Sino-US Relation Is the Foundation of the International Environment for China’s Reform and Opening-Up / Sheng Hong

Note: The departure of US ambassador Branstad today does not seem to bode well. In this article the year before last, I said, “there is no strategic cooperation between China and the United States without reform and opening up, and there is no reform and opening up without China US strategic cooperation.” The best way to keep China and the United States from decoupling is to return to Deng Xiaoping’s road of reform and opening up.

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October 4th, the US Vice President Mike Pence made an address at the Peterson Institute, criticizing the Chinese government from multiple aspects. The Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily refuted his criticism promptly. A two-way criticism was set in motion. Therefore, many began to say that a new Cold War is getting started. This is an exaggeration. The reason is, the first and foremost feature of a cold war is the ideological conflict. If we take a look at the Sino-US argument this time, one thing in common is a set of politically correct rules agreed to by both parties. The focus of the argument is not a different set of rules, but whether the other party has violated this mutually-agreed-upon rules.

For instance, the title of People’s Daily’s refutation is “A Not-So-Smart Fabrication” which did not target the rules Pence built his case upon, but Pence’s overlooking the facts. On the other hand, this refutation was written upon the same values just like Pence’s address. For example, any country should protect the constitutional rights of its citizens that include freedom of expression and freedom of religion; any country should not interfere with another country’s domestic affairs; any country should not carry out cyber attach against another country; the intellectual property rights should be respected and protected; international conflicts should be resolved via peaceful means, instead of military ones; even among different regions within a country, the unity should be maintained through peaceful methods. In this light, what we are witnessing is not a new cold war, because there is a common base of values upon which both countries are collaborating strategically.

Of course, Mr. Pence’s criticism against the Chinese government was harsh. However, we should not take one’s criticism against a government as one against the nation; our instinct tells us that if such criticism is right, it is something we should happily accept. Secondly, we need a deeper understanding of the meaning of a “country”: a country is not one or two persons, not the government, even not the entire people of today, but a cultural tradition that emerged from generations of development and accumulation, that is, a set of principles. Today, most of these principals are adopted in the written constitution, or in the generally accepted values of the people, that is the principle of constitutional patriotism. In the International community, the set of principles of a country might be similar or compatible to that of another country, which would constitute the foundation for International order. In China, according to Gu Yanwu, an ancient scholar, the concept of Tianxia-ism (Tianxia zhuyi 天下主义) has existed for a long time. If the concept of a “country” still has anything to do with individuals, then “Tianxia” is a set of civilizational rules.

Therefore, in this sense, the criticism against a government does not equal the criticism against this country. If such criticism is done by following the constitutional principles, then it can even be seen as a way of patriotism. Mr. Pence’s criticism about the Chinese government’s suppression of freedom of speech and freedom of religion, right or wrong, is in accordance with the Chinese constitutional principles. The Chinese Constitution has stipulated in Article 34 to protect the freedom of beliefs, and in Article 35 to protect the freedom of expression for the Chinese citizens. Therefore, criticism against the violation of these constitutional principles should be viewed as patriotism. Even if the criticism is not 100 percent justifiable, it is still a lesser issue compared to the constitutional principle, let alone the facts support most of the criticism. Today, there is the Great Fire Wall that everyone knows about in China, which is hindering the freedom of expression for the Chinese people, not only within the Chinese borders, but also beyond. We have also once and again seen that some local police, maybe just to show off their powers, arrest and publicly humiliate those who showed disrespect of the police in WeChat, a Chinese instant messenger.

Regarding “not interfering a country’s domestic affairs, ” both China and the US see eye to eye on this. The difference lies in “what interfering a country’s domestic affairs means”. Different angles inflict very complicated discussion of this issue. However, there is a very simple principle that both parties should follow, that is reciprocity, a principle that even Confucius thought highly of, “don’t do to others what you don’t want others do to you.” What kind of acts should be considered as interfering another country’s domestic affairs? The People’s Daily defends the Chinese official newspaper’s running commercial on American newspaper in order to influence the American election as “not a violation of the local law.” This is apparently a weak defense, because in international relations, one needs to abide by not only local laws, domestic laws, but also international rules and moral values. Another easy standard is the principle of reciprocity. Would the Chinese government allow a similar act from the US government? Apparently, the answer is no, because the Chinese law does not allow it. Why are there such laws in China, then? Because this is not right. According to the principle of reciprocity, what’s not right in China should also be deemed wrong in the US. In return, if the principle of reciprocity is not admitted, there is not going to be just and harmonious international relations.

Even though we cannot say this argument between China and the US is a Cold War, it holds the risk of becoming one. And a Cold War would bring more damage to China. This “damage” is not only the loss of the American market, but also the foundation of the international environment for China’s reform and opening-up which was a legacy of Deng Xiaoping. July 1977, right after Deng was restored to power, on the one hand, he was pushing for domestic reforms, and on the other hand, he was aiming at the establishment of the Sino-US relation. It was undertaken so fast to many people’s surprise. The negotiation started in July, 1978, and the Joint Communique was issued on December 16th, and these two countries were back as friends by January 1st, 1979. Ever since then, Deng has never poured so much of his energy and passion when it comes to the diplomatic tie with any other country. This showcased that Deng Xiaoping took the Sino-US relation as the foundation for the international environment. As long as China has a good relation with the US, its relations with other countries will follow. That is because the US was not only the world’s biggest market, the leader of the world’s most powerful nations, but also because the US was the origin for the institutional structure that nurtured such a result. And this institutional structure features an economic structure that is built upon the market institution, and a political structure that protects the market from erosion. China’s reform and opening-up needs this institutional resources. We must admit, other than some domestic institutional resources, most of the institutions we adopted over the last four decades were originated from the US. This is what we call “promoting reform with opening up”.

