America's China conundrum

16 min readAug 27, 2020


America has a China conundrum. It is not that we are too weak to prevent China from attaining primacy as the world’s superpower. Rather, our conundrum lies in the fact that roughly half of America, driven by the notion that anything Donald Trump says must be wrong, seems to think that we have no need to. This line of thinking is mistaken.

This is not to say that all Democrats are pro-China and all Republicans are anti-China. In fact, a July Pew study showed that a majority of both Republicans (83%) and Democrats (68%) view China negatively. However, their thoughts on how to deal with China differ significantly.

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign has finally begun taking a harder line on China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, rhetorically at least. However, it is not at all clear whether this will translate into policy that actually puts pressure on China, or will remain a sort of nebulous conversation about the importance of allies and “the need to cooperate [with Beijing] on major issues like the coronavirus and climate change.”

Republican lawmakers recognize that dovish engagement with China failed to produce a more liberal order there, and have thus broken with four decades of US foreign policy, now taking a hawkish approach. As I will illustrate in the following paragraphs, the American left has taken positions that China finds less threatening.

Nothing illustrates this better than China’s retaliation for US sanctions over Hong Kong and Xinjiang. In each round of retaliatory sanctions China imposed, the targeted lawmakers have all been Republicans.

An overview of the threat posed by Xi Jinping’s China

Xi Jinping’s China is the greatest threat to the way of life we enjoy in the free world.

Xi (pronounced “she”), China’s most dictatorial leader since Mao Zedong, amended the constitution in 2018 to remove term limits, allowing him to remain head of the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) for life. Things that we take for granted — universal human rights, constitutional democracy, freedom of the press — are anathema to the world that the CPC under Xi seeks to create. They have said as much in their own internal documents.

To see how the CPC’s ideals on governance affect life in the real world, you need look no further than China’s direct sphere of influence:

  • Xinjiang has become the world’s most oppressive police state, in no small part because the CPC sees Islam as a threat to the stability of their rule (yes, I am aware that there have been terrorist attacks in Xinjiang, including but not limited to the “7/5 Incident” which claimed nearly 200 lives in 2009 — but locking people up in the name of preventing crimes that have yet to happen is only going to radicalize the region further).
  • Hong Kong, following the CPC’s blatant violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, went from one of Asia’s freest cities to one of its least free. Already, students have been arrested for peacefully protesting and people no longer feel safe exercising their right to free speech.
  • Taiwan, which has its own passport, currency, military, and most importantly democratic elections, is by any definition an independent country. Nonetheless, the CPC insists on gaslighting the world into believing that Taiwan is part of People’s Republic of China. Recently, the CPC and its propaganda organs have been threatening Taiwan with invasion on a near daily basis if they continue to act like an independent country.

CPC influence is widespread outside of China as well. In Australia, for example, Drew Pavlou, a student at the University of Queensland (UQ) found himself suspended for two years after organizing a pro-Hong Kong rally on campus. Xu Jie, China’s Consul General in Brisbane, is an honorary professor at UQ. The Chinese government has funded at least four courses at UQ, which helps explain the university’s decision to deny Drew Pavlou his right to free speech. UQ administrators likely feared that if they did not throw the book at Pavlou, the university would face financial retaliation organized by the Chinese government. When the Australian government called for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid-19, the CPC retaliated by banning Australian beef exports and placing 80% tariffs on barley. Incidents like this are just the tip of the iceberg. Professor Clive Hamilton’s 2018 book Silent Invasion found enough material to justify nearly 400 pages detailing CPC influence in Australia.

CPC influence in the US is equally ubiquitous. Mainland Chinese students at US universities fear being reported by their countrymen for supporting democracy or speaking negatively about the motherland. CPC money has found its way into some of the most prominent American think tanks. Confucius Institutes, which “function as an arm of the Chinese state,” depress academic freedom of their host universities. Charles Lieber, former Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Harvard University, was arrested in January for failing to disclose an annual salary of over $750,000 paid by the Wuhan University of Technology. The CPC incentivizes people to steal research funded by American taxpayers. In July, FBI Director Christopher Wray revealed that nearly half of the FBI’s 5000 ongoing counterintelligence investigations are related to China. Many of these cases involve theft of intellectual property and trade secrets. Huawei incentivized its employees to steal foreign IP.

