The COVID New (Ab)Normal: Identity Politics — A Third Approach To Analyzing China-U.S. Relations
Wang Jisi, Boya University Chair Professor and President of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies, Peking University in Beijing, and ASPI Distinguished Fellow
I have given a number of public speeches on China-U.S. relations in China since the bilateral trade war in 2018, and especially since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020. The most frequently asked questions from the audience are: “what are the root causes of China-U.S. tensions,” and “why is the United States always trying to push China around?”
Power Contention and Ideological Disparity
Different speakers give different answers to these questions. The most popular answer to these questions is that China as a rapidly rising power is challenging U.S. dominance in the world, and the United States, for fear of losing its hegemony, is desperately trying to contain China’s ascendance. This answer presents a typical case of the “iron logic of power” that is easy for everybody to understand. To achieve its goal of national rejuvenation, China must not kowtow to the United States, and therefore a fierce power struggle between the two countries is inevitable.
Another answer to these questions, given by some intellectuals from both conservative and liberal wings, points to the different ideologies and political systems of the two countries. They argue that regardless of China’s power status and level of economic development the United States has always attempted to change China in its own image, or to undermine the Communist Party’s leadership in China by supporting political dissension and separatism. The most vivid recent example is the American outcry for democratic rights against the Hong Kong National Security Law. According to this explanation, the increased U.S. pressure on Beijing has been a reaction to the effective consolidation of the Communist Party’s rule, in particular since 2012 when Xi Jinping became the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
My own explanation to the current China-U.S. tensions has been a combination of the two answers summarized above. To me, a rising China prepared to conduct the reforms Western countries wished to see, and that would be amicable to American values, would not be treated as a major rival. Nor would a China under Communist leadership be regarded as a major threat to the U.S. if it had not resurged as a robust economic and military power. Unfortunately for the United States, present-day China is both a growing formidable power and a nation defiant against American values. It is, therefore, a natural antagonist of the United States. In conventional international relations theories, the dual answers I have given are represented by the “realist school” and the “liberalist/idealist school” of thought. The former looks at power competition as the principal thrust in international relations, and the latter pays more attention to the character of a nation’s internal political system and ideational beliefs as the major judgment for its international behavior and relations with other countries.
Rising Tide of Identity Politics
However, in my recent reflections following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, I find my earlier explanation not comprehensive enough in conceptualizing the complexity of the China-U.S. relationship. Faced with the daunting challenge of the coronavirus, instead of strengthening cooperation in public health areas, China and the United States have engaged in a propaganda war, reproaching each other about the origins of the disease. U.S. officials and media accuse China of disinformation about the spread of the epidemic, while Chinese media report that negligence and misbehavior on the part of the U.S. government have caused an alarming number of infections and deaths in America. The rhetorical battle, resulting in tainted images of each other and going far beyond the parameters of the bilateral relationship, cannot be interpreted by either side as simply reflecting the disparity between the two countries’ clashing “national interests,” or their vying for power supremacy, or differences of ideology and political system. The wrangles related to the COVID-19 pandemic remind us of the significance of identity politics in today’s world, particularly in the United States and China.
Identity politics refers to a political approach where people form exclusive socio-political affiliations aimed at supporting the concerns, agendas, and projects of particular groups, usually identified by race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, economic class, religion, language, and culture. Identity politics usually aims to reclaim greater self-determination and political freedom for marginalized peoples. A typical case of identity politics is the “Black Lives Matter” movement around the United States triggered by the killing of an African-American man by a White policeman in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020. People in China’s inland may find it alien to comprehend the concept of identity politics. But people living in Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, or Tibet may often remind themselves how much they are culturally and politically different from their compatriots in Beijing and Shanghai. To this extent, identity politics is very much alive in China today and relevant to China’s national character as a multiethnic country yet to be fully unified in political and ideological terms.
