Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium
This is a joint contribution to two series in China Heritage: Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium and Spectres & Souls. Below, we offer a series of works that contribute to the 2023 season of political theatre in both Beijing and Washington.
As China’s impuissant legislature prepared to bestow its window-dressing imprimatur on Xi Jinping’s agenda in Beijing, in Washington the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party held its first hearings. The coincidentally synchronised talking shops offered rich fodder for the ruminations of pundits of all persuasions.
Mike Gallagher, a Republican congressman, chairs the Select Committee in Washington, one which is made up of 13 members of the House Republican majority and 11 members of the Democratic Party minority. Following his appointment as chair, Gallagher tweeted that:
The greatest threat to the United States is the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP continues to commit genocide, obscure the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, steal hundreds of billions of dollars worth of American intellectual property, and threaten Taiwan. The Select Committee on China will push back in bipartisan fashion before it’s too late.
The congressional Select Committee was duly formed on 10 January and held its first meeting on 28 February 2023. In relation to that event, we reprint the following:
- Matt Pottinger, The Chinese Communist Party’s Threat to America, 28 February 2023. In his testimony before the Committee Pottinger colorfully describes Xi Jinping’s party-state ‘the Harry Houdini of Marxist-Leninist regimes, the David Copperfield of Communism and the Criss Angel of autocracy’ (for our previous encounter with Mr Pottinger, see Mangling May Fourth 2020 in Washington, China Heritage, 14 May 2020);
- Derek Scissors, The China Consensus: Do Almost Nothing, 2 March 2023, in which the author remarks that ‘The famous bipartisan China consensus is to rant and rave, and not do anything that might actually come at a price’; and,
- Michael Beckley, A more hawkish China policy? 5 takeaways from House committee’s inaugural hearing on confronting Beijing, 2 March 2023, which suggests a more sanguine view of the proceedings.
As we noted in The View from Maple Bridge — Ah, Humanity!, the year 2023 marks sixty years since the Chinese Communist Party formally declared ideological war on Soviet Revisionism in the form of the Nine Critiques of the Soviet Communist Party 九評蘇共. It is also six decades since the canonisation of Lei Feng (雷鋒, 1940-1962), a PLA soldier who is still held up as a paragon of unquestioning loyalty and obedience to the Communist Party. On 5 March 2023, the first day of the Fourteenth National People’s Congress, Mao Zedong’s rescript to ‘Learn from Comrade Lei Feng’ was duly commemorated (see 你儂我儂 ‘It’s all ruined by the politics’, 5 March 2023). Xi Jinping marked the occasion by adding his trademark verbosity to Mao’s lapidary exoneration. It included the following statement:
The Lei Feng Spirit has suffused the hearts and souls of generations of the children of China. History has proven that no matter how the times may change, the Lei Feng Spirit is eternal.
Back in the day, however, Lei Feng was known not only for acts but for his uncompromising attitudes. The renowned description of the Lei Feng Spirit declared that:
He treated his comrades with the warmth of a spring wind; he engaged in his work with the passion of a hot summer’s day; he dismissed individualism with the strength of an autumn winds scattering fallen leaves; and he was as cruel and uncompromising as the bitter winter in his dealings with the enemy.
[Note: See The Immortal Lei Feng Spirit in Morning Sun, the website of the 2003 documentary film of the same name. We also note the decades-long controversy about Lei Feng: was he an invention of the party-propaganda-state, or did he really exist? Here we recall that Zhang Jun, the companion-photographer assigned to capture candid scenes of Lei Feng’s devotion to the study of Mao Zedong Thought and examples of his selfless acts, became so agitated when discussing the topic at a seminar held to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Mao’s rescript on 5 March 2013 that he dropped dead on the spot. See 雷鋒生前戰友張峻去世 倒在宣講雷鋒精神講台上，2013年3月6日.]
