How the world's greatest 15th-century navy is linked to the game-playing robot that put Beijing's AI visions into overdrive.
This week on the program, we’re going to continue our exploration of the U.S.-China relationship, which we began last week with our investigation into the history of tensions between the U.S. and Chinese navies in and around the South China Sea.
This week we turn our attention to the future. Specifically the how the Chinese Communist Party views its future. Because the more we spoke with analysts and observers about the South China Sea, the more we heard we ought to look not only at that troubled body of water you can spot on a map — but also to the fundamental differences in how China’s leadership views the world, how it views competition with the United States and its allies, and perhaps most importantly, how Chinese leaders view power, control and history.
This episode is broken up into three chapters (find a transcript below):
- Staying in power (at the 1:24 mark);
- Revising history (19:57);
- Some thoughts about how to move forward (37:53).
Like last week, our guests include Samantha Hoffman of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute; Elsa Kania of the Center for a New American Security; Greg Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Andrew Wilson of the U.S. Naval War College (not speaking on behalf of the Navy or the Defense Department); and Pamela Crossley of Dartmouth University. Special thanks as well this week to Paulina Glass. Music by Terry-Devine King, Chris Blackwell and Tim Garland via AudioNetwork.com
Related reading: "Social Credit" by Samantha Hoffman via ASPI; "Xi’s China Is Steamrolling Its Own History," by Pamela Crossley via Foreign Policy; and "Battlefield Singularity Artificial Intelligence, Military Revolution, and China’s Future Military Power" by Elsa Kania via CNAS.
Did you miss part one? You can listen to it immediately below. (Find a transcript of part one here.)
A transcription of this week’s episode follows:
We’re going to continue our exploration of the U.S.-China relationship — which we began last week with our investigation into the history of tensions between the U.S. and Chinese navies in and around the South China Sea.
This week, we turn our attention to the future. Specifically the how the Chinese Communist Party views its future. Because the more I spoke with analysts and observers about the South China Sea, the more I heard we ought to look not only at that troubled body of water you can spot on a map — but also to the fundamental differences in how China’s leadership views the world, how it views competition with the United States and its allies, and perhaps most importantly, how Chinese leaders view power, control and history.
It’s a story of what would seem to be fundamentally different perspectives, approaches and values. Of underappreciated journeys from our vantage point here in the West, and problematic historic legacies for Beijing.
It’s also a story of aging populations, disruptive technologies, and multiple elements of national power that are easy to take for granted from afar — and perhaps even more easily misunderstood.
This episode’s title: The Chinese Communist Party’s vision and the future of Chinese history. Let’s begin.
Chapter one: Staying in power.
On this very week in 1950, the leaders of the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China announced to the world that the two Communist countries had each others’ back. The leaders of the Soviet Union and China — Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong, respectively — had just signed a mutual defense and assistance treaty. The announcement triggered immediate concern in Washington about the spread of Communism worldwide, especially in Korea and Vietnam.
But the Sino-Soviet chuminess would not last forever. By 1965, a year after China tested its first nuclear weapon, Mao turned on Moscow and accused it of allying with Washington against China and his so-called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
That movement by Mao to, in his view, purify and strengthen Communist ideology in China — by enslaving, torturing and sometimes killing dissidents and people who weren’t really into the Communist personality cult of Mao — that hyper-controlling movement is believed by historians today to have caused the deaths of at least a million and a half people across China.
But China in 2019 is of course dramatically different in many, many ways. It has incredible economic power, perhaps most importantly today. Millions of the country’s 1.4 billion people have risen out of poverty since the death of Mao in 1976 and the decades after China’s gradual integration into what’s become a global economy.
One thing unchanged in all this: the Communist Party remains in power, it remains the country’s decision-makers across all of China today.
The thing that’s changing about that, according to scholars and experts we spoke with: some of those 20th century control tactics appear to be returning. You may have heard of the so-called social credit system that just launched across China?
