Debating China: The U.S.-China Relationship in Ten Conversations

After reading Debating China: The US-China Relationship in Ten Conversations I can honestly say I haven’t been as excited to discuss a book on China as I am now. The book is in the form of a series of debates between American and Chinese thought leaders on a wide range of issues important to both sides. Edited by Nina Hachigian it includes many names I’ve heard before such as Susan Shirk and Elizabeth Economy and prestigious Chinese names such as Wang Jisi and Wang Shuo. Each of the debates has a topic introduced via a set of questions addressed to both sides and is in the form of a set of four letters between the participants. While the authors are very complimentary of each other they don’t hold back in their arguments and the conversations can get quite pointed.

“The Media” with Susan Shirk and Wang Shuo. One of the most interesting debates was between the famous Chinese author, director, and actor Wang Shuo and prominant Chinese policy commentator Susan shirk on the importance of media new and old in modern China, with an understandably heavy focus on the CCP censorship. Wang points out that because censorship is so much more effective on mainstream journalism, social media in China has gained a much more influential role than in the west. Wang is very positive in the current power of social media pointing out that while it is heavily censored it still a main avenue Chinese people use to discuss prominent and contentious topics. While in the west we usually regard professional journalists as a key check on the power of the government in China it is social media which has taken on that role, when a story gets enough social coverage often the central government feels forced to respond in the same way a story covered by professional media in the west would be. This debate was a very interesting back and forth affair with many interesting aspects I hadn’t considered, this one debate by itself makes the book worth the cost!

“Military Developments” Christophyer  P. Twomey and Xu Hui. The majority of debates in this book are very courteous full, flowery compliments and ready accession of points, but I wanted straight arguments and sharp differences of opinion! This debate on military developments in China deliveres. Twomey and Xu are sharply at odds over their interpretations of the past actions of both the US and China, with each countries national views on display. Xu repeatedly accuses the US of attempting to smother China while and fearing China’s power, Twoney fired back that China was reckless and often aggressive while the US is interested in a peaceful world with both powers. In the end I felt like Xu’s argument felt like it was just intended to cover China’s actions rather than explain them logically. It feels like a dangerous game to shout that China is only reacting to America’s aggressive reconnaissance flights when explaining why a Chinese fighter jet accidentally rammed the plane while buzzing it. He repeatedly pointed ways to rationalize China’s aggressive actions but never addressed Twoney’s main point that as China has grown stronger it has shown a more and more aggressive disposition.

“Taiwan and Tibet” Jia Qingguo and Alan D. Romberg. My favorite debate of the book was with regard to the most contentious issue between China and the US – the status of Taiwan. I was very interested to hear why the CCP has consistently made Taiwan it’s most important goal, as someone on the outside looking forth it has always seems strange. Jia makes several arguments why, first that the CCP wants to “unify” China and that since Taiwan was part of China is should be part of China going forward. He promotes the “China has been a unified country for 2000 years” nonsense that’s so common and points out that the US has been preventing China from invading Taiwan since the 50s. Jia’s second argument for retaking Taiwan is “national dignity and respect” which I take as a coded way of saying “because we want it”. The third and probably strongest argument is the Chinese fear of being encircled. They feel that having a country like Taiwan so close to China would be a strategic weight around their shoulders. This is basically the same reason China props up North Korea, preventing a US ally from being directly on their border. The problems with this strategy are apparent in the long term however and China needs to find a better solution.

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