Can the U.S. See the Truth About China?

on Mar27
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Just like relationships between people, relationships between countries can all too easily be built on a foundation of unintentional misunderstandings, faulty assumptions and predigested truths. In her forthcoming, at times provocative and disquieting book, “The New China Playbook,” Keyu Jin, a professor at the London School of Economics and a board member at Credit Suisse, is trying to rework the foundation of what she sees as the West’s deeply flawed understanding of China’s economy, its economic ambitions and its attitude toward global competition. And through that work, Jin wants to help improve the frosty relationship between the country and its presumed geo-political opponents. “We’re in an incredibly dangerous world right now,” says Jin, who was born in Beijing and earned her Ph.D. in economics from Harvard and whose father, Jin Liqun, served as a vice minister of finance for China. “Without more effort made to understand each other’s perspectives, peaceful coexistence may not be possible.” (Jin joined the Credit Suisse board in 2022, not long after the bank was shaken by a series of scandals and losses. After this interview was conducted, the bank was sold to UBS, another Swiss bank. Through a spokes-person, Jin declined to comment on Credit Suisse’s situation.)

What do U.S. policymakers just not get about China’s economy and the Communist Party leadership’s thinking about competition with America? China’s current economic challenge is to overcome its middle-income trap, something that the United States might not relate to. It’s not all about displacing the United States as global hegemon, which would come with a huge amount of burdens and responsibilities. And I don’t think China is ready or willing to do that. To see China solely as trying to displace the United States is only going to stoke more fears. The United States can come up with better policies regarding real national-security concerns, but the government is doing things that to us are so un-American, like reducing the number of visas issued or curbing investment in China and Chinese investment in America. That doesn’t seem to be the spirit of collaboration. But understanding where China is coming from would be a step forward.

Keyu Jin at a conference in Munich in 2018.
Gandalf Hammerbacher/Picture-Alliance

Do you see large-scale Chinese industrial espionage as inhibiting that understanding? There are thorny issues between the two countries, and the more they trade, the more issues there are. But we want to see China as dynamic. It has changed a great deal. China liked to take the shortcuts in the beginning. It wanted to become an innovator, and it wanted to become great. But there was not a complete legal framework or rules and laws in place. China changed so it could join the World Trade Organization. Interestingly enough, these so-called technology transfers, or the misappropriation you mentioned — lots of industry studies show that they don’t work as effectively as they were supposed to. Instead, for example, in the electric-vehicle sector, where everybody started from the same place, China was able to leapfrog. Lots of companies say that even at the risk of technological misappropriation, China is too lucrative a market to pass over. They would rather take the risk.

It seems pretty apparent that President Xi Jinping is moving away from the United States and the European Union and toward other countries with politically similar systems, like Russia or Iran. But those countries are unlikely to be economic partners for China on the level of the U.S. or the E.U. What are the implications of that shift for China’s longer-term economic growth? China has a slightly different world vision from the U.S. and maybe from Europe, which is coexistence of different political systems, different economic systems, a multipolar world — I think that’s one of China’s global agendas. Of course, intereconomically, there is much more trade. China still upholds this view of globalization, but geopolitics is making this increasingly difficult. So I would argue that at the same time it seeks this multipolar balance, it is slightly pushed to become closer to some of these countries that you mentioned.

But what’s pushing China toward more closely aligning with Russia if not political affinity? To be very frank, it’s hard to say, “Let’s hold hands with Europe and the United States,” after the increasing tension, the export controls, the view that somehow the United States wants to limit China’s development and advancement in technology innovation. People believe that there was demonization of China early in the pandemic; there was aggressive rhetoric during Donald Trump’s presidency. It’s more difficult after that happens to say, “OK, let’s work on things like Russia and Ukraine.” Russia — and I’m not an expert on these issues — presents some security concerns for China. The Chinese people believe that a substantially weakened Russia might not be in the interest of China, because if there were the sense that the United States needed to seek out an opponent, China would be next. Not an easy answer there.

But to be honest, one of the things that I found most interesting — or perplexing — about your book was what felt like an elision of moral questions about how China operates. For example, you say there’s room for a vibrant debate on Chinese social media. But China is consistently ranked near the bottom when it comes to media freedom. Or you write that the Chinese people are generally willing to trade security for freedom. Were the Uyghurs willing to make that trade? The book also doesn’t mention the human rights questions raised by the hukou system and the way it treats rural residents. I’m trying to understand your perspective on these issues, because to me they seem connected to economics. I appreciate these questions. One reason it’s probably not thoroughly addressed is because my book is about economics and political economy. I wanted to touch upon points where there were surveys and data. These other subjects require more expertise and more thorough research, which I haven’t done. For sure, there’s much more control over media than in the past. I was pointing out in the book, though, that social media is used for two-way monitoring. There was a lot of criticism about government; there were protests last year over land seizures. These were not hidden. But the Chinese government does exhibit a great deal of paternalism. Officials think that a public narrative that is uncontrolled can lead to instability or more divisiveness. I’m not saying that the people prefer it that way, but when they’re asked about a trade-off between security and freedom, surveys show a vast difference from, say, the average U.S. citizen. Then you touched upon the huge issues of the migrant workers, the minorities in China. There are hundreds of millions people who could be in a better position, but things are changing. These are enduring challenges. On the one hand, yes, there’s more control, less liberty. On the other hand, there is an improving situation for people with more dire situations.