Here’s Dr. Samantha Hoffman, an analyst in Chinese security and politics with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
Hoffman: “There’s a concept that a lot of what the Party’s doing right now is based on is called social management. But it’s ultimately about the Party’s political control. So it’s a process that is both co-opting people and coercing people to participate, in the Party’s language, in their own management so that they uphold the Party’s political power. It’s a process that’s aimed at Party state security. And Party state security — I say that instead of national security. Because you aren’t talking about domestic security versus foreign security. You’re talking about both. Both the Party’s internal security managing itself, and the Party managing its power. And so really it’s a complex idea. But it really dates back to the Mao era.”
Watson: “60s, 70s?”
Hoffman: “Even further back. It’s an idea in the Mao era — Mao called this the ‘mass line.’ And it’s the idea of essentially taking the, in his jargon, taking the scattered and unsystematic idea of the masses, and then the Party reforming them and then feeding it back to the masses. It’s Leninist. It boils down to this idea of people and Party itself participating in their own management. And getting people to do what the Party wants in order for the Party to stay in power. The way this worked really in the Mao era was you’re talking about ideological mobilization. That that no longer worked after the Cultural Revolution, the beginning of the reform era. So then it becomes how do we make this process work, but no longer relying only on ideological mobilization? So then that’s where technology comes in. And so technology — anywhere from aspects of the surveillance state to something like a social credit system — are all doing these same things, they’re augmenting those processes. And so what you get today is not fundamentally new, but it’s terrifying because it’s adding a layer that makes the process of data collection more efficient, the potential for integration of data to be more effective, and the potential for that to impact every aspect of your life, whether or not you’re in China also if you’re a Chinese citizen living overseas — you know it makes all of those processes more effective than they’ve ever been in the past, even though those processes existed before.”
Wilson: “China is, while it has embraced capitalism and some elements of the free market, it is not a free society. It is a deeply illiberal and authoritarian system. So whereas our military can think about the away games, almost everything that the PLA thinks about is domestic. Another thing that I think is notable about the history of the PLA that everyone should know is that it’s a party military; it is not a national military like the United States Army, Navy and Air Force. They take an oath to the Chinese Communist Party, not to the constitution. And while our military officers are completely comfortable thinking about our military being an instrument of policy, they tend not to think of it as an overtly political thing. And the Chinese military, or the PLA, is almost exclusively a political thing. So that’s something that distinguishes it. And that’s just sort of foundational to its history and to its nature now. And if anything, the reforms that Xi Jinping has been pushing through has been an effort both to streamline the command and control apparatus to bring much-needed reforms to try to deal with some of the mind-boggling corruption within the institution, primarily it’s about making sure that the military does the Party’s bidding, and does the bidding of the general secretary first and foremost. Unfortunately that also means it’s geared towards doing the bidding of this particular general secretary but that’s another story. So yeah, to understand it’s a Party military first and foremost is I think it’s absolutely crucial.”
You may remember in our last episode we spoke to Elsa Kania, with the Technology and National Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. She, too, is worried about what could come from the intersection of technology and state control from Chinese Communist Party leaders today.
Kania: “As Chinese tech companies are intimately involved in the development of these technologies and often making a lot of money off of close collaborations with the Chinese government on public security and policing including in places like Xinjiang. It’s a tragic situation and one in which the repression often happens through very low tech and old-fashioned means even of literally incarcerating seemingly hundreds of thousands, if not by some estimates over a million people in camps; but there’s also a high tech dimension including pervasive facial recognition, even the use of biometrics So I think the ways in which Xinjiang can be used as a laboratory of sorts it’s I think a dark view of what the future of AI could be in the hands of governments with very authoritarian tendencies. And what’s concerning in particular is that I don’t think this will stop in Xinjiang.”
Indeed, it already appears to have extended well beyond Xinjiang, as Hoffman notes.
Hoffman: “The issue with something like social credit, for instance, is that overseas Chinese are going to be given a unified social credit code, which means that although overseas Chinese have always never been outside of the reach of the party, by having a code and then having that information potentially attached to a record about them become more automated, it makes it easier to make people think that everything that they’re doing even when they’re outside of China is affecting their lives in China. And that already happens; you can read a lot of articles about that happening to Uighurs right now. Uighurs who think that they’ve escaped still have to be careful, particularly if they have family in China. So the processes aren’t new. The technology makes them more efficient. Another issue is companies. So we saw this social credit used for political means last year with airlines. United Airlines and I think it was 32 other airlines were given letters that said. I think the letters came out, I’m gonna get my dates wrong, but something around February was the first notification last year. And I think April was the warning that said if you don’t change your websites to say that Taiwan is essentially a part of China—”
Watson:“I remember this now.”
