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Strange Bedfellows

A China scholar untangles the web of Sino-American relations.

By Thomas Shawn Mullaney

The Chinese expression tong chuang yi meng refers to two people whose lives are intimately intertwined but who do not really communicate with each other. A case in point is the United States and China, according to David M. Lampton, who borrows the saying for his latest title, Same Bed, Different Dreams: Managing U.S.-China Relations, 1989-2000 (UC Press, 2001). Lampton, ’68, MA ’71, PhD ’73, is the director of Chinese studies at the Nixon Center in Washington, D.C., and a Johns Hopkins University professor.

From a global perspective, one burning question guides Lampton’s inquiry: as China strengthens, will its interests be compatible with those of the United States? Using a number of well-researched, counterintuitive points of view, the author destabilizes certain popular perceptions. For one, he rather successfully debunks the idea of China as a rogue nation by demonstrating just how often and how constructively it has participated in the international community. He highlights principles that China and the United States tend to share—the importance of Asia-Pacific regional stability and an uneasiness about the prospect of a remilitarized Japan, to name just two.

Lampton is probably at his best disentangling the threads that bind Sino-American relations to the two countries’ domestic affairs. Most Americans, he argues, are unaware of this connection. “[W]hen they view China’s behavior in international settings,” he contends, “Americans see only Beijing’s positions, not the underlying domestic pressures that account for that behavior.” Such pressures include China’s growing political pluralism. So-called transactional leaders, like Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, have to spend much more time consensus-building than did “transformational” leaders like Mao. Their decisions are far more subject to internal contention, the second-guessing of hard-nosed elements, and all the other ingredients Americans know so well in their own government but overlook when it comes to China. Without an appreciation of this point, the author accurately implies, it is difficult if not impossible to comprehend China’s behavior during last year’s EP3 spy-plane incident and in the aftermath of the 1999 Chinese embassy bombing in Belgrade.

Similarly, Lampton asserts, Americans tend to overlook the less-than-holy domestic political interests that sometimes underlie the seemingly altruistic rhetoric of global human rights. “In politics,” he writes, “the person or group that defines the issue first, gives it a name, and puts a human face on it, reaps political rewards.” His point is not that human rights initiatives per se are moral shams; nor is it to demean honest sentiments that often fuel them. Rather, he aims to help readers understand that to China, America’s human rights convictions are a thin façade designed to justify hegemonic intervention.

Lampton also discusses individuals who have influenced Sino-American relations. These include political leaders and advisers, legislators, and citizens who enjoy sociopolitical or economic clout but no official position. This section is not as clearly developed or convincingly relevant as the others, but it does introduce readers to some less-recognized players.

Lampton’s analysis is likely to draw reactions ranging from dispassionate to extreme. Detached observers should find his book a sound introduction to the immense complexities of late-20th-century China. Many academics will concur, although they may feel unsatisfied by the author’s somewhat anecdotal approach to history and his occasionally uncritical use of source material. For example, Lampton’s treatment of former president George Bush in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square is based almost entirely on Bush’s account. At the other end of the spectrum, readers who expect Lampton to inveigh against China or express moral outrage may chafe at his pragmatic approach, bordering on realpolitik.

The author clearly intends not to whitewash China’s record, but to present hot-button questions in their barest form. In effect, he takes snapshots of these supermodel issues before they have had time to put on their familiar makeup. At a time when concerns such as Tibetan independence are often mixed up with the superficialities of freedom concerts, bumper stickers, the Beastie Boys and Richard Gere, such a corrective should be welcome.

Thomas Shawn Mullaney is a PhD student in Chinese history at Columbia University.

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