Xi Jinping’s decision to openly label the United States the source of China’s ills rolled through the newsletters, wire services, and commentators on China this week. Much has been written about this already; I have nothing to add. Here I call attention to something else that occurred at the National People’s Congress, an incident whose significance is perhaps not properly appreciated. Here is Nikkei’s description of the incident in question:
In an essay published in 2018, Geramie Barme recommends observers of US-China relations read through five pieces that Hu Qiaomu and Mao Zedong published in 1949 under the latter’s name. The five pieces were Mao’s response to Dean Acheson’s China White Paper, a compendium of State Department documents intended to clear the Truman administration from the charge of “losing China.” Neither Mao nor Hu slogged through the hundreds of documents there compiled, but they did pay close attention to the prefatory “Letter of Transmittal” that Acheson released along with the White Paper. In this statement Acheson famously argued that “the ominous result of the civil war in China was beyond the control of the government of the United States” and expressed his hope that “ultimately the profound civilization and the democratic individualism of China will reassert themselves and she will throw off the foreign [i.e. communist] yoke.”
Over the weekend I took Barme’s advice.
Japan’s 2022 National Security Strategy concludes with a dramatic pronouncement:
At this time of an inflection point in history, Japan is finding itself in the midst of the most severe and complex security environment since the end of WWII. In no way can we be optimistic about what the future of the international community will hold
I find myself strangely affected by this document.
On January 16th the friends of Cao Zhixin, a 27 year old book editor residing in Beijing, posted a video of Cao onto Youtube. The video spread quickly spread across Chinese language Twitter, and from there into newspaper reports in Great Britain, the United States, and Taiwan…. Had Cao’s video ended on that note of triumph little attention would have been paid to it. But Cao concluded on a very different note: she was about to disappear. One by one her fellow vigil-organizers had gone dark. Where they were taken, and on what charges, she did not know. She knew only this: she was next.
Over at Foreign Affairs, Ryan Haas and Jude Blanchette have published an interesting argument. Hass and Blanchette are worried that the United States and China are needlessly inching towards armed conflict over Taiwan because of the two powers’ shared belief that “the hard questions at the root of the confrontation” can only be solved by a military settlement. In contrast, Hass and Blanchette argue that “sometimes the best policy is to avoid bringing intractable challenges to a head and kick the can down the road instead.” Implicit in Hass and Blanchette’s framing is the belief the United States controls the pace of the can-kicking. Decision makers in Washington, not Beijing or Taipei, will determine the character of their triangular tango. The reasons for this conclusion are laid out plainly: the United States has the power to constrain Taiwanese behavior, while the Chinese, who understand that the costs of a conflict will prove ruinous even in victory, will stage no campaign unless backed into a corner. It is America that will choose whether the can is kicked into that corner or whether it is kicked further down the road.
Haas and Blanchette’s case is cogent and clearly argued. Some of its particulars—such as their warning to avoid symbolics “that would aggravate Beijing without improving security in the Taiwan Strait” (e.g. Pelosi’s recent stunt)—are especially persuasive. But Haas and Blanchette’s larger argument only is compelling if we think crisis can be kicked down the road—and kicked down it ad infinitum. It is not clear to me that this is possible.
Many readers have wondered at my low writing output this year. This week I am happy to announce the answer to the riddle: the Center for Strategic Translation.
The Center for Strategic Translation locates, translates, and annotates documents of historic or strategic value that are only available in Chinese. As director of the new center I have had the chance to work with a host of talented translators to make this project a reality.
Readers may remember my stab at a global Great Books list. Recently a reader contacted me asking for guidance: they wanted to read through the books on the “East Asian” section of that list, but did not believe he had the proper historical knowledge to understand or contextualize what they were reading. What do I recommend they read to make sense of the list?
What follows will not make sense if you have not looked at that original post. Here is what I told him:
You may remember a piece I wrote last summer. It was a review of Vladislav Zubok’s book, A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War From Stalin to Gorbachev. Zubok contends that the collapse of the Soviet Union should be understood as a consequence of generational turnover. I was attracted to the idea; generational turnover is the very mechanism I had identify as the key to American history in my essay “Culture Wars are Long Wars.”
A few weeks ago I came across an infographic that illustrates why the policies of the modern Chinese Communist Party are even more generationally bound than either the old CPSU or the current U.S. federal government:
Xi Jinping regularly exhorts China’s diplomats, propagandists, journalists, writers, filmmakers, and cultural figures to “tell China’s story well.”The slogan flows naturally from the operating assumptions of Party state strategists: in their telling, a central pillar of any nation’s “comprehensive national power” (综合国力) is what these Chinese have labeled “discourse power” (话语权).
Discourse power is the ability to mold the assumptions, conceptions, and values of foreign princes and peoples. The concept sits midway between Beltway talk of “soft power” and the sort of influence leftists describe with the phrase “cultural hegemony.” Discourse mirrors the instrumentalism of the first term—discourse power is not just a set of static social relationships or societal norms, but a tool to be wielded—but is far less associated with happy-go-lucky rhetoric about admiration, emulation, and attraction so closely bound up in American conceptions of soft power.
Triumphant victors of the Cold War would conceptualize the issue in such terms: the victors of any given cultural conflict always believe they have won through the wide appeal of their vision and the free choice of those attracted to it.
Several days ago the U.S.-China Perception Monitor published an essay in both English and Chinese by Hu Wei, a prominent think tanker in Shanghai. It argues that the war in Ukraine is bound to go poorly for Russia and thus China must moderate its support for Putin’s failing regime lest the post-Putin world turn against the PRC.