A propaganda poster touting Mao Zedong's edict that youngsters from cities must go to the countryside for re-education. Photo: Handout

The current clash between China and the United States is only the latest flareup of a confrontation that has been ongoing for the past 70 years, a confrontation that can be traced to one single historical event, namely the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China.

That proclamation, made by Mao Zedong on October 1, 1949, was perceived in Washington as a major catastrophe. While the reaction was in part political, it overflowed into the emotional realm as it ran contrary to an image of China that was deeply embedded in the American collective psyche.

Missionaries, the writings of Pearl Buck, and an aggressive Japan had coalesced into creating an image of the Chinese as pro-American, dependable, not to say subservient, and looking up to the United States as something of a big brother. That China’s nominal leader, General Chiang Kai-shek, was a Christian helped to consolidate the cliché, and that his wife was beautiful, articulate and English-speaking even more so.

This perception of China spilled over into the political arena, when US president Franklin D Roosevelt, believing that he was dealing with a great power, insisted on China having a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, and this at a time when the country, embroiled in a major civil war, was at best a geographic expression.

With hardly any advance warning and the belief that Chiang’s Nationalists, of Kuomintang (KMT), had the situation well in hand, the “fall” of China hit the United States like a thunderbolt out of the blue. Granted, some lonely voices, especially in the State Department, had warned that the KMT was thoroughly corrupt and that the Communists were gaining the upper hand, but they were silenced as harbingers of bad news.

Disregarding any rational explanation for why the Communists had won China’s civil war, the expression most used to explain the catastrophe was “betrayal,” which in turn unleashed a witch-hunt to identify the guilty. The witch-hunt, which focused in part on “who lost China” (that China was not America’s to lose was overlooked), spawned a host of right-wing groups that sought to portray Communist China as the embodiment of all that was evil.

Aversion to China was particularly widespread in the US Congress, where the “Committee of One Million Against the Admission of Communist China to the United Nations” had a strong following. The year 1958 saw also the creation of the radical conservative John Birch Society, named after a missionary and US Army captain killed in China on August 25, 1945, while on patrol with a KMT unit.

For the subsequent 20 years, US foreign policy sought to contain China both politically and militarily. Practically all of America’s allies were prevailed upon not to recognize the People’s Republic and to prolong the fiction that the KMT in Taiwan was the legitimate representative of China. During those years China pursued a foreign policy that in substance was cautious.

Korea and Vietnam

In Korea, Beijing in 1951 only intervened when the American forces commanded by General Douglas MacArthur came dangerously close to the Yalu River, thus representing a direct threat to China.

In keeping with the cosmetics that prevailed at the time, China dispatched “volunteers” to Korea. This ensured that the war would appear, on paper, as a confrontation between North Korea, supported by Chinese “volunteers,” and the United States operating under a nominal UN umbrella. But beyond the cosmetics it was to be the first time, and up to now the last time, that Chinese and American troops clashed face to face.

The two decades that followed the end of the Korean War saw the US pursue an unrelenting policy of isolation, not to say containment, of China with the caveat that, in terms of substance, China, which was successively embroiled in the likes of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution, was in no position to “expand,” and hence there was nothing to “contain.”

With the situation in Korea and Taiwan stabilized, the high point of confrontation shifted to Vietnam.

In 1950 the Communist-led Vietminh seized control of the border areas of northern Vietnam, with China thus ensuring a safe and uninterrupted supply of weapons. By then the war had morphed from a colonial conflict in which France sought to reassert its control on Indochina to a proxy war between the United States, which financed the French war effort, and China, which was perceived in Washington as the motive force behind the Vietminh.

That the primary motivation of the Vietminh was nationalism rather than communism was overlooked in Washington.

The 1954 Geneva Conference that saw Vietnam divided into two zones led the United States into focusing its efforts into turning the South into a bulwark against the communists, with the specter of China in the background ever present. Thus when, in 1962, Washington created the Military Assistance Command Vietnam, its emblem featured a sword, vertically thrust through a great wall. With no such wall located in Vietnam, the symbolism, while not obvious to most Americans, did not go unnoticed in Beijing.

New balance of power

With the Vietnam War proving unwinnable for the United States, it took the vision of Henry Kissinger to realize that a peace agreement in Vietnam would require some form of accommodation with Beijing, which in turn implied that Washington’s China policy was not sustainable in the long term. The 1973 Paris peace agreement and the subsequent fall of the Saigon regime in 1975 re-established a historical balance of power in the region that had been temporarily veiled by illusory ideological considerations.

What followed was, at least on paper, a reversal of what had been an American foreign-policy dogma for the previous quarter-century. With Vietnam now aligned with the Soviet Union, restraining Hanoi suddenly became the joint interest both of China and of the United States, and 25 years of hostility morphed into a strategic alliance. But it was not to last.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990 removed Hanoi’s only prop and reduced Vietnam to the size of a minor regional actor with no global connotations. 

With the former Soviet Union no longer in the picture, China and the United States no longer shared a common enemy, and Sino-American relations became in essence a bilateral exercise with each country focusing on what it perceived as its core interests.

