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Hal Brands

The ‘China Hands’ Got China Wrong, But Listen to Them Now

Looking back, the great-power generalists were warier about Beijing’s threat. Looking ahead, a grasp of Mandarin will come in handy.

The more things change ...

The more things change ...

Photographer: Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images

What is the best sort of knowledge for understanding the world: detailed expertise on individual countries and key issues, or a broader grasp of strategy and the patterns of great-power rivalry? This is the deeper epistemological question at stake in recent arguments about who was right and who was wrong about China in the decades after the Cold War. The answer is complicated, but it matters a lot in terms of forging the right approach to China in the future.

The great-power gurus, those with less specific knowledge about China itself, were better at predicting the emergence of the disruptive rising power we see today. Yet the China hands - those who know that country, its language and its politics intimately - will be the critical assets in the new competition.