Thursday, December 20, 2018

Scholars urge "constructive vigilance" on Chinese activities in the US

This first appeared in Asia Times.


At the end of November, a group of 32 well-known China scholars and watchers co-chaired by Larry Diamond of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Orville Schell, director of the Asia Society’s Center on US-China Relations, published a report titled “Chinese Influence & American Interests: Promoting Constructive Vigilance.” The report, more than 200 pages long, was duly noted in the mainstream media.
Friends alerted me that I was mentioned in one of the footnotes – not a particularly accurate or flattering description at that. Naturally, I was curious and anxious to review the report as soon as possible. Having read it, I conclude that it aligns more with the adversarial thinking regarding China of Donald Trump’s White House than not.
Even though all the members of the Working Group on Chinese Influence Activities in the United States that produced the report have impressive academic or professional credentials, the document only represents a point of view on China, and by no means the definitive view. If we were to change the cast of participants with others of equivalent or more eminent qualifications, I can guarantee that the final report would read very differently in tone and content.
For example, the substitution of a handful of the participants with such people as Kishore Mahbubani, former United Nations ambassador from Singapore; Stephen Roach, former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia; Yukon Huang, former China country director for the World Bank; Nicholas Lardy, economist and author; and James Fallows, correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, as replacements would have resulted in a report that read differently.

Leaving out Lord would make a big difference

If I were organizing the study group, replacing Winston Lord, former ambassador to China (1985-89), would have been an obvious choice. For a fleeting moment in history, Lord thought he was going to be credited with leading China to democracy and, fair to say, was sorely disenchanted by the events in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Any subsequent US ambassadors to China would have offered a less fanciful and more reality-based view of China and the United States.
In Orville Schell’s place as co-chairman, I would have nominated Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia and current president of the Asia Society Policy Institute. As for the other co-chairman, Larry Diamond, he is well known for his binary view of governments: A democratic government is good and a non-democratic is not. It would be hard to imagine that he could be objective about China and it would be a challenge to find an appropriate replacement for his chair. Perhaps Graham Allison, who knows Thucydides but is also not knowledgeable about China, would do.
I find the vacillating aspects of this report troubling. It discusses Chinese activities across many parts of US society from national and local government to universities, research laboratories and think-tanks. Invariably, a recommendation of “constructive” vigilance, meaning to keep a wary eye on the Chinese, is the end result. In reaching that conclusion, the discussion is full of “on the one hand and on the other” sort of conflicted ambivalence.

Professor Shirk begs to differ

Professor Susan Shirk, chairwoman of the China Center at the University of California, San Diego and a member of the working group, said in her dissenting opinion: “The report discusses a very broad range of Chinese activities, only some of which constitute coercive, covert, or corrupt interference in American society and none of which actually undermines our democratic political institutions. Not distinguishing the legitimate from the illegitimate activities detracts from the credibility of the report.”
I could not have summarized it more succinctly than that.
Ironically, the report is actually quite a useful compendium of “who, what and when” developments in US-China bilateral relations since Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. Unlike the infamous Cox congressional investigation report published at the end of Bill Clinton’s administration that accused China of having tens of thousands of storefronts just to spy on America, this Hoover report carefully listed names of many Chinese and Chinese-American organizations in the US and what they do. There’s no blanket accusation of nefarious activities, just the caution of “constructive vigilance.”
Just one sample quotation, however, would fairly illustrate the report’s slant. One of the appendices is a compilation and description of the “Chinese-language media landscape” in the US. The last section is a list of independent media, and here is what the report says: “The Epoch Times (大记元), the Hope Radio, and New Tang Dynasty TV … are either owned or operated by adherents to the Falun Gong sect, which is banned in China. Their reporting on China is uneven.” (Emphasis is mine.)
Anyone with passing familiarity of Falun Gong’s venomous anti-China propaganda in the US would find the understated description of “uneven” most amusing.

Influence of the financial crisis not noted

The consensus of this Hoover report – whose working group, bear in mind, mostly consisted of academics – seems to focus on the lack of reciprocity and tightening access in China since President Xi Jinping came to power. The report does not look beyond his rise and examine the impact of the 2008 financial crisis. That’s a serious omission.
Before the Wall Street debacle and for 30 years since Deng Xiaoping launched reforms, China looked up to the US as the older brother, laodage, and admired a society governed by rules and regulations. The crash precipitated by the collapse of Lehman Brothers shook China’s confidence in the US to the core.
Emissaries from China began to hint and suggest that Washington should share the burden of world leadership with Beijing. Barack Obama when he first entered the White House might have been inclined to listen but was soon overtaken by the idea that America is exceptional.
It is too bad that after the Sunnylands summit in Rancho Mirage, California, in 2013 Obama and Xi did not seize the opportunity to embark on a new path of collaboration and move the US and China closer. Both sides bear responsibility for passing up the opportunity.
That distinguished scholars can continue to see America as the flawless fortress on the hill and have the proverbial beam in their eyes is unfortunate. Rather than continuing to heap criticism on China, justified or not, we need well-reasoned voices to examine the matter with a fresh perspective.
How can figuring out how to get along peacefully with China possibly be harmful to America?

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