[Photo story] Fifty years of China-US relations [Part 2]

In the second of a two-part feature, historical photo collector Hsu Chung-mao looks at issues with democracy and freedom in China and the US, noting that neither is superior to the other but a product of their respective histories.
US President George W. Bush attends the 2001 APEC summit held in Beijing and poses for a photo with Chinese President Jiang Zemin wearing traditional Chinese clothing.
US President George W. Bush attends the 2001 APEC summit held in Beijing and poses for a photo with Chinese President Jiang Zemin wearing traditional Chinese clothing.

(All photos courtesy of Hsu Chung-mao, unless otherwise stated.)

In achieving stunning economic growth, there was a fundamental shift in China’s source of national confidence. In Mao Zedong’s era, the mainstream ideology among the Chinese people was to break away from the old world, build a new one without exploitation and with equality for all, unite the global proletariat and create a global revolution. 

But the Cultural Revolution proved that to be a pipe dream, and plunged China into an abyss of closed doors, damage and poverty. Reform and opening up was like a sudden awakening for the Chinese, allowing them to see the vibrant and colourful world outside.

Triggering events

Overnight, the former imperialist America came to represent Western democracy and prosperity, which the Chinese longed for, especially the younger generation — following the June Fourth Tiananmen Square incident, the main US consulate in China saw long queues for US visa applications every day.

Lee [Teng-hui], a devout Christian, even described himself as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, likening the Taiwanese to the chosen people of God oppressed by the Egyptian pharaoh, thinking of the Taiwanese as another people oppressed by China.

A propaganda poster of Chairman Mao Zedong during the Cultural Revolution, promoting the spirit of enduring hardship during the Yan’an period. Deng Xiaoping inherited Mao Zedong’s power, but adjusted course.

The US not only represented hope for improving the material well-being of the Chinese people but also epitomised the highest spiritual values and political model.

In 1990, the George H. W. Bush administration led a coalition war against Iraq, liberating Kuwait. The US embassy in Beijing received letters from many Chinese praising the noble actions of the US, some even expressing willingness to join the US military in the Middle East.

This widespread pro-American sentiment persisted for years. However, as China rapidly grew and encroached on the spaces previously dominated by the US, economic and geopolitical friction between the two countries emerged. Chinese national pride resurfaced, and anti-American sentiments found fertile ground.

In 1995-1996, during a period of Taiwan’s democratisation, local political leader Lee Teng-hui incited a sense of separation from China among the Taiwanese. Lee, a devout Christian, even described himself as Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, likening the Taiwanese to the chosen people of God oppressed by the Egyptian pharaoh, thinking of the Taiwanese as another people oppressed by China.

Even in Christian countries, anyone claiming to be Moses would be immediately seen as a heretic and rejected by the church; but coming from Lee Teng-hui in Taiwan, it evoked a sense of faith-based closeness, because he threatened China, not the West. Unsurprisingly, his comment seriously angered China, which immediately announced large-scale military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, as well as conducted missile tests in the waters around Taiwan.

In response to the Taiwan Strait crisis, the Clinton administration announced the deployment of an aircraft carrier battlegroup to the region, followed by another battlegroup days later. Although the carriers did not enter the narrow Taiwan Strait to avoid escalating the conflict and only reached the waters about 300 kilometres east of Taiwan, it had a profound psychological impact on China.

... the Chinese saw that the US finally revealed its imperialist nature at a critical juncture.

While the initial intent of the US might just have been to prevent Chinese military aggression through military balance, the Chinese had a totally different understanding. In the past, Chiang Kai-shek supported a united China, and US support for him could be interpreted as supporting the anti-Communist freedom forces among the Chinese. However, the new leadership in Taiwan advocated separation from China, and US support for Taiwan amounted to openly using military force to divide China, a blatant act of aggression. This immediately triggered memories of recent national humiliation for the Chinese.

For over a century, Western powers sent powerful fleets to invade China under various pretexts, forcing the Chinese to sign humiliating treaties, ceding territory, paying indemnities, and granting privileges for shipping, tariffs, mining and more. Under the yoke of imperialism and colonialism, the Chinese became second-class citizens in their own country, fit only to serve the superior white bosses. Revolutionary groups in modern China sacrificed blood and lives, vowing to pay the highest price to change the fate of Chinese people being enslaved.

