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T. Greer: Peter welcome to the show today.
Peter Mattis: Good morning Tanner. Thanks for having me.
T. Greer: So today we’re going to be talking about a paper that started as a congressional testimony by Daniel Tobin called “How Xi Jinping’s New Era Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions.” You and I both think this is a critical document. Last year, after it came out, I blogged about it several times—even wrote a summary of it for people who haven’t read it before. But before we kind of get into its content, maybe you can start us out by telling us a little bit about who the author of this is and the context in which this testimony was created?
Peter Mattis: Well, Dan Tobin has been a DoD China analyst for I guess probably about the last 15 years or so. And I think this work really came out of some things that he was doing while he was a senior analyst at the China Strategic Focus Group out in Hawaii and INDOPACOM. And he was working for Dave Dorman, who was one of my predecessors at the Congressional Executive Commission on China and later for Dave Stilwell, who became Assistant Secretary of State For East Asia and the Pacific after being in that position. Dan is now at the National Intelligence University and that’s given him a little more of a forum to speak out and to contribute to public discourse.
But it began back in Hawaii [when] he was thinking: how do we understand their intentions? Our last real benchmark is the 2012 in the power transition, from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. In the absence of new benchmarks, like the Party Congress Political Report that Hu Jintao delivered, what should we be understanding? What should we be looking to [understand] what’s going on? And he decided that he needed to go back into the history and look for consistencies.
He was struck first and foremost by the presence of “national rejuvenation” as a mission, if you will. This idea of building a “comprehensive modernity” for the People’s Republic of China. This sense of mission pervaded party documents. Not just Mao’s speeches, not just the documentation, but every leader seemed to be speaking in these lines. And more than anything I think his paper is an attempt to draw attention to that consistency, which is why the footnotes span essentially the 1930s to the 2010s.
T. Greer: And he gets into leaders who are quite minor in most people’s minds: Hua Guofeng or Hu Yaobang, people who a lot of folks in the west don’t even recognize as names. He still includes them in his footnotes.
Peter Mattis: I think that’s one of the useful points to it, right? The first Party Secretary to refer to national rejuvenation in one of the work reports at a Party Congress was Zhao Ziyang in 1988, right? That’s in some sense the origin of the phrase at the highest levels of the party. You know, the language was always there in some form or another, but that was where it was used specifically.
And I think the importance of pulling in Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang is that to the extent that they are remembered, they are remembered as being reformers, right? [But] even the reformers within the system are still thinking about how best to achieve these objectives. Not necessarily that the objectives should be changed or that there’s a different path for where the Party is headed.
T. Greer: Maybe we should back up a second. So [Tobin’s] doing this research in the 2010s. It comes out in 2020. What is most of China world doing at this point?
Because essentially Dan Tobin’s essay is an attempt to answer the question: “what kind of world does the Party want?” What is their ultimate goal? And this is something that there have been a lot of disputes about over the last, well… really 30-40 years. If you were to poll the median China expert off the streets of DC in 2017, what were they saying that’s different from what Dan is arguing?
Peter Mattis: Well, first and foremost, people would argue that the Party’s primary objective is to stay in power. That there isn’t a larger purpose here other than other than the Party’s power and its retention of its leadership position within China. And I think that’s kind of a weird, almost an apolitical way of framing it.
Because to some extent, whether it’s a democracy or an authoritarian state, you have politics and you have policy. Let’s just sort of broadly define politics as what you do to stay in power and policy being what you do to govern. There’s a continuum there. If you’re just concerned with staying in power, then you’re not going to do things that people want or people need, or are necessities in some cases —to just make sure, you know, trains run on time.
T. Greer: And I think it also betrays a certain lack of understanding of human psychology in a way. There’s often a problem in China studies where we project too much of our own system and understanding onto China. But in this case, there’s not enough. No one would look at somebody like Barack Obama or George W. Bush and say, “Oh, all they did was simply about winning the next election or making sure that our party will win the next election.” They cared about that. Certainly they would do something to stay in power, to keep their party in power — but they also have beliefs about what is good and bad, what their countries should be like, and what their personal role in that process is.
And it seems extremely naive to me to think that Chinese leaders don’t have similar beliefs about what they want to have done for the sake of the country, for the sake of how history will remember them, or for the future they want to build beyond just, “Oh, I’m going to make sure there’s another communist General Secretary in power in 10 years.”
