By Isaac Chotiner December 9, 2020 The New Yorker
In September, the House passed a bill that would ban imports produced by Uighur forced laborers in Xinjiang. Companies such as Apple, Nike, and Coca-Cola have mounted a lobbying campaign against the bill, which passed the House by an overwhelming margin of four hundred and six to three, and is likely to pass the Senate. If the bill does become law, it will be the latest sign that the relationship between the United States and China is as contentious as it has been in decades. The Chinese Communist Party’s use of forced labor, its authoritarian activity in Hong Kong, and its obfuscation about the coronavirus have raised bipartisan concerns about the future of the relationship between the U.S. and China.
I recently discussed the state of Chinese-American relations with John Pomfret, the author of “The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: American and China, 1776 to the Present” and the former Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed the ideological competition between the U.S. and China, the complicated history of American companies doing business in the country, and how the Biden Administration’s approach to China might differ from that of the Trump Administration.
There are two things going on right now, and I’m curious whether you think they’re part of the same story. The first is Chinese human-rights abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and the concern they have sparked here. The second is just a growing American-Chinese rivalry, having to do with politics and business and other things.
I think that, fundamentally, we’re at a point where we have an ideological problem with China. This is not simply two large nations competing with each other, like Germany and the United States would be, or America and Japan. This is an ideological challenge. I think that has supercharged what would naturally be competition between us and a rising power in a region of the world where the United States has, for many years, been the preëminent power.
The ideological competition has many parts, and one of the parts has to do with American revulsion at Chinese human-rights abuses, not simply in Xinjiang and Hong Kong but in Han-dominated China, as well. I also think there’s a separate piece, which is how the rising power deals with the resident power, which is just something that’s going to be an issue regardless of the political dimensions of the relationship. I think that the way it combines with the human-rights issue is that this is an ideological competition between two fundamentally different systems, both political and economic.
If it is an ideological competition, isn’t it ironic that this is peaking at a time when the United States elected someone who has the most ideologically in common with an authoritarian regime, has celebrated the leader of China, and has even celebrated the Communist Revolution?
Yeah, definitely. I think that, regardless of whether you look at the U.S.-China relationship or the U.S.-Russian relationship, the election by the United States of someone with soundly antidemocratic instincts is highly ironic, given the fact that the United States now faces an ideational challenge from the P.R.C. and from Russia, as well.
Do you think the Chinese government sees this, similarly, as an ideological challenge?
I think that the Chinese have been fighting the United States as an ideological enemy for far longer than we’ve been fighting them. I believe that China has viewed us as an ideological foe since 1989 and even before that. A significant faction of the Communist Party viewed America as an ideological foe, and America only really began to catch on to this sometime near the end of the Obama Administration. Look at, for example, Document No. 9, which was a document that came out at the tail end of the Hu Jintao era and the beginning of the Xi Jinping Administration, which fingered the United States as an ideological foe; talked about these seven viruses of Western thinking, including constitutionalism and a free press and other values that we supposedly hold dear in this society; and basically said, “This is something that is going to be pushed by hostile foreign forces, and we need to be vigilant about this.”
This was the summation of years of thinking about the challenges that China faced from the United States. In the West, the managers of the relationship basically ignored that, partly because they had this belief that, with free trade and open markets, China would naturally become a more pluralistic society. It didn’t happen that way. I think the United States only came to its senses about this issue at the tail end of the Obama Administration, and then Trump came into power. Clearly, Trump as a character was completely shambolic in how he pursued and prosecuted the relationship.VIDEO FROM THE NEW YORKERWhy U.S. Audiences Are Crazy for K-Pop
How do you think the Biden Administration is going to approach China, and how will it differ from the approach of the Trump Administration? It appears that it may be an issue in domestic politics in a way it hasn’t been since the Clinton Administration, maybe since 1989.
Yeah, for sure. I also think that the generation of the folks who managed the China relationship under the old system—which was treating China relatively well in the hope that over time there would be peaceful evolution—that generation is gone. And the Henry Kissingers of the world and others no longer have that much influence at all. I think a new generation of people, in terms of intellectual dominance in the Democratic Party, are on the rise. I think it’s significant that Susan Rice wasn’t given the Secretary of State position, from that perspective.