Communist Party pieties about the Spirit of Lei Feng were the product of a complex of ideas and traditions that combined Stalino-Maoism, rejigged Confucian values melded with a style of proselytisation influenced by Christian missionaries. At this juncture, if one has a penchant for ‘Whataboutism’, it would be tempting to compare the Lei Feng Spirit with that of the radically righteous elsewhere. Indeed, as Chinese legislators and America’s GOP-led Congress face each other off, one might even recall the discomforting analogy outlined in our commemoration of US President Richard Nixon’s trip to Beijing in February 1972. In the editorial introduction to 迥 — Dissing Dissent we went so far as to opine that:
The GOP in the United States of America and the CCP in the People’s Republic of China have long demonstrated eerily similar traits: an obsession with distorted historical narratives coupled to delusional nostalgia; the heroic defense of patriotic education; destructive sectarian political behaviour; intolerance of dissent and enmity towards civil society; a proclivity for rule by secretive cabals of power-brokers; a crippled vision of individual rights and collective responsibilities; a worldview based on what in recent years has become known as ‘fake news’; a fixation on conspiracy theories and systemic paranoia; the promotion of hate and resentment; self-affirmation provided by a claque of toadies, ambitious politicians and unprincipled media figures; an admiration for and the cultivation of oligarchs both at home and abroad; an obsession with race and ideological rectitude shored up by glib sophistry; the targeting of minorities for political advantage; the drumbeat of militarism; an apocalyptic view of the world; and, a penchant for rhetorical warfare, among many others. These characteristics shared by both political organisations are at their core informed by a fundamental disdain for democracy, the rule of law, equality, independent critical thought and free speech. …
In 2022, the three great powers — the former Soviet Union, the United States and China’s People’s Republic — that clashed during the Cold War decades coexist in an uneasy new configuration. The Soviet Union is now the Russian Federation ruled by the autocrat Vladimir Putin; China is dominated by a willful strong man of its own, Xi Jinping; and, for its part America struggles with the virulent legacy of Donald J. Trump, the GOP’s despotic dotard. The three hegemons — two of which hold the reins of power while the third plots a second coming — hold sway over their respective ‘empires of lies’ and immense destructive potential.
— from Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, Appendix V 迥 — Dissing Dissent, 26 February 2022
This then is part of the context of America-China contestation in the 2020s. And, for those who appreciate American-style doublethink, Matt Pottinger offers a model practitioner of the political pirouette — readers will recall that he remained a Trump stalwart until he suddenly found his position untenable on 6 January 2020. He left the White House the following day.
The tagline of this appendix is 萬變不離其宗 wàn biàn bù lí qí zōng, or plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. For those living in the overlapping liminal ‘zones of empire’, while developments in Beijing and Washington may proved to be more inclusive than other spectator sports, for the most part, however, agency will remain limited to the sidelines.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
6 March 2023
- Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, United States House of Representatives
- Anatol Klass, The Real Risk of the China Select Committee, Foreign Affairs, 20 March 2023
- Editorial Board, Who Benefits From Confrontation With China?, New York Times, 11 March 2023
- Max Boot, Democrats and Republicans agree on China. That’s a problem., Washington Post, 6 March 2023
- Brian Spegele, China’s Foreign Minister Says Ties With U.S. Risk Going Off the Rails, Wall Street Journal, 7 March 2023
- Chun Han Wong, Keith Zhai, and James T. Areddy, China’s Xi Jinping Takes Rare Direct Aim at U.S. in Speech, Wall Street Journal, 6 March 2023
- Dan Blumenthal, Zack Cooper, Derek Scissors, Nine Recommendations to Presidential Candidates on China Policy, AEIdeas, 11 January 2023
- The Task Force on U.S.-China Policy, Center on U.S.-China Relations, Asia Society (2017-2022)
- 瞽 — You Should Look Back, Introduction to Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, 1 February 2022
- Prelude to a Restoration: Xi Jinping, Deng Xiaoping, Chen Yun & the Spectre of Mao Zedong, China Heritage, 20 September 2021
- Jianying Zha 查建英 & Katō Yoshikazu 加藤嘉一, Adieu, China! — Jianying Zha’s Long Farewell, 10 November 2020
On Lei Feng:
- Andrea Worden, Missing Lei Feng, LA Review of Books, 5 March 2021
- Evan Osnos, Ignoring Lei Feng: China’s Failed Revolutionary Biopics, The New Yorker, 13 March 2013
- Evan Osnos, Fact-Checking a Chinese Hero, The New Yorker, 29 March 2013
The Chinese Communist Threat to America
China Program Chairman
28 February 2023
Testimony given to the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the U.S. and the Chinese Communist Party, 28 February 2023
Chairman Gallagher, Ranking Member Krishnamoorthi, and distinguished members of the Select Committee:
If any of the Xi Jinping quotations I just displayed in that three-minute film surprised you, you are far from alone.
That’s because China’s supreme leader and the Party he commands are masters at disguising their true intentions. They are masters at presenting an illusory image to the outside world while speaking, planning and acting in very different ways behind closed doors. Those quotations you saw, some of them from once-secret speeches and internal textbooks, are but a few reflections of what Chinese Communist Party (CCP) really thinks. The success the CCP has enjoyed presenting itself as constructive, cooperative, responsible, normal, is one of the great magic tricks of the modern era. Chairman Xi might actually agree on that point: He refers to the Party’s propaganda and influence activities as a “magic weapon” for advancing his regime’s interests. You could say the CCP is the Harry Houdini of Marxist-Leninist regimes; the David Copperfield of Communism; the Chris [sic] Angel of autocracy.
