Sinica Podcast
Back to the Future: David M. Lampton and Thomas Fingar on What Went Wrong and How to Fix It

Back to the Future: David M. Lampton and Thomas Fingar on What Went Wrong and How to Fix It

This week on Sinica, I speak with veteran China analysts Thomas Fingar and David M. Lampton — Mike Lampton — about a paper they published in the Winter 2024 edition of the Washington Quarterly. It's an excellent overview of how and why the bilateral relationship took such a bad turn roughly 15 years ago, citing mistakes both sides made and the reasons why China shifted around that time from one of its two basic behavioral modes — more open, tolerant, and simpatico in its foreign policy — to the other mode, which is both more internally repressive and externally assertive.

Thomas Fingar is Shorenstein APARC Fellow in the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. He was Assistant Secretary of State for Intelligence and Research. He served as the first deputy director of national intelligence for analysis and as chairman of the National Intelligence Council — and he’s the author of many books, including most recently From Mandate to Blueprint: Lessons from Intelligence Reform.

Mike Lampton is Professor Emeritus and former Hyman Professor and Director of SAIS-China and China Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, and Senior Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute. Mike was also formerly President of the National Committee on United States-China Relations.

05:04 – The problem with the use of the term "autocracy" to describe China's system

09:18 – Analysis of the motivation behind China's actions, questioning the assumption that all decisions are solely for perpetuating the Communist Party's power.

10:25 – Rethinking Xi Jinping's personal influence over China's policy decisions: the checks on his power within the Chinese political system.

15:58 – Critique of deterministic theories in political science regarding state behavior, particularly concerning China's foreign policy and domestic policy actions.

19:13 – The importance of avoiding oversimplified and deterministic explanations for Chinese behavior on the global stage.

23:43 – Discussion on the perception of China as an unstoppable juggernaut and the consequences of such a view for international relations and domestic policies in the U.S.

24:41 – Analysis of the notion that China seeks to recreate an imperial tribute system in its foreign relations and regional strategy.

28:09 – Introduction of the concept of two strategic constellations that have historically guided China's policy focus: national/regime security and economic/social development.

33:11 – Exploration of factors leading to China's shift from prioritizing economic and social development to focusing more on national and regime security.

37:38 – Examination of the internal and external dynamics contributing to China's policy shifts and the impact of globalization on societal and political tensions.

48:47 – Reflection on the post-9/11 period as a time of relatively smooth U.S.-China relations and speculation on the role of international crises in shaping bilateral dynamics.

52:59 – Discussion on the challenges and opportunities for the U.S. and China to adjust their policies and rhetoric to manage tensions and avoid further exacerbating the bilateral relationship.


Tom: The novels of Mick Herron (author of Slow Horses); the novels of Alan Furst, including Night Soldiers and The Polish Officer.

Mike: Philip Taubman, In the Nation’s Service (a biography of George Shultz)

Kaiser: The Magician, by Colm Tóibín — an unconventional novelized biography of Thomas Mann

Sinica Podcast
A weekly discussion of current affairs in China that looks at books, ideas, new research, intellectual currents, and cultural trends that help us better understand what’s happening in China’s politics, foreign relations, economics, and society. Join each week for in-depth conversations that shed more light and bring less heat to the way we think and talk about China.