Peter Mattis: Well, it’s funny that you draw the parallel to human nature and human psychology, right? Because human frailties are fairly profound. We are incredibly limited in our ability to be rational. It’s mostly in the form of our ability to rationalize something. And every organization is going to be imperfect. They are going to have imperfect procedures, imperfect processes.
I think back to a massive comparative project about intelligence services and the assessments of foreign militaries during World War I, the interwar period, and in World War II run by Ernst May, the late historian from Harvard. And his conclusion to this edited volume, I thought had some really good insights. One of the best ones was that there was no link between organizational structure and performance. There was a link between organizational change and poor performance. So as long as you kept shifting things around people they never understood exactly how to get something done. Whereas if you had sort of a steady organization, people would figure out how to get around those flaws. They might get frustrated, they might get upset, they might complain about red tape, but they’d figure out how to get something done.
And I think that’s one of the issues that Dan also is highlighting in this paper. Of course, the Party is imperfect. Of course it has inefficiencies. Of course it’s political. The political system creates a drag on it. But why can’t we take these people seriously? Why can’t we take this organization seriously? And what has it done, particularly in the last 30 years, for us not to take it seriously?
T. Greer: That’s maybe a good segue then into the meat of this congressional testimony, what he’s actually claiming the party wants to do.
It’s not just about surviving one generation into the future. It actually has leaders who have consistently endorsed a vision for the future they want to build. At least since the 1980s —and often many of these strains he’s able to source all the way back to Mao Zedong. So what would you say—in one sentence—what is it that the Communist Party of China wants? Or at least as Dan has sketched it out?
Peter Mattis: When you look at it, I think there are there are three big components. The first is “comprehensive modernity.” You know: rich, strong beautiful, culturally advanced. It’s a whole string of phrases that go into this.
The second is the unification of China. This is something that we had largely misinterpreted as being essentially territorial control. ” Having control of Tibet and Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia is a step. Once they have Hong Kong back, that’s the next step.” I think what we underestimated was how much that comprehensive modernity also applies to — in a sense, comprehensive unification. It’s not just political, but it’s also economic. It’s social. It’s cultural. And you can also see this in language policies that it affects dialects throughout China.
And the third point is global power and influence. The Party builds China into a country with enough comprehensive national power to shape global norms and institutions, and essentially to define what is legitimate in the international system.
T. Greer: So let’s start with that last one. What kind of international order does China believe it needs in order to accomplish its goal? Actually they’re connected and Dan’s pretty good at seeing these connections. The Communist Party of China has doctrinally put out that a certain sort of international order is needed in order for the Chinese to secure the kind of comprehensive modernity that you’re talking about.
Peter Mattis: Well, they’ve framed it in a couple of different ways. The first is as the “New Type of International Relations.” And the other a “Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” or for humanity. I think, their official translation is something like a “community for a shared future,” since that community a common destiny is a little bit touchy.
I think the easiest way to describe this is the projection of the internal political system of the party state onto the international order. And there’s a pretty good white paper that was put out by the State Council Information Office back in June about China’s political party system. It essentially describes the Party being at the core. [According to it, the Party’ system] is democratic system by virtue of the fact that the Party represents the will of all all of the different groups— they are in a sense subsumed into the party. They provide their inputs. Then the party sort of helps them converge around a particular point.
So there’s a process of change, ostensibly, that the Party is leading. And if you were to be kind of a little flip about it, this is a hub and spokes model with China and 213 spokes. So it’s not about necessarily international organizations providing a set of rules or a common playbook where people go to resolve disputes. The inputs revolve around Beijing. And through this process of “consultation,” there’s a sort of harmony [that] emerges.
I think you can see how this plays out in data standards, in the efforts to control information flows, to ensure that there is a sort of close relationship between what people understand, what people think, and how people view the world, and the Party’s perspective.
T. Greer: There’s two elements to this, though, in terms of why the party feels compelled to shape the international order in a certain way. One has to do with security. Security in the sense that “if we don’t control or at least mold the order to look a bit more like our own, then we are going to be in danger of having foreign powers manipulate us”— hostile forces is the phrase they often like to use—”we will be in danger of having foreign ideas enter us as contagion.” But there’s also this positive, less defensive aspect of it as well.
I’ll quote from Dan’s testimony. He says:
Second, the kind of order Beijing desires is not one where its social system is merely secure, but also covered in glory. The party seeks an order in which China’s achievements as a great power are not only recognized, but also credited to its particular brand of socialism and lauded as a moral triumph both for socialism and for the Chinese nation. Here Chinese diplomats frequent exhortations to the United States to respect China’s social system and development path is not just a call for tolerance, but also for moral recognition.
