The “Rabbit Chairman” is the author of a popular Chinese blog with 1.5 million readers. He is one of several influential Chinese bloggers I knew when they were students. In one of his recent posts, the Chairman quoted Sun Tzu, the famous war strategist — “If you know yourself and know your enemy, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles” — to explain how Americans are losing their conflict against China because we don’t “know the enemy.”
The Rabbit Chairman argues that the United States lost the war in Vietnam because many Americans mistakenly thought the North Vietnamese were old-fashioned communists. In fact, after they took power and were responsible for governing the country, they became nationalists.
U.S. officials are now attacking the Chinese Communist Party — and reportedly weighing a sweeping travel ban against members — without realizing its complexity and diversity. It is no longer the party that exemplifies the communist goals of Stalin or Mao. After Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, the party was transformed into an organization to represent the nation. The Party includes people who have been pro-American, including business people, scientists and intellectuals. But when Americans attack the Communist Party as a whole, members — particularly those who would like to see more democratic procedures — rally to support the Party and, by extension, the nation.
In the half century since I became a professor of East Asian studies at Harvard, I have had the pleasure of teaching many Chinese students, some of whom stayed in the United States and others who returned to China. I have also come to know many Chinese students and faculty who studied at Harvard but were not my students. I have visited China at least once a year over the past four decades and have often met those students and scholars who returned home to China.
Many were excellent students in the United States. They were open to new ideas and enjoyed the intellectual freedom. In the past several years, as U.S.-China relations have become more polarized, returnees have faced new constraints on their freedom in China. Many find creative ways to stretch their freedom while staying out of trouble. They want to be loyal to China while remaining friends of the United States. But when they read of Americans attacking China with accusations that are not true — such as saying that the coronavirus was purposely engineered in a Wuhan laboratory — this strengthens their patriotism and willingness to support the Chinese government against Washington.
Many returnees have advanced important policies, such as establishing rules that required payments to American firms for intellectual property or standards applied by institutions such as the United Nations. Former premier Zhu Rongji fought to gain membership in the World Trade Organization so that China would be forced to make internal changes that meshed with those of international organizations. China chose as the head of its new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) someone who had served in both the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and who wanted to make the AIIB one that followed world standards. The lawyer he hired to write the rules for the AIIB was an American woman, a graduate of Harvard and Harvard Law School. However, not only did American government officials refuse to join the AIIB, but they also urged our allies to do the same. Many Chinese concluded that the United States was not concerned with principles but only with retaining international power.
Our Americans sent to China by the Fulbright program have done a marvelous job of establishing academic relationships and making important connections. Now the United States has said that it would be suspended. Americans who took part in the program and Chinese friends who responded positively now feel abandoned by the country that once sought their friendship.
How would we feel if we were in the position of those tens of thousands of Chinese who had returned home and worked hard to prepare China for better adherence to international rules and who then read that prominent Americans claim that engagement had failed? I can tell you that many who had fought to respond to American requests and felt proud of their successes in adopting international standards — often against domestic resistance — feel as if their valiant efforts and successes are seen by prominent Americans as worthless. Many are members of the Communist Party. Americans ignorant of their sacrifices for international rules are pushing them toward anti-American nationalism.
In recent years, U.S. policy and political rhetoric toward China have been dominated by officials with limited knowledge of developments in that country. It is not in the United States’ interest to turn the Chinese into enemies. If we want to encourage them to work with us for our common interests, we need some fundamental rethinking of our policies. This in turn requires that high officials be willing to support our friends in China and learn more about its internal dynamics.