A $2,500 Book on U.S. Decline Is Suddenly a Must-Read in China

After chaos engulfed the U.S. Capitol last week, some Chinese intellectuals found themselves searching for copies of an out-of-print book to make sense of events. “America Against America” forecast the U.S.’s decline due to domestic conflicts more than 30 years ago.

Among the things driving demand was the author: Wang Huning, the Communist Party’s No. 5 leader and top political theorist to three Chinese presidents. Some copies have surged to more than 16,600 yuan ($2,500) onKungfuzi, an online marketplace for antiques. That’s more than 3,000 times its original asking price in 1991, when Japan was more widely seen as America’s big economic rival.

“The interest in the book is the result of a renewed desire to understand a U.S. that is in the midst of a civil cold war,” said Wang Wen, executive dean of Renmin University’s Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies. “China’s doubts about the U.S. will certainly increase in light of recent events.”

The Capitol Hill turmoil is being read in Beijing as the most powerful sign yet that societal fissures in the U.S. are behind increasingly erratic foreign policy shifts. That’s feeding Chinese apprehension about reaching agreements on trade or other politically charged disputes with President-elect Joe Biden.

“The instability of a negotiation partner means that its public credibility is on the decline and the risk of breaking contracts or promises is greater,” Wang Wen said Tuesday.

Such skepticism illustrates how Washington’s political strife is compounding Biden’s challenge of stabilizing U.S. relationships around the world after four years of shocks and surprises under President Donald Trump. Among his most difficult tasks will be convincing China’s Xi Jinping to make concessions that go beyond the “phase one” trade deal announced by Trump a year ago this Friday.

Not only did that agreement fail to address most of the Trump administration’s biggest trade grievances, including government support for strategic industries and stronger action on state-run enterprises, but Chinahas purchased little more than half of the $172 billion worth of U.S. goods it agreed to buy last year under the deal. Disputes between the two countries have since spiraled into everything from microchips to Taiwan, as Trump increasingly sought to blame China for his election year difficulties.

More on the U.S.-China tensions:
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Meanwhile, Xi appears to have moved on, buoyed by early success against the coronavirus and a resilient economy. Xi has lately emphasized “self-sufficiency” and girded for a prolonged struggle, urging local officials earlier this week to “not only dare to fight, but also be good at fighting,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency. State media accuses the U.S. of abandoning four decades of engagement in favor of containment.

As Washington was gripped by one of the most divisive presidential transitions ever, Xifinalized a long-sought investment deal with the European Union that touches on many of the issues left out of the U.S. pact. The agreement had been championed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a key American ally who early in the Trump presidency declared that Europe could no longer rely on others.

“While both sides have paid a price for the trade war, the U.S. will suffer more in the long run because it damaged its position and reputation as the central pillar of global trade and commerce,” said Mei Xinyu, who is with a research group under the Ministry of Commerce in Beijing.

Wang Huning’s book, which was written during an academic visit to the U.S. in 1988, predicted that America’s emphasis on “individualism, hedonism and democracy” would eventually cause rifts that sapped its competitive drive. Countries like Japan — built on “collectivism, selflessness and authoritarianism” — had the upper hand, said Wang Huning, who’s now one of seven people on the Politburo’s supreme Standing Committee.

‘Failed State’

That thesis hasn’t stood up so well over the past three decades: of the U.S.’s two main rivals of that era — Japan and the Soviet Union — one collapsed and the other saw its economy stagnate. That left the U.S. as the world’s undisputed superpower, and today it still boasts the world’s most powerful military and biggest economy, powered by waves of successive innovation-driven technology booms.

But confidence is growing in China that the balance may be shifting. Besides the transition chaos, the U.S.’s struggles against the coronavirus, racial justice protests and gun violence — subjects featured prominently in China’s state-run media — have fed the narrative of American decline.

“The world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century, but time and the situation are in our favor,” Xi told the gathering of local officials Monday, adding that he saw “opportunities in general outweighing challenges.”

State media was more direct about the source of China’s confidence, with a Xinhua editorial arguing Tuesday that the “fall” of Capitol Hill had proved “Western-style democracy no longer works.” “The U.S. has become a failed state in the eyes of its allies,” Xinhua said.

Biden Questions

Biden’s approach to China remains unclear. The 78-year-old former vice president has expressed a desire to rebuild a consensus among U.S. allies before opening big negotiations with Beijing. He told New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman last month that he wouldn’timmediately rescind the “phase one” deal or repeal Trump’s tariffs on China.

While Chinese officials might be eager to engage Biden’s experienced team of Beltway operators on trade and other disputes, the whiplash of Trump’s one-term presidency has diminished hopes for deals that last. Some of the top contenders for the Republican nomination in 2024, including Senator Marco Rubio, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo or even Trump himself are among Washington’s most strident China hawks.

“If Trump wins in 2024, he’ll spare no efforts to crack down on Chinese companies,” read a post by Chairman Rabbit, a popular nationalist WeChat account run by Ren Yi, the grandson of a former top Communist Party official. “Therefore, in the next four years, Chinese companies listed in the U.S. should consider listing in Hong Kong or returning to the mainland.”

For his own part, Wang Wen, of the Chongyang Institute, said he doesn’t think the U.S. is headed for a collapse in the near term. But in acommentary published about the sudden interest in “America Against America,” he argued the Capitol Hill incident showed many in China that the U.S. was badly in need of reform.

“Most Chinese now have a composite perception of the United States, believing both that it will remain the strongest country for a considerable period of time and that it is no longer the respectable America it once was,” Wang Wen said.

— With assistance by Lucille Liu, Jing Li, and Colum Murphy

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