And in many ways this Community of Common Destiny, this vision of a world that’s takes away U.S. alliance structures, where technical standards are being set by the Chinese, where authoritarianism is seen, not only as an option, but as the best option to achieve your development path because “China did and look how bright they are!”— a lot of it kind of comes down to this sense of honor and glory on their part. I really appreciate Dan talking about that because most Chinese analysts in the 15 years before weren’t using words like “glory” to describe what it isthe Communist Party wants. Even though that is exactly the kind of word that Xi uses all the time. He definitely doesn’t have any problem using that sort of rhetoric to describe state goals.
Peter Mattis: You bring up a couple of different issues here. One is, yes, there’s a security component of it. But this isn’t a new thing. They’ve been afraid of “peaceful evolution” and pressure to change their system—both from Moscow, during the Cold War and from the United States or other democratic states — since the earliest days of the Cold War.
T. Greer: If I can interrupt you, Peter—For our listeners who don’t know the phrase, “peaceful evolution” is communist Party speak for the idea of the Chinese political system being subverted and liberalized. Since the Mao days there was the idea that we might become a democracy slowly. And we need to hold that off.
Peter Mattis: Yeah. Or U.S. policy of regime change.
T. Greer: Yep.
Peter Mattis: It is as direct as that. And if there’s a particular place where you can say, they’re quite sensitive, if you will, then it’s probably this view of, of history and the Party’s role in it, right? Because there’s this idea of the Party moving the Chinese people back to glory, back to a center place in global affairs— but you end up with all of these messy things.
Like the Great Leap Forward: Mass starvation in the pursuit of industrial objectives. The legacy of the Cultural Revolution: Mao turns the party and society on themselves and leads to at times basically a civil war, although on a province-by-province, city-by-city basis. One of the things that continues to be invoked, especially in this year, since extreme poverty was officially eliminated, is this idea of lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty and that it was the Party’s role to accomplish that. And this kind of thing is particularly interesting. When you go backinto the history that’s been done by Frank Dikotter, by Joshua Eisenman by Yang Jisheng, [we find that] the party essentially collapsed in the early 1970s and had very, very limited control. And so if you go like Josh did and follow provincial inside local statistics, you realize that huge chunks of reform actually occurred well before we considered reform even a policy or well before Deng Xiaoping was ever in power. And that people taking care of themselves, actually unleashing the work ethic. The spirit of the Chinese people did a lot to lift people out of poverty. More than the party had done in a similar timeframe.
And this is why the history of question is so fraught: because if the Party is constantly marching on these objectives, if it has a unique view, if not a monopoly, on the science on development, then these kinds of mistakes are hard to justify.
And you know, this is where you also have to recognize that when they’re talking about security, they’re talking about ideas. The State Security Law from 2017 is actually pretty specific about this. Security means the absence of threats to the party’s ability to govern; Document #9, about the state of competition in the ideological sphere from 2013, [further] identifies academic freedom, rule of law, press freedoms, the idea of civil society, as things that are very direct threats.
To pull it back to Dan’s paper, this global interconnectivity is a great opportunity to push a harmonious world, to sort of reshape the international order this image of China’s domestic political system. But it’s also a huge vulnerability with incredibly high stakes. They don’t see it as “here’s a sphere of influence,” or “we can carve a line down in the middle of the Pacific and sort of stick on one side” because this interdependence prevents us from doing that. Therefore, the stakes are raised. I think that was a really important point that Dan made: interdependence doesn’t lower the stakes. It makes them much, much higher.
T. Greer: When I talk to Chinese people, it is interesting how many agree with this point.
I think back to an essay by Jie Dalei from a few years ago. It made almost essentially the same point from the reverse perspective, arguing “of course we’re going to have this fight. We’re all interconnected. We can’t get away from it.” I’m also reminded of a speech I translated of Xi Jinping’s. After he came to power, in the very first month of 2013, I think he gave a speech where he talked about how we need to deal with history.
Which as you, you mentioned, it’s kind of a sensitive subject. It’s funny how he describes these periods of chaos [in Chinese history]. He says they were “explorations” that were necessary to create the world we’re in. But then one of the lessons he hopes to draw is — — he says, look at the Soviet Union! And then, I’m quoting directly here, he says, “Why did the Soviet Union collapse? Why did this great party fall apart? Because in the ideological domain competition is fierce.”
