By Min Liangchen
In the past ten years, the Chinese people have started to hear two foreign ideas, one the “Tacitus Trap” and the other the “Thucydides Trap.” Here I limit my attention to the latter. Anyone who cares about Sino-US relations knows what it means to emphasize this foreign notion. According to Wikipedia, the “Thucydides Trap” is a term coined by American political scientist Graham Allison to describe how when the rise of an emerging power threatens the international dominance of an existing power, the two sides are more likely to directly fall into conflict, even war. Many Chinese people slightly modify it and interpret it more as an emerging power will inevitably challenge the status of an established power, and the established power will inevitably take measures to contain and suppress the emerging one. Conflicts and even wars between the two are for that reason inevitable. (For example, see the NetEase article in which Xu Zhikai comments on “The Rise of Anglo-German Confrontation”︱Before Thucydides’ Trap) [Chinese].
Many so-called experts and scholars out of wishful thinking liken the current situation between China and the United States to the Thucydides Trap. They in all seriousness explain to the people: we in China want to develop, but those imperialist powers do not allow us to do so and become strong, so they want to block us. As a result, some Chinese people have not only become prickly, but also regard any normal competition from the West, especially the United States, as a challenge because Western countries want to maintain the status quo. They have also placed blame for many of their own responsibilities or problems on this “trap.” Therefore, this foreign concept has become a cover and excuse for such people. But they forget that before this foreign-conceived outcome supposedly appeared, Mao Zedong had closed the country for the same reason and made China even poorer than Africa.
As I see it, in 2013, ten years ago, this Western concept had not spread in the big Eastern power, China. On the one hand, Graham had just created this theory. And on the other, it was created during China’s so-called “new era,” and only after being highly praised overseas was it emphasized by some in China. At this point, some people retort: before this “new era”, the Eastern powers were not strong enough, so they did not pose a challenge or threat to the West, especially the United States. But after, as the big Eastern power’s gradual rise made the West, especially the United States, feel threatened, they could no longer sit still, so had to contain and suppress the new threat. The so-called “Thucydides Trap” effect then appeared.
Was that really what happened? If that were what the whole world thinks, then the United States would have nothing to say. However, first, it seems that the whole world does not think so, and secondly, I feel reluctant to accept this claim in any event. It goes without saying that in the period from 1978 to 2012, almost 35 years, China’s economy was able to develop with one assistance effort after another from the developed countries. Although I don’t have exact figures at hand, I generally know that beyond interest-free or low-interest loans there was preferential country treatment, even free aid. How much did the Chinese receive in total over those 35 years? How did China’s foreign-exchange reserves reach nearly 4 trillion yuan by the end of 2012?
And which country has contributed the most to China’s foreign exchange reserves? The annual trade volume between China and the United States is 600 to 700 billion US dollars, and the import and export trade surplus grew to as high as 420 billion US dollars in 2018. Of course, the figure calculated by the Chinese Ministry of Commerce is only a surplus of more than 150 billion US dollars, but the Americans only believe in their own calculations. Such a huge number made then-US President Trump very unhappy, so he started the so-called China-US trade war.
The reason Trump felt uneasy is because he knew that while China bought more than $100 billion in American products every year, the United States bought more than $500 billion in Chinese products. This is how the large U.S.-China trade deficit came about. I won’t discuss Trump, nor who was right and wrong about the so-called “trade war” here. But we must admit that the United States contributed the most to the nearly 4 trillion in foreign-exchange reserves in China’s treasury as of more ten years ago. If it doesn’t want to help and even wants to contain and suppress China, why would the United States do this?
It is true that we have long heard that Americans enjoy cheap products “Made in China.” In other words, the United States does not suffer from the foreign exchange that China earns from the United States. But are those cheap goods only produced in China, or are only the goods produced in China cheap? Certainly not. Since there are many countries that are poorer than China, their labor costs should be lower than those in China. If the West, especially the United States, wants to buy cheap goods from those countries, it is not impossible for them to produce them. Today, some are purely processed or assembled products This is actually the reason why foreign companies have begun to move to Vietnam, India, the Philippines, and even Mexico, which is close to the United States.
The Sino-US trade surplus that made the Chinese government grin from ear to ear can be said to be the result of the right choices made by Chinese leaders in that era. For example, leaders back then repeatedly emphasized that as long as there were no problems in Sino-US relations, there would be no major problems in China. For another example, after the September 11 incident in the United States in 2001, Jiang Zemin, as the national leader, was the first to call U.S. President George W. Bush and express his strong condemnation of terrorists and stand firmly on the side of the United States. This won the favor of the U.S. government and people towards China, and helped promote China’s accession to the WTO. Just imagine, if China were applying now, if the Chinese government had stood with a Russia that had invaded Ukraine, and Hamas, which had terrorized Israel, as China does today. And that the reaction had been like that of the spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who has always emphasized that the United States must meet the Chinese government halfway, otherwise China will become more anti-American every day. Would it have been possible for China to join the WTO against such opposition to the United States? Suppose Jiang Zemin had said back then that “there are a thousand reasons [for the US] to make Sino-US relations good, and there is not a single reason to make them bad.” People could still believe it. Today, that might not be the case.
