This episode is part of the National Committee's Coronavirus Impact Series.

Leadership in both China and the United States continue to face the common crisis of a once-in-a-century pandemic and its aftermath. Political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang uses power insecurity to explore the apparent contradiction of worsening U.S.-China relations despite the powerful and ongoing incentive for collaboration.



Yuen Yuen Ang is an associate professor of political science at the University of Michigan. She was named an Andrew Carnegie Fellow by the Carnegie Corporation of New York for “high-caliber scholarship that applies fresh perspectives to the most pressing issues of our times.” She is the author of a multi-award winning book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap, and a forthcoming (May 2020) book, China’s Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption. She advises the United Nations, United Nations Development Program, and governments on innovation, inclusive development, and China's global impact. In addition, Dr. Ang writes frequently for a broad audience in outlets such as Project SyndicateForeign AffairsPengpai (China). Foreign Affairs named one of her essays "Best of Print 2018." She has been interviewed by The New York Times (Chinese), CGTN’s Visionaries (English), and other media outlets in China, Hong Kong, and Europe.
She is a graduate of Colorado College and Stanford University, and is a member of the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program



Yuen Yuen Ang: I wanted to touch on the question of, "Why has U.S.-China relations deteriorated at a time when global cooperation is most urgently needed?" As a political scientist, I think I would underscore the factor of deep political insecurity on the part of leaders in both countries. To explain that, let me begin with China. President Xi Jinping may now appear triumphant for having won the battle against the virus, but I am not so sure that he's really as triumphant as many people believe him to be. In fact, I think he has good reasons to be worried.

To explain why, let me step back and provide some context which I recently wrote about in an article in Nature, the science magazine and it's called "When COVID-19 Meets Centralized Personalized Power." It's useful for us to understand firstly, that China under Xi is very different from China in the previous decades. Xi represents a period of authoritarian revival. He has clamped down on political freedoms, and he has centralized power in his own hands. This has been well documented by Elizabeth Economy and other experts. Graham Allison describes Xi as "the chairman of everything."

Well, absolute power brings absolute responsibility. There's a price for centralizing power. If you look at my analysis in Nature, you'll see that the decision-making process and the chain of command during COVID is more centralized than during SARS, which was a period of collective leadership and decentralization. This implies that Xi himself bears heavy personal responsibility for any of his decisions, including his errors. This is reflected both in his initial indecision and indirectly in his creation of a stifling political environment, which suppressed whistleblowers and freedom of speech.

Once we understand this deep insecurity and heavy personal responsibility that he has to bear, in an extremely centralized environment, I think we can better understand why his regime has reacted or interacted with the U.S. in a very defensive and even aggressive way. We have seen China do an all-out campaign to celebrate what China has done right under Xi without any mention of what China has failed to do, and in what ways it has failed.

Yuen Yuen Ang: In all fairness, I'm sure that Xi himself does not want a crisis, perhaps the party will have a moment of introspection and reflect on what went wrong. I think that he must also see and understand the imperative for cooperation and reconciliation. At the same time as a political scientist, I'll say that we must also recognize his domestic political imperative, which is to rewrite narrative in his favor and to rally the nation behind him with America on the other side. As for now, it is difficult for me to see the motivation for reconciliation to come, unless Xi regains his sense of political security.

Then moving on to the U.S. side, the story is quite straightforward. I think most of us can agree that the Trump Administration had completely failed to prepare for the outbreak, even though they had known about it and saw it exploding in China for months. This undermines Trump's bid for re-election in November.

However, the response is simple, which is to put all the blame on China. This is obviously simplistic, but simplistic sells. Simplistic is a very appealing message.

On the U.S. side, the political motivations for reconciliation are just as weak in my view. When you put the two sides together, I could not feel optimistic about the direction of U.S.-China relations going forward, at least not in 2020. The coming presidential election, in November, will obviously be a game-changer. We'll have to see whether and how the political landscape shakes up by then. Having laid out a rather pessimistic outlook, I wanted, however, to end on two promising points.

Yuen Yuen Ang: First I wish to highlight that while leaders in the both countries have failed in their own ways, one in transparency and the other in competence, civil society in both China and the United States have really stepped up: NGOs, volunteers, the private sector, organizations like the National Committee, and Elizabeth will enlighten us more on that. I think it's very important for us to keep in mind, going forward, not to confuse societies with the leadership.

When we say China, we need to be precise about who we mean by China. Do we mean President Xi, the Party, the government, or the society? Because if we fail to unbundle these parties, then we risk unnecessarily antagonizing the whole nation of China when a lot of the conflict is actually between the leadership. Likewise, when the Chinese people talk about America, they should know that the American society is not the same as the American government.

The second promising point I would highlight is that both of the top leaders, President Xi and President Trump, still have a great deal of power in their hands. If they are willing to call a truce and say, "We'll set aside our domestic imperatives and pledge to cooperate for the time being until the crisis passes," there is still tremendous room for them to do that. Indeed, we have seen that after a phone call, the escalation of the war of words was sort of put on pause for the time being. We hope that both societies will continue to step up. The two leaders, despite their domestic political constraints, will be willing, for the moment, to put aside their own interests and put the national interest before them. Thank you.

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This podcast series features brief discussions with leading China experts on a range of issues in the U.S.-China relationship, including domestic politics, foreign policy, economics, security, culture, the environment, and areas of global concern.

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