Dialogue on U.S.-China Relations
Kerry Dumbaugh, Arthur W. Hummel, David M. Lampton, and Stephen Yates
The following is an edited transcript of a panel discussion from the China Forum television series, produced under the auspices of the U.S.-China Policy Foundation. This dialogue took place on September 14, 2000, and aired on northern Virginia public television station WNVC on October 1, 2000. For more information on the China Forum series, contact the U.S.-China Policy Foundation at 316 Pennsylvania Avenue, SE, Suite 201, Washington, D.C. 20003; Telephone: 202-547-8615; E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kerry Dumbaugh, Asia specialist, Congressional Research Service (moderator): U.S. relations with the People’s Republic of China over the past decade have been described as troubled and uneven, with periods of improvement followed by periods of renewed tension. This pattern of improvements and setbacks can make it very difficult to assess the state of the relationship at any given time.
Arthur W. Hummel Jr., former Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China: I think relations are not bad. Considering where we’ve been in recent years, they’ve been much worse. Yet they could be better and they should be better. And I have reasonable expectations that they’re probably going to get slowly better. We don’t understand each other well enough, although we are getting to understand each other better.
Stephen Yates, senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation: I agree largely with Ambassador Hummel’s assessment that relations are not that good and not that bad. At the moment, we’re coming out of some periods of deep distrust following the Chinese Embassy bombing debacle in Yugoslavia. We’ve also had a lot of distrust over the question of the rise of missile defense as a major political issue in the United States and a security question in the future. I think there are a lot of things that are going to put us “on edge” at a high level of diplomacy. But overall, there is a very deep reservoir of substantive contact between our two peoples. There is an enormous trade relationship and a lot of contact through universities and other channels, all of which has the effect of keeping things somewhat steady, even though our politics go up and down.
David “Mike” Lampton, professor at The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies: We often talk about the relationship as good or bad. But I think a more productive approach might be to think of it as a mixed relationship, like the relationships that the United States has with every other country on the face of the earth.
We have some structural problems with the Chinese in the economic areas: trade deficits, and what many Americans feel to be an inequitable trade relationship in some respects. Then there is the Taiwan problem. On the other hand, we have some very powerful common interests—maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula, dealing with narcotics trafficking, all sorts of things. So I think we need to be talking about where our common interests lie, where our frictions lie, and how can we most productively manage the relationship.
Kerry Dumbaugh: So far everyone seems to agree that the U.S.-China relationship is on fairly solid footing. But the fact is, if you read the media, if you look at Congressional debates and U.S. policy debates, if you go to conferences at think tanks, you get the overall impression that we’re sliding down a slippery slope into an ever more troublesome relationship with China. Where is this negativity coming from?
David Lampton: Well, one place that I might actually be a little more alarmist is the area of the Taiwan problem. I think that the people in the PRC, and particularly the leaders, are becoming progressively more worried that the identity of the Taiwan people is moving toward independence. And the democratic system in Taiwan is giving voice to this sentiment in a way that the mainland finds very troublesome. Therefore, the mainland is putting more pressure on Taiwan to negotiate politically.
The United States is caught in the middle of this. To put it bluntly, the people in Taiwan do not have very much if any interest in political negotiations now or for the foreseeable future. And as the PRC becomes more alarmed, I think their strategy is going to be to apply more pressure, which is going to elicit a generally negative response from the United States. So even though economics pulls us together, as well as many of our societal values, education, and cultural exchange, Taiwan is pulling us apart. In the end, I’m not sure which force is going to prevail.
Stephen Yates: My pessimism about the U.S.-China relationship, to the degree it exists, lies in a different area. I agree that there are tensions and questions about Taiwan’s future and what Taiwan’s relations with the mainland are going to be. But I think we have a China problem more than a Taiwan problem. I think a lot of the negativity about the relationship frankly comes from some unfortunate events that are happening inside China, events whose existence we have to acknowledge. Beijing creates a lot of the negative stories for itself, by jailing a particular person or a group, and doing it on camera for the world to see.
It’s a little hard to escape the ugly truths from time to time. And when we’re facing these complex problems, it’s going to be very difficult to sustain our common interests into the future.
