The 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing portrayed China as an ascendant technologically advanced country, even as the rest of the world was roiling from the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US. The Chinese economy was affected by the financial crisis later than most, and recovered sooner. Western countries had sought to gain footholds in the Chinese economy, and conversely more investment flowed from China into US companies, Canadian and Australian real estate, and so on.
Now the news concerning China is dominated by updated reports of Trump’s trade war. Where did things go wrong such that dreams of prosperity turned to economic combat?
Any attempt to gain perspective on this must first make a brief foray into history. Colonial powers, in particular Britain, France, and the US, had significant conflict with the Qing Dynasty, and some Chinese scholars blame foreign interference during that time with delaying economic development. Even after the fall of the imperial system, China was treated as a backwater and largely ignored in international politics. The Communist Party of China uses these facts to their advantage, teaching students as early as primary school that they were the ones who allowed China to finally break free from the rest of the world’s oppression. Western colonialism was indeed damaging to China, but it was hardly the singular cause for the issues faced by the country in its transition period. As a scapegoat, however, this line of thinking is very powerful, because it rallies young people around the Party even when everyone else has already forgotten what their governments did over a century ago.
Modern Chinese politicians and businesspeople maintain a mentality of China being segregated from the West, even as their country has gained prominence. Whether this is fair or not can be debated: cross-border commerce is very competitive, and it is perhaps wise to not trust others. The “China vs. the World” perception merely politicizes an issue that already exists for everyone. This leads to the real problem, which is that breaches of trust stand out to both sides out of confirmation bias. Even if disputes are more likely to occur between two Chinese companies or between two Western companies that hardly matters when the market is more sensitive to news of Chinese-Western cooperation going awry.
This decay in trust has grown substantially since 2008, because there have been so many more interactions between China and foreign businesses and institutions. At the current juncture, nationalism is taking hold and making things worse. People and companies in the US blame China for problems that are not China’s fault, while issues that actually are China’s fault are misunderstood and consequently not properly managed. Meanwhile, Chinese people feel a wave of resentment as they go abroad to study, invest, or travel, and as a result feel that the historical narrative about foreign powers rejecting or taking advantage of their country rings true.
There is no quick and easy solution to a problem so pervasive and ingrained. The best we can do is seek to understand each other. If the Chinese education system would more objectively cover colonialism instead of add a nationalist spin for the Party’s gain, and if US schools actually studied Chinese history and culture at all, perhaps serious and long-term progress could be made. Right now, too much interaction is prejudiced to be truly productive.