Hoffman: “And then I think the White House released a statement at the time, ‘Orwellian nonsense.’ That might be what you remember. And if you don’t change the way that you’re referring to it on your websites, then you would be considered seriously dishonest for not following this order that we’ve issued. And because of that, that record of your serious dishonesty would be recorded on your civil aviation credit record. And that civil aviation credit record would be attached to your business license and your right to operate in China. And then that credit record would be linked to Credit China and several other credit websites if they didn’t follow through with making these changes. And in the end, all of the airlines did have to make the changes. And the U.S. airlines they tried and a couple of other airlines tried to see if they could make a China-specific website, but that wasn’t the goal. The Party’s goal — the Party said, ‘No, that’s not okay. That doesn’t solve the problem. You have to change your websites.’ And what does that do for Taiwan? Well, that creates more ambiguity about Taiwan’s status over time. For the companies, it’s not that having a political demand about Taiwan is necessarily new; but the way that it’s attached to the right to operate and attached to things they’re doing far outside of China — because these are international websites for global clients — that’s something different that the technology’s doing. And then that’s changing over time the way people perceive Taiwan and Taiwan’s status, which actually the CCP’s been fairly effective with over the years.”
And all that is just one element of a term that’s been showing up in lot more discussions about China today. That word is “techno-authoritarianism,” a reference to surveillance technology that may be in a lot more places than you thought. Beyond the detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang, for example.
Here’s Hoffman again.
Hoffman: “It’s a pretty good term. I think I prefer to refer to what the Chinese Communist Party is doing as technology-enhanced or technology-augmented authoritarianism — because you’re talking about the processes the Chinese Communist Party has been engaged in for decades being augmented through technology.”
Kania: “So for instance the Sharp Eyes Program to expand facial recognition and surveillance, a number of different initiatives at the local level, including in major cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where the presence of these sorts of surveillance capabilities is starting to become ever more pervasive.
Watson: “Are some of these already making their way outside of China’s borders and to other states, other customers?”
Kania: “Absolutely, and I think this is where the China model, so to speak, may have concerning implications worldwide insofar as Chinese tech companies are actively exporting these same technologies. Police in Malaysia, for instance, have started using glasses for facial recognition. There’s been a strategic partnership between a company called CloudWalk and the government in Zimbabwe focused on facial recognition, which coincidentally also provides the company with access to data, which is helpful for AI development. Because diversity of data does matter for an application like facial recognition.”
Hoffman: “And so one of the things that I cite in a report that I did for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute back in June of last year, June 2018, is how smart cities technology being used actually in Central Asia for Belt and Road initiative projects is used to collect data. And then that data is, in theory, supposed to be sent back to China for analysis to improve the Party’s situational awareness. But they talk about these issues — if you go through and read the documents — what officials are saying, they’re talking about this being used to improve China’s discourse power in a very political sense. So it’s again it’s about the Party’s political security. It’s also about economic development — normal things that you would collect data for that you would try to improve your awareness. But then that same exact data that’s used to inform—”
Watson: “Dual use.”
Hoffman: “Yeah. Dual use to inform, say, a rail project or a port project or something like that would also be used to inform political decision-making because they talk about, for instance, using data from Confucius Institutes. Or data collected using automatic translation technologies to improve their understanding of Turkic languages and then understanding the political risk in the region in order to be able to shape how people think about what the CCP is doing. And in a sense, that could not always be bad; but like all things with the Party, everything’s about political security.”
Another consideration if current trends continue?
Wilson: “A new Asian regional order would be fundamentally illiberal, would be counter to our values, but also to the values of many of the countries in the region that have you know fully embraced the liberal international order. So I think a region that China saw that as exclusively its own would not be good for the world and would not be good for that region. So that’s a significant downside.”
You might ask why Chinese leaders are so keen on surveillance technology, quantum research and artificial intelligence? Some credit current leader Xi Jinping and his so-called “Made in China 2025” economic push. Here’s Kania again.
