After the publication of my recent review of his insightful book about the history of China (Polity Books), Professor Kerry Brown kindly accepted to answer my questions about the relationship between the United States and China – an extremely timely subject. Without further introduction, here is the content of our exchange.
Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.
On page 71 of your compelling book, you write that President Nixon was impressed “[…] witnessing Zhou Enlai redo the front page of the People’s Daily.” I often ask myself if any figure has a comparable influence in Xi Jinping’s entourage?
I imagine the figures from the outside world that most impress Chinese leaders today are more our business or technology leaders than our political ones. The excitement of new acquaintance from the Nixon era has long gone. Now, figures like Warren Buffett probably arouse more interest in China, or Bill Gates. I guess this is simply a sign that Chinese still admire some aspects of the western world, but not, anymore, its political figures.
I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around the issue of the relationship between China and the US.
In the case where there would be no such influential figure, do you think it would help, notably in the relations with the US, and why?
Henry Kissinger is still listened to in China, and indeed, till recently, went there. I don’t know however whether intermediary figures are of much help now. This is not an issue of individual people being able to sort this out – the disagreements between China and the US are structurally too deep. There are maybe groups of people who might, over time, help – academics, perhaps, in trying to at least maintain some middle space. But I think we deceive ourselves if we do think individuals can magically find a way around this issue.
What do you think of Michael Dillon’s biography of Zhou Enlai?
I reviewed Michael’s book while he was working on it. Michael is a fine scholar – he uses wide sources, he is measured and considered in his assessment, and has not political axe to grind. I am happy to say publicly that anything Michael writes on China is worth reading. He has been working in this area for many decades. I respect him immensely.
Deng Xiaoping was able to square this circle of combing socialism with wealth creation – socialism with Chinese characteristics.
In your book, it was fascinating to discover how much of an influence the discreet and low-key Deng Xiaoping has on his country. I always had a soft spot for him. Would you have an anecdote or two about him to give us a better grasp of his character?
I think for me the most important time in his career was his internal exile in the Cultural Revolution to a tractor factory in Jiangxi. It seems that while he was there, underwent a profound inner change, looking at the very poor material lives of the people and asking himself how it was possible that Communism had still not solved this issue. I think that experience meant that when he did return to power some years later, he was able to square this circle of combing socialism with wealth creation – socialism with Chinese characteristics. That is the model that China continues to use to this day.
In your opinion, which Chinese leader nurtured the best relationship with the United States?
Probably Deng. He was pragmatic, but also insistent on the relationship being guided by China’s needs.
Alternatively, which US President was the best at handling the relations between Washington and Beijing and how did it show?
Of course, Nixon was the one that showed the greatest intuitive grasp of the leadership in China that he dealt with. Afterwards, I don’t think any have been outstanding.
In essence, the relationship between China and the US has deep structural faultlines. These will not be removed by a new president, and probably can’t be removed at all.
Do you believe the Biden administration will articulate a radical change (form the policies of the previous administration) in terms of US relations with China and how?
No, highly unlikely. The tone and style of diplomacy will change, and the US will work more with multilateral entities. But in essence, the relationship between China and the US has deep structural faultlines. These will not be removed by a new president, and probably can’t be removed at all.
The remarkable thing is how sparse the signs are of any successor to Xi Jinping, even longer term into the future.
Entire forests were used by Kremlinologist to detail the inner workings of what happened in the Soviet régime and to know who was in and who was out. Even though China has manifestly arrived at the top of international politics food chain, I feel not as much interest is given to what happens at Zhongnanhai. Apart from Xi, who would be the players to watch who might play a determining role in the future?
An excellent question. There are a dearth of candidates at the moment. Hu Chunhua has been perennially presented as one possible contender. Ding Xuexiang, a close colleague of Xi since the period he spent in Shanghai in the mid 2000s is another. So is Chen Min’er. But the remarkable thing is how sparse the signs are of any successor, even longer term into the future.
Would you agree to tell us what your next book will be about?
I am working on an anthology of European accounts of China by major intellectual and/or cultural figures form the last 800 years, from the time of Marco Polo to the 1970s. This includes excepts from the work of Voltaire, Montesquieu, Leibniz, Marx, Weber and Russell. This underlines how consistently polarized views have been of China over this period. Our current divisions on the role of China in the world are not new.