Sinology or Rome Seeks Barbarians

Julio Pino jpino at
Sat May 20 10:23:29 MDT 2000

China Watchers Fighting a Turf War of
          Their Own

          By KURT M. CAMPBELL

             If business and political leaders have focused on China in recent
             months, so too have the intellectuals and others who make up the
          American "strategic class" -- that collection of academics,
          and policymakers whose ideas help define the national interest. Yet
          unlike traditional Sinologists, who have made a broad study of
          complex history, intricate culture and social relations, this new
crop of
          experts are preoccupied with a much narrower question: Will China be
          the next enemy?

          Within the circumscribed
          world of strategists, this
          sharpened approach is stirring
          bitter debate over how to
          study and interpret China,
          while in the larger political
          arena it is having an impact on
          pressing policy debates in
          Washington, including next
          week's congressional vote on
          China's trade status.

          This week President Clinton
          said in a speech: "One of the
          biggest questions marks of the
          21st century is the path China
          will take. Will China emerge as
          a partner or an adversary?"

          Certainly, American
          Sinologists are enjoying more
          attention as Washington
          debates China's economic
          future and military intentions.
          But with this popularity has come an erosion of their traditional
          on China. "This is the hottest and most high-profile China has
been since
          Tiananmen," said Bates Gill, a China scholar at the Brookings
          referring to the 1989 student uprisings in Tiananmen Square in
          "Business has never been better, in a sense, but with the increasing
          attention has come greater political polarization. China watching
now can
          be a dangerous game, with political minefields everywhere you

          Indeed, the newer crop of experts, who are much more likely to
have a
          background in strategic studies or international relations than
China itself,
          are generally much more suspicious, watchful for signs of China's
          capacity for menace. They argue that the traditional China hands
          a kind of intellectual protectionism. The strategists believe
they bring a
          fresh perspective and some intellectual rigor into a world
          dominated by "panda huggers" who had a romanticized view of China
          and played down America's national security interests.

          "The Sinologists have been hit with two great shocks in the last
20 years,"
          said Philip D. Zelikow, the director of the Miller Center of
Public Affairs
          at the University of Virginia, a cold war historian who
concentrated on
          Europe when he worked at the National Security Council. "The
first was
          the re-evaluation of Mao and the brutality of Chinese Communism that
          culminated at Tiananmen. The early giants of the field, like John
          Fairbanks, were almost uniformly blind to the harsh realities of
          Communist rule."

          The second shock, he continued, is the current struggle with the
          strategists and the traditional foreign policy elite "to wrest
control of the
          formulation and execution of America's China policy away from the
          Sinologists. The China specialists are losing their monopoly to
shape and
          interpret U.S.-China policy because their narrow range of
expertise is
          increasingly inadequate to the task. The Sinologists have
practiced 100
          variations on the theme of 'you don't understand China.' In some
          they are right, but in most cases it doesn't matter.
Broad-ranging policy
          expertise is more critical in policy formulation toward China."

          Others in Washington agree. A number of congressional staff members,
          Republican politicians, conservative journalists, former
          officers and a handful of academics have created a loose
coalition called
          the "Blue Team" to prepare the nation for what they see as the
          conflagration with China. (The term comes from a Chinese military
          exercise in which the assigned opposition force -- presumably Taiwan
          supported by the United States -- wears blue hats while the People's
          Liberation Army are in red.

          Certainly, some traditional Sinologists share this threatening
view. Arthur
          Waldron, a professor of Chinese history and international
relations at the
          University of Pennsylvania, for example, argues: "There is a
potent mix of
          xenophobic nationalism, historical persecution and renewed
          authoritarianism that has been stoked and manipulated by China's
          Communist elite. They are building more missiles and seeking to
          externalize their internal problems . . .

          But the motivations for war derive from a very different set of
origins than
          the motivations for economic modernization. We underestimate, at out
          peril, China's capacity to do us harm."

          Still, many other longtime China scholars counter that the new
band of
          strategists, largely ignorant of China's complex culture and
          exaggerate Beijing's geopolitical ambitions and as yet fledgling

          "Character assassination has been so rampant and policy critiques so
          politicized that the normal rules of evidence . . .

          have been among the first casualties," said Robert S. Ross,
professor of
          political science and Chinese studies at Boston College.

          "Particularly egregious have been many of the claims of those
          warriors . . . to follow a policy of containing the China threat."

          To many China scholars, the strategists are suffering a cold war
          hangover. Ever since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the
          foreign policy establishment has at times turned its attention to
          post-Soviet nuclear cleanup, international terrorism,
humanitarian aid and
          the global economy. China, the Sinologists argue, is simply the
          antidote to what one senior White House official described as "enemy
          envy." Even the strategists concede that they now have a sense of
          renewed purpose after a prolonged period of melancholy and
          "Strategists tend to get excited by the rise and fall of great
powers, and
          they see China as the new antihero," said Jeff Legro, professor of
          government at the University of Virginia. "And yes, there is more
spring in
          the step since China's arrival on the international power scene."

          Certainly, China studies have grown hotter as interest in Russia has
          cooled. Stephen Rosen, the director of the Olin Institute at Harvard
          University, said: "China's rise and other strategic developments
in Asia
          are very much on the horizon in the study of international
relations. There
          is a growing trend among our graduate students and fellows to
          the big questions associated with China, namely its strategic
culture and
          geopolitical mindset. This is part of an important redirection of
          effort away from Europe and toward Asia."

          David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George
          Washington University, said that there were no solid measures of
          interest, but added, "My class on China's military power is now
          oversubscribed, as are similar classes taught by my colleagues at
          universities around the country."

          Meanwhile, several major foundations, including the Smith
          Bradley, Scaife and Olin Foundations, have made sizable grants to
          primarily conservative academics, policy think tanks and
universities in
          recent years to explore the strategic ramifications of China's
ascent. And
          over the last year, foreign policy journals like The National
          International Security and Survival have featured extended
debates on
          China's growing political and military power.

          For much of this century, interpretations of China have been
buffeted by

          A generation of China specialists at the State Department in the
          were unfairly vilified during Senator Joseph R. McCarthy's public
          hearings into the question of "Who Lost China?" Those political
          are in some ways evident today.

          As Mitchell B. Reiss, the dean of international affairs at
William and
          Mary College, said: "China has become a kind of national
Rorschach test
          for the United States onto which we project our hopes and fears.
          is seen by some as the world's largest market for American goods, by
          others as a repressive regime that violates human rights, by a
          minority as a strategic partner, and by many strategists as a
          threat to U.S. national security interests."

More information about the Marxism mailing list