Kania: “Actually inspired by Germany’s ‘Industry 4.0,’ so the idea is not all that unique. But essentially the objective it articulates is for China to become a manufacturing superpower and to move up the value chain in terms of manufacturing, including through a focus on intelligent manufacturing — robotics, electric vehicles. There’s also been launch, under the National Science and Technology Innovation Plan, of 15 different megaprojects, or major projects, prioritized for advancements by 2030. This also includes things like China’s Deep Space Station, quantum computing and communications, And achieve an advantage at a time when the U.S. has not yet established dominance in these fields. So things like robotics, supercomputing, artificial intelligence and autonomy, biotechnology as well. These are all fields where China is heavily investing often to the magnitude of billions or tens of billions, And this could be characterized as a, almost a brute-force approach, often pouring massive amounts of resources into fields that are seen as strategically important. This may not always be very efficient; but in some cases, it could prove effective nonetheless.”
Watson: “Kind of like our Manhattan Project, maybe?”
Kania: “Yeah, so I think the Manhattan Project is not a bad analogy. But in many respects China does seem to have a number of these — quantum computing among them given the National Laboratory that’s under construction. And a lot of this could be caricatured as a purely state-driven model and one that’s doomed to fail, as did the Soviet Union’s approach to planning and industrial policy. I think there are aspects of China’s approach to initiatives like China’s ‘Made in China 2025’ that are problematic and unlikely to succeed in their entirety; but there also may be some successes given concurrent mobilization of talent and the active participation of tech companies that have often emerged as global leaders in these fields in their own right.”
And China’s enthusiasm for facial recognition, AI and emerging technology that could complement those two? That really seemed to have gotten a boost in just the past three years, according to Kania.
Kania: “The PLA’s apparent level of enthusiasm about AI can be traced in part back to Alpha Go in the Spring of 2016, which was not just notable because it involved an AI solving the game of Go — by some accounts 10 to 15 years before anyone thought that was possible — it was also seemingly an indication that in a game that is, in a sense, a wargame, or at least involves complex tactics and strategizing, that they are not too dissimilar from war. And AI could develop tactics that humans never envisioned in [the] human history of playing the game. So one of the lessons the PLA seem to have drawn from that is that applying AI to command decision-making. But increasingly today, the PLA seems to be more actively exploring these options — improving their own training and testing of concepts, for instance using AI to better simulate a blue force — their equivalent of red team, blue being us. So there have actually been a couple wargaming tournaments organized by the Chinese military, including their National Defense University, that have used an AI system for wargaming. And I think we’ll expect to see more developments on that front and also, of course, given that the PLA is a military that lacks combat experience in its recent history, they’re trying to learn without fighting, in a sense.”
And the potential for a fight is the concern that runs beneath all that we’ve been talking about with these episodes on the South China Sea and a rising China.
Which leads us to chapter two.
How does China view its rise and some of the things that could maybe get in the way of that rise? Here’s Greg Poling from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Poling: “For the better part of the last century, Chinese education — patriotic education — certainly post-Tiananmen has focused on the idea that China was taken advantage of by the Western powers and that the great project of the Chinese nation now is to right those wrongs. Part of that is the perception that imperial powers picked apart the Chinese nation, carving off chunks of territory, establishing special concessions with extra-legal rights and et cetera — Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau. You know the return of Hong Kong and Macau was a big victory for the CCP. The South China Sea has been shoehorned into that narrative. Now it doesn’t matter when we’re talking about Chinese motivators, it really doesn’t matter that China never administered the South China Sea. That if you look at Qing dynasty maps and documents, its clear that the Qing dynasty considered Hainan [island] to be the southern end of China. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that it’s now become part of the narrative. And the historical narrative matters much more than the actual history.”
That’s something I heard more and more of as I spoke to experts and U.S. military personnel about their perception of the U.S.-China relationship.
One prime example from the historical record: the legendary tale of 15th-century Chinese Adm. Zheng He. It’s an almost unbelievable story of Chinese naval power and really of unprecedented Chinese influence across the world. It also happened to take place as China transitioned from one epic empire — the Ming — to another, the Qing, right around the time these legendary voyages returned back to the so-called Middle Kingdom.