When it came to China’s sovereignty, the US government deployed fleets to China’s coastal areas for military containment; the Chinese saw that the US finally revealed its imperialist nature at a critical juncture.

After the Taiwan Strait crisis, several young Chinese wrote the bestselling book China Can Say No (《中国可以说不》), immediately sparking a strong response, as young Chinese turned to support their government again. While President Bill Clinton visited China in 1998 in an attempt to mend relations, in May 1999 the following year during the Kosovo conflict, a US-led NATO bomber destroyed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, causing casualties. 

Flames soar into the sky following the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, May 1999.
In May 1999, Chinese news units held a memorial service for those who died in the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, and strongly protested and condemned the US-led NATO.
In May 1999, students from Peking University protested in front of the US embassy against the US bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia. Chinese public sentiment shifted from pro- to anti-American.

The US and NATO explained it as a mistaken bombing, but the Chinese people were furious. They surrounded and attacked the US embassy in China, strongly criticising the government’s foreign policy as too weak. After the US government officially apologised and made reparations, the situation gradually calmed down, but China-US relations indeed entered a new phase.

Following the return of Hong Kong and Macau, Chinese nationalism and cultural identity surged and replaced Marxism.

Restoring former glory

In 1997, a handover ceremony was held to return Hong Kong to China, with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stationed in Hong Kong crossing the border in military vehicles, entering Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. The Union Jack was lowered, marking the end of nearly 150 years of British colonial rule over Hong Kong. China’s five-star national flag was raised, symbolising the farewell to the historical scars left by the armed drug syndicates of the British empire.

As for the return of Macau, in 1987, the governments of China and Portugal issued the “Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration” in Beijing, deciding that in 1999, two years after Hong Kong’s return, Macau would also return to China.

In 1987, China and Portugal signed the agreement on the return of Macau. The ceremony was held at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. This photo shows Deng Xiaoping and Portugese Prime Minister Anibal Cavaco Silva raising their glasses in celebration.
In 1998, the countdown clock for the restoration of sovereignty over Macau by China was unveiled.
In February 1997, Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China’s reform, passed away. Family members accompanied his body for the public to pay their respects.
Students at Peking University stand solemnly on the roadside as the funeral procession for Deng Xiaoping passes by, February 1997.

It was a historical accident that China ceded Macau to Portugal. Portugal was no longer a global power, and its culture of governance within Europe was also not outstanding. Portugal already intended to return Macau to China after the Second World War, but it was the Chinese government that delayed this decision. The high level of cooperation from the Portuguese government made the negotiations for the return of Macau much smoother than that of Hong Kong. 

In fact, near the end, the Portuguese government no longer had its heart in managing Macau, leading to poor public order and rampant criminal activity. The people of Macau looked forward to the arrival of the central government and the PLA. 

After its return in 1999, public order in Macau significantly improved. With the central government injecting economic resources, the income and living standards of the people of Macau even surpassed those of Hong Kong. This was used by Beijing as proof to the world that “one country, two systems” could work.

Following the return of Hong Kong and Macau, Chinese nationalism and cultural identity surged and replaced Marxism. The teachings of Confucius and Mencius, along with various schools of thought, made a comeback, and grand Confucian ceremonies returned, such as the revival of the Confucian rites in Qufu, Shandong province.

The Catholic church on Wangfujing Street in Beijing, 2002. Many Chinese believers come here to worship.

The emperors of the ancient powerful dynasties, once criticised as the “feudal rule of oppression and exploitation” during the Mao era, now appear in a positive light in dramas, movies and television series, restoring China’s glorious traditional history before it was rejected by Marxism.

In fact, the significant achievements of China’s most powerful Qing dynasty emperors Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong are repeatedly portrayed on television screens, with particular emphasis on their success in quelling border rebellions and maintaining the glory of China’s territorial integrity. 

The historical expansion of China’s strongest dynasties with the largest borders, such as the Qin, Han, Tang and Qing, showcases the strategic brilliance of emperors and generals, and the amorous tales of talented men meeting beautiful women. Magnificent palace scenes and grand expeditions to the western regions have replaced the rebellions by impoverished proletarian peasants, becoming the morale boost behind China’s nation-building.

This restoration of historical memory not only signifies the peak of Chinese national pride and confidence, but also holds cultural significance, representing the comprehensive economic and intellectual prowess of the ancient Chinese empire in handling internal and external affairs, including politics, economics, diplomacy, culture, education and minority ethnic groups.

