The sociology of ‘China-watching,’ beyond the dove/hawk divide

Society & Culture

David McCourt, a sociologist at the University of California, Davis, has spent six years studying the people who study China. He appeared on the Sinica Podcast to discuss his findings.

david mccourt
Illustration for SupChina by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast episode with David McCourt.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our site at We’ve got reported stories, editorials, and regular columns, as well as a growing library of videos and, of course, podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim people in China’s Xinjiang region to the tectonic shifts underway as China rolls out what we are calling the Red New Deal. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

Who is watching the China-watchers? Well, the short answer is David McCourt. David McCourt is watching the China-watchers. David is an associate professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis. And for the last six years, he’s been doing sociological research on that ill-defined and fractious tribe of individuals once referred to as “China hands,” and now generally, but not unproblematically, called China-watchers. David himself is not by his own reckoning a China-watcher, but they are his subject. And he has conducted a bewildering number of interviews with people in the China field ranging from academics to media people, from think-tankers to people in government, and from positions ranging from the most strident national security hawks to rights advocates and the most ardent doves. Panda huggers, panda sluggers, and maybe even panda shruggers — they’ve all spoken at length with David. And I suppose I should say right up front that I’m actually one of them. And then that’s how I first learned about his fascinating research. And I spoke to him quite early on. David joins me today to share some of his findings and to talk about his ongoing area of study. David McCourt, welcome to Sinica.

David McCourt: Thank you so much, Kaiser. I’m so happy to be here.

Kaiser: Well, we are delighted to have you. So David, you have been interested in the sociology of foreign policy communities, but before looking at American China-watchers, you were working on your native Britain and then eventually made your way to the States. What was it about the U.S. foreign policy community in particular that got you interested and why did you eventually settle on looking at the China-focused world?

David: Well, it was pure serendipity, really, that I started to think about U.S. foreign policy in 2014 and 2015. You’re right, what I started doing for my early work, for my doctoral work was about my native Britain. And I wrote a dissertation on Britain’s great power role in international politics. This sort of puzzle of why Britain had continued to play the role of a great power long after the end of empire. I put together an analysis that was focused particularly on sort of the language and imagery of Britain’s role in the world. And what I realized later was that I was looking at a case that had very little in the way of inter-elite conflict, you might say. Most Brits who are of an elite sort of status are on board with Britain as a great power.

Kaiser: Rule Britannia. Yeah.

David: Rule Britannia. And you see this still today, the idea of global Britain has still got a lot of purchase and Labor, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, everyone is sort of broadly speaking on board. And the other thing I noticed speaking to people about it was that there wasn’t then a lot of dispute among think-tankers and academics in London. And there wasn’t the sort of this busy elbowing and nudging people to try to make your voice the loudest, which you do get in the United States. And so when I started to think about a new project after the Britain book, I wanted to look at the universe of think tanks, research, institutes, academic departments that make up the U.S. foreign policy architecture, what is often referred to as the establishment, and to think about how that inter-led, inter-expert conflict was underpinning American hegemony.

So the interest in role-playing in international politics stayed], but here I was interested in America’s hegemonic role and the institutional architecture and intellectual underpinnings of it. Why China? Well, China was simply — some colleagues suggested I needed to narrow down my research and they said, well, what about China? That’s a big thing, right? And this was in 2014, 2015. In some ways before it was quite a big thing, remember 2014, 2015 — and this is a big part of the story — we were still talking about Russia and Ukraine. We were talking about Syria. We were talking about Isis and we were talking about Isis all the way into 2016. A really big part of the story of why U.S.-China relations has taken the trajectory it has is the way in which we were still looking at other things as late as almost the end of the Obama second term. So it was pure serendipity from my perspective, that to be looking at 2014, 2015 U.S.-China relations and starting to talk to people around middle to late 2016. So that’s how I came to the topic of U.S.-China relations. Again, it plays into this argument I’m sort of saying to people, which is that I’m not a China watcher, I’m watching the China watchers.

Kaiser: Right. So who are these China watchers? What are the dimensions of this community? What are its constituent parts or sub-communities? And how do you personally conceive of this from your sociological vantage point as a community?

David: Well, the first point is that I come in with fairly limited assumptions about its community-ness, if you want to put it in those terms. I suggest that there is something there that the terms China watcher, China-walla, China hand, sort of get at, but I don’t come in imposing my own boundaries on the community. So in my interviews, that was often one of the first issues we broach, which is to what extent is this a China-watching community? Or was it? Did it used to be? Is it still one? How big is it? What are its boundaries? These are empirical questions that I really don’t want to impose. So that’s the first point. The second point is that I think the imagery of concentric circles is quite useful. And at the middle of those concentric circles are perhaps dozens of people who we would all recognize as very well-respected, high profile, China watchers. They tend to be at the major think tank in Washington DC, often have gone into positions of government or are positioning themselves to do so. And that used to be only a handful of people, but it nowadays is dozens perhaps. And then you get concentric circles moving outwards.

So if we ask who’s in the field and who’s not, is Elizabeth Economy? Sure, of course she is. Are my colleagues in the East Asian Studies Department here at UC Davis, 3000 miles from Washington DC? Well, sort of but probably not if they study tea culture in certain regions of China, et cetera. The operative question really is not who’s in and who’s out, but how people themselves define who’s in and who’s out and who feels the effects of the community, who feels the pushes and pause and how enabled and constrained by present issues, by how the community works, by how it should its people’s views and how it stops us from thinking certain things and allows us to think certain things. Just like any other community, if you think of sort of sports communities or journalistic communities like yourself, Kaiser.

Kaiser: Sure. There’s a phrase that you use in describing what it is that these China watchers possess to varying degrees and you call it China capital. So what is “China capital?” What forms does it take? Is there anything like a shared idea of what constitutes real China capital or how much demonstrable capital is needed to gain admission to this club?

David: Yes. I use the term China capital to mean sort of the power one has, and one can wield within a particular community, which is related to one’s position within a community. The closer you are to the middle of it, the more capital you have. Again, in a sports community, it would be to do with the way in which you’re understood as being very good at a certain sport so Steph Curry is right in the middle era of the basketball community.

Kaiser: Sure.

David: People with high amounts of China capital, again, Elizabeth Economy comes to mind, David Shambaugh, Mike Lampton, et cetera. People who have this thing that they can spend in order to gain influence within the community. So it’s a composite form of power and you can get it in a number of different ways. You don’t necessarily have to have all of these things, but you do have to have a certain number of them. Speaking the language is a really important one, time spent in China or familiarity with China, academic credentials are important as well, but they’re not necessarily the most important thing. You don’t necessarily need to have gone to Harvard if you’ve spent the last 20 years in China. Government experience, public prominence, each of these are what you might call sort of family resemblances of someone with a lot of China capital.

Kaiser: Very good.

