China and the U.S.: uneasy friends, interdependent rivals
Since 1978, the People’s Republic of China has moved away from the centrally-planned economy created by Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. As its economy has grown, raising living standards for millions, China has taken its place as one of the world’s great powers. Americans, meanwhile, have watched uneasily. Many fear that China (which now has the world’s second biggest economy, about 1/3 the size of ours) will overtake us as the world’s dominant power—or, at least, compete with us as a strong equal, capable of blocking our strategic and economic interests.
But China faces huge challenges of its own, including widespread rural poverty and an economy that depends on other nations buying its exports. A shift in the global power balance may lie ahead, but a major change is unlikely to happen soon.
A few key facts about China
• World’s most populous country: an estimated 1.34 billion citizens as of 2010
• Oldest continuous major civilization: records go back over 3,500 years.
• Current average income: roughly $3,650/year per person in 2009, according to the World Bank. But this average masks extremes of rural poverty and new urban wealth.
• World’s biggest consumer of energy, and biggest producer of the greenhouse gases believed responsible for global warming.
• A major investor in the future: China has invested billions of dollars in high-tech research, development and manufacturing. Project areas include high-speed trains, genetic engineering, electric cars, and solar panels.
Is China still communist or not?
Since 1949, China has been governed by the Chinese Communist Party. The party currently has 76 million members (5% of the country’s population), who dominate the government—but since 1978, the Communist economic system has given way to a market-based economy that encourages individual initiative and enterprise.
How free is China? Economics vs. politics
While the government has loosened its control over the economy, there has been no similar relaxing of control in the political sphere. Chinese dissidents have been imprisoned for crimes such as “spreading counterrevolutionary propaganda” and “inciting subversion of state power.” Liu Xiaobo, a writer, professor and human rights activist, is currently serving an 11-year sentence, in part because he calls for the end of one-party Communist rule in China. He won the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, “for his long and non-violent struggle for fundamental human rights in China.” For a list of notable Chinese dissidents, see Wikipedia.
The Chen Guangcheng Affair
In April, 2012, a blind lawyer and dissident named Chen Guangcheng escaped from house arrest in his village. He had previously served a four-year prison sentence, after antagonizing the government by calling attention to forced abortions and sterilizations. Chen made his way to Beijing, where he reached the U.S. embassy and asked for protection.
The incident created a diplomatic nightmare for the U.S. and China as the two countries prepared for a summit conference covering China’s policies on Iran, North Korea, and the value of its currency. The U.S. has been treading carefully on the issue of human rights in China, wishing to avoid offending Chinese leaders in order to make progress in these other areas. Human rights activists (and Republicans) accuse the Obama Administration of sacrificing Chen to its foreign policy agenda.
In reality, the situation was tremendously difficult. Had the U.S. granted Chen asylum, that would have ended hopes for agreement on other important matters; but, by failing to help him, we seem to have betrayed our long-standing call for improved human rights in China. Further complicating the situation was the fact that Chen’s wife and child would have suffered persecution if he had left China for the U.S. Faced with that threat, Chen decided to leave the U.S. embassy—but soon repeated his wish to emigrate to the U.S.
Update: On 5/19/12, after delicate negotiations between U.S. and Chinese officials, Chen arrived with his wife and children in New York City, where he will study law at NYU. For details, see the New York Times.
A meeting of presidents
In January, 2011, President Hu Jintao of China met with President Obama at the White House. During this summit, President Obama raised issues that have created tensions between our two countries recently. These issues are explained below. (For a brief analysis of what was accomplished at the summit, see this New York Times article.)
