Give No Heed to the Walking Dead

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Closed politics cannot be a permanent feature of Chinese society….  We can cooperate with the emerging China of today, even as we work for the democratic China of tomorrow.”

—Robert Zoellick,
Deputy Secretary of State [2005].

Since the Vietnam war, the U.S. has more often chosen the strategy of ‘winning without a war.’ This is a soft war using politics, economics, ideas, and culture as weapons with its advantageous military power as backing… The U.S.’ present and future primary target is China.”

—Ji Zhiye,
President of the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations [2013].

The People’s Republic of China is wealthier than any rival America has faced. Its leaders are convinced of the malignance of the United States. Their ambitions are global, their ideology hostile, and their military forces optimized to “fight and win wars” with America and the democratic nations that surround it. The challenge is daunting—and it exists because of us. The Sino-American relationship of 2019 is the acrid fruit of “engagement.”

Engagement is dead. Yet like dead growth lumped to living branch, the men and women who crafted the disaster linger with us. In twitter whispers and podcast chatterings their murmurs grow. Engagement did not fail, we hear. It never was about remaking China in the first place. We never thought the Chinese would come to share our systems, values, or priorities. Engagement was about something else entirely.

The narrative of our walking dead is false. It is easily proven so. Here is Bill Clinton, explaining to the American voters why the People’s Republic deserves a seat at the W.T.O.:

Most of the critics of the China W.T.O. agreement do not seriously question its economic benefits. They’re more likely to say things like this: China is a growing threat to Taiwan and its neighbors — we shouldn’t strengthen it. Or China violates labor rights and human rights — we shouldn’t reward it. Or China is a dangerous proliferator — we shouldn’t empower it. These concerns are valid. But the conclusion of those who raise them as an argument against China-W.T.O. isn’t. The question is not whether we approve or disapprove of China’s practices. The question is what’s the smartest thing to do to improve these practices.

The change this agreement can bring from outside is quite extraordinary. But I think you could make an argument that it will be nothing compared to the changes that this agreement will spark from the inside out in China. By joining the W.T.O., China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products. It is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values, economic freedom. The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people — their initiative, their imagination, their remarkable spirit of enterprise. And when individuals have the power, not just to dream, but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say….

State-run workplaces also operated the schools where they sent their children, the clinics where they received health care, the stores where they bought food. That system was a big source of the Communist Party’s power. Now people are leaving those firms, and when China joins the W.T.O., they will leave them faster. The Chinese government no longer will be everyone’s employer, landlord, shopkeeper and nanny all rolled into one. It will have fewer instruments, therefore, with which to control people’s lives. And that may lead to very profound change. The genie of freedom will not go back into the bottle. As Justice Earl Warren once said, liberty is the most contagious force in the world.[1]

There you have it. The “smartest thing” to “improve” China’s attack on human rights and reduce China’s threat to Taiwan is to admit it to the W.T.O. The W.T.O. would reduce the role of SOEs in the Chinese economy, and in consequence, the Party “will have fewer instruments with which to control people’s lives.”

How quaint.

More sophisticated versions were offered by people a rung down on the ladder. Take these comments by Richard Haas, given in a 2008 testimony to the Committee on Foreign Relations:

The principal focus of U.S. foreign policy toward China should be China’s foreign policy. This may be seem obvious, although it is anything but. One contending school of thought influencing American foreign policy would emphasize and seek to change what goes on inside countries, both as a moral end in itself and for pragmatic ends. This latter contention stems from the assumption that democratic countries are likely to behave better toward their neighbors than authoritarian regimes. But given all the challenges we face in a global world, the United States does not have the luxury of making its focus what goes on inside China. Nor do we have the wisdom or ability to make China in our image. We do, though, have an interest in a stable and peaceful China that is willing and able to play a constructive role in the world. It is not an all or nothing call – there are things we can do (such as spreading the rule of law and working with the Chinese to increase the transparency of what goes on inside the government) to help encourage the emergence of a more open China. But there is the matter of emphasis, and the emphasis of U.S. policy should be on shaping what China does, not what China is. [2]