Dual messaging—that is, deceptive external propaganda for foreign ears twinned with authoritative internal-facing guidance for CCP members—comes naturally to the CCP. Here are just a few recent examples:
On Friday, Chinese leaders outwardly urged “peace talks” to resolve Russia’s war in Ukraine. At the same time, however, Beijing was conniving internally to provide Moscow with lethal arms that would prolong the most destructive European conflict since World War II. Publicly, Beijing feigns neutrality with calls for “respecting the sovereignty of all countries.” Behind closed doors, it has described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “a counterattack” and “the only action that could be taken.”
In December, Beijing announced “boosting domestic demand” and “confidence” as the top economic priority for 2023, which drove a stock market rally. Beijing dispatched emissaries to Davos to reassure international business leaders that the “rectification” campaigns that have obliterated many private businesses across China over the past couple of years are mostly over. Internally, however, Xi Jinping simultaneously issued an authoritative set of “side notes” that weren’t translated into English, and which call for deepening the Party-state’s control over Chinese companies. “[I]t is necessary to strengthen the Party’s overall leadership over economic work and adhere to the guidance of Xi Jinping’s economic thought,” the document intoned.
At the 20th Party Congress in October, as Xi awarded himself a second decade as China’s most powerful dictator since Mao Zedong, external-facing propaganda made comforting references to “Reform and Opening.” Internally, however, Xi was revising the Communist Party Charter to emphasize the Marxist-Leninist concept of “struggle”—that process of identifying, isolating, and mobilizing against the Party’s domestic and foreign adversaries.
Beijing’s doublethink is ubiquitous once you learn how to spot it. Concentration camps holding more than a million ethnic Uyghurs and other minorities are called “vocational training schools.” Beijing’s dismantling of the rule of law in Hong Kong and the jailing of local journalists is passed off as “one country, two systems.” The use of covert operations to interfere in foreign elections is hidden behind slogans advocating “a community of common destiny for mankind.” Special units of China’s premier spy agency which infiltrate and influence U.S. scholarly and policymaking circles are called “think tanks” and “civil-society organizations.”
Even a great magician would agree, however, that sleight of hand works best when the audience indulges a willingness to suspend disbelief. For too long, too many of us in the United States have done just that: We’ve indulged the wishful view that if we open our markets wider to China, transfer more of our technology, invest greater sums of money, and train more Chinese technocrats, government scientists, and military officers, we might finally persuade China’s leaders to see the world how we do. A policy of engagement, we told ourselves, would result sooner or later in the liberalization of China’s economy, society, and perhaps even its politics.
Given our remarkable, peaceful triumph over the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War three decades ago, it was once reasonable for us to believe Communism wouldn’t last all that much longer in China either. But Chinese leaders, we now know, have shown tremendous determination to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union, less by emulating democracies these days than by exploiting, outmaneuvering, and undermining them.
There’s no longer any excuse for being fooled about Beijing’s intentions. The canon of Chairman Xi’s publicly available statements is too voluminous, and the accumulated actions of his regime too brazen, to be misunderstood at this late hour. The proverbial fig leaf has blown away, exposing the regime and its deep hostility toward the democratic West and the liberal international order. What follows is a brief tour of the worldview of China’s supreme leader, followed by a few principles the United States and other democracies should adhere to in order to protect one another and counteract Chairman Xi’s autocratic vision.
7. My gratitude to Matthew Johnson of the Hoover Institution and David Feith of the Center for a New American Security for some of the insights contained here and in our co-authored essay in December 2022 in Foreign Affairs: “Xi Jinping In His Own Words.”]
“…CAPITALISM WILL INEVITABLY PERISH….”
Beijing’s rhetoric, particularly when it is directed at foreign audiences, is admittedly often confusing and ambiguous. But Chinese leaders’ most revealing statements are not the ones they make at Davos or the United Nations, but when they speak to their fellow CCP leaders. Chairman Xi’s internal speeches, which serve as guidance to the Party faithful, are sometimes kept secret for months or years before appearing in Chinese-language publications.
One key to understanding Xi is to look at his interpretations of history. It is well known that Vladimir Putin once declared the Soviet Union’s collapse to be the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century. Less widely understood is the extent to which the Soviet collapse also haunts Xi and how it functions as a fundamental guide to his actions.