David: Now, another point that we should sort of bring in is that the China community is not separate from other communities. It is what we could call “interstitial.” It exists alongside and crossing the boundaries into other communities. So the think tank community, the general sort of foreign policy think tank community, the research centers, that what they call the federally funded research and development centers, RAND Center, center of analysis, et cetera. Academia, media, the business, the law, international law and domestic law, the military, the state bureaucracy, Congress, congressional commissions, like the USCEC, the U.S. China Congressional executive committee and journalism. So yourself, Kaiser is an interesting example here because you’re a China watcher, but you’re also a member of the media. And so you’re pushed and pulled by two separate things. You want to speak to other China community folks or the China watchers, but you also have to play by the rules of the media. And what the media is wanting you to do is to gain as many listeners as possible, and as many sort of followers and subscribers, et cetera. The same goes for academics or people in the legal field. So the China community, it’s a community that’s a segment of these other broader communities, which help us to understand why people behave in the way they do within it.

Kaiser: A quick aside on nomenclature, do you find that people who work on China professionally are comfortable more or less with this name, “China watcher?” And why do they reject other labels? I mean, nobody here, at least on this side of the Atlantic says China-walla, you brought that up as one, but China hand for a while was popular. China expert is one that most people outside this world still use when introducing us on television shows and the like, but we never say it ourselves. Or if we do, we’re kind of laughed at, we recognize the ridiculousness of claiming to be an expert on this ridiculously large civilization. What about the other monikers and how do people feel about “China watcher?”

David: You’re absolutely right. I did feel a lot more unhappiness with the idea of self-ascribing expertise. So what my role was has been to try to understand how different individuals self-ascribe these labels. So senior China experts or China Watchers shall we say typically reject the label of China expert. Often younger folks who are wanting to be accepted in the community will actually ascribe themselves “China experts.” So it’s the paradoxical situation of those who undisputably are experts or are recognized as experts we should say that reject the label, and those that want to adopt it are the ones that are not necessarily there yet. China hand is typically self-ascribed by folks who’ve been in positions — in official positions or in diplomacy. China watcher, then I think is just this new label. In part, I think it’s been cottoned onto by folks, some folks in the media also what I’m calling the new media space to try to sort of create an object that they’re interested in, which is a China watching community. I’m thinking here of Politico’s China Watcher newsletter. It’s interesting that this label is just the one that people are cottoning onto at the present time. Again, I’d be really interested to see whether this was a common label in say 2010, 2005, 2000, my guess is not. I think people are cottoning onto it as a way to describe identity to a thing that people are seeing. And in so doing they’re sort of helping create that thing, the China watching community. There’s books back into the 1960s about the China watchers, but that at that time it was a very, very small group. So the politics of labeling is a fascinating issue: who self ascribes what term, and often just China person or China guy, which obviously sort of has gender sort of problems to it a little bit, but that one is put around there as well.

Kaiser: A China guy. Yeah. Let’s get into the taxonomy here. I think that just about anyone coming to this topic would probably recognize, as you have, that there is one issue that maybe strongly suggests itself as the one that bifurcates the community, and that’s where they fall on the issue of engagement. But when you started this work six years ago, arguably, that was not the case. And there were critics of engagement for sure, and long before that there were always kind of panda huggers and dragon slayers. But it wasn’t really until 2018, arguably with the publication of this big piece by Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner, both of whom are back in government now, that this became sort of the natural dividing line, I would say. When I first encountered you and we first spoke, I remember you used different language than you used now.

One side — my side — I mean, you were calling the nuancers and I don’t remember what you were calling the other side, but now it’s decidedly sort of pro in anti engagement. Every time I’ve talked to you, those are the terms that come up and it’s in your talks that you’ve given in papers. Does that neatly align with hawks and doves? And can those be used interchangeably, or is there more to the taxonomy than this one divide?

David: So the first thing I think I would say is that we have to put the hawks/dove division to one side because it’s more of an obstacle than helpful. Even though it always comes back in, because I think it makes so much sense to people who are looking at particularly U.S. foreign policy that that taxonomy really seems to work. But I definitely want to put that out to one side, again in the effort to not ascribe my own views coming into the field and coming into the community on what’s going on. And you’re right, that when I started to talk to people in 2017, really early 2018, the language of engagement was only just starting to sort of creep in. And you’re right with the March 2018 Campbell and Ratner foreign affairs piece, it really sort of broke to the surface and since has become the major dividing language. And one of the things I’ve found the most difficult about my research so far is that it’s such a fast and rapidly changing landscape.

So just from 2019 or so until today, the major groupings and the major language that we might use to describe the major groupings in the debates in the China community are shifting. So when I started talk about it, you’re right, I started to talk about the sort of the nuancers versus the China critics or sometimes I did use the term China hawk. Now I think that the major groupings are between the engagers and the strategic competitors. Although even since thinking about that, I think that even that language is a little bit too clumsy because within each of those as camps, there are at least two others.

So within the broad camp of what you might call engagers, you have what I’m now calling the old engagers versus new engagers. I think that old engagers are folks who were associated with engagement as a policy within the US government and many of them are within the think tank space. New engagers are ones which — and I’d put you in this camp, Kaiser, and I’d be interested to sort of hear your thoughts on it — are folks often sort of younger, not necessarily having been in government yet themselves, but may in the future. And they’re thinking about how to talk about something like engagement in a world when engagement did, was pushed away as the operative frame of U.S. foreign policy toward China. Now on the other side then, the “hawks” label is far too unrevealing. And what I’m using on that side is to talk about the strategic competitors and people to their right, if you like. But again, that language is not really appropriate to their more China skeptic, China critic, flank, which I’m calling the “new cold warriors” or really anti-China folks. So as you’ve mentioned, the language itself changes and in this case, it changes very quickly. These terms, which I’m sure will drill down a little bit more into in a second, might even just in two, three years be outmoded.

And that’s why a sociological, a sort of historically sensitive sociological approach is so necessary, but also so difficult because the world of 2021 and 2022 is very different from just early 2019, late 2018. It really is a different world that we’re in.

Kaiser: I certainly agree. I mean, and I wonder whether engagement as the line of bifurcation really is a good one. It doesn’t capture enough of the subdivisions. I mean, I, for instance, I know people who are deeply worried about what they see as national security challenges, or even threats from China, who nevertheless advocate engagement as the best way to manage and reduce those threats. And I know people who feel really passionately about human rights, whether we’re talking about Xinjiang or Hong Kong or Tibet, who nevertheless champion engagement as the best way to actually affect improvement in China’s human rights practices. So it’s definitely complicated. I’m curious though: How good are people at locating themselves on this sort of conceptual map of yours? I mean, does their self-placement generally correspond with where you might place them based on their specific answers to policy questions?

David: I think people are very good at associating their views and themselves as individuals with others in the field. So when I say — one way that I like to get into this is to ask people who they would maybe like to have a coffee or a beer with, and I’ll sort of give them a couple of options and say, “Hey, I’ll buy you dinner and you can have dinner with so-and-so who’s very much a strong engager or so and so who is a sort of a fire breathing China hawk.” And I’ll get a little bit of a sense from that as to where they are. So again, that speaks to this issue what I’m trying to do, which is not to impose these categories sort of ex ante and say, “Hey, there are engagers over here and there are strategic competitors over there, where do you sit?” But to get at it a little bit indirectly and say, “Where would you position yourself? Who are you friendly with? Who do you tend to see the world similarly to?”