The currency conflict: China has kept the value of its currency (the renminbi) artificially low against the dollar. The goal of this policy is to keep the prices of Chinese-made goods low, so that other countries—especially the U.S.—will continue to buy the exports that have fueled China’s economic boom. The U.S. wants China to move to a market-based exchange rate, so that American farmers and manufacturers will have a better chance of selling American goods to China. In June, 2010, China announced that it would gradually increase the flexibility of the exchange rate. Since then, the renminbi has climbed in value by 3.6%. (Note: the Chinese unit of currency is the yuan, worth about 15 cents as of early 2011. Prices are given in yuan, but when exchange rates are discussed, the term generally used is renminbi, which means “people’s currency.”) For more on China/U.S. economic issues, see this New York Times article.
• The trade deficit: The U.S. imports more from China than it exports to China—much more. (In 2009, we imported $296 billion worth of goods from China, and exported $70 billion worth to China.) This is because Americans buy low-cost Chinese-made goods in huge quantities. American manufacturers can’t compete with low Chinese prices, because workers are paid so much less in China; as a result, manufacturing has withered in the U.S. and unemployment has climbed. (For more on the U.S. trade deficit with China, see About.com. To go deeper, see The Atlantic.)
Further, China imposes restrictions on trade meant to help Chinese companies. American manufacturers and technology companies are upset because they’re being shut out of the Chinese market, which holds tremendous potential. During the Obama-Hu summit, the White House announced that China had agreed to buy $45 billion worth of American goods. For more on agreements announced at the summit, go here.
• Human rights: Chinese authorities do not tolerate dissent. In order to fight perceived threats to the nation’s stability, authorities have jailed political opponents and journalists without giving them access to lawyers, and have harshly suppressed movements for democracy and religious freedom. Other abuses include forced confessions, torture, and severe restrictions on rights that Americans take for granted, including freedom of speech, the right to assemble peacefully, and the right of workers to join unions. The suppression of protests was especially severe in 2009, which marked the 20th anniversary of the protests in Tiananmen Square as well as the 50th anniversary of an uprising in Tibet and the 60th anniversary of the Communist revolution. Despite this intolerance for political dissent, Chinese citizens have enjoyed growing personal freedom since 1978—including more access to information, freedom of travel, and career choice.
• Military expansion: China’s economic boom has enabled it to expand its armed forces. New Chinese submarines carry missiles that could destroy an aircraft carrier anywhere in the Western Pacific. According to a 2010 Pentagon report, China wants to establish itself as a dominant regional power, able to keep the U.S. as far from its shores as possible. The primary goal of this buildup is to ensure that no nation can prevent China from accessing the natural resources it needs from abroad. For an analysis of the strategy behind China’s military buildup, see this article by Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt.
• China’s relationship with Iran, Sudan, North Korea, Burma, Zimbabwe, Belarus and Venezuela: In its search for the resources it needs—especially oil and natural gas—China has built alliances with countries the American government considers dangerous, corrupt, tyrannical or murderous. The U.S. would like China to use its influence to press these countries for changes in behavior, but China has resisted, citing a policy of “non-interference” in the internal affairs of its trading partners. For more on this, see GlobalPost.com.
• Tibet: China claims Tibet as part of its territory; many Tibetans disagree. In 1950, the newly founded People’s Republic of China sent soldiers to Tibet and forced its leaders to give up sovereignty. Resentment of Chinese rule has persisted ever since, with uprisings and demonstrations erupting sporadically. As ethnic Han Chinese have immigrated to Tibet, native Tibetans say they’ve been mistreated, shut out of leadership roles and jobs, and denied religious and political freedom. Most Tibetans are still loyal to the Dalai Lama, their spiritual leader in exile; Chinese authorities vilify him and refuse to meet with him. The Dalai Lama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989 for his non-violent advocacy of self-rule for Tibet. For more on the conflict, see this BBC web page.
• Piracy of intellectual property: Software companies lost an estimated $7.6 billion in 2009 because of pirated software made in China. At the summit, President Hu promised to crack down on the sale of pirated software in China, and other forms of intellectual property theft.
