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The China Trap

By Max A. Palys, Contributing Opinion Writer
Max A. Palys ’26, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Matthews Hall.

Last week, protests opposing both strict zero-Covid policies and the rule of Xi Jinping erupted in China, providing another opportunity for Americans to once again consider the complex relationship between Beijing and Washington. Perhaps, some may hope, this is finally the moment: At last, America can act to support protestors and topple our great authoritarian opponent.

While such a pattern of thought may be tempting to westerners, cutting ties with China in this fraught moment to gamble on regime change ignores geopolitical realities and undermines our collective future. In his landmark article in Foreign Affairs Magazine, Samuel P. Huntington predicted future conflict between China and the United States. Watching the two superpowers edge ever closer to conflict feels not unlike watching a meteoric, eon-altering car crash in slow motion — the two massive hegemons speeding directly at one another with the fate of the world hanging in the balance. To say that the conflict, if it comes to pass, will define our generation is an understatement of biblical proportions.

Beset by (well-founded) allegations of human rights abuses, zero-Covid woes, the authoritarian rise of Xi Jinping (just beginning an unprecedented third term), and fierce protests, China draws derision and hysterics from the West. Americans are increasingly pessimistic about the state of U.S.-China relations. According to the Pew Research Center, roughly nine in 10 adults consider China a competitor or enemy. This sentiment is not just an abstract political consideration — amid right-wing vitriol about the alleged Chinese fabrication of the “Wuhan virus,” incidents of anti-Asian hate crime rose a staggering 339 percent in a single year.

Such a grim assessment of China will not lead the United States anywhere. Where the Soviet Union was frail and weak, China is prosperous and strong. Married with wide-ranging use of modern technology, the authoritarian structure of the Chinese government results in a highly digitized, efficient society. A nice example of this phenomenon is the Chinese app WeChat, a Tencent-owned service that combines features ranging from mobile payments to social media to video games. Nearly all activity is subject to oversight by the Chinese Communist Party. This hyper-centralized system sounds foreign and unreasonable to American ears but is simply a fact of life for Chinese citizens.

And rest assured that the current regime in China is here to stay — the state will handle the recent wave of protests, against the hopes of many westerners. This authoritarian machine has dealt with instability in the past, including in Hong Kong, where China passed stricter security measures in response to 2020 unrest against a controversial extradition bill, and Beijing, where China survived the seismic waves of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The security arm of the CCP has already swung into action, and while the instability may remain in the short term, there is no reason to believe this will be the ultimate downfall of centralized rule.

In the face of domestic instability and challenges from China abroad, America has lost its position as the sole hegemon on the world stage. Many view that as lamentable, a change we must try desperately to stave off. I disagree. It’s time Americans stop throwing pity parties and give up on trying to regain bygone dominance. Instead, we should chart a new course of bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and China, one founded on cultural exchange and the free flow of information.

Education has an essential role to play in that effort. In order to forge a multinational future, multinational education is required — many Chinese students study in the U.S., for example (tellingly, this figure has also been dropping). A marker of the deep distrust between our two nations is the closure of language exchange programs in China, including Harvard’s own move to relocate the Beijing Academy to Taipei. In fairness, both nations have engaged in the language education warfare — China has opened hundreds of controversial “Confucius Institutes” abroad, which some have taken as a ploy to disseminate propaganda and further political ends.

Just as both parties have played a part in the deterioration of the U.S.-China relationship, both parties must affirmatively pursue engagement to rebuild it. There is clearly appetite at Harvard for such cooperation. Consider the mission statements of the Harvard College China Forum, which “is dedicated to creating constructive dialogue on the challenges, trends, and issues affecting China,” or the Harvard Undergraduate Association for U.S.-China Relations, which is “committed to bridging the gap between the United States and China.” Also reflective of Harvard’s unique capacity to help solve the U.S.-China question is its preponderance of East Asian Studies concentrators: At the College, Harvard grants the highest number of East Asian Studies degrees in the country.

In line with these sentiments, a strong first step toward great cooperation would be the re-institution of the Beijing Academy. Engaging with China first requires understanding China, and students should at least be given the option to study in the mainland. Harvard’s study abroad programs should be a model of cooperation and should thus make efforts to engage with China, not shy away from the mainland altogether in favor of a more “politically correct” approach. In particular, Harvard should build ties with Peking University, a school often considered the “Harvard of China.”

Amid broader political uncertainty, closer ties between our institution and China have the opportunity to set a shining example of cooperation and trust. We should avoid the trap of politically-popular China-hawk rhetoric and instead act in line with the interests of the world and the opinions of our students. Harvard must act as a champion of international cooperation. Such a rethink would benefit our students, our nations, and the global community for decades to come. If humanity wants to escape from the impending wreckage, someone must decide to slam the brakes.

Max A. Palys ’26, a Crimson Editorial comper, lives in Matthews Hall.

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