And there, what you see is that people are actually very good, because obviously this is their day-to-day, they go to seminars, they go to talks, they do hang out with people. There are people that they like, there are people that they don’t like. And it’s not necessarily the case then that they’ll say, “Well, I’m firmly in the pro-engagement camp.” It’s more that I really like to hang out with this person and I tend to see the world quite similarly. So that’s the first point. The second point is then you do see the people who are genuinely what they might self-describe as they’re “orphans,” because they really don’t fit within any of these categories or these groups.

Kaiser: Or so they imagine.

David: Or so they imagine but there often more people who are similarly positioned than they might think. And you do sort of highlight the people who are at the interstices you might say of different groups. So to name names a little bit, you had Jude Blanchette on here a couple of weeks ago, fascinating scholar of China, one of the most well respected in the field and runs roughshod over many of these categories in fascinating ways. He is in a sense an exception that proves the rule though: most people are closer to certain positions.

Kaiser: So you draw a distinction between engagement with a capital E and engage with a small E. And you look at engagement, I mean, I’m not sure which capitalization I’m using in this case, as a policy, as a frame, and also most interestingly to me as a community. Could you talk a little bit about how you define and approach engagement? I mean, it’s a hotly contested thing. You describe it as a meta-narrative, so what do you mean by that? And how does it break down? What are the small e and large E, and what have you?

David: Yeah. So these come out of this task that I think we’re already talking around really, which is that engagement, wasn’t a thing in any straightforward sense. In a sense that the question of what is engagement or was engagement, is it still a thing? Is it ongoing? Is not an easy one to deal with sort of intellectually. It’s one that we have to fight with quite a lot, and we might have to get a little bit theoretical on in order to be able to grasp this thing, because part of the debate over engagement has been, was there such a thing as engagement itself? For many pro-engagers, again, if we’re going to use that terminology, there was no such thing as engagement. It was just U.S.-China relations for decades in which talking to them, co-operating them, trying to bring them into international institutions seemed common sense, especially when we were busy in the Middle East or Russia or elsewhere and China didn’t seem such a pressing question or challenge or problem.

Again, just the problem of language is really important here. What terms can we use and how can we make sure that the language that we use doesn’t actually get in the way of the thing we’re trying to understand? And it might be that the term itself engagement is really hampering us from understanding. Because what we’re really trying to understand obviously is U.S. policy and what the U.S. has done and what it perhaps should do. So the first distinction that I make is between engagement with a small e and an engagement with a capital E. Where engagement with a capital E is really what we’re talking about in the debate as this constructed thing that it has really come about since 2017, 2018, that we’re debating and is what you might call a sort of an essentially contested concept. Everyone has a different understanding of what they mean by it. And those understandings are not going to help us to get to any real ultimate essence of what this thing is.

So capital E is really trying to sort of talk about the way in which we discuss this thing. And there’s no way in which you’re going to get strong critics and strong proponents of engagement on the same page about what fundamentally the thing is.

Kaiser: There are no points on which they agree? I mean, wouldn’t, they at least accept that the policy of engagement small or a large E involved track one and track two dialogues, included the establishment of channels of communication between these two, that there was civil society engagement, that there was an effort at least to promote public diplomacy in both directions, that kind of thing? Wouldn’t they at least agree to that? I mean, I think the big thing that’s contested is what was to be gained by it. I mean the big issue is people who were pro engagement are often accused of having believed that by pursuing this, we would produce change in China, that it would merge at the end of this process as a liberal democratic polity. And that’s usually where they start. I think that a lot of us on this side say, “No, that’s a strawman.”

David: Yes, that’s absolutely right. So that’s engagement with a small E

Kaiser: Okay. So what I was talking about first engagement with a small E.

David: Okay. Yeah. So there’s obviously agreement on all of the different types of coordination or joint action. Just an aside, one of the problems with engagement is it’s a really useful term for talking about doing things together. And it’s almost impossible to talk about U.S. China relations or relating or coordinating without talking about engagement. So engagement with a small E, track two dialogues, absolutely right, military security cooperation, joint testing, et cetera, all of the plethora of diplomatic interaction, educational exchanges.

Kaiser: Scientific exchanges. Yeah.

David: Scientific exchanges comes under engagement with a small E and those are ongoing although obviously they’ve minimized over the last couple of years or so. So that’s the first way to sort of break it down is between the larger and the small E. But as you sort of mentioned at the beginning of your previous question, maybe a better, more interesting ways, this is the argument I’m trying to make about engagement as a frame, as a linguistic rhetorical frame for this policy approach. Engagement as policy, which is all of those things we’ve just talked about an engagement as community. And I think it’s the first point is that it’s essential to try to split engagement up because otherwise, we’re going to have a debate where we’re really not talking in any way that’s going to be understood by the other side, if you like.

We have to split engagement up into what it is, ask this question of what was engagement, first frame, so a meta-narrative about U.S. policy within a view of what engagement was aiming towards, which is sort of somewhere of bringing China into the international community. Engagement as policy, all of the various practical coordinating policies and mechanisms. And engagement as community, which are the people within the China watching field involved in this thing.

Kaiser: And this is what you, as a sociologist are obviously most interested in. And I would certainly agree, this is sort of where the rubber meets the road in terms of actual policy, in terms of who is advocating, who is implementing particular policies, right?

David: Yes, absolutely. So we can talk about engagement as policy and engagement as frame, but those two, both ultimately flow from engagement as a community, a bunch of people who are credentialed and do the practice of watching China closely. And then some of them move into positions of control in the bureaucracy and then move back out again. So those are ultimately the people who are going to affect U.S.-China relations.

Kaiser: So looking at them though, are we able to get a clear picture of why policy predilections seem to change over time? I mean, because obviously there were are a lot of other issues that contribute to that shift. These are what we might call sort of secular issues, bigger issues, big picture issues. And those would include the obvious shift in relative power, economically or militarily between China and the United States or specific things that China has done in Tibet, in Hong Kong, in Xinjiang, on Taiwan that have a real impact on people. I mean, there’s also things I’ve talked about a lot, the sort of general psychological discomfort that some would argue, that I would argue, that we are experiencing at the sort of subconscious level of our national psyche. I think all these things are important. So what are the factors that come into play at the community level? I mean, how does looking at these individuals and their interactions, give us a clearer picture of American policy shift?

David: Well, that’s a great question and it really sets up the sort of the response, which is that often in the policy debate within sort of international relations literature, but also sort of within journalism and the sort of think tank space, there’s a tendency to slip back into these large macro forces, both domestically and internationally. So you mentioned the rise of China disparities in global power or movements and shifts in global power, we could say, as these sort of great international forces. And although they’re powerful, I think that they tend to work more as metaphors or what we might say, sort of hooks for us to sort be able to communicate. So say, we might say, “Well, the Trump administration moved us away from engagement towards strategic competition as a realization that China is now a great power and China has grown and therefore we need a new policy.”

