The reason why both Americans and Chinese have become so nostalgic for the great Nixon/Kissinger-Mao Zedong/Zhou Enlai breakthrough in 1972 is because that was the last time that Sino-U.S. relations experienced a dramatic breakthrough. Now, most policy wonks on both sides sense we need another jolt to kick the way we interact into a higher gear, but nobody quite knows how to accomplish that.
When he met Obama recently at Sunnylands, Chinese President Xi Jinping lofted the idea of a "new great power relationship." But then, the cyber security issue that the Obama administration had already put on the front burner -- especially the cyber theft of private corporate intellectual property -- got written even larger by l'affaire Snowden. This gave Chinese nationalists a nice opportunity to mount a high horse and even the score up a bit, as Ministry of Defense spokesman, Yang Yujun, did when he defiantly proclaimed, "The Prism-gate affair is itself like a prism that reveals the true face and hypocritical conduct regarding Internet security of the country concerned" which by "making baseless accusations against other countries shows double standards and will be no help for peace and security in cyberspace." To many, the incident came as a real setback to any hopes for a major new diplomatic breakthrough.
And yet, there could be a bright side to this story. With the world's only superpower -- to which China has long looked with a complex mix of admiration and envy mixed with resentment and animosity -- now unexpectedly forced to eat a super-sized portion of humble pie, and the Chinese enjoying a rare moment of schadenfreude, the playing field may have suddenly leveled a bit. That's important because, even though there is a real difference between the motives for and the kinds of surveillance that each country engages in, if there has been one thing that has galled Chinese in their relations with the West and Japan, it is the enduring presumption of their inequality, an imbalance that has deep roots growing out of their history of decline while being imperialized and exploited by foreigners. It has been Beijing's insistence on this notion that the Great Powers somehow still look down on them that has continued to make Beijing's relations with Washington so often fraught. But suddenly here was America also knee-deep in mud, thus creating a moment of cryptic equivalence that felt irresistibly sweet to many Chinese. As Romans 3:23 reminds us Americans, "all have sinned and come short of the glory of God." A patriotic Chinese doesn't have to be a churchgoer to enjoy such a moment.