Three Questions with… Stapleton Roy

Ambassador J. Stapleton (Stape) Roy, is Distinguished Scholar and Founding Director Emeritus at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is a fluent Chinese speaker and spent much of his distinguished career in East Asia, serving as American ambassador to China, Singapore, and Indonesia. He delivered the 21st Century China Program's fourth annual Robert F. Ellsworth Memorial Lecture at UC San Diego in 2016. The full text of the Ambassador's remarks can be found here. Also, be sure to listen to the official podcast of the 21st Century China Program, China 21, featuring Professor Emeritus and Chair of the 21st Century China Program Susan Shirk with Ambassador Roy. 

 China Focus Staff Writer Shihao Han and Senior Advisor Jack Zhang talked with Ambassador Roy about democratic transition, regime change, the cross-straits relationship, trade, and much more. Shihao Han transcribed the interview and Peter Larson edited it. Below is our exclusive interview with Ambassador Stapleton Roy.

You have argued that China's middle class is increasingly traveling outside of China and has access to outside information that threatens party control. Others have argued that the middle class has the most to lose from regime change and fear disorder. How do you reconcile these two contradictory perspectives?

You see now all the tensions build up in China between the authorities who think you have to keep the whole system in place to provide the stability necessary for economic development, and the new middle classes in China, who want a more representative form of government.

Representative government, which we don't usually think of it in terms of the United States, rests on the middle class. In other words, the middle class tends to be the property owning class, and they don't like to have governments that can make decisions involving their property interests without having some say or influence over the government. If you look at US history, you can see this reflected in our own development of the political system. Originally, we didn't trust democracy. We had indirect elections for senators for a hundred years, who were elected by state legislatures. And there was a big debate about property requirements as a requirement for voting rights. This reflects this reality.

In East Asia, we have a consistent pattern of countries that have successfully engaged in rapid economic development for close to 40 years under authoritarian systems. Then finally, the authoritarian systems give way to representative forms of government. Why is that? Because you are right ”new middle classes tend to be conservative, they want to hang on to what they have, that's why it takes up to 40 years. Because it's the children of the new middle class who become the engines of change, and I saw this in Indonesia before my eyes when I was the ambassador there. It was the students who were in college because of the economic development that took place under Suharto that became the motive power behind the demonstrations, and that forced Suharto out of the office. And to the surprise of Indonesians, there was a sufficient base for a democratic transformation in Indonesia. 40 or 50 years earlier, in 1954, you had democratic election in Indonesia, and they failed. After two years you went back to democracy which was in the form of authoritarian government under Suharto because you didn't have any middle classes.

So this happened in South Korea; it happened to Taiwan; it happened to Indonesia; and it happened to Thailand ”except that in Thailand we saw that because democracy produced bad government, you had a reversion back to an authoritarian military system. There is no guarantee of success in this process. In South Korea, there was violence involved with transition, because the leader made no preparations for transition. In Indonesia, there was violence as part of the process. But in Taiwan, there wasn't violence, because Jiang Jing-guo took steps to open up the political system. He did two things in Taiwan, both difficult and both accomplished peacefully: he transferred the power from the mainlanders ”a 20-percent minority who came over from the mainland–to the Taiwanese, who were the majority in Taiwan. And at the same time he opened the political system, and as we have seen, you have an alternating of the parties that won the elections, which is usually the sign of a truly representative form of government.

China is well along this process of creating these new middle classes. And you see now all the tensions build up in China between the authorities who think you have to keep the whole system in place to provide the stability necessary for economic development, and the new middle classes in China, who want a more representative form of government. I think this is the root of current repressions taking place in China, they are struggling to deal with that issue. People in the United States tend only to see repression. What I was trying to present was the process is going on in China. In fact, this may be a phase that is the necessary part of the process from an authoritarian system to a more representative system. But I also pointed out the conundrum, which is that it's not clear in China, given its immense population and its diversity, that you can have a stable representative form of governance. But at the same time, we are seeing clear evidence that you may not be able to have a stable government under an authoritarian system. For example, during the transition from the Cultural Revolution period to the openness period, you have an unstable situation in China. Two General Secretaries of the Communist Party were purged in the ten-year period ”Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang.

It was only after 1989, after the Communist Party had gone through hard times because of the collapse of the international communist movement, that at the 14th Party Congress they reaffirmed the reform and openness policy, and then introduced the fundamental change in ideology of the Communist Party by getting rid of the idea of class struggle, moving to the Three Represents , which was not based on Marxist concepts that the Party Congress represented; and then you have the Hu Jintao period with the concept of Scientific Development and Harmonious Society, which is directly contrary to the concept of class struggle and the Communist Party represents the proletariat .

So after the 14th Party Congress, you have stability in China for a 20-year period of ultra-development. Now, you reach the point where the dialectical process is producing a push for a more open political system, but there may be merit to the view that you can't have stability under the condition of a more opened political system. So the struggle that is going on in China is an interesting one, because we don't know which outcome would be better in terms of China's own future. That's why I don't take an ideological view on this, but I do think that when you look at the pattern of earlier Asian development, you realize that this is an understandable process going on in China. I think ultimately, to get stability in China, you have to have an adaptation in the political system, taking into account the radical changes in the social nature of China. The figure I cited is really dramatic: the fact that you have no college educated members of politburo in 1982, and 25 years later they are all essentially university educated people. There is no other country in the world in which you have such radical transformation in the nature of ruling class, and yet this is occurred within an authoritative communist system. That's what is generating the difficulties that Xi Jinping has to struggle with.

