As Donald Trump and Xi Jinping prepared for what Trump has warned will be a “very difficult” meeting at his Florida resort, several leading historians of modern China gave a richly informative briefing on March 27 at the Capitol about the underlying issues that shape the Chinese government’s engagement with the United States and the world. Sponsored by the National History Center, the purpose of the briefing was to give historical context to current tensions between the United States and China, with a particular focus on Chinese aims and anxieties.
Jeffrey Wasserstrom, professor of Chinese history at the University of California, Irvine, and editor of the Journal of Asian Studies, opened the session with comments on the need to frame Xi Jinping’s regime in several historical contexts. First, he noted that the Communist Party’s enduring grip on power gives it considerable confidence, even as it remains skittish about the potential for an eastern European-style “color” revolution or an Arab Spring-like popular uprising. He also observed that Xi has sought to cast himself both as a nationalist strongman in the image of Mao (and, curiously enough, Chiang Kai-shek) and as a global leader whose cosmopolitanism is signaled by his tailored Western-style suits.
Given the growing economic disparities and corruption in contemporary China, the current regime has shifted the historical narrative that justifies its rule from the creation of an egalitarian society to the restoration of China as a great power. The 1949 founding of the People’s Republic of China is presented as the key turning point: a weak, exploited nation was transformed into today’s strong, assertive state. Expansion into the South China Sea is a way to whip up nationalist sentiments. At the same time, the regime promotes an image of China that evokes its traditional cultural values, especially Confucianism and Buddhism, and stresses its modernity and prosperity. Communist Party leaders believe that the government’s survival depends on diverting popular demands for democracy by delivering economic prosperity to its populace. It’s a risky strategy, Wasserstrom observed, and one that requires a careful balance of coercion and conciliation.
Kenneth Pomeranz, professor of Chinese history at the University of Chicago and former AHA president, weighed in next by highlighting the key concerns and constraints that shape Chinese policies. The ruling regime’s top priority is internal stability. It fears social upheaval at home and political instability on its borders. Yet its ability to address these issues is constrained by its limited influence over local officials, who tend to be poorly paid and corrupt. China is a lot more decentralized that it appears to American observers, who imagine a monolithic, all-powerful state.