Having just finished my first semester at Tsinghua University, one of China’s leading schools, I thought that now would be a good time to write a summary of my impressions of the program so far as it relates to the US. One of the most interesting courses I took this semester was American Politics and Policy Toward China, which was taught by a prominent Chinese scholar on the subject of the US. I am something of a US policy wonk and like to believe that I already have a fairly strong grasp of how things work (or don’t work, as the case may be) in Washington, so I took this class to learn about the Chinese perception of American politics. This class ended up being an experience that was sometimes shocking but always fascinating. The preoccupation with the US here permeates many different aspects of student life, from the bizarre (to me) fascination with American high school-style leather and wool letter jackets to the academic obsession with analyzing every factor of US power so as to figure out how China can and should emulate it in the near future. This class essentially functioned as the tip of the iceberg: it was a forum for students in the Chinese-language IR program to voice their thoughts on the US’s internal affairs rather than focusing on its international relations, the aspect of its conduct which is much more heavily and frequently scrutinized.
The very first class wasted no time in making me wonder just exactly what kind of rabbit hole I’d elected to jump down. We were shown part of a documentary on the pilgrims and then jumped straight into Mel Gibson’s The Patriot. Not just a few pertinent excerpts, as would be the norm for this kind of thing in a school in the US, but the whole thing. It dawned on me as I watched the Swamp Fox try – and comically fail – to build a rocking chair that the Chinese government was effectively paying me to watch a Mel Gibson movie. Gibson’s films, regardless of the man’s personal failings, are generally entertaining, so I had no complaints. What I found fascinating, however, was the fact that this film was apparently being presented as a documentary, not as entertainment. It was evident from my classmates’ reactions that most, if not all, of them had never seen it before: they gasped in all the right places, evidently seeing the sometimes shockingly violent material for the first time. This film is notorious for its whitewashing of Francis Marion, who in real life is known to have raped his slaves and tortured native Americans, among other crimes; however, none of this was mentioned, critically or otherwise, in the discussion after the film. This viewing served to unironically introduce the class to the American conception of the hero, which was discussed extensively, bringing in the likes of Captain America (no mention of the fact that Steve Rogers was an art school dropout and a pipsqueak who attained his physical prowess from an advanced serum). For many of the students, this ideal seemed to be rather uncritically taken at face value. It would, naturally, be too much to expect a course like this to delve into the nuances of comic book characters, but one of the most piquant moments in Cap’s development was the realization that what he stood for was no longer as relevant as he’d always thought; America had become more cynical than what he had left behind in the 1940s.
This rose-tinted, Disneyfied view of America and her principles would in many ways set the overall tone for how the US would be described in subsequent classes. In the student presentations and lectures by the professor, many of the nuances of how our traditional cultural values are viewed today were understandably lost, leaving it to the one other American student in the class and me to do our best to fill in the gaps. The fun part, however, was that the other American leans toward the conservative side of the political spectrum, whereas I lean toward the liberal side. As a result, I can only imagine that our sometimes wildly divergent explanations of the same issues often served to further confuse our Chinese classmates, such as our takes on the issues of welfare, gerrymandering, and the NSA’s phone-tapping programs.
The sheer capacity for American political principles to be interpreted so differently, which is one of the mainstays of our political system, in and of itself is no doubt highly alien to students who have grown up under the Chinese model. One whole class was spent just on the subject of America’s political parties, including why we even have them. The basic functioning of democracy is not unknown to the majority of students here, of course, but its particularities, like political parties, are perhaps less understood (the electoral college system can be difficult enough for some to explain in English if it’s not totally comfortable territory, but imagine attempting to explain it in Chinese!). Students understand that there are Democrats and there are Republicans, but seem less aware of the more detailed political cleavings within those two groups. Democracy must seem awfully inefficient at times to external observers, but efficiency is not necessarily the most important trait in a government. As I argued in defense of what the multi-party system that springs from a a community containing groups with competing interests ought to embody, once civilization has taken the step of conceding that individuals in a society have a fundamental right to participate in their own government, there is effectively no turning back from that point even if the process itself can be quite messy and is far from perfect. This is what can make democracy, as others have argued, “the only game in town.” Exploring the intricacies of how these competing groups fight for their interests and principles based on differing interpretations of the same historical documents was one of the most interesting parts of the course.