In December 2012, just after becoming general secretary, Xi gave a closed-door speech to cadres in Guangdong Province, excerpts of which were leaked and published by a Chinese journalist in early 2013. Xi’s speech, framed as a cautionary tale, provided an early window into his worldview:
Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate? Why did the Soviet Communist Party collapse? An important reason was that their ideals and beliefs had been shaken. . . . It’s a profound lesson for us! To dismiss the history of the Soviet Union and the Soviet Communist Party, to dismiss Lenin and Stalin, and to dismiss everything else is to engage in historic nihilism, and it confuses our thoughts and undermines the Party’s organizations on all levels.
Xi’s mention of “historic nihilism” may have been an implicit criticism of the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, who had faulted the record of his predecessors. But the explicit villain in Xi’s speech was Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet leader whose perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (opening) reforms set the stage for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “A few people tried to save the Soviet Union,” Xi said. “They seized Gorbachev, but within days it was turned around again, because they didn’t have the tools of dictatorship. Nobody was man enough to stand up and resist.”
The phrase “the tools of dictatorship”—the idea that it is essential for the party and especially its top leader to control the military, the security apparatus, propaganda, government data, ideology, and the economy—would recur again and again in Xi’s speeches and official guidance over the next decade.
A month later, in January 2013, Xi gave another speech, effectively an inaugural address, to new members and alternate members of the CCP’s Central Committee, which is composed of China’s top few hundred highest-ranking officials. This speech, kept secret for six years, shows Xi directing the party-state in terms borrowed right from the Cold War:
Some people think that communism can be aspired to but never reached, or even think that it cannot be hoped for, cannot be envisioned, and is a complete illusion. . . . Facts have repeatedly told us that Marx and Engels’s analysis of the basic contradiction of capitalist society is not outdated, nor is the historical materialist view that capitalism will inevitably perish and socialism will inevitably triumph outdated. This is the irreversible overall trend of social and historical development, but the road is winding. The ultimate demise of capitalism, and ultimate triumph of socialism, will inevitably be a long historical process.
Three months after that, in April 2013, the Central Committee issued Document No. 9, an internal directive to party cadres that has proved to be a foundational text of the Xi era—systematic and strategic in its vision, hugely influential on the course of Chinese governance, and deeply hostile toward the West and Western ideas. Kept secret until it was leaked to overseas Chinese-language media in the summer of 2013, Document No. 9 was formally titled “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere.” It told an unambiguous story: Western countries conspire to infiltrate, subvert, and overthrow the CCP, so the party must stamp out Western “false ideological trends,” including constitutional democracy, the notion that Western values are universal, the concept of civil society, economic neoliberalism, journalistic independence, challenges to the party’s version of history, and competing interpretations of the party’s “reform and opening” agenda. “In the face of these threats,” exhorted Document No. 9, “we must not let down our guard or decrease our vigilance.”
Document No. 9 also warned of “color revolution.” This term originated in the first decade of this century, when a series of antiauthoritarian popular uprisings in former Soviet states became known by colorful names, including Georgia’s Rose Revolution (2003), Ukraine’s Orange Revolution (2004), and Kyrgyzstan’s Tulip Revolution (2005). Beijing began using the phrase to evoke the ever-present specter of Western-instigated subversion. As Document No. 9 put it, “Western anti-China forces” will always “point the spearhead of Westernization, division, and ‘color revolution’ at our country.”
BENEFITTING FROM EUROPEAN CHAOS
Xi, who often quotes Mao Zedong and paraphrases the ideas of Marx, Lenin, and Stalin, believes that we are today witnessing a “qualitative leap” in world affairs, where China has moved to center stage and the U.S.-anchored Western order is breaking down. As Xi said in a speech published in April 2021:
The world today is undergoing a great change in situation unseen in a century. Since the most recent period, the most important characteristic of the world is, in a word, “chaos,” and this trend appears likely to continue.
This theme, and its zero-sum implication that China stands to gain from American and European misfortune, recurs in internal-facing textbooks and official study guides to Xi Jinping Thought. It also helps put into context Beijing’s firm support for Vladimir Putin and his military ambitions in Europe. As one textbook for senior military officers put it in 2018:
At present, the world is undergoing profound unprecedented changes. The heart of the matter is that the United States is in decline, China is growing stronger, Russia is hardening, and Europe is in chaos.
8. 当前，世界进入前所未有的大变局，大变局的核心就是美国在变衰，中国在变强，俄罗斯在变硬，欧洲在变乱。Source: Ren Tianyou and Zhao Zhouxian (eds), Strategic Support for Achieving the Great Chinese Rejuvenation [实现中华民族伟大复兴的战略支撑] (Beijing: National Defense University Press, 2018), p.217.]