What do you mean by that?
When she was Obama’s national-security adviser, Susan Rice argued for a broader perspective on the relationship, and not sweating smaller issues with China, in the hope of getting a bigger deal. A lot of issues were put on the back burner because of the Obama Administration’s interest in getting a climate deal with China. The Obama Administration didn’t put that much pressure on China on human-rights issues, or cyber espionage issues, or the South China Sea, because the big goal was what they would frame as an existential one. Because climate change is so much more important, we have to sacrifice these other issues, ignoring the fact that if China is going to make a climate change deal with you, it’s not going to be because you were nice to them over the South China Sea. It’s because it’s in China’s interest to do so.
Within the White House at the time, the attitude was “We can’t let this big deal fall down, so we don’t need to sweat these other things, which are less important,” and that allowed the Chinese to play the Obama Administration relatively well. I think that generation is gone.
Can you say more about how, specifically, you think the Obama Administration was played?
Well, the Obama Administration starts out in 2009. The Dalai Lama’s supposed to be coming to Washington. The Obama Administration basically tells the Chinese government, “Hey, we’re not going to meet him this time, because we want to set a good foundation for a relationship with you guys.” It was a continuation of American behavior toward China, which is sort of upfronting the present in the hope of better future behavior.
They did that on several occasions. An example would be the cyber-espionage deal between Obama and Xi Jinping. Within a year, the Chinese were violating it. The obsession with getting “deliverables” from China blinded them to the reality that the Chinese were willing and happy to break these deals, because they didn’t really respect Obama’s use of power. Because when the Americans would threaten to do things, they actually never did them. Whereas the Trump people, for all their problems, they threatened to do things with China, and they actually did them. Whether they worked or not is a totally different question, right? Tariffs were a disaster, right? This is something that no other American Administration had done in the past, of actually carrying through on the threats that they made to the Chinese.
How does China approach the fact that America is going from an Administration that actively discouraged any action on climate change to an Administration that says climate change is one of its top priorities?
I think from one perspective, the knee-jerk reaction in China would be, “Oh, good. We can play them like we played Obama, right?” I think that Biden and his people are far more wise to that M.O. than the Obama Administration was, simply because they got burned so badly five, six, seven, eight years ago.
If you look at Biden’s interview with the Times, it’s interesting that he is not in any hurry to deal with China. He’s not in any hurry to roll back the tariffs. He’s not in any hurry to take back any of the restrictions, he’s not in any hurry to pull up the Magnitsky Act-like restrictions on Chinese officials for Xinjiang, Hong Kong, et cetera. I think that’s evidence, scant as it may be, of the fact that Biden is not in a hurry to bring the relationship back to normal.
Do you think the Chinese government wanted Trump to get reëlected?ADVERTISEMENT
Yes. I think that they were comfortable with Trump, because he was driving the country into a ditch. I think that from their perspective, they could deal with his shambolic bad China policies simply because he failed in one area, which is the biggest area and the area that they’re most afraid of vis-à-vis Biden: alliance management. If the Americans can combine some of the more jaundiced view of China with a policy that brings our allies along with us, or unites with our allies, then the Chinese really worry that they’re going to be in deep shit. You see Europe, Australia, Japan, and India coming to their senses on China, without much pressure from America, and clearly no leadership. If Biden can harness that increasing consciousness on China, the Chinese are going to be in a difficult position.
I want to talk specifically about the relationship between American business and China. There have always been cross-pressures, where business has been very eager both to have a Chinese market and use China as a place that makes goods for America. When did that mutually beneficial arrangement become contested?
Tiananmen Square was one, but then there’s Clinton, who came into office and basically said, “I’m going to make human rights a central part of my Administration, and, by golly, the Chinese are going to be my first candidate. Most Favored Nation trading status won’t be renewed on a permanent basis until China really shows significant improvement on its human rights.” And he caved because of business. Business was, like, “No, you can’t. You can’t screw the pooch, pal. No, we need to continue making money.” He basically dropped that completely, and then they doubled down on engagement. That’s the beginning of the period of time when basically every American bureaucracy, from the F.B.I. to Fish and Wildlife to Customs, had a policy to engage with China.
