The Four Types of China Engager: Which Are You?

Blog | January 27, 2017


Your country has sent you, an American envoy, to advance relations between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. On the surface, this intrigues you, although you may have little if any experience dealing with representatives of the Communist Party of China. Will you meet with humorless apparatchiks? Battle-hardened cadres? Disciples of Mao? The answer to that is simple: you will mostly engage with skilled technocrats who adhere closely to the Party’s line.

The more interesting question is how you intend to do it. Because while it is simple enough to visit Beijing and deliver some talking points (and make no mistake, this is precisely the goal), an appreciation of how your predecessors tackled this problem will not only inform and enrich your engagement, but also help to ensure that disagreements will center on issues, not personalities. Reading Jonathan Spence’s book The Chan’s Great Continent, I was struck by how much Western engagement with China fit the model of a few archetypes, styles of interaction which continue today. Figure out where you fit in and you will understand how to put your best foot forward while getting your message across.

The Dragon Slayer

In 1743, British Commodore George Anson commanded a flotilla on a Pacific expedition which, after many misadventures and great loss, managed at last to capture a Spanish treasure ship. Limping into the port of Canton in July of that year, prize in tow, he was dismayed to have the Chinese refuse his demands for a harbor navigator, exemption from duties and an audience with the viceroy.

Not to be bested, Anson kidnapped a Chinese navigator and forced his way upriver, determined to keep his lucre out of Chinese hands. He eventually secured the required support and returned home a rich man, but left a poisoned relationship in his wake.

Effectively, Anson showed up begging with one hand while holding a bag of gold in the other. No grievance was too small to quibble over. Echoes of Anson’s style are apparent in the varying treatment Rumsfeld and Powell received as they negotiated respectively for the release of a downed U.S. EP-3 aircraft and its crew in 2001. Powell’s willingness to issue a “vague statement of sorrow” apparently secured an early release for the crew while the plane languished in China.

The Diplomat

Commissioned by the British crown as an embassy to China, in 1793 George Macartney was sent to lower trade barriers for Britons and establish permanent relations. Attempting to bypass Chinese government-sanctioned middlemen by negotiating direct access to the Chinese market is a perennial Western tactic. Considering that we are still attempting it today, one can surmise it not too effective. Home court advantage simply makes it too easy for China to throw up new barriers.

Lord Macartney made a deliberate effort to awe Emperor Qianlong with numerous gifts displaying Britain’s technological prowess. It is often said that Qianlong rebuffed the gifts with a claim that China had no use for foreign knowledge, but I wonder if this refusal wasn’t simply a face saving measure to lessen the sting of the implied inferiority of Chinese manufactures.

Much of the embassy’s time seems to have been spent negotiating whether and how Macartney would kowtow to Qianlong. He might have spared himself much trouble by either agreeing at once (perhaps with certain conditions) or simply packing up and going home. As it happened, Macartney left having spent much time and treasure without accomplishing (or even really discussing) his objectives. Though Macartney was a proven diplomat, he failed to grasp the importance of the procedures involved in dealing with the Chinese government, causing him to lose focus and continue his futile efforts to the bitter end.

The Sinologist

The Jesuit Matteo Ricci arrived in China in 1582 with a commitment to form the relationships needed for his mission to take root there. Like Macartney 200 years later, Ricci also brought gifts of European technology. Unlike Macartney, his clocks and other articles helped him to gain status among China’s important Confucian elite and eventually in Emperor Kangxi’s court. This was likely by sparking Chinese interlocutors’ own interest to ask about the items rather than as a display of Western superiority.

To ingratiate himself further with his hosts, Ricci took up the robes of a Buddhist monk, switching later to those of the Confucian scholars on the advice of a Chinese friend. Beyond outward adornments, Ricci also made allowance for local ancestral veneration as being compatible with Catholic teaching, easing conversion by allowing Chinese converts to retain important spiritual and social practices. After winning allies among those who could advance his goals, learning Chinese, and writing several books introducing the best of his own culture, Ricci crowned his success with permission to enter the capital in 1601.

Finally, a quick note on the Panda Hugger. This epithet is most often used to cow those deemed too soft on China, nearly always a falsehood in this context. The real Panda Huggers are those foreigners who subordinate their own beliefs for those of the Chinese government, and that doesn’t help anyone in the end.

Americans believe that if the right two people simply sit down and talk, they can work anything out. While this may be true in some places, it is not so with the Chinese government. The first step is to offer a suggestion quietly, work out the details behind the scenes, and finally present the result as a shared success.

Expect Chinese leaders to do their homework, remain cool in the face of inevitable mishaps, uphold their interests, and be friendly if formal hosts. American leaders should reciprocate each of these qualities in the American fashion, maintaining the wariness of a dragon slayer, the finesse of a diplomat, and the commitment of a China hand. As President Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis, respond first with a rock-hard commitment to American interests and then with a subtle eye toward finding areas of common interest. Only when you are neither too eager nor too cynical can you find the happy medium in which personal issues give way to the common public good. Do that and you will stand tall among those explorers, missionaries, statesmen and students who came seeking the open door to China.

Ben Lowsen is a specialist in Chinese political and security affairs working as a program analyst for the U.S. Navy. He tweets at @lowsen88.

The views expressed in this post reflect those of the author and not that of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, U.S. Government, or EastWest Institute.