My Brief Remarks – at the HKS China Conference

April 24, 2024 22:36

I was invited to speak at the China Conference hosted by the Harvard Kennedy School this year, on a panel featuring young thought leaders, professionals, and researchers in the US-China space. Whilst I had every intention to make it in person, my teaching schedule (during termtime) rendered it impossible for me to fly to Cambridge, Massachusetts – though I did manage to deliver my remarks virtually (at a quarter past midnight Hong Kong time). Anecdote-aside, the following were some of the highlights from my comments:

Firstly, no country should be understood as a monolith - especially a country of 1.4 billion. There is a polarising tendency in international media to read China either as a top-down, homogenous, state-determined entity shaped by the ruling, governing party (the Communist Party of China), which is in turn portrayed simplistically as a monolith; or, as some others would put it, as a singular bottom-up 'civilisation' (a fluid, as opposed to static concept) of which characteristics are channelled through China’s distinctive way of governance. Neither of these rather polarised, essentialist views is entirely correct. Modern China is the outcome of negotiations between power, economic, sociological structures, and a constantly evolving dance between politico-ideologies, its leadership, a sprawling bureaucracy, local officials, and the public.

An esteemed colleague in Law, Angela Zhang Huyue, has written that we should conceptualise China’s platform economy regulatory framework as undergirded by a Pyramid – one that begins with the Leadership at the top, then proceeds through Regulators, Platform Companies, and finally the Public. The same, distilled framework can be applied to centre-periphery governance decisions, and the chain of command stretching from the upper echelons of power in the Politburo, through provincial and municipal leaderships (what renowned economist Keyu Jin deems to be the unit of mayor economy), and finally through to the party rank-and-file and the grassroots.

Secondly, we should draw upon a wide range of methodologies – spanning first-personal testimonies and accounts, macro-trends and data-based analyses (leveraging multiple data sources, as opposed to exclusively state or civilian sources), and conversations with citizens and the people of the country. The quantitative and qualitative both matter. More rigorous and robust big data-based analysis can go a long way in revealing trends in consumption patterns, political attitudes, confidence (or lack thereof) in the country's future, as well as discourse analysis (which can be used to decoding online nationalism or tracking tactical contentious politics - cf. O'Brien 1999). On the other hand, we can't interpret slogans and state-sanctioned rhetoric without a robust grasp of inter-bureaucratic/factional politics, Chinese cultural history, and more general qualitative dimensions of China studies.

Thirdly, we must not conflate what we’d like to see with what we must in fact see. What we envision to be the right course of outcomes may or may not manifest in practice. There is far too much wishful thinking that assumes that what happens in one particular state will be mirrored precisely by what occurs in another state. How states behave and evolve is firmly anchored in the unique characteristics, dispositions, and structures that they possess.

Seeking truth from facts, in the context of academic analysis and China watching, requires us to sift out the real in both propaganda and fiction, without pinning our predictions of the future on emotive and unsound judgments. A phlegmatic assessment requires recognising both strengths and weaknesses, merits and defects in how things in fact are run in China - as opposed to falling for constructed and thus unconducive stereotypes.

At times like these, more than ever, the world desperately needs bridge-builders and messengers who can speak across national boundaries and cultural cleavages. There are indeed valid grounds to be pessimistic about the trajectory of Sino-US relations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China is unlikely to culminate in any positive progress when it comes to improving bilateral relations.
Yet I remain cautiously optimistic. The future of Sino-US relations will be shaped by the future generations of both sides. I am encouraged by the many conscientious, sagacious, and thoughtful pioneers and facilitators on both sides of the ocean, who believe firmly that the world is in fact large enough to accommodate two powers, as President Xi repeatedly affirmed. China and the US should engage in strategic, vigorous competition in a responsible, managed, and carefully hedged manner that does not prevent them from collaborating on areas of mutual interest, as well as allowing for more people-to-people exchanges, such as this very conference.

Assistant Professor, HKU