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The three-hour face-to-face meeting in Bali between President Biden and President Xi — their first non-virtual meeting in over three years — concluded just over an hour ago.

Much can be said (and is already in digital print) looking at this meeting from various angles:

  • History of Biden’s personal relationship with Xi
  • Composition of the small delegations accompanying the heads of state and what those choices say
  • The wide range of issues discussed including Taiwan, Russia, nuclear arms (and their possible use in Ukraine), North Korea, human rights, resumption of national level cooperation on issues of climate change, health security, global food security, and defense-related communications (to forestall accidents and misunderstandings), etc.
  • Differences in the official post-meeting read-outs from the two sides and what those differences signify
  • Atmospherics of the meeting — effect of recent boosts to each leader’s domestic standing; implications of the third-party location on periphery of G20, etc
US President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, Nusa Dua Bali, Nov 14, 2022 (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

But I will go to what I believe to be the heart of the matter. The bottom line, both immediately and over the medium term:

CONTEXT: Gauged charitably, U.S.-China relations are at their lowest point since at least 1991 (post-Tiananmen and pre-Deng’s Tour of the South). Gauged more hard-headedly, they are in their worst shape since before Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 to begin dialogue and explore a relationship amid the Cold War freeze. The vertiginous decline we’ve been experiencing in recent years started very gradually as far back as 2008 when the (Western) Financial Crisis put shortcomings of the Washington Consensus on display in Beijing at the very moment when China was basking in its success in hosting the 2008 Summer Olympics. The hardening of attitudes became personified on the Chinese side with the emergence of Xi Jinping as paramount leader in 2012. Over the following years, the on-going decline in political relations — as contrasted with ever-strengthening commercial ties — became exacerbated for the Obama Administration as China militarized islands in the South and Southeast China Seas, brazenly breaking a commitment Xi had personally given Obama. It was then personified on the U.S. side starting in 2015 with Donald Trump’s racially-tinged campaign and, following his election, by his go-it-alone crusade to punish China with sanctions and Oval Office invective. The rhetoric was answered in 2017 by Xi Jinping upon his re-election as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) head in the form of an uber-triumphalist speech he delivered from the 19th Party Congress stage. The flash-points multiplied during the pandemic with China working hard to obscure the origins of the Covid-19 outbreak and subsequently using its heavy-handed Zero-Covid policy as the linchpin for Xi’s claim that China offered the world a superior system to liberal Western democracy (a claim which non-Western Taiwan makes a mockery of every day and which Hong Kong once also challenged prior to its being brought to heel brutally by Beijing in 2020). The deterioration continued in 2021 as the Biden Administration disappointed Beijing by not reverting to the softer, Obama-era approach to China that the Chinese leadership in Zhongnanhai had expected. Instead, the Biden Administration worked assiduously and with considerable success, to build a broad, values-based partnership with traditional allies and other aligned countries to answer China with a solid front. The Peoples Liberation Army’s practice-run blockade of Taiwan following House Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August further accelerated the downward spiral. And, while not yet fully appreciated by the American public, passage of the Biden Administration’s CHIPS Act into law in August is perceived in China, rightly, as a policy dagger pointed at the heart of its aspirations for seizing dominance in 21st c. technologies for defense, aerospace and space, surveillance and security, and industrial automation and productivity. (It is with the set of issues in these last two sentences — the interlinked issue of Taiwan and the CHIPS Act — that the Assessing China blog is now focused).

THE BOTTOM LINE: The bottom line of today’s meeting is Taiwan. While both sides settled in their separate post-meeting read-outs on emphasizing the lowest common denominator assertion that they’re now working together to stabilize an unstable relationship, their agendas going into the meeting were clearly different. For the Biden Administration, stabilization was the goal. It was enough just to establish a floor to stop further relationship decline and to limit the negative impact further decline would have on the range of issues under discussion (see above). For Xi, the goal was something more — to leverage agreement to stabilize the relationship toward the end of prying out some glimmer of affirmation from the U.S. side to validate his stance on Taiwan. With his eye on 2027 (21st Party Congress) and 2035 (a key CCP goal for China’s development) and with a domestic lock-hold for the next five years in the form of his new Standing Committee of loyalists, Xi is turning his attention — and ambition — to the international sphere. That means Taiwan as the culmination of his China Dream (and, I would wager, the fulfillment of the backroom deal he likely crafted with the CCP in 2012 to let him off the two-term-limit leash). In Xi’s thinking, if the U.S. could commit to the Shanghai Communique in earlier years, he should push as a next step for formal U.S. acceptance of his claim on Taiwan. As Xi put it, Taiwan is “the very core of our core interests.”

The bottom line of their meeting in Bali today may then be that Xi, just like Putin with Ukraine, misreads U.S. politics and society and the resolve of most of the international community concerning Taiwan. The evidence for this view would be the public read-outs: Biden achieved his chief objective while Xi did not.

