(Originally published here by the South China Morning Post on February 15, 2021)
US President Joe Biden was doing so well on the China front.
He reassured allies that Washington is back on their team. He laid down all of the markers clearly for President Xi Jinping (Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Taiwan). He made clear that while cooperation with Beijing is necessary, a return to the failed policy of faith in Beijing’s progression towards being what former US trade representative Robert Zoellick called a “responsible stakeholder” isn’t an option.
Every statement signalled a departure from what went so wrong on this front under Donald Trump. No more of the baffling approach of apocalyptic warnings about Beijing’s intentions to subvert everything that is American and a severing of diplomatic channels, while the commander-in-chief couldn’t resist lavishing praise on Xi.
Biden’s articulation of his strategy with regard to China allowed US policymakers guided by realism and idealism to breathe out four years’ worth of angst.
But last week we saw the first instance of the new US leader resorting to a troubling tactic used by politicians in both parties when it comes to China, and which became a hallmark of the previous administration. “China is going to eat our lunch” if America doesn’t get started on a major infrastructure initiative, Biden said, connecting the threat of a rising China to what is primarily a domestic political agenda.
China has been eating more than America’s lunch for years now. It’s been dining out lavishly for breakfast, lunch and dinner for years on the proceeds of technologies that foreign companies turned over to Chinese partners in exchange for access to the country’s domestic market. And then Beijing launched its “Made in China 2025” plan to supplant as many foreign players as possible, especially in the markets of the future.
And there’s a strong argument to be made that some kind of major infrastructure initiative is needed.
In the early 2000s Beijing made high-speed railways a priority. Within a decade, it was possible to travel by train from Shanghai to Beijing, a 1,300km (808-mile) trip, in less than five hours, while the fastest train from New York to Washington – just a quarter of the distance from China’s financial centre to its capital – still takes nearly three hours (and that’s not even mentioning the precarious state of the tunnel between New Jersey and New York’s Pennsylvania Station or the suffocating subway system that travellers to America’s biggest city wind up in once they arrive there).
The speed with which the Chinese government built out a modern infrastructure network has been nothing short of astounding. And while we’re on the “eating our lunch” analogy, it’s worth pointing out that it was less than a generation ago that many American mums pushed their kids to finish their peas and carrots by telling them to think about “the starving children in China”.
But let’s not suggest that China’s command-and-control approach to development is right for America. The country’s transformation from the rubble of revolution and stagnation to the lofty heights of places like Shanghai’s Pudong district have come at a cost that we can’t see because Beijing marshals as much effort at keeping dissent hidden as it does on the high-speed railways, bridges and subways.
The emergence of Clubhouse as a forum where some tech-savvy mainland Chinese have flocked for civil discussions about taboo topics shows how, despite a formidable regime that has proven itself adept at creating economic growth and keeping order, those the authorities seek to placate see themselves as more than mouths to feed.
Indications of resentment over the consequences of China’s rapid development are also apparent on other platforms, despite the risks social media users court by expressing them.
The Biden-Harris administration should avoid referencing China as a rhetorical strategy for all its policies. The last one stigmatised Asian-Americans to the point where we’ve seen a dramatic uptick in harassment and violence against them.
Last month, we saw all too clearly how easily some Americans can be worked up by a president’s rhetoric to commit heinous acts. China’s high-speed railways may be impressive, but they’re not bringing lunch-snatching hordes to US shores.