Now that might be kind of good for an undergraduate or a master student, but it’s not really a very explanation of really what happened. What happened was a story of expert turnover. So that the types of people that were in the second Obama administration were not the same kinds of people who were brought in by Trump. That’s just the practicalities. Now what I’m trying to do then is to say that large scale macro forces — the rise to decline of states, or you mentioned psychological discomfiture in the United States, which I think we should talk about some more because it is fascinating. Ultimately they are affected via specific groups of individuals who do the interpreting, framing, thinking about competing over ways of thinking and talking about China within the U.S. China watching community. That’s the ultimate reality if you like. Now, it’s a very hard argument to make because someone might say, “Well, but what about Xinjiang? What about all of these horrible things China is doing? What about the fact that China now has weapons that might be able to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers in the South China Sea?”

And it might suggest that I’m saying that those things don’t matter. They absolutely do, but the primacy is in interpretation, how we think about these things, how we think about these things and talk about these things. And ultimately those things are related to specific groups of individuals in the China watching community. So ultimately this is a claim about what is real reality. Well real reality is those people — not to say that China and these things that China is doing or are the challenges and threats aren’t real, but it’s how they’re interpreted, that’s the key thing.

Kaiser: Yeah, no, I really agree. I think that you’re absolutely right. It all does ultimately boil down to that, how those other forces are expressed through individuals in relation to one another.

David: Yes.

Kaiser: Now, what’s interesting to me about your study here is that in a way it’s not really about China at all, it’s about the United States. I mean, you’ve quoted one participant who noted and I emphatically agree, that China is a kind of Rorschach test, maybe the ultimate Rorschach test that. I mean, I’ve said the same thing in many talks that I’ve given. And so it feels like, what you’re saying is that through how they perceive China, we can learn a lot about individuals in the United States who are active in foreign policy formulation and ultimately you’re studying the U.S. and not China.

David: Yeah, absolutely. That’s something I keep sort of saying to people that ultimately this is about the United States. This is about the culture of U.S. national security, about it as a fulcrum of U.S. culture more broadly, about the things that we can and cannot accept about other countries around the world. Things that we simply must respond to. And we see that most clearly when we look and compare the U.S. China watching communities to other comparative cases. So if you think about Australia or the United Kingdom for example, some of the other work I’ve done is sort of comparing Washington DC with London and Canberra, and how they’ve dealt with China. On its surface it seems like a similar story: hardening of views in response to objective changes in the balance of power and some nasty things that the Chinese are doing. But if you actually look beneath the hood, you see very culturally specific China communities that are dealing and engaging with governments in the UK and Australia really quite differently.

So just one snippet if you like in Australia, in the United Kingdom, you lack this large think tank community which are struggling often in a very sort of tough way, robust way one might say, in order to potentially get into the next administration. Because you don’t have the revolving door in and out of administrations, you don’t have the same incentive to engage publicly like you do in Washington DC. So policy has been changed in Australia and the UK by a very small group of people in and around the national security executive, if you want to put it in those terms. You don’t have then a large paradigm shift away from engagement towards something like strategic competition, because there’s no reason to have a paradigm created in the first place, because it’s not a matter of signaling one’s in group and out group identity like it is in the United States.

So Ely Ratner and Kurt Campbell wanting to create engagement with a large E in order to signal that that wasn’t what they were doing anymore; similarly, the Trump folks creating something like strategic competition in order to create an umbrella for people to go underneath that umbrella and say, Hey, we’re strategic competitors — now, you don’t get that in London and in Australia. Now I think that that’s really the most important aspect that we should be focusing on, not these sort of broad-scale macro forces of balance of power, what China’s are doing. It’s really, this is a story about how Washington DC works. There’s a number of people have told me, this is a Washington DC story. And just one more point on that. China watching itself is a Washington DC phenomenon, then as one person told me, I think you can swing a cat at the corner of K and 14th and probably hit a China watcher, which was absolutely true. I was staying in a hotel just nearby and I rock out and there’s one from one of the major think tanks just off Massachusetts Avenue.

Kaiser: Right. I mean, they’re all in the Dupont Circle area. Right. I mean, it’s amazing. I mean, actually, I think I said in one of the talks that you gave, you actually did show a map of DC and where these actual think tanks are. It’s interesting that there are so very many of them. Australia, just very quickly, there’s one major one, it’s ASPI and it seems to have outsize influence in Australian policy and actually in American policy as well. It’s actually a very interesting case.

David: Well, it’s impact on America is arguably been greater than it has been in Australia. From the people in Australia I’ve spoken to, what happens in Australian foreign policy is really done by the security officials inside the government. So ASPI is sort of is an American-style think tank go over there. But the interesting thing there, I think for our story is really how Australia and Australia’s shift in views toward China has been used and sort of co-opted a little bit, but also interestingly has informed our debates in the United States. So this phrase, the canary is in the coal mine is absolutely fascinating.

Kaiser: I would love to talk to you and some other people from Australia about that particular topic on another show, but let’s focus back on specifically on the U.S. right now. I think the comparative angle is absolutely fascinating. You’re absolutely right. But let’s dig into what we’ve just talked about a little bit about, what this does reflect about America. So we agree, we stake oppositions on U.S. China relations, and it doesn’t just tell us about what makes China tick. It’s really about the United States and what we ultimately want for this country. So I’m curious what you found. It means, that we have to have conversations about how we see America’s place in the world, how we define core American interests, our ideas, even of what American society should value and how we balance or prioritize, say, national security versus openness and pluralism. That all very much comes into play in the policies that we advocate with respect to China.

So this is a very prominent idea in your approach. And it’s something you try to tease out with the people who you speak to. So how do the anti-engagers and the pro -engagers think about these issues? What are core American values? What should America’s role in the world be? And is that a good way of sort of describing the differences? And does it end up sort of reflecting something more about their general worldview rather than just the China-specific policy predilections?

David: Yes. Okay. So there’s a lot in there. Let me sort of start with the first point, which is about the way in which different types of China watcher and different members of the China watching community do or do not reflect back on the United States. And it’s something that I wrote a little bit about. And really there is a tension at the heart of China expertise and being a member of the China watching community, because one is a member of the China watching community by dint of one’s understandings of China. You speak Chinese, you’ve been in China recently, and therefore you have a voice in the community. As soon as you start talking about the United States, your China capital takes a hit, unless you can play a very difficult game, which is to speak about China and the United States simultaneously. And actually, if you think about it, that’s something that’s a difficult dance to do.

Someone in the media like yourself might be able you it a little bit, because ultimately we are located here in the United States and then it’s okay to be able to sort of reflect and put the mirror back on ourselves. If one is at the center of the field and have quite a lot of capital in the community, then one might be able to do it. Someone thinks here, if someone like Richard Hass of the Council on Foreign Relations…

Kaiser: Or Ryan Hass.

