Tea Leaf Nation

A Chinese View of the World’s Most Important Relationship

Forget all the doom and gloom; 2014 was not bad to Sino-U.S. ties.

U.S. President Barack Obama Visits China
U.S. President Barack Obama pays a state visit to China after attending the 22nd Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Economic Leaders' Meeting.

JINGZHOU, China — This year, believe it or not, has been good to the Sino-U.S. relationship. Cui Tiankai, Beijing’s top envoy in Washington, described growing trust between the two countries as “a fairly obvious trend” on Dec. 12. In a year-end review on Dec. 17, China’s official Xinhua News Agency compared Sino-U.S. ties to “a vessel that keeps moving ahead” even while buffeted by waves. As evidence of close relations, the piece cited the two face-to-face meetings that took place between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Barack Obama in 2014, as well as the multiple joint agreements the two nations signed during President Obama’s visit to Beijing last month, including a climate change agreement and a deal to cut tariffs on high-tech goods. And person-to-person ties are only likely to grow. Statistics from Ctrip.com, China’s largest online travel agency, showed that applications for U.S. visas had gone up 50 percent since early November, when China and the U.S. agreed to a reciprocal 10-year visa policy for tourists, students and business personnel. 

This all may seem counterintuitive — mutual tensions over cyber-espionage, maritime disputes, and trade often dominate both countries’ media coverage of the relationship. Yet from the perspective of China’s government, 2014 was in fact a reasonably constructive year for the world’s most important bilateral relationship, with particularly important breakthroughs in defense, high-tech trade, and the battle against climate change. Meanwhile, sentiments among Chinese people themselves remain mixed about their country’s shifting dynamics with the United States as China’s spheres of influence continue to expand. Intellectuals often find it welcoming that the two powers are trying to reach agreement in contentious areas. At the grassroots level, spontaneous nationalist reactions to perceived U.S containment are common.

In any case, the upper echelons of Chinese power share something with the country’s grassroots: Both understand that China is not the superpower that the United States is, and cannot become one without radical changes to the status quo at home and abroad. Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang put it bluntly and humbly in Chicago on Dec. 17, when he told the China-U.S. Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade that Beijing is neither willing nor able to challenge U.S. dominance of the global economic order, and that “in the process of cooperation, China hopes the United States would come to understand Chinese ideas more.” Chinese netizens across the political spectrum accept this strategy. Self-proclaimed democracy advocates such as Jing Yunchuan, a Beijing-based head lawyer, stress the necessity to cooperate with the U.S. and not resist it, while even hawkish observers like Gary Su, who edits a popular military website, welcome the strategy, believing it will buy China more time to rise as American supremacy falls. Conservative netizens like Yin Guoming, though, call that wishful thinking from Beijing. Yin, in particular, is convinced that “the U.S. will perceive China as a threat as long as China is not torn into pieces.”

Military-to-military engagement has been a particular highlight of the evolving relationship. Sino-U.S. military relations are “at their best point since the 1990s,” concluded Major General Yao Yunzhu, who heads the Center on China-U.S. Defense Relations at the Chinese Academy of Military Science, at a panel of the annual meeting of Beijing’s popular nationalist tabloid Global Times in early December. After 16 years of negotiations, Chinese and American armed forces agreed in November to notify each other of major military actions. A code of conduct was implemented in early December to cover unplanned encounters at sea. Also in December, Beijing asked the U.S. Air Force Space Command to share information on possible satellite and satellite debris collisions directly with the China National Space Administration – without needing to go through the Chinese Foreign Ministry and the U.S. State Department. And earlier this year, from June to August, China participated for the first time in this year’s U.S.-hosted Rim of the Pacific Drills, the largest international maritime exercise. (China also sent an uninvited surveillance ship to lurk at the drills, which its U.S. host mildly but sardonically described as “a little odd.”) Online, investment analyst Hu Zhanhao, who ordinarily comments on macroeconomic trends but is also vocal on global current affairs, applauded the achievements as an illustration of China’s growing power and confidence. Pilot-turned-leftist-analyst Guo Songmin downplayed those efforts, arguing instead that “going Dutch” – the idea of working together while minding their own business – best captures Sino-U.S. relations today.

