Much has made of Trump’s shake-up of foreign policy norms even before he’s officially taken office, whether it’s connecting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, having his daughter sit in on meetings with both Japanese PM Abe and Turkish President Edrogran, or launching misspelled Twitter rants in China’s direction.  I’ll be the first to admit that after Trump’s call with Tsai, I was somewhat elated that someone had recognized how impressive Taiwan’s efforts had been to create an open and democratic society in a little over 20 years.  For someone who has been an amateur Sinologist his entire life, I was also startled that I liked that the two had spoken.  I was startled because I, like many in the foreign policy establishment, had taken the official “One China” policy as a given for maintaining regional stability and had never contemplated challenging it in any sort of way for fear of what the consequences may be. Yet, with his phone call, Trump called China’s bluff and the world did not end.  However, I cannot give him credit for being any sort of visionary possessing a coherent world view or adherent to any discernible tenets of foreign policy.  I think it was purely accidental that this phone call started a dialogue about what the “One China” policy means and to what ends both sides will go to maintain a fiction that has served everyone well for nearly 30 years.  One only has to look at Trump’s subsequent actions to see that this seeming stroke of brilliance was not pre-meditated on his part (his staffers may be a different story) and does not reflect a President-elect with a strategy or plan for advancing U.S. interests abroad.  His follow-up tweets and interview on Fox News that he could use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to extract concessions on trade from China demonstrate that he understands nothing about U.S. – China relations and Taiwan’s place in the middle of that power dynamic, but merely took a phone call from someone congratulating him on and inflating his ego for winning the election.

Where does that leave U.S. – China relations when Trump assumes office next month?  If we try to extrapolate the type of foreign policy he and his team are going to conduct once in office, it might be instructive to examine his reaction to China’s seizure of an underwater drone off the coast of the Philippines.  Upon hearing about the incident, he blasted out a tweet calling the act “unpresidented” and once it had been settled that China would return the drone, he then tweeted to “[l]et them keep it!”  While there is seemingly not much to go on here, the worrisome takeaway from all of Trump’s commentary on U.S. – China relations, commentary being a generous word to use to describe his tweeting, is that the man does not have a clue as to what he’s doing and the people surrounding him are encouraging this no-nothing behavior.  At worst, Trump and his team believe unpredictably poking China like a third-grader to provoke a reaction is the best approach to calibrating U.S. – China relations and advancing his “America First” agenda.  This approach completely ignores the nuances of U.S. – China relations and the search for common ground on issues like climate change and North Korea that the Obama administration worked so hard to achieve.  While U.S. – China relations are anything but easy or predictable, it is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the global order and will only continue to become more so as China continues to rise and the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific.

I have argued here before and perhaps now believe it even more, but the U.S. needs a new grand strategy when it comes to the Asia-Pacific region.  Recent history shows us to be reactionary throughout the region, whether it’s stationing more U.S. troops in Darwin or carrying out more multilateral military exercises to respond to a rising China or slapping even more punishing sanctions on North Korea after their latest missile test.  Rather than reacting, we need to be proactive to create a regional architecture that promotes peace and prosperity in the region for everyone, including China.  Even the TPP, which would have gone a long way towards laying one part of the foundation for such an architecture, was flawed in that it kept China outside.  The U.S. decision to remain outside of the AIIB was another such decision that was more a reaction to China having created the institution rather than actually thinking about what the U.S. could do to shape it as a founding member.  Unfortunately, we now have a President and his attendant team taking power that barely knows the meaning of the word strategy when it comes to foreign affairs, let alone something that requires more forethought and nuance like a grand strategy for the Asia-Pacific region.