China also has a very different view of how to maintain its global security than some of the competing visions within the United States. The debate over whether the United States should have a national missile defense or a global missile defense is one of these areas. Moreover, the Korean Peninsula may not, over the long term, be an area of common interest. If the two sides of the Korean Peninsula begin to work more with each other, then maybe the Korean Peninsula as a whole will begin to lean more towards the continental Asian power—at that point, Korea may no longer be an issue of common interest. So as we look off into the future, there are signs that we might be competing with China more than we’re cooperating.
Arthur Hummel: It seems to me that the most divisive factor for Americans is not so much what is going on in China, because a lot of it is distasteful to us. The question is, what do we do about it? And we are torn here, in the United States, between two goals or two ways of thought. One is the desire to force China to change. We’ve had rather divisive arguments in the Congress and elsewhere about how to make China stop what it’s doing.
Many of these suggestions simply cannot be carried out. We’ve tried some of them, such as threatening to curtail trade relations through withdrawal of most favored nation treatment, and it didn’t do any good. So, if Americans are faced with the inability to change China, then you reach the problem of how are we going to get along with China? The interplay between these two approaches has plagued us for a decade, for a hundred years. How should we change China?
My parents were missionaries, and I grew up in China. My parents were trying to change China not by saving souls but by educational means. And Chinese education was in fact transformed, partially by Americans. At the same time, we have to get along with the government. There is an irreducible level of friction beyond which we should not push the Chinese. Yes, we have to speak up about what we don’t like, but we don’t want to destroy the relationship or cause the Chinese to destroy the relationship by being excessive in the means we use to try to force them to change.
Kerry Dumbaugh: That brings something to mind. On September eighth of this year, China’s President Jiang Zemin, speaking in New York, said, and I quote: “China is making”—and he did say this in English, by the way, so it was rather dramatic—"China is making an effort to know the United States better, and the United States should likewise make an effort to know China better.”
Now, we all hear a lot about American policymakers admonishing Chinese officials that they need to understand the United States better, and Chinese officials admonishing Americans that they need to understand China better. So I’ve got a two-part question. First, exactly how important is “knowing each other better” to solving some of the tensions that we’ve been talking about? Is that our only problem? And the second part of the question is, to the extent that this factor is important in the relationship, what grade would you give either side in its efforts to try to understand the other better?
David Lampton: Well, I’ve spent my life in the business of mutual understanding. And I think, in the long run, both sides need to do a better job of it. In some sense, you’d have to say the Chinese, as a society, have made a very substantial effort to understand the United States, if measured by the number of students and scholars they have studying on campuses in this country—for over a decade, it has been about 50,000 in round numbers. There are, at any given time, only a few thousand Americans making an equivalent effort in China in language studies.
I think part of that, though, reflects the value that the Chinese attach, particularly the leadership, to this relationship. Most, or at least many, of the Chinese leaders have had sons or daughters live for substantial periods in the United States, some ultimately becoming involved in business, some going back into China’s diplomatic service, and so on.
So, I think the Chinese have made a substantial effort. I was in New York when Jiang Zemin delivered the speech you mentioned; it was about 40 minutes long, entirely in English. And I asked myself “When is a President of the United States going to be able to go to China and deliver a 40 minute address in Chinese?” I do not anticipate that day coming. So I think in language and cultural understanding, we have to make a more substantial effort to try to understand China. But in the end, there are still some abiding differences in interest between our countries. And all of the mutual understanding in the world isn’t going to wash those away.
There are also some deeply different cultural attitudes and practices in China that Americans are not going to find particularly tasteful. So I think our only strategic hope is more mutual understanding. But it’s not going to wipe out the cultural differences and certainly not the differences in interest.
Arthur Hummel: We have a national predilection for wanting to lecture other countries, not just China, but a lot of foreign countries. We have to express our national views, the views of our populace, and we complain about things when they’re going badly abroad. But at the same time, it can be overdone. One of our former secretaries of state introduced Jiang Zemin’s speech in New York by saying, among other things, “China has gotten along for 3,000 years without the benefit of American advice.” There was quite a bit of tittering throughout the hall.
We do give advice, sometimes too freely. We are obliged, because of our system, to speak freely about things we don’t like. But sometimes we put pressures on that simply don’t achieve the result they’re intended to achieve.
Stephen Yates: I agree with both of these sentiments, but there’s a skeptic in me that says that we don’t really need to understand very much about each other to know where our Seventh Fleet is. We don’t really need to understand very much about each other to know in which direction your nuclear weapons are targeting. And there is only so much that Americans can understand about China as long as there are restrictions on where they can go, when they can go, what they can say, and who they can meet with, with potential repercussions for the people that they do meet with.
