Column got China’s history, intentions wrong

Upon reading Matthew Klein’s opinion column about China (“U.S. must not be blind to China threat,” 3/5), my immediate reaction was mild disbelief. Although my four years at Yale College have taught me to lower my expectations for rational discourse about international affairs, the comically bad factual accuracy and logic in Klein’s piece was nonetheless sufficient to “shock and awe,” to borrow a phrase from the U.S. military.

Perhaps Klein chose conveniently to ignore the fact that the United States still spends about nine times as much on its military than China, according to the official figures. Some would claim that China’s actual spending is far higher than it reports, but no one has placed this actual figure at more than three times the reported sum. Given that the United States has been far more active militarily than China in recent decades, who is the greater threat to whom? Why should China’s military spending be interpreted as an act of aggression, rather than an act of fear or self-preservation? After all, if foreign nations have ravaged your land for a century, don’t you have a right to be wary?

As for China’s accumulation of U.S. debt, any objective observer would have to conclude that the dependence goes both ways. Trade and exports are so crucial to maintaining China’s growth rate — itself perhaps the only psychological factor that prevents the heavily imbalanced Chinese economy from causing severe social unrest — that the Chinese government would almost certainly have more to lose than the United States should Sino-American trade really collapse. Moreover, any scholar of international relations or economics would tell you that the accumulation of debt almost never leads to actual diplomatic leverage.

China is, in fact, in a much weaker military and economic position than Klein imagines. Apart from its huge economic disparity, China is also coping with a chaotic banking and credit system, an enormously corrupt and inefficient government bureaucracy, a glaring lack of national identity and pride (real pride, not insecurity) among its younger generations, vast environmental problems, and a deteriorating public welfare system, to list only a few. Countries like that rarely have the will or power to initiate serious international conflict. This is also precisely why the analogy to Germany under the Kaiser fails completely. If Germany had been suffering from the same symptoms that the Chinese suffer from today, World War I would probably have been over by Christmas, 1914.

Klein also has no objective knowledge of Chinese history. China’s “old dynasties,” except those ruled by the Mongols and Manchu, very rarely attempted to conquer other lands, or even to make them economically dependant. Indeed, during the five centuries leading up to the Opium War, China attempted, although without complete success, to withdraw completely from international commerce. Ancient China was a generally self-sufficient and non-militaristic society, largely because of the dominance of Confucianism, which stressed social harmony over material wealth and power. As a result, it was often the “barbaric” foreign powers, be it Mongols, Huns, Manchu, or even Japanese pirates, that militarily oppressed China, not the other way around. “Chauvinism” is a Western term and is best reserved to describe Western nations.

But ultimately, it is Klein’s characterization of China as an inherently “revengeful” culture and society that puzzles me the most. Perhaps he should read some Confucius (“The way of the Master is nothing but loyalty and forgiveness”) before he makes such claims, or skim through the history of the Song and Ming dynasties. The ancient Chinese certainly could be arrogant, but they almost never sought massive revenge against those who oppressed them militarily. Granted, modern China has been more or less cut off from these cultural and historical roots, but this only shows that current Chinese nationalism has nothing to do with China’s traditional culture. If anything, it is a product of that tradition’s demise.

All in all, I suggest that Klein actually attempt to learn something about his perceived “enemy.” If Washington were packed with people like him, the United States would mirror the irrationality of imperial Germany far more closely than China could ever hope to.

Taisu Zhang is a second-year student at the Law School and a 2005 graduate of Yale College.

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