Truman National Security Project

China’s State Press Calls U.S. Exceptionalism a Museum Relic

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Stop being a bully, and start respecting the rules of the global village. That’s the takeaway from a Nov. 1 editorial in Communist Party mouthpiece The People’s Daily, which castigates the United States in the wake of revelations that the NSA has tapped the phones of 35 foreign leaders, a development severe enough to prompt U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to aver the United States has gone “too far.”

The editorial’s tone and choice of metaphors is enough to make a U.S. policymaker blush — or boil with anger. Called ”The United States Also Must Respect the Village Contract,” the piece is signed by Zhong Sheng, a pen name for the international desk of the People’s Daily. The Chinese-language editorial warns that the recent NSA wiretapping revelations are a “political tsunami” that should prompt the United States to “truly awaken to a few things.” In particular, the editorial argues, the concept of “exceptionalism” should “have already been relegated to the museum exhibits.” With the “global village” becoming ever smaller, erstwhile bullies who “rely on force to snatch position in the village” are becoming “obsolete.”

The editorial is full of advice that would likely strike U.S. policymakers as patronizing — for example, the reminder that “turning a negative into a positive is a kind of wisdom.” There’s also the counsel that whether the current “sensitive period of transition” — one leading, the editorial implies, to a world where the United States is no longer the most powerful country — is “smooth” and “sufficiently speedy” depends “on the United States’ character and ability.” That does not imply, however, that “the United States can do whatever it wants, like a spoiled child.”

The People’s Daily doesn’t want readers to take their word for it. For evidence of its claims, the article relies instead on U.S. voices. These include President Obama’s April 2009 statement, ”I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” which the editorial takes to imply the United States was “not that special.” The piece also cites Georgetown University law professor Rosa Brooks, who in an Aug. 29 FP article referred to the United States as “a wounded giant” that is “steadily weakening,” still capable of hurting people when it “flail[s] around.” The article expands on the metaphor: Those hurt by the giant “have become furious, and the ‘wounded giant’ suffers even more pain in the midst of this anger.” (Brooks, in a phone interview, called the article’s mention of her idea “fair enough.”)

It’s unlikely that U.S. policymakers will take this particular editorial to heart. For one, it doesn’t contain much actionable advice. In Chinese, the village contract – cungui minyue – refers to a mode of governance sanctioned by the party and enshrined in Chinese law, hardly something the United States could follow even if it wanted to. It also appears the article has not been reproduced in English, even though publishing English-language barbs aimed across the Pacific is a frequent practice of Chinese state media.

Instead, the editorial appears to be speaking to Chinese readers, not U.S. policymakers. With NSA revelations stirring up mistrust toward the United States even among staunch allies, Chinese state media may sense a ripe opportunity to tell its people something like: “Don’t worry. We’ve got this governance thing figured out.”

David Wertime is a Truman National Security Project Fellow. This article originally appeared on Foreign Policy