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Old China hand Charles Freeman argues that China has the capacity to take the lead to rebuild trust between the US and China

By Cao Ran Updated Aug.1

People attend an event celebrating the 50th anniversary of Sino-US Ping-Pong Diplomacy at the International Table Tennis Federation Museum in Shanghai, April 10, 2021

Charles Freeman

Charles Freeman, an interpreter to former US president Richard Nixon, has been a participant and observer to major historic events in the establishment and continuation of Sino-US relations. He was one of the few US diplomats to believe that China would enact its reform and opening-up policy in the late 1970s. Nowadays, amid the growing competition between the two countries, he advocates ending trade frictions and cementing ties with China.  

In Washington, he has encountered plenty of criticism. Currently a visiting scholar at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs in Providence, Rhode Island, he describes himself as being in the minority. NewsChina secured an exclusive interview with Freeman to shed light on the challenges and trends of Sino-US relations.  

NewsChina: You are an advocate of cementing bilateral ties. Are you in the minority when you are among China policy wonks in Washington?  

Charles Freeman: I think I am in the minority, that is clear. That doesn’t bother me, particularly because I think I’m right. And the rest of them are wrong. The point is this. I know what I say sounds different to Chinese and to Americans. My argument is that if the United States is going to compete with China as part of the relationship, then we should do it well. We should not make mistakes that require us to confront the fact that in many respects we have bungled our future.  

We need to invest more in our infrastructure and promote the use of science and technology and economy. We need to restructure our economy to make it internally more competitive. We absolutely do not need to engage in protectionism because that reduces economic efficiency. I come to these conclusions in part, having observed China make all sorts of mistakes in the 50s, 60s and 70s, and then suddenly got things right at the end of the 1970s with amazing results. Policy makes a difference. I’m arguing for different and more sensible policies here in the United States.  

NC: In recent years, China-US relations are full of competition instead of contact. Would you agree that many US scholars are increasingly hawkish on China?  

CF: I think about 90 percent of the American public is either skeptical or even hostile to China. I have also seen polls that 78 percent of Chinese are now skeptical or hostile to the United States. 

I think it is very unfortunate because I don’t think either Americans or Chinese perceive each other correctly. We have all sorts of misunderstandings about each other. We engaged in what is called in the intelligence, analysis business, mirror imagining. That is we look at the other person and we see ourselves. We don’t see them. They don’t think the way we do. They don’t have the same history and they don’t have the same situation. Their viewpoint is different. But we failed to recognize that, and we imagine that they are behaving the way we would behave if we were in what we imagined to be their position. This is a problem, a big problem. 
NC: Who is to blame for the current situation?  

CF: Both sides have contributed to this. On the Chinese side there was inadequate attention paid to the souring of the relationship with the American business community. For example, issues of intellectual property rights, which China actually was addressing internally, were not effectively handled by the government. And cyber espionage became a major issue. These things happened over time and they didn’t begin with the Trump administration. The Trump administration’s mistake overall has two things.  

First, it lacked empathy for China and did not understand Chinese history or circumstances or how Chinese feel. Second, it defined the relationship by reference to our differences.  

Relationships prosper only when the common interests are stressed over the differences. If you have irreconcilable differences, that means you can’t do anything about them. Then, you need to work around them, not make them the center of the relationship. The Trump administration began its own version of what is now called wolf warrior diplomacy. That is to say insulting people. And it had exactly the results I would have expected. It just angered Chinese. It didn’t make anybody in China reflect on what had happened. It gave Chinese an excuse not to think about why the relationship was going bad. Now China unfortunately has followed that example in its own wolf warrior diplomacy. It’s having exactly the same effect. Namely, nobody pays any attention to what China says. I think the major burden of what’s happened falls on the United States and Trump had a lot to do with it.  

NC: Old China hands usually see China from a historical background and the younger generation tend to see it through the dynamics of power and competition. How do you see the difference? 

CF: I encountered China when it was poor, vulnerable, weak and isolated. I have seen it solve all those problems to a great extent. China is now strong, and it is able to defend itself. It has an economy that is successful. It is not isolated. It’s a central part of a globalized economy. So the China that I met does not exist anymore. I have seen this with my own eyes and therefore I understand where China has come from, how great a distance that is. Perhaps I have a perspective on China that is different from people who encountered it only when it was wealthy and powerful.  

