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Schell: U.S. And Chinese Cooperation Essential For The World

Feb 10, 2017

 

As a college student, China was something of a forbidden land for Orville Schell. He was mystified by the Chinese language, but found it difficult to find a good language course in the United States.

“It was a bit of a terra incognita,” Schell said. “I think the very fact that I couldn't go there was most interesting to me.”

He dropped out of college twice to study Chinese in Taiwan, where he lived with several Chinese roommates - a great language education, he says. His time as a young man learning the language helped propel him to become an expert on China and U.S.-China relations. Since 1970, he has been writing and researching about China, both as a journalist and and academic. He has worked on many different platforms, becoming an award-winning journalist and working for news television programs like Frontline and 60 Minutes on CBS. He’s also the former dean Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California-Berkeley.

Schell has authored fifteen books, and ten of them focus on China. His most recent book is Wealth and Power: China's Long March to the Twenty-first Century. Now, Schell is the director of the Center on U.S.- China relations at the Asia Society in New York.

“It does have a very different political system and a very different value system. And this complicates our relationship immensely,” Schell told KGOU’s World Views.

The U.S. and China have different priorities and clash in a number of areas, such as Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. But the two powers must work together on many pressing issues such as climate change, nuclear proliferation and world trade.

“The world simply can't manage unless the U.S. and China can cool down and cooperate,” Schell said.

U.S. treaties with China’s neighbors have strained that relationship, such as the American relationships with Japan and South Korea. Smaller countries, like Vietnam and Singapore, look to the U.S. for assistance instead of China.

“The whole region has been catalyzed into a kind of Cold War situation. At least it looks that way to the Chinese,” Schell said. “And it’s an understandable thing because they feel threatened.”

China is a relatively recent great power. Schell says there is a long memory  of being “bullied and hectored” that pushes them to feel threatened by these neighborhood alliances with the U.S..

Although China’s economy has progressed greatly, the country faces several fracture points domestically that could potentially threaten the stability of the country.

 

The ethnic Uighurs, for example, have faced many religious and economic restrictions. And as the country became more capitalistic, Schell says a “yawning gap” opened up between the wealthy and the poor. For the Chinese Communist Party this is especially problematic.

“The party now, which really has no ideology other than nationalism, is almost completely based for its legitimization on the economy working,”  Schell said.

Urbanization has occurred rapidly in China. The migration of poor rural Chinese to the country’s urban areas “comprised the largest migration in human history of going into cities,”  Schell said.

One of the costs of rapid urbanization has been an increase in pollution. Schell says anger over pollution could potentially boil over to create massive demonstrations, similar to how economic concerns led to the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.

“Ten, fifteen percent of all arable land in China has been now rendered too toxic, mostly by polluted irrigation water, to farm on,” Schell said. “That's an extraordinary figure. You find ground water levels sinking, rainfall patterns changing, rivers just running black as tar. It's a horrendous situation.”

Through it all, the Chinese Communist Party will have to manage the country’s continued economic growth, internal divisions and response to environmental issues.

“The Chinese Communist Party has its hands full keeping this whole train on the tracks,” Schell said.

Interview Highlights

Orville Schell on the threats to Chinese power

China has a long historical memory of the time when it was the only game in town, and town as they knew it then was Asia. They didn't know about the West. So, when the West came in and was more powerful, China suddenly was weak and couldn't defend itself. This was a bitter period of Chinese history. So now that they're back, they're capable of doing things, it’s an enormous temptation to sort of project power, not necessarily for a kind of a hard realistic evaluation of their own interests, but because they can and because that's sort of assumed to be their natural role, to be the first - not even among equals - just the first. And that's the role they are now starting to play. The only problem is, of course, that there's another extremely powerful country both economically and militarily in the region - Japan. And then, of course, there's Korea. And then, of course, those Vietnam, which when China attacked them in 1979 got their clock cleaned by this little country. They're pretty feisty,  you know,  small. But there's an awful lot of fracture points now in that area. And the U.S. has been out there with the Seventh Fleet for 70 years. It's sort of the policeman on the block. And so you ask what should we do about it? If I could answer that question I would be secretary of state.

Orville Schell on the current state of China

The cost of China's very high speed growth has been a tremendous amount of environmental degradation, both in terms of air quality, water pollution - 10, 15 percent of all arable land in China has been now rendered too toxic, mostly by polluted irrigation water, to farm on. I mean, that's an extraordinary figure. You find ground water levels sinking, rainfall patterns changing, rivers just running black as tar. It's a horrendous situation. So there's that whole problem which has hardly started to come home to roost. And then you have on top of that the fact that China's poor peasantry has comprised the largest migration in human history going into the cities. But if the economy slows down and they can't keep the people now who are members of this floating population in the city employed, they risk tremendous instability. You know, you patch something with one kind of patch and then it rips and you have to use another kind of patch. So they're running around. One problem generates another and it's a very unresolved society because you have to remember it is coming from being a centralized economy, a Marxist Leninist system, with a very tectonic Maoist revolution and it's changing into something else. And what that something else is, is not yet clear but it's in myriad ways in a state of transition.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

Grillot: Welcome to World Views.