But another view is possible. As Xi has demonstrated over the last twelve years, he is willing to take large risks to achieve the China Dream but he is methodical about how he goes about taking those risks. Militarization of the South China Sea and the ruthless imposition of the Basic Security Law in Hong Kong are just two examples. Militarily, China has been modernizing and arming up with laser-focus on deterring the U.S. in the Strait of Taiwan for far longer than the Pentagon has been taking steps to respond. As a result, the window of opportunity for Xi to move militarily is expected to be at its widest around 2027 or 2028. Following that, the belated U.S. military revamp in the region will be coming on stream and narrowing that window with each passing year. (It’s worth noting that 2027 coincides with the next Party Congress and therefore coincides well with the ‘chapter structure’ of the narrative Xi has been building about his stature as not only a peer of Mao Zedong in the Communist era but as a Chinese leader of destiny for the ages.)

So does the “failure” of Xi’s bottom-line agenda regarding Taiwan at today’s meeting indicate that he misreads Biden and the U.S. political system? Or might he instead be playing a longer game to a wider audience? If Xi’s sights are indeed firmly fixed on the 2027/8 moment (not only militarily but also politically and in the eyes of history) and if he is focused on exploiting that window of maximum military opportunity, his failure today to make any headway toward some type of formal understanding with the U.S. regarding Taiwan may be exactly the point.

The choreography may be designed to show Xi making a concerted effort to get the U.S. to more fully acknowledge his claim on Taiwan. Xi probably recognizes this won’t happen. The U.S. will not cut a deal with an autocrat to throw 23 million people in a thriving democracy under the bus. But Xi can use that show of effort over the next few years to advantage. He will have made a show for the world to see of having tried hard to exhaust “peaceful measures” prior to being “forced” to make a military move on Taiwan. He will have checked that box. And it won’t be a coincidence if the moment of being “forced” happens at the same moment of the PLA’s maximum military advantage.

As Bob Marley said, “If you know your history, then you would know where you’re coming from.”

Wednesday’s post — My Proprietary Chipset — included hyperlinks to specific publications and websites from the 2000s. Some of these are more easily accessed than others. For instance, the link to my testimony before the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission in the 109th Session of Congress (2005) takes you directly to that testimony. However, the links to my testimony at the 108th (2003) and 107th (2001) sessions takes you to the full text of the Commission’s work covering the full session and it takes some perseverance to find one’s way to my testimony. In the spirit of presenting my work on these issues from the 2000s in one, easily accessed location, I will add here to the blog a few archive posts to fill in behind Wednesday’s My Proprietary Chipset post providing readier access to those harder-to-navigate publications.

2003 Testimony, 108th Session of Congress

SUMMARY:

In the information technology sector, Taiwan semiconductor and electronics manufacturing firms are major global actors, and their
expansion into China continues, but without noticeable erosion of Taiwan equity control. In testimony before the Commission, Merritt Cooke, former senior commercial officer at the American Institute in Taiwan, attributed this to the relative stability of ‘‘highly differentiated, high-value supply chains’’ as opposed to the ‘‘instability of far simpler manufacturer-retailer networks characteristic of commodity products.’’ Cooke believes this distinction helps explain the historical pattern of Taiwan investment into the mainland. While many light industry sectors that Taiwan moved to the mainland in the 1980s and 1990s ‘‘have been swallowed up by mainland competitors,’’ highly differentiated, relatively high-value consumer products such as brand-name athletic shoes and high-performance bicycles have remained largely in Taiwan equity hands. ‘‘If these product sectors, with their relatively lower levels of technology and slower product cycles, could stay in Taiwan control for decades, there is every reason to believe that the various IT [information technology] hardware sectors will stay even more firmly in Taiwan’s grip in years ahead,’’ Cooke said. Despite the large and growing Taiwan business presence in the mainland and burgeoning indirect cross-Strait trade and investment, there is a sense in the Taipei business community that Taiwan itself—as a venue for investment, manufacturing, logistics, or finance—is in danger of becoming marginalized within Asia. Kaohsiung’s container port—once the fourth busiest in the world— now ranks sixth, with the Chinese ports of Shenzhen and Shanghai jumping ahead. The American Chamber of Commerce in Taiwan reports that a number of U.S. corporations’ regional headquarters in Taiwan have been eliminated or downgraded to local offices.