Speaking of the United States’ push for China to join the WTO, I also think that many Chinese people may not understand that even China’s current position as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council is actually a result of the United States’ efforts to “arrange a new post-war order” nearly 80 years ago. (See Li Shenzhi’s “On the New World Order.”)
Of course, that arrangement back then was for the Nationalist Government, not the CCP. History has played a strange joke on the US government. Just as during World War II, the United States spared no effort to help China defeat the Japanese invaders, but just a few years later, countless American soldiers died under the gunfire of Chinese volunteers in Korea. Who is best toward China in this world? The United States, only the United States. Which country in the world has been hurt the most by China? It is also the United States.
I remember a real estate developer once saying that after China joined the WTO China generated a lot of wealth and truly developed. In other words, before joining the WTO, China’s economy did not grow as dramatically as it did later. Speaking of this topic, a review of China’s accession to the WTO before and after will allow us to have a longer memory and see how China arrived.
Li Shenzhi once wrote an article about why China should pursue globalization, titled “Globalization and Global Value.” It was published in the 10th issue of Northeast China’s “Vientiane” magazine in 2002. This article had a section dedicated to China’s accession to the WTO.
As we all know, the Fourth Ministerial Conference held in Doha, the capital of Qatar, on December 10, 2001, reviewed and adopted China’s decision to join the WTO by consensus. (In fact, the United States played a decisive role.) On December 11, China officially became the 143rd member of the WTO. After that, “the three English letters WTO have simply become the most popular words in China, and can be seen and heard everywhere.”
So, why did China want to join the WTO? This is something that all Chinese people should not forget. If they do, there will be consequences for the world. The reason why China has become the China it is now is that China in the last ten years has almost completely forgotten how it joined the WTO and why it joined this system — although China’s policies in the first ten years after joining were not entirely in accordance with what it had promised.
First of all, it was China that requested to join the WTO, when it could could have chosen to completely stay outside it. Isn’t it true that almost 1/5 of the world’s countries are still not members of this organization? Therefore, it is not that the WTO forced China to join, but that China itself strongly demanded to join. And judging from the time when negotiations occurred, it was necessary to join and China would not give up until the goal was achieved.
In hindsight, no matter how thin-skinned the Chinese people are, or how many lies they told and how many deceptive expedients they employed then, it at least showed that the Chinese government was eager to join this system at that time. They know that if they did not join, it would be difficult for the economy of such a large and poor country to substantially develop. However, China’s economy still cannot achieve such development even now, and it is useless to say otherwise. So they have mobilized all positive factors as they had in order to achieve every major event they can in the past few decades, including promising things that they have not actually done or are prepared to do, even today. This is probably what many member countries in this system criticize the most, and there is no need to go into detail here.
In any event, everyone later acknowledged that this step was achieved after fifteen years of arduous negotiations. Fifteen years! I remember that nearly twenty years ago, I quoted a literary and historical researcher in an article, who said that it only took eight years for China to resist in the war and drive out the Japanese invaders. How could it be so difficult to achieve the four words “market economy”? Why 6 years of negotiations?
“According to the final Chinese negotiator then, Vice Minister of Foreign Trade Long Yongtu, in the past fifteen years, we only talked about eight words, namely ‘market economy’ and ‘open market.’” Li Shenzhi wrote this very clearly. And he lamented: “These two are fundamentally the only way for any country to eliminate poverty and become rich. However, China’s economic system is too backward. Fifteen years ago, it was complacent enough to continue to implement a planned economy. It did not dare or deign to open its own market to foreign countries. That is to say that the domestic market could not be unified or liberalized due to lots of protectionism, tax barriers, and corrupt officials everywhere who take advantage of others. Therefore, negotiations have been a fifteen-year tug of war.”
Why were negotiations so difficult back then? In addition to not wanting to open the market and engage in a market economy, there was also a problem of awareness. Not all Chinese wanted to join, including some so-called economists. Li Shenzhi said in the article that some young economists he knew opposed China’s accession to the WTO on the grounds that “the rules of competition in the WTO are all formulated by Western countries. When we enter, we must obey their rules and be manipulated, bullied and exploited by them. We do not want to participate unless the rules are determined by us.” If you don’t read Li Shenzhi, you really don’t know this.
Fortunately, the Chinese government did not listen to these so-called “young economists.” Otherwise, would China have developed as much as it did later? You know, that was thirty years ago, when China was still outside the WTO system. And yet it can be seen that China’s regression in the past ten years is not only caused by high-level officials. Experts one after another also bear inescapable responsibility.