Young people in Shanghai look at job recruitment advertisements, 1997. China underwent reforms and no longer assigned jobs to university graduates; they had to find jobs on their own.

With China’s growing economic strength, it is beginning to enter the previously US-established and dominated international order, leading to increasing friction between the two powers. Since 2000, Chinese people have quickly gone back to pre-Marxist times in terms of historical memory and national pride. While they still seek cooperation with the US and strive to learn from American technology and social management, they are also keenly aware of the fundamental differences in historical conditions between the two countries.

China takes in the good points of the US while choosing a development path that suits its own circumstances, in a blend of confidence and pragmatism. However, Americans do not get the fundamental shift in the Chinese psyche. They are still used to thinking of China as the latest country striving to catch up and become like the US — just another US but across the Pacific and made up of yellow-skinned people, with democracy, public criticism of the president, freedom of action and so on.

When Americans realise that China may not necessarily aspire to become like the US, they often either become perplexed or immediately accuse China of continuing to sink into moral decay without any hope of redemption.

China’s recent resurgence is often described as the “rise of a new great power” — in fact, China is already a great power; it is merely recovering its former status and influence that had declined.

Young women shop for new styles of shoes at stores on the Bund in Shanghai, 1994.

In American textbooks, modern world history begins with the Age of Discovery, with Western countries bringing modern industrial civilisation and political systems to the rest of the world, leading to human progress. So, the essence of modern history in various countries is about learning Western systems and values, continuous change, moving out of poverty and backwardness, and keeping pace with modern civilisation.

However, Chinese people now say that over a thousand years before the Age of Discovery, the Chinese set off from Shaanxi and crossed the vast Central Asian grasslands to Anatolia, forming the thriving international trade route known as the Silk Road, during which magnificent empires emerged, creating splendid civilisations.

During this period, Western Europe remained in a semi-barbaric state, mired in countless wars among various kingdoms and tribes, knowing nothing of advanced technologies such as papermaking, porcelain and firearms. China’s recent resurgence is often described as the “rise of a new great power” — in fact, China is already a great power; it is merely recovering its former status and influence that had declined.

Rivals formidable or not

Unlike Japan’s rise at the end of the 19th century, which followed Western industrial revolution and expansionism, contemporary Chinese resurgence aims to restore China’s global position prior to the Age of Discovery. The Age of Discovery in the West was just an anomaly in China’s glorious history. Americans do not understand that competition from China is not just about the quality, price and tariffs of various industrial products, but also the Chinese reinterpretation of world history.

Indeed, China’s self-positioning fundamentally challenges the US-led world order that has been around since the Second World War. Indeed, the US has never encountered a rival like China.

Throughout history, among the US’s more powerful adversaries, Britain’s population was small and its army not very strong; Spain was a declining maritime power; and Mexico was just a regional country. As for Germany and Japan, they had strong industrial and military capabilities before the Second World War, but in terms of population, territory and overall resources, they could not compare to the US. Besides, both countries moved into narrow-minded racism, not to mention they waged war against the US and foolishly confronted the Soviet Union and China simultaneously, with no chance of victory.

Perhaps the only country that matched the US in terms of territory, population, resources, military and universalist appeal was the former Soviet Union. However, communism failed, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the threat to the US was gone. While the successor Russia remains a formidable military and geopolitical opponent to the US, its economic and industrial scale is far inferior.

In 1984, the Chinese women’s volleyball team emerged as champions at the Los Angeles Olympics. The boycott by the Soviet bloc that year brought China and the US closer.

According to data released by the International Monetary Fund in 2023, Russia ranks eighth in global GDP, behind Germany, Japan, India, the UK and France, with a considerable gap from the US and China. In terms of daily life, ordinary Americans have never encountered Russian brands when purchasing items such as smartphones, laptops, household appliances, furniture, or even outdoor equipment such as skiing, fishing and barbecue tools, let alone large industrial products such as cars, boats, airplanes, ships or machinery. Apart from producing and selling high-performance fighter jets, missiles, warships and tanks, the most memorable aspects of Russia for ordinary people are probably vodka and caviar.

Simply put, apart from military capabilities sufficient to rival the US, Russia poses no economic threat to the US, and its soft power in technological innovation cannot challenge the US — young Americans have never been attracted to any Russian consumer technology products.