Wilson: “Adm. Zheng He. It’s a fascinating story if only for the audacity of what the Ming dynasty at the time — sort of the early 1400s — was trying to pull off. But the analogy has become very popular in China...”
Poling: “So Zheng He was a prominent admiral of the Ming court.* The colorful part of the story was that he was a Muslim, a eunuch, a favorite of some in the court, and not so much of others and eventually kind of fell to court intrigue, as all good Ming dynasty stories end. But he organized a series of what have come to be known as treasure voyages, or tribute voyages where he would put together these massive fleets — massive by the standard of the time anyway — sail through southeast Asia, south Asia, all the way to east Africa, you know, flying the flag so to speak. Showing off Ming dynasty goods, and collecting tribute in turn to you know the Middle Kingdom. So he completes the voyages and was largely the high-water mark for kind of China going out in the world.”
Wilson: “And the idea’s that in China in the early 1400s had the greatest navy on earth. It had the medieval equivalent of aircraft carriers. And yet it didn’t use those aircraft carriers, it didn’t use these great treasure ships to engage in gunboat diplomacy. Adm. Zheng sailed into the Western oceans, through the South China Sea, into the Indian Ocean as far away as the east coast of Africa, merely to spread wealth, to spread treasure — gifts from the Ming emperor. It was peaceful, it was about building a community of nations that would share and trade with each other and exchange gifts. And it was all — this is the parable for China’s peaceful rise. That China does not seek to act like imperial powers of old. Because, ‘See, we could have. We had the greatest navy on the earth. We were the richest country on the planet. We had the biggest military on the planet. And yet we didn’t dictate to others. Therefore a rising China, a China with a new navy in the 21st century will act like you know the Ming dynasty did of old.’ So that’s the parable.”
Crossley: “One of the tasks he was commissioned with was to collect back taxes from Chinese who had settled through the island parts of southeast Asia. The Zheng He voyages were not voyages of exploration. They were for purposes of commerce in general, going around promoting trade with Ming China. But they were also accompanied by this contingent of marines. And when necessary, they would get forceful. And so the idea that this was a voyage of friendship and that Zheng He was just going around delivering messages of love and good will from the Ming emperor, there was a little bit of that in these statements he would present. But in general, the point here was commerce and when possible recouping revenue from Chinese who had strayed outside the borders of the country.”
Poling: “After that, the Ming dynasty becomes embroiled in invasion from the north. The Qing dynasty is largely isolationist, inward-facing. I mean Chinese merchants were forbidden from trading with the outside world. The only people still operating in the South China Sea or the East China Sea from China were fisherman. That didn’t really change until the 20th century. I mean that really didn’t change until the late 20th century, to be clear. In early nationalist China as well as under Communist China, the navy was you know a riverine force and could operate within sight of the coast and that was about it. I mean the RoC, the Republic of China, in 1946 the vessels that it used to land in the Paracels and at what is now Itu Aba in the Spratlys were U.S. Navy ships on loan to them. There was no Chinese navy. So Zheng He has now been — as with other things in Chinese history — kind of molded and shoehorned into this modern Communist narrative of retaking lost territories. And so part of that is saying that basically because Zheng He sailed through the South China Sea, the South China Sea was Chinese. Now how that makes sense, I don’t know. Zheng He sailed through the Indian Ocean and they don’t consider the Indian Ocean to be Chinese.”
Wilson: “That’s the story that gets told by my Chinese friends when Adm. Zheng He comes up. And I hold my tongue for a while. And then I counter with, ‘Well no, that’s not quite what was going on.’ There was a fair bit of gunboat diplomacy employed by Adm. Zheng He. True, they weren’t going off looking to colonize the wider world. But it was still an effort to insert the Chinese military into the maritime world in a very, very aggressive way. It was a classic example of imperial overreach. And I don’t think it’s a model worth emulating.”
Watson: “Well tell me, there were no voyages after that, right? Granted there were seven in about three decades.”
Wilson: “There were seven by that — under the command of that one admiral. There was actually a bunch of other — there wasn’t just the one treasure fleet. And even the treasure fleet was composed of several sort of sub-fleets. But yeah, that wasn’t the only thing that the Chinese navy was doing on the ocean seas at that time. But it is true that after those voyages, that set of voyages ended in the 1430s, that the Chinese state did not retain that kind of overwhelming focus on the oceans. Although it did maintain a significant ability to project power in its immediate maritime environment. But the problem is that for the folks looking at Chinese maritime history, everything is eclipsed by Zheng He.”