There are always going to be limits to what Americans can understand about China, at least as long as the Chinese government puts limits on how much of China we’re allowed to go and see and interact with freely. I think it’s good for Americans to learn more about the world. We do have a sense of pride or arrogance, depending on which way you slice the emotion. But frankly, it’s because we have intense global interests.
To a certain extent, the rest of the world must deal with us because we are everywhere, and we have significant interests all around. I don’t think that we should be arrogant about it–one of the slogans of the Bush presidential campaign is to have “Excellence without Arrogance" and it’s a wonderful ideal to strive toward. But I do think that, to a certain extent, we’re going to disappoint those in China who want to see us working extremely hard at mutual understanding at all times, because we’re going to have people with a very narrow interest to pursue on defense or some other diplomatic or trade issue, where culture isn’t an issue. A binding agreement is an issue, and how it’s implemented in one culture or another is a fine discussion, but attorneys and negotiators aren’t going to care very much about that.
Arthur Hummel: I’m afraid I object rather strongly to the notion that Americans cannot understand China because of restrictions the Chinese government places on the contacts. That is simply not the case. American tourists, American teachers, American businessmen are in daily contact with all levels of Chinese society. And the Chinese are very free to talk about what they think, extraordinarily free now.
Perhaps you’re talking about a bygone era of maybe two decades ago, when China was pretty efficient in its ability to wall off foreigners from contacts with Chinese. That is simply not the case now. You can go anywhere you want; tourists go all over—except for some restricted areas, which the United States has too. And you can talk to the Chinese, especially if you can speak Chinese. And you can find out what the people are thinking. And they’re very free to say what’s on their minds, as long as there's nobody listening who will object or punish them if they say something terribly derogatory about the government. You talk to a Beijing taxi driver and he will tell you that he hates the government. Many of them do.
Stephen Yates: I have spoken to a lot of the taxi drivers myself. But in a lot of China, after someone like me visits, the Public Security Bureau will come by and interview people—a not so subtle way of letting people know “you met with someone that we have concerns about.” And sometimes it’s “not convenient” to get a connecting flight to certain places.
Arthur Hummel: But I deny that Americans are unable to be in meaningful contact with Chinese people and what they think.
Kerry Dumbaugh: I would say that, yes, the Chinese people are very accessible. But in terms of the political processes and government decisionmaking, we have such a transparent system in the United States; the burden is very much on China to understand us because we make information accessible. But to understand the Chinese political decisionmaking process is very, very difficult because of the closed system, and that’s where some of the tension is.
David Lampton: Yet, much of the data about things that we don’t like in China is, in fact, coming from the Chinese system itself. When I first went to China in 1976, most statistics were state secrets. Now, the system is at least providing them. I think many of the, let us say, dark sides of Chinese society that are written up in the New York Times or in our mass media are frequently based on data supplied by the Chinese. It’s really quite a revelation to read the provincial statistics on mortality or income distribution, or go to the local courthouse and see how many executions have taken place, by noting the names with red checks.
We can have a debate about which statistics are reliable, but a great deal of what passes as news in the United States has its origins within the Chinese system. They are talking about their problems in China and we are listening, in effect, to their conversation. So I think the transformation of the Chinese system, in terms of the ability to hear divergent views, and to hear those things that even the Chinese are not proud of themselves, is infinitely greater than it was two decades ago. But the political decisionmaking process, the predictability of administration of justice—this is all deficient by an American standard, and probably an international human rights standard as well.
We have to be able to hold two different propositions in our minds at the same time. First, China has made enormous progress. I think that’s undeniable. And second, China has enormous problems. That, I think, is also undeniable. And the practical question, it seems, is exactly that which Ambassador Hummel posed: the issue isn’t what we like or dislike, the issue is what we’re going to do about it that’s productive. That ought to be the focus of our debate, or much of what we propose to do is not going to be productive.
Kerry Dumbaugh: Let’s talk then about what we are doing. One of the things we are doing is something about China’s trade status. For a decade now, we have had a rancorous annual debate over the way we treat China in terms of trade status. And each year, we have approved normal trade relations, but just for one year. That era is now ending. What do you see in terms of a post-MFN era, if I can still use that old term? Now that the United States has “PNTR” or “permanent normal trade relations” with China, how is our relationship with China likely to change?