Xi depicts the current historical period as one of great risk and opportunity. It is his “historical mission” to exploit the inflection point and push history along its inexorable course through a process of “struggle.” Xi expanded on these ideas in an impassioned address to the Sixth Plenum meeting of Communist Party leaders in November 2021, lauding Mao’s 1950 decision to send “volunteers” across the Yalu River into Korea to fight the U.S. and UN forces commanded by U.S. General Douglas MacArthur.
Comrade Mao Zedong, with the . . . strategic foresight of “by starting with one punch, one hundred punches will be avoided,” and the determination and bravery of “do not hesitate to ruin the country internally in order to build it anew,” made the historical policy decision to resist America and aid Korea and protect the nation, avoid the dangerous situation of invaders camping at the gates, and defend the security of New China.
Xi’s speech made an equally strong endorsement of the CCP’s “decisive measures” to violently end the student protests at Tiananmen Square in 1989 and withstand “the pressure of Western countries’ so-called sanctions” that followed. This saved the party, in Xi’s telling, and today “the CCP, the People’s Republic of China, and the Chinese nation have the most reason to be self-confident” of any “political party, country, or nation” in the world.
Like many of Xi’s most aggressive and important statements, his Sixth Plenum speech was initially kept secret. It was delivered behind closed doors and published in Qiushi magazine nearly two months later. The CCP does not appear to have published an official English translation of it, and the speech was all but ignored by Western news outlets.
But just over a year later, its implications have become clear: regardless of near-term economic considerations for China, Xi is being guided by ideology and his firmly held diagnosis that the West is declining and that Beijing, led forcefully by Xi himself, must take risks and act decisively to assert new spheres of influence and build a world conducive to Marxist autocracy.
MARXIST MEANS AND ENDS
Xi Jinping Thought makes clear that Marxism is not just the means to achieving global supremacy but also the goal of that supremacy. “Marxism is not to be kept hidden in books. It was created in order to change the destiny of human history,” Xi said in 2018 while presiding over Marx’s 200th birthday celebration in Beijing—an event surrounded by weeks of propaganda and publications timed to establish Xi as the designated heir to Marx, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao.
This phrasing evoked a major foreign policy initiative that Xi has embraced called “A Community of Common Destiny for Mankind,” which aims to shape the global environment in ways favorable to Beijing’s authoritarian model. (The ominous-sounding term “common destiny” is often misleadingly translated by the CCP into the more anodyne English phrase “shared future.”) Xi’s 2018 speech made clear that the initiative and Marx’s vision of a stateless, collectivized world are linked.
“Just like Marx, we must struggle for communism our entire lives,” Xi said. “A collectivized world is just there, over [the horizon]. Whoever rejects that world will be rejected by the world.”
Passages from internal textbooks on Xi Jinping Thought, cited in Ian Easton’s 2022 book, The Final Struggle: Inside China’s Global Strategy, underscore the idea that overturning U.S. leadership around the globe is only one phase of Xi’s plan. Xi also seeks to upend the concept of equal and sovereign states that emerged from Europe four centuries ago and is the cornerstone of international relations, according to the texts. As one of them, Strategic Support for Achieving the Great Chinese Rejuvenation, explains:
The Westphalian System was founded on the notion of a balance of power. But it has proven unable to achieve a stable world order. All mankind needs a new order that surpasses and supplants the balance of power. Today, the age in which a few strong Western powers could work together to decide world affairs is already gone and will not come back. A new world order is now under construction that will surpass and supplant the Westphalian System.
This and the other textbooks leave little doubt that the system that replaces the 1648 Treaties of Westphalia must be the socialist and autocratic model made in China. “As we push for the fusion of the world’s civilizations on the basis of developing our nation’s unique civilization, there are several things that must be done,” reads one passage. “[We] must insist on taking the road of development with Chinese cultural characteristics. . . . And we must insist on our principles and our bottom line as we actively engage with others.”
Another quotes Xi’s starkly zero-sum thinking directly: “Xi Jinping has emphasized that our state’s ideology and social system are fundamentally incompatible with the West. Xi has said ‘This determines that our struggle and contest with Western countries is irreconcilable, so it will inevitably be long, complicated, and sometimes even very sharp.’”
CONSTRAINING XI’S BIG AMBITIONS
Granted, Beijing’s aspirations, like Moscow’s, may be greater than what it can realistically accomplish. But Xi, like the man he has described as his “best, most intimate friend,” Russian President Vladimir Putin, does not seem to believe that his reach exceeds his grasp. Here are a few principles I believe are worth bearing in mind as your committee goes about its essential and bipartisan work of protecting our democracy and our sovereignty.
