Rooting for China’s Xi

President Barack Obama has pursued a nuanced policy toward China: welcoming its rise and economic growth, seeking to ensure that it is consistent with international law and norms on issues such as trade, investment, law of the sea, and currency — and working with allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region to ensure that China’s rise contributes to, rather than detracts from, stability. To do so, Obama has strengthened alliances, emphasized that defense budget cutbacks won’t affect preparedness in the Western Pacific, and joined leading multilateral organizations like the East Asia Summit, all the while meeting regularly with President Hu Jintao and working with China to tighten sanctions and coordinate strategy on Iran and North Korea. The Obama administration has also stood by Taiwan and its president, Ma Ying-jeou, providing it with arms and other support that have allowed Ma to win reelection and reduce tension in the Taiwan Strait to its lowest level since the Communists took power in 1949.

The American narrative about China sees a rising, highly disciplined nation under a dictatorial and directed leadership with a strategic vision of regional — if not global — dominance. This may sound dark, but it’s actually an attractive narrative for some. For the U.S. military, China provides a mobilizing enemy to fuel military spending, strategic doctrine, and new weapons systems. For some corporations and labor leaders, the notion that America can’t compete with a China that cheats is a pretext for protectionism and tax breaks. For those who lament the state of the U.S. economy and the dysfunctional U.S. political system, China’s success provides a useful challenge, like Sputnik in the 1950s. To neoconservatives and foreign-policy hawks who see the international arena as a Hobbesian world in which America dominates or is dominated, China provides the obvious threat to U.S. preeminence. To democracy promoters and human rights campaigners, China is the embodiment of what most needs fixing in the world. And to believers in the inevitability of American decline, China represents the 800-pound gorilla that the United States needs to accommodate sooner rather than later by shrinking its regional presence, drawing back to its own shores, and reducing unproductive alliances.

But let’s take a deep breath and look at the real China that America faces.

China’s growth and accomplishments in the last four decades since it abandoned Maoism and undertook reform are truly extraordinary. From an economic backwater visible on the world stage largely as a provocateur, China’s economy has grown about 10 percent per year for four decades and will soon be the world’s largest. It is the critical trading partner of every important economy in East Asia. Its companies and entrepreneurs are omnipresent in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. Its military is no longer 10 million men with carbine rifles — spending has grown at a faster rate than its economy, and China now boasts sophisticated missile systems, cyberwar capabilities, and stealth fighter technology, not to mention nuclear weapons. And in the diplomatic sphere, Beijing’s influence has grown too. Its support or opposition could mean the difference between success and failure for American efforts to reverse Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs and bring an end to Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.

But the reality of China is much, much more complex than its rising GDP or military spending curve.

China’s per capita income remains only about $4,000, about 10 percent of America’s. It has a handful of companies that compete as global brands, the rest satisfying domestic or regional markets or serving as subcontractors for foreign brands. Its research systems excel at copying or adapting foreign technologies, rather than innovation. It has one of the highest disparities of wealth between rich and poor of any country in the developing world. China’s environmental degradation and its shrinking water supply threaten the health of its population. And its economic model, which has relied on export-led growth, foreign direct investment, and domination by state-owned enterprises and companies with party connections, is running out of steam and badly needs fundamental reform.

Beyond these social and economic problems, more and more mainstream Chinese, not merely the handful of dissidents who gain international attention, resent Beijing’s failure to evolve toward a participatory system of governance that protects rights and relies on the rule of law. An Internet on which state abuses go viral before the authorities can shut down unwelcome stories, along with blogs that amplify these reports, ensures that hundreds of millions of Chinese know about systemic problems. Chinese are no more tolerant of abuses of power than Americans are. They don’t have the tools to act that Americans have, but that doesn’t mean passivity always prevails. A recent uprising in Guangdong province’s Wukan village against corrupt dealings between developers and officials led to a remarkably sensible and humane outcome, thanks to an astute Communist Party secretary who sought conciliation and accountability rather than more punishment and repression. In Chongqing, the world’s largest city, a saga is unfolding involving Bo Xilai, one of the leaders expected to ascend to a senior leadership position at the party congress this fall, in which there are credible allegations of gangsterism and abuse of power that could upend the seamless succession that most have predicted. In the Tibetan areas of western China, we are seeing the continuing inability of a Han leadership to deal with ethnic and religious diversity by means other than police repression.

With Xi’s arrival in the United States, Americans need to keep in mind the complexity of the China he will rule. The world’s major rising power is indeed a global competitor of the United States, but it is at the same time a country beset by staggering problems at home that will preoccupy Xi’s tenure. It is too soon to know whether Xi will aggressively tackle China’s economic and governance problems with preemptive reforms, as former Premier Zhu Rongji did 15 years ago, or whether he will pursue a cautious course and simply seek to muddle through. It is in Washington’s interest that he succeed if he takes the former route. American condemnations of China, its leadership, and its development achievements will not derail Xi or prevent China from achieving its national destiny, but they will ensure that most Chinese will see America as its adversary rather than its partner.

Xi’s visit does not signal new breakthroughs in Washington’s relationship with Beijing. He is only the heir apparent, not yet the man in charge, and he will not take bold steps that would upset his colleagues back home. But during his visit the administration can take his measure and communicate that it wants to work with him to create an international environment that doesn’t threaten China or the United States and that it seeks to establish a framework for trade and investment that is fair and pro-growth in both countries. Particularly in the wake of rhetoric about a U.S. “pivot” to the Western Pacific accompanying Obama’s visit to Asia in November and overexcited Chinese reactions, the Chinese should be told that a strengthened U.S. overall presence in the region will be structured to facilitate, not prevent, China’s peaceful rise. In the overheated atmosphere of an election year, it will be important to communicate to Xi that the United States will not take protectionist steps that would be popular for a moment but counterproductive in the long run. At the same time, Xi should be made to understand that U.S. frustrations over trade issues are not a mere election-year ploy, but reflect deep-seated irritation and will be dangerous to the relationship if unaddressed. That will require a recommitment of China’s leaders to systemic reform. If on the other hand the United States goes for quick victories and headlines, it will only persuade the man expected to rule China for the next decade to distrust America, rather than want to work with it.