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  • An Interview with Michael Szonyi
  • Michael Szonyi (bio)

In commemoration of its sixtieth anniversary, the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University published "The China Questions: Critical Insights into a Rising Power." On March 10, 2020, GJIA sat down with the co-editor of the book and director of the Fairbank Center, Dr. Michael Szonyi. In our conversation, we discuss Western misperceptions about China, Dr. Szonyi's vision for the center, and historical precedents that policymakers can draw from to better understand the complexities of US-China relations. This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Georgetown Journal of International Affairs:

Why don't we begin with The China Questions, where you invited thirty-six scholars to not only identify but also answer questions that are most pertinent to the past, present, and future of China. What was the motivation behind the book? Which questions stand out to you as most illuminating to understanding China's next decade?

Michael Szonyi:

The thirty-six scholars that I have listed are all of my colleagues here at Harvard's Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. The purpose of the project was to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the center. Although I would rather not choose one of those questions over the others, I will say that the motivation of the book was the tremendous importance of the US-China relationship. We thought that it would be valuable to convene all of these scholars, each of whom comes at their respective questions with decades of research and decades of knowledge. So there are literally hundreds, thousands of years of collective wisdom embodied in this book. We also thought that it would be useful to try and ask colleagues to distill their research and expertise down into a question that would be meaningful not only to their fellow experts but also and primarily to the average intelligent and well-informed reader. I'm really pleased with all of the essays and with how the book as a whole turned out.

My co-editor, Jennifer Rudolph, and I deliberately conceived the book as speaking to different people differently. People who are concerned about China's foreign policy or role in the world would probably think that the most important question is that of Odd Arne Westad: "Will China lead Asia?" Obviously, if you are Taiwanese, the question "(When) will Taiwan reunify with the Mainland," written by Steven M. Goldstein, is important. Stephen Owen's question—"What is the future of China's past?"—also remains a very relevant one that we hope many readers will be interested in.


In your introduction to the book, you emphasized that "just as the U.S. has a trade deficit with China, it also has an understanding deficit." What are some of the most ignorant misperceptions that the United States and the West have about China? In your view, what are the roots of these misperceptions?


That is a terrific question. I am sorry to say that this misperception problem is [End Page 49] probably only going to intensify as the United States and China are now engaged in a "tit for tat" battle of expelling journalists. I spend a lot of time with US journalists working in China and sometimes with Chinese journalists working in the the United States. While I don't necessarily agree with their positions, I am very grateful for the role that they play. Restricting access to journalists means we are unlikely to see any breakthroughs in the understanding deficit. For that matter, we are not making breakthroughs in the trade deficit either.

A couple of core misunderstandings or misperceptions are especially relevant here. One is the facile equating of China, the Chinese people, the Chinese state, and the Chinese Communist Party. I think when you listen to American political leaders talk, those are all the same things. At an intellectual level, we know that they need to be disentangled. On a personal level, I know that they don't correspond to the same thing. At a certain level, the root of treating all of these very different things as if they were one thing is simply the natural human predisposition to...


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