New concept and old advice: Zheng Yongnian's analysis on U.S.-China relations and Chinese foreign policy; Lesson from the Korean War

With further openness, and befriend - not antagonize - others; surrender is not an option. 

Among scholars based outside the Chinese mainland but focused on Chinese affairs Zheng Yongnian, Professor and Director of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore, is quite unique.

Originally from rural China, Zheng, with a BA and MA from Peking University, left in 1990 for a Ph.D. in Princeton and then a career in Singapore. He spent three years as founding Research Director of the China Policy Institute, the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom, before returning to Singapore. In an extensive interview [in Chinese] in November 2017, he said, despite so many years abroad, he has always been a PRC citizen.

There are quite some "China Hands" growing up in China but based outside China with non-Chinese institutions, but unlike, say, Cheng Li or Minxin Pei whose primary audience is English-speaking non-Chinese, Zheng has been writing numerous commentaries on China’s domestic and international affairs in Chinese, ostensibly for a Chinese audience.

Zheng is more unique in the sense that he is probably the only one who has been able to consistently maintain, with a big profile, a significant audience on the Chinese mainland. His readers, based on my personal observation, tend to be better educated and more reasoned ones.

By one credible count, he published five bylined commentaries on the People's Daily in "recent years" - the most recent being China's Experience in COVID-19 Control Worth Learning From on March 17.

There is no telling of how much of his writings influence Chinese thinking or decision-making, but his official bio does include this: "Besides his research work, Professor Zheng has also been an academic activist...He has also been advising the Chinese government at different levels on various areas of reform and development."

That his view has been generally considered acceptable and perhaps valuable on the mainland makes his recent, well-read analysis and advice on the China-US breakdown in relations and Chinese foreign policy more interesting.

In a Chinese-language article titled Identity Politics and the Great Conflicts of Our Times originally published on June 30, Zheng applies the concept of identity politics (he explicitly mentioned the term in English) to the recent U.S. escalation with China, especially Washington's bid to rally its traditional allies and isolate China.

After going through a brief history of identity politics, in which he summarized its domestic [in the U.S.]  成效 achievements as 屈指可数 "limited" and internationally 导向冲突和纷争 leading to conflict and strife, Zheng cited a German-language commentary on the Finanz und Wirtschaft by Hans-Joachim Voth, University of Zurich, where Zheng wrote:

The author is concerned about the "skepticism on democracy" that has begun to take hold in the West. This is understandable, but the author turns this concern into criticism and condemnation of China's "authoritarianism", which is identity politics in play.

In fact, demonizing China to reinforce the Western democratic identity has begun to flourish of late.

A more typical narrative, Zheng wrote, is Mike Pompeo's framing of Europe's choice in the Copenhagen Democracy Summit: 

The choice isn’t between the United States; it’s between freedom and tyranny.

Further evidence cited by Zheng includes the UK's proposal to hold a D-10 summit for addressing both 5G mobile communications and vulnerable supply chains and the new Global Partnership on AI (GPAI), both of which exclude China. 

(If I were editing Zheng's article, I would add a few more items: the new U.S.- EU dialogue specifically focused on China, the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, and Donald Trump's proposal to expand G7 to G11. As of writing this, a Wednesday speech by Le Yucheng, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, at the Video Dialogue on Sino-US Relations Co-hosted by the Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs and the Asia Society, also came to attention, where he said forming an anti-China bloc is to divide the global village. It runs completely counter to the trend of the times.) 

Zheng went on to conclude the article, writing the participating countries 

have excluded China on the basis of identity politics (identification with democracy), or put China directly on the opposite side.

Obviously, identity politics has risen from the level of individuals and groups within a society to the level of the sovereign country, which identifies itself with its own [democratic] identity and rejects others {that didn't share the identity]. As explained earlier, identity politics and conflicts are intrinsically related. If identity politics has led to endless conflicts internally within a society, it will inevitably lead to conflicts and even wars between countries. Moreover, historical experience shows that the conflicts and wars that result from such identity politics, which religiousizes and moralizes secular values, have a greater energy in violence.

Sadly, the general trend in the world today, both within a country and in relations between countries, is towards the reinforcement of identity politics. In a world where nationalism and populism are rife, both commoners and elites have fallen deeply into the trap of identity politics. 

Zheng didn't offer his advice there. But in another well-circulated interview piece published by 正和岛 Zheng He Island, known as a hub of Chinese elite entrepreneurs but not official/state-linked in any sense, Zheng elaborated on what China should do in response.

Compare to his rather novel approach of observing via the lens of identity politics, which is not well known in China, Zheng's advice is perhaps old-fashioned. He is quoted as saying:

Since the Second World War, the West has dominated the world mainly through the formulation of universal rules. They have transformed their own views into "universal ideas", which they have then transformed into universal rules to expand and implement around the world. 

Against this backdrop, the United States now has an even more terrifying tool beyond the Cold War [strategy] - it has started a "war of identity politics" with China.


What worries me most now is that the United States is engaged in a political war of identity politics with us, and we are also engaged in it - falling into the trap set by the U.S.

Take this pandemic as an example, we have "scored in deeds and lost in words". We have scored points in both the internal control against coronavirus and external support we gave to other countries, but we ended up losing all our points through our words - all consumed in our rhetoric.

We fell into the agenda set by the West. Early on it was the battle of the [political] systems, followed by the so-called battle of influence - and we got nothing in the end.

Some of our officials, our social media, and our people, are so nationalistic. Whenever the West criticized us, we came right back at them. It's okay to do tit-for-tat with the U.S., but it's a problem to do an-eye-for-an-eye against every other country.

Our messaging agenda in the coronavirus pandemic has always been set by the West and we were always responding - falling into the trap of others.

Why couldn't we think about this and set the agenda for our own? 

We didn't, we were eager to yell back.

We are now yelling back at people with loud voices. But make no mistake, a loud voice does not mean the power of discourse. It's wrong if you yell at everyone.

One wonders if some overly nationalistic people considered the external implications before they spoke and acted. Probably not, it’s more likely they thought of China as the world - "I am the world".

Otherwise, how could one explain the frequent diplomatic controversies during this period?

In fact, we in China have had good lessons on this in the past.

Mao Zedong, in the spirit of seeking truth from facts, put forward the theory of "three worlds", saying, the United States and the Soviet Union are the First World. The centrists, Japan, Europe, and Canada, are the Second World. We are the Third World.

The Second and Third World countries were all China aimed to befriend, which made it possible to break away from the focus of ideology [capitalism vs. socialism] and avoid identity politics.


Today China is nearing the center of the world stage, and what others would like is a tolerant and magnanimous leader, not one who quarrels with and blames others all the time. I think we should go back to the pragmatic diplomacy of  "seeking common ground while reserving differences", have our own rationality, and not follow the U.S. to engage in identity politics. Confidence comes from rationality, not outbursts of emotions.


Zheng concluded by suggesting further opening up on three fronts:

First, real economic openings……It is mainly the White House, not Wall Street, that is now advocating for a trade war in the US. While there are many in the corporate world in the U.S. who now support Trump's trade war, they think differently. The goal of these vested interests is to force China to be more open, not to make it more closed. But the Cold War faction in the White House wants China to be closed. From the history of the U.S., ultimately, the White House listens to Wall Street, not the other way around. Therefore, China must use the power of capital to reduce the effects or even contain the trade war.


Even if the power of capital in the US capital succumbed to political pressure, what about countries like the EU and Japan? Does the United States have the ability to pressure all Western countries to abandon the Chinese market? In an open state, as more and more countries become "stakeholders" in China's development, there is no possibility for the US and the West to isolate China.


Second, emancipating the mind.

The second openness is Deng Xiaoping's "emancipate the mind and seek truth from facts", not to ideologize everything.


Third, openness with precision.

For example, if you want to hold Wall Street back……Wall Street is not interested in the real economy [manufacturing], its strengths and interests are in finance, the Internet, technology. What about [opening] to Japan and Europe? It could be opening up the manufacturing sectors.

Historically, the conclusion of China's reform and opening-up is that openness leads to success and closedness leads to defeat.

This is already exceedingly lengthy but another point briefly.

Bill Bishop, of Sinocism, mentioned an article [in Chinese] on the WeChat account of the Overseas Edition of the People's Daily, known as 侠客岛 Xia Ke Dao, which provides its background on the new Chinese initiative to honor Korean War vets with commemorative medals.

My main take-away is this: 

It is necessary to revisit the connotations [of the Korean War] in the current challenging Sino-US relations and very complicated international situation. 

What exactly? Sail straight to the two last paragraphs.

Seventy years have passed, and the world has long since changed. What remains unchanged is the [often repeated in Chinese political-speak] truth, as the Korean War proved: If unity is sought through struggle, it will live; If unity is sought through yielding, it will perish.

Some people say that China and the United States will eventually be friends in the future. But to be friends with the United States, one must first be an opponent he {the U.S.] cannot defeat.

The highlighted sentence is in fact paraphrasing words in Mao Zedong's essay [in Chinese] on united front work in March 1940, where, immediately before the highlighted sentence, Mao wrote. 

Struggle is the means to unity, and unity is the aim of struggle.

团结, literally translated as unity, is perhaps now too much of a word for the China-U.S. relations nowadays. So maybe it can be replaced with something like the end of upheaval and return to a sort of normality. 

That spirit reminds me of the title of John Bolton's earlier book: Surrender Is Not an Option. 

Thank you for reading.