July 30, 2020
In July of 2020, Bush China Foundation President David Firestein was featured in a discussion with the World Affairs Council of Greater Houston, moderated by its CEO, Maryanne Maldonado. In this talk, entitled The Complexity of U.S.-China Relations, Firestein responds to some of the most pressing questions facing policymakers and businesses as bilateral tensions continue to rise.
Firestein particularly speaks to the significant deterioration of U.S. sentiment toward China in the wake of COVID-19, the profound changes in how the U.S. government frames China under the Trump Administration, and concerns around Hong Kong and the newly implemented National Security Law. Further, he comments on strategic economic competition in advanced technology and why engaging with China in a way that’s thoughtful, results-oriented, substantive, and clear-eyed is good for the United States.
In his assessment, Firestein notes the Trump Administration has made fundamentally inaccurate assumptions about China’s strategic intentions, which has skewed both U.S. policy and U.S. sentiment toward China.
“My general critique is not that the problem has been misdiagnosed, it’s that the wrong medicine has been prescribed,” Firestein said. “This Administration is adopting some of China’s worst practices as best practices to be emulated.”
This criticism extends to President Trump’s policies on trade, including the introduction of controversial tariffs that have had the opposite effect of what the Administration intended. Additionally, he spoke to the tumultuous year in Hong Kong, criticizing the overreaching National Security Law implemented earlier this year, but noting that America’s economic punitive stance toward Hong Kong “is likely to hurt America first and hurt America worst.”
Firestein discusses both China’s unfair economic practices and China’s poor human rights record, chiefly regarding Uyghurs in Xinjiang. In the past, he argues, the United States came from a place of moral authority, however that has diminished in recent years.
“How do we as Americans stand up for freedom of the press in China when we have a president who has referred to the American media as enemies of the people?”
At the conclusion of the event, the conversation turned to the value of engaging with China. Firestein makes the case for robust engagement on a variety of issues from health to climate and certainly on future post-COVID economic recovery. In the spirit of George H. W. Bush’s legacy, Firestein argues that two facts, though seemingly contradictory, are true: “China is our most formidable national competitor, bar none, and it is also an indispensable partner and a country without which we can never fully fulfill our potential as a nation.”