What is your take on the argument that the Party is no longer able to adapt as it had done in previous generations?

That's what makes China's authoritarian system so unusual; the age-limit system is producing what democratic systems do.

That's where the age limits become relevant. I raise my children to share my values of my outlook on the world, but I found they adopted a different lifestyle. And while they more or less accepted my values, they have very different perspectives. My children and their college classmates get their information in different ways: they don't read newspapers the way we did, they get it from blogs and other things like this. You have that process built into political change in China. That's what makes China's authoritarian system so unusual; the age-limit system is producing what democratic systems do. They have a way of changing their leaders.

So, when changes like this take place in China, it's probably going to take place in connection with the shifts in the leaders. That's why the 19th and 20th Party Congresses will be so important. At the 20th Party Congress, if the age limits are still in place, the new leaders that will emerge will be too young to be heavily influenced by Cultural Revolution, and all their adulthood will be spent under the conditions where China has been open to the outside world. Are they really going to be believe that the old authoritarian way in China is the best way to manage the country? I question that. Therefore, when I look for a change, I look for these inflection points where you get a change in leaders with a generational change that is a part of the process. What we need to watch is if they are going to get rid of the age limits, because then you go back to a traditional authoritarian system in which the leader stays on forever, and that's one of the reasons why authoritarian systems can't change.

In the business world it's the same. If a company has to go through a radical restructure, they usually have to get rid of the CEO and bring in a new CEO because it's hard for people who have gotten used to one way of doing things to change those habits. But China has this special authoritarian system, where they are getting some of the benefits of the open representative system by forcing a change in their leaders, which is uncharacteristic in authoritarian system everywhere. So this is what makes what's going on in China so interesting from a theoretical standpoint.

You suggested that Taiwan is an issue where US and Chinese interests might be in fundamental opposition. You have worked both in Beijing and Taipei during the tricky process of normalization. What is your prediction of cross-straits relations and what role should the US play?

At the moment, the biggest problem is the desire of people in Taiwan to maintain their own Taiwan identity, whereas the mainland's interest is in having them increasing believe that they have a Chinese identity.

The US interest in Taiwan has always been in a peaceful resolution. There is a reason why we say we do not support independence for Taiwan, as opposed to saying we oppose it. The US position is whatever the resolution is, it should be peacefully worked out. The resolution should be the one that is agreed by the Chinese themselves on both sides of the Taiwan Strait, not imposed from outside. When we say we oppose independence or we oppose unification, we are taking an American position on issues we believe the Chinese should solve. When we say we don't support , what we are saying is this is for the Chinese to decide , and that's the fundamental question.

Because of our belief that there should be a peaceful resolution, we have been a strong supporter of improvements in the cross-strait relationship. Without a decent ability to communicate across the Taiwan strait, you can't find a peaceful resolution. That I think is going to remain to be the US position for the near future. That's why we pay attention to the election process in Taiwan. For the last 8 years, we have rapid progress on the economic front in the cross-strait relationship under President Ma Ying-jeou. That's because of his willingness to accept the 1992 Consensus as a way of reaffirming the One China concept. Cai Ying-wen, the president-elect of Taiwan, has been reluctant to use the 1992 Consensus as a basis for that, but she has made very clear that she wants to maintain the status quo. In fact, she campaigned about maintaining the status quo in the cross-strait relationship. And that was because of her belief, since the status quo is based on the acceptance of 1992 Consensus, that she was conveying the signal to the mainland that she was not going outside of the framework of the 1992 Consensus. But Beijing is signaling that's not enough. They want a further step of affirmation of the One China principle. It doesn't have to be through the 1992 Consensus, but it has to be in some other form that does cooperate. This issue is still not resolved, so therefore there is still a question mark over whether or not she will be able to maintain the progress of the cross-strait relationship currently under the Ma Ying-jeou regime.

At the moment, the biggest problem is the desire of people in Taiwan to maintain their own Taiwan identity, whereas the mainland's interest is in having them increasing believe that they have a Chinese identity. That's an issue for the cross-strait relationship to resolve. The United States doesn't have a position on that question. For us to try to interfere in that would be senseless because we don't have any control over how the Taiwanese think about their own identity. This has been a problem for the mainland because now there's been a rapid expansion of tourism across the Taiwan Strait, so that we have literally millions of Taiwanese who visited the mainland and mainlanders who have visited Taiwan. And yet the sense of wanting to preserve the Taiwan identity remains strong in Taiwan, and the mainland hasn't been able to find a way to alter that perception. I think for the fundamental national interest of US, it should try to have that managed peacefully, and I think that emphasis is going to be our policy.

China now has a growing presence in the Western Hemisphere in terms of trade, investment, and immigration, etc. So how does the US see and react to this competition for influence in its own backyard?