Haas’ distinction between what China does and China is has always been chimerical. If you have never had the chance before, I encourage you to go read the old Robert Zoellick speech that introduced the phrase “responsible stakeholder” to the world. Among the laundry list of items Zoellick requires the Chinese to do to earn the “responsible” label: halt “rapid military modernization,” or at least make China’s military technology and strategy more transparent, work to end “an imbalanced bilateral trade deficit,” crack down on “rampant theft of intellectual property and counterfeiting,” live up to SOE reform commitments in “markets where America has a strong competitive advantage,” rely on multilateral institutions when negotiating in Asia instead of bilateral forums that make it easy “to maneuver toward a predominance of power,” stop “‘lock[ing] up’ energy supplies around the world,” and avoid “partnerships with regimes that hurt China’s reputation,” especially North Korea. To this list of things China must do Zoellick adds a few items that China “should” do, but does not need to do, to earn the “responsible” title (e.g., establish low-level elections and an independent judiciary). [3]

The most notable thing about this little list is that none of it amounted to anything. Here are the openly declared metrics for success put forward by one of the grand architects of Bush era engagement. Yet more than a decade later each of these issues looms worse than on the day the speech was given. This is something the ghosts of policy past can never quite square away. In the old days they could justify what they did with the assumption that Zoellick explicitly admits underlined his entire approach: “Closed politics cannot be a permanent feature of Chinese society.” [4] If you believed China would liberalize on its own accord regardless of what you did, then what was there to do but make money in the meantime?

But in counterpoise: if the arc of the universe does not bend towards Chinese freedom, vaulting the Chinese party-state to the height of wealth and power becomes a more haunting proposition.

The broader problem with the Haas formula (“shape what China does”) is that China’s political behavior cannot be divorced from the economic and political structures that produce it. As China’s newest white paper eagerly reminds us, demanding the PRC reform its SOEs is demanding that it transform the fundamentals of its government, of which those SOEs are a critical part. Asking them to dismantle mercantilist policies and halt IP theft is asking them to abandon the economic model (what Xi would call “the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics”) that their social system (in the Marxist tinged theory of the CPC, China’s social “superstructure”) is built upon. Dialing down the ambitions and capabilities of the PLA would have meant dismantling a keystone of Party ideology, identity, and organization.

Shaping what China does has always entailed shaping what China is.

“Shaping what China is” was not a inherently bad strategy. The attempt to co-opt Chinese upper class, cajole Party leadership into liberalizing their economy, incentivize the Chinese to have a “stakehold” in a system of norms and institutions that we created decades earlier, and infect their population with an irrepressible love for liberty was not doomed at conception. It was a cagey gambit. This gambit came very close to succeeding. This is why the Party leaders reacted so violently against it.

They understood what we were doing perfectly well. They knew from the beginning that we hoped closer economic and social relations with the Chinese people would lead to their gradual emancipation from the claws of a tyrannous party-state. They knew! That is what Silent Contest In Memory of the Collapse of Communist Party and the Soviet UnionDocument #9, Xi’s obsession with ideological competition, Wang Huning’s entire career, and two decades of Party-sponsored research and national security law was all about! To the Chinese state, the “engagement” and “responsible stakeholder” strategies were an existential threat to their regime, and they were not shy about telling us this. Our problem: we did not listen.

We still don’t.

The sad truth is that the Party has a say in its own fate. We moved. They countered. They took decisive measures, some quite costly, to ensure that the West’s attempt to peacefully liberalize their regime would not succeed. They loudly proclaimed their intention to do this all the way back in 2008; this resolution was aggressively translated into policy between 2010 and 2014. The decision to tighten the screws under Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping was openly articulated as a direct response to Western attempts to change China and liberalize the Party.[5] If “engagement” was never really about transforming the Chinese social and political systems, then Beijing never got the memo. The eyes of Zhongnanhai were reading the same speeches, policy documents, interviews, and books the rest of us were. They came to the same conclusions about American policy’s ultimate goals that everyone else did.

