David Lampton: Up US-China interdependence

Updated: 2014-05-16 11:43

By Chen Weihua in Washington(China Daily USA)

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David Lampton: Up US-China interdependence

David Lampton, a prominent China scholar, has been struck by the quality of Chinese leadership from county and provincial to the national level over the past 40 years of the country's reform.

These are the people who knew the facts in their circumstances, considered the alternatives and figured out solutions, according to Lampton.

The author of Following the Leader: Ruling China, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping (2014), Lampton credited the development of China's strong leadership to the country's highly developed administrative training system, which he described as "amazing".

Lampton, a professor at Johns Hopkins University Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) since 1997, noted that 230,000 Chinese students are studying at US colleges and universities and many will return home to work for the government, as well as an increasing number of midcareer Chinese sent not just to the US, but Japan and Europe for training.

For example, Cui Tiankai, the Chinese ambassador to the US, and Zhu Min, a former Chinese official who is deputy managing director of International Monetary Fund, both graduated from SAIS.

David Lampton: Up US-China interdependence

"So they have what you might call career leadership-training apparatus that I hesitate to say, but probably is second to none," Lampton said.

Recalling his experience of sitting across the negotiation table from Chinese, Lampton said he found none who did not know his portfolio.

He would not compare US leaders with Chinese leaders, who govern very different societies with different demands, but he said the US has in general very good leadership for an innovative society.

"I don't think anybody beats us on that. But it isn't pretty along the way," he said, clearly referring to the serious political gridlock between Congress and the Obama administration.

Lampton, however, stressed that he has high regard for the training of Chinese leaders.

"Generally I found the Chinese leaders were promising less than the system delivered Broadly speaking, this is a system that performs very well in the matrix," said Lampton, a former president of the National Committee on US-China Relations based in New York.

With its society becoming increasingly pluralistic, Lampton believes China now needs a whole new set of matrix to deal with the situation.

"And we'll see. I have an open mind," he said.

While China's future still looks uncertain to Lampton, he found himself being a little upbeat about China throughout the years. He said it was probably because of some books he read about "culture revolution" (1966-1976) and the late 1950s.

When Lampton traveled to China for the first time in 1976, the country was behind India in many important social indicators and it was even behind Cambodia in certain important indicators.

"Looking at what China is now, it's a different place and this is basically a very positive story," he said.

His latest book, based on 558 interviews of Chinese leaders at various levels over the past 40 years, was intended to explain the magnitude, the significance and understanding of Chinese leaders about their journey in the last 40 years. "And it's really been quite a journey," he said.

Lampton dismissed it as "sort of clich" that China has had economic reforms but no political reforms.

"I think that's kind of not accurate and not actually a very helpful way to understand it," he said.

There is no doubt in Lampton's mind that Chinese leaders initiated reforms that changed Chinese society. However, he pointed out that political institutions in the country still haven't fully adjusted to the enormous changes in a society that is "pluralizing, urbanizing and middle classizing."

He believes people must have a staggering degree of self-confidence to even contemplate being leaders in China to handle the problems they will face.

He described China as being on a "very tough piece of real estate" with floods and earthquakes. "If you are Chinese leaders for 10 years, statistically you are going to have a major earthquake worse than the San Francisco earthquake." The 1906 quake and fire killed 3,000 people and destroyed 80 percent of the city.

Another headache Chinese leaders face is the huge bureaucracy, which Lampton described as six layers deep and bigger than any other country's population.

Lampton said that such enormous challenges faced by Chinese leaders also explain why he understood and was even empathetic about some of the major decisions made by Chinese leaders over the years, including some in the human rights and democracy fields. He also proclaimed that he did not feel sympathetic to those decisions.

First becoming interested in China under the influence of his high school teacher in California, Lampton believes both countries need to work on the relationship. "This can't be one hand clapping," he said."I am not saying that China has to do nothing, but we have to worry more about what we are doing."

To Lampton, interdependence is what holds the two nations together because no significant world problems can be addressed without China and the US working together, from climate change and global health to stability in the global economic system.

Lampton believes global warming and ensuing floods on every continent will be a far greater global threat than the Cold War. The same applies to global economic instability, he said.

"We really need to emphasize that interdependence," he said, adding that prioritizing conflict in the relationship will take away that binding agent.

He said he was puzzled that the US would cooperate with the Soviet Union even when the Soviets had 22,000 warheads aimed at the US, but now China is not even allowed by the US to take part in the international space station.

Such a decision is unwise to Lampton. "You get to security people in this town and that's just so far off the charts," he lamented.

He said the same is true about US export controls on China which he described as looking like an attempt to keep China down. "And it could ease up," he said.

Chinese leaders have long called on the US government to lift its ban on high-tech exports to China, which would also help ease US trade deficits.

Having traveled with US lawmakers to China, Lampton said that more Chinese foreign direct investment in the US will help change views of those in Congress once their constituents work for Chinese firms that have invested in this country.

"So I would do everything I could to raise interdependence," he said.

"We have potentially a much better and durable strategic base for this relationship. I just don't understand why politicians don't see this," he said.

Despite different levels of economic development, the two countries face similar problems in improving education, infrastructure and scientific research, Lampton said.

"We need to rebuild our society and, in fact, we need to govern ourselves better here, so we can't really afford being each other's enemy," he said. "American people are fully capable of supporting such sensible policies if someone articulates them well."


 David Lampton: Up US-China interdependence

David Lampton believes interdependence is what holds China and the US together. Chen Weihua / China Daily