For example, early on in the course, the subject of America’s Christian heritage was an important theme. As I carefully explained, while much of America shares a cultural and ideological lexicon drawn from Judaeo-Christian ideas, this is not the same thing as a legal basis and was never intended to be interpreted as such; as we all well know, disagreement on this point is one of the main sources of friction between various groups in the US. When the class wrestled with the idea of having “separation of church and state,” one student described his experience teaching minority students in China’s western regions. Many of these students had their own religion, he said – an oblique reference to their adherence to Tibetan Buddhism, I believe – and explained that they were able to view political and religious leaders as filling distinctly separate roles that did not contradict each other. The Chinese Communist Party tends to take the kind of stance regarding religious fealty that was famously shared, for example, by those who feared that John F. Kennedy would be an unfit President because he might secretly owe his primary allegiance to the Pope rather than to the American people. That is, the CCP generally believes that minority nationalism and religion are incompatible with greater China nationalism or the religion of the state. The stance taken at least by this student, however, and a few others in the class was that political and religious leaders do not necessarily have to clash. When the professor asked this student what he believed, after hesitating for a moment, he replied that he believed in Communism. The class tittered at this and, flustered, he explained that Communism doesn’t really mean anything anymore so it’s not exactly an ideological commitment to say one is a Communist. In the end, he finally just shrugged and said that he was an atheist. This view on Communism seems to be quite common here; many Western observers have remarked on how little the Chinese political system as it is today is still influenced by Marxist principles, but this view is also shared by many Chinese, from my experience here. Marxism-Leninism here at Tsinghua seems to be reduced to mostly a token role. Contemporary Marxism and Social Practice are ostensibly required courses in my Chinese-language political science program, but when a post-doc TA shyly asked me how I felt about Marxism during course registration in September, I said something that would be roughly translated as “I can’t stand it.” She giggled in response and told me that I didn’t have to take it. Deference to Marxism is still a political necessity since Marxism-Leninism and Mao Thought (regardless of how they are actually interpreted) are still the crucial elements of the Party’s authorizing political myth and cannot be discarded without causing irreparable harm to the Party’s legitimacy, as I argued in my Master’s thesis; it would be a political scandal of the highest order if China’s preeminent university were to openly abandon it. People pay lip service to it but for most young academics, loyalty seems to stop there. Everyone knows that China is not as red as it once was. There are, of course, a few radical individuals here and there who take Mao Thought without a grain of salt, but this mostly seems, in my opinion, to be because they believe that doing so will help advance their careers.
In addition to the sometimes sensitive discussions on how American politics function, some of the most riveting discussions centered on American culture. Predictably, our gun culture was no disappointment here. I watched in horror one day as the professor explained that all Americans own guns and that it is legal to kill anyone who invades one’s home (I explained that so-called “castle laws” do not exist in all states and that even within castle laws there is a wide variation between the circumstances that call for justifiable lethal response), that police carry guns in order to shoot fleeing criminals in the leg so as to stop them from running (cops are trained to aim for the center mass because in a stressful situation chances of hitting anything else plummet to almost zero, and, when police use their firearms, they tend to shoot first and ask questions later without regard for the well-being of the suspect), that police don’t want to hurt innocent people (without getting too into the political arguments on either side, I think we can all agree that police in the US could stand to be a bit more judicious in escalating use of force), and that only Americans are allowed to privately own guns (flatly untrue). Like many non-Americans, the Chinese students found America’s attachment to guns perplexing. Civilians are forbidden to own guns in China. It seemed clear to many of my classmates that more guns result in more crime; they did not understand why Americans cannot realize this. The other American in the class, who is an Air Force service member, argued that the right to bear arms is enshrined in the Constitution and is not going away, something that is not untrue and with which I do not disagree. I explained to the class that my view on the gun debate is that there is simply a huge cultural divide on the issue. People from urban areas, like me, tend to only be exposed to firearms as instruments of crime and violence, whereas people from rural areas do not have such negative associations with them because they are simply tools that are a part of life; each group tries to push for national policies based solely on its own cohort’s understanding of the issue, which creates conflict. Misunderstandings abound in this realm, such as some conservatives lashing out at what they imagine liberals want to do to their Constitutional rights even if that may not actually be the case, and some liberals trying to legislate based on things they don’t fully comprehend, such as the infamous meaningless “assault weapon” classification based as much on which guns look the scariest as on anything else. In order to make meaningful progress on the issue of gun safety, I argued, both sides need to be more literate both on the subject matter and on what the other side of the debate actually wants, not what they think the other side wants. As long as prominent Democratic politicians make it easy to mock them for not knowing the difference between a clip and a magazine and as long as the mainstream right regards anyone who says “I’m a supporter of the Second Amendment, but…” as an apostate, progress will be difficult or impossible to achieve. I think that this helped clarify some things a bit for my classmates, but I am afraid that our high number of gun crimes still speaks for itself. For the record, I am in favor of expanded background checks and measures that primarily focus on scrutinizing people who attempt to purchase firearms in order to increase success rates of weeding out the potentially dangerous rather than attempting to control the types of magazines that are widely available, since the latter type of measure has proven not to be the, ah, magic bullet it was once hoped to be, particularly in regard to mass shootings.