Then they decided to do something about it.

The tragedy of American policy making in the 2010s is that we refused to recognize what they were doing. Our politicians and pundits discoursed on the “choice” the Chinese faced before them long after they had made it. The gambit had failed. We were slow to recognize it. Eventually a rough national consensus that engagement was no longer a winning strategy came about, though it came seven years too late. Now that this consensus has been reached and a clearer-eyed vision of the Communist regime finally lies before us, panicked notes of the departed are heard again. “Trust us!,” go their nervous murmurings. “This is how we wanted it to be!

It would be one thing if these voices were saying: “The strategy we advocated was appropriate given what we knew at the time. Had we known how things would develop, we might have acted differently. But the issue at the table today is not what America should have done in 2000, but what America will do in 2020. In the twenty years since we opened up to China, the American economy has become intertwined with the Chinese economy. Cutting the Chinese off now is destructive—to us, them, and the rest of the world—in a way that it was not when we quarantined them after Tiananmen three decades ago. Likewise, Chinese military power has seen fantastic growth since 1997. We can no longer send an aircraft carrier to Taiwan Strait to solve all of our problems. America is partly responsible for these developments. But it has happened. Re-litigating the choices of the late ’90s and early aughts will not change that. We must live with the PLA we have now, not the one we could have had had we done things differently. A military conflict with China now would be horrific. It would be painful in ways that we, who have never lived through a great power war, have trouble imagining. There is a real danger of any conflict with China escalating to a nuclear exchange. No point of contention in the Sino-American relationship is worth that risk. If trading away the freedom of 23 million Taiwanese is the price of avoiding decades of nuclear brinkmanship and possible nuclear war, I will take it.”

That, at least, is an honest argument. I disagree with it. But it is honest. Instead we must listen to this choir of the damned rise up from their graves to sing in praise of rotting plans, stratagems better left entombed and forgotten. Their gambit failed. They pretend that no gambit was made. How are we supposed to react to this mumbo-jumbo, these incantations jittered in op-eds and interviews, half-baked spells for gas-lighting a nation?

Ignore them. Their protests are not lodged in good faith. When the spectre of Chas Freeman is called forth to chantU.S. policy was almost entirely aimed at changing China’s external behavior rather than its constitutional order” recognize this cant for the blight that it is.[6] What Freeman and his sort say about the aims of engagement now do not match what their administrations said about engagement then. Either they were lying then or they are lying now. Either way, they do not deserve our intellectual respect or our personal sympathy. Frankly speaking, they do not need it. They can retreat to the comfort of their gilded crypts in East Coast consultancies and Shanghai trade houses without worrying about being held accountable for their mistakes.

 Let them! Let them linger on in those dark places, nicely fed and sharply dressed, uncalled on and unheeded to the end. The conversation has moved beyond them. They are no longer relevant—unless we make them so.

Which is why this post is the last thing you will see me write about any of these folks. The day is late. Our task presses urgent. We have better things to do than argue with the shades of a dying order.

If you found this post on China’s political ideology useful, you might also find the posts “Xi Jinping Explains His Political Philosophy,” China Does Not Want Your Rules Based Order,” and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” of interest. To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.

[1] “Clinton’s Words on China: Trade Is the Smart Thing,New York Times, 9 March 2000.

[2] Richard Haas, “Statement of Richard N. Haass President Council on Foreign Relations before the Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate on ‘U.S.-China Relations in the Era of Globalization,'” 15 May 2018 (Washington DC), accessed at the CFR website on 2 July 2019.

[3] Robert Zoellick, “Whither China: From Membership to Responsibility?,” address given to National Committee on US-China Relations (New York City), 21 September 2015, accessed at the U.S. Department of State archival website on 2 July 2019.