I never thought that I would be writing about 9/11 nearly 11 years after it happened and while sitting in Linyi, but here I go.  It all started yesterday when Ms. Jiang, the woman from Linyi University who is responsible for the international programs, picked us up for a farewell dinner.  She took us on a scenic tour of the city along the river and then down some side streets that I had not been down, including one that went past one of the best schools in Linyi.  Like most Chinese cities, there were quite a few plots of land cleared of old buildings and waiting for new ones to take their place.  As we were driving down the street, one of the plots still had debris from the previous building that had been demolished, including a large portion of the front of what looked like a two or three story market.  From the back seat of the car, John (one of the other professors from UNH), remarked to me that I probably had not seen anything like that (meaning the demolished building) since September 11th.  As soon as I heard his comment, I had a visceral reaction.  I tensed up, turned around, and told him that I thought his comment was highly inappropriate and not something that I expected to hear out of his mouth.  What was most remarkable was that he did not apologize or even act as if he realized that his comment had affected me deeply.  He just continued prattling on about how there were so few new buildings in New York and even went so far as to ask me where I was for 9/11.

Yesterday’s incident instantly took me back to that time.  I was living in Hong Kong at the time, working as an investment banker at Salomon/Citigroup, and it was evening in HK when the events transpired back in New York on what was a most perfect late summer day.  Being 7000 miles from home when something unprecedented of that magnitude happens is indescribable, so I am not even going to try.  What I can do is tell you what happened in my office in Hong Kong because of course we were working past 8pm on a Tuesday night as investment bankers.  As word of the attacks spread, most of us were either on the phone trying to connect with loved ones back in the States or watching the events live on big projection screens in one of our conference rooms.  The Hong Kong office of Salomon had quite a few Chinese nationals working there and they were also watching the events unfold back in New York.  When the first tower fell, many of these Chinese bankers began clapping and cheering as if their national soccer team had won the World Cup, like what was happening was some spectator sport.  One of my American colleagues was so angry at the combination of the towers collapsing and the apparent glee of the Chinese bankers that he punched a wall.  I also remember feeling angry and intensely American at that moment, scared of what this moment meant for the future of my country and wholly cut off from my Chinese colleagues.

John’s comment yesterday immediately brought me back to that moment when my Chinese colleagues were clapping and cheering as the first tower fell and I felt alone.  In all my time back in China since that moment, even when U.S. – China relations were at low points, when I would be asked where I was from and I replied “America” or 美国 (Meiguo, meaning beautiful country), the reaction was always largely positive.  I am not one for the sacred or taboo, but to joke about an event like 9/11 feels like crossing some invisible line.  Perhaps I am overreacting, but I just think back to that day many years ago when there was a feeling of glee from my Chinese colleagues that America had received her comeuppance and I wonder if that feeling still persists among Chinese people.  Having lived abroad relatively long periods, I have learned that many people are able to separate their love of Americans and all things American from their distaste for the country’s leaders and policies, something especially apparent during the Bush years.  But how sincere is this separation and what is to prevent distaste for one from seeping into the other.  Whenever I travel and live abroad, I try to be the best ambassador for the States that I can be, taking a balanced view to America’s policies and avoiding any of the typical “Ugly American” behavior.  Yet sometimes I cannot avoid this feeling of intense patriotism and the need to defend my country from unwarranted attacks, which is not something that easily jives with my liberal and largely unpatriotic tendencies.  The fact that John, someone who made the choice to leave China to raise his family in the States with a job in American academia, a comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut, and a son at a top American college would choose to make such an insensitive comment just baffles me.

The comment also raises the larger issue that I touched on before about whether the professed love of America by the average Chinese person is genuine.  It also raises the question about soft power, which I think is one of America’s greatest tools in its foreign policy arsenal.  American brands and culture are everywhere around the world and have pervaded even the most remote corners of the planet.  We all have a story about being in the middle of nowhere and then stumbling upon something that reminds them at home, whether it’s a song, movie, or product.  Secretary of State Clinton has made repeated comments about the strength of American soft power and its importance in the overarching umbrella of American foreign policy, but those more hawkish on American foreign policy tend to pooh-pooh this part of our diplomatic efforts.  Living and visiting China, I think it’s folly to downplay the importance of soft power.  If it was not important, China would not be trying to do the same thing and harness its soft power to extend its influence around the world.  It’s why Xinhua, the Chinese government’s news agency, opened its North American headquarters in New York’s Times Square in 2011 and announced plans to launch a 24-hour global English-language news channel.  When our main rival is seeking to project its own soft power around the world, I think it’s a clear sign that this part of foreign policy should not be ignored.

