The Trouble with China

In the summer of 2020, otherwise a time of maximum disunity in the United States amid intersectional upris-ings, rioting, and widespread institutional deliquescence, a rock-like national consensus emerged from the political waves: Americans from Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden to Donald Trump, who vehemently disagreed on everything else, fully agreed that it was urgent to confront the People’s Republic of China, technologically as well as politically, within the United States, in Europe, and strategically across Asia and beyond. Within that consensus there were only stylistic differences, from Pelosi’s quiet assertion of the incompatibility of the regime with human rights anywhere on the planet to Trump’s truculent trade demands.  The break with the past is very sharp: from Nixon in 1972 to quite late in Obama’s presidency, the United States did much that accelerated China’s rise to wealth and power from the miserable poverty I saw everywhere in that country in 1976, while doing very little to oppose China, aside from resisting its claim to rule Taiwan. By August 2020, by contrast, the Administration and the Congress were competing in finding new ways of limiting Chinese power, from human rights’ legislation specifically related to Tibet, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong, to the compulsory sale of a China-based social media platform excessively popular with the young and exception-ally intrusive in its tracking.  With the Chinese navy engaged in threatening exercises off the coast of Taiwan even as the United States reiterated its promise of defending the island, all is set for rancor to explode in an armed clash. It is therefore urgent to try to understand what has happened, and why.  But to proceed one must first toss out any American-centered explanation of what has happened to US-China relations — of which there are many, from America’s hegemonic jealousy complete with ancient parallels

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