Chinese history is important, but I don’t agree with some Chinese interpretations of your own history. China has been content to be within its own borders and those borders are mainly natural borders. There are deserts, mountains, oceans and rivers. But China has reached the natural frontiers over the course of several thousand years. And I don’t see China as being aggressive. I don’t see it through the prism of the Cold War and I don’t think it is comparable to the Soviet Union. Younger people who didn’t live through the Cold War probably are less conscious of these differences.  

We should have more journalism on both sides. We should not be in a war to shut down reporting. We should allow the other side instructive criticisms and not overreact. The best thing a friend can do for you is to help you understand when you are making a mistake, and I think both sides need to grow up a bit. 

NC: There are growing misunderstandings on the military level between China and the US. How were these problems solved in the 80s and 90s?  

CF: I think the principal issue of difficulty in the relationship has always been the Taiwan issue. What is the Taiwan issue? It is the question of what Taiwan’s political relationship with the rest of China is or should be. The Taiwan question is a result of two things. First, the Chinese civil war which never ended, and second the Cold War which led to a policy of containment by the United States for the first maybe 15 years of the Cold War.  

The United States used Taiwan to contain China as part of what we saw as an alliance between China and the Soviet Union, then we switched to working with China to contain the Soviet Union and Taiwan was left out.  

The Chinese civil war had not ended. This is obviously a matter for Chinese to solve not us. On the other hand, we didn’t want to have a war on China’s frontiers.  

People in Taiwan have a separate sense of identity. There’s something we can do about that. It’s up to [the Chinese mainland] to attract them. China has many things that are attractive as a huge economy. It has great achievements in science and technology. But frankly its political system is not attractive to people in Taiwan.  

Basically, what [the mainland] needs to do is to create a situation in which people think I’m Taiwanese and I’m also Chinese. I am proud to be Chinese. How to get there? Somebody in Beijing has to figure that out and it’s beyond my confidence in Washington. There is no solution to this problem here. It is only one between Beijing and Taipei.  

NC: Do you expect the new administration will make drastic changes this year to Trump’s China policy?  

CF: I think there might be some changes on the level of protectionism because it is obviously hurting American industry. There are many voices in the American business community who are now openly opposed to the continuation of the Trump policies. Those policies have not been kind to farmers and manufacturers and so on. I suspect that as time goes on, there may be some renewed negotiations over trade. On the other hand, I think the relationship has to be rebuilt brick by brick. You cannot just overnight put up a new structure. It has to be built step by step.  

Once you lose trust it is very hard to rebuild it. This is human nature. How do you do that? You have to do it with actions, and you have to prove with actions that you can be trusted. Both sides have a problem in that regard. Both sides have been a little bit careless in giving their words and then failing to carry it out. I think we need to resolve on both sides that if we say something, we mean it and we will do what we promised.  

NC: Do you think China can take some action first to rebuild trust?  

CF: As an observer of this relationship for 53 years, the history of this relationship is one of the United States taking the initiative. Nixon went to China. Mao [Zedong] did not come to Washington. When I reopened military relations with China in 1993, I went to Beijing. I think there is a history of Americans always taking the first step. I think it’s time for China now to do exactly what you suggested – find some things that it can do that will start to rebuild trust. China has that capability. Unfortunately, however, you have spent 4,000 years practicing passivity not activism. And I will see, I’m not going to hold my breath waiting for China to take the initiative.  

NC: This year marks the 50th anniversary of Ping-Pong diplomacy. Do you think we should restart this kind of communication?  

CF: This is probably not the right atmosphere. The world was surprised by Ping-Pong diplomacy. The Chinese side was absolutely surprised by it. The first recommendation that went to Chairman Mao was to not invite Americans but at the last minute he reversed that. Before he went to bed, he told his doctor and called Zhou Enlai [and said] we should invite them. This was a surprise in one sense, but in another it was not. I was then in Taiwan, I had read the record of the Warsaw talks between the US and China. I was aware that the two sides were trying to find a way to establish better communication.  

When this happened, I wasn’t surprised. I was surprised by the particular way in which it happened. I knew something was going to happen. But unfortunately we are not in that situation now. The tide is moving against good relations, not in favor of them and we have to wait for the tide to turn. Maybe that will require both sides to make some adjustments. Then we can find a way. But in the meantime, sports, which are a good way of getting together, are not a good way because the Olympics are in doubt now.  

So I think we’d better leave this subject for a later resolution.