Poling: “Let’s say that I want to be as sympathetic as I can to the Chinese narrative — maybe Zheng He, even though it’s not written down anywhere, maybe he actually did stop in the Paracels or Scarborough or Spratlys, who knows, took on supplies and fresh water even though there’s very little of either of those in those locations. It wouldn’t matter. The fact that you saw something doesn’t make it yours. The fact that you put it on a map doesn’t make it yours. I mean by that logic, all of Eurasia would belong to Mongolia right now. Canada would be part of Norway. The fact that you spotted something and put it on a map is irrelevant in international law.”
So what of this whole effort to appropriate Zheng He for the Chinese Communist Party’s ends? Pamela Crossley, historian of Chinese history at Dartmouth University, says this is just one extension of Xi Jinping’s efforts to rewrite the past — an effort she refers to as Xi’s history factory.
Crossley: “I’m seeing it as one ‘history factory’ controlled by the Party through this one thing that’s called the Party History Office. And it connects directly to institutions like Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. The Chinese Academy of Social Sciences is enormous and it covers a whole lot of disciplines. And many times, parts of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences don’t know what the other parts are doing. But there are units within it that work with history departments all over China. There’s a small of Chinese historians who are involved in these campaigns against Western historians. But I think the visibility of these campaigns puts pressure on historians generally across China.”
And this new history push has pretty direct links to what the CCP has accomplished in the South China Sea, Crossley says.
Crossley: “It’s connected [to the South China Sea] in this way: the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences has sponsored this idea that you can argue the legitimacy of territorial claims on the basis of history. And this is really very unusual. I think this is — I wouldn’t say it’s unique to China, but it’s definitely unusual. And the idea that you promote is that if at any point in the past some state, this is probably gonna be an empire based in China, could make territorial claims to some part of the land or sea, those are legitimately under the governance or maybe just under the hegemony of the People’s Republic of China. And so the Party has frequently invoked these historical arguments about Ming claims to the South China Sea as the foundation of its claims to have a legitimate right to dominate the South China Sea today. If you were to go back to the Ming, which is what the PRC historians are often referring to, Ming was actually very clear about the fact that they didn’t claim anything off of the mainland of China. They made a very clear distinction. They would even tolerate foreign adventurers or mercantilists like the Portuguese, coming in, staying on little islands offshore. It was just made very clear by Ming: Don’t come onto the mainland. They observed this very clearly. It’s not because Ming society as a whole was not engaged with the sea. But China did not have a navy. China did not make territorial claims across the sea. And even when Chinese left China and they went to Taiwan or they went to southeast Asia, Indonesia, the Philippines, it was rare for the Ming to make any claim on them. Those Zheng He voyages are actually one of the exceptions because Zheng He was commissioned to try to collect back taxes. That is really the exception that proves the rule: Ming was not interested in making territorial claims across the sea. Well I think there is fear — is it fear? It may be fear — of this history of conquest that’s associated with the Qing empire. Xi is a bit different from earlier leaders of China in the way that he uses history because he wants to focus so intensely on the history of the Qing empire. This is complicated because Qing vastly enlarged its territories in comparison to those of the Ming before it, and the enlargement was due to conquest. This is the part that Xi doesn’t want to be incorporated into the story. He wants Qing to just get big just by unexplained means — it suddenly becomes big.”
So why does this screw things up for Xi and CCP leaders?
Crossley: “The thought is that separatism, whether as a political movement or just as a kind of cultural condition on the part of the non-Chinese residents of Mongolia or Xinjiang or Tibet, that this is gonna be incited, right, if they have to focus on the history of Qing as a history of conquest. Now really simply speaking in real history, the way Qing gained dominance over Tibet, for instance, is really different from the way that Qing gained dominance over Xinjiang. Probably you could say both are a form of conquest; but they’re not the same form. What Xi is afraid of is narrating these as conquests in any form.”
