Jon Huntsman Jr. was on the East Coast earlier this week where he told friends he was looking forward to attending a summit focused on China relations on Thursday.
“Oh, at Brookings Institute?” one person asked. “Council on Foreign Relations?” inquired another. “Is that the one at the Center for Strategic and International Studies?” another person wondered.
“No,” Huntsman told them. “I’m going to UVU.”
And that’s where the former Utah governor and former U.S ambassador to Singapore, China and Russia appeared on Thursday for the first China Challenge Summit, hosted by World Trade Center Utah and Utah Valley University.
China has become the primary engine of global economic growth, according to a recent study from the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. It supplanted the U.S. in 2020 as the home to the biggest share of Fortune 500 companies and is on the verge of toppling the U.S. from its position as the premier world economic power, a position its held since the late 1800s.
When measured by the traditional yardstick — market exchange rate — since 2000, China’s gross domestic product has soared from $1.2 trillion to $17.7 trillion. On the current trajectory, it will overtake the U.S. within a decade. By the yardstick both the CIA and the IMF judge to be the best metric for comparing national economies — purchasing power parity — China has already surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s largest economy.
Huntsman was unabashed in his call for a change in thinking and approach when it comes to China, which continues to flex its economic and political muscle in ways that have rarely been, simultaneously, so externally aggressive and internally oppressive.
“We need a new locale for new thinking,” Huntsman told the sold-out audience at UVU’s Noorda Center as well as hundreds of online attendees. “We need a new generation of people who are going to take a look at our most ascendent challenge of the century, which is China.
“This is the New West. This is where new thinking is occurring. This is where entrepreneurship abounds ... where new technologies are being advanced, developed and commercialized. Where people really care about the global environment. They want to make sense of it. Not the old think thanks, not the old conventional wisdom thinking, which we’re sick and tired of. We need something new.”
Huntsman told the estimated 1,200 in-person and online attendees Thursday that it was time to prepare carefully for the China-related challenges ahead and offered encouragement for how to best approach the complex and, at times, alarming issues.
“Think carefully, think deeply, think anew,” Huntsman said.
Ideas were in abundance at the daylong event, shared by a host of speakers and presenters from academia, the private sector business community and numerous areas of public service — all focusing on how businesses, governments and private citizens can think about, and navigate, a near-future scape in which China displaces the U.S. as the world’s premier economic powerhouse.
Huntsman noted the hawkish soundbites emanating from so many U.S. elected officials and policy makers on China did not represent strategies or action items when it comes to finding peaceful and equitable coexistence with the Asian powerhouse.
“We’ve got to get beyond that,” Huntsman said. “I think we’re on the front end of what will be a defining decade in the U.S. and China relationship. And we need good thinking.”
Matt Pottinger, former deputy National Security Council adviser, noted China President Xi Jinping has consolidated and concentrated power over his nearly 10 years in office, is on the verge of another five-year term, and has a grand ambition to achieve a global collective, one based in part on the writings of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin.
“When you reach that kind of paramount status in a single party system, like China has … you don’t give up power,” Pottinger said. “The only way I think, probably, Xi Jinping will leave power will be in a coffin. I would love to see more moderate people, their voices rise in the Chinese system. Those people are terrified. Many of them have either left or they are quiet right now.”
Wall Street Journal China correspondent Lingling Wei, who was born and raised in China but attended college in the U.S, said while those voices my appear quiet, there are many Chinese citizens and even party members that are not at all in lock-step with the direction the Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party is taking the country when it comes to international relations.
“There are still voices that care about China’s relationship with the U.S. and the West overall,” Wei said. “There are still people who think Xi Jinping made a mistake in aligning so closely with Russia.
“I think this is where China is really different from Russia. It faces resistance in the party for carrying out certain policies. There’s still hope for us, the U.S., to try to do a little bit more to encourage these moderate voices.”
Wei said she believes the U.S business activity and presence in China, which exists thanks to doors that were first opened in 1978 under reforms championed by then China President Deng Xiaoping, have served as a catalyst for more openness in the country while also helping drive China’s economic success.
“For the past few decades, I think U.S. companies have played a key role in helping China’s economy and enhanced the openness of the Chinese society,” Wei said. “Engagement has worked in a lot of ways ... in the hearts and minds of Chinese people.
“It’s also why the party is so worried about … peaceful revolution. China is still an amazing place to be in and it’s really sad in a way to see that the relationship (with the U.S.) has sunk so low. The U.S. has helped China achieve an economic miracle … and lifted millions out of poverty.”
In a pre-taped conversation with Huntsman, Nicholas Burns, the current U.S. Ambassador to China, said the two countries were currently at a historic ebb when it comes to effective cooperation efforts.
“Our relationship with the People’s Republic of China is by far the most important we have of any country in the world,” Burns said. “I’m sorry to say I think the relationship is in very tough shape.”
Burns noted China’s recent crackdowns on its own citizens, including the dramatic change in policy and policing in Hong Kong and the systemic human rights abuses and detentions of the Uyghur population and other mostly-Muslim ethnic groups in the northwestern region of Xinjiang.
Burns said responding to China’s stance of ratcheting up both domestic oppression and exterior aggression should include strategic investment and alignment with key allies in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. He noted economic policy coordination that brings, for example, Japan, the European Union and U.S. together combines economies that account for 60% of global GDP, considerable clout when it comes to leveling the playing field of international trade and cooperation.
The ambassador also noted that tougher tariff and trade policies adopted by the U.S. during former President Donald Trump’s term in office have been mostly maintained by President Joe Biden’s administration, a rare but effective consistency that typically does not accompany changes in the executive office.
While the myriad challenges, and potential action items, focused on China’s ongoing rise to power ran throughout conversations at the China Challenge Summit, there were also a few notable bright spots.
Craig Allen, president of the U.S.-China Business Council, said many U.S. businesses were continuing to find high levels of success in China. He noted U.S. exports to China last year were at record levels, up 21% and in 2020 had seen 17% export growth.
Plus, Allen even called out Beehive State exporters for setting their own high bar when it comes to doing business with Chinese customers.
“Utah is an export powerhouse as well, with about $1 billion in exports and 7,000 employed by businesses that export to China,” Allen said. “And, I’m sure that could be increased significantly.”
Deseret News’ parent company, Deseret Management Corp., is a financial sponsor of the China Challenge Summit.