However, China poses a challenge to the US in almost every area, something the US has never encountered during its rise — a civilisation with thousands of years of history that has suffered over the past century and is determined to stand up again, pursuing modernisation while adhering to its own ethics and principles.

In 1995, a group of young people in Beijing opened a mess-hall style restaurant with a Cultural Revolution theme, turning the hardships of the Cultural Revolution into a creative modern eatery.

Following the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, China has been like a ship sailing at full speed. Many Chinese elites who studied in the US over a decade ago returned to China with degrees from top American universities, work experience from major American companies, and even American passports and green cards, to start businesses or participate in local startups. They quickly built bridges between Chinese and American tech companies and financial enterprises; Chinese companies gained access to American technology and capital, while American companies gained access to the Chinese market and a diligent workforce.

Initially, cooperation was smooth as both sides were complementary to each other, but the trouble began when China’s own technology and products began to go global, including entering the US market and becoming its competitor. And as China became more competitive, this trouble escalated into conflict and quickly grew into a China-US strategic conflict.

Chinese people are not accustomed to the Western culture of head-on debate among politicians, which makes the Chinese seem ashamed and defensive. 

Marking China’s efforts as ‘theft’

Given that the US is used to being on top and how its political scene does not hold back in its criticism due to the US’s strength, US-led Western media portrays China as stealing technology and plundering Western markets. On their part, Chinese people are not accustomed to the Western culture of head-on debate among politicians, which makes the Chinese seem ashamed and defensive. 

US countermeasures against China are almost a revised version of the 1980s strategy to curb Japan’s competitiveness, but the US quickly realised that, politically, economically, and culturally, China is not Japan. Not only is China larger and more populous than Japan, it is not dependent on the US for defence.

More importantly, the Chinese have far more cultural confidence than the Japanese. Unlike the recklessness of pre-war Japanese diplomacy, China’s diplomacy channels its experience of the powers of old, in a skilful balance of movement. It is like taichi, gentle yet firm; one steps back in order to push forward with more force, and after pushing forward to a point, one steps back to avoid using up all of one’s strength and getting caught by a strong counterattack. At length, when the opponent’s strength and fighting spirit are exhausted, the Chinese could gain superiority in the competitive structure.

Modern fashion magazine advertisements on the streets of Beijing, 1992.

Americans are not used to this seemingly endless to-and-fro; they want immediate results. The simplest way is to cut off China’s access to resources and international channels, obstructing the source of China’s growth and delaying its progress, forcing it to conform to US-led international rules, just like how they got Japan to give in. However, while China seems to concede to avoid intense direct conflict, it is actually buying time, building up its strength, and a China-centred international system. 

Even in the 1960s, when China faced a period of blockade in missile and nuclear technology from the US and Soviet Union, China’s talented scientists and engineers, driven by patriotism, developed their own technologies in just a few years.

Now, with the US refusing to provide satellite navigation technology, China has developed its own Beidou system, followed by supercomputers and various online technologies for commercial use. Chinese state-owned and private enterprises invest sizeable funds, recruit technology talents worldwide, and strive to lead in future technology. 

American politicians simply call the tireless work of the Chinese people “theft”, while the American people do not necessarily think about why the Chinese can steal technology from the US that Americans themselves have not yet mastered.

Fundamental differences

Another important reason for China’s rapid competitiveness is that American politicians spend too much time portraying China as evil in order to quickly gain support from voters of the lower rungs of society, and keep missing opportunities to address real problems.

So, while the US is going all out to contain China, China has developed its own high-tech industries, established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, promoted the Belt and Road Initiative, launched global infrastructure construction plans that start in China, and even, like the US, conducted joint military exercises with Asia-Pacific countries in the Pacific Ocean.

In fact, whenever the US tries to prevent China from developing technology or joining international organisations, although it creates pressure on China in the short term, it ultimately encourages China to develop an independent system, making it a stronger opponent. The reason is that the US has never truly understood the essence of Chinese civilisation nor seriously studied the way of peaceful coexistence with China. Hence, they either underestimate China or fear it too much.

Any one of these calamities could result in widespread devastation, leading to the emergence of survival rules favouring collectivism and centralised power to facilitate effective social mobilisation.

McDonald’s on Wangfujing Street in Beijing, 2002. The introduction of American fast food into China led to a food revolution.

The US often regards China as the root of its own problems. The thing is, China has existed for thousands of years, but America’s “China problem” has only been around for two or three decades. So, fundamentally, America’s “China problem” is largely a problem with itself, and Americans will eventually realise this.