Did those young economists just want to replace the current international rules with the rules formulated by China? Mencius said, “I have heard of using China to convert barbarians, but I have never heard of people converting using barbarism to convert barbarians,” and after the first Opium War Zhang Zhidong thought that “Chinese learning is the essence, Western learning is merely the application.” These ideas have long run deep in the bones of the Chinese people. So much so that in a skit performed at the Spring Festival Gala in 1994, a Chinese old woman called her son on the other side of the ocean: “After you learn well and build our country, let them (foreigners) also wash the dishes for us.” This has been the “dream” of Chinese people for generations. It seems that the knowledgeable Chinese do not want to abide by international rules, while the ignorant Chinese even dream of one day “learning well” and in turn riding roughshod over the foreigners. Working in this environment, it is not surprising that today’s top Chinese officials still have similar thoughts.
Li Shenzhi went on to add sarcastically: “This is indeed respectable nationalism, or patriotism, but unfortunately it cannot be achieved unless we are determined not to develop the economy and not participate in global competition.” At that time, he opposed joining the WTO. I wonder if these young economists would blush when they read these words of Li Shenzhi. Of course it is the system that affects the progress of Chinese social civilization, but in fact, some ruthless Chinese people today have a worse impact on the country than the system. As some netizens have described it, Chinese people assume others act as China would, and believe that since the United States is the most powerful country, it naturally has wolf-like ambitions. For China, it is a virtue and national justice to have such ambitions. But if others have such ambitions, they are full of evil.
This article, written in May 2002 (Li Shenzhi passed away less than a year later) is valuable not only because of the author’s identity, but especially his personality. After writing down his “feelings” above, he went on to say:
“By joining the WTO, China is officially participating in the global economic order. China’s leaders and foreign trade diplomats at all levels have vowed to fully realize all its commitments to the WTO. That is to say, from now on, China will insure that foreign economic activities must be conducted in accordance with all rules and regulations stipulated by the WTO.”
But in reality? As a Chinese living in this land, I don’t know how much the Chinese government has actually implemented the promises they made at that time. And I have long said that the Chinese people will live in whatever environment the Chinese government makes for them. Because they have no freedom to fight! Countless Chinese people currently don’t even understand the real world outside China. They only believe in what their news networks and the Chinese government has instilled in them.
There are very few annotations on the content of the various articles in the “Collected Works of Li Shenzhi,” but this article has one:
“The strange part is that in the past six months, Chinese leaders have repeatedly emphasized that China advocates the establishment of a new international economic order that is equal and just when meeting foreign guests. It seems that in addition to the world order formed in accordance with the principles of a market economy, there is another order. I wonder if it is that of a China still unwilling to give up its memory of the era of trying to make world revolution, and still with lofty opinions of itself, but unfortunately we have never heard any explanation.”
This passage reminds me of a later interview with Zhou Youguang. When talking about this point, Zhou said that there is either a market economy or a planned economy, and the planned economy is a socialist economy. How can there be a “socialist market economy”?
If the Chinese had strictly abided by WTO rules and kept or even gradually implemented their commitments, by mid-December 2016, fifteen years after China joined the WTO, Japan, the European Union, and the United States might not be denying China’s “full market economy status.”
It was we ourselves who forgot our commitments and even broke the rules after joining the WTO. Especially after 2013, people clearly felt that, in the reversal of the previous slogan, “the state is advancing and the private sector retreating,” and that we were getting further and further away from the complete marketization required by the WTO. It was precisely because we said one thing and did another that led to the fact that 15 years after China joined the WTO system in December 2016, none of the economically developed countries among the WTO members recognized China’s full market-economy status. I don’t know if there is any provision in the WTO charter to expel a country that does not abide by WTO rules and does not keep its commitments when it joined the WTO. If there were, I think our mighty Far Eastern country would have been kicked out long ago.
This also clearly shows that some developed countries, especially the United States, including Japan, which once invaded China, have always sincerely hoped that hundreds of millions of people in the world’s most populous country can live a free and happy life with dignity. Any Chinese person who does not admit this simply will not acknowledge the truth. Since 1978, you can find out just how much financial and technical assistance Japan has given to China by checking with the relevant Chinese departments. One needn’t be like a “wolf warrior” who is not only ungrateful but also repays kindness with enmity.
When one gets right down to it, the little pinks will definitely pounce on things: whether China doesn’t abide by the rules or keep its promises, after all, they still believe that China is getting stronger and others want to contain and suppress it. The little pinks’ self-confidence has already exploded.
The United States particularly deserves mention here. Although in my opinion Japan and the United States have both provided huge amounts of help to China, more than any other country in the world, the impact of the United States’ support and assistance to China on other developed countries and that of Japan cannot compare.