The largest entity people most commonly identify themselves with is their statehood or nationhood – China, the United States of America, India, Australia, etc. However, peculiar to both China and America is an identity larger than their respective nationhood. To many American elites, the United States represents Western civilization at large, democracy itself, and sometimes even the international community. Chinese elites often refer to China as representing the Eastern civilization (dongfang wenming) without being aware of the fact that others in the East do not necessarily recognize China as such. Chinese elites also see China as a nation speaking for the developing countries in the world. Increasingly, China identifies itself as acting on behalf of the international community as well. President Xi Jinping frequently calls for the establishment of “a community with a shared future for mankind,” where China will be taking a leading position.
In the initial stage after the end of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, people in the world’s major countries hailed and embraced globalization. In the early 1990s, the European Union was founded, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was signed, and China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). The Soviet Union disintegrated and the new-born Russian Federation joined the G7, a political platform of democratic industrialized countries, making it G8 in 1997, showing Russia’s aspiration to become a Western democracy. In 2003, Qian Qichen, former vice premier of China and a respected architect of Chinese foreign policy, and Colin Powell, U.S. secretary of state, announced at the same time that the bilateral relationship between the two countries was at the best stage in its history. In August 2008, U.S. President George W. Bush took his whole family to attend the Beijing Olympic Games, marking another heyday of China-U.S. cooperation.
Just as the improvement in the China-U.S. relationship in the 1990s was facilitated by a generally tranquil global environment with a robust world economy, fragmentation and chaos in global politics and a sluggish global economy since the financial turbulence in 2007-2008 have created the political brew that brought about the erosion of the bilateral relationship in subsequent years. A number of these features in global politics were already evident prior to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. And the reality is that these various, inter-twined features will continue to be visible well after the public health crisis fades away.
First, an inevitable consequence of globalization is the exacerbation of socioeconomic inequalities worldwide, between nation states, ethnic groups, and within societies. The Gini coefficient has gone up in almost every society in the world. Economic growth, promoted by new technologies and faster interflow of information has benefited the “haves” much more than the “have-nots.” The coronavirus pandemic hits the have-nots (including less-developed countries) much harder than the haves (including in the post-industrialized countries).
Second, worsening socioeconomic inequalities gave rise to populism, as witnessed vividly in the United States and European countries. Populist sentiments in America helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. In multiethnic countries like the United States, populism is reinforced by a form of nationalism that tends to blame other countries for its own failures. Russian nationalism drove Moscow to annex Crimea from Ukraine, an action that resulted in Russia’s expulsion from the G8 in 2014. “Populist nationalism” will be a long-term feature in global politics and results in political divisions and polarization within countries as well as tensions between nations.
Third, socioeconomic inequalities and populist nationalism tend to breed strongman politics and authoritarianism, which have already been manifested in a number of nations like Russia, Turkey, India, and Egypt. Western-type democracies, and efforts to emulate them have either failed, or met with unsurmountable obstacles in many developing countries in the post-Cold War era. Western democracies themselves also have to readjust their systems to deal with the tide of immigration and economic protectionism. The fight against the coronavirus calls for resolute government measures like social distancing and the lockdown of public facilities. Such decisions tend to favor more powerful political authorities and government systems around the world. The efficiency of the Chinese government and the deficiency of U.S. federal government in coping with the pandemic has served as a good comparison.
Fourth, technological advancement is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, information technology, artificial intelligence and other technological innovations better the quality of human life. On the other hand, the new technologies are easily used by governments, political organizations, and demagogues to brainwash people, instigate radical and nationalistic sentiments, restrict individual freedom, and violate personal privacy. They will also enlarge the gap between the rich and the poor, and build up social and psychological walls between groups of different identity. In international politics, technological warfare such as cyber war, space war, and biochemical warfare, is and may remain more likely to happen than conventional and nuclear wars.
Identity politics under these circumstances reinforces existing divisions and mistrust within societies and among nations. It is a product of globalization and also a countercurrent force with those advancing global integration. Identity politics as such tends to underpin nationalism in both China and the United States, and further disrupt cooperation and mutual understanding between them.
Inevitable and Perennial Strategic Rivalry
Through the prism of identity politics in today’s world, especially in China and America, we may obtain a clearer understanding of the reasons why a strategic antagonism between them is inevitable, perennial, and probably more and more confrontational. The power balance between the two countries may shift one way or another, but they will likely remain the two most formidable powers in the world for decades to come. Their political values will continue to be fundamentally contradictory, no matter who rules in either country. What is more, the two countries will remain clearly distinguishable civilizations, each claiming to be representing the future of the world. And their respective leaderships know how to play with identity politics to unite their own polity against their opponent.