2001 Testimony, 107th Session of Congress

TESTIMONY:

STATEMENT OF MERRITT TODD COOKE, JR., CHIEF, COMMERCIAL SECTION, AMERICAN INSTITUTE IN TAIWAN

Mr. COOKE. Mr. Chairman, thank you. I hope the Commission will feel free to overlook the confusion that my parents introduced
with my legal name and call me by the name that I most often respond to, Terry. [Laughter.]
I will also request that, with the consent of the Commission, some paragraphs that I delete in the interest of brevity do be entered into the record. I will spare the Commission a recap of Taiwan’s ten-year structural transformation in the 1990s.
It is an honor to be asked to testify in front of this distinguished panel of Commissioners. In the following brief statement, I will bring to bear my perspective as current Chief of the Commercial Section at the American Institute in Taiwan to address the issues
identified by the Commission in its July 24 invitation letter, specifically the growing interdependence of the U.S., Taiwan, and Chinese high-tech economies.
The strategic interdependence of the U.S. and Taiwan economies has grown steadily throughout the 1990s as Taiwan’s economy has shifted from its traditional structure as a labor-intensive export-oriented economy towards a more service-oriented investment and technology-intensive economy. While Taiwan’s industrial sector has shrunk in relative terms over this period, capital and technology-intensive industries have expanded dramatically. These industries accounted for approximately 75 percent of total manufacturing in 2000, compared to 48 percent in 1986.
Taiwan now supplies 60 percent of the world’s motherboards and is the world’s leading supplier of notebook computers, monitors,
mice, keyboards, video cards, sound cards, on/off switches, LAN cards, graphic cards, scanners, and laser disk drives. Through the
strength of its foundry model, Taiwan has emerged as a preeminent semiconductor supplier to the world.
This transition from the production of labor-intensive goods to high-tech goods has to date proceeded relatively smoothly, even
against the background turbulence of the Asian financial crisis in 1997–98 and a major earthquake occurring on September 21, 1999.
Against the broad backdrop of its structural transformation, two major dynamics have emerged: First, the growing regional partnership and global interdependence of the U.S. and Taiwan high-tech industries, and secondly, the accelerating shift of the lower end of Taiwan’s high-tech production offshore, particularly to mainland China.
One clear indicator of the degree of evolving interdependence with the U.S. was the fact that following the 9/21 earthquake in
Taiwan, the tech markets in New York dropped more in percentage terms than in Taipei.
The scale of this interdependence is likewise highlighted in other ways. For example, four of the top U.S. suppliers of PCs alone procured $20 billion of components from Taiwan to support their 1999 global sales. Additionally, Taiwan will soon have more state-of-the-art 300-millimeter chip wafer fabs in operation than the U.S., Germany, Japan, or any other world market.
The accelerating shift of high-tech production from Taiwan to mainland China has been equally pronounced over this period. The
Taiwan government’s Office of Budget, Accounting, and Statistics reported in February that government approved Taiwan investments in China for 2000 more than doubled from the 1999 levels.
The Taipei Computer Association reported in the same month that 30 percent of Taiwan’s 411 high-technology companies had established major investments in mainland China and that fully 90 percent of those 411 companies planned to be invested in China by the end of 2001.
Lastly, China edged out Taiwan in 2000 for the first time for the number three slot in world IT production value. China came in behind the U.S. and Japan, with $25.5 billion of production value, against Taiwan in fourth place with $23 billion. The key point to
note, however, is that Taiwanese companies generated fully 70 percent of that $25.5 production value in mainland China.
The impending accessions of China and Taiwan to the WTO will likely further accelerate this process of growing cross-straits commercial interdependence in high-tech, with consequent implications for the already highly interdependent U.S. and Taiwan high-tech economies. Although Taiwan’s relatively late liberalization and privatization of its fixed-line monopoly regime will limit somewhat the impact of this development in the telecom sector, the likely effect will be continued fast accelerating cross-straits interdependence in sectors such as PC and notebook assembly, motherboard and other PC component manufacture, production of chip sets for mobile telephony and other applications, scanner and computer peripheral production, and lower end IC production.
A number of important trends will reinforce WTO financial linkages and commercial disciplines and tend to produce this outcome.
First, the network of business relationships which Taiwan firms have established in China represents largely an extension into
China of preexisting product and service supply chain relationships originally established in Taiwan. This greater Taiwan phenomenon in China, localized in growth centers such as Donguan in Guangdong, Xianen in Fujian, and increasingly in the greater Shanghai area, has now reached a critical mass sufficient for greater efficiency in the global supply chain.
Second, the commoditization of IT production worldwide is increasingly pressuring production costs, forcing manufacturers to
distribute a growing number of lower end steps in their production processes to the world’s lowest-cost production centers. Under more than a decade of the KMT or Guangdong’s ‘‘Go South’’ policy, Taiwan manufacturers have quite fully exploited the advantages of relatively low-cost production centers in the Philippines, Thailand, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, the one exception to that probably being an expected spurt of Taiwan investment in Vietnam following the ratification and implementation of the U.S.-Vietnam bilateral trade agreement.
At the same time, the KMTs, and now the new administration, the DPP’s ‘‘go slow’’ policy vis-a-vis investment in the mainland has tended to limit the degree to which Taiwan firms could take advantage of the even lower costs of production in China. However, since cost pressure started mounting sharply in March 2000, Taiwan high-tech firms have found themselves no longer able to maintain global competitiveness without relocating a greater share of their production to China, the lowest cost major production center in the Asian production platform.
A third trend really represents a number of technology trends that underlie an emerging division of labor in high-tech production
between Taiwan and the PRC. Without trying to go into any of these, I would just note the increasing specialization of national
economies in the globalized IT industry segments. For instance, fully half of Finland’s GDP is dedicated to wireless telephony.
Secondly, the migration of value away from hardware assembly and towards embedded software technologies in scanners, in peripherals, in Internet appliances, and so on.
And a third technology trend being the steep rise in investment costs and shorter product cycles in the IC semiconductor sector.
A fourth and final trend, the Taiwan and China markets are
largely complementary, creating unique opportunities for commercial cooperation between these political rivals. For instance, Taiwan firms have generally failed to establish global brand and to capture the higher valuations that accrue to brand-name products. However, the large size of the China market, the skill and cultural familiarity of Taiwan business managers, and the high regard which China’s consumers have for Taiwan’s products are now giving Taiwan firms a chance to establish brand names on a large-scale regional basis as opposed to global basis.
Each one of these trends holds important implications for U.S. interests. The establishment of Taiwan regional brands might, for
instance, tend to weaken the existing cooperative bonds between U.S. and Taiwan alliance partners and foster more direct competition in the region. Conversely, the combination of U.S. innovation, Taiwan regional management skill, and the largely untapped potential of the developing China market is already creating a set of
opportunities for enhanced commercial cooperation among traditional U.S. and Taiwan partners.
The rapid proliferation of commercial ties between Taiwan and China is of major importance to U.S. interests. There are the narrower set of commercial implications for the U.S. competitive posture in regional and global markets, to which I have just alluded. Also, as Rupert Hammond Chambers, President of the U.S. ROC Business Council suggested in his June 14 testimony to this Commission, there are equally important implications which fast-growing commercial interdependence between Taiwan and China have for traditional U.S. military and security interests in the Straits of Taiwan.
I commend the Commission for focusing attention on the extent to which commercial dynamics in the computer electronics and telecommunications sectors are affecting these interests. It is my personal observation that these market and technology-driven dynamics are not always fully captured in the dialogue regarding our key
interests in this potential flash point region of the world. Thank you very much.

