One View: Behind China-U.S. Tensions Are Misunderstandings, Author Says

This article is from a special report on the Athens Democracy Forum in association with The New York Times.

Keyu Jin was a 14-year-old schoolgirl in Beijing when she transferred as an exchange student to New York. She moved in with an American host family, and attended Horace Mann, a private high school in the Bronx.

She was accepted to Harvard University, where she picked up economics degrees, including a Ph.D., and is now an associate professor at the London School of Economics.

Steeped in the two cultures — she divides her time between London and Beijing — Ms. Jin, 40, now brings her dual perspective to lectures, talks and in writing. A book, “The New China Playbook,” was published in May.

“Today the backward homeland of my childhood has become the world’s second-largest economy,” she writes in the introduction. “Yet so much of the world is still asking the same questions and still comparing China to former Communist countries with their autocratic and repressive regimes.”

Ms. Jin — whose father, a former Chinese vice finance minister, now heads the Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank — is a speaker at the Athens Democracy Forum this week. In a recent phone conversation, she discussed her views on the state of play between China and the United States.

While her answers might sound lenient to some toward China’s government, she said she was offering a different perspective.

“In interviews, I like to talk about what has not been said,” she said. “I like to balance out the conversation a little bit, rather than join the chorus — show that there’s also another side.”

The conversation has been edited and condensed.

You write in your book that China is basically misunderstood by the West. How so?

China is a very large and complex nation that is constantly evolving. What is very much misunderstood is that China has created a unique model of political centralization, coupled with a strong form of economic decentralization.

For a long time, the West has depicted China as the state versus the private sector — a suppression of the private. In fact, the Chinese government needs every bit of the private sector to be thriving. Why? Privately owned companies drive economic growth, they provide the lion’s share of employment, and they are the ones that will carry out the key strategic objective of achieving technological prowess, which is the leadership’s main goal.

Why are U.S.-China relations so fraught at the moment?

Rising competition and, at the same time, a clash of civilizations: two countries with different value systems and potentially different world views. The tension has been greatly exacerbated by a lack of effective dialogue and communication. The two countries tend to talk past each other, or talk at each other, not with each other. Better communication and more narrowly defined competitive policies would lead to a much better outcome. Competitive collaboration would be best.

How has President Joseph R. Biden contributed to the tension?

Biden came out with export controls on semiconductors, so U.S. companies can’t export certain kinds of chips to China. There’s plenty of evidence suggesting that this could possibly backfire. First of all, this is pushing China to mobilize national resources for the benefit of the big Chinese tech companies. Alibaba, Tencent and Huawei are all coming together to overcome the technological challenges that the U.S. has placed on China. They were unlikely partners before — China is hugely competitive. So you get a whole nation coming together to back a strategic objective. I’m not sure that was the U.S.’s intended goal.

What about the geopolitical tensions around Taiwan and China’s bellicose stance?

The provocations go both ways. It’s incorrect to say that China is being bellicose on its own. There’s plenty of evidence that much of it is also a response to U.S. provocations in the area. I think they need to take the temperature down and to continue the dialogue.

I wouldn’t underestimate how much peace matters to the Chinese people. They have gone through turbulent times, and it’s fresh in the memory of the older generation. The new generation is a one-child-only generation. Imagine the parents of only sons. Whether they are willing to support military action is also in question.

Western societies are predicated on liberal democracy and the rule of law. In the U.S., we’re seeing former President Donald Trump appear multiple times in court to be indicted. This would be unimaginable in China.

Our relationship with authority is something that is not well understood. This is not just between the people and the state: It’s also between parents and children, students and teachers. A Chinese person always has to make that balance between individualism and deference to authority, to a certain degree. It’s not black and white, it’s gray.

Dynamism in ideas doesn’t only exist in liberal democracies. Information within China, despite censorship of some politically sensitive issues, is actually very free-flowing. There is a huge and dynamic civil debate on internet platforms.

But dissidents and activists are being imprisoned and mistreated in China, and the Uyghur minority is being persecuted. Don’t you think you’re a little soft on China?

In interviews, I like to talk about what has not been said. I like to balance out the conversation a little bit, rather than join the chorus — show that there’s also another side. China is a complex country. There’s the good, the bad, and the future that we all have to learn about. I want to show a realistic picture. There are lots of problems with China, as with any society.

But other societies around the world don’t have a minority such as the Uyghurs that they’re persecuting.

I think these are all unfortunate circumstances, and I’m not an expert on these issues. But from what I’ve learned, the Xinjiang camps are closed. Visitors can go there to examine them.

I’m not trying to make any excuses for any of these things. I just see, from an economist’s point of view, the welfare of hundreds of millions of people, and the changing circumstances. There are improvements in certain areas and regressions in certain other areas.

Given your background, do you see it as your role to bridge the gap between the two world superpowers?

It’s very difficult at the moment to take up that position in the middle, because you’re attacked from both sides. I personally prefer to rise above the emotions and look at the facts, the truths, the data, and hopefully contribute where I think there are blind spots or gaps in understanding. Being too submerged in emotional attitudes, which is true of both countries, is not going to help make this world a better place.

How far is the conflict between China and the U.S. going to go?

I think it’s a tussle but not a break. It’s more a war of words, and a slow structural decline in economic engagement, whether in terms of trade or mutual investment.

I don’t know if this is going to be permanent, because China is the second-largest economy in the world. And if China outpaces the U.S. in growth rates by 1.5 percentage points a year, which is not a lot, it will become the largest economy in the world in a little over 10 years. American businesses will have to ask themselves whether they want to forsake the largest market in the world. And Chinese enterprises will have to ask themselves the same question.

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