News in English

2019.11.07 09:00

Western countries are waking up to China's bullying – interview

Andrius Balčiūnas, LRT.lt2019.11.07 09:00

China is not yet equal to the United States in terms of military or economic power, but the Western world’s own surrender to Beijing’s pressure is what makes the country such a formidable rival. Recent incidents that involved the NBA and ‘South Park’ opened Americans’ eyes to China’s pressure beginning to cross the line and the need to change the approach, says Stephen J. Yates, a US politician and deputy national security adviser to former Vice President Dick Cheney.

An expert on Taiwan and China, Yates took part in the conference ‘Pivot to Asia’ organised by the Lithuanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and spoke to LRT.lt in October.

I’d like to start with the famous phone-call from the president of Taiwan, Tsai Ing-wen, to congratulate Donald Trump with election victory in 2016. You supported the idea of Trump taking the call. Why?

To my knowledge, after every presidential election in recent years the government of Taiwan would go through the formality of getting on the list to congratulate the president-elect. Many other governments do that. But since the 1979 change of diplomatic relations [between the US and China], those requests from Taiwan have always been either ignored or declined.

I wasn’t a formal member of the Trump campaign, but I would occasionally get asked to do interviews and explain what the campaign's position was on a particular policy area. I knew some of the people that were on the policy staff and as it got close to the election night, some of them were in touch about a list that was beginning to accumulate of those who had offered or planned to call.

Donald Trump’s team did not have a plan in place for what to do with these calls, should he win. As soon as it became clear that he was going to win, calls started coming in. The next morning he began taking calls at his office, on his own cell phone. After the first few phone-calls, they rushed in to get more structure to the responses.

It was at that time that I began hearing that the request from Taiwan was on the list. There was a bit of a debate among the people on the campaign, they knew that there would be a response by China, by experts in the US. And so they asked me for pros and cons of if the president-elect were to receive the call, what the likely reactions would be.

After giving them what my honest assessment of the pros and cons were, I was asked whether I'd advise that they take the call. And I made the case that yes, I think it’s important to take the call.

My understanding was that the president-elect heard the different arguments and then decided that he was going to proceed with the call. [...] There were people who had been the guardians of the US-Taiwan policy. They are not very senior people, but they are the ones in the US government that claim to control who does what with whom in the unofficial relationship with Taiwan. Well, there are no rules that cover a president-elect.

Personally, I don’t care about their feelings, I don’t think that countries have feelings. They have interests and I think that the Chinese government is manipulating audience with this feelings thing.

They had a call that was largely just a congratulations, personal, there was nothing very in depth, it didn’t set any policy, but it sent a clear message that the Chinese government was not going to be able to tell this president-elect who he can talk to and what he can say. It had a bit of a demonstration effect.

More recently, incidents with the NBA and the comedy series ‘South Park’ have made it seem that China is increasing pressure in areas where it previously perhaps did not, saying that sports and entertainment figures are hurting China’s feelings. Is this pressure acutely felt?

Personally, I don’t care about their feelings, I don’t think that countries have feelings. They have interests and I think that the Chinese government is manipulating audience with this feelings thing. And as long as the audience remains weak in their head and weak in their actions, you can’t blame the Chinese for continuing to bully.

They are trying to control people that they have no business exercising control over. And it hasn’t been just the NBA, it’s been airlines, hotels, any organisation that uses a web app with a drop-down menu. If that drop-down menu says ‘Taiwan’ on it, then they’ll get an angry letter claiming that people’s feelings have been hurt.

There is no scientific evidence of any Chinese people's feelings ever being hurt. And yet people will sometimes say: oh no, we must continue our hotel business in China, and so we will of course change how Taiwan is listed.

The NBA, I think, was thoroughly humiliated in this exercise. In the end, I think their commissioner came down on the right side, saying that [...] the league and its players should respect the values of the country that it represents for the most part. So it’s the right thing to say, but that’s after they played this public relations disaster with China.