The Party really is worried about that. And the need to feel glory is I think a counterpart of this worry. I sometimes articulate China’s goal, or [at least] the goal of the Party, as becoming so successful that it would be laughable for their own citizens to say, “we would be better off if we were a democracy,” “we would be better off if we were at liberal.” That’s the world they want. They want the world where that thought doesn’t exist.
Now it’s hard to control people’s thoughts though. And this is what leads to, I think, what you were talking about in terms of why China feels compelled to in some ways reshape the terms of the order. A lot of it really is about shaping what people, if not what they think, what they can speak. Because that’s how thoughts spread around.
You’ve done a lot of research on this as the head of the Commission. You were in charge of a lot of other people doing research on this. Can you speak a little bit to—what are examples of the Communist Party trying to control this discourse space?
Peter Mattis: Yes, it’s about discourse and controlling what people say, but it’s also just as important, if not more so, to control what people do, right? And to channel their efforts into something productive. And productive meaning at the very least for the Party it’s neutral, if not, directly beneficial.
And you know, you could think about this in the discourse space as where they can apply control, they apply control. They put up a great firewall. They limit access to foreign news publications. They create in a sense — I’d almost call them fake state media. So you can read something that’s a little freer, a little more taboo, you know, touches on some, some slightly edgier subjects, but still basically toes the party line, especially on anything important.
When you can control the information space, you can start shifting people’s mentality relatively quickly, right? You’re preventing other influences, you’re bombarding them with other sources of news. Then you have access to the education system. One of the big changes after 1989 and the Beijing Spring was this, I don’t know, I wouldn’t even go call it doubling down, maybe tripling down on, on patriotic education to ensure that people grow up with the correct view of the Party.
I remember one Chinese friend described it as being taught kind of a set of logic, if you will, that would be triggered. So you could have one perfectly normal conversation about a number of different subjects, but if you decided, oh, well, let’s talk about Taiwan, all of a sudden there was a logic that was taught that they immediately started proceeding down.
I remember one conversation that was, well, more of an argument for about four hours, in the Number 10 dining hall at Tsinghua with a friend and it was painful. Cause we were very clearly operating on different logics. It wasn’t just a different set of facts that we were operating from, but it was a different way of thinking through all of the different steps.
And I think that’s where, when you’re talking about shaping the discourse, that’s ultimately where they went. It’s when you see a sensitive issue your brain immediately goes into a different direction, and it doesn’t necessarily think of it through the steps that as an American or as a Taiwanese person, you might think of.
T. Greer: But you know, these are kind of domestic examples and Dan’s paper is important because it kind of shows why that logic must internationalize.
Peter Mattis: I mean, you can see this in Chinese language media, right? They’re essentially two owners now of Chinese language media out in the world. The largest one is the Chinese Communist Party and the other one is the Falun Gong. And there’s very little of any significance that is independent.
And even if it was independent, the dominant Chinese language application for getting news comes through WeChat, right? And WeChat is censored, including abroad. Therefore if you can’t get the word out and you can’t get clicks and you can’t get people to follow and views, then it’s not going to matter. You can’t really stay in business.
T. Greer: Well, there’s also several instances of the Party threatening radio stations to pull their advertisements. And these are radio stations in Canada, the United States, not in–
Peter Mattis: They are not threatening the radio station themselves. Or the newspapers. They’re threatening the advertisers. So if a company in Melbourne or in Los Angeles or Vancouver or Toronto or Paris has… you have this what was once an independent newspaper, right? A company that advertised to the Chinese speaking community there and had business in Beijing. It might be called in, in Beijing say, or Shanghai or Shenzhen or wherever else to say, “look, you need to pull your advertising.” And those threats would be delivered quite regularly.
I think when we talk about ‘discourse’ this in some sense distracts from what they’re really doing, or at least what they’re doing at the beginning of the stage, which is attempting to control the platforms. I like to put it ‘as first the medium than the message.’ Because if you control the platforms like WeChat or the radio station or the newspapers, where’s the op-ed going to be? We’re not going to have a democracy wall in Los Angeles, like 1979, where a big character poster goes up and it’s going to have wide purchase. If it’s not online, if it’s not something you can readily send, if it’s not in an existing platform, it’s going to be very difficult to get that out.
And that’s where, what the Party is doing is so important. It’s not just blocking because it can prevent Chinese people domestically from accessing it. That’s also because they’re shaping what people will see abroad. And I think you can pretty safely say that there’s been a lot more pressure on companies to make sure that they are saying things and doing things that are much more in line with where the party’s objectives are and what the party considers acceptable speech.