Other key issues
• The demand for energy China already consumes more energy than any other country—but, as of 2009, the average Chinese citizen used less than 1/4 as much energy as the average American. As China’s economy expands and living standards rise, the demand for energy will continue to surge. (As of 2008, coal accounted for 70% of China’s energy consumption. China produces and consumes more coal than any other country, and demand keeps rising, with the result that China emits more greenhouse gases than any other country. See the News-Basics article on Global Warming and Climate Change for more on this.) China plans to move toward cleaner energy sources such as wind, solar power and nuclear power, and its renewable energy law calls for 15% of its energy to come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2020.
• The environment China’s air and water quality have deteriorated severely in recent years, due to rapid industrial growth. According to the World Health Organization, seven of the ten cities with the most polluted air in the world are in China. Nearly all of the country’s rivers are polluted; half the population lacks access to clean water. In international conferences on global warming, China has resisted limits on its greenhouse gas emissions, defending its right to improve its citizens’ standard of living and calling on the developed nations to do more.
• China’s investment in the U.S. China now holds nearly $900 billion in U.S. bonds. In other words, China owns about 6% of our national debt—more than any other country. (For more on this, see News-Basics on the national debt.) China’s purpose in buying these bonds, beyond using the U.S. as a safe place to invest its money, has been to keep the value of the dollar high, so that Americans will keep buying cheap Chinese exports. Some Americans fear that China will call in the debt by selling off its bonds, but economists say that’s unlikely, for two reasons: 1) the U.S. is the biggest buyer of Chinese goods, and disrupting the U.S. economy would hurt these sales; and 2) selling off a significant amount of the bonds would reduce the value of China’s investment. For the foreseeable future, the economies of our two nations will continue to be closely connected.
• Media control All of China’s TV and radio stations are owned by or affiliated with either the Communist Party or the government. A Central Propaganda Department lists subjects these stations may not mention. TV programs that come from other countries must be approved before they can be broadcast.
• The internet in China The Chinese authorities strictly regulate internet content, and monitor individuals’ access. Comments critical of the government usually disappear within minutes. Censored websites include foreign news sources that cover protests for democracy; sites with unregulated content; and sites relating to Tibet, Taiwan, or the Falun Gong, a forbidden religious movement. For more on internet censorship in China, see Wikipedia.
• Cyber spying A Canadian research group reported in 2009 that a cyber spy network based mainly in China had accessed classified documents from government agencies and private organizations in 103 countries. More recently, hackers broke into the Gmail accounts of Chinese human rights activists in several countries; hackers also penetrated computers at more than 30 major companies, including technology and defense firms, apparently seeking secret information on software and weapons systems. Documents released by WikiLeaks indicate that the cyber spies who hacked the Gmail accounts were working within the Chinese government. For more, see the New York Daily News and The Guardian.
• The one-child policy Since 1979, the Chinese government has tried to limit population growth with a policy allowing only one child per family. (The law applies only to the Han Chinese, who make up 92% of the population; minorities are exempt.) The policy is enforced with rewards for those who comply and fines for those who disobey. (The law officially forbids physical coercion to undergo abortion or sterilization, but reports of these abuses are common.) The one-child policy has prevented an estimated 250 million births, averting a population explosion that might have created food shortages like those that inspired the law in the first place. Still, it is hugely unpopular in China, and Americans have pointed to it as evidence of tyranny. (For a brief history of the one-child policy, see Time magazine.)
• Consumer product scandals Nearly half of all consumer products sold in the U.S.—and 90% of toys—come from China and Hong Kong. In 2010, there were 220 recalls of Chinese-made products. Most notoriously, lead has been found in children’s toys made in China; toxic melamine in pet foods; and diethylene glycol (a chemical used in solvents and antifreeze) in toothpaste. The former head of China’s State Food and Drug Administration was executed for taking bribes and approving substandard medicines that resulted in many deaths.
3/14/13: Xi Jinping, leader of China’s Communist Party since 11/12, became the country’s new president. For more about Xi, see the New York Times.
