China Expert: I’m Drunk

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 5, No. 7, July 2017

Beijing partiers doze off at a bar, 2013. Source: Andrea La Rosa via Flickr.

Anders Corr
Publisher of the Journal of Political Risk

The following conversation between myself and a drunk China expert, who published a well-reviewed book on China recently, covers a wide-ranging set of topics, including the hard-to-decipher policy intentions of the U.S. and China. The conversation, which occurred by email starting Friday night, April 21, is sometimes humorous, and may be politically incorrect to some. But it succinctly and candidly addresses critical themes of U.S.-China relations, and touches on the politics of China analysis in the U.S. and Europe.

The expert, once he sobered up, gamely gave me permission to publish the exchange, but not to use his name. “I don’t want to be seen as a panda hugger,” he said, “because I’m not.”

The term “panda hugger” is a pejorative name for policy analysts who are “pro-China” or “soft on China”. Conversely, these “pro-China” analysts can colloquially call their opponents “tough-on-China”, a “China Hawk”, or most damning of all, an “ideologue” or “China Basher”. In other circumstances, these analysts could more politely be called “pro-engagement” and “anti-engagement” with China. Few analysts on either side of the debate want to represent these “extremes”, which is possibly part of the problem, and why China policy since 1972 is difficult to understand and ultimately failed.

The conversation started with an ongoing court case by Falun Gong against Cisco for allegedly helping China customize technology used for human rights abuse against Falun Gong supporters.

Anders: Terri Marsh is the lead council for the plaintiffs (Falun Gong) who presented oral arguments in the 9th Circuit on Tuesday. It is an interesting human rights case as it argues that U.S. laws apply in an extraterritorial manner to Cisco Systems, which allegedly customized its technology in a way that was used to cause human rights violations in China. This post is by Beth Van Schaack, the Leah Kaplan Visiting Professor of Human Rights at Stanford Law School.

Expert: Are those morons still at it?!

Anders: What do you mean? Who are the morons?

Expert: Falun Gongists.

Anders: Why do you say they are morons? Isn’t it good that they are challenging China (even if they are a little weird)?

Falun Gong practitioners before the annual July 1 protest march in Victoria Park, Hong Kong, China. Source: Remko Tanis via Flickr.

Expert: Oh, challenging China is good. But these freaks believe they have a burning wheel of fire in their gut. Or something. It’s feckin lame. I didn’t bother reading what you sent. I just think people who believe in this s*** are stupid. I’m with Beijing on that one.

Anders: Well — Falun Gong is a religion. People who proclaim religious beliefs often do/believe weird things (like drinking the blood of Christ every Sunday). Those strange things act as glue (according to sociologists) to hold the organization together. The organization itself has a positive effect as a social group with values (as long as those values are good). In this case (and in the case of Chinese Christians) Falun Gong spends a lot of energy resisting China, so they seem to have good values. Why not support them?

Expert: Yes, and believing in fairies in the sky is stupid. I have never understood why I should respect religion. All religions are ideologies like any other, and therefore should be open to criticism. I happen to quite like liturgy and religious art, but that’s because I like art and literature. Anglicanism is the only sensible religion I know, because Anglicans don’t really believe in anything. Resisting “China” as some kind of quasi-religious belief strikes me as particularly stupid. The idea that anyone who’s anti-China is therefore good is utterly fatuous. This seems to me a peculiarly American way of thinking. I’ll read this tomorrow and agree with every word I’ve said. But I have had a bottle of wine and several beers.

Anders: I’m not saying that resisting China as a religious belief is “good”, just that those who resist China (like Christians and Falun Gong) should be seen as allies, even if they have weird views.

Expert: I’m now sober. You can see why I don’t do Twitter. Far too dangerous. Why should those who resist China be allies? That implies China is the enemy. Why should I see China as my enemy? What has it done to be my enemy? I lived in China for years and was treated very well. What has China done to the West to be treated as an enemy? Please enlighten me.

Anders: China appears to be trying to bribe the U.S. president, and it is stealing the exclusive economic zone/territory of Western allies. It represses its own people. It is competing with global institutions and remaking others. It spreads and protects authoritarianism globally.

Expert: The U.S. executes people. It tortures its enemies. Its prisons are filled with repressed minorities. It invades sovereign countries and doesn’t bother cleaning up the mess. It’s led by a possibly criminal vulgarian. It dominates global institutions and systematically keeps out other countries. I’m no leftist or anarchist. I’m simply pointing out facts. How would the U.S. behave if Canada, Mexico and Cuba were Chinese allies and home to Chinese troops, and the Caribbean was patrolled by Chinese warships? And if China provided military support to a neighbor who had murdered 20 million Americans within living memory? You’re American. You believe in your country and its values. You’re a realist. Fair enough. But a little bit of self-awareness and objectivity wouldn’t go amiss. Frankly all the “God bless America” stuff — we’re good, we’re great — is a bunch of bollocks. Regarding an anti-China alliance with those who have weird views, would that include ISIS?