T. Greer: This strategy itself is pretty old. I think back to the nineties, when most of the student groups, Chinese student groups on campus, were not government organized. It was an entirely separate organization. A lot of times it grew out of the ’89 protests in the United States. And the Party made a concerted effort to create these Chinese Student Scholar Associations. Not because they needed to spy on everybody at that time, though I’m sure they did, but because if you have that as a platform, then later on, you might be able to use it to change the message that people are hearing in these Chinese diaspora communities on campuses. And that was why they made this big effort to make sure that on every campus, the Chinese student organization is going to be one that we help set up.
You could argue that it’s that same strategy times 10, all the way up to Huawei. It’s consistently an attempt to try to ensure that the party controls or at least has a significant stake in the control of institutions where ideas and information are spread, shared, and deposited. I mean, would you say that’s right?
Peter Mattis: I’d say that’s right. But I think it’s also important to go back to the positive message if you will, as you mentioned earlier. It’s not just defensive. Yes, there’s politics, but there’s also the policy component. And with those student groups, you know, they are there to help socialize people, to help help Chinese students get accustomed and settled into the university, to help build an immediate social network. Those are all positive things, right? The way that the party is most successful is when it can provide a way for people to opt into their own control, because convenient—
T. Greer: And like, WeChat, it doesn’t exist for censorship. WeChat exists for a hundred different functions that are useful and good functions. And most of the material on WeChat is I don’t know, dumb memes and stickers about dating or about how terrible your job is. A very, very small percentage is political material. But if everyone’s using that platform for those reasons, and you can pull material from it or add material to it, you have a powerful ability to shape the information space.
OK, let me ask you a kind of tough question. Let’s say I’m talking to maybe a cousin of mine in rural Utah who has never been to China. He will never go to China. He is probably not even going to go onto a university campus, much less spend time with a Chinese Student and Scholars Association. They’re not going to use WeChat. They’re not going to be using these platforms that the Chinese are trying very hard to control. They probably don’t care too much about what the UN is saying at any one moment. Why would they care about this? How would you deal with the person whose argument is, ” yeah, it sucks for Chinese dissidents, but this isn’t something that should change our country, our foreign policy.” What would you say to that?
Peter Mattis: Well, the first thing, the very, very first response is that this doesn’t just affect Chinese people meaning PRC nationals. There are hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Chinese people in the United States who are U.S. Citizens. So this affects Americans, right? To me it’s as simple as that. This is a component of civic identity. It’s not based on ethnicity and nation. It’s based on a choice to become a citizen, whether it’s your own or a family member’s, or your ancestors, it’s a choice that’s there. So if this has been done to Americans, then it’s something that we should care about.
Because in one sense, what we’re talking about when we’re, when we’re looking at coercion, whether it’s the intimidation of students on a campus, whether it is preventing their participation in a university course, whether it is limiting their access to news or as the Pro Publica and Justice Department indictments for Fox Hunt show, you know, extreme pressure to get people back into the PRC. These are crimes being committed by a foreign government against our people on our soil. And that to me, I think, is the first piece that should be there.
T. Greer: Just for people who might not know this Operation Fox Hunt: this is an operation where—it actually is a global operation that the Chinese have done to try to locate Chinese people who have fled China, often because they are accused of corruption or financial crimes, and then try and bring them back to China. And ProPublica did an investigative report, that they just published, that talks about how Chinese police officers are roaming across the American suburbs and surveilling people, threatening them, banging on their doors, driving around in cars that are painted to look like Chinese police cars to try and scare people, to remind them that they’re not safe in the United States from the reach of the Chinese state. Its quite kind of disturbing stuff. I’ll definitely put a link to this in the show notes for people who want to read more about that.
Peter Mattis: The second piece that someone should care about, perhaps more relevant to someone in, in rural Utah, is if you’re joining the U S Military, you’re looking at one of the big hotspots for a conflict. If a shooting war happens, one of the most disastrous places that it could be is in East Asia involving the PLA Navy [or] Air Force. You know, whether it’s a defense of Taiwan, or whether it’s something else, that military modernization has been made possible by U S investment. It’s been made possible by intellectual property theft. That’s the reason why there is a threat. Look across at the PRC. And you look at behaviors that you don’t like: the theft of intellectual property that’s brought down more than a few companies, whether you’re talking about the Canadian Nortel, whether you’re talking about a rather substantial windmill maker for generating wind power, there’s a whole range. If you’re talking about, say, the forced labor policies and the crimes against humanity being committed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The reason why the PLA is in a position right now to threaten Taiwan, possibly even take it is in part because of these sort of pernicious behaviors that we’ve treated as kind of one-offs that we can, that we can negotiate as a small issue here or there.
