieberthal of the Brookings Institution and the Chinese by Wang Jisi from Peking University.  The chapter begins with an introductory letter, followed by a series of rebuttals.  Each chapter would have at least three sets of correspondences on the topic.

The book is a breath of fresh air in the discourse over the U.S.-China relationship.  Rather than the usual vitriol and chauvinism one hears in cable media or newspaper editorials, Hachigian’s work examines the relationship in a more nuanced and thoughtful way, through the use of correspondences.  Hachigian uses a diverse group of experts to address the challenges facing both the United States and China.  The contributors to the chapters, for the most part, have made a great effort to understand each other’s perspectives.  Unlike position papers or journal articles, the use of correspondences establishes an intimacy that otherwise would not be possible, giving the reader the sense that the writers are more like friends having a frank discussion, which is more relatable than two academics or bureaucrats debating with one another.  For example, in the chapter on the economic relationship between China and the United States, Barry Naughton, of the University of California, San Diego, started off the correspondence by analyzing the impact of China’s presence in the global economy, particularly, since joining the World Trade Organization in 2001.  He examined the impact of the introduction of Chinese imports, which have benefited American consumers due to low prices, corporations due to low labor costs, while at the expense of low-skilled American workers.  Most of all, he noted that China was the greatest beneficiary of this exchange, due to the training of Chinese workers, managers, and engineers from the transfer of technology, thus contributing to the tremendous growth of the Chinese economy over the past thirty years.  He analyzed the problems Americans have with Chinese economic policy, particularly in the areas of intellectual property and currency manipulation,  Nevertheless, he concluded his first letter by stating that the relationship between both countries and the global economy would be further strengthened through transparency and a level playing field.

Yao Yang of the Peking University began his reply by agreeing to Naughton’s points about the gains China has made in the past thirty years and by concurring that the weak enforcement of intellectual property rights on the part of the Chinese government has harmed both Chinese and American interests.  However, he also rebutted Naughton’s analysis of Chinese economic policy, particularly on the issue of currency manipulation resulting in a surplus in its trade balance, arguing that Great Britain and the United States had carried trade surpluses earlier in their histories, and that in the decades after the Second World War, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan had each carried surpluses when their economies were experiencing high growth.  He then wrote his analysis of the U.S. economy by arguing that its flexible labor market was far too disruptive through outsourcing, for example, and created a confrontational relationship between labor and management and that its “winner-take-all” form of capitalism was responsible for the 2008 economic crisis and quoted Lenin’s warning of financial capitalism being the final stage of capitalism before the revolution.  He ended his reply that it would not be in the world’s interests for the United States and China, the two largest economies, to be in a state of confrontation.

 Despite the concerted efforts at even-handedness, the usual rhetoric and criticism from both the American and Chinese perspectives seep in on the more sensitive facets of the U.S.-China relationship, resulting in both people talking past each other, rather than fully engaging with one another.  In the chapter “Political Systems, Rights, and Values,” Zhou Qi of the Chinese Academy of the Social Sciences recited the narrative of the early policy of the United States to contain the newborn People’s Republic of China in 1949, while giving legitimacy to the Nationalist government in Taiwan.  On the issue of human rights, Zhou brought up the “Century of Humiliation” as a rebuke against the United States, which he accused of trying to mold China into its own image, as part of “American exceptionalism.”  Rather than acknowledging China’s history of human rights abuses, Zhou offered the explanation that Chinese culture rests on rites as a guide for behavior, whether by individuals or government, stating, “The monarch dominates, vassals are subordinate; fathers dominate, sons are subordinate; husbands dominate, wives are subordinate,” thus emphasizing societal stability, rather than the protection of individual rights.  He concluded his introductory letter by reiterating the fact that relations can only improve when the United States stops trying to impose its values and ideology on China.  On the other hand, Andrew Nathan of Columbia University began his rebuttal by reciting a litany of human rights cases in China over the past thirty years, arguing that these cases are actually being pursued by Chinese citizens who want to bring them to light.  In his response to Zhou’s charge that the United States imposes its values on other nations, Nathan quoted the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is neither Western nor Confucian, but are being violated by local Chinese officials, and are being invoked by Chinese activists.  Nevertheless, he expressed his hope that China and the U.S. have the greatest potential at a deeper friendship because of a shared sense of justice between both peoples.

It is clear that Debating China was written for academics and experts in foreign policy who are already familiar with the various issues surrounding U.S.-China relations.  However, there are some shortcomings to be addressed.  For example, for a layperson, who might want to learn more about U.S.-China relations beyond what he or she is being fed by conventional media, the book can still be somewhat exclusive and shuts out interested non-experts.  It would have been helpful to give even some kind of introductory paragraph or two that gives a description of the issue to be discussed in the chapter, in order to give some kind of historical context to the correspondences to be exchanged.  Additionally, it would have been more helpful if the descriptions of the authors were placed either at the beginning of the book, or at the beginning of each chapter, so that the reader can feel more invested in the discussion, and might even be encouraged to learn more about the topics discussed.  By placing them at the end, the authors become an afterthought, if the reader decides to think about them at all.

Debating China:  The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations is an imaginative effort to frame the spectrum of issues between the two most influential nations in the twenty-first century.  Through the use of correspondences, the reader can delve into normally esoteric issues in a more personal way.  This work can be a first step for anyone who wishes to gain a more thoughtful understanding of the questions facing the United States and China.

Suggested citation:

Dino E. Buenviaje (2014), Review of “Debating China: The U.S.-China relationship in Ten Conversations” by Nina Hachigian (ed.), East Asian Integration Studies. Vol 8, no. 7.