Protect the rights of Chinese Americans. Protect, also, Chinese nationals studying and working in the United States so they can enjoy the freedoms that so starkly distinguish the American way of life from the increasingly oppressive atmosphere in China today. This means standing up against bigotry and discrimination here at home. It also means standing up against the Chinese Communist Party’s activities inside our borders to censor, intimidate, and coerce people—particularly people of Chinese descent. It does this through coordinated attacks over social media, through threats to people’s relatives back in China, and through members of the security apparatus sent to people’s doors here in America. Beijing reportedly even has extraterritorial police stations on U.S. soil. We should always distinguish between the CCP on the one hand, and China and the Chinese people on the other.
Keep high-level channels open with Beijing. This is to help prevent Xi from making grave miscalculations—an occupational hazard for long-serving dictators, as his friend Putin reminds us. But let’s not kid ourselves that Beijing is interested in pursuing cooperation with us for the greater global good. When I was in office, I made good-faith efforts to start a cooperative dialogue with Beijing on pandemic prevention back in 2018. Beijing wouldn’t even share flu samples with the World Health Organization as member states are obliged to do. I got the impression that Beijing viewed our desire for cooperation as a point of leverage for Beijing to extract concessions from Washington having nothing to do with public health. This is the way that Leninist regimes think. Whether it is protecting our oceans from pollution or our climate from hotter temperatures, or stopping flows of fentanyl and laundered money, or mitigating against natural pandemics or catastrophic accidents in laboratories, we will usually find that the CCP, far from helping, is often a leading cause of these problems.
To impose steep costs on Beijing’s actions that harm us and our allies isn’t provocative—it is stabilizing. Some policy pundits tend to see the CCP as a romantic partner who has been wronged, and who needs to be soothed and reassured and treated to “trust-building” measures as a way of stabilizing the relationship. This is inaccurate. The CCP should be thought of as a hungry shark that will keep eating until its nose bumps into a metal barrier. Sharks aren’t responsive to mood music. But nor do they take it personally when they see divers building a shark cage. For them it’s just business. It’s what they do. The more resolutely and unapologetically we take steps to defend our national security, the more that boundaries will be respected and the more stable the balance of power is likely to be. One of the paradoxes of Marxist-Leninist dictatorships is that the more comfortable they are, the more aggressive they become. Gratuitous efforts to reassure Beijing are sure to be taken as signs of weakness. It does us little good to repeat again and again that we aren’t seeking a new Cold War when the CCP has been stealthily waging one against us for years.
It would be better to constrain and temper Xi’s ambitions now—through robust, coordinated military deterrence (including an urgent expansion of our defense industrial capacity) and through strict limits on China’s access to technology, capital, and data controlled by the United States and its allies. That’s better than waiting until he has taken fateful and irrevocable steps, such as attacking Taiwan, that would lead to a superpower conflict. The war in Ukraine offers constant reminders that deterrence is far preferable to “rollback.”
A policy of “constrainment” could be helpful in this regard. Unlike containment, constrainment accounts for the current realities of economic interdependence and seeks to tilt them to Washington’s advantage. Constrainment should seek to puncture Beijing’s confidence that it can achieve its aims through war. It should also sap Beijing’s optimism that it can decisively accumulate coercive economic leverage over the United States and other democracies. The Biden Administration’s October 7 export controls on semiconductor-making equipment are useful steps in this direction. Beijing currently must import hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of chips annually—a dependence that Washington should work to sustain. The most important elements of the new rules are limits on the export of chip-making equipment and U.S. skilled labor to China. If enforced diligently, the rules will foil Xi’s ambition to make China the world’s largest chipmaker and erode his goal of commanding high-tech supply chains. To put it in 20th Century terms, our goal shouldn’t be to cut off Beijing’s access to oil, but to foil Beijing’s goal of becoming OPEC.
The “main battleground,” to borrow Xi’s term, where the United States and other free nations should be winning, but are in fact losing, is in information warfare. Beijing employs many varieties of information warfare, from “united front” activities, to “cognitive warfare,” to “deep fakes.” I hope this committee commissions a glossary defining these forms of warfare. Xi has invested billions of dollars into these techniques to enhance what he calls China’s “discourse power”—the power to shape perceptions and narratives worldwide to whitewash China’s record and to disintegrate free people’s faith in their fellow citizens and in democracy itself. We need to go on the offense and the defense simultaneously. Right now we are doing neither. Free societies need not employ disinformation. We need only keep Beijing’s platforms from manipulating our discourse at home, while we make it easier for Chinese citizens to communicate safely with one another and with the outside world.