Where do you think the bureaucracy is now?
The F.B.I. doesn’t have much of a relationship with China, simply because the Chinese have burned us on cases. The Chinese have sent agents to America to terrorize American permanent residents and even, in some cases, citizens who happened to be of Chinese extraction, because of either their dissident views in China or the fact that they’ve been accused of corruption in China. The F.B.I., which started a relatively positive relationship working on drug cases with China, basically has no relationship left. Other bureaucracies are quite similar. People have had a very difficult and rough experience with the P.R.C. There’s a wide, I think across-the-board, alienation from China.
What was the long-term impact of Tiananmen? The George H. W. Bush Administration seemed pretty uninterested in making too much of a deal about human rights, and the relationship continued on as it was, no?
This is a small factoid, but I think it does illustrate what the Bush-senior people were thinking. The relationship under Nixon, and from Nixon through George H. W. Bush, was a really central relationship, dealing with one major American competitor, which was the U.S.S.R. We were de-facto allies in taking down this communist hegemon, and we succeeded incredibly. We worked together in funding the Afghan rebels. There was a very close relationship between the Ministry of State Security and the C.I.A., and Bush senior was a caretaker of this relationship. Even during the buildup to Tiananmen Square, in May of 1989, Gorbachev is coming to China, and there are all these TV crews in Beijing—there’s a million people occupying the Square. Even during this period of time, the Bush Administration was intent on making sure that a U.S. naval flotilla could visit Shanghai, as a way to show the Chinese that “hey, we don’t want you to get too close to the Soviet Union. Look at us.” Many people in the Bush Administration, even as China had these demonstrations around the country with millions of people, were still looking at the relationship through the prism of competition with the Soviet Union.
Tiananmen was June of 1989. Russia hadn’t fallen apart yet. The Bush people’s central calculus was how to keep China on our side while all this chaos is happening in the U.S.S.R. and Eastern Europe. Now it seems a little wacky, but from their perspective the world hadn’t changed yet. It was in the process of changing, and Bush was really intent on making sure that he could continue to use China as a lever against our principal foe. This was not a business-related decision.
We’re now in this moment when we see this bill threatening companies that do business in Xinjiang. It seems as if, from what you’re saying, there’s going to be more appetite for this type of action than at other times, maybe in part because of the scale of the abuses, and in part because of the atmosphere in Washington.
It’s plausible now, much more than before, partially because, correct me if I’m wrong, I think it’s the only bilateral issue that the two parties agree on. It’s a win from that perspective. I think that the other issue is that the business community is no longer united in its support of China, and the financial community is the lone player in its support of China. Nike and Apple and those folks, even though they have lots of heft, no longer have the backing of all the other businesses in China on issues like this.
Why is that?
Because many businesses have been screwed over by P.R.C.
Was that a strategic miscalculation by China?
Yeah, I think the Chinese have miscalculated. You will remember from your history books that the Americans had this hand-wringing about who “lost” China in the early nineteen-fifties. I think the Chinese similarly, in their quieter moments, will have hand-wringing about who lost America. They misplayed their hand with this country, and it wasn’t for lack of trying from people who warned them that this was going to happen.
My understanding is that this is also somewhat true with the way China has dealt with Europe and Australia. There’s a certain amount of China using an iron fist to deal with a lot of foreign businesses, which has weakened, therefore, China’s attempts to get good will in these countries.
Yes. They’ve done it everywhere.
Do you have a sense of why?
I think that the system demands it. I think a significant reason is that people in China manage up, and they’re interested in showing the leadership, which is particularly paranoid and extremely hard line, how strongly they are protecting China’s interests. I think this is the downside in China of embracing a belligerent form of nationalism as your ethos and your reason to be. I think that they’re reaping the whirlwind. Look at their diplomats, who basically go around the world alienating people because they believe that’s what the central government wants to see them doing.
Perhaps a lesson here for Americans about how angry nationalism plays abroad.
Exactly. We can look at China and learn from their mistakes, hopefully. We’ve had a four-year experiment trying to act like they did, and look where it’s got us.
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Isaac Chotiner is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with major public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.