The ‘China Hands’ Got China Wrong, But Listen to Them Now

Looking back, the great-power generalists were warier about Beijing’s threat. Looking ahead, a grasp of Mandarin will come in handy.

Date: September 15, 2019
By: Hal Brands

The more things change … Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

What is the best sort of knowledge for understanding the world: detailed expertise on individual countries and key issues, or a broader grasp of strategy and the patterns of great-power rivalry? This is the deeper epistemological question at stake in recent arguments about who was right and who was wrong about China in the decades after the Cold War. The answer is complicated, but it matters a lot in terms of forging the right approach to China in the future.

The great-power gurus, those with less specific knowledge about China itself, were better at predicting the emergence of the disruptive rising power we see today. Yet the China hands – those who know that country, its language and its politics intimately – will be the critical assets in the new competition. 

As U.S.-China relations have worsened, experts have approached a consensus in favor of some toughening of the American posture. Still, opinion on China is hardly monolithic.  The Washington Post recently described one split, between an older generation that came of age during the heyday of U.S.-China engagement and wants to prevent the relationship from entering an inescapable downward spiral, and a younger generation that is more willing to risk higher tensions as the price of protecting U.S. interests.

Yet this split is not the first major divide in America’s China-watching community. Since the 1990s, there have been two types of U.S. experts on China. The first group – the “China hands” – is composed of individuals who possess deep subject-matter expertise and have devoted their careers to understanding China. The China hands can be found in U.S. universities, think-tanks, and government (particularly the Foreign Service); they possess formidable Chinese-language skills and enviable contacts within the Chinese power structure and society. They can speak with great authority and nuance about Beijing politics; they are well attuned to the unique aspects of China's history and strategic culture.