Cold Truce: How the United States Can Avoid an Unwanted War with China

China’s rise is leading it to direct conflict with the United States. A lot of historical precedent and recent events foreshadow a prolonged confrontation. Yet, the nature of this showdown is neither predestined nor inherently zero-sum. The coming conflict is not something we (or the rest of the world) can afford to get wrong. In order to get it right, we must first get China right.

A steamy summer night in Beijing seems like a good place to start. The air is oily and metallic. It has the seasoning of rich tradition and the spice of modern industry. Cutting through the thick urban stew, I dip into a pedestrian underpass beneath one of countless broad boulevards in the city center. Street peddlers line the walls, making the passage even more congested. They hawk wares on woven mats – headphones, DVDs, phone cases, battery packs – all most likely counterfeit.

At the far end of the tunnel, I come to a panhandler. He has a small cardboard sign explaining his hardships and hunger. Below the description is a QR code. Curious, I take out my phone and scan it. Sure enough, his online profile pops up, complete with a selfie. He reads my surprise. “You can donate,” he explains.

“Donate?”I ask.

“You can. For my dinner.” Impressed by his ingenuity, I transfer the equivalent of a couple dollars to his account. As I head up the stairs to street-level, I get a thank-you text from him, complete with several amusingly cute emojis.

That underpass is surprisingly representative of modern China. Like that Beijing beggar, his country is defined by a zeitgeist of resourcefulness and adaptability. Of course, like the digital platform on which he accepts donations (and like the products being sold alongside him), Chinese economic growth has also been leveraged by the government’s tendency to turn a blind eye to copyright infringement. Through this strategy, China is likely to become the world’s largest economy in terms of GDP within a decade.

As the United States adapts to this reality and seeks to defend its interests, it is my hope that courtroom battles will far outnumber armed conflicts. There are certainly a lot of legal fights ahead. Despite recent reforms, the Chinese authorities have made it virtually impossible for US companies to litigate copyright infringement in China. Yet, as Chinese companies increasingly expand onto US soil, their alleged IP thefts – once insulated from legal scrutiny – become vulnerable to US law.

This is playing out for the first time in the criminal case brought by US prosecutors against the Chinese mobile giant, Huawei. More than the specific allegations of IP theft, this case is about national security concerns regarding China’s involvement in developing the 5G network. The precedent set by the Huawei proceedings will be pivotal in defining the rules of engagement for this emerging battlefield with China.

As the United States becomes increasingly concerned about Chinese intentions and encroachments, it is vital to support and reinforce the rule-of-law that grounds our proud nation. If we deal with the Chinese on a case-by-case basis, allowing our court system to do its job, we stand the best chance of protecting our interests and our core values.

Much like the Chinese, we Americans pride ourselves on pragmatism. I believe in the capacity of this shared ideal to steer our two nations away from an unwanted war, i.e., a conflict in which military action precedes or prematurely supersedes legal action. The United States remains the dominant global superpower. It is our responsibility to take the lead in fostering a future of strategic, law-based engagement with the Chinese (and maybe even cooperation).

Seeking Common Ground: Migration

With increasing points of contention in US-China relations, sharing notes on labor migration could serve as an entry point for building diplomatic rapport.

At the center of China’s rapid economic growth are the nearly 300 million migrants who have come from rural areas to work in urban factories. Even in these past few years of growing consumerism and digital technology innovation, the most defining element of China’s development remains the factory-driven export economy. “Made in China” has become a ubiquitous label on consumer goods all over the world. It is a mark of China’s massive share of global trade. It is often a mark of inexpensive goods. It is a mark increasingly downplayed, with propaganda-like taglines such as “designed in the USA, made in China”. Yet, more objectively than any of its other meanings,“Made in China” signifies “made by Chinese migrants”. It is no exaggeration that migrant workers have a hand in producing nearly every single thing made for export from China.

One of the great puzzles in the study of migrants in China is why the government has consistently treated them so poorly. Similar to migrants in other countries, Chinese migrants face the daunting task of starting over in an unfamiliar place with scant resources or support networks. Yet,in China, strict internal residency laws, known as hukou, prevent Chinese citizens from enjoying most legal rights and social services anywhere in their own country except in their home provinces.This includes access to healthcare, education, and shockingly, in a country so dependent on factory workers, most labor protections. Despite recent reforms, this system remains so discriminatory it has been dubbed “China’s apartheid”.

Like China, the United States has a significant migrant population. In both countries, migrants are significant in terms of their sheer numbers. They are significant in terms of immense economic contributions. And they are significant in terms of the need for reforms to the policies governing their legal status. Both countries have a lot to gain from resolving these issues, and also a lot to gain from sharing notes on their parallel problems with mass-migration.