The national characters of China and the US stem from different historical conditions. Unlike the US with its natural advantages, China has gone through countless disasters throughout its history, such as floods, locust plagues, droughts, wars and famines. Any one of these calamities could result in widespread devastation, leading to the emergence of survival rules favouring collectivism and centralised power to facilitate effective social mobilisation.

Very often, people were painfully sacrificed for collective survival; the philosophy of survival amid such an environment would focus on the collective over the individual. Organisational cultures in politics, economy, society and education would call for centralisation and regulation.

The US is the exact opposite, with its vast lands, sparse population and abundant resources. Apart from the Civil War and localised natural disasters, there have been no major catastrophes on its soil, nor threats from neighbouring powers. The world wars were not fought on American soil, and Americans have never gone through domestic national disasters.

... in the event of major disasters such as pandemics or terrorism, China’s culture of control and collectivism may be more effective in containing the spread of calamities.

In 1992, an area in Beijing was revamped and renamed Beijing Capital Times Square, like in the West.

The American dream promises success through individual effort, without the difficulties of scarce resources and too many people. Individual creativity can flourish, while social welfare systems are often viewed as fostering laziness. The government is expected to minimise intervention and privatise public services such as transportation, energy, manufacturing, healthcare and education. The American brand of individualism, liberalism and capitalism can succeed, on the condition of unlimited material resources and unrestricted personal freedom.

Both Chinese and American cultural dispositions have fundamental strengths and clear weaknesses. Particularly in the process of globalisation, where people, goods and information flow rapidly across borders, American liberalism and individualism can yield maximum benefits. However, in the event of major disasters such as pandemics or terrorism, China’s culture of control and collectivism may be more effective in containing the spread of calamities.

Three areas of conflict

In short, as China gradually restores its traditional national strength and exerts global influence, friction and conflicts between China and the US are likely to occur in the following three areas.

1. Sovereignty issues

There is clear conflict between China and the US over Hong Kong and Taiwan. In 2019, the intense anti-extradition bill movement in Hong Kong began with students and citizens protesting against the extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China for trial, escalating into radical action demanding full democratic elections in Hong Kong. The protests turned violent, with students using Molotov cocktails, bows and arrows, and other weapons, damaging subway stations and shops, as shocking scenes of soaring flames spread worldwide.

Western politicians and media unanimously supported the protesting students, even inviting them to their parliament in a public display of encouragement. The West generally portrays the protests in Hong Kong as democratic Hong Kong against authoritarian China, implying that “democratic Hong Kong” is an extension of “democratic Britain”, and that the West is more politically civilised than China. However, this is not historically accurate.

Raising of the Chinese and Hongkong Special Administrative Region (SAR) flags during the handover ceremony of Hong Kong, 1 July 1997. (SPH Media)

During almost 150 years of British rule in Hong Kong, there was no implementation of universal suffrage. Instead, legislators were appointed by white governors sent by the British government. The UK refused to implement democratic elections in Hong Kong to avoid conflicts with China and to better protect British interests. So, while the British ruled Hong Kong, they did not have democratic elections.

It was not until before Britain was forced to pull out of Hong Kong that it announced a slew of democratic plans — not out of moral sentiment towards the people, but as bargaining chips against Beijing. During the British colonial period, Hong Kong’s freedom was not absolute; the political department of the Hong Kong government often arrested radical leftists.

Western governments and media seldom mention this point. They seem to take for granted that they have a right to intervene in Hong Kong’s politics, and see nothing wrong with criticising Beijing from a higher moral ground. Encouraged by this, the Hong Kong student leaders began advocating for Hong Kong’s separation from China, which not only touched Beijing’s nerves but also sparked anger among ordinary Chinese people, especially at the sight of protesters waving the US and UK flags.

What the Chinese saw was not people pushing for democracy in Hong Kong, but traitors to China and lackeys of Western imperialism. The Chinese people who originally sympathised with the Hong Kong democracy movement began to shift towards supporting the government’s hardline policies.

Hong Kong and mainland Chinese students in Western universities immediately divided into two camps, holding protest rallies against each other, with the latter outnumbering the former. Subsequently, when the Chinese government was ready, it took direct control of Hong Kong by legislating directly from Beijing, arrested the leaders of the movement, and decided that only those approved by Beijing can participate in future Hong Kong elections, which changed Hong Kong’s political representation and essence. The incident quickly subsided, and society returned to calm. 