Let us listen to what former US President George H.W. Bush said 30 years ago. Thirty years ago, on November 16, 1993, he delivered a speech titled “The Impact of Greater China’s Development on the World” while visiting Hong Kong. This is what he said about the rise of Asia, especially China, in his speech: “People want to know…is the rise of Asia a curse or a blessing for the rest of the world? And among the most important questions is China’s role in these issues. What kind of impact will China have?” Later, he gave a very straightforward answer to this question: “Some people will ask after hearing me talk about Asia’s economic growth above and citing so much amazing data, will such growth harm the United States? The answer is of course no. The expansion of Asia and the development of China will actually benefit the United States.” (Li Shenzhi,” The Mission of the Chinese in the Era of Globalization,” “Cultural Studies,” 1994 Issue 6.) Did we Chinese hear that?
Very regrettably, how many Chinese people today still remember these words of former US President George H.W. Bush?
Let us look next at the last paragraph of his speech: “I know we Americans often emphasize what you can learn from us. We often talk about our free markets and democratic institutions because we believe in their power. But in fact, the world is changing. As power and wealth spread, we can and must learn from you, and this may be the most promising idea of our time…In the Western world, we have only talked about rights, but you are here in Asia. In Hong Kong, and elsewhere, we are reminded that prosperity and peace depend on individual responsibility.”
A former president of the United States believes that learning from China is necessary and calls learning from China “the most promising idea of our time.” As a Chinese, can you really be indifferent to such words? This president was humble, and always thought that as long as others have something worth learning, his country should learn from it. This is what Americans are. This is the democratically elected president of the United States.
Why did Bush think so? From today’s perspective, if we cannot say that he was too naive, then we can only say that he was too sincere and kind. Yet now we believe that the United States wants to contain and suppress China’s development. Recently, China has even solemnly proclaimed to the U.S. government that “China has the right to develop.” I really admire the Chinese who raised this issue: When did you see in any document or speech by the US government that they believe that China no longer has the right to development? For a country like China, do not speak of denial of the “right to development.” As long as the Chinese government is willing, it can have whatever “rights” it wants, and it can make China whatever it wants, and today’s China forcefully proves this.
As such a big country, no one can control whether China wants to change or if so how. Before reform and openness, China carried out “class struggle” domestically for 30 years, resulting in 30 years of poverty and 30 years of backwardness for the Chinese people. Did any country, including the United States, interfere? Later, if we hadn’t been “desperate” and could no longer survive, and were said to be in danger of being removed s a member of the global community at the time, we still wouldn’t have reformed. And later, they deceptively and meekly called what they were doing the beginning of reform and openness. Was that what Japan called for? America? Europe? Was it called for by those “suffering brothers” in Africa? No one said so. No country came to us and said, “You ought to carry out reform and openness.” No. It was the Chinese people who wanted to change themselves. It was the short little leader of China at that time [Deng Xiaoping] who woke up one morning and realized, “Poverty is not socialism.”
Why are Chinese so quiet, so coy? Did China’s economy develop significantly before it joined the WTO in 2001? No. And has China’s economic status changed significantly? Basically no. Why not? Because China stubbornly refuses to implement a market economy and has not entered globalization.
What all of this proves is that, especially since the disappearance of the Soviet “Big Brother,” no country in the world has interfered with what China wants to do, and of course no country can. For example, now the whole world knows that there is a problem between China and the United States. What is the problem? The whole world also knows: the United States hopes that the Chinese Communist Party’s economy will be fully market-oriented and its politics will be democratized, and that it can meet the United States halfway. But the CCP simply refuses. All disputes between China and the United States stem from this hope on the one hand and reluctance on the other. In this case, why do we not respect history and facts, keep our promises, and instead just say things that make the world feel baffled or considers absurd?
The “Thucydides Trap” was indeed first proposed by an American scholar, but not every American scholar’s views is turned into American national policy. Although there is a trend of trade protectionism, the United States more often adopts policies to promote free trade. The United States encouraged China to join the WTO based on the theory of free trade. On the surface, the Thucydides Trap is the weapon used by supporters of the wolf-warrior foreign policy of our mighty Eastern power to “attack the son’s shield with the son’s own spear,” to turn the words of the US against it. But in fact, while U.S. think tanks contain all kinds of rhetorical arguments, the decision-making power of what rhetorical weapons the Chinese use is in completely in the hands of the Chinese government. The economic difficulties in 2023 have affirmed the bankruptcy of “wolf warrior” diplomacy. Now is the time for China to abandon the Western metaphor of the Thucydides Trap and rebuild mutual trust and cooperation between China and the world.
This piece was translated from Yibao Chinese. If republished, please be sure to add the source and link https://www.yibao.net/?p=247714&preview=true before the text when reposting.
The views of the author do not necessarily represent those of this journal.