By Wei (Josh) Luo, Staff Writer

American policymakers have maintained a paternalistic diplomatic approach to China since the early nineteenth century. This approach sought to socialize China into accepting American interests and values. 

Yet as events like the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s victory in 1949, the Tiananmen Massacre, Beijing’s failure to comply with World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, and the internment of Uighurs demonstrate, Washington has been disenchanted after failing to transform China. Therefore, it is time for Americans to abandon such hope and treat China as a strategic competitor. At the same time, on global governance issues like climate change and nonproliferation, Washington cannot avoid Beijing’s cooperation. 

Historical Background: Americans Have Sought to Transform China since the Nineteenth  Century

In his book Fateful Ties: A History of America’s Preoccupation with China, scholar Gordon H. Chang laid out generations of American policymakers’ beliefs that China plays a vital role in the American mentality. After 1776, Americans inherited Europeans’ fascination of the “mysterious, unfathomable East.” As Americans self-identified as God’s chosen nation to carry out the Manifest Destiny, many Americans since the 1800s have seen their own national destiny to be China’s “friend, benefactor, and savior.” American businessmen, missionaries, and policymakers believed that Washington was destined by God to transform China to mirror the United States’ political, economic, and moral interests (Chang 3-6). 

While China suffered from poverty and occupations by foreign powers, Americans enjoyed economic prosperity, democracy, and security from foreign invaders.

However, as historian John Fairbank observed in 1949, China’s historical experience made it alien to Americans’ desires. While China suffered from poverty and occupations by foreign powers, Americans enjoyed economic prosperity, democracy, and security from foreign invaders. Fairbank concluded that the CCP’s victory stemmed from Chinese nationalism and patterns of dynastic changes. Due to these historical and political differences, Fairbank argued that Americans had a “profound public ignorance” about Asian realities, as the Chinese simply did not accept the American vision and benevolence (Chang 216-218).

While American paternalism has a long history, this essay will analyze Washington’s paternalism following the normalization of U.S.-China diplomatic relationship in 1979. 

American Engagements since 1979: Socializing China into Americans’ Own Liking

As David Shambaugh argues, following the normalization of U.S.-China diplomatic relationship in 1979, liberal CCP reformers like Premier Hu Yaobang and General Secretary Zhao Ziyang were arguably Washington’s best “students” to transform China according to American liberal values of embracing market economy and political liberalization. As support for Maoism faltered in the 1980s, some Chinese intellectuals argued that China needed to fully embrace American democracy and science in order to save their country from destruction (Pomfret 510-511). From the American perspective, the 1980s was a period when China humbly studied American liberal political and economic values. 

Following the death of Hu in 1989, these liberal intellectuals, students, and workers occupied Tiananmen Square to mourn his death, protest corruption, and demand individual liberties. In reaction to the protesters’ embrace of American liberalism, conservative CCP leaders perceived the demonstration as an existential threat

When tanks rolled into Beijing on the evening of June 3, 1989, major U.S. television networks captured the carnage. For Washington, the crackdown symbolized a complete betrayal of Americans’ goodwill toward China since 1979. Americans’ favorable impression of China fell from 72% in Feb. 1989 to 31% in Aug. 1989 (Pomfret 513-514). In the sense that the protests were a rejection of authoritarianism and embracement of democracy, the Tiananmen demonstrations corroborated the Americans’ hope of transforming China. On the other hand, these hopes were dashed when CCP elites crushed the protestors — who shouted slogans written by Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine before being slain. 

While the U.S.-China Relations have not recovered since 1989, the Clinton administration’s decision to allow China into the WTO was another attempt to shape China according to Washington’s liking. As President Bill Clinton argued in 2000, by letting China into the WTO, the CCP was expected to be socialized into implementing economic policies of nondiscrimination and reciprocity. Clinton also assumed that civil and political rights would improve as China becomes more prosperous. Similar to American attitudes of the 1940s and 1980s, the Clinton Administration remained hopeful of transforming China according to American political, economic, and moral interests. 

2016 U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue

Disenchantment and Strategic Competition 

As of 2019, Beijing has not only failed to follow through on its pledges when entering the WTO, but has also failed to improve the civil and political rights of Chinese citizens. 

One of the main reasons the Trump Administration started the trade war with China was due to Beijing’s Made in China 2025 (MIC 2025) industrial policy, which Washington perceives as discriminatory and forces foreign firms to hand over valuable technologies in exchange for market access. Similar to the goals of East Asian developmental states like South Korea and Japan in the 1970s, the MIC 2025 aims to reduce China’s dependence on foreign technologies and promote domestic Chinese high-tech manufacturing by moving up the industrial value chain. However, MIC 2025 involves forced technology transfers from foreign firms and state subsidies for domestic firms, both of which are in violation of WTO regulations and unfairly discriminate against foreign companies. Thus, while the Clinton administration sought to transform China’s trade behaviors through the WTO, Beijing has failed to meet Washington’s expectations and embarked on industrial policies anathema to American interests. 

Additionally, civil and political rights in China have deteriorated. In response to the violent separatist insurgencies in Xinjiang, Beijing has arbitrarily incarcerated 1-3 million Uighur Muslims in “reeducation camps.” Inside these camps, the inmates have been subjected to sadistic cruelty in order to force them to renounce their culture and religion, and pledge absolute loyalty to Beijing. Outside the camps, Xinjiang has become high-tech police state where the government experiments with surveillance technologies that track citizens’ daily livelihood. With Tibet, Chinese Christians, and Hong Kong as other examples, it has become clear that China’s government shows no intention of instituting liberal reforms, but rather seeks to solidify its grip on power through repression. 

Based on China’s recent trade practices and the deterioration of human rights, it is clear that the American attempt to socialize and transform China into America’s own liking has failed. Washington needs to abandon its long-held paternalistic approach and recognize Beijing as a strategic competitor with different values and governance approach.

At the same time, however, Washington needs to cooperate with Beijing on global governance issues like climate change and nonproliferation because these issues cannot be effectively tackled by a single superpower alone. For example, without Beijing’s cooperation, Washington would have been less successful in freezing Iran’s nuclear program, albeit China is buying Iranian oil after Washington pulled out of the JCPOA. Meanwhile, Beijing is making significant progress moving away from fossil fuel. The country now operates nearly half of the world’s electric vehicles and largest installed renewable power-generating capacity. Therefore, amid strategic competition, there is room for cooperation between the world’s two major superpowers on nonproliferation and combating climate change. Ultimately, Washington’s could adopt a “trust, but verify” approach to China on global governance. 

Wei (Josh) Luo is an M.A. in Asian Studies candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. He holds a B.A. in Diplomacy and World Affairs from Occidental College and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has worked in Mainland China and India, and has studied in Saint Petersburg, Russia and Hong Kong. 

Non-Digital Works Cited

  • Chang, Gordon. Fateful Ties: A history of America’s Preoccupation with China. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015.
  • Pomfret, John. The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2016.