The majority of fentanyl coming into the US is manufactured in China, fueling an opioid epidemic which has killed more Americans than the Vietnam war. China’s industrial subsidies have accelerated the decay of the American Rust Belt, bringing a certain level of despair which has no doubt exacerbated the opiate crisis.

LeBron James is a vocal supporter of social justice in the US but has failed to say anything at all regarding human rights abuses in Xinjiang and repression in Hong Kong. In the forthcoming sequel to Top Gun, the Japanese and Taiwanese flags have been removed from the back of Tom Cruise’s jacket, a move likely undertaken to appease the censors in China. Professional sports and Hollywood are two of America’s most vocal platforms for promoting human rights. However, when it comes to China, money talks. The fear of being shut out of the Chinese market trumps standing up for what is right.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden’s son Hunter and former Secretary of State John Kerry’s stepson Chris Heinz are founding partners of an investment firm which has received funding from China’s largest state owned bank. It is impossible to prove cause and effect, but President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary Kerry did virtually nothing as the CPC manufactured and militarized islands in the South China Sea. Elaine Chao, current Secretary of Transportation and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s wife, has family links to the highest echelons of China’s leadership. The CPC excels at cultivating relationships with America’s political elite, regardless of party affiliation, in order to gain levers of influence in our government.

Ivanka Trump has clearly used her father’s presidency to extract benefits from China; however, it seems that this has not weakened the Trump administration’s hawkish stance.

CPC influence is already widespread in American academia, business, think tanks, pop culture, and politics. Given what the CPC has done to suppress freedom within China’s borders and the steps it is taking to buy influence and silence criticism globally, this should concern all Americans — liberal, conservative, or otherwise.

I do not blame people for being unaware. After all, the American professors who illegally take money from and share data with Chinese universities are not likely to discuss the nature of their crimes on Twitter. The think tanks that take donations from Huawei are unlikely to admit that their positive reports about Huawei have been influenced by said donations. The type of self-censorship that takes place in Hollywood and professional sports is, by its nature, difficult to detect. Corruption in politics stays hidden from you and me.

Donald Trump was the first American politician to make a hawkish stance on China a centerpiece of his foreign policy. Many of us laughed at “China China China” mashup from his 2015 presidential campaign. But there is now sufficient evidence in the public domain that China, under the CPC’s leadership, is not a good faith actor on the global stage and poses a serious threat to our core values of democracy, freedom of expression, and human rights. This is a fact that does not change whether you love Donald Trump or hate him with inch of your being.

Meanwhile, as late as May 2019, presidential candidate Joe Biden tells us there is nothing to worry about: “China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man!”

The only evidence against Xi Jinping’s China that Biden did not have then, which we have now, was the CPC’s coverup of the Covid-19 outbreak. Which is to say, there was already a mountain of evidence that Biden was willfully ignoring — thereby encouraging his supporters to do the same. And thus, America’s China conundrum lives on.

The Trump presidency and “getting tough on China”

Donald Trump is not an ideal president. He is divisive, he is blusterous, he is unclassy in many ways. In the world of foreign policy negotiations he seems to bring a gun to every knife fight.

For the Americans who respected Obama’s style, Trump can be an affront to the senses.

To many Americans, Trump is hatable to such a degree that it is natural to scoff at absolutely everything he does and every decision his administration makes. For consumers of media outlets like Vox, Washington Post, CNN, and the New York Times, this instinct is supported by coverage that barely hides its primary purpose of ensuring a Biden presidency in 2021.

