Key point: American grand strategists did not have a better idea than State Department officials of how China would evolve.
The longstanding hope that economic development and engagement with the West would bring about a more open China is rapidly fading as Xi Jinping turns the clock back to practices reminiscent of Mao’s despotism.
In place of those hopes, scholars and pundits are competing to claim the gift of foresight, to be able to say, “I told you so.”
In a recent Bloomberg column, “The ‘China hands’ Got China Wrong, But Listen to Them Now,” my AEI colleague Hal Brands suggests that the key claimants divide into two groups: the skeptical “great power gurus,” who approached the question of China from “the perspective of grand strategy,” and the more optimistic “China hands,” with their “formidable Chinese-language skills and enviable contacts within the Chinese power structure.”
Adopting Isaiah Berlin’s terminology of “hedgehogs” and “foxes,” Brands puts the ‘grand strategists’ in the hedgehog category — people who get “one big thing” right — while the “China hands” are the foxes, masters of tactics and detail. Of course, as they say in the investment business,“ past success is no guarantee of future performance.” Being right once doesn’t mean you will be right the next time. So it is impossible to disagree with Brands that even those “China hands” who may have been wrong in the past should not be dismissed in the future.