- Matt Pottinger, The Chinese Communist Party’s Threat to America, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, 28 February 2023
The China Consensus: Do Almost Nothing
2 March 2023
There was plenty of China talk in February – Republican-run Congressional hearings, Democratic-run hearings, and new information from the Biden administration. Of course it takes time to turn talk into actions. But it’s unlikely the actions will be meaningful. The famous bipartisan China consensus is to rant and rave, and not do anything that might actually come at a price.
The People’s Republic of China has the world’s 2nd largest economy, 2nd most powerful military, and is led by a dictator-for-life who intentionally hearkens back to a man who caused mass starvation. Winning even a peaceful contest would require sacrifices. Preparing for conflict to try to deter Xi Jinping requires more. Sacrifice is not what most American politicians have in mind. Instead, they spout anti-China rhetoric, while angling for a contest of convenience.
The Department of Commerce called for tens of billions of dollars to vastly boost domestic semiconductor production, as a vital national interest. Given China’s intent to globally dominate at least low-end chips, they may have been right. But it turns out that’s not enough of a goal, challenging as it will be. Commerce also wants better daycare as part of the package. This, of course, will reduce willingness to produce here, undermining what was supposed to be the point.
The administration has treated supply chains similarly, combining necessary and difficult steps to secure chains with political priorities that make doing so even more difficult. While using China as cover for standard policies is no surprise, it means far less gets done. Export controls on semiconductors were announced to great fanfare last October, with promises of more to come. Five months later, we don’t have final rules just for chips.
In licensing, Commerce has gone from terrible to perhaps mediocre. Last year, it accepted 70 percent of applications to export controlled items to the PRC. Not exactly tight restrictions but this still appears to be a substantial improvement over the Trump Commerce Department performance, where the number may have been over 90 percent. “Trade war.”
In the past, at least, part of the blame has been with the Congress. Being placed on the Entity List just requires a license application, but many Members of Congress have for years pretended it’s a “blacklist” blocking business with designated firms. Instead, tens of billions worth in licenses were granted to these firms, with most also eligible for American investment. The Entity List has always been fraudulent, and Congress has to now willingly accepted that.
Will the House Select Committee on China mean the US gets more serious? Doubtful. The Select Committee has members intensely concerned about competing with the PRC. And they have allies elsewhere in Congress. But the Select Committee also has no jurisdiction – it can only talk, not act. This is the ideal outcome for those who want to milk China politically while having no obligation at all to back up their words.
Possibly the most important House committee, Financial Services, held a China hearing in early February. According to the Republican chairman and Republican-called witnesses, the top China threat is actually the US responding in any serious way to China. The US should face up to the military buildup, domestic and international repression, and economic predation by, for example, continuing to invest freely in the PRC.
With this from some Republicans, the Biden administration feels no pressure to genuinely compete. An executive order is many months overdue to address the $1+ trillion of money the US has invested in the PRC. It may prove almost entirely empty. Mass subsidies by Beijing – can we pretend we never brought those up? No political consequences from doing nearly nothing means nearly nothing gets done.
Other consequences are coming. China will steal IP, subsidize production using that IP and drive advanced American companies out of business. It will spread repression. It will more intensely target Taiwan. Policy-makers who take this seriously must propose responses that involve some pain, because that’s what’s required for the US to win. Policy-makers who don’t take China seriously are easy to spot. They’ll be pushing some domestic agenda, tilting at windmills, and, above all, talking.
- Derek Scissors, The China Consensus: Do Almost Nothing, AEI, 2 March 2023
A more hawkish China policy? 5 takeaways from House committee’s inaugural hearing on confronting Beijing
2 March 2023
In a rare show of bipartisanship, Republican and Democratic House members put on a united front as they probed how to respond to the perceived growing threat of China.
The inaugural hearing of the Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party comes at a delicate time – amid concerns in the U.S. over Chinese espionage and tensions over Taiwan and China’s position on the Ukraine war.
Michael Beckley, an expert on U.S.-China relations at Tufts University, was among those watching on as witnesses gave evidence during the committee’s prime-time session. Here are his takeaways from what was discussed.
1. The days of engagement are over
What was abundantly clear from the lawmakers was the message that the era of engagement with China is long past its sell-by date.
Engagement had been the policy of successive government from Nixon’s landmark visit to China in 1972 onward. But there was a general acceptance among committee members that the policy is outdated and that it is time to adopt if not outright containment then certainly a more competitive policy. This would include “selective decoupling” – that is, the disentangling – of technology and economic interests, along with a more robust stance on confronting China’s military and providing a barrier to Chinese conquest in East Asia.
