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Why Engagement with China Is Crucial in Turbulent Times like Now

One would never have imagined accessing accurate information about China could be as difficult as it was 30 years ago during the time where there were serious limitations imposed on foreigners in accessing information about China. Fast forward to 2022, the situation did not improve much due to the increasing domestic Chinese internet controls.

With information about China being limited yet all over the place, there is something akin to engagement fatigue among China watchers across the world, who have gradually developed a tendency to equate pro-engagement proponents with being soft on China while lauding China hawks for rejecting every opportunity to engage with China.

This is simultaneously a result of a lack of information transparency, which is a deliberate, calculated move by Beijing to assert itself in the rapidly changing political landscape, and misconceptions of the reality of Chinese politics held by China analysts and policymakers.

Here I argue that the idea of engagement with China suffers from three major pitfalls.

First, engaging China does not necessarily mean engaging with Xi Jinping. China as a large country has many levels of government. Despite having a top-down system, the latest data from 2020 shows that China has over 300 prefecture-level divisions, 2,800 county-level divisions, and as many as 38,000 township-level divisions. All these represent the nodes of potential social and economic policy engagements.

Nonetheless, what happens now is that attention is focused excessively on Xi’s power without adequate analysis of the socio-political and organizational context within which he operates. This leads to the common impression that Xi is a reincarnated Chinese emperor and that every aspect of a Chinese’s social life revolves around him.

This is an incorrect assessment of reality, as it dismisses the importance of engagement, which is really a society-to-society relationship rather than a relationship between Xi and Washington, Ottawa, or any government one can name.

Second, engagement with China requires an understanding that China is institutionally different from countries like the United States that are limited by election cycles. In other words, policy continuity is better assured in China, which has the patience to make policies that bear fruits in decades.

Engagement efforts should therefore be examined in their long-term value, as gains from engagement are not always visible to the average citizen and can only be shown in a couple of years’ time.

Third, engaging China is not defending China’s actions, rather it is to gain more insight into China. With such insight policymakers worldwide can better guide themselves in achieving the best policy outcomes vis-à-vis China.

2021 has seen tightened restrictions on data security and personal information in China. This has made it harder for the already puzzled investors and foreign businesses to know what is going on on the ground in China. Information proves to be particularly critical in this light.

Although there is no guarantee that the information yielded from the engagement efforts would help inform policymaking or business decisions, the process of obtaining information through meaningful engagement helps facilitate communication and mutual understanding. In this regard, engagement is both a means and an end in itself.

On the downside, politicising engagement risks missing the chance of getting timely and reliable information about China, the absence of which will make it very difficult to avoid conflict.

In recent years, the competition narrative of China vs. the West is all too often overexposed by the media to grab eyeballs. This information asymmetry creates misled perceptions of engagement in the readers. Those exaggerated responses and claims are not helpful in advancing the dialogue with China and the Chinese public.

While the security focus is and will continue to dominate public discussion in the foreseeable future, we should all bear in mind that engagement is both the means and the end to achieve peace, and is crucial in turbulent times like now.

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