Pence's speech is a rebound and not a slam dunk
Adam Garrie

Editor's Note: Adam Garrie is the director of the UK-based global policy and analysis think tank Eurasia Future and co-host of talk show "The History Boys." The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

Mike Pence has delivered a speech about China that can be described as a political stunt designed to appease a domestic audience that remains ignorant to the differences between American and Chinese culture. The United States has long been in the midst of a domestic political and social crisis in which authoritarian figures on both the left and right have been pitted against libertarians on both the left and right.

Dating back at least to the fallout from the 9/11 attacks, some Americans began to favor a state which sacrifices constitutionally guaranteed liberties in order to supposedly secure the public from terror. Others, however, felt that the new measures designed to supposedly fight terror were little more than assaults on America's traditions of individual liberty.

In China, a very different culture exists. Chinese culture is one that cannot in any way be extrapolated onto that of the United States. In China, collective efforts in pursuit of social harmony and developmental success are considered supremely virtuous, just as in traditional American society, individualism had been considered virtuous.

At present, the vast majority of Chinese are content with their political system which accurately reflects traditional Chinese cultural characteristics. The same cannot be said in a divided America where the authoritarians and libertarians now argue not only about security but increasingly about the very nature of American culture.

In the midst of these perfectly legitimate debates, China has sadly become an illegitimate scapegoat for fears among Americans. Misunderstandings of the Chinese way of life and of Chinese cultural characteristics have led Americans to believe that China is somehow a nightmarish place of human bondage when in fact Chinese are increasingly more optimistic about their future and more content with the present state of development in China than are many Americans in their own country.

Mercedes-Benz Arena, Shanghai, China, the venue for NBA China Games in Shanghai, October 10, 2019. /VCG Photo

Mercedes-Benz Arena, Shanghai, China, the venue for NBA China Games in Shanghai, October 10, 2019. /VCG Photo

Whilst America's leader talks about making his country "great again," Chinese President Xi Jinping talks about the optimism of a dynamic Chinese dream that will help to achieve a moderately prosperous society in all respects.

Mike Pence's recent speech on China was a classic manifestation of an American tendency to confuse their country for China. When Pence spoke of China as a place where "free speech is silenced" and as an "authoritarian regime," he could have well been talking about American politicians who seek to abolish American style free speech in the heart of America.

It is as if Pence feels that China has some desire to export its cultural characteristics to America even though such a claim is not only materially false but historically speaking, entirely absurd. The greatest dangers to freedom in America come from irresponsible politicians seeking to censor and control their own people as well as highly powerful corporations like Facebook that act as a law unto themselves.

Pence likewise made much of the tiresome allegations that somehow America's NBA is too friendly with China. This allegation not only seeks to make a mountain out of a molehill, but in doing so, it tends to obscure the fact that the NBA is ultimately a business and its business is that of basketball – not of politics.

The great irony of Pence's speech is that while it was built around a false understanding of Chinese culture based on a simplification of America's own culture, it neglected to focus on one area where China and the U.S. have a common interest. This area is international commerce.

China's worldview in the 21st century can been summed up as a peaceful giant seeking to create international connectivity through the power of trade and commerce. As the two largest economies in the world, China and the U.S. naturally share a common destiny when it comes to trade.

Unlike war, security pacts or super-national projects, trade does not negatively impact one's cultural or national sovereignty and at best, trade can even lead to positive and peaceful cultural connectivity.

Pence's speech was hardly surprising given that America is now in the midst of a yearlong election season. It would be ideal if Americans were to realize that China does not threaten their culture and that likewise, whilst some Chinese are disappointed in American policies, Chinese are not threatened by American culture either. The world is big enough for multiple sovereign states, each with their own cultures and this is very much the case in respect of China and the U.S. It is simply a pity that Mike Pence cannot bring himself to acknowledge this very basic fact.

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