Schell: Pleasure to be here.

Grillot: So Orville, you've had a long career studying China and as a journalist. I want to get there in just a few minutes, but tell us how you ended up working in China because you spent time in Taiwan in the early 60s and obviously have been working in and out of China for many many years. You were there during the Tiananmen Square incident, in fact in 1989. So tell us a little bit about how you developed an interest in this part of the world kind of what took you there to begin with.

Schell: Well I think it was very much happenstance that led me to China because when I was in college off course you couldn't go there. So it was a bit of a terra incognita kind of. I think the very fact that I couldn't go there was most interesting to me. And I stumbled into a very legendary course in China and Japan taught by John Fairbank and Edwin Reischauer at Harvard. And by the time I got to the end of it I didn't really know what else to do with myself and I was very sort of mystified by the Chinese language. So ultimately I dropped out of college twice to go study Chinese in Taiwan. And then I sort of stuck on it.

Grillot: I love that it was more or less prohibited, therefore you found it interesting and wanted to go, but the language being mystifying to you,  were you able to study the language in college? Is that how you were exposed to that and ultimately led you to study something kind of unusual?

Schell: I actually went out to Stanford to study one summer and I got absolutely nowhere. I mean as I think often studying a language particularly like Chinese or Japanese, an Oriental language, in America it's very hard, particularly spoken. So I ended up working on a ship and going out to Taiwan and I spent two years there and lived with seven other Chinese roommates so that was a good language lesson.

Grillot: What are some of the most compelling issues today? I mean I've heard you refer to things like the relationship with Tibet, the concerns there, obviously Taiwan is an issue. What about human rights? You've been involved in Human Rights Watch, for example. I mean what are some of the things that are going on in China and between China and the United States that we should really be paying most interested today?

Schell: Well after you know a century of China being relatively weak and feeling very much the victim occupied by Japan sort of pecked apart by the great powers, it finally has now become much more prosperous and powerful. And so one can say that China has actually risen and it has gotten to be with the United States one of the two most consequential countries in the world today. But it does have a very different political system and a very different value system. And this complicates our relationship with it immensely. Whether you're talking about Tibet or Taiwan,  which is a democracy,  or Hong Kong, which does have, it has been guaranteed a certain amount of autonomy and a free press and other Western institutions. This is a source of enormous contention between the U.S. and China. So at the same time we have this great disparity in what we believe in and the way we govern ourselves. And questions like human rights, you know, rule of law, academic freedom you can go on and on and on. We also have other problems which are incredibly demanding such as nuclear proliferation, pandemics, world epidemics, climate change, world trade, that also the world simply can't can't manage unless the U.S. and China can cool down and cooperate. So it presents an enormous contradiction. It's enormous challenge and we haven't got it figured out and in fact I would say in the last three or four years relations between the U.S. and China have degraded and there's more tension now than there were say five years ago.

Grillot: Why have things gotten worse over the past few years?

Schell: Well I think the most obvious cause of the tensions is the fact that China now is much more prosperous and powerful and now has begun to have a military that can project power. Not just a defensive land army,  but a navy and an air force, and they have declared that the most of the South China Sea is their sovereign territory, which is on one level. If you look at the map looks quite outrageous. It goes all the way down to Indonesia. And they also claim islands that Japan claim. So here you have the two strongest powers in Asia at loggerheads. And of course we are bound by a treaty with Japan, with Korea, with the Philippines to defend them. So each of these countries has pieces of real estate that are in contention.

Grillot: Years ago we would talk about China and they're growing in wealth and power. They're obviously upgrading their military. But the fact that they're more able to project that power, that naval power, the growth and to the South China Sea is obviously a significant concern. What is it that the United States can or is doing about this? I mean that's so it's degraded there as you mentioned There's more concern and fear. I don't know how much trust there is between these two countries but they need each other, right? And so what is it that the United States can or will do about this situation given as you noted all of the treaties with the with the neighbors?

Schell: Well this is this is of course the question that we don't want to draw lines in the sand and then just ignore them. But as a result of China's much more forward and aggressive posture in maritime disputes both in the East and South China Sea, every single nation which was once China had cultivated quite nicely in a friendly fashion and went back in the days of its so-called peaceful rise like Vietnam, Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia are now much more inclined to ask the United States for support assurances of protection because they're small, they're weak, and China's big and powerful and there's no other place to turn to. So we find that the whole region has been catalyzed into a kind of almost a cold war situation. At least it looks that way to the Chinese, that these alliances between the United States and its neighbors. And it's an understandable thing because they feel threatened.