T. Greer: One article I recommend people read— there’s an article, an investigative report from Bloomberg called “When Rio Tinto Met China’s Iron Hand.” That describes how this mining conglomerate was basically manipulated, destroyed, and totally messed with, for the sake of Chinese politics. Rio Tinto is not a Chinese company, but it was done to them because they were dependent on the Chinese market. And it’s really kind of crazy, all the stuff that is done: from jailing their executives, to forcing them to buy things that weren’t in their interests, to incredible hacks on their data. And you kind of realize when you read this, and then when you look at other things the Party has done—say the sort of sanctions they put on Australia late last year—that this is a pattern.
When the party has the proper leverage to exercise this sort of control, it does. Without question! Over and over again! So read that article and read the Fox Hunt article we just referenced and you’ll see what Dan Tobin is talking about when he says that the Party sees a need for integration to be used for them instead of against them. It’s almost zero sum, how they look at it. If you’re going to have integration, you need to be the one who’s in the driver’s seat.
Peter Mattis: And to bring it back to something that Dan’s arguing against, the defensive framing of the party’s ambitions. If it’s defensive there’s a sense of restraint. When you look at these exercises of power, you don’t necessarily have a sense of restraint. But if you’re thinking defensively, restraint is sort of a key or a defining feature rather than a tactical tool. To give a little plug to, to Rush Doshi and his book, The Long Game: the hinge point of his book essentially is that restraint was a tactical choice or a strategic choice for dealing with the United States. But it was one that they, after the financial crisis in 2008, have done away with. They moved away from that sense of tactical restraint and are now trying to create the international order in the image that they would like it to be.
T. Greer: Another example that comes to mind is the case of Sweden and Gui Minhai, who was a Swedish citizen who ran a anti-China bookstore in Hong Kong. He was kidnapped in Thailand back in 2015. When the Swedes try to protest, the Chinese came back to them and more or less said, “If you support people like this, if you vocally protest how we’re treating your citizen, there’ll be consequences.” Their ambassador famously said “for our friends, we have sweet wine and for enemies, we have shotguns.” What that means has become evident this year when the Chinese government made clear that they will punish companies like Ericsson and deny them spaces in the Chinese market, if Sweden doesn’t shape up. Erickson lost about 7% of its stock price upon that announcement. And that’s the kind of manipulation that we see.
Another example in this vein is what happened to Australia late last year. Where the Chinese government restricts imports from Australia of a whole variety of products, from coal to wine. And their explanation for this coercion—they actually wrote a document that they gave to the Australian government that listed 14 different things they were doing wrong. And some of these were not even things done by the Australian government. One of the things they complain about is the Australian media is being too tough on us. Independent think tanks are saying things, or doing research, we don’t like. This is kind of like saying that “you can’t have a civil society that does things we don’t like!”
In a sense, my relative out in Utah might not be affected too much if a think tank can’t write what they need to, or if newspapers aren’t allowed to say what they need. But at that point you’re retreating from basic principles of a liberal society. Things like freedom of speech and freedom of association. If you retreat on a few cases, you’re really retreating on the principle.
I don’t know if that’s the international order we want to live in, where that is what is being demanded of the various parties inside it.
Peter Mattis: Well, I think this goes back to that point about the absence of threats to the party’s ability to govern, right? And this issue of restraint, the absence of threats is not a restrained view of security. In one sense, it’s a very totalizing one. Because if there’s no way for you to prove a negative, that the only way that you can do it is to keep reaching out and reaching out to make sure that you have an ear or an eye in every room near every person. Because that’s the only way that you can ensure that people are not saying those ideas or doing things that you consider to be a threat. And civil society is explicitly one of those that they’re saying is a threat. I mean, when you look at Xi Jinping’s visits to the media, about 2014-2015, where he’s visiting CGTN and Xinhua— and whether it’s coming from Xi Jinping or from the leadership of those organizations, there’s kind of a “if you think that you’re a journalist think again, find somewhere else because that’s not what we do here. That’s not what Xinhua is about this is not what CGTN is about. What we do here is support the party and tell people what the party needs them to know.”
T. Greer: Let me change gears a little bit. One of the things that pops out to me when I read this report is the late date at which had arrived. This report. changed a lot of people’s minds. Rush Doshi’s book, which you mentioned, has very similar themes. It was published a few weeks ago. Dan Tobin’s paper came out in early early 2020—March of 2020— as testimony to Congress.
