China through U.S. eyes : how a declining hegemon talked about its challenger and why

Date of Award




Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Department of Sociology

Content Description

1 online resource (v, 148 pages) : illustrations.

Dissertation/Thesis Chair

Aaron Major

Committee Members

Richard Lachmann, Brandon Gorman


Hegemony, Elite (Social sciences)

Subject Categories



This dissertation answers two questions. First, what were the U.S. elites’ agenda and policy narratives regarding China? Did this agenda and these narratives change across time and elite groups in the post-Cold War era? If so, how? Second, what factors affected U.S. elites’ policy on China? And how did their effects vary across elite groups?To answer these questions, I collected policy text about China by the three elite groups in the United States: the political elite, the economic elite, and the military elite. The dataset covers the period from 1990 to 2019. Then, I used a mixed-methods approach, integrating computer-assisted content analysis and statistical analysis to identify major topics and themes from the text and assess how they were affected by external factors such as domestic politics and great power dynamics. I found consistent division between elite groups in terms of agenda and stance regarding China. Meanwhile, within each elite group, there was little change in agenda over time, except for the political elite’s shift of focus from economy to geopolitics and diplomacy in the 2010s and the military elite’s shift from geopolitics to defense since the 2000s. For stance on cooperating or competing with China, I found the Trump era (2016-2019) affected all the elite groups, yet in different ways. The political elite picked up a more confrontational tone during the Trump presidency, but the other two elite groups used a more cooperative narrative. It casts doubt on the argument that a consensus on confronting China is emerging among the U.S. elites. Indeed, it suggests inter-elite division on how to respond to China’s rise, particularly when one elite group embraces an extreme version of confrontation. To dig into the division and identify factors shaping it, I conducted two case studies. The first case study examines the U.S. elites’ narratives on trade with China. I specifically focused on two opposing trade approaches, free trade and fair trade. I found that domestic politics significantly affected the three elite, but the effects vary across groups. Although having a Republican President affects both the political and the military elite, the former tends to move towards the end of fair trade under a Republican presidency while the latter moves in the opposite direction. When it comes to great power dynamics, the political elite leans further towards the narrative of free trade when China’s GDP growth rate is high, and the military elite moves towards the narrative of fair trade with China’s growth in military aggression. In short, the case study found that the inter-elite division on trading with China could be partly caused by different elite groups’ distinct responses to changes in domestic politics and great power dynamics. In the second case study, I examined the elite narrative on two strategies about China, the engagement and the containment strategies. The findings also identified the significant effect of domestic politics and great power dynamics. Mainly, I found that domestic politics tend to generate inter-elite division on whether to contain or engage China, while great power dynamics had mixed effects here. In general, this dissertation presents evidence of consistent inter-elite division in the U.S. as it faces challenges from the ascent of China. Its findings suggest that domestic politics may prevent elite groups from forming a unified stance in great power competition, thus accelerating its hegemonic decline.

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