Incidentally, Zoellick also gives a reason why America should not treat China more confrontationally than the Bush administration chose to do. To quote:

  • It does not seek to spread radical, anti-American ideologies.
  • While not yet democratic, it does not see itself in a twilight conflict against democracy around the globe.
  • While at times mercantilist, it does not see itself in a death struggle with capitalism.
  • And most importantly, China does not believe that its future depends on overturning the fundamental order of the international system. In fact, quite the reverse: Chinese leaders have decided that their success depends on being networked with the modern world.

It is interesting to consider which of these points remain true (or ever were).

[4] ibid.

[5] I believe the best and most accessible description of this dynamic to date is François Bougon, Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping 
(London: Hurst, 2018). Bougon does a fine job of contextualizing Xi’s concerns within the broader milieu of party thought and cultural debate that has defined the Chinese public sphere over the last two decades.

[6] Chas Freeman,“Sino-American Interactions, Past and Future,” Carter Center Presentation (January 2019,) pp. 2–3.

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Johnston is in any case a typical anti-anti-CCP contrarian. He has written two such academic articles before: one in 2013 arguing that China was not more assertive, and one in 2017 saying that China was not as nationalist [as you people say]. In that case he did a survey asking if people thought China was the greatest country on earth and the answer was not as strong. But of course, that is the narrative of American nationalism. China's nationalism is that China /should/ be the greatest country on earth, but right now is not. Hence the need for rejuvenation.

Then more recently he had an article in the Washington Post about a survey he did to discredit the annual NCCU surveys on Taiwanese identity. The one he attacked asks if people identity either as Taiwanese, Chinese and Taiwanese, Chinese, or prefer not to say. His survey asked respondents to divide ten points between 'Taiwanese' and 'Chinese'. Lo and behold: the number of people who put all ten points at Taiwanese were fewer than those who picked 'Taiwanese' as one of three discrete options. He did not address the substantial number of respondents who put 7 or more points into 'Taiwanese' but instead argued that supposedly Taiwanese identity is not as strong as [you people] said.

Which is why I don't understand how well-educated people think that there is any other solution to this problem than the dismantling of the People's Republic of China into smaller and more malleable components. They will not be Japan or Taiwan or Korea 2.0 but they will not pose an existential threat to the United States or the world order. Of course it may not behoove them to say this even if they are thinking/planning it, but a united and growing China (and it will not stop growing) is a threat even if it is not run by the CCP. So it is the concept of China that must change, not the CCP. The CCP is merely the head at the present moment, which is convenient for values-based messaging, should we ever elect a president who is interested in both values and confronting China.


I have read Johnston's work on strategic culture but not much since. Sad to see where he has ended up.

@rector- Glad to have you aboard.

@anon– A non CPC regime may be easier to work with. It is likely. But in any case, physically divvying up a nuclear state is perilous. If the attempt failed it would mean a China whose hostility to us far outsrips what we currently see. In general I am against divvying up the millions when it can be avoided.

@Anon you are an idiot. China has been divided up before, it rebuild itself through fire and blood, and nowadays the Chinese people have a cultural PTSD over that period. All your suggestion will do is to create a new Chinese Regime far more actively aggressive towards the US than the relatively tame PRC who had their extremists discredited during Mao's reign.

Besides, American Regime building being what it is, which is utter shit, this would probably end in a Nuclear Terrorist State the Size of China rising. And good job you just killed everyone.

"But in any case, physically divvying up a nuclear state is perilous"

Well it has been done once…

Which is why I don't understand how well-educated people think that there is any other solution to this problem than the dismantling of the People's Republic of China into smaller and more malleable components.

The same view obtains for China, Russia, Japan, European nationalists, and other sovereigntists with respect to the US: the US needs to be broken apart from its current continental imperial scale into smaller, weaker components so that US global hegemony no longer obtains and no longer serves to promote neoliberalism and Cultural Marxism. Furthermore, this view is also held by many in the US who feel that the myriad political, cultural, regional, racial/ethnic, divisions in the US warrant a breakup of the US into smaller polities.

