China and Realpolitik

China and Realpolitik
China and Realpolitik

Zeidman lecturer Jessica Chen Weiss wants the United States to coexist with China—not beat it.

“It is a privilege to be at a community that leads with peace,” Jessica Chen Weiss told an audience of 175 people at Sidwell Friends School on March 2. Weiss, the Michael J. Zak Professor for China and Asia-Pacific Studies at Cornell University, was on campus to give the 40th Annual John Fisher Zeidman ’79 Memorial Lecture. In the field of China studies, Weiss has become something of a sensation of late—she was even the recent subject of a New Yorker profile—with her staunchly realist take on East-West relations, which calls on the West to compete with China but not to push the relationship to the breaking point. It’s an argument she lays out in her new book, A World Safe for Autocracy? China’s Rise and the Future of Global Politics, and one she explored during the Zeidman lecture.

“The conventional wisdom is that we are entering a new cold war with China,” she said, “an existential struggle with a techno-totalitarian state. But we should be careful about taking these claims at face value.” That conventional wisdom is predicated on the idea that China’s goal is to replace the United States as the sole superpower on the world stage, which is exactly what the 2022 National Security Strategy posits. But Weiss asked the audience, is that really the case? “What does China want?”

Weiss argued that China is far more beholden to its own domestic politics than Western politicians realize. From the Biden administration to the far-right wing of the Republican Party, there are “no shortage of alarm bells that China intends to replace the U.S.” But, she posited, China isn’t as rigid as many in the West may think. She cited examples of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) making room for entrepreneurs and capitalists to thrive and innovate; changing its stance on climate change to make investments in renewable energies, despite its laser-focus on economic growth; and yielding to protests demanding an end to COVID lockdowns. She said the CCP still needs popular support, and it is all too aware that most communist states have collapsed. So, what China wants, Weiss clarified, is less domination than survival: “China wants sovereignty, security, and development.”

Currently, Weiss said, “The U.S. and China are still more interested in leading by example than putting their thumbs on the scale, but that’s fragile,” and as of now, “we’re on a very dangerous trajectory.” Weiss said there’s no indication that China wants other countries to follow in its image: “It wants countries to refrain from criticizing it, not to copy it.” To that end, Weiss thinks that’s exactly what the West should do: Reverse the chilling effects of rhetoric and tone down the existential-threat-to-democracy hyperbole. She calls it “strategic ambiguity.” The United States should continue to lead by example, not by demand, and to allow for a world in which China also perseveres. “A world safe for autocracy,”  Weiss said, “can also be a world safe for democracy.”

After fielding tough questions from the Sidwell audience about China’s moral failings, Weiss concluded by reminding the room that her point was not to ignore human rights violations or Taiwan statehood issues. Rather, she said, her first goal is to avoid all-out war, which of course would only exacerbate conditions for persecuted Uyghurs or Taiwanese independence. “The alternative to sharing is war,” Weiss said to the audience. “Naming and shaming doesn’t move the needle. What are the tools that would? What furthers our interests more? Taking a softer tone with China or aggressive tactics?”

Watch the full 40th Annual Zeidman Memorial Lecture below.

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