China's pique: Cultural misperceptions feed hostility with U.S.

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist
China's President Xi Jinping leads an underclass of 300 million to 400 million people creating the demand for economic growth that may not be sustainable. File Photo by Kremlin Pool
China's President Xi Jinping leads an underclass of 300 million to 400 million people creating the demand for economic growth that may not be sustainable. File Photo by Kremlin Pool | License Photo

The cover of last week's Economist read "China Peak."

The underlying argument was that China had achieved the apogee of its power and influence and internal constraints would inevitably reverse this trajectory. These constraints are well known.


Among them are a looming demographic catastrophe as older Chinese people will greatly swamp the younger generation's capacity to pay for them. Men will greatly outnumber women due to the "one child" policy. A centralized economy that led to the implosion of the USSR could do the same for China. Add to that the effects of a real estate bubble and growing debt.

Meanwhile, an underclass of 300 million to 400 million Chinese people creates the demand for economic growth that may not be sustainable.

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Yet, to a supermajority in Congress, in both houses and parties, China poses an existential danger to the United States and to the West. Its "no limits" partnership with Russia and aggressive foreign policies are perceived as a direct challenge to the Western rules-based international order. Its growing military power and navy that is technically larger in ship count than the U.S. Navy are daggers pointed at Taiwan threatening an invasion, perhaps as early as 2027.


On the current course, a clash between the United States and China seems inevitable unless profound changes are made. U.S. President Joe Biden seems to appreciate this. The latest talks between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and his opposite number, Wang Yi, suggest a warming of relations might be in its infancy.

That said, another obstacle looms if the U.S.-China interactions are to take a more positive direction. The Economist's headline might be more relevant if it read "China's Pique," in which pique means resentment. Historically, the United States has not done well in understanding other cultures. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are bloody reminders. In China's case, this flaw has provoked resentment.

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One anecdote makes this point. A number of years ago, the head Chinese spy at the Washington embassy was completing his long assignment and returning to China. He was among the elite. His wife was very senior in the Ministry of Justice.

We had established a good friendship. Before his departure, I took him to lunch and asked this question: "You are leaving a life of leisure in the United States, in which you had a car, driver and a large home in McLean, Va. Many of these comforts are not available in China. Will you miss them?"


His answer was immediate. And few, if any, Americans would have understood it. He said: "I am looking forward to returning to a truly civilized society!" A truly civilized society was not the American perception of China. Yet it was to him.

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He could be wrong. But I doubt it. The point is that the inability of America to understand China and China America must be overcome if the relationship is to become less hostile.

For example, the Biden administration uses what it believes is a straightforward statement on guarding its technology. It will be protected as a "small yard with a high fence." Seemingly innocuous, China regards this as the intent to contain China and prevent it from advancing its economy. The perceptions could not be more diametrically opposed.

Similarly, in some cases, U.S. translations of Chinese statements distort the meaning. The Center for Strategic and International Studies has made this case. And changing places, suppose Chinese military strategy mirrored America's in that the role of the Chinese military was to contain, deter and, if war comes, defeat the United States? What would be the reaction of the United States?

To deal with these differences in culture, language, ideology, politics and strategy, I have argued for a very secret series of meetings between key U.S. and Chinese interlocutors. The purpose, much like Henry Kissinger's mission 50 years ago, is to reach some sort of modus operandi between the two powers to correct misunderstandings and find agreement on matters of mutual interest and the means to deal with areas of competition and disagreement.


The challenges, of course, are to find the right interlocutors and to keep any and all meetings private. Perhaps the Biden administration has such a plan underway. If not, a good starting point is to state explicitly the actual threats and dangers China and the United States hold for the other and determine that each is well understood if indeed it is real and not a misunderstanding.

One enemy is Groupthink, perhaps one of the gravest threats the nation faces, as we should have learned from the past 70 years. But will we?

Harlan Ullman is senior adviser at Washington's Atlantic Council, the prime author of "shock and awe" and author of "The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: How Massive Attacks of Disruption Became the Looming Existential Danger to a Divided Nation and the World at Large." Follow him @harlankullman. The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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