A growing number of observers believe that relations between the United States and China have taken a fundamental turn for the worse. They are not so much worried about the cumulative effects of recurring flashpoints such as arms sales to Taiwan, visits by the Dalai Lama, and territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Instead, they fear that more structural, underlying drivers — the declining gap in overall power between the two countries, America’s rebalance to the Asia-Pacific region, and disagreements over China’s campaign of land reclamation, for example — are cementing voices in Washington and Beijing that question whether the two countries can forge a durably constructive partnership. Hugh White, the Australian scholar and author of The China Choice, observed last month that a longstanding U.S. consensus — maintaining that “despite many signs of growing assertiveness, Beijing does not pose a fundamental challenge to U.S. leadership in Asia” — just might be unraveling. The Director of China Studies at Johns Hopkins’s School of Advanced International Studies, David Lampton, warned earlier this month that we are
witnessing the erosion of some critical underlying supports for predominantly positive U.S.-China ties. Though the foundation has not crumbled, today important components of the American policy elite increasingly are coming to see China as a threat to American “primacy.” In China, increasing fractions of the elite and public see America as an impediment to China’s achieving its rightful international role and not helpful to maintaining domestic stability.
Vanessa Hope’s debut feature-length documentary, All Eyes and Ears, offers a timely and thought provoking window into these suspicions. Hope, a unique hybrid of film director and policy analyst, has produced many films in China, such as The Story of Ermei, as well as several shorts, including China in Three Words. She has also worked at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and with the Council on Foreign Relations’ Director for Asia Studies, Elizabeth Economy.
Her new documentary, featuring a superlative roster of China watchers, centers on the experiences of Jon Huntsman during his time as U.S. ambassador to China; the perspectives of his adopted Chinese-American daughter, Gracie Mei; and the tribulations of Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng. All Eyes and Ears leaves one wondering how — if, really — the world’s most consequential bilateral relationship can progress indefinitely without an organic basis, especially as each country believes in its own exceptionalism. To date, the United States and China have managed to circumscribe strategic tensions by declaring how disastrous an armed confrontation between the world’s two largest economies would be. What All Eyes and Ears affirms, though, is that even the most compelling rationales for cooperation cannot obviate intrinsic differences.
Evan Osnos, whose Age of Ambition won the 2014 National Book Award, explains in the documentary that “the United States does believe that the Chinese governing philosophy is incompatible with the Western way of life.” He continues:
We can come up with elegant contortions in our relationship to solve these kinds of problems, but it doesn’t remove the fundamental irritant, which is that these are two very different governing systems.
Perversely, there are certain elements in both countries that might benefit from the calcification of strategic tensions into open hostility. The chairman of APCO Worldwide’s Greater China division, James McGregor, observes in the film that the United States and China “both have a military-industrial complex now that needs an enemy.”
Changing mindsets in both countries are also likely to hinder their cooperation. Midway through All Eyes and Ears, career diplomat Chas Freeman notes that the United States is experiencing “considerable difficulty on many levels. We have a chronic budget and fiscal deficit, we have a crushing debt, we are increasingly uncompetitive, our infrastructure is crumbling, and we need help.” Should the United States underestimate its comprehensive national power and its ability to manage the China challenge, it may act defensively and intensify the military component of its rebalance. China faces a mirror set of challenges: overestimating its power, underestimating U.S. resilience in world affairs, and undertaking prematurely to erode America’s system of alliances in the Asia-Pacific. According to the Director of the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, Orville Schell, we have yet to see the face of a China that fully believes in its own resurgence and prospects: he explains in the documentary that one or two generations will pass “before confidence that is borne of China’s success … will have psychologically changed the way in which Chinese react to the world around them.”
An undercurrent of All Eyes and Ears is the initial U.S. conviction — later a hope, and now, in many observers’ telling, an illusion — that China’s economic modernization would yield political liberalization in due course. While today’s Chinese, on balance, have substantially greater freedom than they did before the dawn of the Internet and microblogging platforms such as Weibo, their newfound freedom is constrained. The cofounder of Global Voices Online and author of Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon, says in the film that “the estimate is that under 1% of Chinese Internet users are actually circumventing the Internet blocks in any kind of regular way.” Most China watchers contend, moreover, that Xi Jinping is the most powerful secretary general the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has had since Deng Xiaoping. Beyond purging rivals within the Party, he has heightened social, political, and economic controls; cracked down on virtual private networks that Chinese netizens have used to circumvent the Great Firewall; and intensified resistance to “Western anti-China forces.”
Drawing on interviews with Chen and Jerome Cohen, a New York University law professor who helped secure Chen’s passage from China to the United States, All Eyes and Ears reveals the difficulties the United States has had in making human rights a central pillar of its policy towards China. Asked how the United States should “help China,” Chen replies: “Stick to your principles, put things like human rights, universal values, universal love, and rule of law first. Put your own advantage second.” Huntsman explains, however, that “one high profile human-rights case … can completely derail any progress between the United States and China.” James Mann, author of The China Fantasy, observes that in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States was reluctant to pursue a more vigorous human rights agenda because it feared the loss of Chinese cooperation against the Soviet Union. From the 1990s onward, it was reluctant to do so because it did not want to jeopardize its trade and investment ties with the mainland.
As China grows stronger, it will grow more difficult for the United States to balance concerns over human rights with strategic considerations. Some observers insist that China is headed for a hard landing, and the CCP is losing its monopoly on power. Most, however, while appreciating the economic and political challenges China will face, realize that China has thus far defied Western predictions: it has sustained robust economic growth while maintaining one-party rule. This recognition — resignation, perhaps — has produced a range of policy prescriptions from the U.S. commentariat. Some argue the United States should contain China; others, that it should pursue democracy and regime change over the long term; others, that it should at least stop assisting China’s resurgence. Even if a silent majority of America’s China watchers still believe in “engage and hedge” or “hedge and engage,” those mantras seem increasingly quaint.
Watching All Eyes and Ears reinforced many of my existing views about U.S.-China relations. Whatever one’s preferred policy, the United States will have to adjust psychologically to an increasingly capable and ambitious China. Pursuing a policy of containment would exact a toll on its economy and alienate the very Asian-Pacific allies whose support it requires to advance the rebalance. Instead, the United States should endeavor to become both more competitive with China — by strengthening its own economy and honing its geo-economic statecraft abroad — and more cooperative — by giving China a greater say in Western-led international institutions and helping shape the norms and arrangements of the institutions China is establishing (such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank). There is no self-evident “new model” of great-power relations for the two countries to adopt, only an incremental, painstaking process of adjustment and readjustment to which they both must commit.
But watching the documentary also made me appreciate a much more basic — even banal, some might say — point. Huntsman observes early on that if “good old-fashioned diplomacy” works, “you avoid hardships, you avoid very costly relationships, you avoid war.” And that diplomacy, ultimately, must be people-centric. Prudent leadership in both countries will obviously play an essential role in steering U.S.-China ties forward. So, too, will nuanced analysis from esteemed observers of their ebbs and flows. Ultimately, however, the best hope for the relationship between the United States and China — fraught with complexity and uncertain in outlook — lies with the Gracie Meis of the world, those whom, by circumstance or design, have a stake in both countries’ continued success.
Ali Wyne is a regular contributor to War on the Rocks, a contributing analyst at Wikistrat, and a global fellow with the Project for the Study of the 21st Century.