Minxin Pei objects to American politicians’ complaints about Chinese-produced uniforms for the U.S. Olympic team, but does so in the strangest way:
To the extent that America’s long-term China strategy critically depends on a fundamental change of China’s domestic political system, an essential component of this strategy should consist of steps taken to win the hearts and minds of the Chinese population. For a country that spent hundreds of billions of dollars and lost several thousand young men and women scrambling to win hearts and minds of more than 50 million Iraqis and Afghans, it is strategic madness to alienate 1.3 billion people with irresponsible and insensitive remarks that will be remembered for a long time.
Presumably, it is a bad idea for any nation’s politicians to make remarks that needlessly alienate so many people, but the references to Iraq and Afghanistan here are bizarre and out of place. The U.S. may have theoretically been “scrambling to win hearts and minds” in these countries, but that was because the U.S. was/is militarily occupying those countries and trying to reduce violent opposition to U.S.-backed governments. The comparison between the U.S. role in these countries and U.S. relations with the Chinese public is remarkably unhelpful if one wants to chide our politicians for provoking Chinese nationalist reactions.
What Americans ought to take take away from the experience in Iraq and Afghanistan is that the U.S. is extremely bad at winning “hearts and minds” in the countries whose populations our government most wants to win over. Indeed, I suspect that a majority regards the attempt to do so as one of our bigger mistakes of the last few decades. It is probably the case that most of the Chinese public is no more receptive to having their hearts and minds “won” by a foreign government. Indeed, the popular Chinese nationalism that Pei is concerned to avoid provoking is one reason why it is doubtful that the U.S. is in any position to “win the hearts and minds of the Chinese population.”
Does America’s long-term China strategy “critically” depend on a “fundamental change” in the Chinese political system? If so, our strategy doesn’t seem to be a very good one. Insofar as this long-term China strategy relies on turning “the Chinese people” against the current regime, it seems unlikely to succeed. Are most people in China looking for foreign assistance to help introduce “fundamental change” to China’s political system? I doubt it. Many people in China may want “fundamental change” in their political system, but it wouldn’t be surprising if they were also wary of a foreign government’s efforts to promote that change.