All of the various exchanges that American institutions and companies have established with Chinese counterparts are part of extending the reach of soft power and provide tangible and meaningful interactions for many Chinese people who only know about Americans from what they see in movies and TV shows.  Will more soft power eliminate reactions like those from my Chinese colleagues all those years ago when the Twin Towers collapsed?  Perhaps not completely, but such power will go a long to building links between people and tapping into that universal human feeling of sympathy and understanding.  As for John’s comment, he’s a nice guy and has been very welcoming, so I am not taking it personally, but I must admit that I did look at him a little differently when we met to go to class this morning.  I think my change in how I view him is merely because I am just incredulous that someone could make a comment like that, especially to an American who he knows has strong ties to New York.

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre that took place on June 4, 1989 and you would have no clue that such an event ever took place from spending a day here on campus in GZ.  There are no commemorative events that I have heard of, the closest one being the annual march in Victoria Park in Hong Kong.  Even my students, who are normally quite cheeky with me, did not make any mention of the day.  Usually they like to goad me with comments about Taiwan and Tibet, but they were silent in all three of my classes today.  I doubt they even know much about the event given that most of them were only one or two years old at the time it happened, but I would have expected one of them to come across something on the Internet and perhaps ask me about it to see my thoughts on the subject.

The Enormity of Tiananmen Square, April 2009

The Enormity of Tiananmen Square, April 2009

There are less than two weeks left in the semester and about three weeks before I permanently return to the States.  It’s really hard to believe that my one-year fellowship and relationship with this fascinating country is quickly drawing to a close.  I’ll still be keeping my eyes and ears open while I am here, but it also means that my posts will be tinged with some of that inevitable sentimentality that comes with the end of an amazing experience.

It seems that with the 20th anniversary of Tiananmen looming, all sorts of news outlets took it upon themselves to amp up the China coverage.  Two of the more interesting pieces are the Economist’s Banyan column from this week’s issue, “The party goes on” and Nicholas D. Kristof’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times “Bullets Over Beijing”.

In the Economist, the main argument being made is that the Party is stronger today than it has ever been and that hopes for political reform are almost nonexistent since there is no force willing or able to take on the Party’s stranglehold on power.  Kristof’s op-ed makes a similar point and reiterates the familiar line that as long as Party delivers economic growth and all its attendant consumerism, it will remain in power.  However, he makes an interesting comparison between China today and Taiwan and South Korea in the 1980s with their sizable educated middle classes at that time, which were precursors for the democratic changes that swept across those countries.  It’s unclear if he believes that China is truly on the same path as those two nations.  Without going into the specifics of why those two countries are very different than China, suffice it to say that the Chinese government has been far more effective at sedating its citizens and giving them amazing economic growth than those two aforementioned countries.

After spending a year teaching at a university filled with thousands of bright students, I have been amazed at how much their spirits and curiosity have been dampened by an education system that leaves them uninterested in all things political, able to spout received wisdom at the drop of a hat on all sorts of issues of national importance, and scared to challenge or question things as they are.  The exceptions I have blogged about are just that – exceptions.  There is no critical mass of students with such ideas and the students with those ideas would never dare share them with other students for fear of either being ostracized, or worse being turned in for having thoughts against the Party.  

On the anniversary of this sad and tragic event, I tend to err on the side of the Economist and look on as the Chinese government consolidates its hold on power without acknowledging its own past mistakes or tragedies.

This past week, I miraculously became a mini-expert in both anti-monopoly law and Jewish culture in America.

One of my graduate students, Maggie, asked two weeks ago if I would speak at the university’s business English salon  this past Thursday evening about a topic of my choosing.  The salon is open to the public and a lot of the attendees actually live and work in GZ.  