Admittedly, there are significant differences between the US and Chinese cases. Yet, at a time when the US must increasingly defend its economic,military, and moral interests, the topic of migration seems to present a practical entry point for finding common and neutral ground with the rising Chinese superpower.

One in a Billion Names

For students of Chinese, one of the first rights-of-passage is being given a Chinese name. Usually a teacher or other person versed in the the subtle art of naming has this honor. The process occurs by: (1) Selecting a one-character family name from the surprisingly short list of most common names, one that typically begins with the same sound as the English last name; and (2) Selecting a one- or two-character given name, one that typically begins with the same sound as the English first name, and may or may not sound like the whole first name. The given name generally comes from an obscure literary or mythical reference, or coveys a grandiose sentiment, such as heroism for men and elegance for women (perhaps not so different from our own naming practices).

After much consideration, my first Chinese teacher gave me the name 杜照石 (dùzhàoshí). The surname is relatively common, and has the “d” from my last name. Mimicking the sounds of my first name within the confines of Chinese phonetics, the given name comes from consecutive lines of a poem by the 8th century tang Dynasty poet, Wang Wei. Together the characters mean “illuminated rock” – and fortuitously the first character 照 is used in the word for taking pictures (photography is a lifelong hobby of mine, though my teacher did not know that).

It’s a good name, very intellectual sounding, and many Chinese friends and colleagues have complimented me on it. But, honestly I don’t really like the name, and one thing in particular bothers me: though the surname is common, not a single Chinese person that I’ve ever met or heard of shares my given name. Though some Chinese choose unique names, they are generally discouraged by the government, and thus rare. When Chinese come to the US, they either go by their Chinese names (which is only confusing because the surname comes first and pinyin are somewhat hard to pronounce for English speakers), or they adopt a common English name and keep their Chinese surname (many of which English speakers have become familiar with). Why, then, do we not do the same?

My parents named me after my great-grandfather, a man who was greatly admired as the family’s patriarch. It’s a name I use proudly. Although my Chinese name is functional (people in China can easily pronounce it, and I have gotten pretty good at explaining its origins as a conversation starter), it really has very little personal meaning to me. It’s simply a part of  the way I present myself in everyday Chinese life (see Goffman 1959).

I understand that Chinese phonetics cannot easily accommodate my english name. But, why can’t I just use a common Chinese name? Why do non-Chinese go to such lengths to create pseudo-Chinese names? This seems to further accentuate our foreigness. In the end, I’d rather keep the name I was born with and remain who I am: An American trying to speak Chinese – not an American trying to be Chinese.

What remains unclear is whether taking a Chinese name is simply a gimmick, or whether it serves a function for non-Chinese trying to engage with China. There’s certainly a precedent for phoneticizing foreign words with Chinese characters, notably foods and place names. But, these are generally commonly used words, with which the Chinese have become familiar. The same is true for a handful of foreign names, for example 大卫 (dàwèi) for “David”. But, how do the Chinese view foreigners’ names not common in China, either with their native pronunciation and spelling or using Chinese characters?

More than a Middle Class

A billion people in China are NOT in the middle class.

Typically we hear about the roughly 300 million people that make up China’s middle class. This figure makes marketers drool, and is the cause for much self-congratulation by the central government. Even the most cynical China watchers concede a hearty applause. Indeed, over the past generation, improvements to the lifestyles of this rising middle class are nothing short of amazing.

Of course, in China having 300 million people in the middle class means that approximately 1 billion people have yet to reach this socioeconomic level. This group includes marginalized rural populations, the urban poor, and nearly 300 million migrant workers.

While the business opportunities and economic success stories typically come from the middle class, my research suggests that the real space for innovations and market disruptions can be found among the 1 billion people forgotten or left behind by China’s breakneck development trajectory.

{To give credit where credit is due, I have adapted this perspective from CK Prahalad’s The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid.}

Knowing what we don’t know: the Chinese economy

One thing that strikes me about us serious China observers is that we are frequently and completely wrong about the direction China is headed. In the 1980s many top analysts predicted that without democracy China would be unable to grow its economy. Later, many asserted that only with a free and open Internet could China maintain its growth.

Wrong on both accounts.

The Chinese development model has now become the first serious competitor to the Washington Consensus since the Cold War. More and more developing countries model their growth strategies on the Chinese state-managed market economy.

We must continue to be vigilant with both our investigations and critiques of the Chinese system. However, it seems unwise to view it as an immature or inherently flawed system that will inevitably evolve to look more and more like the US model. And its success is emboldened by its growing popularity.

As it has in the past, failing to accept this will continue to produce misguided policies toward China.