Despite the historic import of military-to-military engagement, its nuances are often lost on the Chinese public. Here in Jingzhou, a town deep in the hub of the Yangtze River, discussions of Sino-U.S. military relations are mostly limited to the long-retired elderly, who fondly recall stories of fighting “U.S. imperialist wolves” as members of the “unofficial” Chinese Army of Volunteers during the Korean War of 1950-53. Teenagers, meanwhile, only unintentionally engage in the topic by playing in Internet bars, where Command & Conquer: Generals, a 2003 computer game that depicts Chinese and American armies’ joint operations against a make-believe global terrorist group, remains popular.

To be sure, Beijing believes it senses weakness in the Obama administration. Rightly or wrongly, Chinese policymakers believe they see signs of weak and unpopular leadership in the Democratic Party’s failure in the midterm elections, the widespread protests in the wake of the Aug. 9 killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown by white police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri, and the U.S.-led coalition’s unsuccessful attempts at containing extremist activity worldwide. China’s growing assertiveness and confidence in dealing with Uncle Sam this year was most evident at home, where authorities used anti-monopoly laws to force U.S. firms to lower their prices. U.S. firms believe they are being disproportionally targeted, but online support is strong in China, where many feel that foreign nationals and businesses have enjoyed preferential treatment for too long.

As China’s anti-monopoly crackdown suggests, it was the realm of trade and investment where jostling for position between the world’s number one and number two economies was most starkly manifest. China confronted the so-called U.S. “pivot” to Asia with the Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific (FTAAP) arrangement, which it proposed at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in Beijing in November. All 21 APEC member economies endorsed the FTAAP, overshadowing the U.S.-sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excludes China and forms the basis of President Obama’s rebalance strategy. China and the U.S. are also at odds over another Chinese-led initiative, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which Washington suspects will challenge existing transnational financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the Asian Development Bank.

Chinese media were awash with related articles. China Comment, Xinhua’s political commentary magazine, argued that the United States, in trying to push forward TPP, seeks to regain control of the Asia Pacific, advance its ideology and political system, and maintain global hegemony. Shanghai-based Dongfang Daily cited a government-sponsored scholar saying that unlike the U.S. arrangements, which entail stricter rules, China’s initiatives focus on “inclusive integration” of the region. The liberal Southern Weekend newspaper, meanwhile, said China is the only global player now who can and wants to finance alternative transnational frameworks. Discussions on social networks were also popular, with many contending with pride that the Chinese initiatives are superior. But Song Xiaojun, a Beijing-based military expert, wrote on Weibo that the race has just begun, and victory is still up for grabs. As “a poor guy whose wallets grew fat after 60 years of hard work,” Song counseled, China ought to remember to be patient.

Then there’s Chinese cyberspace, which Americans often associate with a vast system of politically-motivated censorship. Facebook-owned Instagram, once popular in the People’s Republic, has been inaccessible since late September. Gmail suffered the same fate on Dec. 26. In an editorial on Dec. 30, Global Times attempted to rationalize the latest ban by arguing that if Chinese authorities had indeed made Gmail’s services inaccessible in the country, then it is “bound to be caused by recently-surfaced major security concerns,” in which case Gmail users in China should “accept the reality.” Granted, these blocks were not well received by the Chinese public.

For most Chinese Internet users, however, cyberspace is driven by commerce and entertainment, not politics. The Internet’s primary uses for residents of first-tier cities were traffic navigation, trips, and personal finance. For those in smaller cities and towns, the web was used most often for entertainment. And for the small fraction of politically savvy Chinese netizens who feel strongly enough to leave digital footprints, views are divided between firm believers in the free flow of information and those who remain alert to alleged U.S. penetration of Chinese cyberspace. Across the board, though, most agree that the country deserves a better Internet, in terms of both technology and access. Even Global Times itself said in an editorial dated Dec. 16 that having an open Internet is a broad consensus among Chinese, and that China has no other option than to increase its Internet connectivity. Either way, those who might be pessimistic about China’s Internet governance and its dynamics with the U.S. this year should find positive light in the following facts: China has never officially acknowledged the censorship of leading websites; it is very keen on boosting Internet interconnectivity; and communism, which sees sharing as a precondition and says, in its manifesto, that “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” remains the leading ideology and ultimate goal of its ruling party. While the Sino-U.S. relationship is bound by China’s historic legacies, it can also be empowered by them.

Getty Images

Andy Hu is a media professional based in Beijing.