David Lampton: This gets back to the mixed nature of the relationship. On the one hand, the economic relationship is going to grow—rather rapidly, I think—because of a more regularized and institutionalized economic relationship. I think that’s going to have a positive effect in terms of the development of a middle class in China. And that will have implications for the political system.
But there is an "on the other hand." On the other hand, the U.S.-China relationship, I think, for as far as the eye can see in the economic area, is going to be characterized by American attempts to push the Chinese to comply with the very detailed and onerous agreement that they have just basically agreed to. And so, on the one hand, we’re going to be deriving more benefit from this relationship economically then we ever have and it’s going to have more impact in China than almost anything the Chinese have done in recent memory. But on the other hand, it’s going to be supremely frustrating to American business and Americans who are trying to get China to comply with the letter of the agreement.
Part of it will be because Beijing has qualms about the agreement. But most of it is going to be because Beijing doesn’t fully control all of the local authorities who aren’t going to find it in their interest to comply. So the future is likely to contain both more benefits and more frustration, and I think that’s what the relationship is going to look like.
Arthur Hummel: A major change will occur once China enters the World Trade Organization, in that it will no longer be just the United States trying to force China to live up to all of the detailed provisions of opening up their markets. Formerly, Chinese firms were protected against this competition. Now it’s going to be the World Trade Organization itself voicing the disagreements of many countries, in order to try to continue to force compliance by the Chinese to the WTO agreement. This is good. We have used too much unilateral force in China. Other countries simply don’t go along with us when we try to use draconian blanket sanctions against China. U.S. economic sanctions don’t mean much if other people are going to sell to China what we try to deny them. This is now changing in a very healthy way.
Stephen Yates: Frankly, I think that resolving the PNTR issue is going to change our relations with China much less than the U.S. presidential election is likely to influence the relationship. I think the election is what’s going to set the new tone. But before talking about that, there is one part of the PNTR legislation passed by Congress that will change the relationship somewhat. It’s the requirement that the United States form a new commission to focus on human rights in China. The commission will require reports on China above and beyond the annual U.S. State Department human rights report. We don’t know yet what kind of a role that will play in the relationship. Some people want that commission to give concrete recommendations to the White House and to the Congress on changes in policy. So I don’t know that we are really so far removed from what has been our annual ritual on the China trade vote, just in a different capacity.
At rock bottom, I think it comes down to a question of confidence—confidence that the Congress has in the president’s policy towards China and confidence that the U.S.-China relationship is on the right track. If such confidence exists, then I think this commission does very little to disrupt the making of policy and diplomacy. But if the relationship between Congress and the White House is strained, or between the White House and China, then I think this commission can become a force for friction, and probably will be disruptive of the White House objectives.
Kerry Dumbaugh: Speaking of the White House, let’s move on to the upcoming election. We will soon have a Gore administration or a Bush administration. What do you see as the likely impact on China policy depending on that outcome?
Arthur Hummel: Fortunately, in my view, the surface pronouncements about China by both of the major candidates have not been abrasive or disruptive. How they will actually behave after one of them is elected is very hard to guess, except to say the obvious: if Gore is elected he will probably stick to a policy of constructive engagement with China. If Bush is elected, he has announced that he, too, will follow such general guidelines, but I’m not sure what he will actually do. I don’t know that anybody can guess—but let’s try.
Stephen Yates: I think that Bush and Gore take a somewhat different approach to China. Both seem to have a less high regard for China’s notion of sovereignty. For Gore, issues like labor and environmental standards may be areas in which he will want to interfere in China’s internal affairs perhaps more than Clinton has. It’s questionable how that will translate into policy.
As for Bush, I think his approach to China is going to be similar to the approach taken during the transition in 1982 from Secretary of State Haig to Secretary of State Shultz. In that case, there was a perceived overemphasis on China and the new secretary tried to put China back into a broader perspective. I think Bush might try to do something similar. It would not be, necessarily, a direct challenge to China, or an attempt to force China to change, but an attempt to balance things back out by emphasizing other relationships and letting the absence of positive and negative attention be a guide.
David Lampton: Let’s not forget Congress. This election
is going to determine not only which parties are in control but, perhaps
more important, which committees in Congress are controlled by which chairman.
And I think if we learned anything from the last eight years of China policy,
it’s that it makes a big difference who the committee chairmen are. So
I’ll be looking with almost as much interest to what happens in Congress
as to the presidency.
Last updated: June 2001