Many readers have wondered at my low writing output this year. This week I am happy to announce the answer to the riddle: the Center for Strategic Translation.
The Center for Strategic Translation locates, translates, and annotates documents of historic or strategic value that are only available in Chinese. As director of the new center I have had the chance to work with a host of talented translators to make this project a reality.
Tanner Greer, “Why We Need the Center for Strategic Translation,” Palladium, 14 November 2022.
Xie Tao, “From the Rise of Populism to the Return of History.” Translated by Dylan Levi King. San Francisco: Center for Strategic Translation, 2022.
Originally published in 张蕴岭，楊光斌，等 [Zhang Yunling, Yang Guangbin, et. al.], “Ruhe lijie yu renshi bainian dabianju如何理解于認識百年大變局 [How to Understand and Recognize Great Changes of the Century]”, Yatai Anquan Yu Haiyang Yanjiu 亚太安全与海洋研究 2, no. 24 (2019): 1-15.
Over at Palladium I have written an introduction to the Center and its work. In that piece I describe the Center as a solution to two problems that face the world of China watching—one sociological, one methodological:
in Xi Jinping’s “New Era,” many of the tools China specialists relied on to understand communist politics have become outdated…. Many experts who came of age in the 1990s and 2000s graduated from academic departments where quantitative methods and formal models were the focus of training. For the smaller cadre of scholars still interested in qualitative assessments of China, the old arts of open-source “Pekingology” held less luster than in days past. After all, field surveys and personal interviews with party officials were only a plane ride away.
This worked during the ‘90s and the aughts, the heydays of Reform and Opening. This open interregnum has now ended. Field surveys in China are no longer possible. Archives have closed. Officials no longer give interviews. In the age of Xi Jinping, the tools that a generation of “China hands” relied on to understand communist politics no longer shed light. The West contests the future with a country we lack the means to understand.1
At this same time, the composition of those debating China policy has changed:
Xi’s New Era has elevated China policy from a niche concern managed by a small community of specialists to a centerpiece of national debate. Over the last six years, we have witnessed an influx of new voices in these discussions. Some of these newcomers come to China policy with a deep background in fields like finance, trade law, or military operations; others come to China policy as true generalists, having made their name as pundits or politicians. Most of these newcomers lack the language skills, advanced degrees, or in-country experience that distinguished the China hands of yore.
Established experts will always be tempted to respond to this influx with displeasure. It is frustrating to spend decades of one’s life building a fine-grained picture of a complex system only to be sidelined in favor of outsiders whose interest in the topic will last only as long as it is at the top of the White House’s agenda. Though understandable, this reaction is short-sighted. A narrow band of specialists can dominate the field without interference from policy generalists only when their chosen specialty is so niche that no one but themselves can muster any interest in it. China hands like myself made a career out of watching China because we believed that the intricacies of Chinese politics mattered not just for China, but for the rest of the world as well. Now, for the first time, we find that the rest of the world agrees with us.
For countries like Australia or the United States, there is now an obvious China angle to every diplomatic initiative. China policy can no longer be the province of narrow expertise. Those impacted by China policy demand a say in its goals and execution—and they have gotten it. The challenge facing the China hands of the twenty-first century is to integrate these new entrants into existing debates.2
My answer to the first problem will not surprise long term readers here at the Stage: read what the Communist Party of China is saying, then take it seriously. No matter how closed China becomes, Party directives will still be circulated, propaganda will still be published, and slogans will still cycle through the system. These things are necessary for the functioning of the Party. We can be assured of their existence in the days to come.
The difficulty with this approach, however, will be apparent to anyone who has tried to read this stuff: “party speak” is stilted, opaque, and stuffed with slogans whose full meanings can only be understood by those familiar with their intellectual genealogy and history of use.
Gaining that familiarity means a fluency in Chinese trained on a constant diet of propaganda. It means extensive study of party history. This is a reasonable expectation for expert specialists, but not for the generalists and decision makers who will be guiding China policy in the real world. To meet their needs translation is not enough: translated texts must be presented with an interpretive apparatus that does all of that for them.
Thus we decided to preface every translation with an introductory essay that makes the authoritativeness and intentions of the translated document clear. We have also created a glossary that explains the origin, historical use, and current meaning of the slogans and political terms used in the translated documents. It is fairly small right now, but it shall grow with each new translated document My hope is that it will eventually become a critical resources for expert China hands and interested laymen alike.
Our first set of translations come from the same source: a 2019 round-table put on by two Chinese think tanks on the theme of “great changes unseen in a century” (百年未有大变局). The term is sort of a short hand reference for the party’s judgment that just as imperial Britain lost its hegemonic role in the international system a century ago, so the United States is losing its hegemony today. But why is this happening? And what does it mean for China? This was the question put to the round-table participants, all eminent academics in Beijing.
A general introduction to this round-table and the “great changes” phrase can be found here. I encourage you to read all six entries. The most interesting, in my opinion, was written by Xie Tao, a Beijing “America expert” who got a PhD in American politics from Northwestern in the aughts. In “From the Rise of Populism to the Return of History” Xie argues that: “All tides that rise must fall. All living men must age, sicken, and die. Therefore, the United States must accept that the day will come where it too will fall into decline.”3
Xie divides recent Western history into three big chunks: the boom years that followed the Great Depression and lasted through the 1970s, the Neoliberal era, which end with the Great Recession, and the current period, the era of right wing populism. He expects this era to “continue for ten or twenty more years.” This is completely in line with the other round table respondents, who are all convinced that right-wing populism is both a sign of American decline and the inevitable outcome of neoliberal excess. The respondents generally describe Trump’s rise as a transition point in American politics. Trump revealed the bankruptcy of liberalism even in its birthland. Some of the participants–like Yang Guangbin–believe that liberalism was always bankrupt, an artificial ideology weaponized by Westerners to shore up their domestic politics and to subject foreigners to their political control. Xie is not that cynical. He sees the failure of liberalism as a chosen by liberals themselves:
Another explanation for the appearance of right-wing populism is as a response to the rise of identity politics, or, perhaps more accurately, as a fierce revolt against the gradual shift since the 1970s toward what has been called “post-materialist values.” To summarize this idea briefly, two decades of postwar economic prosperity led many young people in the West to place less importance on material stability than the expression of their values. These post-materialist values include personal liberty, freedom to choose one’s own sexual orientation, civil rights crusades, political correctness, protecting the environment, promoting human rights, and so forth. In the United States, the Democratic Party has become a bastion for identity politics, with the majority of their supporters being drawn from ethnic and sexual minority groups.
The tragedy of identity politics is that it prioritizes calls for respect and self-expression over demands for more conventional economic redistribution. The reality is that the vast majority of average citizens care more about their economic interests than the right of a small minority to use a certain bathroom. A backlash against these values and rising economic inequality combined to cause a surge in right-wing populism, and it also contributed to the Democratic Party’s electoral loss in 2016.4
The implication here is that if the left has remained focused on its traditional economic mission, we would live in an age defined by left wing populism, not its reactionary counterpart.
Above this tale of competing populisms is a larger story of hubris and decline. Xie thinks that Americans truly believe in liberal shibboleths–and that this blinds them from seeing their own decline. America is a country that no longer has state capacity; it cannot govern. If Americans had studied history they would realize that they are playing out the same story of rise and decline as so many empires in days past.
The Americans do not realize what is happening, however, because they believe they are “exceptional.” American ideology stops Americans from recognizing the reality of decline–much less diagnosing its true causes. They must find a scapegoat for their sinking fortunes. “This is the reason,” Xie concludes, “why the Sino-American relationship is at its lowest ebb since Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972.”5