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What Obama Should Say About China in Japan

What Obama Should Say About China in Japan

A ChinaFile Conversation

On Wednesday, Barack Obama will land in Tokyo beginning a week-long trip to four of China’s neighbors—but not to China itself.

In Obama’s stops in Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, and Kuala Lampur, the specter of China will loom large. This will be especially pronounced in Tokyo, where the big unanswered question is how involved the United States would be if China seized the Diaoyu, the disputed islands administered by Japan, which calls them the Senkakus. We asked contributors what President Obama should say about China in Tokyo. —The Editors

Responses

During his visit to Tokyo later this week, President Obama needs to strike a careful balance. His message in Tokyo needs to be two-fold: he needs to reassure Japan, but he also needs to encourage Japan to look for any opening for high-level diplomatic engagement with China.

First and foremost, Obama needs to reassure Japan of U.S.’ defense commitment.There has been rising concern in Japan about whether the U.S. can be relied upon to come to Japan’s defense should the situation grow more aggravated, particularly around the Senkaku Islands area. The U.S. response to allegations of Syrian use of chemical weapons last year and Russia’s aggressive behavior in Crimea make many in Japan seriously concerned about U.S. capacity and willingness to act decisively were a similar situation to occur in the East China Sea. Furthermore, many in Japan have expressed concern about what the Obama administration has in mind for “operationalizing a new model of major power relations.” Obama must articulate in Japan that the U.S. anchors its Asia policy in regional alliances, and the U.S.-Japan alliance is among such critical anchors.

At the same time, however, Obama also has to encourage Tokyo to stabilize its relationship with Beijing. This, however, is often easier said than done. In that context, he needs to make it clear (in private, as nobody, including Japanese people, wants to see their leader being lectured by a U.S. President in public) that, while Washington appreciates Japan’s grievances over Chinese behavior, it should refrain from demonizing China. In private, he also has to communicate that Japan should strictly refrain from the behaviors that give China excuse to blame Japan for Beijing’s own aggressive rhetoric and behavior, such as the recent seizure of Japanese commercial vessels “as a part of wartime reparation.” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has consistently said that the window of dialogue is always open for China. Obama should encourage Abe to continue to pursue policy that reflects this statement, thereby putting the onus on China to take the next step.

Overall, the most important message that Obama has to deliver in Japan is that, while differences may exist in approaches to specific policy issues, the United States and Japan share an interest in welcoming and encouraging constructive behavior from China that respects established international rules and norms, and that they stand united against any behavior to destabilize the status quo by force.

President Obama will visit four countries on China’s periphery this week, three of which (Japan, South Korea and the Philippines) are treaty allies and one (Malaysia) that is an emerging security partner. Look for Obama to emphasize, including in Tokyo, that the United States seeks positive and stable relations with Beijing and encourages countries throughout the region to do the same.

Further messages in Japan will echo three principal themes of the trip—that the U.S. rebalance to Asia is real, that the policy is multifaceted (i.e. not primarily concerned with security issues), and that U.S. alliances and partnerships provide important platforms for regional and global cooperation.

On security issues in particular, I’ll be looking carefully to see how the president addresses three specific issues. First, will Obama say explicitly that Article V of the U.S.-Japan defense treaty covers the Senkaku Islands? High-level U.S. officials have repeated this talking point in recent years, but it will have special meaning coming directly from the president himself.

Second, will the President single out China for engaging in uniquely provocative and destabilizing actions? Many observers thought National Security Advisor Susan Rice’s remarks at Georgetown University in November—especially during the brief question and answer period at the end—missed the mark in this regard by appearing to draw equivalence between the actions of Japan and China.

And third, will the president voice strong support for Japanese constitutional reinterpretation on the issue of collective self-defense? My hope (and expectation) is that the answers to all three questions will an unambiguous “yes.”

But the most powerful message Obama will send to Beijing during his time in Tokyo won’t actually have anything to do with China at all. Instead, it will be about the role of Japan as a responsible, generous and positive contributor to regional and international issues. On that score, Obama will highlight U.S.-Japan cooperation in Southeast Asia; U.S.-Japan trilateral cooperation with India, Australia and South Korea; and the two countries’ collaboration on global issues, including climate, Syria, Ukraine, Iran and Afghanistan.

Quite distinct from the territorial row in the East China Sea, it is the many values and interests that the United States and Japan share in Asia and the world that will speak volumes to and draw distinctions with China.

President Obama is headed to a nervous Tokyo that needs clear signs of U.S. endurance and credibility. He should abandon the term “pivot,” which is causing more angst and confusion than reassurance and clarity.

The “pivot” now appears ill-conceived for three reasons. The first is a mistake of strategic conception. Yes, Asia is of emerging consequence in world affairs: all post-Cold War presidents have recognized this. And, China has had the potential to pose the greatest challenge to the United States since it became the prime actor in world affairs. Without a doubt, Asia needs more American attention and resources. But the U.S. is a global superpower with vital interests in several, interlinked, regions. There can be no Asia policy without a global strategy. For example, Japan gets most of its energy from the Middle East where Washington has played a stabilizing role. And what about India? How will Delhi play the role we imagine for it in Asia if we mishandle Afghanistan? Furthermore, all Asian powers watch Washington’s handling of the other revisionist states – Russia and Iran— for clues about its fortitude in Asia. U.S. grand strategy must account for these facts.

The second mistake is one of implementation. It is not possible for Washington to play a consequential role in Asia while drastically cutting its defense budget, and demonstrating an uneven commitment to the Trans Pacific Partnership. A U.S. military second to none is the sin qua non of stability in Asia. The TPP is the gold standard of multilateral trade agreements, integrating Washington more deeply into Asia. But many countries have spent political capital on the TPP and worry that Washington is not doing the same. Tokyo needs to see the President build support for the pact in the United States.