Crossley: “Xi is conducting these culture wars in many different theaters. So in this case, I think this particular argument about Qing history is really directed towards the disciplining — let’s put it that way — of historians in China. But it’s part of a much larger campaign that includes this whole idea of Chinese what people call soft power, cultural suasion. And a lot of those are directly applied the United States and Europe and it’s just part of this much larger sort of campaign on Xi’s part.”
Poling: “Yeah look, all nations engage in historical revisionism to some degree, right? Countries tell their own stories about themselves.* They develop their own historical narratives; it helps bind the body politik together. The problem is when it steps over into this kind of blatant historical amnesia that you see in modern day China, that then bleeds into modern day events, right, where it’s impossible to negotiate territorial and maritime disputes because you’re operating on a different plane of reality than everybody else because you’ve been taught since the first grade this fairy tale about the way you know, one, you ever administered these islands that otherwise you’d never heard of, and two, that somehow they were stolen from you. And that spills out into all areas of history in China. And it is made worse by the echo chamber that is the public education system in China, the Communist Party’s control of the media, there is no real independent historical research that goes on, and so you know if you want to get a clear-eyed view of Chinese history you have to go outside of mainland China, which is simply bizarre.”
Wilson: “On the flip side, I think a China that is comfortable in its skin — and just China in general given the size of its economy, it’s historical, its geography, its historical place in the region — should be a major player, if not the major player in its home region. So I don’t have a problem with China sort of fulfilling its national destiny in that sense, but if its feels its national destiny has to be [or] run counter to our ideas of how a free international system works would be bad.”
Poling: “Obviously the Trump administration is an aberration in U.S. foreign policy — the transactional nature of the diplomacy, the de-emphasis of rules and norms and values. And I think those are equally important; so we talk about democracy promotion and human rights, and of course the administration has downplayed that. But you know one of the underpinnings of U.S. national security has also been, over the last almost century, the creation of a rules-based system so that we don’t have great power competition as the order of the day. This administration seems perfectly happy to go back to a might-makes-right, you know, pre-World War II way of doing foreign policy. That is a gross aberration from the way that every administration — democratic and republican since at least FDR — has viewed U.S. national security. The lodestar of U.S. national security regardless of all the other differences has always been that we are safer if we operate in a system of rules and alliances that help smooth out the kind of rough and tumble world of great power politics. And that’s why despite all of the conflagations of the last century, there has been no third World War. There has been no great power conflict. And that people both in the U.S. and around the world are statistically far less likely to die in conflict today than at any time in human history. All of that is to say that while I think this administration is a gross aberration, I do not necessarily think that they mark a change in fundamental U.S. interests, or that the next administration whether democratic or republican won’t drag us back to a more rational way of doing foreign policy. I just don’t think that American politics will sustain a transactional foreign policy very long. Our national narrative, in so much as we tell ourselves one, is about being the shining city on the hill. And both the idea of international rules and the idea of human rights and democracy promotion are fundamental to that.”
Chapter Three: Some thoughts about how to move forward.
Amid all this talk of what separates U.S. and Chinese foreign policy, it can be easy to lose sight of each other’s humanity, and the things that make us all quite similar. Here’s Crossley with some common feedback from her years as a Chinese historian.
Crossley: “Yes, Americans tend to think that Chinese are not like Americans. There’s always this extreme — glamorize them on the one side, or demonize them on the other. It’s always ‘them, them, them.’ And people who are advising on policy have to come in claiming that they’ve got all kinds of keys to understanding China. Really, when you look at history, you look at even recent policy — given exactly the same conditions that the Chinese are working under anybody would make the kind of decisions the Chinese make and vice versa. So I think this idea of kind of alterizing, right? The Chinese are thinking, ‘Oh, they’re so wonderful,’ or ‘They’re so terrible.’ No. They’re just normal. And they pursue whatever opportunities arise and if you don’t like them pursuing those opportunities, they have to find a way to close them off. It’s like anybody else in the world.”
Dr. Samantha Hoffman’s advice?
Hoffman: “Set an example is one good way of starting, but you know we are doing also a lot of things right. And maybe we need to be more confident in what we’re doing right.”
