David J. Firestein

'Sharp' China?:  The Current U.S. Narrative About China – and Why It’s Bad… for America

In recent months, we have seen a dramatic evolution in the U.S. narrative regarding China.  Though never framed particularly positively in the aftermath of the events of 1989, China is now widely characterized in both U.S. media and political circles as a clear and present danger to the United States, its values and its institutions.  So potent, and even existential, is the threat that China is presumed to pose that a new and unique lexicon has been created in recent months especially to describe China’s aims and activities; most notably, China is now seen as the world’s preeminent wielder of “sharp power.”  The new harsh and highly adversarial U.S. framing of China belies a sense of angst, vulnerability and lack of national confidence that we have not seen in the United States in decades.  Moreover, whatever the impact of this framing on China and U.S.-China relations, this tougher way of thinking and speaking about China is also challenging America’s own values, principles and interests in ways arguably not seen since the McCarthy era.  In order to compete effectively against such a formidable rival, the United States must be true to its core values, even – and indeed especially – at a moment when, to some, that feels hard to do.


David J. Firestein is the inaugural executive director of The University of Texas at Austin’s China Public Policy Center (CPPC) and clinical professor at UT’s Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs. As CPPC chief, Firestein leads UT's institutional engagement with China and oversees innovative interdisciplinary research on China-related domestic and foreign policy topics.

Prior to joining UT, Firestein served as senior vice president and Perot Fellow at the EastWest Institute; there, he led the Institute’s work in the areas of U.S.-China relations, East Asian security and U.S.-Russia relations. A decorated career U.S. diplomat from 1992–2010, Firestein specialized primarily in China and U.S.-China relations. He is the author or co-author of three books on China, including two China-published Chinese-language best-sellers. Firestein speaks Chinese at the near-native level.

Throughout his career, Firestein has played an active role advancing U.S.-China and U.S.-Asia trade. He has also produced path-breaking thought leadership, scholarship and Capitol Hill testimony on a range of topics, including U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S.-China infrastructure investment cooperation, and the role of national exceptionalism as a driver of major international conflict today.  Firestein was also a principal architect of the U.S.-China High-Level Political Party Leaders Dialogue.