Finally, no one believes that the pivot is “not about China.” Why keep up the charade? It has gained the U.S. nothing in Beijing, where Chinese policymakers view it with hostility. The U.S. China strategy should be what it has been for two decades, built upon the dual pillars of engaging China while balancing its power.

Instead of reaching for a new strategic masterstroke, the President should settle for something more mundane: building on the Asia work of his predecessors. If a slogan is needed how about an old one: “speak softly and carry a big stick?”

First and foremost, Obama needs to reassure the Japanese about America’s commitment to the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance, and more specifically its commitment to protecting the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands alongside the Japanese, should the Chinese side attempt to seize the islands. There have been reports that the U.S. response to Ukraine has caused disquiet in Tokyo about Washington’s ability to stand up to powerful states. I do not believe that Japan can be equated with Ukraine (the latter is not a key ally and a linchpin in U.S. strategy in Europe, like Japan is in Asia), and neither do the Japanese seriously think that Obama’s stance towards Kiev is comparable to his Japan policy. Nevertheless, the fact that such reports got out probably means that the Japanese are sending a signal—they want a much firmer stance towards China from the US.

My (admittedly unrealistic) ‘wish list’ would also include that the Obama administration abandons the U.S.’s official stance of “not taking sides” towards the territoriality of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. It is the U.S. that handed over the islands to the Japanese in 1972, so in a way it de facto recognized the islands as belonging to Japan. Washington has thus played a key role in this dispute, and claiming that it “takes no sides” while simultaneously stating that the islands fall under the remit of the U.S.-Japan Security Alliance is deeply unhelpful. It could embolden (and perhaps already has) the Chinese to adopt aggressive tactics towards the Japanese in this dispute. It also serves to ensure that Japanese anxieties with regard to the U.S.’s commitment to the Alliance will continue to fester. If Japanese anxieties are not placated, Japan could seek to enhance its military capabilities further, and lead to an arms race in the region.

Alliances are built on the delicate balancing between the dynamics of ‘abandonment (i.e. fear that my ally would not support me in a time of need)’ and ‘entrapment (fear that my ally would drag me into an unnecessary war)’, and needs constant maintenance. Obama is understandably in a difficult position, as he has to navigate between these two factors. It is perfectly understandable that he does not want to see America pulled into a military standoff with China because of Japan’s disputes with the Chinese. Yet, at some point, he must make his stance clearer: does the US want to reach some sort of entente with China, even if that means sacrificing Japan and its interests? Or would Obama like to maintain US military supremacy in the region, with the help of its regional allies, including Japan? If Obama does not wish to see China, an authoritarian, one-party state, becoming the regional hegemon in the Asia-Pacific, then he should know which policy he has to ultimately choose.

Once President Obama has finished reminding Mr. Abe that the U.S. commitment to defend all the territories administered by Japan is unlimited and unconditional, he can next assure  Mr. Abe that China’s post-2008 excursion into noisy navalism and would-be expansionism must end in a debacle—the alternative would be too catastrophic even for a reckless leadership. But in the meantime, China’s words and deeds are generating a real threat that in turn propels a process of coalescence from India to Japan, in which Japan must shoulder an unequal burden by paying for strategic roads in India, submarines in Vietnam and the building of real military forces for the Philippines, whose ports Japanese warships should start visiting on a regular basis. After reminding Mr. Abe that China is 70% good, 30% bad as well as a great market for all—both Toyota and Nissan are working hard to recover their market share which declined from 20% to 16%  after the 2010 incidents—Mr. Obama can insist on the importance of reinforcing good China by firmly resisting bad China. Finally Mr. Obama should clearly declare that Japan must accept the discipline imposed by its strategic predicament; it cannot afford to lose support for itself and thus for the entire coalition because of the absurdly unhistorical Yasukuni museum (the ashes can stay there) and because of Antarctic  whaling that is an important problem for the splendidly  supportive Australian ally. Now that China’s conduct has forced Japan to become an independent strategic actor again, it pays full price for whatever is sub-optimal in its conduct, and at least those two irritants must be eliminated. Not to do so would mean that Japan does not accept the discipline of strategy, that it is not a serious power.

I am assuming that this conversation will occur in private.

First, avoid the ringing clichés. We already know that all sides are, at least in the abstract, in favor of stable relations, peace and stability in Asia and the world, and cooperation for the good of all. The issues are how to achieve these given the obstacles that impede reaching those goals.

Second, what the Japanese government needs are clear statements of what the United States would do and under what circumstances. When a PACOM admiral says that he sees climate change as the worst threat to Asian stability, that sets, as Mike Green put it, alarm bells ringing in Tokyo. Although Japan is not the Philippines, similar concerns ensued when CNO Greenert said in Manila that “of course” the U.S. would help the Philippines ”I don’t know in what that help would be specifically. I mean, we have an obligation because we have a treaty. But I don’t know in what capacity that help is.”

Strategic ambiguity is good up to a point. The operative clause of the NATO treaty is that an attack of one member is to be considered an attack on all. The US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty, by contrast, says

In the event of an armed attack against these islands, the United States Government will consult at once with the Government of Japan and intends to take the necessary measures for the defense of these islands leaving far more room for ambiguity. So when U.S. spokespersons affirm that the U.S. will live up to its treaty obligations, the Japanese are not sure how this would be operationalized. Moreover, what has been happening is not an armed Chinese attack but what seems to be a gradual osmosis. The United States warns both sides against provocative actions and in general the Japanese coast guard warns Chinese coast guard ships and fishing boats against intrusion but does little else. Wisely, the GoJ fears that a more forceful reaction would provide Beijing with what it would term a provocation to which it would be “forced” to respond. In other words, the Japanese lose if they do not respond and lose if they do.

The Japanese side needs to know in a more scenario-specific way what the US is or is not prepared to do.

