“A tweet has only 140 characters and one can only guess at the politics. It creates crazy scenarios when dealing with very complicated relations,” says Chen Dongxiao, president of Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, discussing the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president.
SHANGHAI — China’s financial capital is known for its glamorous riverfront. The neon-lit skyscrapers of the Pudong district are on one side and the beloved Bund, or embankment walkway, on the other, fronted by historic colonial-era bank buildings that now host high-end restaurants.
But beyond its glitz and showy new wealth, Shanghai is also home to research centers containing some of the country’s top experts on the United States. These institutions promote exchanges with U.S. universities and officialdom and give policy advice to their foreign ministry.
Their experts, like many Americans, are struggling to understand what is happening in a country they thought they knew.
“We have the impression the United States has become a country out of our recognition,” says Wu Xinbo, the director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, one of China’s finest. He was referring to the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. “People are concerned because this is America, not an ordinary country.”
Given the role that China’s American-studies experts play, and their detailed study of U.S. society and institutions, it is worth pondering their confusion about the future direction of the United States.
First, a word about the Fudan center. It was established in 1985 after Ronald Reagan visited the university in 1984 and officials there decided they didn’t have enough experts on America.
“So we decided to create an American-studies center so we would have a group who understood better how the United States worked,” says Wu. One of the founders was a pioneering female physicist, Xie Xide, who had graduate degrees from Smith College and MIT, and became president of Fudan University. The center has a network of contacts with think tanks and universities around the U.S.
But, like most U.S. scholars with whom they were in contact, Fudan’s experts didn’t foresee a Trump victory. They thought, says Wu, that his background was too weak — no government experience whatsoever — and that his style and comments on immigrants and women would disqualify him.
Now, unlike their experience with previous U.S. elections in which the presidency changed hands, they see no familiar faces of China experts in Trump’s entourage. So they are scrambling to try to figure out what Trump means for U.S.-China relations and for the world.
Trump is a totally different kind of president and (our) hawks say we need to deal in a very different way”
Their concerns fall into several categories. First, they worry that Trump and his advisers don’t understand China. “Our concern is about his lack of experience and his very blunt style,” says Wu.
On the same point, Chen Dongxiao, the president of the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, another institution with extensive U.S. connections, added: “This is a very different style of leadership. We need to buckle up, but also to be more proactive in engaging with Trump’s team.”
But Chen worries that this new Trump style — “emotional, breaking protocol, no briefings, bypassing all bureaucratic processes, messaging by tweets” — is very risky. “A tweet has only 140 characters and one can only guess at the politics,” he notes. “It creates crazy scenarios when dealing with very complicated relations.”
Prime case in point was Trump’s suggestion via tweet that he might upend the One China policy — the bedrock of U.S.-China relations. This is the policy by which U.S. presidents since Richard Nixon have “acknowledged” China’s claim that Taiwan is a province of China; the United States unrecognized Taiwan’s sovereignty when it formally recognized China in 1979 and has maintained only an informal (but close) relationship with Taiwan since.
No issue in U.S.-China relations is more sensitive to Beijing than this one, but Trump’s tweets and interviews seem oblivious or indifferent to this fact.
Another concern is that Trump’s naiveté, especially on the One China flash point, will embolden hawks within China’s security establishment or spark nationalist reactions within the Chinese public.
“Trump is a totally different kind of president and (our) hawks say we need to deal in a very different way,” says Chen. In such circumstances, moderate Chinese scholars who have expertise on the U.S. system could be marginalized.
This worry leaves China’s Americanists scrambling to get a better handle on the real Donald Trump and his advisers, while they also try to fathom what has happened to the country that many of them have studied for decades.
I heard much worried talk from these experts about an institutional crisis in the United States — the American public’s loss of confidence in its governing system. They also worried about the collapse of U.S. support for the global trading system that had helped China rise.
One Fudan doctoral student told me: “The U.S. I knew was a very limited blue part of the country. Young people in China should be encouraged to travel in red parts of the country. Most of us didn’t understand that U.S. people suffered from the trade deficit with China.”
I asked whether, given the Americanists’ failed election predictions, the Chinese government might now be less willing to consult them (these specialists have fallen out of favor in the past during periods of tense U.S.-Chinese relations).
“We have to do a better job of understanding America,” Fudan’s Wu admitted frankly. But then he added, “The government will need us even more because this is a strange America.”
I wish him luck in figuring out this strange new America.