David: Ryan Hass can do it too because he has a lot of capital really, he’s sort of made it and therefore can turn it back and say, “Well, I’m going to talk about what this all means for the United States.” Now, many of the junior and younger China watchers, hopefuls, if you like, in their late 20s and 30s though, it’s a very tough question to ask them to say, “Well, what I’m going to do is I’m going to write my policy recommendations and I’m going to throw in there something that might ring political.” Because once you start talking about US core interests, then you’re making a political point. And you see that strongly with some of the think tanks that already have a political view baked into them. So if you think of someone at the Cato Institute, for example, it’s tough for them to make an argument about U.S.-China relations, because everyone knows what their view is of what U.S. core interests are. And that dynamic though is broader than just those people that we’ve mentioned. It goes to everyone within the China watching community. So one of the things I’m interested in is the way in which the very nature of China expertise and membership of the China watching community does actually militate against this kind of agonistic conversation that we have to have that might get unpleasant about core U.S. interest, which really does get to this question of what the United States is.

Kaiser: Yeah, but you have put that question to them and you can tease it out. And I’m really curious, is that something of a shibboleth? Does it tell you, is that all you need to know about a person’s worldview in order to suss out what it is that they think about China or the other way around? Are their views on China indicative of a sort of deeper set of ideas about what America is, what America’s place in the world should be, what American interests actually are?

David: Well, I think what it means is that when you’re trying to understand the different subgroups within the China watching community, how they view America is going to be a part of how they divide and how they group together. It’s not simply a clear sense of thinking about the U.S. in one way means they’ll think about China in a particular way, nor the inverse. You can’t read off someone’s domestic politics from their views on China. But if we go back to those groups that I was talking about a little earlier, which is the sort of the engagers, the strategic competitors, the new cold warriors and the new engagers, there are sort of some tendencies that I think can be brought out. I think a lot of the older engagers — so the folks who are actually sort of long time span, interested and engaged in the policy itself, or many of them former diplomats, et cetera — many of them I think grew up with a positive view of the United States in world politics and a positive view of China. This is quite a common theme in the China watching community, that people who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s, you’ve got to go China when many people didn’t, they have a sort of a slightly romanticized view of China and the vast changes, which isn’t mirrored in younger China watchers. But so too, what isn’t mirrored is the positive view of the United States. And I think a lot of people who came of age around 9/11 perhaps see the United States in world politics in slightly more confused terms: maybe not necessarily always a positive force. And so views on China, views on in the United States are distinct and can’t simply be read off of one or the other.

I think people on the strategic competition are sort of even more hawkish or even more sort of critical of China do tend to take a more positive view of the United States in the world, very attached to America’s democracy, our democratic status. And they’re therefore less likely to look back on the United States in a critical sense. So what we’re bouncing around here obviously is sort of domestic politics and different views among liberals and conservatives about the United States, and how that interacts or doesn’t with one’s view of China.

Kaiser: So what are then the things that seem to correlate strongly with positions on China? I mean, if you could only ask a couple of questions to someone who you couldn’t see and about whom you only knew, that they are somebody who works on China professionally. There’s somebody who you know qualifies as a China watcher with that “China capital,” what would you ask them? I mean, if you had to determine their China positioning based on what they… would it be partisanship, religiosity, education level, language proficiency, the time they’ve spent in China, when they were in China, when they started studying in China. I mean, this is another way of saying, “what China did you encounter?” You were talking about those older people, liberal internationalists, who were also sort of seeing how neoliberalism seemed to be having such a salubrious effect on China. Yeah. I know those people. I know them very well. They’re the generation just above me and they are many of them the architects of the old school engagement.

David: Yeah. It’s a great question and let me answer it in one way. And if you prefer a different answer, we can talk about that one as well. Because what I would probably do, the more I interview, the more I like to do it in a roundabout way, which is to sort of ask about something slightly different and ask it, well — “Okay, so the invasion Iraq in 2003, was that a good idea?” And you get a sense of then of someone sort of broad foreign policy views. And if you get them talking often you’ll get a sense of how that plays into precisely this view of America in the world. And from there, you can then infer some things. I might say, something like China’s enter into the WTO, was that well handled or was that a good idea? And that will get you a sense of someone’s views on….

Kaiser: Globalization generally.

David: On globalization and particularly US diplomacy and how good US diplomacy is. And the last one, then the best way to do it is to say, “What think of so and so?” Where so and so is someone who was perhaps engaged in WTO accession or maybe someone who’s on the China side, in the Trump administration. Again, speaks to this issue that people’s views of China are not purely intellectual. They are about who they are within the China community of who they like and who they don’t like, and who’s aesthetics they like, and who’s they don’t like. So it is really this embodied emotional thing.

Kaiser: Yeah. In one conversation we had, you introduced me to this Latin word “habitus,” which I’ve since found to be very, very useful in that it captures multiple dimensions of an individual, their world view, their manner, their aesthetic, as you say, their whole affect, their cognitive style. I am confident in saying that most of the time when I meet an American, for example, I can suss out their partisanship without asking them a single actual political question in conversation. So do you sense at this point that you’re able to do this with respect to the positions of China Watchers on China policy without having actually read their writing?

David: Yes. More and more as you sort of get a sense of people, you can tell from the could of their jib a little bit, that old phrase. Are they wearing a suit? What kind of suit? Does the suit fit particularly well or not? I mean, I’m joking, but we all know that there is a particular political Capitol Hill kind of type, right. We could all draw that person if we wanted to. There’s also a, we could also draw that academic type with sort of shoulder …

Kaiser: Patches on the elbows of their tweed…

David: Patches and all that kind of stuff. Right. But so these are useful stereotypes. Unfortunately, when you actually talk to people, it gets a lot more complicated and you do have certain people who I go into an interview thinking, well, I sort of know what this person’s going to be like, and I really am just doing this because I want to sort of say that I’ve spoken to them and then they totally surprise you. And you realize that no, their worldview comes from a principled realist position in IR theory. And you think that they’re sort of a military security hawk and that wasn’t what was going on at all. So you think that they are sort of a fire-breathing China hawk but actually, and maybe you might tie that up with being a Republican, but that actually doesn’t work at all. So time and time again, I’ve really been conscious of not reading a book by its cover because it’s not how the world works, unfortunately.

Kaiser: So yeah. I mean, I remember you telling me earlier in an earlier conversation that you can’t just read what they’ve written in Foreign Affairs and assume that you know… Can you maybe give some examples of this without maybe citing names or if you can cite names, please I’d love to, who sort of surprised you in this regard?

David: Well, I think if I can name some name Elbridge Colby, who I spoke to a few weeks ago surprised me a little bit because he was someone who I thought was a real China hawk. And actually he has a very nuanced intellectual position, which is derived from a close reading of real international relations theory and a clear eye assessment and desire to prioritize limited U.S. military resources.

Kaiser: Yeah. I’ve read him, but that’s exactly what he says.