NYT’s Nick Kristof, who speaks Mandarin and has reported on China for decades, somehow convinced himself that Beijing prefers four more years of Trump — despite tariffs which are driving manufacturers out of China, despite clamping down on expansionism in the South China Sea while sanctioning individuals and enterprises involved in militarization of the region, despite ramping up counterintelligence investigations against CPC espionage in the US, despite banning scholars linked to the People’s Liberation Army from our academic institutions, despite crushing sanctions on Huawei, despite sanctioning Hong Kong officials and a change in Hong Kong’s special status (when China’s propaganda outlet Global Times reports on something like this, you know a nerve has been struck), despite sanctioning entities involved in atrocities committed in Xinjiang, despite increasing arms sales to Taiwan and enhancing diplomatic ties with the island, etc.

Kristof’s readers trust him, as they should. But his take on this looks to be motivated more by hurting Trump’s re-election chances than anything else. In a governance system as opaque as China’s, he should know better than to think that his contacts are going to tell him who Xi prefers as the next American president (revealing such fundamentally important information to an American journalist would likely be considered an act of treason).

My favorite takedown comes from a Chinese Twitter user:

“laowais” = foreigners

For a more analytical rebuttal of Kristof’s views, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, which does not rely on clicks for survival, offers a very different conclusion: “Whatever Beijing may think about Donald Trump’s term as US president, we now know that its greatest wish is for US–China relations to return to the days of Barack Obama’s administration, when the two countries’ leaders met to discuss issues of bilateral importance and dialogue dominated.

Here on CNN, Fareed Zakaria, a towering figure in journalism, tells us that the Trump administration’s goal to set up a “clean internet” is driving the world towards a “new, bi-polar world of technology.” The introduction to this video makes me want to scream: “Fareed, man, that ship sailed a decade ago when the CPC decided to ban basically every foreign app and website they could think of!!”

There are good reasons to prevent Chinese hardware manufacturers from providing network equipment to American telecom companies: for example, a government data center set up by Huawei in Papua New Guinea had security loopholes giving Huawei unfettered, clandestine access to everything on the servers. Zakaria dismisses the possibility that TikTok could be used to shape American public opinion, despite cases of the company blatantly censoring American users of the app whose viewpoints are unfriendly to CPC interests. TikTok’s parent company engaged in such censorship for two years in Indonesia as well. Through TikTok, the CPC can influence what millions of Americans see. Much like Kristof’s article mentioned above, Zakaria’s take on Trump/China isn’t journalism, it’s what happens when you start with the question: “How can we find a way to attack Trump’s recent decisions regarding TikTok and WeChat?”

For people who look outside the mainstream for their China analysis, there is unfortunately no shortage of terrible reporting. Sarah Jeong published a piece in The Verge, which, if nothing else, is a masterclass in whataboutism and false equivalencies.

When it comes down to it, the thorniest privacy dispute of 2020 isn’t about privacy or technology at all — it’s about China. The question “Is Facebook better, worse, or the same as TikTok?” is more or less the same as “Is the United States better, worse, or the same as China?” And in 2020, this is becoming a genuinely difficult question to answer.

If this is a genuinely difficult question to answer, then:

  • You really do not have the first clue about what life is like in China for the 600 million people who live on less than $150/month (in no small part due to state-imposed restrictions on movement through the hùkǒu system)
  • You apparently do not know that anyone with a large enough public voice who criticizes the government will be jailed or made to disappear (Sarah can write an article that is both critical of the US Government and wildly uninformed but she will not be disappeared or prosecuted, which should answer her question about which country treats people better)
  • You have clearly not spent more than one second thinking about how deeply immoral a government must be to lock up over a million of its own citizens in facilities akin to concentration camps on the basis of their religion.

No matter how much you dislike Trump, it does not make any of the false equivalencies in Jeong’s article true. I was glad to see a rebuttal published in the Times (albeit one in which the author found it necessary to kowtow to the notion that Trump “is the wrong figure to be fighting [the] fight” with China).

Articles like these illustrate the core of America’s China conundrum. As a left-leaning publication, the only acceptable position towards Trump is unmitigated disgust. Trump has made China the crux of his foreign policy. Thus, publications that cater to a left-leaning audience will find ways to criticize Trump’s China policy, regardless of whether or not such criticism is due.

