After 40 years, the US and China are still trapped in their own political bubbles

(Originally published by the South China Morning Post on 07-January-2019.)

The US government marked the 40th anniversary of official bilateral relations with the People’s Republic of China with a warning to American citizens visiting the country to beware of its “arbitrary enforcement of local laws”. A day later China’s President Xi Jinping ordered the People’s Liberation Army to prepare for combat and war.

The anniversary, the travel warning and Xi’s orders are not directly tied to each other. But the confluence of paranoia and militaristic jingoism at this moment is about as difficult to ignore as a swastika at a Passover Seder.

How did a trade war, multiple arrests of Chinese citizens by the US government on espionage charges, and sabre rattling become the backdrop for the 40th anniversary? This is the wrong question. Here’s a better one: How did two countries with political systems that are irreconcilable on just about every level become inter-connected so quickly?

The answer is that idealism, in hindsight, was unreasonable. The past 40 years of bilateral relations were mostly a geopolitical game that China played brilliantly and won. And no one can take that victory away from Beijing without upsetting global peace and security.

What former US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick never took into account when he asserted in 2005 that China’s integration into the global economy would make Beijing a “responsible stakeholder” was the depth of ideological chasm between the two countries.

Those who welcomed China into the World Trade Organisation, including Zoellick’s predecessor Charlene Barshefsky, assumed that the wealth created by newly established trade and investment flows would incline Beijing’s leadership to adopt an industrial policy that was blind to national origin.

Barshefsky even posited that embracing China and cutting the country some slack as it transformed its bloated and inefficient state-owned sector would also usher in the rule of law and greater respect for individual political rights.

But the victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 was borne of hatred for the US and all of the Western countries that exploited China for more than a century. The CCP leveraged this hatred in extreme ways for more than two decades, and the Sino-US rapprochement didn’t completely stop it. China’s state-controlled media has since then only adjusted the flow of invective as a political tool.

This created an environment that would never embrace protections for Western companies or respect for Western values.

The French theorist Pierre Bourdieu’s explication of “habitus”, or the “set of dispositions which incline agents to act and react in certain ways”, helps to explain how the benefits of more trade and investment would not overcome a resistance to the outcomes that Zoellick and Barshefsky thought they were engineering.

Bourdieu explains in his landmark work Language and Symbolic Power that ideological inclinations become reflexive in a physiological way through linguistic tendencies and thought patterns. More particularly “political habitus,” which defines “the universe of what can be said and thought politically” also helps to explain what compels an individual, and by extension an entire political culture, to cling to an ideology.

Theoretically, this works both ways. It is difficult within the American political habitus, for example, to understand why 1.4 billion people in Mainland China accept a system in which, as Xi Jinping put it last month, “the party leads everything”. Many in this ideological bubble discount the fact that the CCP pulled hundreds of millions out of extreme poverty while US income inequality has steadily increased.

Americans might be frustrated that a fight over US$5 billion for a border wall can shut down their government, but few would see how, in the eyes of many Chinese, this reveals a fundamental weakness in American-style democracy.

But China’s heavily censored media environment, paired with an educational system that ensures the teaching of what contributes to the CCP’s interests, strengthens the effect of the Chinese political habitus more so than American media and academia backs up the US version.

This is not to say that bilateral accommodation is impossible or that a hot war between China and the US is inevitable.

There are varying viewpoints within the highest levels of China’s government about whether it should broker a deal with the US.

It’s just that those advocating for such a move can’t do so in public. And until they can, the 40th anniversary of Sino-US relations might coincide with their undoing.

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