Bridging China and America’s polar opposite perspectives eludes the world’s greatest minds. But they miss a key principle.
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“All patriots were brothers once.” Those are the words Zhou Enlai, China’s premier under Mao Zedong, proclaimed at an official dinner hosting U.S. President Richard Nixon.
Well, not exactly. Those are the words a singer acting as the Chinese premier said in an opera about the American leader’s 1972 ground-breaking visit to China.
“Let us drink to the time, when they shall be brothers again!” Zhou continues before a toast in the scene from composer John Adams’ Nixon in China.
The libretto from this work was a dramatized version of an already dramatic meeting between Communist China and the United States, who had endured 23 years of frozen relations. But even though the lyrics do not exactly recount the event, it summarized a situation that seemed just as odd to Americans as an opera in an era of punk rock and hip hop.
A communist leader characterizing Chinese and American people as fellow patriots and brothers on a quest to reunite would seem bewildering at best.
Despite this irony, the world’s leading democratic nation in 1972 officially established diplomatic ties with China, a bastion of communism. The relationship did foster stronger relations over the ensuing decades. Yet, nearly a half a century later, the awkwardness and outright tension between China and the U.S. continues.
As a Canadian having lived and done business in China for many years before moving back to Canada, and having personally known and worked with scores of Americans, I have seen firsthand the dichotomy between the two nations. My unique experience has helped me understand why tension remains between China and the U.S.
The COVID-19 pandemic put the friction between the two powers on full display. Both countries have continually traded blame for the origins of the virus.
At the G7 Summit in the UK, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, to urge him to release more details about whether COVID-19 leaked from a Wuhan laboratory.
Mr. Yang told Mr. Blinken the laboratory theory was absurd, according to the state-run China Global Television Network, and that “genuine multilateralism is not pseudo-multilateralism based on the interests of small circles.”
Even before COVID-19 struck, the West has consistently pointed the finger toward China for its human rights abuses in the form of forced labor, repression of religious minorities, such as the Uyghur, incarceration without trial, political indoctrination and forced cultural assimilation in “transformation-through-education” centers.
China’s government rejected U.S. accusations of forced labor in Xinjiang and accused Washington of hurting global trade.
U.S. companies are pressured to avoid clothing, produce and other goods from Xinjiang, where the ruling Communist Party is accused of holding more than 1 million members of mostly Muslim ethnic groups in detention camps. Washington has blocked some imports, while Beijing has whipped up Chinese consumer anger at foreign brands that express concern about forced labor.
“The so-called human rights and forced labor issues in Xinjiang are completely inconsistent with the facts,” said China’s Ministry of Commerce spokesman Gao Feng.
“The U.S. approach has seriously undermined the security and stability of the global industrial chain and supply chain,” he said. “China firmly opposes it.”
Beyond the rhetorical war between governments, these sentiments are shared among both nation’s citizens. Chinese retailers routinely sell T-shirts, stickers, hats, umbrellas and other merchandise containing slogans of rebuke: “America is not qualified to talk down to China!” and “Chinese people will not put up with this!”
According to a 2021 survey by the Pew Research Center on feelings of Americans towards various Asian countries, though most have improved or remained neutral, China and its ally North Korea have received very negative ratings. The sentiment spanned across all age groups, genders, education levels and political affiliations within the U.S.
The two nations have made tremendous progress over the past several decades. The Wilson Center outlined: “Over the last 30 years, Sino-American relations have undergone an impressive transformation from animosity and conflict to candid dialogue and constructive cooperation.”
“But key issues remain unresolved, and the potential for troubling divergence is real as China becomes an economic powerhouse, a military force in Asia, and a potential rival to U.S. hegemony.”
Despite decades of burgeoning economic ties and political outreach, the two nations have never really been able to see eye-to-eye on a range of issues. Are the U.S. and China natural enemies who are temporarily courting, or are they like long-lost brothers who can reunite with mutual understanding of their fundamental differences?
The threat of conflict appears to constantly loom between hemispheres as China’s military build-up and territorial assertions in the Asia region is forcing America’s reaction.
This is most apparent in the South China Sea.
The Biden administration upheld a Trump-era rejection of nearly all of China’s significant maritime claims in the South China Sea. The administration also warned China that any attack on the Philippines in the flashpoint region would draw a U.S. response under a mutual defense treaty.
The stern message from Secretary of State Antony Blinken came in a statement released ahead of the fifth anniversary of an international tribunal’s ruling in favor of the Philippines, and against China’s maritime claims around the Spratly Islands and neighboring reefs and shoals. China rejected the ruling.
Ahead of the fourth anniversary of the ruling last year, the Trump administration came out in favor of the ruling but also said it regarded as illegitimate virtually all Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea—outside China’s internationally recognized waters. The current administration’s statement reaffirms the previous position, which had been laid out by Mr. Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo.
“Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea,” Mr. Blinken said, using language similar to Mr. Pompeo’s. He accused China of continuing “to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway.”
The Asian nation’s effort to exert military dominance has only been successful regionally. Yet Beijing has made international reach economically through its Belt and Road initiative.
This multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure scheme launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping involves development and investment initiatives that would stretch from East Asia to Europe and expand China’s economic and political influence.
In a conversation with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President Biden suggested that allies should have a plan in place to rival China’s Belt and Road initiative.
“This is not just about confronting or taking on China,” a senior official in Biden’s administration said at the G7. “But until now we haven’t offered a positive alternative that reflects our values, our standards and our way of doing business.”
The G7 and its allies hope a plan called the Build Back Better World (B3W) initiative would be “an ambitious new global infrastructure initiative with our G7 partners” and become the alternative to China’s initiative, the official said.
Still, the West is clearly posturing to counter China’s economic rise, which according to the Lowy Institute’s latest Asia Power Index is predicted to surpass the U.S. as the world’s biggest economy by 2028.
Headed Toward War?
If tensions between the world’s biggest militaries ratcheted up to war, it would prove catastrophic beyond imagination. Both nations are nuclear countries and have the world’s largest economies to fund a massive arms race.
In his book Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap? Dr. Graham Allison of Harvard University unveiled a historical pattern where increasing tensions between rising and reigning states led to diplomatic friction and war. Dr. Allison names this pattern “Thucydides’ Trap,” referencing a Greek strategist who identified the growth of Athenian power and the fear of the dominant Spartans as the cause of the Peloponnesian War between 431 and 404 BC.
Dr. Allison identified 16 historical cases in which the rise of a rival state provoked a response from an existing power. In most of those cases, devastating wars followed and led to the quick decline of influence of both sides.
These cases suggest relations between rising and reigning powers almost inevitably fight one another to preserve or secure their superiority.
To avoid this outcome, the author suggests both China and the U.S. need to humble their stances, genuinely endeavor to understand each other’s perspective, and seek compromise. Otherwise, the two powers are poised to face the same fate as others before them—becoming locked in a cataclysmic conflict.
But achieving complete mutual understanding is no small undertaking. What would it take for two nations with practically opposite political ideologies, national objectives, histories and geographies to fully understand each other’s perspective and avert war?
Contrasting World View
In a study submitted to the National Academy of Science, psychologist Richard Nisbett stated: “There is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that Western and East Asian people have contrasting world-views. Americans break things down analytically, focusing on putting objects into categories and working out what rules they should obey.”
By contrast, East Asians have a more holistic philosophy, looking at objects or situations in relation to the whole. “Figuratively, Americans see things in black and white, while East Asians see more shades of grey,” says Dr. Nisbett.
That difference in thinking drives the tension between the two nations.
According to Dr. Nisbett, this distinctive pattern has developed because of the philosophies of these two cultures. “Harmony is a central idea in East Asian philosophy, and so there is more emphasis on how things relate to the whole,” he stated. “In the West, by contrast, life is about achieving goals. Westerners and Asians literally see different worlds.”
This is why Chinese people are more apt to adhere to principles that seem outlandish to the average Westerner. Where an American views Beijing’s one-child policy as an interference of personal choice, for example, a Chinese family conforms because it sees the practice as necessity for the very survival of the nation.
Similarly, group unity and team-building activities is expected in China—to the point it takes on a military form that the West can see as harsh.
During my time living in China, staff of the company I worked with would often participate in military drills led by the Chinese army to instill group discipline and cohesion to Chinese ideals. This is common in schools and sports. We can all remember the opening ceremony of the 2008 summer Olympics in Beijing during which 10,000 drummers worked in perfect unison.
This same mindset is also why large-scale infrastructure projects can be completed in stunning time. In June, one construction company—with the help of three cranes, scores of prefabricated pieces, and hundreds of workers—built a 10-story apartment unit in under 29 hours.
Such events—sometimes involving the personal sacrifice of mass groups of people to simply put on a great show in the name of China—is contrary to Western thinking. Any effort put on in the U.S. would more likely be supported if it involved some personal benefit or consequence.
This vast gap in psyche was born out of vastly different formative experiences.
History Shapes Thinking
The Chinese people, who are more deeply in touch with their history, still carry the intentions, motivations and emotions of generations past. The Diplomat explained: “Part of what is happening now derives naturally enough from the trajectory of any rising power—or a power that after years of investment and work is feeling like its time has come.”
In the case of China, it is millennia of investment and work.
Despite China hosting the world’s largest population, as well as a history of accomplishments in navigation and technology that came centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, it was Western powers that helped bring about the Asian giant’s dynastical demise. Think about the U.S. specifically, a nation born merely in the 18th century that catapulted almost immediately to global acclaim and power.
It would seem only natural that China would hold on to a “we were here first” and “we bore the heat of the day” mentality.
