China and the United States

China and the United States

East Asia specialist to explore complicated relationship at JCC U in Tenafly

Dr. Tom Grunfeld stands in the Panda Reserve in Chengdu, Sichuan Province; sadly, no pandas are visible here.
Dr. Tom Grunfeld stands in the Panda Reserve in Chengdu, Sichuan Province; sadly, no pandas are visible here.

So what’s the deal with China?

The relationship between the United States and China seems to be changing. What did it used to be? What is it now? Why is it changing? And what can we expect?

Dr. Tom Grunfeld will try to answer these questions at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, although, as he acknowledges, his understanding of what that relationship used to be, and what changes it is undergoing now, are clear and evidence-based. His crystal ball, on the other hand, is a bit cloudy.

Dr. Grunfeld, a SUNY distinguished teaching professor at the Empire State College of the State University of New York, specializes in Eastern Asia studies; last year, he talked about the United States’ relationship with North Korea, which was much in the news then, at the JCC University. (Although that relationship continues to be fraught, it has receded a bit, although it is revived as an issue every few months, and its most recent return was just about a week ago.)

This year, Dr. Grunfeld will talk about China.

“I’ll talk about how our relationship with China goes through stages,” he said. “The most recent one was from 1972 to 2016.” Although there had been “subtle changes in the relationship” as American history moved from the presidencies of Richard Nixon to Barack Obama, it wasn’t until Donald Trump took office that “we saw a radical change in U.S policy.

“Until then, the policy was roughly the same,” Dr. Grunfeld said. “In that period, every presidential candidate accused the sitting president of being soft on China. And then as soon as they came into office, they adopted the same policy. That was true for every president; there often were different reasons, but the policy stayed the same.”

There was one almost exception that proved the rule, he added. That was George W. Bush’s administration. “In the beginning, the Bush administration was much more belligerent toward China. But then they made the decision to invade Iraq, and the policy changed 160 degrees, and then went right back to the same policies as before. They needed China not to veto anything in the U.N.

“So except for January to September 2003, there was no change in American policy toward China.”

Why was that? “There were two factions in Washington, inside the Beltway, on the issue of China policy,” Dr. Grunfeld said. “One supported close relations, welcoming students, engagement in general. Those were the people who had the influence. The other side said that China was a threat.”

Those people, he said, those influencers, are the academics and experts and think tank and State Department professionals — and they are the same elite, because those institutions are connected by revolving doors.

They once believed that China would become more like the United States, he said. “The people who supported that argued that China would become more democratic if we allowed students and tourism and trade. But that clearly hasn’t happened, and so they are disillusioned.” Their disillusionment has not led them to join the other group, the China-is-a-threat side, but “they are no longer promoting the policy that they promoted for the last 40 years.” In fact, he added, “they wrote a 200-page report, called ‘Chinese Influence and American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance,’ about that disillusionment.”

So what happened? “In 1972, China’s biggest trading partner was Albania,” Dr. Grunfeld said. “China was completely isolated from communist countries and from capitalist countries. Its economy was at the bottom 10 percent of all the world’s countries. If anything happened in China then, it would not have affected anyone else. Only China.”

Today, on the other hand, “there is hardly a country in the world that is not intertwined with China.” If there were to be some kind of economic collapse there, we’d all feel it, he said.

Given that, is the White House making decisions on China based on that understanding? “My personal opinion is that it is not,” Dr. Grunfeld said. “I think that there is a struggle in the White House, but for now the hardliners seem to have influence, and as a result they are going with a policy of threats and retaliation.

“They are right in the issues they raise — cybersecurity, intellectual property theft, the trade balance. Nobody disagrees that they are problems. The question is how to solve those problems.”

Since 1972, China has changed in many ways, Dr. Grunfeld said; it’s become both capitalist and more repressive. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

The American understanding of China was shaped by the Protestant missionaries who went there, and even more by their children, he said. (Those children were called “mishkids,” he added.) The most prominent of those one-time children was Henry Luce, the extraordinarily powerful creator and publisher of Time Magazine. They assumed that as China modernized, it necessarily would democratize. But the Chinese did not see it that way; they classified the United States as just another Western colonial power, not as a moral force for good.

Instead, China has become both more capitalist and more repressive, Dr. Grunfeld said.

His first trip to China was in 1977, and he’s gone many times since then, he said. “The first time I went, the Cultural Revolution was still going on. It was just a few months after Mao died.”

That was then; now in some ways China is almost unrecognizable. “It has changed with phenomenal speed,” Dr. Grunfeld said. New York City has grown enormously since 1789, “when Canal Street was its northern boundary. That took 200 years. China has done the same thing in 30 years.

“There is a village on the Hong Kong border, and in those days you had to go through that village to get to China,” he said. “It was a farming and fishing village then. There were no two-story buildings. Today it is a city of 12 million people, with a subway with 100 stations and 40-story buildings.

“Until the 80s, it was the only way to get to China from Hong Kong. You would take the train to the border, where it stopped.” The line ended there. “You would walk across the border with your bag, and you’d wait for the train on the other side.

“It was very exciting to be in China,” he continued. “We’d been hanging out in Hong Kong, but being in China…

“Imagine that you had been studying to be a mechanic for years, but you had never seen a car. You’d just studied books. It’s hard to learn that way. And then all of a sudden a car drives up to your house and you actually can see it. You can hold a carburetor in your hand. You can hold a spark plug.

“The first time I was there — I was leading a group of graduate students from NYU — it was for a couple of weeks, but it was very restricted. We had minders. We couldn’t talk to people on the street. Those restrictions were lifted very slowly over 15 years.

“Now it’s different. It’s totally open. You just go get a visa. You can go on your own, or with a tour group. The only problem is the language.” And Chinese people also are free to travel; they too are constrained only by how expensive foreign travel can be. In China, they can live where they want, take whatever jobs they want, have as many children as they want. (They are choosing not to have children, and that’s a problem, Dr. Grunfeld said, but it’s a different problem.)

But despite the capitalism in which they now live, and despite their new personal freedom, the Chinese do not have political freedom. And that affects us, as Americans, in our country’s relationship with China.

Dr. Grunfeld plans to address that and other complications at the JCC U.

Who: Dr. Tom Grunfeld

What: Will talk about the relationship between the United States and China

Where: At the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, 411 East Clinton Avenue, Tenafly

When: On Thursday, February 7, at 10:30 a.m.

Why: For the JCC U


Who: Janine DeFeo, a teaching fellow at the Whitney Museum

What: Wil talk about the Whitney’s new Andy Warhol exhibit, in a talk called “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again”

When: Also on February 7, after lunch, for the second half of that day’s JCC U

How much: The whole day, from 10:30 to 2, costs $35 for JCC members and $42 for non-members; there is a break for lunch, and students are invited to buy or bring food.

For more information or to register: Call (201) 408-1454 or go to and follow the links to the JCC U.

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