However, these experiences have gotten more difficult as Washington and Beijing clash over issues large and small. More important, though, has been the internal crackdown in the People’s Republic of China. My first trip to the PRC was in 1992: it was a vastly different country, one finally exiting the Maoist era’s intermittent lunacy. In the succeeding years, there was increasing liberalization — most obviously in economic policy, but also in terms of personal autonomy.
The Tiananmen Square massacre likely closed off any prospect of serious regime reform, but political controls remained loose at the edges. Academic exchanges flourished, freedom‐minded NGOs operated, and the Great Firewall was penetrated. Independent‐minded Chinese journalists, though unable to challenge the Communist Party’s monopoly of power, had space to expose government misdeeds. These all fueled hopes that economic reform and market transformation would encourage a freer Chinese society.
Alas, President Xi Jinping seems to have killed that possibility, at least for the present.
Academic exchanges have become more difficult; NGOs have been shut down, churches destroyed. Human rights lawyers have been arrested, internet controls tightened, and a totalitarian “social credit” system developed. Foreign policy, too, has become more aggressive: pressure on both Taiwan and Hong Kong has increased, and, perhaps most notably, Uighurs have been incarcerated en masse.
These and other related changes have significantly accelerated a decline in Sino‐American governmental relations.
This increasingly restrictive political climate has also created greater uncertainty in nonpolitical relationships. A couple months ago, I arrived in China for a conference scheduled for the next day only to be told that I (and other foreign invitees) could not participate. The local party had decreed that they required Beijing’s approval if we were to attend. I had spoken at the same event two years before and wouldn’t have said anything particularly controversial. But no matter: this was an old requirement, I was told, which until recently hadn’t been enforced.
Americans involved in politically sensitive research — regarding Tibet or Xinjiang, for instance — have long risked being denied entry into the PRC. But recently the U.S. and China have engaged in a new variant of “visa wars,” with Washington the aggressor, revoking permission for Chinese university professors and others to visit America. Beijing has retaliated against those with connections to the Trump administration.
Even more informal personal contact is subject to greater scrutiny. Though I had done so in the past, a company that prepares Chinese students for overseas study was hesitant to have me speak (about education, not politics) at their events this year. University students admitted that they believed some subjects, such as Donald Trump, to be too sensitive to ask about. This in contrast to a few years ago, when I was questioned about Tiananmen Square and internet censorship in Chinese economics classes (which I tried to answer with appropriate political sensitivity).
Washington is uncertain as to how it should respond to the increasing challenges posed by Beijing. China is not an enemy and should not be treated as such, but the Trump administration’s trade war and other economic restrictions continue to weaken what was traditionally the foundation for our bilateral relationship: economic partnership. With the usual corporate defenders of bilateral ties essentially silent, the China-U.S. relationship has become much more uncertain.
Moreover, the U.S. still fails to distinguish between vital and peripheral interests. When Washington officials talk national security, they’re really interested in influence. Underlying American policy is a determination to remain dominant in the region, which China views as its geopolitical sphere. U.S. interests there are real, too, but comparatively modest, while those of the PRC are fundamental, even existential. Washington’s current aggressive policy, if unchanged, may well make conflict inevitable.
Both governments should do much better at facilitating contact between private citizens. It’s especially important when inter‐government relations are tense and unproductive.
Despite the sometimes disconcerting stares that still greet Westerners, most Chinese are friendly. Many have relatives in the U.S. and have traveled to America — or hope to do so. A taxi driver struck up a conversation with one of our number who knew Chinese. The cabbie had two children in Georgia. After discovering that one my colleagues was from the same state, he didn’t want to charge us for the ride.