David: Yeah. Strategy of denial is all about the rational use of limited resources. But again, this speaks to this issue of, well, you can read people and then you don’t necessarily get everything the first time, not because of anything they’ve done, but because your reading, perhaps isn’t as good as you think it is. So someone like that, you realize that, you can’t read off someone’s views very clearly from who you think they are because they are actually are somewhere slightly different. And so you could absolutely imagine someone like Colby in administrations of a Republican or a Democratic stripe, certainly not as clear as you initially thought.

Kaiser: Yeah. That’s interesting. Is there a difference that you can see in the types of thinking that are employed by people on different sides of this divide? I mean, it’s always struck me that there are very different cognitive styles at work, a different set of lenses that each side is more prone to take up a different set of habits of mind in play typically when they think about these things. Has that struck you?

David: Yes, I think so. Again, going back to this issue of how my much you can take into account the United States and how much you have to think about what the United States of maybe some limitations of ourselves.

Kaiser: Sure.

David: And so I’ve been really struck by the diplomatic viewpoint at the heart of what I’m now sort of calling older engagement. And here I think people like Stape Roy…

Kaiser: Yeah, of course.


… who’s obviously like the poster child of that kind of view, but it’s not just because of any sort of romantic view of China. It’s because of it’s a diplomatic viewpoint. And so the diplomatic viewpoint says, “Hey, we’ve got to deal with these people, even though heck, it’s really difficult to actually, to get to any particular agreement on anything.” And so what is very striking about that is its absence really are you don’t see a lot of it on the, shall we say China-skeptical side, which is really more of a military security viewpoint again, which Colby sort of does a very good job of describing and promoting. The point, the issue though, is that it’s a very specific viewpoint. It’s not one that necessarily takes diplomacy as seriously as one might prefer or one might think.

Kaiser: It’s a hedgehog viewpoint

David: Yes. I mean, again, my role here isn’t to …

Kaiser: Of course, but mine is.

David: It’s to try to help us, but you could do…

Kaiser: Like, for example, I’ve really lamented how the community has been overrun with these national security types. So just see everything through this one single lens. I suspect that this is the result of national security overcapacity following, September 11th and the Forever Wars. This mad proliferation of national security hammers, all looking for that new nail and finding, “Hey, there it is. It’s China.” Am I way off the mark here? Are we finding the, I guess it’s kind of out of the purview of your research? I understand, but…

David: No. It does seem to be the case that the conversation has become sort of securitized or one predominantly about military security issues. And that is then sort of sociological interesting to me because it talks about the different types of capital that are coming to the fore if you like. A lot of military security, generalists who are not necessarily China folks at all, the imagery of the cold war becoming more prominent, you saw the recent Foreign Affairs issue pieces by John Lewis Gaddis and Hal Brands really talking about the cold war. That kind of imagery becomes the central one. And it really does push out folks that might have a more diplomatic viewpoint or a more economic viewpoint. A big part of the story about engagements demise is the way in which the business community sort of checked out for a little while.

And I think, I’m not got my ear to the ground too much on that side of things, but yeah, might be sort of struggling to get their viewpoint ahead back in the conversation. I think from what I spoke to people around 2010, 2011, even sort of Wall Street and big, big corporations were okay with a tougher China policy or maybe a little later than that. And now that sort of ship has sailed, unfortunately. And it’s interesting that the absence of a strong pro-China business voice in the conversation one might say.

Kaiser: Let’s talk a little bit David about American administrations and the China Watchers who were in power as it were during these different times. You’ve talked about this a little bit about people who were in during the late Obama, the second Obama term. Let’s take it all the way through Trump, even into the Biden administration. I mean, it strikes me that among the outgoing Obama people, not long after Hillary’s loss in 2016, there were fissures already that that only seemed to deepen as the Trump administration progressed. Trump of course brought people in who were regarded as completely beyond the pale and outside of this community. I mean, Mike Pillsbury and Peter Navarro, they were not regarded as China watcher insider types, but then there were people like Matt Pottinger who was kind of an outlier. I mean, we all knew him, many of us who were in China knew him when he was at the Journal, knew him before that, even in the late ’90s and the early 2000s.

I dare say most of us from that cohort came away with a very different take on China. Actually, that’s something I did want to come back to is your conversation about generations was really fascinating. And maybe we can revisit that if we have time, but anyway, what’s your sense of the relationship between that administration, the Trump administration, and the China field?

David: So my understanding is that in line with Trump’s promise to drain the swamp, there was a marked drop in connections between the administration and the China watching community, not a complete change. There were still some China-watchers sort of brought in and briefed by the administration on certain issues. Although often to times, those kind of connections are really more the administration telling China watchers what they’re going to do and please sort of advertise it and write about it, but not necessarily going to change our views.


Ryan Hass has a great story about, when he came in to brief the China team at Trump Tower. It’s on one of the podcasts that we interview on. It’s pretty amazing.

David: Yeah, no, it’s a good plug and I’m sure that that captures this dynamic. So when we’re talking about sort of engagement, sorry to use the term again, but engagement between the administration or the people in the executive on China and the China watching community, you have to be aware that just because someone’s talking to the administration doesn’t mean that the administration’s really listening. The most influence is really are the people who were inside. And so when you’re talking about Matt Pottinger and Peter Navarro, et cetera, that’s really where the sort of action is. So I think that the story that I’ve heard is really the Trump administration really did sort of stop talking to your National Committee of U.S. China relations types. They’re not going to Johns Hopkins SAIS to get any sort of major thought on how to think about U.S.-China relations. Came in with the commitment to change U.S.-China relations in the major framing, and then Matt Pottinger sort of took it from there with his China team.

Now you’re absolutely right that Matt Pottinger and his team were not out of the pale by any means. They were well-respected China experts. And this is for me really important, because it does mean that arguments about the community perhaps not mattering because Trump has made up his mind on China are wide of the mark. The China community still matters because Matt Pottinger and those people who were his assistants and deputies, et cetera, were part of the China watching community now. Obviously, Peter Navarro wasn’t and whether the story that Jared Kushner got Peter Navarro’s name from Amazon is true or not, I don’t know. But I would love to hear if anyone actually knows if that’s true or not.

Kaiser: Peter Navarro knows.

David: Yes. If he’s listening, I would really like to chat to Peter Navarro, a little plug.

Kaiser: And so what about as we shifted to the Biden administration, I mean, is your sense that there’s a divide that remains between those who would like to reintroduce aspects OF engagement and those who are determined to push forward with a more competitive and even confrontational approach? I guess, yes, there are people who — obviously, if you look at Jake Sullivan, he was former Obama administration, There were plenty of people who were, and then some of the new blood that they’ve brought in, who had no experience in government, the three, China chiefs at the NSC for example, but Kurt, obviously not specifically on the China team, but he’s the Asia czar. It seems fairly lopsided that they were picked from the more hawkish end of things, specifically, people like Ely Ratner who’s at the Pentagon now, right?

David: Yes. So how I would talk about it is to, again, how to put a, sort of the China hawk, China dove thing to one side and say, well, and to adopt sort of a path-dependent sort of view, which is that once Matt Pottinger and his team successfully reframe U.S.-China relations a strategic competition, what that does is it means that those people in the broader China watching community who are interested in the policy debate rather than maybe the broader intellectual debate have to take a stand on strategic competition, is this a workable frame? Are the arguments about how it is better than engagement and how engagement failed if not completely correct, at least worth getting on board with? And so I describe elsewhere the way in which that created fishers and a split between the engagers between those people who were willing to get on board with strategic competition and those that weren’t.