I figured that I would use my legal background and interest in antitrust law to give a talk about the recent attempted acquisition by Coca-Cola of Huiyuan (汇源), a successful Chinese juice company.  The government rejected Coke’s bid under the country’s new anti-monopoly law and it was the first cross-border merger to be rejected under this law, which has only been in effect since August 2008.  Since the Chinese government only provided a vague explanation for the rejection, many are speculating that the decision was politically motivated because Huiyuan is a profitable private company and the government did not want it to fall into foreign hands.  Since that decision last month, Australia has made taken some negative actions against Chinese companies looking to acquire Australian companies.  The first point of my speech was the importance of implementing laws in a fair and transparent manner, whether it’s in China, the US, EU, or any other country.   The second point was that the world should be working to fight the impulse to let political or nationalistic concerns rule over sound economic policies.  I was careful not to blame any one country because most of the world is to blame in this era of rising protectionism.  

The speech was well attended with at least 50 or so people in the audience, even though my Powerpoint presentation did not work.   Initially the questions were relevant to my topic.  However, as soon as someone asked me my opinion about the Chinese currency and how China is buying all of the US government’s debt, the Q&A session turned into one of “ask Peter his opinion about anything and everything pertaining to America”.  Thus, I began fielding questions about whether it was a good time to buy stocks, the NBA, why only rich people could go to Ivy League schools, what city one guy should live in when he moves his family t to America, real estate prices, troop withdrawals from Iraq, whether Obama was printing too much money, and whether I was scared about China’s rise.  All of the questions were prefaced with, “In your opinion . . . ” and then the topic of their choosing.  I was done speaking and answering formal questions around 9pm, but ended up staying until nearly 10:30pm answering all of these random questions and becoming the mouthpiece of America.  By the end I was so tired and the questions so far removed from what I came to talk about that I just did not have an opinion about whether there was anything wrong with partially lifting the embargo on Cuba. 

However, I could not turn the tables and ask in their opinion how they felt about Tibet, Taiwan, Mao, the Cultural Revolution, Tiananmen or any other number of topics off limits when talking informally with most Chinese people.  Even if I did ask about these things, I would receive some received wisdom echoing the party line and it would be almost impossible to find any difference in opinion.  Whereas when I answered these questions, I made sure to make it clear that these were my opinions and did not represent those of all Americans.

Then Friday morning my friend Michael invited me into his culture class that he is taking as part of his master’s program to talk about Jewish culture, which was interesting because I am not at all religious, but consider myself very culturally Jewish.  So I was brought into the class to debunk some myths about Jews in America including the ones that they are all rich and all clever.  It was another interesting talk, but ended more quickly than the other one because it was limited to a class period.  Of course I gave the students the requisite lesson on grammar.  You cannot say he is a “Jewish”, but rather that he is a “Jewish person”.

I am still recovering from the week of mini-lectures and think I may need a Golden Girls mini-marathon to regain my composure.

My first week of classes is underway and it’s been a week of meeting my new students (some of whom are students who were in my Constitution class last term) and introducing the new classes.  This semester Celia and I are teaching a current events seminar with an emphasis on persuasive rhetoric and a slightly reconfigured U.S. Government class exploring the U.S. Constitution, the structure of the U.S. government, and some hot-button Constitutional issues falling under the First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  The fear of oversight from the Party has crept into our lesson planning with moments of asking whether something may be too subversive while lesson planning.  As soon as we noticed this happening last week, we took a step back and shook our heads in amazement that our thoughts were being swayed by the Party and what they would want us to teach.  However, we have definitely decided to be more careful about how we couch certain concepts in case any of our students are spies for the Party.