Zika: The China Connection

Growing concern about the Zika Virus may seem like a strange topic for this blog. In recent years, China has of course had a variety of viral epidemics. However, the knee-jerk response of several South American countries raises an unfortunate reminder of parallel histories of forced population control in the two regions. China famously used doomsday models to justify its one-child policy (Greenhalgh 2005), and forced sterilizations were all too common throughout South America, for example, in Peru.

At present, El Salvador, due to perceived risks from Zika, has begun to urge woman to refrain from getting pregnant until 2018. In a characteristically heavy-handed responseBrazil has deployed its military to “spread awareness” of Zika in the lead up to Carnival. Though there is not yet a vaccine, Zika has a very low mortality rate. While evidence suggests that the virus may be the cause of an uptick in birth defects, the correlation remains unverified. Thus, given the dark history of forced population control in the region, it seems reasonable to suspect that Zika is just another in the long list of justifications for targeting poor, rural groups – where Zika-infected mosquitoes are likely more prevalent.

While based in historical precedent, this theory is not meant to be a conclusive assessment of the current situation in South America, of which I am by no means an expert.  This is merely a caveat from a China scholar to the experts who must now assess the broad implications of the Zika outbreak.

Sources of Chinese Conduct: Pissing on the Street

China has experienced unprecedented changes over the past two generations. Its economy has grown to be the second largest in the world (the first largest by some measures). Hundreds of millions of its citizens enjoy a standard of living unimaginable just forty years ago. Its elder leaders and teachers grew up in a largely rural society. They experienced some of the worst famines and societal upheavals in history. And yet, in 2018, roughly 60% of China’s enormous population lives in urban areas, a number projected to increase significantly in the next twenty years.

Nowhere are the effects of this urbanization more evident than in Shenzhen. The city of 10+ million in southeastern Guangdong Province was little more than a series of fishing villages before it was declared the first special economic zone (SEZ) in 1980. This thriving metropolis has since become one the country’s main hubs of trade, finance, and innovation.

The crescent-shaped urban sprawl begins in the southeast with the bustling, often-chaotic Dongmen Market. The Chinese expression 人山人海 (lit: people mountain, people sea) seems apt for an area that, according to a survey I conducted in 2014, receives approximately half-a-million visitors on any given weekend. The narrow alleys, wet markets and vibrant street vendors season this border area with the spice of raw, human commerce.

Moving west along the main arc of the city, we come to Futian and Coco Park, Windows of the World, and swooping south, finally arrive at Shekou. These areas, in varying degrees, are sharp departures from the street-level petty capitalism of Dongmen. The shimmering windows of high-rise office buildings tower above broad, clean boulevards. There are numerous high-end malls, and both the shopping and eating are priced for the business elite, Chinese and expat alike. Yet, one thing unites the decidedly distinct eastern and western parts of the city: the sight of parents letting their children piss on the street.

I’ve seen it at 9:00 on a Friday night on the busiest pedestrian road in Dongmen, and I’ve seen it at noon on a Monday in one of the ritziest malls in southern China at Coco Park. A toddler with crotchless sweatpants squats by the curb, while his father checks text messages. A mother holds her daughter over a trashcan, with a public restroom no more than 20-feet across the hall. Interestingly, a nationwide poll revealed that only 11% of Chinese people think it’s not okay for parents to let their children piss in public.


Public expulsion of bodily fluids, hopefully limited to urine and saliva, are both common and relatively harmless in villages of 200, 300, or even a thousand households. Let’s not forget that no more than thirty years ago, the majority of China still lived in such places, and that these people are today’s parents, grandparents, teachers and leaders. But, in cities of ten, twenty, even thirty million people, with some of the highest population densities on earth, these rural norms quickly become public health hazards. In fact, the Chinese authorities embarked on an aggressive campaign to end public spitting during the SARS epidemic. I hope it won’t take another major outbreak for them to take action on public urination.

MH 370: Beyond Tragedy

As the search for debris enters its fourth week, the surreal circumstances of Malaysian Air Flight 370’s disappearance persist. However, as the possibility of finding survivors has evaporated, the tragedy has become indelibly real. The loss of MH 370 (March 8) and the Kunming Massacre (March 1) together violently took 182 Chinese lives in a single week. We, Americans, can certainly relate to China’s frustrations in its search for answers. Yet, it is the types of questions they are asking that may lead to greater cooperation and in fact fraternity between our two nations. As Malcolm Moore (March 4) asked, “Has the global Jihad reached China?” Furthermore, if the disappearance of MH 370 was a terrorist plot, are there links to Kunming? These questions alone seem to align China’s interests with the US War on Terror. The answers will determine the strength of our common interests, but the questions themselves begin to define US-China relations for the coming decades.