4/18/11: The rapid growth of China’s economy has created high inflation—a problem, because it threatens China’s role as a source of low-cost labor, and because rising food prices inside China have caused unrest. The government is trying to slow down the economy just enough to fight inflation without stopping growth, but this is a difficult balancing act.
12/30/11: China’s space program—a new “cold war” challenge to the U.S.? From CNN.
A micro-course in recent Chinese history
(Excerpted, in large part, from the U.S. State Department’s Country Profile.)
• Mao’s China
1949: Communists led by Mao Zedong prevail over the Kuomintang, or Nationalist Party, led by Chiang Kai-shek, and proclaim the birth of the People’s Republic of China. Following the example of the Soviet Union, Mao’s government establishes strict control over everyday life.
1958: The “Great Leap Forward,” an attempt to rapidly increase industrial and agricultural production, has disastrous results, including a famine in which an estimated 36 million people die over three years.
1959-60: Strains appear between China and the Soviet Union.
1966-69: In the “Cultural Revolution,” Mao accuses party leaders of dragging China back toward capitalism. Radical youth organized as “Red Guards” attack leaders they consider reactionary. Many of these leaders are dismissed from their posts.
• After Mao
1976: Mao dies, and there is no obvious successor. A year later, Deng Xiaoping (a leader who had been dismissed during the Cultural Revolution but later reinstated) leads the effort to organize a government of officials opposed to past radicalism.
1978: Communist Party leaders adopt new policies that reduce central planning, attract foreign investment, and encourage enterprise. Collectivized agriculture is phased out, the private sector grows, and state enterprises enjoy increasing autonomy.
1979 and after: Reform policies raise the standard of living for many Chinese citizens. Government control over literature and the arts is relaxed, though attacks on the Communist Party are still forbidden. Nevertheless, the loosened grip opens the door to growing political dissent.
1986-89: Student demonstrators protest the slow pace of reform. High inflation causes hardship for many. A protest movement grows.
• Tiananmen Square
1989: University students and others take to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square to demand more democracy and freedom. The protest spreads, as similar demonstrations are held in other cities. Authorities declare martial law and use armed force to remove demonstrators. Deaths are estimated in the hundreds. Governments around the world deplore China’s violent suppression of dissent, but the Chinese leaders keep up their attack on the protest movement by arresting protesters and sentencing them to political “reeducation,” i.e., labor camp.
• Deng Xiaoping
Though never officially the head of state, Deng led China from 1978 to 1992. He steered the country toward a market economy—defending the shift by saying the government’s primary goal should be raising living standards —and is considered the architect of China’s explosive economic growth, which lifted millions out of poverty within a few decades. He also loosened controls over the arts, and encouraged journalists to uncover local abuses. Deng was also responsible, however, for the bloody suppression of protest at Tiananmen Square, which he feared would spread chaotic unrest throughout China.
• After Deng
1997: Deng dies. Reform-minded pragmatists continue to lead the country.
2002: Hu Jintao is elected General Secretary of the Communist Party. Hu is also elected Chairman a year later, and given control of the army as well.
2008: Despite protests about China’s human rights record, Beijing hosts the Summer Olympics. China uses the event to present itself to the world as a dynamic, powerful, modern nation. The opening ceremony, featuring more than 15,000 performers, lasts four hours and reportedly costs $100 million.
2011: President Hu visits President Obama in Washington. At the summit, both men stress the importance of mutual cooperation.
For a timeline, go to About.com.
More fast facts
• Size: about 3.7 million square miles (a bit bigger than the U.S.)
• Population: 1.34 billion (estimated, 2010)—or more than four times the population of the U.S., and about 16% more than India’s
• Labor force: more than 800 million
• Language: 70% of the population speaks Mandarin (Putonghua), the official language, which is taught in all Chinese schools; other dialects include Shainghaiese (or Wu), Cantonese, and Sichuanese, among others.
