An insecure America and an assertive China
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President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE’s deliberate use of the offensive term “Chinese virus” is undoubtedly aimed at diverting attention from his administration’s failure to contain the coronavirus. It also reveals a bigger problem in the deteriorating U.S.-China relationship: an insecure America and an assertive China.

A media war between the two countries has been escalating since early February 2020, when China expelled three Wall Street Journal journalists for the paper’s refusal to apologize for a controversial op-ed titled “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” Shortly afterwards, the State Department declared five Chinese news media to be “foreign missions,” requiring them to register their personnel and property with the U.S. government. It also reduced the number of U.S.-based Chinese nationals allowed to work at the five media--Xinhua, China Global Television Network, China Daily, China Radio International, and People’s Daily--from 160 to 100.

In retaliation, the Chinese Foreign Ministry demanded American journalists working for New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post whose credentials are to expire at year end to hand back their press cards by March 27. The three American newspapers, together with Voice of America and Time, are also required to declare information about their staff, finance, operation and real estate in China.

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The Chinese media are mouthpieces of the Communist Party. Why is the U.S. government exposing this “secret” now? Where is America’s confidence when challenged by an authoritarian regime? Will China become more assertive as its competition with the U.S. intensifies?

The United States has been the world’s sole superpower after the Cold War, commanding a superior military and innovative economy. It has always been confident of its democracy at home and soft power abroad in contrast to China’s deep sense of insecurity. But recently, Washington has lost its confidence and direction and become increasingly worried about China’s challenge to the liberal international order. Meanwhile, China has become increasingly confident in its political system and culture. President Xi Jinping has called on the Chinese people to be “confident in our chosen path, confident in our political system, confident in our culture, and confident in our guiding theories.” China’s apparent success to contain the coronavirus will further boost national pride.

At the 2020 National Governors Association conference on Feb. 8, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed that “competition with China is not just a federal issue,” it takes place at the state and local levels, and “it affects our capacity to perform America’s vital national security functions.” He painted a chilling picture of how China has infiltrated into America’s national and local politics.

A few days later at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Germany, Pompeo, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, and House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy Pelosi Sunday shows preview: Leaders weigh in as country erupts in protest over George Floyd death 5 things to know about US-China tensions over Hong Kong Pelosi calls Trump's decision to withdraw US from WHO 'an act of extraordinary senselessness' MORE (D-Calif.) all focused on the perceived China threat, appealing to America’s European allies to counter China’s influence.

Veteran Chinese diplomat Fu Ying’s exchange with Pelosi at the MSC is quite telling of the changing winds. In response to Pelosi’s claim that Huawei challenges the Western democratic system, Fu said, “China, since its reform started 40 years ago, has introduced all kinds of Western technologies … and China has maintained its political system. It is not threatened by these technologies.” Fu wondered how Huawei would threaten the Western political system. “Do you really think that the democratic system is so fragile that it could be threatened by this single hi-tech company of Huawei?”

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America’s declining confidence is also reflected in the closure of Confucius Institutes on U.S. college campuses. Since the University of Maryland established the first Confucius Institute in North America in 2004, dozens of U.S. colleges have hosted these Chinese language and culture learning centers. In recent years, however, Confucius Institutes have become controversial due to their funding from China’s Ministry of Education and alleged encroachment on academic freedom. FBI Director Christopher Wray said in 2018 that his agency was “warily watching” the institutes. In the past year, at least 10 Confucius Institutes in the U.S. have closed or announced plans to shutter, including the one at the University of Maryland.

If these institutes were engaged in unlawful activities, they deserve penalty including closure. But if they were forced to close because of Sinophobia, it will only undermine America’s openness and freedom, let alone doing a disservice to the American students who were learning Chinese language and culture there and disrupting normal cultural and educational exchanges between the two countries.

US-China relations have worsened partly because the two countries have traded places: America feels less secure and China is more assertive. Yet America’s falling confidence derives from an inflated and distorted assessment of China’s influence and power. America must restore its confidence as a global leader, just as China must continue to be humble and focus on domestic development.

Zhiqun Zhu is Professor of Political Science and International Relations at Bucknell University.