There is no question that the Chinese use this notion of feelings as a form of manipulation and control. And I don’t fault them for trying to assert their interests or manipulate us or any audience. I fault the people on our side for not seeing through the manipulation and just speaking clearly.

We can be very pro-China, but we should be pro-Chinese people, not pro-Communist Party of China, and we can be clear about that.

We can be very pro-China, but we should be pro-Chinese people, not pro-Communist Party of China, and we can be clear about that.

But I think this episode was much more instructive to the American public than I’d ever imagined. It spread virally and I think it already added to where the US and a lot of other countries around the world were turning. It felt like Xi Jinping and his Communist Party were pushing so hard that there was a counter-reaction going on about Confucius Institutes that were manipulating education, the overly aggressive threatening of companies, stealing of intellectual property, unequal relationships on trade. And so there was already somewhat of a mood where people were tired of China having or seeking an unfair advantage.

And this NBA incident just personalised it and reduced it in a way that was nearly perfect in helping people see the real nature of the Communist Party of China. And people didn’t like it.

I never thought I would say it but I think that cartoon, ‘South Park’, ended up a hundred-percent perfectly capturing the reality of this situation. [...] A cartoon ended up being more courageous and more accurate in informing Americans about what was right and wrong in this. They used a lot of bad words, but it ended up being very clear. So I think that mood is changing.

President Trump and his policies are consistent with some of that move. He is not creating it, he is responding to this change that really has taken place in the Democratic Party and the Republican Party and a lot of our general public that felt like China was getting an unfair advantage and it was time for the US to push back. Not to be mean to China, but to say: We need to level the playing field a bit, you’ve gone a little too far.

The US is a big country and has leverage, but China is putting more pressure on small countries as well to accept the One-China policy. Do you think that the the smaller countries can counter that pressure?

They certainly can. China succeeds when it makes everyone have to act alone. Even with the US, a big country, it happens that way. But when countries band together, China is at a much greater disadvantage.

Everyone who knows the reality of China would know this whole concept of One-China is a political strategy, not a historical reality.

Just take the One-China policy. The whole notion of One-China is thoroughly nonsense, in Chinese and in English. Anyone who knows anything about Chinese history would know that, first, the Communist Party engaged in their revolution against Chinese culture, history and politics. And they themselves, using their own words, established a new China.

So if it was consistent with 1,000 of years of Chinese culture and tradition, then why did you need new China? And so the Communist Party rejected and broke with the past.

Everyone who knows the reality of China would know this whole concept of One-China is a political strategy, not a historical reality. It is meant to control the words that people use to then control their thoughts. And then control their action. It’s a very Leninist approach, and it is quite successful when they get people to be weak and go along with it.

No Americans care how many Chinas there are, I bet no Lithuanians really care. But it makes a great deal of difference what the nature of China is. Is it a helpful country or a harmful country? Is it one where there is great economic opportunity or economic challenges and difficulties? Is it one that exports trouble or is it one that exports friendship, cooperation and opportunity?

On balance, what China has become in recent years is a bully. It will give money to institutions so that people get dependent on that money and then, if you don’t say the magic word, it may have to take that money away. “I’d really hate for your university to lose all of this funding and those poor students can’t have their scholarships or your department will no longer have its ability to travel to China and to conduct original research. It would be a real shame.”

It’s like a mafia. There are lots of examples of that. They even did it with religious organisations. [...] If people band together, whether they are social groups of countries, there’s a lot more leverage.

One of the things that the US has done under the Trump administration for the first time is pressure governments to keep their diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

One of the things that the US has done under the Trump administration for the first time is pressure governments to keep their diplomatic relations with Taiwan.

Other countries were to join in the cause and basically say: look we respect the Chinese people, but we’re free countries and we respect certain universal values. We’re going to address those values. If you’re going to imprison, put in what is understood to be concentration camps over a million Uyghurs in your far west, we’re not going to stay quiet about that, that’s an outrage.

We still may want to buy cheap goods, but we’re going to speak about this at the same time.

If countries banded together, I think then the Chinese would learn that they can’t impose their own rules on the world, that they need the world to buy their cheap stuff.