China's quest for influence in the rest of the world, because of their rapid economic development, has required them to provide a steady stream of resources necessary to fuel the economic development. So it was not geopolitical issue; it's a question of access to resources, and the United States responded to it very differently.

I think there is a fundamental difference between the way that China has tried develop its global presence and the way that the Soviet Union did during the Cold War. During the Cold War, we were concerned about Soviet inroads anywhere, because we saw ourselves in a global competition with the communist world, which wanted to export the communist system to other parts of the world. And therefore, it's a geopolitical struggle for us, so it didn't matter whether it was a Soviet foothold in Angola, or Cuba, or anywhere else. In Grenada, where there was concern about the Soviets scouting landing for their aircraft there. In the Cold War, it was a geopolitical struggle.

China's quest for influence in the rest of the world, because of their rapid economic development, has required them to provide a steady stream of resources necessary to fuel the economic development. So it was not geopolitical issue; it's a question of access to resources, and the United States responded to it very differently. For example, China has made enormous investments in Africa, because they need the resources that Africa has. They get oil from Sudan “ they are also interested in oil from other parts of Africa “ and the same way with the western hemisphere. So the United States has not reacted in the same way to China's growing economic influence the way we did to the Soviet Union, when it was seeking to establish footholds in other parts of the world.

The question of China's trade and investment, nevertheless, does bring out elements of economic nationalism among parts of the United States. I think it would be extraordinarily beneficial for the United States to have Chinese investment coming into the US, because one of the ways Japan eased problems in their trade relationship with the United States was to recognize that in order to maintain and expand their economic ties with the United States, they needed to move the production facilities to the United States. So when I buy a Honda, I found that it was made in Ohio; when I bought a GM car at one point, it wasn't made in the United States. It was made in Canada. So this is the part that I would call the globalization process. And this is relevant to the question: is the globalization bad for the United States? If you look at it in a narrow, short-term way, yes. You can say it results in the transfer of jobs to elsewhere. But in fact, that's one of the reasons why the world has been economically developed, because goods should be produced where they are most efficiently to be produced. And that is the combination of labor costs, environmental conditions, and a whole lot of other considerations. Therefore, it's logical if it's cheaper to produce goods in Canada than in the United States, for goods to cross the border to be manufactured there, and then the American consumer can get the benefit of lower cost goods. It's not simply a question of jobs, but you may lose jobs in part of that process.

In the 19th century, the shoe industry, which was the basis of the New England economy, moved to the southeast of the United States, where labor costs are lower and you had an economic depression in New England. So in other words, you have exactly the same phenomenon in the United States. When Boeing closed its headquarters in Seattle and moved it to Chicago, jobs moved, and therefore that created a problem in Seattle. Philips, the petroleum company when it joined together with Conoco to become ConocoPhilips, their headquarters was in Bartlesville, Oklahoma and they moved the headquarters to Houston, and jobs moved from Bartlesville to Houston. It's the same effect as if the jobs in Bartlesville had moved to Hong Kong ”the workers no longer have jobs in Bartlesville. But on the other hand, it's the way you get more efficient economy. So it seems to me that we need to understand that, yes, we lose jobs, but those jobs need to be moved into areas where the United States has a comparative advantage.

In the case of China, for example, they are now beginning to lose manufacturing jobs which are moving out of China to Vietnam, Bangladesh or Indonesia, to places where labor costs are now lower than they are in China. What China is trying to do is what happened in the United States. Most of the jobs now are not in manufacturing, but in services. But that's a painful process. You get unemployment as a part of the process because the manufacturing labor does not automatically move into a service industry easily. Take Pittsburg as an example. When I was a young person in Pittsburg, the economy was based on the steel industry. But the steel industry closed down, and Pittsburg had a very difficult transition process that lasted for 25 years because they had to reinvent their economy. And now, it's based on education, on medical research, on a whole different set of possibilities. Pittsburg is considered to be one of the best cities to live in in the United States now because they essentially made that transition.

This aspect is currently missing from our current debate of losing jobs because of globalization. Globalization is good for the United States in the long term, but in the short term there are strains because of the loss of jobs. And that's where government policy has to try to ease those problems by providing training, by shifting the focus of our economy into areas where we have comparative advantage. We have the same problem, for example, between the states that are in coastal areas and states that are in inland areas. It's hard to have a lot of automobile industry in Utah because the costs of moving the automobiles into the market are too expensive, you don't have rivers that you can use in the process. So Utah is good in software development. Why? Because they have a lot of foreign language skills, and software moves easily without transportation costs. So, an inland economy can be based on these sort of things. These are factors that are all parts of the globalization process, and it's hard when these things are only treated in terms of job loss to understand why the process actually is beneficial. The government needs to try to ease the difficulties that are involved, because there is a pain in the process of improving. But on the other hand, it ends up with more efficient global economy. Everybody benefits from that.

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Peter Larson

is the Editor in Chief of the China Focus Blog. He is a second year student at GPS, studying International Economics with a regional focus on China. Peter's research interests include China's politics, economy, foreign policy and US-China relations.

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