Jin (second from right) at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, 2020.
Greg Beadle/World Economic Forum

The treatment of the Uyghurs doesn’t quite fit the framework of an improving situation. David, I understand. This particular subject is something where I have so little information and I don’t know what’s going on and there’s so many different accounts. I prefer not to comment on this and be irresponsible. But it is open for visits now. I think people should go take a look, then make a judgment on their own. It’s a complex situation. There are improvements, there are deteriorations, and we have to recognize that.

Do you feel inhibited in your ability to be critical of China? I’m an economist at the end of the day, and the way I’m trained, we like to say, “OK, where is the evidence?” That’s how I like to focus my analysis. Where there are policy mistakes, I’d be more than happy to share my views. There are more courageous people and more experts who can do that. What I’m trying to accomplish is using a different lens to focus on economic issues.

You mentioned the trade-offs that people are willing to make within different political systems, which you also write about in the book: “Despite the limits China imposes on free-market forces, the absence of a free press, independent judicial system and the individual right to vote, we see there are other mechanisms in place to respond to the needs of its citizens and to address the threats posed by inequality.” That “despite” is doing a lot of work. It reminds me of that line, “Other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?” I was trying to say that those are all things that we believe to be essential for sustained economic growth. I was saying that despite all that, China still performed well. I wasn’t necessarily suggesting that the things you mentioned weren’t important. I was more framing it as the puzzle of China’s economic growth. I was trying to say that those are all things that we believe to be essential for sustained economic growth. I was saying that despite all that, China still performed well. But I will say that the model that worked for China when it was building factories is not going to be the system that would work for innovation, where you need people to be able to get rich, where you need solid intellectual-property protection, where you have to have clear and transparent policies and rule of law. That worked in the last era. Doesn’t necessarily work in the new era.

Let’s turn the lens of your book around: What are the biggest blind spots the Chinese leadership has when it comes to understanding American policies toward the country? I think the Chinese leaders have this notion that the United States is doing everything it can to try to stop China from growing. Or they believe that whatever China does is not going to elicit more trust. So I think this blind spot is that the leadership is convinced that there’s no way out of this. I’m not sure that is the case. And then also, the United States thinks that China wants to displace it.

Doesn’t it? No. China thinks that its economy should be the largest in the world, not because it’s rich but because it’s large: 1.4 billion people! But that’s very different from overtaking the United States in terms of innovative power and military power and real economic power. I don’t think anybody believes that is a realistic goal for China. Again, we have very different understandings of how we see each other.

What specific things, besides stopping industrial espionage, could China do to increase trust? Giving American companies, financial institutions, more opportunities to make money, opening up its various sectors more aggressively — that will allow more dialogue, more cooperation. That’s one thing. Second, it’s understandable for the United States to push back on some of the industrial espionage. But China’s best technologies, the ones that are really successful right now, artificial intelligence or batteries or its payment system — all of that is based on domestic competition. The industrial espionage stems from a lack of appreciation from the start of intellectual property, and the United States, by pushing China to do more intellectual-property protection, is actually good for China. I think it’s on a substantial downward trend, this misappropriation of technologies, because it’s actually not good for China’s own goals.

The next question is more of an epistemological one. The animating idea of your book is that people see the same situation from different perspectives. So when you hear my skepticism about things like Chinese labor policy or media freedom being treated benignly, do you hear it as my being stuck in a particular ideological paradigm? Or maybe that my thinking is itself an example of the misunderstandings that the book is trying to address? I totally understand, because the first time I came to the United States in 1997, my classmates were asking me about human rights in Tibet. In China, meanwhile, we were busy building and developing and reforming. The focal points have been different. That’s not to say that the economic means justify the unfortunate circumstances. But China is a country that has done the most economically for the most number of people in the shortest amount of time. If you look at the new generation, they are open-minded on a whole range of issues, so much more than their parents. They care about animal rights, worker rights, social inequity. That shift gives us hope that China will progress.

Opening illustration: Source photograph from Keyu Jin.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity from two conversations.

David Marchese is a staff writer for the magazine and writes the Talk column. He recently interviewed Emma Chamberlain about leaving YouTube, Walter Mosley about a dumber America and Cal Newport about a new way to work.

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