• China’s name in Mandarin: Zhongguo, which means “Middle Kingdom” or “central country”
• Religions: According to a 2007 survey, 81% of Chinese people consider themselves atheists; 12% (or roughly 160 million) Buddhists; 2% Christians; and less than 1% Muslims. (The Chinese government recognizes five religions, Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, Catholicism and Protestantism; other religious groups and movements are suppressed, and their members harassed.) For more on religion in China, see this report from the Pew Research Center.
• Telephones: 366 million landlines as of 2007; 634 million cell phones as of 2008
Names you may have heard
Hu Jintao: president of China—but, as this New York Times article explains, his power is more limited than that of past leaders like Mao and Deng Xiaoping, because China’s military, corporate and other leaders have their own agendas. (Mr. Hu will step down in 2012. For a profile of the man who will probably succeed him, see this article.)
Liu Xiaobo: writer, professor of literature, human rights activist, political prisoner, and winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, currently serving an 11-year prison sentence. He admires Western democracies, and has called for the end of one-party Communist rule in China.
Wen Jiabao: China’s premier, or prime minister, and head of government. He has pushed for policies that would benefit China’s farmers and migrant workers, rather than focusing solely on the wealthy coastal areas responsible for the country’s economic boom.
Deng Xiaoping: China’s leader from 1978-1992, Deng steered his country toward a market economy, and is considered the person most responsible for China’s economic boom.
Harry Wu: a prominent human rights activist who spent 19 years in Chinese labor camps, and now lives in the U.S.
Wang Dan: a leader of China’s democracy movement, and the best-known of the student protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Mao Zedong (formerly written Mao Tse-tung): leader of China’s Communist revolution and paramount leader from 1949 until his death in 1976, Mao is still officially respected in China (his face is on the nation’s currency), but his policies are blamed for the deaths of 40-70 million people.
Zhou Enlai (formerly written Chou En-Lai): Premier of China from 1949 until his death in 1976. He advocated peaceful coexistence with the West, and helped organize Nixon’s trip to China in 1972. Because he tried to contain the excesses of the ultra-radical Red Guards, he was a popular leader. Deng Xiaoping, who eventually took Mao’s place as China’s leader, was Zhou’s ally.
Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975): China’s leader from 1928-1948, he was defeated by Mao’s Communists in the Chinese Civil War and retreated with his Nationalist (Kuomintang) government to the island of Taiwan, where he headed a one-party state until his death.
Sun Yat-Sen (1866-1925): called the Founding Father of the Chinese republic, Sun inspired the overthrow of the Qing dynasty, the last of China’s imperial dynasties, and served as the first president of the republic. He said that his principles were derived in part from Abraham Lincoln’s words “government of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Sun is the only modern leader widely admired in both the PRC and Taiwan.
Confucius (6th century B.C.): philosopher who stressed morality, both personal and governmental. He taught his followers to value the ideals of sincerity, benevolence, tolerance, harmony, and justice. His teachings have shaped Chinese culture more than any other single influence.
Laozi (also written Lao-Tzu or Lao-Tse): mystic philosopher and author of the Tao Te Ching, probably a contemporary of Confucius, he is considered the founder of Taoism (though some historians believe him to be a mythical figure, or a composite of several people).
In 1949, after two decades of civil war, when the Communists took power and formed the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Chiang Kai-Shek and his government retreated to the island of Taiwan, 100 miles off the coast. Chiang never officially abandoned his intention to take back the mainland. Both the Republic of China (ROC) and the PRC claimed to be the only legitimate government of China. At first, the international community and the U.N. recognized only the ROC, but in 1971, China’s seat at the U.N. was given to the PRC. The PRC seeks “reunification” with Taiwan; Taiwan rejects this option.
After Chiang’s death, Taiwan evolved into a multi-party democracy, and is now a prosperous industrial nation with one of the world’s foremost technology sectors.
A former British colony on the southeastern coast of China, Hong Kong rejoined China in 1997, but still enjoys considerable autonomy. Hong Kong is one of the world’s leading financial centers.
How did Peking become Beijing?