Why did it take us so long to figure some of this stuff out?
What was stopping the world of China analysis from actually identifying what was going on? These are publicly available documents, the stuff that the party uses to tell its own people what they should be doing, what their goals should be. And many of these documents have been around for decades and decades. It’s been there. So why is the world of China analysis been so slow to recognize what lies right in front of its face?
Peter Mattis: That’s a tough question. Some of it has to do with methods, or the sources that people go to. If you read some of these phrases in isolation — Like that string of words that goes along with, you know, a modern China that is “rich, strong, beautiful, culturally advanced, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera” — You look at that and go, what does this even mean? If you’re reading it in isolation, it’s very easy to dismiss it and walk away. But if you look into the Party sort of structurally and how it processes things and how it goes, you’d recognize, well, wait a minute: each of those phrases came from somewhere. And if you start from those phrases and work backward, you know, “where did this come from? How did they arrive at this sort of this phrase?” Then I think you ended up in a place where you understand it better. Right? And when you go through the footnotes of Dan’s paper, that’s what you see that he did. He broke those pieces down.
Another thing that you and I have talked about previously was Samantha Hoffman’s dissertation about security. Her dissertation is in one sense, the mirror image of Dan’s paper, right? It’s the domestic component of this. It is about how you create an environment in which the Party’s rise or China’s rise is assured. And her whole approach in that dissertation was essentially to look at state security and social governance and to unravel those terms going all the way back as far as she could. To trace the evolution and then see what other kind of policy ideas got injected into them, or got attached to them.
At the point that they’re in a Party Congress Work Report in 2017, then you’re talking about something that’s kind of like the trunk of a Christmas tree. So what are all of the different pieces that have been hung off of it prior to this time? Part of the point of political speech is to deliver something that people understand. The point of jargon is so that you don’t have to keep defining things over and over. When there are big, long, weighty things that must be communicated. That is what those words are : short pieces of jargon to make it digestable. (Although the length of the 19th Party Congress speech was— you know, it has to be one of the worst examples of the ni ting wo shuo [Ch: you listen, I talk] to which anyone has ever been subjected. Right?)
T. Greer: Yeah. I remember I was in China at the time in a room full of high schoolers who were forced to watch it and try to not fall asleep! [laughter] So I remember watching it in person.
I think it’s important to maybe clarify for people who aren’t familiar with China studies what that kind of speech means. Because in the west, in a democracy, speeches have a different function. A speech in a democracy is usually doing one of two things. When a president goes and gives a speech at someplace, he’s usually either intending to signal to his coalition that he’s on their side, to build up support among different issue groups or demographics, or he gives the speech to provide an inspirational flourish over what he wants to accomplish to get people excited and mobilized.
Communist party rhetoric is usually not like that. They don’t recognize issue groups. Even if they exist, they pretend they don’t. And their rhetoric is… I think the best analogy in the west is something like military doctrine where you have phases like ” great power competition” which are supposed to filter down the bureaucracy and guide what people actually do.
And so in this context, speeches, well I just feel like they matter more in the communist system than they do in the west. [laugh] Because Xi Jinping, his problem is he has got this gigantic behemoth that he has to try and get to all pull in one direction. And the purpose of a Party speech, of the various forms of rhetoric which are all graded at different levels of authority, is to basically tell the entire party, “this is our goal. This is what we’re trying to do. This is how you can operationalize it.” And the use of jargon is one way to kind of do that.
Peter Mattis: Well, to bring it back briefly to the, to the methodology question :
The way that a lot of people have typically approached these documents is to say, “I’m not sure I understand what this term is, so let’s look at Chinese academics and what they write about it.” And in some cases that leads them into the right places, you know, the Central Party School, for example, it does an awful lot of explaining what the theory and doctrine is. But you also see a lot of people looking at very academic journals, not necessarily the ones that are the outlets of the central party, like Red Flag, Seeking Truth, Study Times. Those are the official outlets of the party school. Some people look at those, but a lot of people don’t and you get this explanation that may be right, or it may be wrong. It may be couched in international relations theory. In some sense, it’s kind of divorced from the party context in this policy side.