Also think of the Asian nation’s history of threats and attacks—and its reaction to them. Stretching from as far back as the 7th century BC, Chinese rulers commissioned the now 13,000 miles of fortifications today known as the “Great Wall of China” to defend themselves from nomadic invaders. The most infamous example of these raiders from the northern steppe is Genghis Kahn—whose blood-thirsty “great ride” with the Mongols across Asia resulted in the first time the Chinese empire was fully ruled by foreigners.
In the 20th century, Japan’s occupation of Manchuria before World War II contributed to the eventual rise of the Communist Party in 1949. Also the threat of the use of atomic weapons by the U.S. prompted Mao Zedong to begin developing his nation’s own nuclear arsenal.
All of these existential threats over the millennia fostered a collective, defensive mindset.
Compare that to the typical American response to foreign threats. After the terrorist attacks on 9/11, for instance, the U.S. government did not go about retrofitting buildings to withstand jets, changing government systems, or developing more nukes. It began a global war on terror and further sought to spread democracy.
This would make sense, considering the U.S. has never faced thousands of years of raids from surrounding nations. Washington has never been sacked by a foreign power. Rather America, despite threats, has generally only experienced expansion and growth.
An Economist article described how the 19th century Opium Wars continue to shape China’s view of the West today, though those conflicts are largely forgotten in Britain and America.
“From the British point of view, [the battles] were minor compared with those of the 20th century,” the publication stated. “And they are on the other side of the peak and decline of Britain’s imperial power, which has tended to obscure them from view. But China has not forgotten the Opium Wars. The conflicts were a humiliation, exposing the hollowness of its claims to be the world’s most powerful empire. They set it on a quest, which continues to this day, to rediscover its strength.”
Chinese schoolchildren are taught this history: It is practically obligatory for them to make pilgrimages to sites that showcase examples of Western aggression. For example, the ruins of the Summer Palace in Shanghai—which was destroyed by British and French troops during the second Opium War—was memorialized by the Communist Party as a “national base for patriotic education,” along with 428 other such sites across the country.
An equivalent act for Americans would be to mark the location of the first White House, which was burned down by British imperial forces during the War of 1812. School children would be required to visit and foster some sense of victimization.
Yet most U.S. schoolchildren or college students never visit Pearl Harbor, the World Trade Center in New York City, or significant monuments in the capital memorializing traumatic events that have shaped their history.
As a result, the events do not make an emotional and psychological impact and, at worst, are completely forgotten.
Without acknowledging these vast differences in world views, both the U.S. and China can never truly foster stronger ties.
A Better Way
In China, there is a well-known proverb that translates: “An army puffed up with pride is doomed to defeat.”
In the Western world, there is a similar proverb: “Pride comes before the fall.”
This has defined the rise and fall of nations throughout the millennia of mankind’s history.
The Bible also aptly defines the danger of pride, but it takes it one step further. The book of Proverbs states: “Only by pride comes contention” (Prov. 13:10).
Before pride even has a chance to cause defeat, it brings contention or quarreling. In other words, when you see two people arguing, both are proud, not wanting to yield to the other party. Nations are no different. When you see two countries in a spat over words, the trading of goods, or military threats—rest assured arrogance is involved.
The same principle applies to the world’s two biggest economies butting heads. While China staunchly defends its image and heritage, the U.S. asserts its form of government, its lifestyle and its economic system are for everyone.
Each stands by what it believes is right for society. And so inevitably they fight.
It takes humility for one person to step back and ask, “Am I doing the right thing by fighting? Is my position even correct?” It takes even greater humility to seek to de-escalate the situation.
For the two nations to establish stronger ties, both must at least begin to understand each other’s stance. Understanding and appreciating the different viewpoints stemming from the very different cultures is a start. This will require deep compromise and modesty from both sides.
But there is a greater act of humility both peoples must perform to ensure prosperity and proper relations. The second part of the verse in Proverbs 13:10 reveals the antidote: “with the well advised is wisdom.”
One way in which both nations—as well as all mankind for all time—have fallen short is seeking wisdom from the One who made the nations and “set all the borders of the earth” (Psa. 74:17).
The Bible declares that God can “guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:79). He had intended for all peoples to live in harmony and prosper without a need to conquer each other. Yet mankind has not chosen this way—each nation stands by its own ways.
The pages of God’s Word make clear the only hope for true and lasting peace and cooperation is for both sides to realize they are wrong and have a total change of mind.
When this happens, proper cooperation and immense economic advancements will ensue. Personal relationships will be free of misunderstanding, mistrust and unfair competition.
The world has been held back because of pride. God tells us to humble ourselves and seek His counsel to have lasting advancement that benefits everyone. Only then will the peoples of America and China be able to shake hands and see eye-to-eye—a time when the two nations being brothers will not seem odd.
Our free book Tomorrow’s Wonderful World – An Inside View! helps explain more about how this will become a reality.