In 1979, the Chinese government adopted the pinyin system for spelling Chinese names with the Roman alphabet. In pinyin, the capital (formerly Peking) is known as Beijing, and Hong Kong is now called Xianggang.
Chinese inventions and firsts
• Paper and printing (both woodblock and movable type)
• Gunpowder, matches, rockets, firecrackers, the cannon
• The propeller and the crossbow
• The magnetic compass and the seismograph
• Cast iron and porcelain
• China was one of the few ancient civilizations to invent writing.
• First government to issue paper money (8th century)
• Astronomer Shen Kuo theorized in the 11th century that the sun and moon were spherical, and discovered the concept of true north.
For more on Chinese inventions, see Wikipedia.
Opinions on China
Richard Easterlin, “When Growth Outpaces Happiness,” New York Times, 9/28/12: “Starting in 1990, as China moved to a free-market economy, real per-capita consumption and gross domestic product doubled, then doubled again. Most households now have at least one color TV… Yet there is no evidence that the Chinese people are, on average, any happier… If anything, they are less satisfied than in 1990… It is noteworthy that at a time when the need for a strong safety net is under attack in the United States, [China] has inadvertently demonstrated its critical importance for people’s happiness.”
Bill Keller, “Diplomats and Dissidents,” New York Times, 5/14/12: “The case of the blind Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng… is a good occasion to contemplate the perennial tension between our respect for human rights and our need to deal with undemocratic regimes on issues like nuclear proliferation, trade, counterterrorism and climate change. Our relationship with China is perhaps the hardest test out there, because it has an atrocious human rights record but holds the keys to the deadly puzzles of North Korea and Iran, not to mention America’s mortgage.”
Minxin Pei, “Five myths about China’s power,” Washington Post, 1/26/12: Among the points made: China’s rise isn’t marginalizing the U.S. in Asia; on the contrary, it’s drawing other Asian nations closer to us.
Chen, Min, “Why China Won’t Listen,” New York Times, 11/16/11: advises U.S. diplomats to make their case about human rights abuses behind closed doors, rather than pressuring Chinese leaders in public, which is seen as an unacceptable affront.
Geng He, “The Dissident’s Wife,” New York Times, 3/28/11: The author’s husband is a prominent Chinese lawyer. She says that, after he defended “members of religious movements persecuted by the government, [he] became a target himself. His law license was revoked… he was frightened for me and our children, so I fled with them to asylum in the United States. Soon after we left… he was seized by security officials… We have good cause to fear that he is suffering. My husband has been tortured many times… If he has been killed, we should be allowed the dignity of laying him to rest.”
Guobin Yang, “China’s Gradual Revolution,” New York Times, 3/14/11: Though the government repressed recent demonstrations inspired by Egypt’s revolution, there’s reason to hope for gradual change. “[C]hange has been underway in China for years, but in forms more subtle than most people outside the country understand.”
Thomas Friedman, “Their Moon Shot and Ours,” New York Times, 9/26/10: argues that China is making huge, long-term investments in transportation and technology, while the U.S. is failing to keep up… especially in developing electric cars.
On the currency conflict:
• Mark Wu, “China’s Currency Isn’t Our Problem,” New York Times, 1/17/11: argues that letting the renminbi’s value rise against the dollar wouldn’t help American exporters much, and shouldn’t be a major point of contention in negotiations.
Will China and the U.S. clash as China’s power grows?
• John Mearsheimer (Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago), “The Rise of China Will Not Be Peaceful at All,” The Australian, 11/18/05: “If China continues its impressive economic growth over the next few decades, the US and China are likely to engage in an intense security competition with considerable potential for war.”
• Zbigniew Brzezinski, “How to Stay Friends with China,” New York Times, 1/2/11: “The worst outcome for Asia’s long-term stability as well as for the American-Chinese relationship would be a drift into escalating reciprocal demonization.”
For more information
Books about China
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Last updated 3/26/13
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