[The statement follows:]
PREPARED STATEMENT OF MERRITT TODD COOKE, JR.
It is an honor to be asked to testify in front of this distinguished panel of Commissioners. It is also, personally, a distinct pleasure to see again a number of former Departmental and Embassy colleagues as well as others with whom I have had the
past pleasure of working on various overseas and stateside activities. In the following brief statement, I will bring to bear my perspective as current Chief of the Commercial Section at the American Institute in Taiwan to address the issues identified by the Commission in its July 24th invitation letter.
The strategic interdependence of the U.S. and Taiwan economies has grown steadily throughout the 1990s as Taiwan’s economy has shifted from its traditional structure as a labor-intensive, export-oriented economy towards a more services-oriented,
investment- and technology-intensive economy. While Taiwan’s industrial sector has
shrunk in relative terms over this period, capital- and technology-intensive industries have expanded dramatically. These industries accounted for approximately 75 percent of total manufacturing in 2000, compared to 48 percent in 1986. During this
structural transition, labor-intensive industries, such as toys, footwear, umbrellas,
and garments, relocated offshore. Their place was taken by petrochemicals, metal products, machinery, and ‘‘most dramatically during the 1990s’’ by technology-oriented industries, such as electronic, electric, and information products.
By 2000, more than half of the top ten manufacturing firms in Taiwan were electronic and computer manufacturing firms, compared with only two in 1993. More than half of the top ten manufactured products were in the areas of integrated circuits (ICs), personal computers, and computer peripherals, whereas in 1993, only ICs had been among the top ten. Taiwan now supplies 60% of the world’s motherboards and is the world’s leading supplier of notebook computers, monitors, mice, keyboards, video cards, sound cards, on-off switches, LAN cards, graphics cards, scanners, and laser disk drives. Through the strength of its foundry model, Taiwan has emerged as a preeminent semiconductor supplier to the world. This transition from the production of labor-intensive goods to high-tech goods has, to date, proceeded relatively smoothly, even against the background turbulence of the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997–98 and a major earthquake occurring on September 21, 1999.
Against the broad backdrop of this structural transformation, two major dynamics have emerged: (1) the growing regional partnership and global interdependence of the U.S. and Taiwan high-tech industries and (2) the accelerating shift of the lowerend of Taiwan’s high-tech production offshore, particularly to mainland China. One clear indicator of the degree of evolving interdependence with the U.S. was the fact that, following the 9–21(–99) earthquake in Taiwan, the tech markets in New York
dropped more in percentage terms than in Taipei. The scale of this interdependence is likewise highlighted in other ways. For example, four of the top U.S. suppliers of PCs alone procured $20 billion (USD) of components from Taiwan to support their
1999 global sales. Additionally, Taiwan will soon have more state-of-the-art 300mm chip-wafer fabs in operation than the U.S., Germany, Japan or any other world market.
The accelerating shift of high-tech production from Taiwan to mainland China has been equally pronounced over this period. The Taiwan Government’s Office of Budget, Accounting, and Statistics reported in February that government-approved Taiwan investments in China for 2000 more than doubled from the 1999 levels. The Taipei Computer Association reported in the same month that 30 percent of Taiwan’s 411 high technology companies had established major investments in mainland China and that fully 90 percent of those 411 companies planned to be invested in China by the end of 2001. Lastly, China edged out Taiwan in 2000 for the first time for the number three slot in world IT production value. China came in behindthe U.S. and Japan with $25.5 billion of production value against Taiwan in fourth place with $23 billion. The key point to note, however, is that Taiwanese companies generated fully 70% of that $25.5 production value in Mainland China.
The impending accessions of China and Taiwan to the WTO will likely further accelerate this process of growing cross-straits commercial interdependence in hightech, with consequent implications for the already highly interdependent U.S. and Taiwan high-tech economies. Although Taiwan’s relatively late liberalization and privatization of its fixed-line monopoly regime will limit somewhat the impact of this development in the telecoms sector, the likely effect will be continued fast-accelerating cross-straits interdependence in sectors such as PC and notebook assembly, motherboard and other PC component manufacture, production of chipsets for mobile telephony and other applications, scanner and computer peripheral production, and lower-end IC production. A number of important trends will reinforce WTO financial linkages and commercial disciplines and tend to produce this outcome:
—First, the network of business relationships which Taiwan firms have established in China represents largely an extension into China of pre-existing product and service supply-chain relationships originally established in Taiwan. This ‘‘Greater Taiwan’’ phenomenon in China, localized in growth centers such as Dongguan (Guangdong), Xiamen (Fujian) and, increasingly, the Greater
Shanghai area, has now reached a critical mass sufficient for greater efficiency in the global supply chain;
—Second, the commoditization of IT production worldwide is increasingly pressuring production costs, forcing manufacturers to distribute a growing number of lower-end steps in their production processes to the world’s lowest-cost production centers. Under more than a decade of the KMT’s ‘‘Go South’’ policy, Taiwan manufacturers have quite fully exploited the advantages of relatively low-cost production centers in the Philippines, Thailand and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. (The exception to this being an expected spurt of Taiwan investment in Vietnam following the ratification and implementation of the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement). At the same time, the KMT’s (and now the DPP’s) ‘‘Go Slow’’ policy vis-a`-vis investment in the mainland tended to limit the degree to which Taiwan firms could take advantage of the even lower costs-of-production in China. However, since cost pressures started mounting sharply in March 2000, Taiwan high-tech firms have found themselves no longer able to maintain
global competitiveness without relocating a greater share of their production to China, the lowest-cost major production center in the Asian production platform;
—Third, a number of technology trends underlie an emerging division of labor in high-tech production between Taiwan and the PRC. Among these, are (a) the increasing specialization of national economies in globalized IT industry-segments (e.g., fully half of Finland’s GDP is now generated from wireless related technologies); (b) the migration of value away from hardware assembly and towards imbedded software (e.g., scanners and other peripherals, Internet Appliances, etc.); and (c) the steep rise in investment cost and shorter product cycles in the IC/semiconductor sector; and
—Fourth, the Taiwan and China markets are largely complementary, creating
unique opportunities for commercial cooperation between these political rivals. For instance, Taiwan firms have generally failed to establish global brands and to capture the higher market valuations that accrue to brand-name products. However, the large size of the China market, the skill and cultural familiarity of Taiwan business managers with that market, and the high regard which Chinese consumers have for Taiwan products, are now giving Taiwan firms the chance to establish brand-names on a large-scale regional basis. Further, Taiwan’s proven skills in development and service-oriented management of global IT technologies, coupled with the breadth and potential of China’s basic research capabilities, create distinct opportunities for partnership in regional innovation.
Each one of these trends holds important implications for U.S. interests. The establishment of Taiwan regional brands might, for instance, tend to weaken the existing cooperative bonds between U.S. and Taiwan alliance partners and foster more direct competition in the region. Conversely, the combination of U.S. innovation, Taiwan regional management skill, and the largely-untapped potential of the developing China market is already creating a set of opportunities for enhanced commercial cooperation among traditional U.S. and Taiwan partners.
The rapid proliferation of commercial ties between Taiwan and China is of major importance to U.S. interests. There are the narrower set of commercial implications for the U.S. competitive posture in regional and global markets, to which I have just
alluded. Also, as Rupert Hammond-Chambers, President of the U.S.-R.O.C. (Taiwan) Business Council, suggested in his June 14 testimony to this Commission, there are equally important implications which fast-growing commercial interdependence between Taiwan and China have for traditional U.S. military and security interests in the Straits of Taiwan. I commend the Commission for focusing attention on the extent to which commercial dynamics in the computer electronics and telecommunications sectors are affecting these interests. It is my personal observation that these market- and technology-driven dynamics are not always fully captured in the dialogue regarding our key interests in this potential flashpoint region of the world.