Anders: The US has allied with Muslim extremists (in Syria, Afghanistan) against dictators in the past — it does not work out well, just creating long-term chaos and violence. I’m not saying America is great — I’m saying democracy and human rights are great. Americans (and Europeans) are great violators of these values. But China is far worse. China executes more and tortures more routinely. Tibetan and Uighur minorities are more violated than are Native Americans (in the 21st century — possibly previously as well). The U.S./Europe invades countries of dictators and criminals who are out of control — this is a global public good that China does not provide. The U.S. welcomes alliances and participation by all democratic nations (and too many autocratic nations) in international institutions that are meant to protect the sovereignty and development of those democratic countries. These are the facts. Cuba was a Soviet ally for years and the US probably did too little to change it. It’s a horrible dictatorship that repressed its people. This is a people-centered approach to international politics not a sovereign state approach. Human rights should be a priority over the sovereignty that in practice in autocracies is only enjoyed by a few elites at the very top. The sovereignty of elites in China means very little to me compared to the repression that over a billion in China live under. Countries around China want U.S. troops because China is trying to nibble at their edges. Nobody wants this expensive situation, least of all the US or these countries. But it is entirely China (and North Korea’s) fault. The US is not nibbling at Canadian or Mexican territory. They like us and so don’t ask for Chinese troop placements. Nobody wants Chinese troops because nobody trusts the Chinese. But lots of people all over the world who believe in democracy and human rights want more of us around — like Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, etc. Have we made hash jobs of these places on occasion? Yes. But we stand for the values that people support. China doesn’t. They stand for elitism and their Han nationality. Do we have some of that? Yes. But China is far worse. Japan is no longer the country that invaded China. Those people mostly passed away. It is a contrite democracy with a nearly unheard-of pacifist constitution. Raising Japan’s past is a Chinese propaganda tactic.

Expert: I happen to agree with most of what you’ve written here. Of course I’m basically on the “good” side. But I do think your view of China is one-dimensional. Remind me of how much time you’ve spent there? You wouldn’t believe (or perhaps you’re only too aware?) how many Europeans have a pretty negative view of the U.S. That tends to evaporate when they visit and meet real Americans. The same could be said of China. My father in law is a Communist Party member who worked for the Beijing government for 30 years. He’s just an ordinary bloke. I’ve interviewed plenty of government officials. They tend to be doing their best to improve the lives of the people, though there are plenty of bad apples, too. The guys at the very top have an excellent record of improving human rights, if you define that in terms of facilitating economic development. All the other stuff you say is basically true. But you need to see the whole picture.

Anders: [I forgot to answer in the email exchange that I was in China for a one-month honeymoon, enough time to take photos of a Chinese submarine on a river and a soldier buying an ice cream — both pictures mysteriously disappeared from my camera and Facebook before I left the country.] I wouldn’t fit me into a “one-dimensional” hole. Everyone has their own perspective, and we are all biased in some way. Spending too much time in China can make you go native — make excuses for human rights abuses and the lack of representation. From what you have said, it sounds like you think I am against the Chinese people, rather than the hierarchical system under which they live. The latter is true. I feel sorry for the Chinese people (and Americans and Europeans who also live under overly-hierarchical systems). I might even think that President Xi is a basically good guy who is trying to guide his country toward more democracy and human rights, but is being driven inexorably with the tide toward more authoritarianism. I don’t know — I don’t think anyone but Xi and the Politburo Standing Committee would know. Europeans who complain about Americans being overly warlike, and Americans who complain of Europeans depending on the U.S. defense umbrella, all have part of the truth. Reasonable people can disagree. Yes China’s economic growth has been impressive. But I don’t necessarily give credit to the guys at the top. China would be better off today if those guys had never imposed communism. It would probably be better if one year ago, they had opened up the economy to a greater extent. But they haven’t. The blame for this problem lies in so many places — a lack of resolve in places like the U.S. and Europe to encourage/demand change in China (too focused on making money from them), the original revolutionaries, the bureaucrats who have gone along with the system over the years to put a modest lump of rice on the table. My “whole picture” is global. China is the biggest/most powerful authoritarian regime in the world. Some China specialists are so excited about whatever their subspecialty is that they miss that big picture. China is getting more powerful and appears to be bent on exporting authoritarianism — not just happily enjoying the fruits of authoritarianism at home, like Jordan, Brunei, or some of the African dictators. That is dangerous to democracy. Have you seen the latest Foreign Affairs article on the threat to democracy in the U.S.? Have you seen Russia’s meddling in elections in the U.S., France, Germany, and maybe on Brexit? In the 1990s, democracy and human rights seemed unassailable. Now some people wonder whether these things will survive, and China is the biggest threat in this respect. We each have a big picture/perspective. To me, China specialists are often too in the weeds to see the forest. They criticize China’s human rights abuse, but they don’t see how China is exporting that abuse globally in a way that could undermine democracy permanently.

Expert: [After reading a draft of this article]: This is hilarious. I wrote every response, bar one, on my phone with a glass of wine in my hand. If this [gets published] I’ll probably out myself anyway, just to piss off the sanctimonious pricks out there. Jeez, I’d better stop sending snarky responses to emails.

JPR Status: Interview. This exchange was slightly edited for readability and brevity.