Protesters against the extradition bill in Hong Kong marching near West Kowloon station, in Hong Kong, on 7 July 2019. (SPH Media)

The anti-extradition bill incident in Hong Kong marked the final wave in the process of Hong Kong’s cultural, educational and societal shift from Westernisation back to Sinicisation after 150 years of British colonial rule, and 25 years after returning to China. After that, Western influence was completely driven out of Hong Kong.

For the Chinese government and the majority of Chinese people, the situation in Hong Kong represents a new round of struggle against imperialism and its lackeys over the past century, and that is probably how future Chinese history will be written.

Furthermore, the incident also reflects the contradictory dilemma between America’s moral principles and its practical power. The missionary morality in US foreign policy is tinged with America’s own interests. When the US is powerful, it can use real strength to implement its foreign policy while embodying America’s morality. However, when US power is insufficient to fulfil its own international moral claims, the US can only choose to retreat to protect its own interests when conflicts come to the crunch, revealing its undesirable image of betraying its allies and exposing its moral claims as hypocritical.

Westerners often say that they want to make China understand the “cost of invading Taiwan”, but they do not seem to understand that once the Chinese people know that they might lose Taiwan, they will pay “any cost”. 

More importantly, when the US government uses military and economic power beyond its capacity internationally, it will pay the price domestically, leading to internal political division. The most obvious example is Afghanistan, where the US made many firm commitments of support, but in the end, could only watch helplessly as Afghans chased after US transport planes at Kabul airport.

This betrayal of an ally by the US at such a moment is nothing new, but the inevitable result of the gap between American moral claims and national power. Is it not the same with Hong Kong? When the Hong Kong activists were arrested, the US government, which initially encouraged them to protest, did not take any concrete action besides issuing a statement and providing visa quotas.

The Taiwan issue is essentially the same. Taiwan also has its own electoral system, and the aim of pursuing constitutional democracy and achieving a democratic system in Taiwan established since the Kuomintang’s rule in mainland China is meant to create a model of democracy for the Chinese people and to spark democratic changes in mainland China.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducts parachute brigade exercises, circa 2000s.
The PLA conducts island landing exercises, circa 2000s.

Beijing is not against this, and in some sense considers it a positive factor for political reform in mainland China. Because if Taiwan can do it — being also Chinese — why not mainland China? However, if Taiwan’s leaders become separatists and vilify China in historical and educational culture as a means to create a separatist society in Taiwan, while the US raises the banner of “democratic Taiwan against authoritarian China”, this will lead back to a familiar situation like that of Hong Kong.

Taiwan’s electoral system has become a happy hunting ground for those who hate China, with a bunch of international figures who want to make money from Taiwan adding fuel to the fire, immediately equating Taiwan’s democracy with instigating war. Despite Taiwan having considerable military strength and receiving military support from the US, the West keeps stressing the importance of “military deterrence”. However, for Chinese people who have been humiliated by the West for over a century, this “deterrence” is just the latest packaging of imperialism and will only strengthen the Chinese people’s spirit and determination to fight back.

Westerners often say that they want to make China understand the “cost of invading Taiwan”, but they do not seem to understand that once the Chinese people know that they might lose Taiwan, they will pay “any cost”. 

Although the Chinese government keeps reiterating to the West that Taiwan is a “core interest”, it seems that the West will only truly understand this when things reach the brink of collision and the West itself gets hurt.

2. Conflict of technological hegemony

The US has been leading the world in technology for over half a century. China is like a long-distance runner who suddenly catches up in the last kilometre of a 20-kilometre race; it has overtaken several leading runners to find itself just one kilometre behind the US, and rapidly closing in.

The instinctive reaction of the US is to cut off any channels strengthening China’s competitiveness, including significantly raising tariffs on Chinese products and banning the export of core technologies to China through alliances. Even if they cannot entirely halt China’s progress, they aim to at least slow it down, as clearly shown in the tactics employed by the US government against companies such as Huawei and TikTok.

An MD-82 aircraft being assembled at the Shanghai Aircraft Manufacturing Plant, 1999. China worked with US company McDonnell Douglas to produce passenger aircraft, with the ultimate goal of achieving self-sufficiency.
Large-scale carrier rockets are assembled in Shanghai in preparation to launch satellites, making it one of China’s key aerospace bases, circa 2000s.
The Second Artillery Corps of the PLA conducts the latest missile transportation exercises, circa 2000s.