On the other hand, China’s reform and opening up is also the guarantee strategic cooperation between China and the US. Such a relation would never have been possible if China was still entangled in the Cultural Revolution era when it exported revolution, implemented a planned economy, and championed class struggle among its own citizens. The reform and opening up not only brought more economic freedom and political changes. The emancipation of thoughts has, to some extent, relaxed the control over people’s minds; the market economic freedom has enabled people to break free from their working units control. When the market began to play a bigger role in people’s lives, the states control of the society was relaxed. A just legal system was critical for installing the market order. A China that embraces marketization, rule of law, and democratization is one that can be strategically accepted by the US, which constitutes the current Sino US relation.

Without doubt, China’s reform and opening-up lifted China from its ideological conflict with the west and brought about a convergence in terms of values. For instance, the 3rd plenum of the 11th CPC central committee decided to shift the focus of its work from class struggle to economic development, which could be seen as a reform of the compulsory revolutionary state into a state of peace. That is also a shift of ideology. This shift indicated that violent revolution was not the only way to an ideal society and people’s happiness. The alternative was through negotiation and transaction among the people, which would create wealth. In order to carry out the market reforms, the ideological bond had to be broken. That is where the philosophy of “whether the cat is black or white, it is a good cat when it catches mice” came to be relevant. Over the last four decades, the market has been celebrated as the factor that “plays the decisive role in resource allocation”; and the “rule of constitution” was also written in the resolution of the CPC congress.

In addition, the so called “socialist values” issued by the CPC have come up with terms that are overlapping with the universally recognized values in the US and the rest of the western world, such as freedom, democracy, rule of law, equality, and justice. Other terms in the set of values, such as being civilized, harmonious, honest, and with work ethics, do not go against the values in the US or the rest of the western world, either. We must acknowledge very clearly that only with the converging values that China was deemed a factor of peace in international relations, instead of some country that’s resolved to overturn the capitalist world by hook or crook, even with violence. Only then was China considered a country that the west could work with and trust. Such a country resort to peaceful ways to resolve conflicts, instead of violence. It is with this commitment that China could also contribute to the stable and just international order.

Therefore, China’s reform and opening-up and the China-US strategic cooperation are inter-dependent. That is to say, there is no China-US strategic cooperation without China’s reform and opening-up, nor is there China’s reform and opening-up without China-US strategic cooperation. For the last four decades, these two important things have been developing hand in hand, and influenced people’s lives in profound ways, which benefited greatly not only China and the US, but also the world. To be honest, China benefited even more. That is because, forty years ago, the US was already the world’s most powerful country, and China’s GDP per capita was in the bottom 10 among other countries in the world. Therefore, compared to the US, China should cherish even more the complimentary structure of China’s reform and opening-up and the China-US strategic cooperation. Such a complimentary structure is what benefited the Chinese people the most and brought about the biggest wealth for them. If we believe that China has accumulated enough wealth and China has overtaken the US in comprehensive ways, then we are overlooking the complimentary structure, and we are making a historical mistake if we sacrifice this foundation for the international environment that bolstered China’s reform and opening-up and the China-US cooperation for the sake of the domestic interest groups.

Then, is the US impossible to surpass? Of course not. The US is not a perfect country. In history, it has done much evil, too. The ancestors of the American people also used violence to expand to its current territory. The US colonized the Philippines, and took advantage of China in the early years of the Japanese Invasion. It also fought for a wrong cause during the Korean War and the Vietnam War. So did it in Afghanistan and Iraq. Americans can also be arrogant, such as demonstrated in Mr. Pence’s address. When he said America “remade China”, it sounds like China should owe its success to the US. However, the mistakes and evils done by the US should enlighten us that the US is also a country made of common, limited and regular human beings. We should learn from the mistakes, but we should not overshadow its advantages and achievements by them. Compared to the US today, the Chinese government deserves more criticism. Therefore, at least for a rather long time period, the China-US strategic cooperation is foundation for the international environment for China’s reform and opening up that cannot be disposed of.

Maybe there will be a time when China would surpass the US and play a bigger role in the world. It cannot be realized without the complimentary structure. The Chinese people should also not claim supremacy against the commonly accepted rules China has with other countries of the world. Only by following the common rules of civilization and overcoming the error and deviations, can China be a civilization center with moral legitimacy and economic power. Today, China is faced with risks of diverting from its reform and opening-up. And this risk would endanger the its strategic cooperation with US, which would inevitably lead to an epic failure.

Regarding Mr. Pence’s address, even though we could criticize him for being incorrect and inaccurate with his historic accounts, we should not take it overthink it. Our best policy is to take his address as benevolent advice. He said explicitly that he hoped China would still undertake Deng Xiaoping’s reform and opening up that featured further market reforms, more political freedom and freedom of speech, and more constitutional democracy and rule of law. This is not difficult to do for the Chinese government. That is because the Chinese society today is a result of Deng’s reform and opening-up. There is a countercurrent at the moment. However, it should not be very difficult to resist the countercurrent and maintain Deng’s vision for further reform and opening-up.

This essay was first published by FT Chinese on October 19th, 2018: http://www.ftchinese.com/story/001079845

Translated by Mr. MA Junjie

Author: flourishflood

Economist, Confucianist

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