If you are a left-leaning American whose media diet reflects your political identity, then much of your China-related intake is going to be garbage. You will read that America has no moral basis for sanctioning China. You will hear that Beijing prefers a Trump presidency despite Biden having already proven that as Vice President he did not hold China to its promise of not militarizing the South China Sea. You will be told that it is all an illusion and the Trump administration is really not “tough on China” after all.

You will come away wondering whether or not you, as an American, should (or even have the moral standing to) care about China’s actions in the world.

You will have become part of America’s China conundrum.

“bUt wE NeEd tHE heLP oF oUR aLLieS!~”

From Fareed Zakaria to the Biden campaign to Nicholas Kristof to any sentient being with a pulse, everybody talks about the need to build a coalition of allies to counter China’s aggression. Trump’s apparent failure to do so since taking office in 2017 is an all-weather favorite criticism of his administration.

Perhaps people like this criticism because it sounds insightful. In truth, if you think this is insightful, I think you might be an idiot. No shit we need the help of our allies. Nobody gets a gold star for coming to this conclusion.

In the real world, it is remarkably difficult to get any country — no matter how close an ally — to act against its short-term economic interests. When the South Korean government allowed the United States to install Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) systems on the peninsula in 2017, the Chinese government responded by punishing Korean businesses such as Lotte (who provided the physical space on which the THAAD systems were deployed), leading to estimated losses of $6.8 billion in revenues in 2017 across various enterprises. Global leaders know that if they act in ways that encroach on Beijing’s interests, they will bring massive financial punishments to the businesses in their countries. Nonetheless, the Korean government sided with the US on THAAD, giving us a strategic advantage over China in the event of a war.

Despite the endless coverage dissecting Trump’s tweet of the day or his latest outburst about windmills or water pressure, there has been a remarkable shift in the global dialogue surrounding the CPC. For his part, Trump has been surprisingly consistent on China over the last decade, stating in 2011 that he would place 25% tariffs on Chinese exports were he in a position to do so. This consistency has made a dent in the world’s perception of China.

For example, Australia calling for an independent investigation into the origins of Covid would have been unthinkable even a year or two ago. Why? Because China is Australia’s largest export market and accounts for nearly 30% of its international students who, in paying tuition at overseas rates, subsidize education for Australian citizens. Predictably, Beijing retaliated in May by massively tariffing or flat-out banning certain Australian exports. This move, like the punishments carried out against Korean enterprises in 2017, was designed to mobilize the country’s business elite into lobbying the Australian government to stay quiet on all things China.

To give another example, Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou (on an extradition request from the US) has caused Canada tremendous pain. It shows that Canada is still dedicated to upholding a world order in which preserving the rule of law outweighs extracting financial benefits from trade with China.

The UK and Australia have banned Huawei from building their national 5G networks, creating pressure for European countries to follow suit. France has announced a deadline by which all Huawei gear must be removed from the country’s networks. Canada has effectively banned Huawei as well, albeit in an indirect way, so as to avoid Beijing’s ire. Singapore eschewed Huawei, opting for Ericsson and Nokia instead. Given the likely end of Hong Kong as Asia’s premier financial center, the importance of Singapore’s decision cannot be overstated.

Philippines Secretary of National Defense Delfin Lorenzana has called BS on China’s claims to the South China Sea: “Their so-called historical rights over an area enclosed by their nine-dash line doesn’t exist except in their imaginations.” This represents a potential departure from the past four years of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policy of getting closer to China.

In spite of Trump’s bluster, much of the world is slowly but steadily coming around to America’s position on China.

Germany, on the other hand, has been dragging its heels. It is no secret that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is no fan of Trump and has been clear on her unwillingness to join the US in challenging China. It is easy to blame this entirely on Trump’s negative qualities (eg, “Merkel refuses to work with Trump because he is dumb, he is an asshole, etc”). While Trump’s character defects may be partly to blame, it is much more likely that Merkel’s position reflects a decision to prioritize Germany’s economic interests.

