The weakest link on the ideological front in America’s cold war with China

(Originally published here by the South China Morning Post on November 26, 2019.)

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the US Congress’ 150-odd other pieces of China-related legislation underscore elder statesman Henry Kissinger’s recent assertion that the US and China are “in the foothills” of a new cold war. Perhaps we’re even further up, above the tree line.

As recriminations beget more recriminations and new fronts in the ideological battle seem to open every week, Washington’s wannabe cold warriors need to pause and reassess.

The non-stop news around the advance of the Hong Kong act and the stand-off at Polytechnic University last week obscured new data released by the Institute of International Education and the State Department showing that the number of mainland Chinese students and academics in the US has remained largely stable.

This is not what reporters covering the new numbers were expecting, given the political context.

It has been nearly two years since Federal Bureau of Investigations director Christopher Wray accused Beijing of increasing its use of “non-traditional collectors” – such as professors, scientists and students – for its intelligence gathering.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is view the China threat as not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat on their end, and I think it’s going to take a whole-of-society response by us,” he testified at a Senate hearing.

Similar warnings came from a Pentagon report in 2017, which prompted many senior lawmakers in Washington to further vilify China, pushing the rhetoric dangerously close to “yellow peril” levels.

What drives Chinese students to keep coming to the US in the face of warnings by senior US officials that they are security threats? Even behind China’s “Great Firewall”, many young Chinese are attracted to the US side of the ever-widening ideological rift.

Sceptics will insist that these students are motivated more by the practical consideration of post-graduation employment than they are by ideological orientations. They’re not picking a side in a civilisational stand-off, the argument goes.

But how much job security does a US degree provide in China, where the roar of nationalist sentiment and calls to fall in line with the Communist Party increasingly treat these credentials with suspicion instead of respect?

Despite its obvious flaws – in particular, the strident partisanship and revenge politics that often hobble Washington – the US is a draw for many Chinese even as the anti-China rhetoric shows no sign of abating.

American politicians are correct to call attention to the authoritarian surveillance state that the Chinese government is creating and the fact that a million of the country’s Uygurs are at the very least unwilling participants in a social reprogramming campaign.

US lawmakers are correct to write legislation aimed at countering Chinese espionage and acquisition of technology that would strengthen Beijing’s military. The Trump administration is correct to push for a more reciprocal and balanced economic relationship.

But the US government needs to be more careful and consistent in the way it brings ideology into the stand-off, and the biggest threat Washington faces in this ideological battle comes from within.

The Chinese government’s drive to ensure that every individual, organisation and company operating in the country – including foreign ones – serve the interests of the Communist Party is why we’re close to a cold war.

While Washington has frequently failed to live up to its lofty rhetoric about good governance, democracy and human rights, America’s strength is derived from the way its leaders have stood up to authoritarian regimes at key junctures: Franklin D. Roosevelt and Hitler, John F. Kennedy and Nikita Khrushchev. Ronald Reagan will always be remembered for his speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987.

These stances mobilised not only Americans, but also those within the societies ruled by Washington’s foes.

But America’s current leader has veered from this trajectory. US President Donald Trump is beguiled by Chinese President Xi Jinping’s success in keeping every voice in China in line with the Communist Party. Trump considers Xi to be “a great leader” and “a brilliant man”. Last week, we heard that the US president called his Chinese counterpart “a friend”.

Just like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, Xi can take comfort in the fact that Trump has more respect for him than he does for the values that America has defended for the past century.

Those carrying the US banner in the foothills of the cold war will need their own compass to forge ahead.

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