However, these technological blockades are nothing new to China. In the past, China independently developed intercontinental ballistic missiles and space satellite technology — and that was when it was dirt poor. China today is not the closed and impoverished society that it was then. They are familiar with international affairs and the rules of the market economy, with a vast reserve of technological talent and sufficient funds for research and development.

US containment efforts only serve to strengthen the Chinese people’s determination to break through. And in today’s circumstances, this drive for advancement is undoubtedly stronger than 50 years ago, and it will not just manifest in missile and space rocket launch systems, but will encompass all fields of science and technology.

At the same time, the US’s containment policies will come at a considerable cost, because the US is not just a benefactor of the US-China relationship but also a beneficiary. For decades, American companies have enjoyed China’s efficient technical workforce, lower wages and massive market. Severing these ties does not mean immediate improvement in American workers’ productivity or technological capabilities, but it will guarantee a substantial increase in the manufacturing costs of American products and a rise in consumer costs, which will all lead to internal political issues.

In the 1990s, rural township enterprises emerged in China, creating a new class of car-owning wealthy people.

As for shifting consumer markets, that is a joke. Europeans suggested that German cars cannot rely on the Chinese market and should diversify risks, as though selling cars is an act of charity. If German cars are not sold to China, would the British, French, Hungarians, Poles, Greeks and others fill the orders? The Europeans are the ones who benefit, and they often talk about China in the tone of benefactors, leading to their policies towards China often being removed from reality. It is only through continual setbacks that they can possibly return to realistic understanding and discussion.

... although there are fundamental differences in culture and societal structure between China and the US, it does not mean that war is inevitable.

3. Conflict of social ethical values

As mentioned above, given the rules and values of survival stemming from historical development, resource-rich America puts individual freedom above all. The responsibility of the government is to safeguard this freedom, while that of the people’s representatives is to prevent government interference in individual freedoms. 

In the days when the family structure was still intact, a balance of such values could be found among individuals, families, society and the nation. However, this balance may be disrupted with the disintegration of the family structure and unchecked growth of individual freedoms. Driven by capitalism, social disparities and inequalities of strength and wealth will continue to intensify.

But even as the tech industry upstarts in the US are as wealthy as entire nations, the number of homeless individuals is growing rapidly. The proliferation of drugs and firearms is verging on uncontrollable, and while each tragedy sparks a nationwide wave of introspection, it is just an endless loop, with seemingly no sign of turning the worsening situation.

Meanwhile, various calamities in history have shaped the collectivist nature of Chinese society, where collective security is the primary consideration. When they were poor and lacked freedom, most Chinese would seek to move to the US once the chance arose. Even as they have gradually become better off in the era of moderate affluence, the Chinese still wanted to go to the US and embrace greater personal freedom.

Chinese university students attending classes, circa 2000s. China has a large number of talents in science and mathematics, an important foundation for China's technological development.

However, in a subtle turn, despite having personal freedom, many Chinese people who had already settled down and established themselves in the US are returning to a thriving China to start their own businesses, as development opportunities in the US are at its limit. Thus, they achieve greater success than their peers who remain in the US.

So, neither personal freedom nor collective security are absolutely superior over the other, but each has its advantages in different circumstances. As a simple example, while the US may have more personal freedom than China, the freedom of walking safely at night in major US cities is much less than in China. In fact, Americans do not even dare to leave their car windows open when driving through certain areas in the cities.

Nevertheless, Chinese and Americans live in their respective societies, adhering to their own ethics and beliefs, with no direct interaction. So, unlike in international politics and trade, the differences are a matter of mindset and will not lead to direct conflict.

Finally, although there are fundamental differences in culture and societal structure between China and the US, it does not mean that war is inevitable. Thirty years of globalisation have led to a high degree of economic and social interdependence between the two countries; they need each other. 

So, when friction reaches a certain point, there will naturally be an inherent force to stop the situation from spiraling out of control, and efforts will be made to bring both sides back on the path of cooperation. In the future, the world will see China and the US slowly moving forward as they navigate their different civilisations, until they come up with a new global balance and common norms through clashing, compromising and integrating.

Related: [Photo story] Fifty years of China-US relations [Part 1] | [Photo story] Talks between Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai