Stop Saying China Is at a Crossroads

"Pretending that Beijing’s options remain perpetually open is to ignore what Chinese leaders have and have not done for the good and ill of their country."

Rhetorical flourishes have a way of becoming habits of thought, shaping the way events and decisions are interpreted. Such flourishes serve a useful purpose in keeping the words fresh in our minds, but they also can limit our vision.

For the last 20 or more years, according to American pundits and policymakers, China has been at the crossroads of its future—politically, economically, and internationally. Placing China at a crossroads is a useful device, because it focuses on Beijing’s upcoming decisions and optimistically implies that China still may choose to integrate into the institutions of a U.S.-led international order. Unfortunately, the continuing usage suggests Americans have internalized China’s so-called crossroads in an unhelpful way, because the assumptions embedded within the idea of a crossroads.

The most pernicious assumption embedded within the idea of China’s crossroads is that Beijing has not made any serious policy decisions about the direction the country is moving. After 20 or 30 years of U.S. pressure on a particular issue, Chinese decisions not to do something might best be read as a genuine decision—not simply a postponement.

In then-National Security Advisor Sandy Berger’s crossroads speech “Building a New Consensus on China” in 1997, he stated “China stands at a crossroads, with conflicting forces pulling in opposite directions: inward-looking nationalism and outward-looking integration.” This perspective, even at that time, neglected the government’s role in constructing that inward-looking nationalism—a point that has become clearer over time as researchers have examined the education system and the content of contemporary Chinese nationalism. The need for such control has been reasserted repeatedly, most recently with Document No. 9 in 2013 and at the beginning of this year by Minister of Education Yuan Guiren. Contemporary Chinese nationalism in its party-led form is but one of the ways in which Beijing intends international integration to be done on its terms rather than facing the choices we suggest.

Another example of decisions made or not made include the creation of a nuclear export control system, which was promised in 1984 as part of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement, the first so-called “1-2-3 agreement” with China. Since that time, Beijing built the Ministry of State Security from a handful of offices into a nationwide network. The Ministry of Public Security spent billions of dollars and years modernizing its surveillance apparatus. And yet China claims to have had great difficulty identifying and cracking down on proliferators. At times the authorities may have made progress in curtailing some Chinese firms, but the country has still proved porous for third country transits, like those of North Korea and Iran. Also since 1984, China has gone through three formal leadership transitions (more if you count the shifts in policymaking authority under Deng Xiaoping).

Perhaps the most damaging decision Beijing has made, at least from the perspective of U.S. interests, is reneging on the intellectual property rights commitments it made as part of its accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO). Though China’s legal framework “largely satisfies its WTO commitments,” elements of China’s state-led effort to acquire foreign technology and scientific expertise are completely above board.

For example, China created a nationwide system of libraries to acquire, process, and, on demand, analyze foreign publications for their value to the research process. But state-sponsored theft of foreign proprietary technology and trade secrets is occurring on an ever-wider scale—with some knowledgeable observers suggesting billions of dollars in losses for U.S. firms. In some cases, the Chinese party-state is directly involved, as the U.S. Department of Justice demonstrated with its indictment of military officers involved in hacking American companies. In others, Beijing has incentivized Chinese abroad to seize an opportunity to steal technology and start their own business back home. Either way, these are the result of government decisions and are not, as former Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg characterized China’s actions in cyberspace, questions of mistrust.