The self-defeating logic in Steve Bannon’s rallying cry against China-friendly corporate America

(Originally published here by South China Morning Post.)

Former White House adviser Steve Bannon made a splash in Washington last week with his call to brand those who have profited from business relationships with China as traitors.

The audience at the event erupted in cheers, not surprising given that it was comprised mainly of members of the Committee on the Present Danger: China, the latest iteration of a group originally formed in the 1950s to lobby Washington to take a harder line against the Soviet Union – in other words, God-fearing foreign policy hawks.

At the discussion, Senator Ted Cruz spoke about “the Chinese Communist Party’s academic and military espionage” and Saliah Hudayar of the East Turkistan National Awakening Movement, a Uygur advocacy group, gave a speech about the Chinese communists’ “war on faith”.

In a rallying cry, Bannon said stopping China’s advance, as the United States did with the Soviet Union, would be “the defining event of our time”.

“One hundred years from now, this is what they’re going to remember us for, and I guarantee you that we’re going to identify those members of the elite that sold us out and continue to sell out the American people and sell out the Chinese people.”

And then what? Let’s leave aside the fact that Bannon cares as much for the Chinese people as current White House adviser Stephen Miller does for the Latin American children separated from their parents at the US border. Bannon did cleverly work in a few words of praise for the Chinese people to provide cover from any accusation that his anti-China vitriol is racist.

It’s a shame that Bannon feels the need to issue dark threats, because many of his concerns, and those of the Committee on the Present Danger, are valid.

It took too long for policymakers in Washington to realise that the Chinese Communist Party never was, and never will be, an ally of the US. And whatever trade deal Chinese Vice-Premier Liu He and US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer may reach will not change this reality.

Beijing seeks to create a world order where individual political rights and privacy protections are weak, and where companies are granted access to the Chinese economy based not on global rules that apply equally but on the degree to which they support Beijing’s geostrategic priorities.

America did the same for decades, of course. But this kind of hegemony became more difficult as rules-based, multilateral institutions like the United Nations, the G20 and the World Trade Organisation began to wield more power.

Donald Trump and his closest allies aside, Washington decided the stability these institutions created was worth the checks they put on American power.

US policymakers had us believe that China would also buy into this once its economic growth gathered momentum.

That didn’t happen, and the US business elite – which wanted a piece of the economy that leapfrogged Britain, Germany and Japan to become the world’s second biggest – didn’t care. They also paid no mind to China’s militarisation of atolls in the South China Sea, which could ultimately threaten the shipping corridors on which global business depends.

And most of the US businesses Bannon detests failed to raise their voices when they discovered their computer systems were being hacked by Chinese cyberthieves.

Asked by National Public Radio recently about this deafening silence, James MacGregor, a former chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in China, said: “Companies were afraid of China. American business companies’ incentives are to make money.”

So Bannon, the Committee on the Present Danger and many others have a right to feel vexed, but the answer is not some sort of national pogrom against anyone who has built business relationships with China.

Where would an initiative like this start and end? Would it indict every chief financial officer whose company’s supply chain has a link in China? Would it reach all the way to the deans of universities who started programmes on Chinese campuses?

How about the MBA professors who preached the gospel of globalisation? Would George W. Bush be put behind bars for ushering China into the WTO?

It’s easy to see Bannon’s vision turning into something like China’s Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when anyone with wealth was purged, a movement that caused endless misery and set the country back by decades. How could Beijing not relish the idea of the US inflicting the same kind of damage on itself?

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