Grillot: What is they feel threatened by whom I mean their neighbors they feel threatened by the United States. I mean you you noted their aggressive positioning right. The fact that they seem to be aggressively pushing themselves outside of their own territory at least within their region. However, they're also heavily investing in Latin America and Africa and other parts of the world. So there appears to be some sense of it projecting their power even further at least in terms of economic influence, financial influence, investment. So what is it that they're threatened by? Is it is it a matter of threat or are they just being aggressive and and perhaps just pushing their own agenda not because they're feeling threatened but because perhaps they want to threaten the position of others?

Schell: Well I think at last having been sort of the victim having been the one that was preyed upon, chipped away at, occupied, they feel bullied and hectored. That now that they are powerful enough there's a certain kind of, they feel a certain sense of gratification that it is they that can set the terms of the game. I think back in the day, I mean China has a long historical memory of the time when it was the only game in town and town as they knew it then was Asia. They didn't know about the West so then when the West came in and was more powerful and China suddenly was weak and couldn't defend itself. This was a bitter period of Chinese history. So now that they're back, they're capable of doing things is an enormous temptation to sort of project power. Not necessarily for a kind of a hard realistic evaluation of their own interests but because they can and because that's sort of assumed to be their natural role to be the first - not even among equals - just the first. And that's the role they are now starting to play. The only problem is of course that there's another extremely powerful country both economically and militarily in the region - Japan. And then of course there's Korea. And then of course those Vietnam, which when China attacked them in 1979 got their clock cleaned by this little country. They're pretty feisty, you know, small but there isn't an awful lot of fracture points now in that area. And the U.S. has been out there with the Seventh Fleet for 70 years, is sort of the policeman on the block. And so you ask, what should we do about it? If I could answer that question I would be secretary of state.

Grillot: This is obviously a very large country and diverse too. You have I mentioned earlier in the discussion. Tibet. So that remains an issue. Other minority issues, Uighurs. You know there seems to be the potential for some sort of domestic fracture as well. And I also mentioned your presence during the Tiananmen Square incident 1989. I mean what kind of movements like those are emerging? Are they emerging or do we see that the Chinese government is really able to keep these types of movements and concerns, domestic issues at bay?

Schell: Well traditionally and presently, I think that China, the Chinese Communist Party's most sort of frightening scenario is disunity. And of course the Communist Party came to power promising to reunify China - that meant Tibet, Xinjiang, the Uighur Muslim areas, Mongolia, Manchuria, and Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau. So this was a very sort of important promise and it also touches on the issue of sovereignty, probably the most sensitive issue of all for Chinese in terms of foreign policy. But while they're very afraid of disunity, there also are a tremendous number of very dangerous fracture points within China. There's the ethnic one, regional one. There's also a yawning abyss now as it becomes more capitalistic and wealthy between the rich and the poor.  And the party now, which really has no ideology other than nationalism, is almost completely based for its legitimization on the economy working. Funny for a Communist Party to be totally reliant on a marketplace capitalist economy for its legitimacy. But that's the reality. So they're very very nervous that the country could fracture again and could break apart into both demonstrations like 1989, into economic grievance, and the people angry about the horrendous pollution. I mean there are people who are poor, people who lose jobs when the economy turns down. And it's a real powder keg and one has to sort of you know admit that the Chinese Communist Party has its hands full keeping this whole train on the tracks.

Grillot: Well I have to admit from my time in China you know the divide between or the socio economic divide in those types of divisions that you're referring to here are not as easy to see unless you get outside of the big cities. When you spend your time in Beijing or Shanghai you don't really see them but that rural urban split really seems to be kind of what you're getting at right in terms of that socio economic distinction. I mean the overwhelming majority of the country is still you know living outside of these urban centers.

Schell: Well the cost of China's very high speed growth has been a tremendous amount of environmental degradation, both in terms of air quality, water pollution - 10, 15 percent of all arable land in China has been now rendered too toxic, mostly by polluted irrigation water, to farm on. I mean that's an extraordinary figure. You find ground water levels sinking, rainfall patterns changing, rivers just running black as tar. It's a horrendous situation. So there's that whole problem which has hardly started to come home to roost. And then you have on top of that the fact that China's poor peasantry has comprised the largest migration in human history going into the cities. But if the economy slows down and they can't keep the people now who are sort of members of this floating population in the city employed, they risk tremendous instability. So all of these kinds of changes that have come about. You know, you patch something with one kind of patch and then it rips and you have to use another kind of patch. So they're running around. You know one problem generates another and it's a very unresolved society because you have to remember it is coming from being a centralized economy, a Marxist Leninist system, with a very tectonic Maoist revolution and it's changing into something else. And what that something else is, is not yet clear but it's in myriad ways in a state of transition.

 

Grillot: All right. Orville Schell thank you so much for being here and sharing your perspective with us today.

Schell: Thank you

 

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