It has been a long journey to reach this moment …

  • In 1972, Nixon traveled to China
  • In 1973, the Philadelphia Orchestra became the first international orchestra to perform in China
  • In 1974, I began to study Mandarin at college
  • In 1976, Mao died (and the Cultural Revolution with him)
  • In 1978, Deng and the CCP began experimenting with economic reforms
  • In 1979, Carter normalized relations
  • In 1980, I traveled to the mainland for the first time
  • 1n 1982, at its 12th National Party Congress, China adopted economic reforms as its priority policy

Just this past week — forty years later at its 20th Party Congress — China under Xi has formally abandoned economic growth as its top priority for national development (along with the international partnerships on which that growth depended for trade, investment, access to capital markets and innovation) and prioritized instead “security” (with all the ideological baggage which that entails in Xi’s worldview).

Put simply, Xi has just crossed the Rubicon …

I wrote on Monday in Ideologues Meet Markets that I would share my considered view on the implications of the just concluded 20th National Party Congress after a few days of rumination and reflection. I am doing so now. Xi has just crossed the Rubicon. His move not only upends a forty-year trajectory of the most dynamic economic growth ever witnessed in the world, it threatens — more ominously — the foundations of the post-WWII international order and the unprecedented seventy-year run of (relative) peace the world has enjoyed at the global level.

An extremely well observed account of what this moment means is contained in the political economist Yuen Yuen Ang’s opinion piece in today’s New York Times. I reproduce below that piece in its entirety:

China’s Era of Reform Has Officially Ended

By Yuen Yuen Ang

Forty-four years ago, Deng Xiaoping kicked off the period of “reform and opening up” that transformed China from a poor, autarkic nation into an emerging global power.

President Xi Jinping officially ended that era last week. He emerged from the Chinese Communist Party’s congress in Beijing with unchallenged authority and plans for China that revolve around his obsession with control and security — even if that means harming the economy.

It’s a momentous change in outlook.

Deng Xiaoping’s strategy for China’s spectacular economic achievements had two main components. The first was a collective leadership arrangement within the Communist Party. Deng rejected Western-style democracy, but China’s tumultuous decades under Mao Zedong had taught him that one-man rule is dangerous. He and the party introduced partial checks and balances into politics at the highest level, including term limits. The second component was a single-minded pursuit of economic growth that, Deng famously declared, would be China’s “hard principle.” Officials throughout China dove headlong into promoting growth at all costs — bringing prosperity but also corruption, inequality and heavy industrial pollution.

Last week in Beijing, Mr. Xi dismantled those foundations. He ensured that he would remain paramount leader of China for a third term — if not for life — and packed the party’s leadership with loyalists while heavily prioritizing national security over the pursuit of economic growth.

In his speech to the party congress at the Great Hall of the People on Oct. 16, he mentioned “security” significantly more often than “economy,” a major break with precedent. He went further, declaring unambiguously, “National security is the bedrock of national rejuvenation, and social stability is a prerequisite for building a strong and prosperous China.”

In Chinese politics, small changes in wording can herald big shifts in ideology and policy. If there were any remaining doubts about Mr. Xi’s intentions, he dispelled them by vowing that China would stick to its zero-Covid policy, “without wavering.” His government’s approach to the pandemic, a public health policy in name, is in reality the most powerful security tool devised by the Communist Party, restricting access to the country and controlling who can go where, underpinned by tracking apps that citizens and visitors must have on their smartphones.

For observers long accustomed to Deng’s growth-first ethos, Mr. Xi’s policy choice is mind-boggling. The Covid controls are angering citizens, crippling China’s economy, decimating domestic consumption, disrupting manufacturing and logistics, and repelling foreign and local investors alike.

Why is the most powerful Chinese leader in decades so obsessed with security and domestic control that he would sacrifice the economy? The answer lies in an array of domestic and foreign challenges, some worsened by Mr. Xi’s own policy choices.

Politically, he probably fears the proverbial knife in the back after making enemies through a decade-long anti-corruption campaign in which thousands of officials — possibly including potential political rivals — were punished and is doubling down on repression out of his instinct for self-preservation.