And same goes for supply chains for technology. If we make clear that we will not accept technology that can be used to surveil us or compromise our infrastructure, well then China is going to have to adjust its approach.

But do you see China as an equal rival to the us?

I don’t think it’s equal. We make it equal by being weak ourselves. Militarily, politically, in terms of influence, even economically, the US is still much more powerful than China. If it chooses to use its power and influence wisely.

We, Americans, are not perfect people. Our government is far from perfect and we don’t use our influence in the wisest ways sometimes. We’re free people which means we often disagree with each other.

In China, it is very easy to have a unified comprehensive national strategy. And if someone gets out of line, you kill them or you send them off to some camp or you just fire them. It’s very easy when you have control and no freedom.

President Trump has remained very consistent on the ramping up of pressure on China and China's economy seems to be feeling some of the pressure, whether its all due to the tariffs or other factors too. The American economy is growing at an historic pace, unemployment is at an historic low – and this is after three years of the trade war. China’s domestic economy is struggling more than the American domestic economy. It isn’t all explained by the trade policies, but at the beginning of the process, many experts said that this was going to cause huge pain in the US and would never work with China. Well, so far it’s having effect.

You spent two years in Taiwan. Do you think that Taiwan can be a model for China, if it were to become a democratic country?

I’d put it this way: I think that most people in China don’t care about Taiwan, they don’t know about Taiwan. It's only the ones that have been politicised. In a country of over a billion people, you could have a hundred million people that had been politicised, so still a sizeable and influential bloc that can get quite nationalistic and, I think, crazy about Taiwan.

The vast majority of Chinese people see their country as in need of improved education, improved infrastructure, improved environmental quality. And they don’t see Taiwan, this island offshore, as being vital to their existence one way or the other.

But the vast majority of Chinese people see their country as in need of improved education, improved infrastructure, improved environmental quality. And they don’t see Taiwan, this island offshore, as being vital to their existence one way or the other.

It's only when the government tries to fan nationalism to distract away from its failure to perform economically or its vast corruption that people then go: oh yes, Taiwan must be reunified. Even though it’s never been part of the People's Republic of China.

But they talk in these terms it affects the politicized part of their society, but I don’t think they see the Taiwan government as a model that they must or want to follow.

When it comes to what’s happening in Hong Kong and what has happened in Taiwan, certainly, if there was freedom of information in China, there’d be Chinese people that would say: if they can stand up and demand accountability from their leaders and live, we should be able to stand up and demand accountability from our leaders. And that I think is a very poisonous truth for the Communist Party.

Decades of education control and political control over speech and thought have affected how ordinary Chinese people conceive of their national identity, but there is a very clear notion of we're not Taiwan, we're not America, we are not that kind of a democracy. There’s still, I think, a very clear sense among the Chinese that this official is corrupt or perform badly, you’re supposed to work for us, not us for you, and we should be able to demand accountability. That's happened in China in the 1980s, it’s what led tot he demonstrations that were around the country prior to the Tienanmen square massacre.

And it is what has led to demonstrations all around China in recent years that don't get national or international coverage. But there are sizeable demonstrations in China all the time that are demanding accountability.

I don't think the people of Taiwan seek to impose their experience on broader China. [...] These days the youth and more of the adult class in Taiwan just seek to protect the way of life that they have and the freedoms that they've enjoyed. And I think, at some level, very large number of Chinese people would identify with that and would want to be able to do it for themselves.

It’s incumbent upon us to defeat the great firewall of china so that they can see things more clearly and choose for themselves. Ultimately, that's what I want and I think that’s what the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan want for themselves. And I think it’s what we who live under what we consider shared values around the world don’t seek to impose upon China, we want the people of China to have the freedom to choose their own way.

I don't think we know the definition of what a China free of the Communist Party would look like. It might be quite challenging for us. But I'd be much happier trying to come up with a common national security strategy and foreign policy for dealing with a China that is free from the Communist Party, even if it ends up being competitive, even combative in some areas.