This proposed hardening of the U.S. policy is driven by internal developments in China as well as any perceived external threat. President Xi Jinping is viewed as having installed himself as “dictator for life” and created an Orwellian internal control system, complete with concentration camps and hundreds of millions of security cameras all over the country; this is a regime that is only becoming more authoritarian as the years go by. It has dispelled any idea that with its economic opening China would also become a more open society.
And the committee appears to want to set course for the long term, not just for the near future. The general idea is U.S. policy over the next 10 years could determine the relationship between the U.S. and China for the next century. Rep. Mike Gallagher, the panel’s Republican chair, said as much in his opening comments: “This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century – and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.”
2. Reframing the debate
As Gallagher’s remarks suggest, the panel implied that U.S. issues with China do not boil down to just disagreement over a few issues. Rather, it was framed as a battle between two very different visions of society.
The committee is clearly modeled on the Jan. 6 House panel – for example, by airing hearings in prime time and with dramatic testimony from witnesses. The idea seems to be that the issue is of such importance that to pursue it successfully the U.S. public needs to be educated, invested and mobilized. To that end, the inaugural session had testimony from an activist jailed for two years for supporting pro-democracy movements. The point was to get across the idea that the way of life that the U.S. is trying to promote – both at home and abroad – is antithetical to that of the Chinese Communist Party.
President Joe Biden has similarly framed his administration’s policy around the idea that this is an epic struggle between democracy and autocracy. Indeed, in some ways Biden has been more hawkish than previous presidents on China. In terms of tightening economic restrictions on China and stressing U.S. concerns over China’s human rights record, Biden has picked up the baton from his predecessors and run with it.
But the panel was keen to stress this as a bipartisan push for a more hawkish policy. And this is important. It gives the panel’s recommendations more heft, especially as the U.S. heads into the 2024 presidential race, during which both parties will be looking to stress how tough they are on the U.S.‘s adversaries.
3. Confronting China’s leaders, not its people
Although framed as a battle between democracy and autocracy, the panel appears conscious that the debate shouldn’t be framed as a clash of Western and Asian civilizations.
With anti-Asian sentiment having risen during the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. lawmakers are walking a fine line here – they will need to focus any criticism on Chinese leaders rather than its people. Gallagher made this point, noting: “We must constantly distinguish between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people themselves, who have always been the party’s primary victims.”
This balancing act may be more difficult in future hearings when issues of Chinese students at U.S. universities, immigration and cooperation with China on certain scientific issues come up. That is when they will need to weigh concerns over Chinese espionage against not coming across as anti-Chinese visitors and immigrants.
4. Reshaping policy on three fronts
Although this first hearing was very much a table-setter, there were three broad policy recommendations implicit in the testimony:
- Taiwan – The panel heard evidence suggesting that the U.S. needs to mobilize for the potential of a hot war with China over the island of Taiwan, the status of which is contested. Former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told the panel that in regards to China, the next two years would be a particularly “dangerous” period. He suggested that U.S. capabilities to deter an invasion of Taiwan were not adequate. Meanwhile, there were mentions of a backlog in weapon sales to Taiwan. And as the war in Ukraine has underscored, there is an imperative to get weapons on the ground before any shooting starts.
- Economic competitiveness – The panel heard evidence from the U.S. National Association of Manufacturers pointing out how China had stacked global trade in its favor through unfair subsidies and corporate espionage. To improve America’s competitiveness, the panel could look at recommending the expansion of export controls or tax reforms to make U.S. products more competitive. The U.S. is also eyeing a strategic decoupling with China on the economic front, which is encouraging U.S. businesses to divest from Chinese operations and restricting Chinese businesses operating in the U.S., such as the social media platform TikTok.
- Human rights – The committee made it clear that human rights should be front and center in the U.S. China policy going forward. The hearing repeatedly stressed that this was not just an economic and security disagreement but a clash of values.
5. A boilerplate response from Beijing
China’s response to the committee’s inaugural hearing was standard.
In a statement, the foreign ministry in Beijing said it rejected Washington’s attempt to engage in what it called a “Cold War” mindset. Chinese media also tried to make it sound as if anti-China policy is driven by special interests, including defense contractors and members of the Taiwanese diaspora.
The narrative that the U.S. is warmongering was aided by the interjection of two protesters from the Code Pink activist group, who held up a sign during the hearing stating that “China is not our enemy.”
- Michael Beckley, A more hawkish China policy? 5 takeaways from House committee’s inaugural hearing on confronting Beijing, The Conversation, 2 March 2023