China Expert David Lampton: Why do we say that “The China Dream” is running against everything in the world?

By Yilin Wang
This interview was conducted in 2016.
It was subsequently published in the Blue Net China magazine, Vol.2.

Professor David M. Lampton, the guru and the most influential pioneer in the study of contemporary China in the United States, has been in the field ever since the 1970s. He served as President of the National Committee on United States-China Relations in New York City from 1988-1997, during which period he met and conducted interviews with hundreds of Chinese as well as US leaders. Dedicated as he is, Professor Lampton has been paying visits to China multiple times every year since the 1970s and he speaks Chinese fluently. With his in-depth understanding of China, which is deeper than many native Chinese, Professor Lampton has played major roles in several US foreign affairs committees such as the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations Executive Committee, the Council on Foreign Relations, and he currently is chairman of The Asia Foundation. In 2014 he published the insightful book on his research about Chinese leaders, “Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping” and in 2015, he was named by the Institute of International Relations at the China Foreign Affairs University “the most influential China watcher”. Professor Lampton is currently Director of China Studies at the Johns Hopkins Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies.  He founded the China Studies Programs at the American Enterprise Institute and later what was then the Nixon Center (now called Center for the National Interest).

China’s construction projects and its neighbors: Professor Lampton visited Asia early this year to work on his recent research on the construction of three possible railroads, possibly high-speed railways, that would involve eight countries. These railroads would start from Kunming, with one going through Myanmar to Bangkok then down to Singapore, one going through Laos to Bangkok, and one going through Vietnam.

How did you and your team conduct your research? Based on your observation throughout those months in Asia, how would you describe this railroad project?

A: In the course of the project we will interview in all eight countries and interpret the politics and process of building some or all of the railroads. We first did planning for this project in Singapore. After that I went to Jakarta, the big capital city of Indonesia, with whom China has just got a contract to build a high-speed railroad from Jakarta to Bandung. I met with the governor of Jakarta and we talked about that. We plan to visit China again this June and July, to visit Nanjing, Beijing, then go down to Kunming and Dali, to continue interviews.

I would say that this railroad project is complicated for all the parties involved. Who’s going to pay for them? How do they deal with the people that will be disrupted along the route? What kind of train should be built? There are shifting political relations too. In fact, China is competing against Japan and others for some of these projects. Also, there are other factors that complicate things, such as unexploded ordnance in Laos left over from the Vietnam War.

Is this railroad construction program part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative? 

A: In China, it does fall under the rubric of the “Belt and Road Initiative,” but pieces of this idea actually go back to the time of French Indochina and then more recently were part of the ASEAN connectivity initiative and the Greater Mekong Subregion concept. In the Nineteenth Century the French wanted to build roads in Vietnam up to China. Even under Zhu Rongji, in more modern times, China and Malaysia discussed the construction of these railroads, but at the time financial resources were limited.

Would you consider such construction projects by China to be threatening to the US? 

A: I think such construction is not in itself threatening and indeed can promote development. However, other foreign policy actions, for instance in the South and East China seas, can create anxiety among China’s neighbors and create an anxious environment for deciding how and when to proceed. If China’s neighbors, like Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Vietnam, and even Indonesia, are anxious they run to the US for security and delay making economic development decisions like this.

About this, Chinese media is saying that the US is using its little brothers to threaten China. How would you comment on that?

A: I think the bigger problem now is that China is unsettling its neighbors and its neighbors are running to Washington. We are reacting as much to the upset of the neighbors as we are to our own worries about the U.S. role in Asia. If I were in China, I would improve my relations with neighbors.

In Asia, the US does not want to be solely responsible for maintaining security. So we want our friends to pick up responsibilities as much as they can. If you were Chinese, you would look at that and say the US is trying to use these regional players to constrain us. I think that’s exactly how China views it.

Besides these railroad construction projects, China is also exporting high-speed trains to extend its influence. What lies behind this new action of China?

A: Lying behind this move of exporting high-speed rail technology, equipment, and systems is China’s intention to move up on the value-added chain of manufacturing and technology. Rather than producing textiles and cheap exports, Chinese are instead doing, and want to do more, science and high-tech components. Now China is looking to key industries where the PRC is competitive, such as railroads. In fact, China and Japan are the principal countries that are competitive in this industry, though there are Germany and the Republic of Korea as well. Also this is seen as an export industry that can utilize some of China’s excess concrete and steel production. So building infrastructure elsewhere is a way to use some of that.

We can say that China’s decision on this serves economic, political as well as strategic purposes, as you can see from the competition between China and Japan on the railroads. Each country wants to build the railroads and hook all the supply chains to itself, leading to an economic competition on the surface but truly strategic underneath.