Third, Obama should urge Abe to move forward in creating a consensus that Japan must be able to defend itself. That he understands why visits to Yasukuni Shrine have symbolic importance. But priority must be given to the larger issue. Abe is not, of course, the obstacle: he believes that Japan must be an “ordinary country,” futsu no kuni, with a real military. Yet half the population opposes alternations to article 9 of the constitution. And the China School in the gaimusho seems bent on accommodating to China’s wishes. Both need to be dealt with; doing the latter might be easier than doing the former. Abe should expect opposition from China, and must counter it with repeated references to (a) the size of China’s defense budget at anti-Japanese statements by many high-ranking PLA officers (b) the Pancha Shila, which rejects interference by one foreign country in the affairs of another.

Finally, Japan must either decide to accommodate to China—for example, agree to surrender the islands and forswear visits to Yasukuni—or learn to say no to China. But it would help Japan to reach a decision on which if the US made clear how far it is willing to support Japan.

I like the way this discussion has started but it, like other recent discussions of the problem, neglects one important possibility—a resort to the resources of international legal institutions for resolving the current disputes. Chairman Mao admonished us to “walk on two legs.” Rebalancing is indeed desirable, including reconfirmation of American security commitments. Yet that alone will only increase the likelihood of an arms race and the risks of military clashes. All around the periphery of China nations should follow the Philippine example of seeking to test China’s claims and their own before an impartial international tribunal, and the U.S. should be openly encouraging them to do so, despite its own mixed record in dealing with international law.

Japan cannot long sustain its increasingly ridiculous position that there is no “dispute” over the Senkaku/Diaoyu. This makes hollow Japan’s repeated statements about being willing to improve relations with China. Just before Abe’s ascent, Japan’s then Foreign Minister Gemba showed the way by publishing an op ed in the International Herald Tribune calling upon China to test this territorial claim before an impartial tribunal by launching a suit against Japan before the International Court of Justice. This was not some wild-eyed shot in the dark by a grandstanding politician about to leave office but had the support of sober legal officials in the Gaimusho (Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Unfortunately the Abe administration has not endorsed this proposal. But it should.

Japan, following the Philippine example, should also initiate an arbitration case against China in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea challenging the “9-Dash Line,” which is of major interest to Japan, the U.S, and other states that want to maximize freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. The U.S. should publicly encourage all interested states that have serious claims against China under public international law to creatively take advantage of opportunities offered by the vast experience and considerable successes of international legal institutions, which have proved far more flexible and imaginative than most diplomats realize.

Sometimes such efforts manage to conclude territorial disputes. Sometimes they stimulate a negotiation process between the parties that had previously remained moribund. At a minimum they get states focused on giving greater weight to acting in accord with international norms instead of relying on weapons, bluster and nationalistic politics. China’s new leaders should be bombarded with serious legal claims that make them think more deeply about international law.

The PRC has shown itself capable of adjusting its international law conduct and attitudes in the past. Having initially shown no interest in placing an expert on the International Court of Justice after its entry into the UN, in recent decades it has always posted very able specialists to join judges nominated by other countries. China has also adapted to the dispute resolution processes of the WTO in impressive fashion. The recent PRC decision to reject the Philippine arbitration instead of fulfilling its United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) obligation to test its claim of no UNCLOS jurisdiction before the designated tribunal was deeply disappointing to many of us who hope to see international law become a prominent part of the new type of diplomacy China says it seeks. That decision also disappointed many specialists in China, including some experts within its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and remains controversial and perhaps subject to eventual reconsideration.

Japan and the U.S. in any event have little to lose if China shuns any new international law dispute resolution initiatives, since the world will see the effort as enhancing their “soft power.”

As a Chinese, I expect President Obama to say:

1. I had a very successful meeting with President Xi Jinping last June in Sunnylands, California. The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world. I welcome the peaceful rise of China. President Xi and myself have agreed to build a new model of big power relationship. This is a historical agreement. We are determined to avoid past confrontation and conflict between rising power and established power. This is good news not only for our two countries but also for Asia and rest of the world.

2. East Asia remains the global growth center. The whole world needs Asia’s growth to overcome the consequences of the financial crisis, to stimulate growth and to create jobs. We have to do our best to maintain East Asia as global growth center.

3. China and Japan are two important countries. I hope they will resolve their territorial disputes through peaceful means. Peace, stability and détente in East Asia are in the best interest of the world’s peace and prosperity. 

4. In the Second World War, Japanese militarists brought untold sorrow and devastation not only to China, Korea and other Asia countries, but also to America. We all remember Pearl Harbor. This war left deep wounds. On the Japanese side, one should refrain from doing anything which may reopen these wounds. I strongly recommend you to stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine. Any act of denial and defiance would be highly undesirable.

There is no way the POTUS can assure the Government of Japan that the US can be relied on to come to Japan’s aid should the CCP government use force against Japanese-administered territory. There is no way the POTUS can assure CCP ruling groups that America’s re-balance toward the Indo-Pacific is not about constraining China. Why?

The international system is an amoral, self-help world. People in power in Tokyo today, as in Paris during the Cold War, can never fully persuade themselves that another government will spill blood and treasure on their behalf. Today, they may say that US military inaction in Syria and the Crimea shows the US can not be counted on. But should the US have committed itself militarily in Syria and Crimea, Tokyo would say that the US balance to Asia is unreliable since its interventions elsewhere show the US is not focused on the Indo-Pacific. Tokyo therefore will feel it has to do more to defend itself and to make the US more likely to fulfill its commitments to Japan should worse come to worst. This is natural.

Similarly, the CCP presumes that the goals of the USG include constraining China from becoming the dominant power in Asia and undermining the CCP which is the force promoting Chinese predominance. There is nothing the USG can do to change this CCP mindset which under-girds CCP power and policy.

Yet it is a fact that the POTUS imagines himself as America’s first Pacific president and has from early on wanted to get the US out of the quagmires of a so-called war on terror and focus US attention more on the region which has been the fastest growing since the end of WW II. The US wants to avoid a China-Japan war. But it cannot stop the expansionist forces which surge inside of Chinese politics.

The task of the POTUS is not easy.