And so what you see in Ratner and Campbell’s night 2018 for an affairs piece is an attempt by Campbell and Ratner to grab a Democratic position within a world that is now one of strategic competition with China and acceptance that strategic competition is a frame that they can sort of work with and get on board. Campbell and Sullivan themselves wrote something about sort of living with China that signal, I think, a willingness to take on this frame. And so my reading of the Biden administration throughout this year has been trying to operationalize and continue the process of operationalizing strategic competition and not necessarily showing much in the way of desire to roll it back or go back to some sort of engagement, which they themselves were really important intellectual critics of.

Kaiser: Talking about it in terms of past dependency seems to sort of let them off the hook for what you as a sociologist might otherwise describe as pursuing professional advancement under a new meta-narrative, pursuing personal influence under a new dominant paradigm that that seems maybe more or accurate. I mean, in 2018, they sort of took the temperature and decided, “if I want a position in the incoming administration, here’s what I’m going to have to say.” I mean, that’s a cynical take, but it seems consistent with the sociological vantage point that you’ve been pushing here.

David: Yes, I think it does. And again, just my previous comments show how the tendency to sort of slip into these debates is purely intellectual is a really strong one and it’s difficult and you have to sort of push back against that. So really that intervention was mainly a political one. And in that sense, trying to broaden the strategic competition umbrella to one where Democrats could get on board with that as well. So this was a sort of a broadly speaking political move and also one that would line up someone like Kurt to be in positions of high authority on China. Absolutely. It’s not for me to necessarily be critical of that in the sense that that is what is always happening. Think of 2016 and in 2023, when we’re going into the next presidential election, we’re going to see a flurry of new takes in Foreign Affairs and other outlets that are trying to position certain candidates for different kind of political appointee positions. Again, going back to this argument about the culture of US National Security, this is a really big feature of how the thing works.

Kaiser: I mean, I even admirably candid about talking about how the thing works, which a lot of people it’s sort of dance around it in favor of these, as you say, political narratives. Now, there is a new survey from the Chicago Council out, which I know you’ve taken a look at, and it looks at partisanship and attitudes toward China. For a couple of years now, everyone’s been remarking about how much bipartisan agreement there is when it comes to China. But that doesn’t really seem to be the case with at least the voters of the two parties where Republicans are substantially more hawkish on China. They’re way more likely to regard China as an outright enemy, to favor high tariffs still, to want a boycot of the 2022 Winter Games and to limit Chinese students in scientific exchange, although depressingly a majority of Dens actually favor those limits to. What does this tell us?

David: Well, it tells us that this consensus in Washington about the China challenge and strategic competition is not at least on the Democratic side I think reflecting clear preferences among a large chunk of the U.S. population. Let’s put it that way. I think it affirms my intuitions, which is that these large-scale macro factors, balance of power or in this case, domestic opinion, are constructs rather than necessarily real things, which focuses our attention once again on elites and on what experts and people in the China field. But in this case more broadly, perhaps the media, I think is key are saying about China. So what I think we’re seeing is the politicization of China, particularly among conservative outlets. I read Fox News every day and download at least one piece that is critical of China every single day.

So it’s still there prominent in the conservative mediascape. And also then it’s very prominent in the liberal mediascape as well. If you look at the Washington Post and the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, perhaps as well, you really do see lots of China critical papers pieces. But that isn’t filtering down I think to a decent chunk of Americans who are either broadly speaking disinterested or cynical, or I think for a lot of progressives, particularly there is this newfound willingness to criticize the United States. Well, what is the U.S. doing?

Kaiser: Absolutely. So David, so you’ve been talking to all these China Watchers so much. Do you find yourself facing the danger of what they used to call “going native?” I’m getting too close to your subject. I mean, you are at this point, a Wilson Center, China fellow this year. Is this a danger for you? I mean, I actually hear you sometimes talking about it without that objectivity and that dispassionate kind of thing. I mean, you’re in it now, right?

David: Yes, absolutely. It’s a danger which I keep trying to think about to keep at the front of my mind. And it’s constructed by the field itself, which pulls people in. One of the ways in which one can become a China watcher, I think is to just pay attention. And so obviously I’ve had to pay attention for the last five years. And so again, I have thousands and thousands of downloaded articles from the major newspapers. The pool of the field is very strong. And what it does is it tries to push you into one position or the other. So these labels — are you an engager or a strategic competitor? So in a sense, it helps me because I can tell what I’m getting at and the story that I’m wanting to narrate is correct because I’m feeling the very same forces that I know that yourself and other China watchers are feeling, the pull, the gravitational pull if you like, to take a stand.

Now I’m resisting that strongly, which is helped by the fact that when you speak to people and you make a personal connection, often the projections of what someone’s going to be like disappear. So I found myself having wonderful conversations with people who are the most fervent engagers and the most hawkish of anti-China experts and having very nice personal conversations and sort of nascent friendships if you like that if I did this for more years, I hope would, would become genuine friendships.

And I think that that has been very good for me because it shows that one of the impediments to the community cohesion is oftentimes maybe just getting to get other and saying, “Well, look, we need to get on the same page as people. And then we can start to talk about what are very difficult issues of what we do about Taiwan. What do we do about human rights, et cetera.” So you are right though that I’m still facing this problem. And at some point, unfortunately, I think what I’ll have to do is say what I…

Kaiser: Out yourself.

David: Well, out myself as someone somewhere in the field. And unfortunately, then I think that I’m not necessarily going to get to speak to everyone I want to, because I’ll be put in a camp or someone might say, “Well, you’re not a China watcher anyway, you don’t speak Chinese. You’ve never been to China.” Which up until now has been a source of my own sort of sociological capital. But will start to be a source of lack of China capital be called China capital because I say that I don’t have it.

Kaiser: You don’t want to be part of this. I mean, for your own sanity, save yourself, please. No, not having a dog in the fight that would be kind of, I mean, I envy people sometimes for that reason. We haven’t talked specifically about the papers that you’ve produced so far out of your research. Can you just quickly walk us through sort of the outlines of what these have been about and what we should be looking for? Because there will be a book coming out of this too, but the papers first.

