Should the U.S. “decouple” from China? International experts debate at Haas

Nearly 40 years after President Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing, should the U.S. disengage from its deeply entwined economic relationship with China?  

That was the topic for a panel of international experts and journalists at “The Great Decoupling and Sino-US Race for Technological Supremacy” held at Berkeley Haas on Oct. 17. Co-hosted by the Financial Times, the Asia Society, and Haas’ Institute for Business Innovation, the event included a panel discussion followed by a spirited Oxford-style debate. 

“This is the most important topic of our day. It flows into not just economics, not just technology, but into national security, and into the long-run performance and survival of liberal democracies,” said Prof. David Teece, faculty director Tusher Initiative for Management of Intellectual Capital, in introducing the event. “While the debate tonight is framed as ‘should there be a decoupling?’ it’s already starting to happen. Whether it’s the appropriate course or not is something we’ll need to think about.”

UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ pointed out the important role universities play in this complex landscape.

The Chinese government has made investment in higher education an essential element of its competitive edge, even as the objective is complicated by state policies aimed at controlling inquiry and expression. Our university, meanwhile, long a proponent of international engagement and with deep, numerous, and varied academic collaborations in China, is now grappling with how we show support for Chinese students, scholars, and institutional partners suddenly cast as objects of suspicion.” 

The panelists included:

  • Robert Atkinson, President, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation
  • Professor Li Chenjian, Neuroscientist, Peking University
  • Dan Wang, Tech Analyst, Gavekal
  • Orville Schell, Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and former dean of the Graduate School of Journalism

“It’s fair to say the world is at an important moment,” Schell said in his introduction. “When the two largest economies are in a state of changed grace, everything that goes on between us—whether it’s business and trade, but also things like scientific research, academic life, and cultural exchange—is under reconsideration, and that’s what’s known as decoupling.”

Li, who lived in the U.S. for 25 years as a neuroscientist at Cornell and Mt. Sinai before taking a post at Peking University, brought a different perspective, pointing out that China is 20% of humanity. “When we talk about decoupling, we are too much into the zero sum game between the U.S. and China…Instead of decoupling, I am more on the side of principled engagement,” he said. “I question the notion that after 40 years engagement has failed. My experience…is I that liberal democracy is winning in Chinese society, quietly, irreversibly, at the grassroots level.