“The China Dream” vs. “Let’s make America Great Again” is not a good combination: Professor Lampton has been visiting China about 4-5 times per year starting from 1976. He was among the first group of Americans to visit China after Mao Zedong’s death.

Compared with the China you saw forty years ago, what do you think has changed the most now?

A: Undoubtedly the way of thinking among Chinese people and leaders. Chinese people now think about the world, but back then they only thought about their villages and towns. You know, even Mao Zedong only went abroad twice and both times to the Soviet Union.

Back then, market economy thinking didn’t exist and trade was peripheral to Chinese thinking. The way China deals with the world today is based on the theory of comparative advantage. Mao’s way of thinking was self reliance and that China would be great if it needed nothing from the world. But China has the idea of global market orientation now. It trades now, and very well.

Bluntly speaking, under Mao, Chinese people were more preoccupied with basic material issues. When I first went to Northern China, cabbages were stacked on the sidewalks in piles because there wasn’t internal trade in China: you ate what was around you. But now in Beijing and throughout China you can have oranges in winter. You could never have that at that time. In fact, the diet has totally changed in China and China has even got and obesity problem now.

Basically I would say that the economic character of China has changed, as have its connections to the world, and these things are closely related. Chinese now think about improving themselves by, for example, sending their kids to colleges. They have aspirations: The China dreams.

Would you say that kind of change is always positive? Some remain skeptical that the changed Chinese way of thinking could sometimes involve westernization. How would you comment on that? 

A: Change, modernization is of course not always positive and reassuring, but that’s the case for everywhere in the world with rapid economic, social, and interest group pattern changes. For instance, you build cities and then working-age villagers naturally go to the cities, leaving the old and children behind; if you have a market economy then what happens to those “iron rice bowls”? In modernization there are always winners and losers, and by that I mean economic winners and losers, security winners and losers, and even values winners and losers.

About the westernization problem, we call that “Ti Yong”: essence versus use. Starting in the second half of the 19thcentury China was thinking of getting western objects and technology while keeping Chinese essence. But, when you adopt one country or civilization’s technology it affects your values. If you’re going to have modern industries, you have to have cities, and then you have to abandon the villages. Along with that you diminish village societies and village values.

Many westerners think China has had its particular contradiction between its desire to adopt the things of the West without becoming the West. In China this is part of what some call “spiritual pollution.”

The transitions of people’s mindset in the past decades have reached a peak when Chairman Xi brings in the now prevalent idea of “The China Dream”, but this has obviously led to unsettling effects to other countries. How would you comment on this?

A: Personally I think Deng Xiaoping had a very good policy: “Tao guang yang hui” (to hide one’s talents, and bide one’s time for the right opportunity). Under his governance the first priority was to reform China and to keep the outside calm.

But Xi is really strong and he has to answer to people. China is now much stronger than before so maybe it’s not the time to “Tao guang yang hui” anymore?

A: That ’s true. It’s true sometimes that one can increase the support of one’s people by the notion of “Chinese people have stood up”, or nationalism. That’s the same in America, so we now have “The China Dream” and Donald Trump’s “let’s make America great again”. I would say that’s not a very good, stable combination. The best thing China could do for now is to calm down its neighboring area and the United States should cooperate to do that. But right now we have politicians in both countries who want to use friction to secure power, making a peaceful US-China relationship a bit difficult now.

 “We like the Americans, but not their government policies sometimes.” Professor Lampton has been in the field of China Studies for over 40 years, starting from his high school time. He has conducted interviews with more than 600 Chinese and American leaders.

Is there anything in particular you observed from your interactions with Chinese?

A: I think maybe Chinese people themselves have been surprised by how rapidly their domestic society has been changing and gaining strength. That’s probably true for China’s role on the world stage as well. China is still trying to find its way. You could say that because in history China had had its great era but that went into remission in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, and now China is reacquiring its role as a globally central financial and military power. Chinese people must have been surprised by all the internal changes and the expansion of their role internationally. So I think China is debating what all this means and what the correct policy should be.

One thing I have observed over the years is that there are many similarities between Chinese and Americans. For example, we both value education and family. We are both interested in each other, although that doesn’t mean we always like what each other do.

Would you say that Chinese and Americans actually like each other on the individual level?

A: Yes, I would say individually our relationship is almost always positive. Even Chairman Xi stayed in Iowa for a while in the 80s, right? I believe the Chinese think “we like American people, but not their government policies sometimes”–and the feeling is mutual.

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