If you’re really looking to understand what’s going on and how things work on the ground, you want to start with the concepts of the overall objectives. What are the concepts that they attach to those objectives? What are the sort of operational strategies or plans that are associated with those concepts? And then you want to look at the localization of it, right? Is there a provincial counterpart to this? Is there a municipal or county level counterpart to this? How does it trickle down? And when you see all of those pieces come together this is where you end up with a pretty coherent understanding. I think it’s fairly clear that whoever did all of the work on military civil fusion at the State Department made that exact kind of approach, right? When you look at the State Department general guidance on what PRC national strategy is for military civil fusion. You can see this nested language and you can see it running from these top level objectives down to here’s what people are expected to do.
T. Greer: Well, I think we probably have time for one last question. And the question I’m about to ask builds off of what you just said. In your career, you’ve been a part of several different analytic communities that look at China analysis. These kinds of communities, we might divide up: You have academia, you have journalism, you have the intelligence community, you have think tanks, you have government groups that are working off open sources, like the Commission that you used to lead. Which ones do you think tend to do the best at the analysis we need? What could be done to maybe create a better corps of China hands who are doing the kind of analysis like Dan Tobin does? Whats the leverage points here?
Peter Mattis: The first point is I would say that none of these sort of communities have a monopoly on truth. It’s interesting belonging to a couple of different professional list servs. They’re often full of, you know, little snipes and swipes at other communities. There’s not necessarily a recognition of the kind of pressures or the kinds of limitations that the other ones are under.
But as for which one does it best… you know, in an environment where people are going to be punished by Beijing with the loss of access, with pressure on donors, the place that’s best positioned to do good work is going to be in government, right? Because the work isn’t public, there’s more freedom of thought. You can debate without that spilling over in a way that you can get punished for.Your organization isn’t going to face a lawsuit. It may be a nuisance suit, but it could drain tens of thousands of dollars just because of one messed up footnote. So they’re in a position to do it best.
But the problem with government is that you’re concerned with the here and now. And very little, I don’t want to say long-term thinking, right, because it may not be practical to think about five or 10 or 20 year increments, but it’s certainly practical to think about six months, 12 months, 18 months— especially if you’re concerned with where, for example, where PLA capabilities are. That’s the time in which ships could be launched. You might’ve missed a couple of holes that were, in a shipyard up the river from Shanghai, not just the main one that you thought it was. Things could change quite dramatically with oversights like this.
But I think you can end up in a place where you’re so obsessed with dealing with the crisis of the day, answering the question that your principal is asking, responding with memos, that you’re not necessarily thinking ahead.
It is the same in journalism. It is the same in academia. And one of the professors I had as an undergraduate, Ken Pyle, the historian of modern Japan, I think had some of the best writing advice that I’ve ever heard. Which was: identify the big questions. You know, they’re only going to be a couple that are there. Write them. And write early and write often. Because the situation will change. You can write about a lot of different things, but if you’re always attaching back to those big questions, then whatever you’re doing is moving your thinking forward.
And you know, when you have sort of disparate systems doing very different things across the U S government, the questions that the Defense Department might be asking are very different than State might be asking, which are very different than Commerce or U.S.T.R. or the White House. That helps encourage that kind of fractured thinking. And I think the importance of what Dan is offering, and one of the reasons why I don’t consider there to be much of a DC consensus about China, is that if you don’t have consensus around, “what are the Party’s intentions?”, “Where is it going to take the People’s Republic of China?”, then you don’t have any way of framing what the problem is.
They’re all just a series of annoyances: whether it is intellectual property theft, whether it’s military modernization, whether it is problematic capital flows, whether it is the export of corruption, whether it is capturing data flows, whether it is intimidation of Chinese dissidents or Chinese people generally outside of the PRC. Unless you’re able to think up to that top level of “what are the party’s intentions?” “Where do they want to lead the PRC?”, all of these things are kind of disconnected. If you don’t have consensus there, then you don’t know what kind of problems there are, what are actually threats, what could be opportunities, and, most importantly, how far do we need to go?
If we’re trying to find some kind of new balance, as my old boss, Marco Rubio likes to say, the question with that balance is: if we have to keep pushing to that balance, where do we stop? How do we know where that is? How do we know we are at a point where we can stand on our own two feet and where we have something that’s that’s functioning? Trying to get at the Party’s objectives, trying to understand the Party on its terms, how it conceives of security, how it conceives of its restraints and constraints in the world–I think that’s the most important piece.
And what Dan Tobin did very well was take the party seriously on its own terms. And as you know, as far as a change in methods change and approach, it’s teaching people to go through those documents and sit down and, and discuss them.What does this phrase mean? Where did this come from? What are they after? Because until we do that, I’m not sure what we’re really going to have much of a consensus.
And let’s be honest. What has the Party done in the last 30 years to not be taken seriously?