On the economic front, he faces smoldering crises, including an economy that is slowing sharply, a property sector meltdown and record-breaking youth unemployment. These problems have been exacerbated by the Covid controls and by Mr. Xi’s “common prosperity” campaign — a strategy for narrowing inequality and addressing monopolistic behavior by big tech firms and other private companies, which was punctuated by an abrupt and sweeping regulatory crackdown last year that has alarmed investors. The market backlash was intense: Within months, more than a trillion dollars in value at many of China’s most innovative companies evaporated.

On foreign policy, Mr. Xi has projected an ambition to challenge American primacy. The Trump administration’s chaotic handling of the pandemic prompted Mr. Xi to boast that “the East is rising and the West is declining.” But his triumphalism was premature. China is far from an even match with the United States in economic, military or technological power. And while American democracy is in crisis, the United States remains strong, a true superpower and a free country able to criticize and renew itself. Mr. Xi criticizes the West for seeking to contain China, but his hubris and aggressive approach helped bring about this threat.

To be sure, Mr. Xi does not intend to completely abandon the capitalist success that rejuvenated China and brought global respect and influence. And to his credit, he has confronted serious problems that his predecessors swept under the rug, particularly corruption and economic inequality. His vision of a powerful China, respected on the global stage, is warranted given his country’s size and economic clout.

But addressing China’s myriad problems will require measured steps that Mr. Xi seems disinclined to take. Putting out fires in China’s economy must begin with relaxing Covid restrictions and importing more effective vaccines, something that his government has prevented. These won’t be miracle cures, but they are necessary first steps that will go a long way toward alleviating stress on China’s people and reassuring investors that his leadership team has not lost all sense.

Mr. Xi has plunged China into a vicious cycle: A hubristic and authoritarian leader, unaccountable to society and unchallenged even by his own advisers, makes poor policy choices, which add to his problems, exacerbating his fears of a revolt and leading to more repression.

The consequences of his decision to emphasize security over economic vibrancy will be global. China is the world’s second-largest economy and the biggest trading partner of dozens of countries. A prolonged economic slowdown in China will increase the risk of a global recession, with many countries sharing the pain. In the long run, there may be winners as China’s waning competitiveness hastens a shift in global supply chains to other emerging economies. But if China turns inward, it will lose. Chinese tech companies are already expanding overseas to compensate for a restrictive home environment.

China’s great capitalist revolution under Deng and his successors is now history. So is Mr. Xi’s first 10 years in office, when there was at least a minimal layer of checks on his power from moderate, non-loyalist officials. China under Mao and the former Soviet Union proved that absolute dictatorships fail miserably at making nations prosperous and strong. They bring only impoverishment and false security. Mr. Xi is likely to relearn those lessons in the coming years.

Yuen Yuen Ang (@yuenyuenang) is a political economist and the author of “Chinaʼs Gilded Age” and “How China Escaped the Poverty Trap.”

Kevin Rudd, global president of the Asia Society and former Prime Minister of Australia, knows China well. He wrote in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal that:”The 20th Congress, which gets under way Oct. 16th will be different (from other Congresses since the opening of the 1982 reform era). There’s only one appointment that matters now: Xi Jinping, China’s Chairman of Everything. The delegates will reappoint Mr. Xi to a third five-year term as general secretary by a vote of 2,296 to 0.”

I don’t disagree with the main point that Kevin Rudd is making here but there is also a more nuanced view that is important to bring to bear. Wednesday’s post set the table for this more nuanced view. That perspective involves understanding the seven appointments which will be announced on Sunday to the Standing Committee under Xi. The crux of the issue is whether those seven appointments represents a line-up of Xi loyalists — in which case Rudd’s take is spot on — or whether there are appointments enfranchising power-bases at odds with Xi’s direction and indicating that the Party wants some checks on Xi’s untrammeled authority.

Here’s my cheat-sheet to reading next week’s Standing Committee appointments in light of this question:

Chutes & Ladders: 20th CPP National Congress Edition

So what to watch for?

(Scenario 1) Signs that the CCP is totally bought into Xi being Chairman of Everything

Premier Li Keqiang (aged 67 and therefore normatively eligible for another term) is gone

— No one in their early 50s joins the Standing Committee (showing Xi doesn’t want heir apparent)

Chen Min’er, a Xi loyalist and champion of Xi’s war on poverty, is appointed

Ding Xuexiang, a Xi loyalist and Xi policy enforcer, is appointed

(Scenario 2) Signs that the CCP wants some checks on Xi’s untrammeled exercise of power

He Lifeng, an internationally-friendly protégé of retiring economic czar Liu He, is appointed

Hu Chunhua, who like Xi had a stellar early career but hasn’t been close with him since, is appointed

Li Hongzhong, party boss of Tianjin and not “a dyed-in-the-wool” Xi man, is appointed

Li Xi, party boss of independently minded Guangdong province, is appointed

Finally, keep an eye on Chen Quanguo, party boss of Xinjiang in charge of Uyghur “reeducation,” and Liu Jieyi, head of the Taiwan Affairs Office and the political dimension of the Taiwan reunification project. Whether their stars shine brightly or dim will also give an indication of the degree of CCP support for Xi’s hardline policies on these two fronts.

