Interesting analogy: China as our Antebellum South

On several occasions I’ve quoted other authors when they’ve penned great one-liners to describe the situation in China: a crime wave with a flag; a billion souls in a sex imbalanced society; a crime syndicate in a stage of “bumptious nationalism” (like Britain circa 1800 or the US circa 1900) with a “naïve, passionate, and uncritical” patriotism; the US plus 1 billion peasants.

When I do I also typically add that you can never have too many robot space planes.

The most recent installment:   inspired by this piece in The New York Times about Chinese president Hu Jintao’s concern over “the West’s assault on (his) country’s culture and ideology,” Walter Russell Mead offers the following analogy:

It’s a window into the psychology of China’s leadership at a critical time.  The sense of threat, encirclement and danger is real — along with the sense that America is trying to divide, crush and destroy China.

He is not, of course, totally wrong.  Americans generally do believe that a house divided cannot stand, and that the world cannot long endure half slave and half free.  Communism and dictatorship will, we tend to believe, someday fall in China just as they have done in so many other places.

More, our strategy for dealing with communism in China is more or less the same as our strategy for dealing with it in the Soviet Union.  It’s what Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to do to slavery in 1860: keep it from expanding, and wait while the forces of history destroy it from within.

Lincoln then and Americans today don’t think of this as an aggressive strategy. Changing the political structure of China is not on anybody’s to-do list in Washington today.  The CIA isn’t hatching plots to overthrow the Chinese leadership.  Lincoln swore up and down that he wouldn’t abolish slavery where it stood, and would have accepted a constitutional amendment making that position clear.

But Jefferson Davis and his fellow southerners weren’t fooled.  They knew that Lincoln’s program to contain slavery was a plan to destroy slavery and, worse, they were sure it would work.  Cotton exhausted the soil; sooner or later, if slavery couldn’t expand into new territory, plantations wouldn’t pay and when that happened the whole system would fail. Moreover, the North was growing faster than the South; increasingly the South would be outvoted and turned defensively in on itself.

Hu and some of his fellows seem to be thinking like Jefferson Davis.  They believe that America’s project (it isn’t as definite as a plan) to undermine communism in China will work in due course.  They fear the historical forces Francis Fukuyama identified in The End of History, and they fear that those forces march to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.

Further, they connect (psychologically if not explicitly) America’s geopolitical strategy of balancing power in Asia with the containment policy we practiced against the Soviets.  They see us in India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and many other places in the region and they see the same kind of geopolitical and geoeconomic web-weaving that hemmed in and ultimately brought down the Soviets.

Americans, contemplating our policies in Asia and our ideological approach to Chinese communism, see us as promoting a stable status quo that ought to appeal to the Chinese.  President Hu and many Chinese leaders see things very differently: the status quo is a dagger aimed at China’s heart. Our very moderation is a sophisticated form of aggression.

This perception gap is something both sides will have to live with, and the ensuing climate of suspicion and hostility is something we will both have to manage. Jefferson Davis, Kaiser Bill and Adolf all decided to fight what they saw as encirclement and containment by hostile powers.  It didn’t work out well for them, but a lot of others were badly hurt in the process as well.

US-China relations are a complicated mix of hostility and mutual dependence. Understanding that mix and managing the relationship in a sustainable way must be a top priority for leaders in both countries.

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