Dr. Robert A. Kapp 柯白 is Senior Advisor to the China Program of The Carter Center. He earned his doctorate in Modern Chinese History at Yale University. Among other positions, he served as President of the US-China Business Council 美中贸易全国委员会 from 1994 through 2004.
Autumn 2014. China has just held its Fourth CCPCC Plenum. Across the United States, citizens are voting in important biennial elections. What implications do the Plenum and the US elections hold for US-China relations?
It will take many years to see whether, and how, the Fourth Plenum’s dozens of calls for “strengthening,” “perfecting,” “giving rein to,” “completing,” “building,” etc. the institutions, behaviors, popular attitudes necessary to “ruling the nation according to law” will be realized.
Big questions of practical implementation remain to be answered, over time, just as similar big questions remained to be answered after the Third Plenum issued its Decision on Deepening Reform a year ago.
At a minimum, however, we can say that China’s further advance toward a social, political and economic system founded on stable, publicly articulated and socially accepted legal concepts, impartially applied laws, and genuinely equitable judicial institutions, will be welcomed not only by China but by the world. Americans, whether in business, in NGO work, or in education and cultural work, will welcome the stability and predictability that a dependable and equitable legal and judicial system will enhance in China. A nation that is “comfortable in its own skin,” quietly comfortable with its own social consensus expressed through law, will make a better partner for the entire world.
The Fourth Plenum “Decision” makes clear, as the Third Plenum “Decision” did last fall, that the most senior policy-making elites of the Party understand the depths of the challenges that they and China face, thirty-five years after Reform and Opening commenced. Such realism in identifying and diagnosing the serious problems requiring urgent attention is, itself, an encouraging sign.
Equally encouraging, in my view, is the absence in the Fourth Plenum Communique and “Decision” of the all too familiar references to “hostile Western forces,” “Western values,” and the vast conspiracy of “the West” (which everyone knows means primarily the United States) to “contain” or “undermine” China’s progress. The heavy emphasis on “Chinese characteristics,” of course, reserves for China the option of proceeding along lines different from those rooted in the European and American historical experiences. But the more familiar connotations of “Chinese characteristics” as the term has emerged in recent decades are a long way from ceaselessly hammering on the existential dangers supposedly posed by “the West,” and especially by the United States.
The stoking, in the popular mind, of fears of a huge and nameless “Western” threat, allegedly aimed at disintegrating Chinese social and political cohesion, has been a staple of Chinese political rhetoric, both in official organs and online, in recent years.
I congratulate the authors of the Plenum documents for leaving such “Western Threat” formulas out of their important statements. Abandonment of such rhetoric more broadly will be a meaningful contribution to improved Sino-American understanding and cooperation.
On the U.S. side, Americans in every state are voting in an “off-year” election, which means that no candidates for national office are on their ballots. All 435 seats in the House of Representatives are at stake, and one third of the seats in the U.S. Senate are contested. Many state governorships will be decided, and each county and local community will present voters with its own special, local decisions.
Economically, the United States is doing quite well now, after years of gradual recovery from the catastrophe of 2008-2009. GDP growth in the Third Quarter stood at 3.5% annualized, the highest level since before the Financial Crisis. Unemployment continues to drop, and is, again, at its lowest level since before the 2008-09 collapse. Housing prices have largely stabilized. Urban construction, paralyzed after the crisis, has resumed with vigor in most American cities. There is much good news to celebrate.
Yet the voters seem generally to be in a negative, even pessimistic, mood.
Part of this is “structural” – built in to the very nature of the U.S. political system. When Americans are facing economic uncertainty or social anxiety, they traditionally express themselves by voting – either by voting against those they hold responsible for their problems, or by voting for those who they believe are most likely to address their concerns. Expressing dissatisfaction generally tends more powerfully to motivate Americans to vote than speaking out about what is making them happy.
But Americans’ concerns for the future, as they vote this year, also arise from vivid fears of huge and threatening developments occurring outside the United States. Will the dreaded ebola virus flow out from its African origins to infect us all and shake the foundations of our national life borne on the wings of globalized travel? Will the so-called “Islamic State” now raging through the disordered the Middle East, beheading American prisoners on video and slaughtering innocent civilians in its path, become a new “Mongol Invasion” threatening American civilization itself? Is America looking at a new Cold War with Russia, after Russian subversion and military intervention in Ukraine? As Americans go to the polls, the wider world seems filled with pressing dangers.
But note: in this election season, China is off the U.S. political agenda. Once again, as in earlier elections, American voters heading for the polls or sending in their “mail ballots” are not gripped by fears of a nameless Chinese threat to the foundations of American national existence. I urge our Chinese friends, when they think about the United States, to remember that China is not, for Americans, a source of public alarm or political anxiety..
American politicians, from time to time, have in the past raised fears about China as a means of pursuing their own political agendas. It could happen again in the future. But it should not. It must not.
Similarly, endlessly citing threats of “hostile Western forces” and “Western values,” both unquestionably associated with the United States, is not helpful to the future of peaceful cooperation between the world’s two greatest economies.
As China faces its vast and complex domestic agenda following its historic Third and Fourth Plenums, and Americans choose their political representatives not on the basis of any “China threat” but on other issues, this would be a good time to give the “hostile Western forces” theme a quiet burial.