With Chinese netizens crying ‘Trumpism’ in Biden policy and Americans’ favorable ratings of China hitting record lows, Dori Jones Yang shares her understanding of U.S.-China relations

We know that U.S.-China relations have been at a low point for a while. A new Gallup poll quantified it on March 1: Americans' favorable ratings of China plummeted to a record low 20%, following a 13% drop from a year ago, and lower than the 34% in August 1989 following China’s crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square.

On March 3rd, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first major foreign policy speech. He singled out the managing of China relations as the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century for the U.S. “China,” he said, “is the only country with the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to seriously challenge the stable and open international system.”

On the other side of the Pacific, Sina micro-bloggers reacted strongly to Blinken’s speech. Au_tumn wrote, “The new U.S. administration is simply putting old wine in a new bottle and continuing targeting China for suppression.” Laze 1962 penned, “No difference from Trump.” cwd918123 added, “We refuse any cooperation with U.S. imperialists.”

To help us comprehend this contentious and record low point in U.S.-China relations, we have here with us today Dori Jones Yang, who as the former Business Week China correspondent, now author, was at the Tiananmen Square when the bilateral relations reached the last lowest point.

Q1. As you know, netizens in China have said time and again that the Biden China policy is simply “old wine in a new bottle.” Specifically, China’s complaint is what Trump put in and Biden hasn’t removed, tariffs on Chinese goods, sanctions on Chinese companies, for instance, and also U.S. criticism of the CPC and its human rights practices in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. Do you think Chinese netizens have a point, saying Biden’s China policy is just like Trump’s China policy?

Yang: Chinese netizens do have a point; despite his criticism of Trump on many aspects of foreign policy, President Joe Biden has continued many of Trump’s policies toward China, including tariffs, sanctions, and criticism of human rights abuses. The main difference is that Trump was erratic and unpredictable, while Biden has a clearly articulated vision based on an overall strategy. Biden has differentiated areas where the U.S. and China can collaborate, where they will compete, and where the U.S. will challenge Chinese policies.

Most fundamentally, Biden has identified ways the U.S. government can support technological innovation and education in our country, to build on our strengths and outcompete China, and he has promised to identify goods essential to our national security that should be manufactured at home. I advocate such policies as much preferable to any attempt to contain or thwart China. Trump never worked to build American strengths; he mostly blamed others for our problems. Now that Trump’s tariffs are in place, they make for good bargaining chips for Biden to try to achieve what Trump failed to: greater access to China’s service markets, fewer Chinese subsidies, and fairer treatment of U.S. investors in China.

Q2. A lot of times, the U.S. and China are not talking about the same things. Human rights, for instance. When the U.S. criticized China’s practices in Xinjiang against the Uyghurs, the Chinese government would point out the power outage in Texas or racial tensions in the U.S. Each year, the State Department issues a Country Report on Human Right Practices. To counter it, China publishes yearly a “U.S. human rights violations report.” How would the two sides come together when they don’t seem to share the same understanding of issues?

Yang: China’s government definitely has the right to point out human rights violations in the United States, just as the U.S. government does to China. The main difference is that the U.S. has a free press, and all the issues listed in China’s report are covered extensively by the American media. One of the worst, I believe, is mass incarceration of Blacks: African Americans are locked up in state prisons at more than five times the rate of whites. One out of every three Black boys born today is likely to go to prison in his lifetime, compared to one of every 17 white boys. To me, that is inexcusable. This is not government policy, but it has resulted from federal laws that should be altered and a system that needs reform.

That said, China’s government (and some netizens) are engaging in “whataboutism” –responding to an accusation by making a counteraccusation or raising a different issue. If foreign media reports that innocent Uyghurs are locked up against their will—or that some Uyghur women are forced to have abortions or sterilizations—or that Uyghurs are forced to work in cotton factories—are incorrect, China should be willing to allow independent reporters and diplomats access to Xinjiang to verify the truth. Uyghurs should be allowed to speak freely about their experiences without fear of punishment. In the United States, American reporters keep up the pressure on officials to change laws or practices, and officials who allow abuses are fired or voted out of office. China’s system does not have checks and balances to respond to such charges; instead, the government simply denies them. That’s why it’s important for the U.S. government to continue to speak up about human rights abuses in other countries. We learned this lesson after World War II, when we discovered the full extent of Nazi Germany’s crimes against its citizens.

Q3: You were a journalist for many years. These days, journalism is quite different. The U.S. and China expelled each other’s journalists in recent years, for instance. While the U.S. sees China’s media as Communist Party propaganda, China accuses the American media of demonizing China. So, from your former journalist’s point of view, how would the two peoples understand each other better when they believe and read different things, especially when China’s internet, including Sina Weibo, is censored?

Yang: Even within the United States, journalism is different than when I was trained to be fair and objective. After the “fairness doctrine” was abolished in the 1980s, and once cable TV and the Internet allowed opinion to parade as news, we Americans also have the problem that our citizens believe and read totally different “news” than each other. That’s why the divide has become so severe in U.S. politics.

The divide between the U.S. and China has grown particularly wide in the past few years, both because of combative statements by Trump and Pompeo and because of the pandemic, which has made it almost impossible for American and Chinese citizens to visit and talk to one another. In past years, millions of Chinese traveled abroad and hundreds of thousands of Chinese students studied abroad, so they gained a deeper understanding about the United States and the West. Likewise, American reporters in past decades had more freedom to report within China, and many U.S. travelers and students gained an appreciation of China directly. When the U.S. and Chinese governments expelled each other’s journalists, they exacerbated today’s mutual misunderstanding.

What I tell Americans—and what I would tell Chinese as well—is to read varied sources of news and to try to see through others’ eyes. For instance, many Americans don’t realize that Hong Kong was a colony and never had democracy under the British; that Hong Kong’s protests grew violent and badly disrupted life there; that the local police did not kill a single protestor—but also failed to quell the protests. Many Americans also don’t understand why stability is so important to Chinese, who have experienced severe instability and chaos in their own or their grandparents’ lives.

The tightening of Internet censorship has made it harder for Chinese to get access to varied and balanced sources of news about the United States, although some information does still get in through WeChat. I hope many Chinese will try, and once international travel becomes possible again, many Chinese citizens will weigh what they read overseas with what they read at home. Many have relatives living in other countries; perhaps they can play a role.

Q4: When you went back to Tiananmen Square after the military crackdown on June 4, 1989, what was on your mind about the fate of U.S.-China relations? Today, with President Biden calling for long-term stiff competition with China and our Secretary of State Blinken calling the China relationship “the biggest geopolitical test” for the U.S., what do you think of the future of the relations? Or, when you compare U.S.-China relations at the last lowest point in 1989 and the new lowest point in 2021, where is your pessimism and optimism?

Yang: The latest Gallup poll confirms what I feared: that more Americans have an unfavorable view of China today even than in 1989, right after the Tiananmen military crackdown.

When I covered the peaceful protests in Beijing in May 1989, I was full of optimism and amazement at the Chinese people who openly told me their opinions about their government. After the military crackdown in June, I fell into despair and believed that China would be moving backwards. I was wrong; China resumed its economic reforms, and hundreds of millions were able to create better lives for themselves as China’s economy prospered. U.S.-China relations recovered and entered several decades of cooperation and mutually beneficial trade. Perhaps today’s tension will also be eased in coming years.

I strongly believe that improved U.S.-China relations would be good for people in both countries. If we treat each other as enemies, we might become enemies, and that would be destabilizing for the whole world.

One reason many Americans have a negative view of China is that some U.S. leaders have been spewing anti-China rhetoric, including reckless talk about “ideological warfare.” Clearly, the United States and China have different political systems, and neither is likely to change any time soon; but they have a lot more in common, in terms of economic vitality and modern lifestyle, than the U.S. and the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. Plus, our two economies are intertwined.

It’s clear that U.S.-China relations will never go back to what they were ten or twenty years ago. Then, Americans treated China like a younger brother, whom we were helping up the development ladder. The United States will need to learn to live with a more successful China. In terms of overall GDP (at market exchange rates), China will become the largest economy in the world as early as 2028. Americans should not view that as a threat; in per capita terms, that will still be only one quarter of our economic heft. Also, in recent years, Chinese applied for more international patents than any other country in the world; clearly, China has moved past the copycat phase. Many young Chinese tech workers work very hard, 9:00 to 9:00, six days a week, and Chinese tech companies compete fiercely with each other. Americans need to be realistic and face the facts. China is no longer a backward country.

China is now more of an equal and a competitor. The U.S. needs to recognize that and step up our defenses against sophisticated espionage and cyberhacking. On the world stage, China is using its power to look out after its own interests; it has become an active participant in global organizations; it is seeking better relations with other countries; and it has modernized its military to protect it territory and waters. But those actions do not threaten our democratic system or way of life. Some Americans insist China is seeking “dominance” or “primacy” in the world, saying that threatens us. Frankly, I don’t see that. China would be crazy to set up 800 military bases around the world and start interfering in other countries. That would not be in its self-interest.

Most Chinese I know are very pragmatic; they want to do business inside China and with other countries, to educate their kids well, and to live in a stable and prosperous country. Most Americans I know also want peace and prosperity and are open to cross-cultural contacts. U.S.-China relations are going through a rocky time now, as we recalibrate our relationship. I hope it will begin to stabilize soon.