Presidential lecturer speaks on future of US-China relations

13 April 2017
Giselle Willis, Managing Editor

Evan Osnos, a foreign correspondent in China, gave a lecture and held a Q&A session with students.

Evan Osnos, TU’s latest presidential lecturer, had always wanted to be a foreign correspondent in China. Now, he’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning and National Book Award-winning foreign correspondent for the New Yorker. His favorite thing about living in China is the unpredictability: buildings are razed and rebuilt in the blink of an eye and going down the street to buy groceries seems to present a different experience every time. Given the changeability of his everyday life, however, Mr. Osnos was prepared to discuss another uncertain topic: the future of China-US relations.

He began his lecture with three questions for the audience: Who had had a reason to go to China? Who thought the economy would still be strong in 10 years? Who thought the political system would have changed in 10 years? Most people raised a hand for the first question, and responses were mixed to the second two. The straw poll demonstrated the an ambiguous perception of China’s future, even amongst people who had been to that country.

Osnos noted that his speech was particularly timely, since China’s Xi Jinping was just landing in the US for his meeting with President Trump in Mar-a-Lago. He said that as he spoke, Chinese people would be trying to gauge the nature of the relationship between Xi and Trump. Former president Obama and Xi Jinping had been playfully compared to Tigger and Winnie the Pooh, respectively. In general, American-Chinese relations range from the analogy to the Hundred Acre Wood to a recent book cover depicting a sword stabbing a map of the United States and titled “Death by China.”

Yet China’s story, according to Osnos, is one primarily of growth. He said China’s economy has grown so much, so quickly, that the gap between the poor and the rich is like that between New York and Ghana. This economic growth, however, distracts from what is perhaps more important: individual and demographic change.

What used to unite the people of the People’s Republic of China was the pressure to conform. Newspapers encouraged them to “be the rustless screw” in the revolutionary machine while others said individuals should strive to be like the bland rice served with every meal.

Osnos explained that the rise of the individual is evidenced in how China is moving away from traditional matchmakers. One young woman whom Osnos met realized that the cultural disconnect between herself and her parents was too strong for her parents to pick out a suitable partner for her. She decided to make her own website for matchmaking that allows people to choose their own partners based on qualities they want. In the end, she made quite a profit off of deciding that she was different enough from her family to do more than conform.

China’s policy has also changed. The government used to “hide strength and bide time,” but no longer. Now, Osnos said, Xi Jinping has introduced the concept of the “Chinese dream,” the “great renewal of the nation.” China is building more high speed railways and airports than anywhere else. China is “hungry for respect” because its middle-aged generation grew up with an education (despite not learning about the Tiananmen Square massacre or the Cultural Revolution). In their view, China has simply been experiencing “a bad millennium.”

Yet, if it becomes the new world leader as a developing country, it will find that being first is expensive. China’s economic growth is slowing, and even locals complain about the air pollution now (as opposed to just foreigners). Chinese youth are angry about expensive housing and education, as well as the gap between the rich and the poor. In some ways, Chinese and American residents have similar concerns.

The future world, according to Osnos, will have multipolar leadership. He promised the audience there would be “more tension” between the US and China. Since criticisms of the government are not tolerated, Chinese people will resort to anti-West rhetoric as the vocabulary through which they can express discontent. Meanwhile, the one-child policy has had overall negative effects, especially because of a preference for male babies. More men has historically meant more bellicose policies and more uprising.

Mr. Osnos also held a one-hour question and answer session with students. Questions addressed US-China relations as well as his experiences in China, his journalism career and American politics. He said that every time the United States gets caught up in some esoteric internal battle, like when our government shutdown in 2013, China celebrates. They get to keep investing in their business and infrastructure while we waste time. Regarding his National Book Award-winning book, “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China,” he was asked whether he thought China had faith. He said that China’s turn toward faith and religion was the biggest change he had witnessed since beginning his work abroad in 2005.

While working in China, Osnos has not experienced formal censorship or the additional burden of self-censorship — refraining from reporting on certain topics because of possible, although not explicit, political repercussions. When the New Yorker asked him to write a profile on the Dalai Lama, an enemy of the Chinese government, he didn’t even consider saying no. He said foreign journalists will always make mistakes about the countries they report on, but at least now they apply to go to countries they have prepared for, and aren’t randomly assigned like they used to be.

It sounded like the American political climate had been harsher on Osnos than China’s. When he wrote an article about members of the alt-right in the United States, he faced anti-Semite online harassment. Attackers called him “Super Jew,” which he thought was a fun nickname, but also released the make and model of his car, which was not easy to laugh off. However, Osnos said he would defend to the death their right to unfettered speech. He also thought closing off our borders was a “huge self-inflicting wound.”

The normalization of hate in this country is a “dispiriting sociological fact” to Osnos, but he thinks we should allow it to run its course. After all, Osnos thinks the US is special because of its resilience; after the Iran-Contra affair of the 1980s, the government was willing to drag itself through investigations for the sake of disclosure.

Osnos’ career tips for students were to focus on language and reach out to people they thought had cool jobs. He said he wishes his Chinese were better, and that spending the extra time on perfecting a language is worth it. Asking potential mentors for even just a fifteen-minute phone call can also provide guidance on what the job is like and what it takes to get there.