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Reader Comment on “Responding to the China Challenge” by Michael Hunt

By Steven I. Levine, The University of Montana

In “Responding to China’s Challenge,” Michael Hunt castigates U.S. policymakers for pursuing a “fundamentally contradictory” policy toward China that wobbles between Nixonian realpolitik accommodation, and the idealist position of critics who view the PRC as illegitimate.  Underlining the shift in the relative power positions of a rising China and a declining United States, he counsels Americans to recognize that the era of America’s global dominance is over and to jettison the “mystical hocus-pocus about providence and destiny that has come to be associated with the idea of the American Century.” 

While agreeing with the overall argument I would like to focus on three problematic assertions, namely, (1) the nature of the China challenge; (2) China’s response to the U.S.; and (3) U.S. China policy. 

Hunt’s post-1949 China is a strong, unified, confident and successful state, possessing a clear conception of its place in the world, and enjoying the support of a nationalistic people proud of China’s ascent to global power status. Like all skillful caricatures, this captures part of the truth.  Yet for fully half of the history of the PRC, Chinese politics was chaotic, institutionally underdeveloped, and subject to the fatal whims of Mao Zedong, an arbitrary despot many mistook for a philosopher-king.  The impressive growth of China’s GDP during these decades bolstered state power through the coerced sacrifices of the Chinese people, particularly the majority rural population. Yet, at Mao’s death China remained weak and underdeveloped. Den Xiaoping’s reforms repudiated Maoism.  His export-oriented directed strategy was modeled on that of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, all American allies that Washington lauded as examples of successful development. 

Contemporary China is rife with contradictions. The party-state appears strong but is beset by vast problems of official corruption, environmental degradation, social inequality, a weak system of justice, challenges to its system of censorship and information control, and discontent from within its internal colonies (Tibet and Xinjiang).  Hunt implicitly discounts the possibility of intra-party or external challenges to the CCP whose rule he equates with the rise of China.  Yet, some skepticism is in order. China has a way of surprising us.  Chinese national pride is larger than and not dependent upon the communist party, which now stands for little more than its own perpetual rule as the self-appointed guarantor of China’s greatness.  

Hunt is again partially correct in asserting that China’s rise “poses a profound challenge to a U.S.-defined and dominated global regime.”  Yet, though China did not construct the global system, it largely accepts the system that Washington designed, and has benefited immensely from it. Moreover, it has taken its place on the Board of Directors that oversees its operation.  Yet, there are contradictory elements in Chinese foreign policy. I suspect that Professor Hunt may have a clearer and more consistent conception of China’s place in the world than does the Politburo Standing Committee.  Well-educated Chinese have a more diverse response to the United States than Hunt allows.  While many have long viewed the United States as just another imperial Western power, many others have admired the United States for its dynamism, technological innovativeness, freedoms, and prosperity. 

Finally, Hunt’s criticism of the contradictory nature of U.S. policy to China is misdirected.  Since the 1970s, the dominant strand of U.S. policy has been not merely to accommodate but to encourage and facilitate China’s development. The opening of the U.S. market to Chinese goods is but one example among many. Most American criticism of China focuses on Chinese policies, not on the legitimacy of the authoritarian regime itself.  In any case, the plurality of interests in a democratic American polity virtually necessitate that U.S. policy toward China be multi-stranded.  An abstractly rational and consistent policy based on pure realpolitik – or more likely the presumption by policymakers of realpolitik – is a Washington insider’s fantasy.  The universal principles and values of freedom, democracy, and human rights, the invocation of which irritates China’s authoritarian rulers, and which Hunt dismisses as mere American self-indulgence, are not the same as the “mystical hocus-pocus about providence and destiny” that informed America’s self-conception of its supposedly unique status in the world. They are rather the values that the United States, and other countries around the world that share those values, can bring to the table in the emerging multipolar world in which neither America nor China will be the hegemonic power.

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