One unique characteristic in China-U.S. interaction is the presence of 5.5 million ethnic Chinese (Han) population in America today, of whom 2 million were born in China. Before the coronavirus pandemic, American universities and colleges recruited about 400,000 students coming from the Chinese mainland. When China-U.S. engagement was booming, these Chinese communities were viewed as a bridge or glue between the two countries, despite the fact that these people’s identities still vary. While the U.S. government accuses some Chinese students and scholars in America of conducting espionage activities on behalf of the PRC, it is also using Chinese dissidents in America, including some of Tibetan and Uighur origins, for their own propaganda and other purposes. These U.S. efforts have increased China’s guardedness against U.S. political infiltration.
At present, identity politics is penetrating deeply into the mindset of more and more Chinese and American citizens with political and cultural consciousness as the bilateral relationship becomes sour. This is partly related to what the late political thinker Samuel Huntington called the “clash of civilizations.” As Huntington pointed out, “People use politics not just to advance their interests but also to define their identity. We know who we are only when we know who we are not and often only when we know whom we are against.” It is time now for Chinese and Americans – and in particular ethnic Chinese living in America – to think about who they are, who they are not, and who they are against.
Huntington further contended in 2004 that “The ideal enemy for America would be ideologically hostile, racially and culturally different, and militarily strong enough to pose a credible threat to American security. The foreign policy debates of the 1990s were largely over who might be such an enemy.” Today, China appears perfectly qualified as the principle adversary of the United States that might serve as a unifying force for Americans to come together in the assertion of their U.S. national identity.
By the same token, the United States looks like the ideal enemy if China also needs to find one. The U.S. is “ideologically hostile, racially and culturally different, and militarily strong enough to pose a credible threat” to the PRC’s security. Trump administration officials like Secretary of State Michael Pompeo have attempted to alienate the CPC and its leaders from the Chinese population. Such an approach would hardly work, because the bulk of Chinese elites identify themselves not only as citizens of the PRC but as part of the Chinese nation and Chinese civilization. They tend to see U.S. strategic pressures on China principally as attempts to prevent China as a nation and a civilization from rising - rather than simply efforts to undermine the CPC leadership in defending Western values and democracy. To Chinese elites, therefore, and unfortunately for Americans seeking to cleave the party from the country, these 90 million CPC members are more Chinese than Communists.
The COVID-19 pandemic has further illustrated the civilizational differences between China and the United States. Chinese people tend to believe, especially in a public health crisis, that collective safety is higher than individual rights, and willingly accept the authorities’ imposition of travel bans and public surveillances, whereas U.S. citizens are more suspicious of the necessity to wear facial masks and keep social distancing that may infringe upon individual freedom. These differences have been quickly translated into political disputes and mutual blames. China’s media accused the U.S. government of neglecting people’s safety to serve financial benefits, and U.S. media censured the Chinse government’s disinformation and lack of transparency.
In conclusion, in addition to power competition and ideological disparity, the phenomenon of identity politics that is deeply ingrained in the post-Cold War world constitutes a third approach to understanding both the complexity and the enduring nature of China-U.S. discord. This approach may be traced to constructivism in international relations theories in contrast to realism and liberalism/idealism. To a large extent, these two giants have already engaged each other in a long-term rivalry that is not only reminiscent of the U.S.-Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) Cold War. It could also prove to be even more disastrous in the post-COVID era if malign words and hostile actions become habitual behavior.
An abridged version of this piece was also published in a content partnership with the South China Morning Post.
 According to a CDC report, by August 22, 2020, the total cases of COVID-19 infection reached 5,598,547 in the United States, and the total deaths inflicted by COVID-19 were 174,645. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/us-cases-deaths…, accessed August 22, 2020.
Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996, p. 21.
 Samuel P. Huntington, Who Are We? The Challenges to America's National Identity, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004, p. 262.