Topics: 
Yuki Tatsumi was appointed Senior Associate of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center in September 2008 after serving as a research fellow since 2004. Before joining Stimson, Tatsumi worked as a...
Ely Ratner is Senior Fellow and Deputy Director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). He is the author most recently of “Resident Power: Building a...
Dan Blumenthal is the Director of Asian Studies at AEI, where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations. He is also the John A. van Beuren Chair Distinguished Visiting...
Shogo Suzuki is Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) in the Department of Politics at the University of Manchester. He has published on Chinese and Japanese foreign policy, as well as Sino-Japanese...
Edward Luttwak is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies of Washington. He has served as a consultant to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the National...
June Teufel Dreyer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Florida, where she teaches courses on China, U.S. defense policy, and international relations. She has...
Jerome A. Cohen, a professor at New York University School of Law since 1990 and co-director of its U.S.-Asia Law Institute, is a leading American expert on Chinese law and government. A pioneer in...
Ambassador Wu Jianmin is currently Executive Vice Chairman of China Institute for Innovation and Development Strategy, a Senior Research Fellow of the Counselors’ office of the State Council of China...
Edward Friedman is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has worked in rural China, co-authoring Chinese Village, Socialist State (Yale...

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China in ‘House of Cards’

STEVEN JIANG, DONALD CLARKE & more

China figures heavily in the second season of the Netflix series House of Cards, but how accurately does the show portray U.S.-China relations? Steven Jiang, a journalist for CNN in Beijing, binged-watched all thirteen recently-released web-only episodes over the weekend. Donald...

Conversation

02.13.14

Are Ethnic Tensions on the Rise in China?

ENZE HAN, JAMES PALMER & more

On December 31, President Xi Jinping appeared on CCTV and extended his “New Year’s wishes to Chinese of all ethnic groups.” On January 15, Beijing officials detained Ilham Tohti, a leading Uighur economist and subsequently accused him of “separtist offenses”; a fresh...

Conversation

02.05.14

What Should the U.S. Do about China’s Barring Foreign...

NICHOLAS LEMANN, MICHEL HOCKX & more

Last week, the White House said it was “very disappointed” in China for denying a visa to another journalist working for The New York Times in Beijing, forcing him to leave the country after eight years. What else should the U.S. government do? How should Americans...

Conversation

01.27.14

China’s Offshore Leaks: So What?

PAUL GILLIS & ROBERT KAPP

Two recent stories by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists detailed China’s elite funneling money out of China to tax havens in the Caribbean. We asked contributors to weigh the impact of the revelations.—The Editors

Conversation

01.21.14

Time to Escalate? Should the U.S. Make China...

THE EDITORS, EDWARD FRIEDMAN & more

How should the United States respond to China’s new level of assertiveness in the Asia Pacific? In the past few months as Beijing has stepped up territorial claims around China's maritime borders—and in the skies above them—the Obama administration has moved to soothe...

Conversation

12.17.13

Why Is China Purging Its Former Top Security Chief,...

PIN HO & RICHARD MCGREGOR

Pin Ho:[Zhou Yongkang’s downfall] is the second chapter of the “Bo Xilai Drama”—a drama begun at the 18th Party Congress. The Party’s power transition has been secret and has lacked convincing procedure. This [lack of transparency] has triggered unimaginably huge...

Conversation

12.07.13

Will China Shut Out the Foreign Press?

THE EDITORS, WINSTON LORD & more

Some two dozen journalists employed by The New York Times and Bloomberg News have not yet received the visas they need to continue to report and live in China after the end of this year. Without them, they will effectively be expelled from the country. Visiting Beijing earlier...

Conversation

12.03.13

What Posture Should Joe Biden Adopt Toward A Newly...

SUSAN SHIRK

Susan Shirk:United States Vice President Joseph Biden is the American political figure who has spent the most time with Xi Jinping and has the deepest understanding of Xi as an individual. Before Xi’s selection as P.R.C. president and C.C.P. general secretary he served as vice...

Conversation

11.27.13

Why’s the U.S. Flying Bombers Over the East China Sea...

CHEN WEIHUA, JAMES FALLOWS & more

Chen Weihua:The Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) is not a Chinese invention. The United States, Japan and some 20 other countries declared such zones in their airspace long time ago.China’s announcement of its first ADIZ in the East China Sea reflects its frustration with...

Conversation

11.24.13

What Should the Next U.S. Ambassador to China Tackle...

MARY KAY MAGISTAD & ROBERT KAPP

Mary Kay Magistad: Gary Locke succeeded in a way that few U.S. ambassadors to China have—in improving public perceptions of U.S. culture.  Locke’s down-to-earth approachability and lack of ostentation certainly helped. So did the initiatives of shortening waits for U.S....

Conversation

11.19.13

What Will the Beginning of the End of the One-Child...

LETA HONG FINCHER, VINCENT NI & more

Leta Hong Fincher:The Communist Party’s announcement that it will loosen the one-child policy is, of course, welcome news. Married couples will be allowed to have two children if only one of the spouses is an only child, meaning that millions more couples will now be exempted...

Conversation

11.12.13

Spiked in China?

JOHN GARNAUT, SIDNEY RITTENBERG & more

Last weekend, The New York Times and later, The Financial Times reported that, according to Bloomberg News employees, Bloomberg editor in chief Matthew Winkler informed reporters by telephone on October 29 that Bloomberg would not publish their...

Conversation

10.30.13

Trial By TV: What Does a Reporter’s Arrest and...

THE EDITORS, WANG FENG & more

The Editors: The latest ChinaFile Conversation focuses on the case of Chen Yongzhou, the Guangzhou New Express journalist whose series of investigative reports exposed fraud at the Changsha, Hunan-based heavy machinery maker Zoomlion. Chen later was arrested and then, last...

Conversation

10.25.13

Can State-Run Capitalism Absorb the Shocks of ‘...

THE EDITORS, BARRY NAUGHTON & more

The Editors: Following are ChinaFile Conversation participants’ reactions to “China: Superpower or Superbust?” in the November-December issue of The National Interest in which author Ian Bremmer says that China’s state-capitalism is ill-equipped to absorb the shocks to...

Conversation

10.22.13

Why’s China’s Smog Crisis Still Burning So Hot?

ALEX WANG, ISABEL HILTON & more

Alex Wang:On Sunday, the start of the winter heating season in northern China brought the “airpocalypse” back with a vengeance.Harbin, the capital of Heilongjiang Province and home to 11 million people, registered fine particulate (PM2.5) pollution levels beyond 500, the top...

Conversation

10.16.13

Uncomfortable Bedfellows: How Much Does China Need...

BILL BISHOP, DAVID SCHLESINGER & more

Bill Bishop:The D.C. dysfunction puts China in a difficult place. Any financial markets turmoil that occurs because of a failure of Congress to do its job could harm China’s economy, and especially its exports. The accumulation of massive foreign-exchange reserves, now at...

Conversation

10.08.13

Obama’s Canceled Trip to Asia: How Much Did It Matter...

WINSTON LORD, SUSAN SHIRK & more

Last week as the U.S. Federal Government shut down, President Obama canceled his planned trip to Indonesia and Brunei, where he was to have attended the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Bali. Some foreign policy analysts have argued the canceled trip will inflict...

Conversation

10.07.13

Why Is Xi Jinping Promoting Self-Criticism?

STEPHEN C. ANGLE & TAISU ZHANG

Critics both within and without China have suggested that Xi Jinping’s promotion of self-criticism by Communist Party cadres has at least two motives: it promotes the appearance of concern with lax discipline while avoiding deeper reform, and it softens up potential targets of...

Conversation

09.27.13

Can China’s Leading Indie Film Director Cross Over in...

JONATHAN LANDRETH, MICHAEL BERRY & more

Jonathan Landreth:Chinese writer and director Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin won the prize for the best screenplay at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Though the dialogue and its fine translation and English subtitles by Tony Rayns are exemplary, I found that as the screening...

Media

09.26.13

Execution or Murder? Chinese Look for Justice in Street...

TEA LEAF NATION

This morning, a Chinese street vendor named Xia Junfeng was executed. Xia had been found guilty of murdering two urban enforcers, known colloquially as chengguan, in 2009. Xia’s lawyers argued he acted in self-defense, presenting six eyewitness accounts and statements from...

Conversation

09.24.13

A Shark Called Wanda—Will Hollywood Swallow the...

STANLEY ROSEN, JONATHAN LANDRETH & more

Stanley Rosen:Wang Jianlin, who personally doesn’t know much about film, made a splash when he purchased America’s No. 2 movie theater chain AMC at a price many thought far too high for what he was getting.  A number of knowledgeable people felt that the money could have...

Conversation

09.17.13

What’s Behind China’s Recent Internet Crackdown?

THE EDITORS, XIAO QIANG & more

The Editors:Last weekend, Charles Xue Manzi, a Chinese American multi-millionaire investor and opinion leader on one of China’s most popular microblogs, appeared in handcuffs in an interview aired on China Central Television (CCTV). Xue is just the most visible blogger to be...

Conversation

09.13.13

What Can China and Japan Do to Start Anew?

PAULA S. HARRELL & CHEN WEIHUA

Paula S. Harrell:While the media keeps its eye on the ongoing Diaoyu/Senkaku islands dispute, heating up yet again this week after Chinese naval ships and aircraft were spotted circling the area, a parallel, possibly game-changing development in China-Japan relations has gone...

Conversation

09.09.13

What Are Chinese Attitudes Toward a U.S. Strike in...

CHEN WEIHUA, VINCENT NI & more

Chen Weihua:Chinese truly believe that there is no military solution to the Syrian crisis. On the contrary, a U.S. air strike would only worsen the situation there. Chinese have seen many failures of U.S. intervention in the Middle East in the past decade.The U.S. clearly is...

Conversation

09.05.13

To Reform or Not Reform?—Echoes of the Late Qing...

ORVILLE SCHELL, JOHN DELURY & more

Orville Schell:It is true that China is no longer beset by threats of foreign incursion nor is it a laggard in the world of economic development and trade. But being there and being steeped in an atmosphere of seemingly endless political and economic tension where questions of...

Conversation

08.28.13

Beijing, Why So Tense?

ANDREW J. NATHAN, ISABEL HILTON & more

Andrew Nathan:I think of the Chinese leaders as holding a plant spritzer and dousing sparks that are jumping up all around them.  Mao made the famous remark, “A single spark can start a prairie fire.”  The leaders have seen that terrifying truth confirmed in the pro...

Conversation

08.21.13

Is Xi Jinping Redder Than Bo Xilai Or Vice Versa?

MICHAEL ANTI & SHAI OSTER

Michael Anti:Competing for Redness: The Scarlet Bo vs the Vermilion Xi?Bo Xilai, the fallen Chinese princeling famous for leading a “Red Songs” communist campaign in southwest China's megacity Chongqing, is on trial today, live-Twittered from Jinan in Shandong province, east...

Conversation

08.15.13

What Should China Do to Reverse its Tourism Deficit?

THE EDITORS, LEAH THOMPSON & more

The Editors: Recent news stories and industry studies show that fewer international visitors are choosing China as their destination. January-June arrivals in Beijing are down 15% from the same period in 2012 and more Chinese than ever before are spending their money to travel...

Conversation

08.07.13

What Will Come out of the Communist Party’s Polling...

DAVID WERTIME, DUNCAN CLARK & more

David Wertime:Simon Denyer’s recent article (“In China, Communist Party Takes Unprecedented Step: It Is Listening,” The Washington Post, August 2, 2013) provides a valuable look at some of the ways that Chinese authority mines domestic micro-blogging platforms like Weibo...

Conversation

08.01.13

How Dangerous Are Sino-Japanese Tensions?

JEROME A. COHEN

Sino-Japanese relations do not look promising at the moment. Obviously, the Diaoyu-Senkaku dispute is not the only factor in play but it does focus nationalist passions on both sides. Yet both countries are capable of wiser conduct if their leaders can manage to rise above the...

Conversation

07.30.13

Is Business in China Getting Riskier, Or Are...

ARTHUR R. KROEBER , DAVID SCHLESINGER & more

Arthur Kroeber:The environment for foreign companies in China has been getting steadily tougher since 2006, when the nation came to the end of a five-year schedule of market-opening measures it pledged as the price of admission to the World Trade Organization. Soon after the WTO-...

Conversation

07.25.13

The Bo Xilai Trial: What’s It Really About?

THE EDITORS, JEROME A. COHEN & more

The Editors:China has charged disgraced senior politician Bo Xilai with bribery, abuse of power and corruption, paving the way for a potentially divisive trial. But what’s at stake goes beyond the fate of one allegedly corrupt official: Is it really a fight between factions in...

Conversation

07.23.13

What Would a Hard Landing in China Mean for the World?

BARRY NAUGHTON, JAMES MCGREGOR & more

Barry Naughton:Paul Krugman in a recent post (“How Much Should We Worry About a China Shock?” The New York Times, July 20, 2013) tells us NOT to worry about the impact of a slowing China on global exports, but to be worried, very worried about the indirect and unanticipated...

Conversation

07.18.13

Xu Zhiyong Arrested: How Serious Can Beijing Be About...

DONALD CLARKE, ANDREW J. NATHAN & more

Donald Clarke:When I heard that Xu Zhiyong had just been detained, my first thought was, “Again?” This seems to be something the authorities do every time they get nervous, a kind of political Alka Seltzer to settle an upset constitution. I searched the web site of The New...

Conversation

07.16.13

What’s the Senate’s Beef with China’s Play for...

THE EDITORS, ARTHUR R. KROEBER & more

The Editors:Last week the U.S. Senate held hearings to question the CEO of meat-producer Smithfield Farms, about the proposed $4.7 billion sale of the Virginia-based company to Shuanghui International, China’s largest pork producer. The sale is under review by the Committee on...

Conversation

07.09.13

What Is the “Chinese Dream” Really All About?

STEIN RINGEN, JEREMY GOLDKORN & more

Stein Ringen:I’m coming to the view that the ‘Chinese Dream’ is a signal from the leadership of great import that has much to say about the nature of the Chinese state. It is striking, in my opinion, how effectively and rapidly the system swung into action to interpret and...

Conversation

07.03.13

How Would Accepting Gay Culture Change China?

THE EDITORS, FEI WANG & more

The Editors: Last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision to strike down the core provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act is not only “a stride toward greater equality in the United States, but also a shift that will reverberate far beyond our shores,” wrote novelist and...

Conversation

06.27.13

Is Xi Jinping’s Fight Against Corruption For Real?

RODERICK MACFARQUHAR, WINSTON LORD & more

Roderick MacFarquhar:Xi Jinping’s overriding aim is the preservation of Communist party rule in China, as he made clear in speeches shortly after his elevation to be China’s senior leader.  Like his predecessors, he is obsessed with the Gorbachev phenomenon and doesn't...

Conversation

06.25.13

How Badly Have Snowden’s Leaks Hurt U.S.-China...

MATT SCHIAVENZA

Matt Schiavenza:In the understatement of the day, the United States is unhappy with the recent developments of the Edward Snowden situation. Just three days ago, Washington was in negotiations with Hong Kong to file a warrant for Snowden's arrest, a process which the U.S. hoped...

Conversation

06.21.13

How Should the World Prepare for a Slower China?

ARTHUR R. KROEBER & PATRICK CHOVANEC

Get Ready for a Slower ChinaThe recent gyrations on the Chinese interbank market underscore that the chief risk to global growth now comes from China. Make no mistake: credit policy will tighten substantially in the coming months, as the government tries to push loan growth from...

Conversation

06.18.13

What’s Right or Wrong with This Chinese Stance on...

THE EDITORS, SHAI OSTER & more

The Editors: For today’s ChinaFile Conversation we asked contributors to react to the following excerpt from an op-ed published on Monday June 17 in the Global Times about Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old American contract intelligence analyst who last week in Hong Kong...

Conversation

06.13.13

Who’d You Rather Be Watched By: China or the U.S.?

THE EDITORS, TAI MING CHEUNG & more

Editor’s note:Reports of U.S. gathering data on emails and phone calls have stoked fears of an over-reaching government spying on its citizens. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei worries that China will use the U.S. as an example to bolster its argument for surveillance on dissidents....

Conversation

06.11.13

What’s the Best Way to Advance Human Rights in the U....

NICHOLAS BEQUELIN, SHARON HOM & more

Nicholas Bequelin:The best way to advance human rights in the U.S.-China relationship is first and foremost to recognize that the engine of human rights progress in China today is the Chinese citizenry itself. Such progress is neither the product of a gradual enlightenment of the...

Conversation

06.06.13

What Would the Best U.S.-China Joint Statement Say?

THE EDITORS, WINSTON LORD & more

As we approach the June 7-8 meeting in California of U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping we are holding a small contest. We have asked ChinaFile Conversation regulars and a few guests to envision their ideal Sunnylands summit and then write the joint...

Conversation

06.04.13

How Would Facing Its Past Change China’s Future?

DAVID WERTIME, ISABEL HILTON & more

David Wertime:The memory of the 1989 massacre of protesters at Tiananmen Square remains neither alive nor dead, neither reckoned nor obliterated. Instead, it hangs spectre-like in the background, a muted but latently powerful symbol of resistance.There’s no question that an...

Conversation

05.29.13

What Should Obama and Xi Accomplish at Their California...

SUSAN SHIRK, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

Susan Shirk:It’s an excellent idea for President Obama and President Xi to spend two days of quality time together at a private retreat in Southern California. Past meetings between Chinese and American presidents have been too short, formal and scripted for them to develop a...

Conversation

05.23.13

China and the Other Asian Giant: Where are Relations...

MICHAEL KULMA, MARK FRAZIER & more

Mike Kulma:Earlier this week at an Asia Society forum on U.S.-China economic relations, Dr. Henry Kissinger remarked that when the U.S. first started down the path of normalizing relations with China in the early 1970s, the economic relationship and trade between the two...

Conversation

05.21.13

U.S.-China Economic Relations—What Will the Next...

JONATHAN LANDRETH, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

On Monday, within hours of the announcement that Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet U.S. President Barack Obama on a visit to California on June 7-8, Tung Chee-hwa, the former Chief Executive and President of the Executive Council of Hong Kong, introduced former U.S....

Conversation

05.16.13

China: What’s Going Right?

MICHAEL ZHAO, JAMES FALLOWS & more

Michael Zhao:On a recent trip to China, meeting mostly with former colleagues at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I got a dose of optimism and hope for one aspect of the motherland. In terms of science, or laying down a solid foundation for better science to come, things are...

Conversation

05.14.13

Why Can’t China Make Its Food Safe?—Or Can It?

ALEX WANG, JOHN C. BALZANO & more

The month my wife and I moved to Beijing in 2004, I saw a bag of oatmeal at our local grocery store prominently labeled: “NOT POLLUTED!” How funny that this would be a selling point, we thought.But 7 years later as we prepared to return to the US, what was once a joke had...

Conversation

05.10.13

What’s China’s Game in the Middle East?

RACHEL BEITARIE, MASSOUD HAYOUN & more

Rachel Beitarie:Xi Jinping’s four point proposal for a Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement is interesting not so much for its content, as for its source. While China has maintained the appearance of being involved in Middle East politics for years, its top leaders, so far,...

Conversation

05.07.13

Why Is a 1995 Poisoning Case the Top Topic on Chinese...

RACHEL LU, ANDREW J. NATHAN & more

With a population base of 1.3 billion people, China has no shortage of strange and gruesome crimes, but the attempted murder of Zhu Ling by thallium poisoning in 1995 is burning up China’s social media long after the trails have gone cold. Zhu, a brilliant and beautiful...

Conversation

05.02.13

Does Promoting “Core Interests” Do China More Harm...

THE EDITORS, STEPHANIE T. KLEINE-AHLBRANDT & more

On April 30, as tensions around China’s claims to territories in the South- and East China Seas continued to simmer, we began what proved to be a popular ChinaFile Conversation, asking the question, What's Really at the Core of China’s ‘Core Interests’? The participants...

Conversation

04.30.13

What’s Really at the Core of China’s “Core...

SHAI OSTER, ANDREW J. NATHAN & more

Shai Oster:It’s Pilates diplomacy—work on your core. China’s diplomats keep talking about China’s core interests and it’s a growing list. In 2011, China included its political system and social stability as core interests. This year, it has added a vast chunk of the...

Conversation

04.25.13

Hollywood in China—What’s the Price of Admission?

JONATHAN LANDRETH, YING ZHU & more

Last week, DreamWorks Animation (DWA), the Hollywood studio behind the worldwide blockbuster Kung Fu Panda films, announced that it will cooperate with the China Film Group (CFG) on an animated feature called Tibet Code, an adventure story based on a series of recent Chinese...

Conversation

04.23.13

How Would You Spend (the Next) $300 Million on U.S.-...

ORVILLE SCHELL & MICHAEL KULMA

Orville Schell:When Stephen A. Schwarzman announced his new $300 million program aimed at sending foreign scholars to Tsinghua University in Beijing the way Rhodes Scholarship, set up by the businessman and statesman Cecil Rhodes in 1902 began sending American scholars to Oxford...

Conversation

04.18.13

How Fast Is China’s Slowdown Coming, and What Should...

PATRICK CHOVANEC, BARRY NAUGHTON & more

Slower Chinese GDP growth is not a bad thing if it’s happening for the right reasons. But it’s not happening for the right reasons.Instead of reining in credit to try to curb over-investment, Chinese authorities have allowed a renewed explosion in credit in an effort to fuel...

Conversation

04.16.13

Why is China Still Messing with the Foreign Press?

ANDREW J. NATHAN, ISABEL HILTON & more

To those raised in the Marxist tradition, nothing in the media happens by accident.  In China, the flagship newspapers are still the “throat and tongue” of the ruling party, and their work is directed by the Party’s Propaganda Department.  That’s the first...

Conversation

04.11.13

Why Is Chinese Soft Power Such a Hard Sell?

JEREMY GOLDKORN, DONALD CLARKE & more

Jeremy Goldkorn:Chairman Mao Zedong said that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, and he knew a thing or two about power, both hard and soft. If you have enough guns, you have respect. Money is the same: if you have enough cash, you can buy guns, and respect.Israel and Saudi...

Conversation

04.03.13

Bird Flu Fears: Should We Trust Beijing This Time?

DAVID WERTIME, YANZHONG HUANG & more

David Wertime:A new strain of avian flu called H7N9 has infected at least seven humans and killed three in provinces near the Chinese metropolis of Shanghai, with the first death occurring on March 4. Meanwhile, in the last month, about 16,000 pigs, 1,000 ducks, and a few swans...

Conversation

04.02.13

Why Did Apple Apologize to Chinese Consumers and What...

JEREMY GOLDKORN, ISABEL HILTON & more

Jeremy Goldkorn:On March 22, before the foreign media or Apple themselves seemed to have grasped the seriousness of the CCTV attacks on the Californian behemoth, I wrote a post on Danwei.com that concluded:“The signs are clear that regulators and establishment media would both...

Conversation

03.28.13

Will China’s Renminbi Replace the Dollar as the World...

PATRICK CHOVANEC, DAMIEN MA & more

Patrick Chovanec:This week’s news that Brazil and China have signed a $30 billion currency swap agreement gave a renewed boost to excited chatter over the rising influence of China’s currency, the renminbi (RMB). The belief, in many quarters, is that the renminbi is well on...

Conversation

03.26.13

Can China Transform Africa?

JEREMY GOLDKORN, ISABEL HILTON & more

Jeremy Goldkorn:The question is all wrong. China is already transforming Africa, the question is how China is transforming Africa, not whether it can. From the “China shops”—small stores selling cheap clothing, bags, and kitchenware—that have become ubiquitous in Southern...

Conversation

03.19.13

China’s New Leaders Say They Want to Fight Corruption...

ANDREW J. NATHAN & OUYANG BIN

In his first press conference after taking office as China's new premier, Li Keqiang declared that one of his top priorities would be to fight corruption, because “Corruption and the reputation of our government are as incompatible as fire and water.” This put Li on message...

Conversation

03.15.13

Is the One Child Policy Finished—And Was It a Failure...

DORINDA ELLIOTT, ALEXA OLESEN & more

Dorinda Elliott:China’s recent decision to phase out the agency that oversees the one-child policy has raised questions about whether the policy itself will be dropped—and whether it was a success or a failure.Aside from the burdens only children feel when it comes...

Conversation

03.13.13

China’s Post 1980’s Generation—Are the Kids All...

SUN YUNFAN, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

This week, the ChinaFile Conversation is a call for reactions to an article about China's current generation gap, written by James Palmer, a Beijing-based historian, author, and Global Times editor. The article, first published by Aeon in the U.K., “The Balinghou: Chinese...

Conversation

03.08.13

Will China’s Property Market Crash, and So What If It...

DORINDA ELLIOTT & BILL BISHOP

Dorinda Elliott:At this week’s National People’s Congress, outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao proclaimed that the government kept housing prices from rising too fast. Really? I wonder what my 28-year-old Shanghainese friend Robert thinks about that. He and his fiancée could never...

Conversation

03.06.13

Are Proposed Sanctions on North Korea a Hopeful Sign...

ORVILLE SCHELL, SUSAN SHIRK & more

Orville Schell:What may end up being most significant about the new draft resolution in the U.N. Security Council to impose stricter sanctions on North Korea, which China seems willing to sign, may not be what it amounts to in terms of denuclearizing the DPRK, but what it...

Conversation

03.01.13

Is America’s Door Really Open to China’s Investment...

DANIEL H. ROSEN, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

Daniel Rosen:There have not been many new topics in U.S.-China economic relations over the past decade: the trade balance, offshoring of jobs, Chinese holding of U.S. government debt, whether China’s currency is undervalued and intellectual property protection problems have...

Conversation

02.27.13

How Long Can China Keep Pollution Data a State Secret?

ELIZABETH ECONOMY, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

Elizabeth Economy:The environment is center stage once again in China. A Chinese lawyer has requested the findings of a national survey on soil pollution from the Ministry of Environmental Protection and been denied on the grounds that the information is a state secret. (The...

Conversation

02.22.13

Will Investment in China Grow or Shrink?

DONALD CLARKE & DAVID SCHLESINGER

Donald Clarke:I don’t have the answer as to whether investment in China will grow or shrink, but I do have a few suggestions for how to think about the question. First, we have to clarify why we want to know the answer to this question: what do we think it will tell us? This...

Conversation

02.20.13

Cyber Attacks—What’s the Best Response?

JONATHAN LANDRETH, JAMES FALLOWS & more

Jonathan Landreth:With regular ChinaFile Conversation contributor Elizabeth Economy on the road, I turned to her colleague Adam Segal, Maurice R. Greenberg Senior Fellow for China Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. Segal said that “the time for naming and...

Conversation

02.15.13

U.S.-China Tensions: What Must Kerry Do?

DORINDA ELLIOTT, ELIZABETH ECONOMY & more

Dorinda Elliott:On a recent trip to China, I heard a lot of scary talk of potential war over the disputed Diaoyu Islands—this from both senior intellectual types and also just regular people, from an elderly calligraphy expert to a middle-aged history professor. People seemed...

Conversation

02.13.13

North Korea: How Much More Will China Take and How...

WINSTON LORD, TAI MING CHEUNG & more

China is increasingly frustrated with North Korea and may even see more clearly that its actions only serve to increase allied unity, stimulate Japanese militarism and accelerate missile defense. For all these reasons the U.S. should lean on Beijing to—at last—not only help...

Conversation

02.08.13

Rich, Poor and Chinese—Does Anyone Trust Beijing to...

ANDREW J. NATHAN, SUSAN SHIRK & more

Andrew Nathan:The new Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping seems to be making some bold opening moves with its attacks on corruption and the announcement on February 5 of plans to reduce the polarization of incomes.  Does this mean Xi is leading China in new directions? ...

Conversation

02.06.13

Airpocalypse Now: China’s Tipping Point?

ALEX WANG, ORVILLE SCHELL & more

The recent run of air pollution in China, we now know, has been worse than the air quality in airport smoking lounges. At its worst, Beijing air quality has approached levels only seen in the United States during wildfires.All of the comparisons to London, Los Angeles, and New...

Conversation

02.01.13

China’s Cyberattacks — At What Cost?

JAMES FALLOWS, DONALD CLARKE & more

James Fallows: Here are some initial reactions on the latest hacking news.We call this the “latest” news because I don’t think anyone, in China or outside, is actually surprised. In my own experience in China, which is limited compared with many of yours, I’ve seen the...

Conversation

01.30.13

China, Japan and the Islands: What Do the Tensions Mean...

ORVILLE SCHELL, JOHN DELURY & more

How did the Diaoyu, Spratly, and Paracel islands come to replace Taiwan as the main source of tension for maritime Asia? And how are we to explain the fact that China’s foreign policy toward its Asian neighbors has now morphed from such slogans as: “Keep our heads down, and...