All of my students are junior business students and the second semester of their junior year is when they are supposed to be looking for summer internships with companies that may or may not lead to full-time jobs upon graduating.   I’ve asked my students about their early job hunting and I am almost universally greeted with sighs and exclamations about how tough the job market is right now.  They are then quick to follow up with the comment that if it’s bad in China, it must be worse in America.  When my students answer, I can see the stress and tension underneath the surface about entering one of the toughest job markets in recent history.   A recent article from the New York Times underscores how much China’s economy has slowed down and how scared the government is of possible unrest as the consequence of being unable to deliver jobs to large segments of the population.  Many articles of this nature tend to focus on Guangzhou, where I live and the surrounding cities because this part of China was the original engine of the country’s impressive growth and has been the first to slow down since so many factories and companies are export-oriented. 

Like I tell my students I completely understand the challenge when they struggle with English because I similarly struggle to learn Chinese, I can also understand the stress and tension accompanying their job search.  When I took this fellowship last July, I figured it was a good time to take a risk and continue to explore my passion for modern China while teaching at a university, but there was no way I could have anticipated the complete fall-out that has ensnared the global economy.  Now as I begin to come back up from the plunge into the great unknown and begin searching for jobs to continue developing my career as an attorney, I have another point of commonality where I can empathize with my students – how to navigate this treacherous and sometimes scary economic downturn.

I was fortunate to catch some of Sen. Hilary Clinton’s confirmation hearing live this past Tuesday and it made me really happy to see her back in the limelight and displaying her impressive knowledge of world affairs.  After the long and drawn-out primary battle between her and President-elect Obama, it was really nice to hear her on the same page as her former rival and her poise and confidence displayed during the hearings gave me hope that she can truly begin to rebuild our image around the world.

While I recognize the number of trouble spots around the world seems to grow daily, especially with the latest Middle East conflict thrown into the mix, I was disappointed not to hear more from Sen. Clinton or the members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the future of U.S. – China relations.  I could chalk my disappointment up to a bias from spending the past five months in a classroom with Chinese students whose overriding concern about the incoming Obama administration was how he and his team would handle U.S. – China relations.  However, my disappointment with the lack of vision for U.S. – China relations goes back to the days when I was an undergraduate at Yale, where I had the good fortune to study modern Chinese history with Jonathan Spence and China’s market economy with Nicholas Lardy.  In much of the scholarly reading I’ve done related to China over the last decade, I was always struck by how short-sighted and black and white much of the literature has been.  Our own government’s policies towards China seem to mirror this reactionary and binary approach to U.S. – China relations.  To be over-simplistic, policy responses usually fall along the lines of military/human rights issues are bad and anything that allows American companies to profit from China’s rapid growth are good.  Thus, much of the talk about U.S. – China relations still revolves around Tibet, devaluing the yuan, trade disputes, and human rights violations. One possible exception to this approach were the Six Party talks concerning North Korea’s nuclear capabilities where the U.S. and China engaged as equals and were working towards a common, longer-term goal.  I am not saying that the aforementioned issues are not important.  They are, but the approach to dealing with them is often couched in a U.S. reaction to some policy decision rather than the crafting of a grand strategy framework laying out the approach to U.S. – China relations going forward.

In her statement at the confirmation hearing, Sen. Clinton mentioned China five times, two of those five times China was mentioned in the context of either Russia or other large emerging economies like India, Brazil, South Africa, and Indonesia.  Here is her most substantive comment regarding China is as follows:

We want a positive and cooperative relationship with China, one where we deepen and strengthen our ties on a number of issues, and candidly address differences where they persist.  But this a not one-way effort – much of what we will do depends on the choices China makes about its future at home and abroad. With both Russia and China, we should work together on vital security and economic issues like terrorism, proliferation, climate change, and reforming financial markets.

I agree wholeheartedly with Sen. Clinton’s words of cooperation and goodwill, but what was missing from that statement was a commitment to developing a long-term framework for U.S. – China relations.  I just hope that soon-to-be Secretary Clinton and her team, including Kurt Campbell as assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs begin to map out a proactive approach as opposed to a reactive approach to U.S. – China relations in the coming years.  While China is still considered a developing country, it is really becoming too big to ignore and the best approach going forward is going to be to figure out how to build a true partnership between the two countries.  

Best to of luck to Hillary and her team at State.