Well, the US has attacked many more countries than China, and polls around the world show that the US is seen as the biggest threat by many people – it is certainly considered a bigger threat than China by most people. Furthermore, the US has an extremely dangerous ideology for its foreign policy, full spectrum dominance. So, if there is a country that urgently needs to by split and divided up in order to be less of a threat to the rest of the world, it is the US, certainly not China.

Things that can't go on forever won't.
Markets can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.
Things that are unsustainable can keep going longer than you thought possible, and fall apart faster than you imagined.
The end result will be more bizarre than anything anyone projected.

I do not have a deeply held opinion about China's future. I only know what I read in the general press. But, I have a deep conviction that Human Nature is the same everywhere and everywhen. I believe that the wheel of tragedy (sometimes called karma) spins for all. The ancient Greeks knew that men often find that their greatest strength becomes their greatest weakness. A man who has arete ("excellence") such as great power, great beauty, or great prowess may develop hubris ("arrogant pride"), which in turn leads to atë ("blind recklessness"), when he loses his sense of humility and becomes rash or imprudent. Atë, in turn, leads to nemesis ("retributive justice").

Might China be on the wheel? Consider the following:

"Heavy Debt Humbles China’s Business Champions, Including the Jewelry Queen: China’s economic slowdown has exposed how some of the country’s biggest private companies are struggling to manage excessive debt" By James T. Areddy on July 8, 2019

For a generation, China’s explosive growth rewarded bold expansion and many borrowed heavily to seize the moment. … In the past decade, China’s overall debt quadrupled, to around three times the value of last year’s national output. Corporate debt accounts for two-thirds of the total, or more than $26 trillion last year, according to the Bank for International Settlements. Government-run companies owe most of that money, but signs of distress are appearing most dramatically at private companies, which have less pull with creditors and less support under President Xi Jinping, who sees the state sector as the economy’s mainstay.

* * *

In 2017, Beijing began trying to dial back what it termed excessive lending by the financial sector, including banks and informal firms that manage money online, a deleveraging that caused cash shortages at many private companies. … Big debts make it hard for business owners to invest in reinventing the economy, and are sapping confidence along with the country’s trade disputes with the U.S.

* * *

To help private businesses, Beijing is cutting business taxes and red tape, and recently reversed earlier credit controls by leaning on banks to lend more. …


"China’s Deleveraging Is Over: Weak growth and inflation data make another ramp up in Chinese debt all but inevitable" By Nathaniel Taplin on July 2, 2019 •

* * *

All of this signals that demand is too weak to absorb production at current levels. Prices will fall further unless Beijing jump-starts the economy with additional stimulus or dumps excess inventories on global markets. Since another deflation-fueled industrial debt crisis is the last thing the Chinese government needs, easier monetary policy is surely coming. Beijing recognizes that China’s debt problem is the biggest long-term threat to China’s growth. It may pivot back to debt control in the future, should conditions improve externally. Meanwhile, it is too busy putting out fires: More water from the monetary sluice—and another rise in indebtedness—is on the way.

"infect their population with an irrepressible love for liberty…"

I think it would be best to use expressions like "awareness of their rights" rather than "love for liberty". Americans especially love the words "liberty" and "freedom", but what they really mean when they use them is "living in a system where individual rights are properly protected". Words like liberty and freedom may confuse the issue for many Chinese, who think that freedom means having enough money and power to do what you like, or that true freedom is impossible when you live in a society and have to deal with other people (which is correct).

Engagement was about something else entirely.

Of course it was. It was about making money and somewhere else to which the rich could travel.

Foreign travel is a major status symbol. Never underestimate the shallowness of our ruling classes.

I refuse to vote for any candidate whose platform includes meddling in other countries.