All in all, the class was pretty fascinating, including the misunderstandings, because it was a great opportunity to clear things up and, hopefully, make America seem less strange. Although I had intended to merely listen to my Chinese classmates’ thoughts, I found myself explaining more and more. This ease with which I explained my points of view, however, was not transferable to the courses on foreign policy. Like some Chinese students studying in America have observed, it can seem more prudent to stay quiet in these classes so as not to become alienated from the rest of the students. Whereas America’s domestic politics seemed to be more of a point of curiosity to my classmates, America’s international conduct is no joking matter. In Chinese Foreign Policy and other similar courses, students’ views tended to fall more or less where one might expect on lines of nationality. This is where students’ (and professors’) preoccupation with America’s comparative decline and China’s comparative rise – to use the Chinese terminology – reliably came out in full force. As an American, I have found that my experiences studying diplomacy have tended to emphasize the give-and-take, back-and-forth nature of it, the attempt to sincerely understand one’s counterpart’s position so as to work out a compromise that is as mutually beneficial as possible. This understanding of diplomacy, apparently, differs starkly from how most of my Chinese colleagues view it, which can be best summed up with a statement made by someone in class: “The only way for China and [a certain country with whom China is currently experiencing diplomatic difficulties] to move forward is for [this country] to accept reality and historical fact (emphasis added),” i.e., for the other party to simply give all and take none in the ongoing dialogue. Clearly, such a result would constitute surrender, not compromise, but much of China’s actions in the Southeast and East Asian sphere have appeared to be driven by this mentality. As it was put quite succinctly in The Diplomat recently, “Professor Zod seems to have been teaching Negotiations 101 when Xi Jinping & Co. took the class. Neither empathy nor tact are hallmarks of Chinese foreign relations.” Zod, for those who aren’t up on their comic lore or who have been stuck in the Fortress of Solitude and therefore managed to miss both Superman II and the much more recent Man of Steel, is a formidable Kryptonian general famous for commanding his enemies to “kneel before Zod.” As one might imagine, this approach to foreign policy does not make it easy to ameliorate diplomatic strain between nations. However, rather than voice my opinion on this matter, it has seemed far more painless to simply listen and try to understand my Chinese colleagues’ stances. I would not go so far as to compare this voluntary silence on my part to self-censoring by journalists in Nazi Germany, as the head of Bloomberg did, but neither would I say that I am entirely happy with it. When I do attempt to discuss various aspects of China’s conduct with classmates, rather than being willing to discuss the matter, with few exceptions most students tend to opt for a polite smile followed by “That is an internal Chinese matter.” Rather than cause tension by trying to force a discussion even outside of class, it seems easier to let sleeping dogs lie.
A great deal of the academic discussion here seems to be influenced by economic determinism, which essentially dictates that higher GDP means greater comprehensive power. There are many formulae that students can and do trot out in support of this view; it seems to be taken for granted that if China can keep up its economic growth, it is sure to overtake the US not only as the world’s biggest economy but also as the world’s preeminent superpower. Students seem to focus not so much on whether or not China will overtake the US as they do on what China can and should do once it does. Some academics, like Yan Xuetong, the dean of the Contemporary International Relations Department here at Tsinghua (and also my academic advisor), take a more nuanced stance and argue that mere economic strength is not enough of a basis for hegemony. To be more precise, power derived from economic strength results in hegemony only, and not in more desirable types of superpower status such as “humane authority,” or junwang dao, the only type of superpower that is able to maintain its status through global assent rather than by force. According to Yan’s moral realism, which draws heavily from the pre-Qin dynasty masters of political thought, a hegemonic country’s status will wax and wane as its hard power does, whereas a humane authoritarian power’s status will be tied more to its moral strength than its hard power (although hard power is, of course, not unimportant). This political model is roughly reminiscent of the traditional Chinese cultural model that views China as the “middle kingdom” to which surrounding civilizations are drawn and whose global dominance is passively approved by what are in effect satellite civilizations. Such reforms that would allow this kind of moral realist force to take hold in China have yet to be adopted by the government, but if and when they are, I suspect that understanding between the US and China will be far easier to advance. As one student was asked by the professor during his presentation on US-China relations on the last day of the American Politics course, “Who are America’s friends?” The answer, of course, is those countries that actively uphold global norms. If China wants to be America’s friend, it will have to do that, as well.
Alexander Bowe has an MA in International Studies from the Korbel School and is currently a doctoral candidate in Political Science at Tsinghua University.