David: Yes. Okay. So snippets of this have already appeared in the journal International Affairs, sort of the British version of Foreign Affairs, which is the comparison of the U.S., Australia, and UK China fields, which is this attempt to try to say, look broadly speaking, the story of engagement to strategic competition and the shift they’re in is one of… It’s a Washington DC story. So folks who are interested should look to that piece. An earlier piece actually came am out in another academic journal, International Politics, which compared U.S.-China relations with postwar U.S.-Russia relations, which has been a feature of the debate. We’re in this 1947, 1948 period and we might be entering a new cold war. And what I showed there, which actually speaks to this question of the Chicago public opinion polling, which is that what happened in 1947 was really that Democrats and internationalist Republicans could get on board with a hawkish Russia policy. And it was a place where the two could meet. And the question today that we face is whether the Democrats and the Republicans will genuinely come together on an even stronger, more hawkish China policy. Which I don’t think has happened quite yet. We’re still not therefore from my perspective in a similar position that we were in at the very origins of the cold war. In terms of other papers, I have a piece coming out, which China watchers might be interested in the Journal of American East Asian Relations early in the new year, which is talking about secular changes within the China watching community, which we haven’t really had chance to speak to today, but generational turner over. I talk about there. The rise of the security generalists. So folks who are not real China experts, but are experts on military security matters, think perhaps Graham Allison and John Mearsheimer, these folks who’ve become big people in the conversation.

I also talk there about the narrowing down and the specialization of the China scholarly community, which has been a big feature the way in which scholarship has separated itself off from policy such that the old style, China watchers think Ken Lieberthal, Mike Oksenberg, Ezra Vogel that were both prominent academics and prominent in the policy debate is becoming less and less likely as quantitative statistical methods and more arcane academic debates really take precedence in the strong disciplines rather than sort of an area studies, China focus.

Kaiser: Yeah. This is something I’ve talked about an awful lot. And I mean, this is really the mission statement, countering this pernicious trend is the whole mission statement of the National Committee and their Public Intellectuals Program, especially.

David: Yes. And in terms of the book, a book, The End of Engagement hopefully will be out some point next year, or early thereafter. In it, I actually compare U.S. China watchers with U.S. Russia watchers, which is a whole different conversation. But it speaks to precisely these themes about how engagement became politicized and implicated in prestige struggles within the China watching community.

Kaiser: On the papers I’ve noticed that all the journals you’ve been published in so far, none of them are sociology journals.

David: Yes, I’m really an international relations person. And so that’s why I think of things within a sort of an IR-type framework. It’s hard to get sociologists interested in international politics in general, and particularly US firm policy more specifically. And so a lot of my outlets, I talk to an international security international relations audience.

Kaiser: So I would recommend to the listeners that you check out, David’s talk that he gave at the Watson Institute at Brown in March of 2020, that last pre-pandemic moment. It’s probably the, yeah …

David: Literally the last weekend.

Kaiser: Right. That talk is called “American Hegemony in the Rise of China Experts, Culture and U.S. National Security in the Asia-Pacific.” It’s on YouTube. Check it out. I learned an awful lot listening to that talk. It was fantastic. All right. Well, let’s move on now to recommendations. Thank you so much for taking the time. It was such a pleasure to speak with you about this stuff.

David: Well, I’ve really enjoyed it and I hope we maybe get to do it again.

Kaiser: Yeah. So a quick reminder, first of all, that, if you’d like the work that we’re doing with the Sinica Podcast, the best thing that you can do to support our work is subscribe to SupChina’s Access newsletter, which delivers to your inbox every day a beautifully curated list of all the important things happening, and points to you at some of the good stuff that we’re doing, the original work that we’re producing on So check that out. And meanwhile, let’s move on to recommendations. David, what do you have for us?

David: So I think listeners absolutely have to check out a recent book by a French sociologist called Gregoire Chamayou called The Ungovernable Society. If you’re interested in neoliberalism and where we got to in the modern world, Chamayou use tells this absolutely fascinating story of a new form of discipline in the American corporation in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly the role of middle managers. It takes us into this moment where rebellion was in the air, and people were throwing spanners literally into cars on the production lines in Detroit, et cetera. And how a new, what he calls a new art of government came in to split up trade unions, to attack sabotaging workers and bring a new form of politics into the American corporation. If you like your Michel Foucault, if you’re interested in the origins of globalization, et cetera, this book is truly masterful. And I really don’t say that very much.

Oh, fantastic. I will absolutely check it out. Gregoire what’s his name again?

David: Chamayou.

Kaiser: Okay. I’ll find it, but the French is the most difficult language to spell from just having heard.

David: Yeah. So C-H-A-M-A-Y-O-U.

Kaiser: Okay. Thank you very much. So my recommendation, as many of you know, Robert Jervis, the great IR theorist and pioneer in the field of perception and misperception international politics died on December 9th. I never had the pleasure of meeting him or even listening to him lecture in person, but his ideas are so foundational to really much of what I have advocated when it comes to understanding China and other countries, cognitive empathy, and especially the importance of security dilemma sensibility. This habit of mind that says, we should consider how our own words and actions will be perceived by our opposite parties. I haven’t read him since I was an undergrad at Berkeley, but I have been revisiting his ideas now, especially after his passing. I have to say his thinking has incredible relevance to this quandary that we now find ourselves in with China. Related to this, directly related to this, please check out a recent episode of the Ezra Klein show, which was hosted by Julia Galef while the regular host Ezra is on paternity leave.

Her guest is Philip Tetlock who’s a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of a book called Superforecasting, the Art and Science of Prediction. And it’s actually all about different cognitive styles about foxes and hedgehogs about integrative complexity inside views versus outside views. And it’s just, it loads more, it’s fascinating. It’s a great conversation. And it also sent me down several rabbit holes. They also do a kind of recommendations thing at the end. And one of Philip Tetlock’s recommendations took me right back to Robert Jervis. And it was just a day or two before his passing. So it’s a fantastic listen. Please read up on Jervis and about his ideas.

So David McCourt, thank you so much. That was a real pleasure. I look forward to having you back on the show to talk about comparative stuff and also to talk about this Russia, China thing. I think it’s really interesting. We can sort of take our sociological hats off and just look at the historical moment of 1947 and then in 2021, 2022. I think it’ll be a very… We haven’t heard the Iron Curtain speech yet in Fulton, Missouri, but….

David: No, I don’t think there’s a British prime minister who could do a Fulton Missouri kind of speech. But just on Russia last point, look out in the China debates and discussions for the term reset, which I’m sure we’re going to get because China…

Kaiser: I think people allergic to it. I think people are really allergic to that. I mean, because it looked so absolutely ludicrous. I mean with the whole tableau of Hillary with a button. I think we’ve certainly talked about — I mean the only times I’ve seen that word brought up are how we can’t expect one or we can’t use one. I mean it be like telling a Democratic presidential candidate, why don’t you pose for a picture in a tank? I mean, it’s not a good idea. It’s not good politics.

David: Yeah. But the tendencies are baked into, I think how U.S. foreign policy works. The rollback or push forward, I think that what we’ll see is even in its absence, the reset idea will come about because I think that U.S.-China policy and US Russia policy are going to start to mirror one another and might do for quite a long time.

Kaiser: Yeah. That’s really depressing. Anyway, on that note.

David: It’s a reasonably happy note.

Kaiser: Thanks. Thanks.

David: Thank you so much, Kaiser.

Kaiser: My absolute pleasure. The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We’d be delighted if you drop us an email at or just as good, give us a rating and a review on Apple podcast as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook. You can follow @Sinicapodcast or @SupChinanews and make sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week. Take care.