Over the next three decades and after the reform processes undertaken in China, the two economies started to interlock. Manufacturing increasingly moved to China. This not only provided a major boost for the country’s economy but ensured that the cost of everyday goods to the American consumer remain contained. Thus, at least on paper, some sort of equilibrium had been reached. In practice, it was an illusion.

Economic relations notwithstanding, a sizable component of the American political establishment had never come to terms with the creation of the People’s Republic of China. Thus, while the political relationship between the US and China went through a normalization process, the ideological relationship did not.

Granted, China had stepped back from even pretending to try to export any ideology and its promoting of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” clearly implied that the formula was applicable to China and only to China. However, the issue was no longer the one predicated during the Cold War, namely whether China would attempt to export its system. The issue was the emergence of a new balance between the US and China – an issue grounded on a number of fundamental and mutual misperceptions. 

During the Cold War the United States and the Soviet Union were engaged in a major propaganda war. This included providing assistance and financing to friendly political parties, media outlets and organizations that served the political ends of either party. 

Promoting ‘democratic values’

In order to streamline this effort, which on the American side had been mostly implemented by the Central Intelligence Agency, president Ronald Reagan promoted the creation in 1982 of the National Endowment for Democracy. Ostensibly a non-governmental organization, the NED, funded to the tune of some $100 million, provides financial support to organizations active in the promotion of “human rights” throughout the world, with two exceptions: Israel and the Persian Gulf states. 

Operating in parallel, the US Agency for Global Media, with a current budget of some $750 million, is tasked with the promotion of “democratic values” through the funding of the likes of VOA, Radio Marti, and Radio Free Asia.

During the Cold War, China was at the receiving end of the full blast of America’s propaganda effort. Be it in Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Tibetan or Uighur, the endeavor sought, if not to destabilize the regime, at least to damage its credibility in the eyes of those it ruled.

The end of the Cold War and the normalizing of diplomatic relations between Washington and Beijing left this situation unchanged. While the economies of the two countries moved closer to each other even to the point of overlapping, the propaganda output from the United States toward China endured unchanged.

In purely rational terms, the formula was somewhat perplexing. But rational thinking was never the guiding force behind America’s policy toward China. So, ultimately, there were three reasons the American propaganda war against China endured.

The first was inertia. Broadcasting toward China was a massive operation costing millions of dollars and involving a considerable effort in terms of manpower. To reverse the trend would have involved a political decision that would have been unpopular in some segments of the political spectrum.

Questions would have been asked, and whatever administration would have made a decision to review the issue would have come under attack. Thus doing nothing was the easiest option, and even more so as the endeavor did not carry any consequences as regards China or any criticism within the United States.

Second, the irrepressible urge to preach was endemic in the American psyche and broadcasting to the world the superiority of the American system was second nature to a nation that saw itself as a “citadel of democracy.”

Last but not least, there was still a hard core of hostility within the American political spectrum toward a China ruled by a Communist Party, and this had never fully subsided.

Notwithstanding this sub-stratum of hostility toward China, the situation would not have developed into the present crisis had the United States been able to manage its interaction with China over the past 30 years.

Granted there was no precedent on how to address a relationship with a hybrid state/private economy managed by a one-party system that did not play by the rules, but common sense should have dictated that the concept of “designed in the US, assembled in China” was not viable in the long term and that the “assembler” would one day aspire to become also a designer.

Thus, with time, the United States not only saw an erosion of its manufacturing base but also started to forfeit its competitive advantage in research and development. By 2017 US government spending on basic research had dropped to half of what it had been in the 1960s, and funding for higher education had been cut by $9 billion in relation to the previous year. Granted, currently the United States is still in the lead in the production of patents and, overall, in the field of innovation, but for how long? 

However, rather than confronting this situation and attempting to redress it by coherent long-term policy measures that would include how to deal comprehensively with an entity like China, Washington has found it easier either to appropriate blame or to bask in the illusion that “economic development” would result in China’s “regime change.”

That much has been alluded to, albeit indirectly, by former US national security adviser John Bolton in a recent article published in The Wall Street Journal. Bolton somewhat ingeniously repeats what had been Washington’s pipe dream for decades, namely that economic development would result in China’s adhering to “international norms,” albeit designed by the United States.

Likewise, wealth would bring “democracy,” that is, the end of Communist Party rule, and China would no longer “compete for regional or world hegemony,” leaving the United States as the absolute No 1. 

Ultimately what is at stake for Washington is nothing less than America’s dominance of the international arena. The challenge thus goes far beyond tariffs or a “trade war.” To say that as of today it is not being met is an understatement. Which would indicate that, short of a realistic and constructive dialogue, the mutual bickering between the two contenders will endure unabated.

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Alexander Casella

Alexander Casella PhD has taught and worked as a journalist for the likes of Le Monde, The Times, The New York Times, Die Zeit, The Guardian, and Swiss radio and TV, writing primarily on China and Vietnam. In 1973 he joined the UNHCR, serving, among others, as head of the East Asia Section and director for Asia and Oceania. He then served 18 years as representative in Geneva of the International Center for Migration Policy Development.