Watson: “What are some of those things, do you think?”Hoffman: “I mean honestly I think the [U.S.] National Defense Strategy and I think that they identify the problem better than they have in the past. And I mean I guess this has been a problem in China policy for a number of decades now and it’s good that we’re recognizing it… when you talk about a so-called ‘China threat,’ you aren’t talking about the U.S. being afraid of China’s rise, you aren’t talking about Chinese people; you’re talking very specifically about the Party and what it does — and its abuse of Chinese culture and the Chinese people, as well. You know the CCP tries to define what Chinese culture is; they have an entire aspect of their state security strategy is focused on cultural security… You know the CCP trying to claim that the PRC is China, and those are things that we need to — it’s hard because it’s very theoretical, but they’re important things to think about.”
Watson: “It’s an abstraction, but it’s deeply impactful.”
Hoffman: “And language is important. You know for years in places like the UN, the CCP is able to sort of slowly insert definitions about concepts of sovereignty and it’s, you know, it’s incredibly complex and I don’t think anybody has a good answer for how to deal with the problem. One of them is to recognize that maybe what we’ve done so far hasn’t been enough.”
And what about challenges down the road — things like concern over what some have taken to calling China’s “population bomb”?
Watson:“Are you thinking that crisis is pretty serious then?”
Wilson: “Oh yeah, it’s very serious.* The Chinese will accept this too, that with a lot of these issues that they’re victims of their own success. That they are a victim of the success of the one-child policy. Not even ending the one-child policy is going to fix the fact that the Chinese population is not replacing itself at a sustainable rate, that China is going to start getting old and getting old very quickly. Whereas China currently is 20 percent of the global population? I think it might actually be 22 percent. So it’s hard for my students to hear every time you wanna say China, every tenth time, substitute one-fifth of humanity. Just plug that in wherever, I think that’ll give you some idea. You know they’re currently about 20 percent of humanity; by the end of the century they’re probably going to be about 10 percent of humanity. In some ways that’s good because not having a population settle down from 1.4 billion now to say 1 billion is gonna soften the blow environmentally on China on an already-ravaged environment there. Are there more resources to go around? Yes. But in terms of y’know in terms of the foreseeable future, it’s going to be an aging society where more and more is gonna fall on a smaller group of working age adults to care for an older population — a population that’s going to be living longer. Populations that live longer tend to be expensive. And yeah, that’s gonna divert resources. And the Chinese understand that they have to kind of capitalize on this unique moment where they have this y’know huge economy, a productive working class, a pretty good age ratio — for now — to set themselves up for success to meet the challenges of the future. So they have the type of resources they need to sustain — to have their military keep growing at the pace it’s been growing in the last couple of decades… uh I think that’s unlikely, yeah.”
Poling: “There is a broader desire in Beijing that as China rises, the international order, the international community, international law of post-World War II will have to be changed at least in Asia to be able to accomodate Beijing. And that spans you know multiple areas of contestation with the U.S., whether its economics or the rules that govern cyber, or the rules that govern our security presence in Asia — or the rules that govern the maritime commons. The U.S. is going to need to decide which of those rules it is willing to help change to accommodate reasonable, understandable Chinese demands for a system that, in some cases, it didn’t help, right? And where it’s going to have to draw a line and say, ‘No, here and no farther.’ The South China Sea is, I think, in that latter bucket. One: Because it undercuts fundamental U.S. interests that have been there since basically the founding days of the republic on maritime commons, freedom of navigation. Our first expeditionary military operation was [U.S. President Thomas] Jefferson against the Barbary pirates” during the first few years of the 19th century. “It is maritime trade and demands for openness in maritime Asia that sent us across the Pacific in the first place. Two: It cuts fundamentally at our presence in Asia if we are not gonna be there for an ally, then sooner or later all the allies are gonna decide that we’re not worth bolstering. And three: The Chinese did write the rules. They can complain about the Bretton Woods arrangements, they can complain about the Treaty of San Francisco; they can’t complain about UNCLOS. They were at the table. The only thing that’s changed is that now they have a bigger navy and have decided the rules don’t work for them anymore.”
In our next episode: the future of Russia and the U.S.-Russian relationship. Subscribe if you’re not already. Special thanks this week to Samantha Hoffman, Elsa Kania, Greg Poling, Andrew Wilson, Pamela Crossley and Paulina Glass. Thanks for listening. And until next time.
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