Navigating the relationship between the United States and China has become more critical than ever. These countries represent not only the world’s two largest economies but also two contrasting political systems, competing interests, and complex historical legacies. The intricate interplay between these superpowers holds far-reaching implications for diplomacy, economics, security, and technology on a global scale.

Faculty experts dug into these issues for the second Dean’s Discussion of the semester—a series of faculty conversations about unprecedented challenges in this time of accelerating global change. Series moderator Sarah Wald, adjunct lecturer in public policy and senior policy advisor and chief of staff to Dean Doug Elmendorf, invited Tony Saich, Jie Bai, and Rana Mitter to explain and respond to this rapidly changing landscape.

Mitter, the S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations, began by evoking a new Chinese television series called “When Marx Met Confucius.” The concept of the show is that, despite living 2,400 years apart, the two philosophers meet and discuss ideas.

Jie Bai speaking with her hand raised.

“In thinking about our roles and responsibilities, we need to have more rigorous facts and go beyond the hype, go beyond the headlines to understand China.”

Jie Bai

The show prompted Mitter to ask if China today embraces two ways of thinking: a Confucian one, which is a Chinese belief system based on order and tradition, and a Marxist one, with economically based origins. “For today’s Chinese Communist Party, Confucian thinking provides order, hierarchy and ritual – all ways of calming a society that is increasingly turbulent,” he said.

“Marxism is a means of explaining many of the contradictions that exist in global society today,” Mitter continued. “How can we continue to have economic growth across the world if we need to cut back on fuel usage? That is a contradiction. How can the United States continue to be dominant power in the world and yet there is an emergence of a multipolar society globally in which China will play a role. Again, it’s a contradiction.”

The reason that these two ideals might be combined, Mitter said, is because they both speak to different aspects of the Chinese dilemma.

“Why a broadly Marxist framework might have some appeal to the Chinese is that frankly even some of the best minds in the Western world have failed to come up with an alternative single framework to explain the fast changing world today,” Mitter said. This, he said, explains the extraordinary turbulence and difficult circumstances that the entire world is going through at the moment.

Saich, the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs, picked up on this idea. He noted that the Central Financial Work Conference, which met in Beijing in October, proclaimed that it integrated Marxist financial theory with the specific realities of contemporary China and traditional Chinese culture to create a financially strong country.

Rana Mitter speaking with his hand raised.

“For today’s Chinese Communist Party, Confucian thinking provides order, hierarchy and ritual – all ways of calming a society that is increasingly turbulent.”

Rana Mitter

What this does, Saich continued, is confirm Xi Jinping’s approach to economic development. “This clearly places party control at the center and his preference for what I’ve referred to as geopolitical risk management,” he said. Xi Jinping has clearly doubled down on the view of Chinese exceptionalism, Saich said, but what he’s added to it, which Confucius didn't have, is the organizational power of the party.

The effects are far reaching.

“Clearly what China's trying to do,” Saich said, “is to seek to diversify relations and ensure that commodities on which it is reliant—gas, oil, soybeans—cannot be weaponized to influence its behavior. In that context, that’s why the relationship with Russia becomes very important because that can provide the kind of oil that it needs.”

Jie Bai, assistant professor of public policy, turned the conversation inward, asking what role an institution like HKS can play. “What’s our role and responsibility as students, faculty, members of the Kennedy School?” she asked. “What kind of role can we play in this rapidly changing world with rising tensions, this kind of disengagement and deep misunderstandings and false narratives that run deep from both sides? Both in the United States and China, there are huge ramifications not just for the two countries but globally.”

Tony Saich speaking.

“Clearly what China's trying to do is to seek to diversify relations and ensure that commodities on which it is reliant–gas, oil, soybeans–cannot be weaponized to influence its behavior.” 

Tony Saich

She pointed to academic research and the need for rigorous evidence to inform policies for discussions. “Maybe we can’t really change policy,” she said, “but we can be part of that policy negotiation.”

Jie identified two main reasons research and evidence can provide the opportunity to reengage and relaunch some of the collaborations and conversations.

“The first is just because we want to generate more knowledge, more truth,” she said. “There's not a single paper that can tell you everything about China, but if we can piece together all the evidence, then we can try to have a deeper understanding of what's going on.”

“The second is really this point about U.S.-China problems, the global implications. Sometimes I think these global implications were not at the front line of the debate. When we think about the technology war, the chip war, what people talk or debate about these days is whether China will surpass the U.S. by 2035 or which kind of innovation policy is more effective or superior. But what people often don’t talk about and haven’t paid enough attention to is the ramifications that a tenuous U.S.-China relationship could have, and is having, on consumers and producers in other parts of the world.”

We have a responsibility to elevate these conversations, she said. “In thinking about our roles and responsibilities, we need to have more rigorous facts and go beyond the hype, go beyond the headlines to understand China.”

Rana Mitter, Jie Bai, and Tony Saich speaking at the front of a crowded room.

Banner image: Rana Mitter, the S.T. Lee Professor of U.S.-Asia Relations, Jie Bai, Assistant Professor of Public Policy, and Anthony Saich, the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs.

Photos by Winston Tang, MPP candidate 2025.

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