German companies do a tremendous amount of business with China. China imported $108 billion of goods from Germany in 2019, accounting for nearly 3% of Germany’s GDP. Volkswagen alone sold 4.23 million locally-manufactured vehicles in China in 2019. These sales are in addition to the export number listed above. Volkswagen has manufacturing plants in Xinjiang. Unsurprisingly, VW’s CEO feigned ignorance about Xinjiang’s concentration camps in April 2019, despite the topic having been widely reported on for over a year at the time he made this statement.

Theresa Fallon, Director at the Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies, put it nicely:

German companies supply China’s PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) with quiet diesel engines for their submarines. Given that America is China’s primary strategic rival, this would be like America selling missile systems to Russia, which Russia in turn aimed towards Berlin.

Germany spends more than $10 billion annually on Russian natural gas but underspends on defense relative to the NATO commitment of 2% per year. In other words, American taxpayers fund troop deployments in Germany to protect against Russia while Germany pays Russia for natural gas, the proceeds of which can presumably be used to develop and acquire weapons which threaten German security.

To put it bluntly, Germany has not been a good partner to the US.

Getting German politicians to betray their own economic interests in order to help America curb China’s aggression is a difficult task. Obama was a much smoother talker than Trump and much less abrasive in general. But talk alone, no matter how smooth, will not convince Berlin to take steps that will subject German enterprises to the kind financial brutalization that Korean and Australian companies faced after their governments upset Beijing.

Given the scope of CPC influence in business, politics, pop culture, and academia, recalibrating world leaders’ attitudes and policies towards China is a monumental task. America took the first steps on this in 2017. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been extremely active in this arena lately. Allies are joining the cause. This is called leadership. It will take time to reach critical mass, but things are moving in the right direction.

In the meantime, take note that American unilateral action on China is not entirely toothless. In recent weeks, even China’s state-owned banks (in other words, banks owned by the Chinese government) have moved to comply with US sanctions against Hong Kong officials.

Why Americans must take the China Dream seriously

Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China’s 1979 economic reforms and the iron fist behind the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, espoused a maxim that served China well: “Hide your strength, bide your time.” It enabled China to attain a level of economic and military might such that it is close to overtaking America — and we are just now waking up to this reality.

If you have seen The Usual Suspects, this should remind you of Verbal Kint’s classic line: “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.

Since Xi Jinping’s ascent to the helm of the CPC in 2012, the phrase “China Dream” has become a mainstay of Chinese propaganda. The days of “hiding strength” are over.

“China Dream, My Dream” (Image source). I saw hundreds of these posters in my year in Beijing.

Along with the China Dream is the notion of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” which contains expressly expansionist intentions, eg: subjugating the people of Hong Kong, taking back Taiwan by force, and elbowing past Western powers to return to a position of global primacy after the Century of Humiliation.

Xi Jinping’s speech at the 19th Party Congress in 2017 made it clear that China sees itself locked in a strategic rivalry with the US. It aims to challenge the Western-led liberal order and demonstrate the superiority of its governance system. China wants to be the world’s superpower.

For the reasons discussed in the introduction of this essay, this is not in our interest.

Even if you hate Donald Trump, you should at least be thankful that he has put the world on a course towards stemming China’s influence over the freedoms we enjoy in liberal democracies. If you want to see Joe Biden as the next president, you should be concerned about his son’s history with Chinese investment and his inaction on the South China Sea during his tenure as Vice President.

Even if you are in the Biden camp, do not believe for a second that American ingenuity somehow means that China is not an economic threat. This belief reflects profound ignorance about China’s collective drive to compete its way back to the dominant position in the world (and arrogance about an Asian nation’s supposed inability to do so).

I don’t often re-post content from Chinese state media (propaganda) outlets. But Qingqing’s tweet is accurate. I lived in Shenzhen for two years, during which I became familiar with “996” work style, code for working 9am to 9pm, 6 days per week. There is no room for American complacency in the US-China rivalry.

Do not perpetuate America’s China conundrum by finding reasons to discount the threat posed by the CPC simply because Trump is the person who brought it to your attention.




Lover of languages. 中文 / 日本語 / español. Hoping for a better future for US and China.