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"Pekinology": A Fool's Errand

(This article was originally published in Transpacifica)

by Graham Webster

Is Chinese Vice President and presumptive next President Xi Jinping a hard-liner who will return China to confrontations with the west? Or could it be that only a hard-liner could convince domestic nationalists that a more cooperative stance is beneficial to the CCP and the Chinese people?

Bruce Gilley argues Xi could end the reform era:

It may be time to concede that China’s leader-in-waiting, Xi Jinping, is not the moderate that many have assumed. Indeed, evidence from his past suggests that Xi is going to steer China in a more aggressive direction, both domestically and internationally. As his time in office nears, Xi is evincing signs of being a narrow nationalist on foreign policy and of having a penchant for police actions in dealing with domestic frictions. Hence, his rise could signify that the long struggle between Maoists and reformers that characterized China’s “reform era” is now ending.

Daniel Drezner proposes that the opposite might be true:

The phrase “only Nixon could go to China” refers to the idea that only someone who sounded as rabidly anti-communist as Richard Nixon in the past would be able to have the domestic political clout to meet with Mao Zedong and cut a deal with the People’s Republic of China.  Could it be that Xi is simply buttering up his base before taking power in order to make it easier to do business with the United States?

I don’t know the answer, but I suspect even hardcore China-watchers don’t know either.

I’m with Drezner, not because I think Xi Jinping is a Chinese Nixon, but because I think these arguments are rooted in nothing but speculation. Sure, it’s fun to speculate, and we’d be delighted to know more. But the personality of a leader is hard to interpret.

If you’re from the United States, consider less “exotic” leaders such as George W. Bush and Barack Obama. The former was supposed to be an isolationist and started two big wars. The latter was supposed to bring the wars to an end but has escalated the conflict in Afghanistan while participating in a new intervention in Libya. There’s no sense in arguing about these events, but there’s also no way we could have known how these events would unfold.

Put another way, consider the “only Nixon could go to China” aphorism. It may be true, but then, we never would have known that when Vice President Nixon was assigned to make the most strident anti-communist statements by President Eisenhower. Nor did Americans know in 1968 that Nixon was such a complex and conflicted figure, an anti-Semite one moment and a great proponent of Henry Kissinger the next, a leader who desperately wanted the United States out of Vietnam but decided the best way to do so was to enter Cambodia.

My point is that we don’t get to predict these sorts of things, and that there is nothing special about “Pekinology” in this sense. Intuiting the future by interpreting public statements and speculative psychology of leaders is a fool’s errand. Our effort would be better spent working on concrete problems and preparing for the actual negotiations and dilemmas the United States and China are likely to face: environmental regulation, cybersecurity, sovereign debt and currencies, and the like.

Here’s hoping that future leaders in the United States as well as China are motivated to work together and able to overcome domestic resistance to cooperative outcomes.


Graham Webster is Public Policy and Communications officer at the EastWest Institute. He holds a master's in East Asian studies from Harvard University.

[Photo courtesy of nznationalparty]


Anonymous's picture
China and USA

China is ancient and now modernizing. The Chinese are mostly still Third-World, but they also are 2nd and 1st World or at least emerging into First-World. They are still behind us and they will not catch up unless and until their people have more opportunity to be free to be inventive as we are here in the U.S. They have a wonderful inventive history contributing much to the World in the past. Under repressed societies innovation is often stifled because smart people tend to resist repression and inadvertently draw repressive attention. Amongst a Billion people there must be tens of thousands of brilliant potential innovators that never saw opportunity or inspiration. They won't catch up but we could fall behind.

Anonymous's picture
Xi Jinping

We make a mistake if we attempt to analyze China's current affairs using Western yardstick. Look at Xi's "three don'ts". Xi is saying that China is focusing on its domestic issues. China is not at war with anybody and they don't owe anybody money. They have a monster cash surplus and they didn't steal the money from anybody. They got it fair and square through hard business practices. Xi answers to the Politburo and more than anything, the Chinese government wants internal stability. Xi is not the "New Mao" because the Politburo is never going to let anybody gain full control and put the country through another Great Leap Forward or Cultural Revolution. That just isn't going to happen. The Politburo will not let that happen. Besides, China is growing its middle class like crazy. And they have their share of billionaires and millionaires. China keeps taxes relatively low. That alone is the best defense against internal disruption. The United States is going in the opposite direction. The middle class is shrinking and the political class is increasingly impotent. US politicians have run out of answers. Obama has effectively canceled America's space program. Kind of ironic that the US media developed a "cult of personality" around Obama and now they're trying to hang that tag on XI Jinping. The US could use leaders like Hu Jintao or Xi. .
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