So that’s the scorecard I recommend you follow. We’ll circle back next week and tally up the score after the Standing Committee line-up has been brought out, in rank order, onto the main stage of the 20th National Party Congress.

With the 20th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) kicking off this coming Sunday, it’s useful to step back from the game of handicapping short-term odds and to take for a moment a longer-term perspective. We can return to anticipating the likely ‘chutes and ladders’ of 20th National Congress outcomes later this week: the (near-certain) likelihood of Xi Jinping securing a third term as President, unprecedented in the post-Mao era, and an examination of the ascendent and dimming stars of various Standing Committee incumbents and candidates and what that portends for the next five years. For now, it’s useful to step back and evaluate how it came to be — and what it means for China’s future — that Xi stands on the threshold of entering the CCP pantheon with near-totalitarian power. The key question to consider is whether Xi managed to bend the CCP and the country to his will or whether Xi’s rise reflects what the CCP has willed for China’s future.

A screen shows Chinese President Xi Jinping during a show commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China at the National Stadium in Beijing, China June 28, 2021. REUTERS/Thomas Peter TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

The two best authorities on this question are Elizabeth Economy (The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State [2018] and The World According to China [2022]) and Kerry Brown (Xi: A Study in Power [2022]). Informed by their insights, I will attempt a super-summary of the forty-years which have led up to Sunday’s moment in history and then tackle that key question.

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The market reforms which the CCP started experimenting with behind the curtain in 1978 and which it then publicly introduced in 1982 had an extraordinary run of success in elevating China’s economy. This occurred first under Deng Xiaoping’s informal leadership from 1982 through 1997 and then continued, in somewhat overlapping fashion with Deng’s tutelage, under the more regularized leadership of, first, Jiang Zemin (1993-2003) and then, starting in 2003, Hu Jintao. By 2007, post-WTO economic reforms were coming on stream, more far-reaching liberalizations were on the horizon, and a new system of divided authority and orderly succession in the Standing Committee was taking shape. (Under this system, the posts of President and Premier as well as the seven (usually) Standing Committee slots could not be held by any one person for more than two five-year slots. If at the time of a National Congress, occurring every five years, a one-term incumbent was 67 years old or less, he (virtually always a ‘he’) would be eligible according to the “seven up, eight down” rule to serve another five year term. If he was 68 or older, however, he would be obliged to step down.)

In 2007, Western observers, myself included, could be forgiven for thinking that China was on a development path in line with Western values and the post-WWII world order. But starting with the Financial Crisis and then, over the next fifteen years, this alignment started to diverge. Progressively, in step with Xi’s anointment as President in 2012 following his leadership struggle with Bo Xilai and his subsequent consolidation of power through his signature “Tigers & Flies” anti-corruption campaign, Xi started positioning his “Rejuvenated” China as deserving equal political stature on the world stage with the United States and equal, if not superior, stature to the West in matters of values and culture. His triumphalist speech at the 2017 National Congress made this claim explicitly and emphatically for all the world to hear. The Belt & Road Initiative and the Zero-COVID policy became Xi’s monumental stages — internationally and domestically — for playing this claim out for all the word to see.

Despite serious setbacks in 2022 with an imploding real estate market and a diminished tech sector, with COVID lockdowns and social discontent, and with the embarassment which his “friend without limits” has caused Xi personally in Ukraine, Xi looks set to enter the CCP pantheon this Sunday to be installed on a pedestal he has made for himself — higher than Deng Xiaoping’s and not lower than Mao Zedong’s.

This enthronement could not have been scripted by one man. The near absolute consolidation of power in the hands of one person could not be the work of one person unless there were far more evidence of resistance and rebellion in the ranks of other CCP power-brokers whose oxen had been gored. As this incisive opinion piece by Kerry Brown in yesterday’s New York Times persuasively argues, Xi’s leadership ethos is the CCP’s ethos and Xi’s laser-focus on making China “strong, respected and feared” will remain as strong even when Xi leaves the stage. It will remain for as long as the CCP can keep the lights on and the stage lit.

Over 10 years, Xi Jinping has methodically amassed power. Beginning with an unprecedented consolidation of military support, Xi then launched his ‘Tigers and Flies’ campaign, sidelining his political rivals along with officials accused of corruption. Over many years he patiently laid the groundwork to elevate Xi Jinping Thought to match the official stature of Mao Zedong Thought, and edge out Deng Xiaoping Thought, in the CCP’s ideological pantheon. He then overturned international commitments regarding Hong Kong, and brought that free-wheeling and Westernized city to heel with the introduction of a new security law. At the last 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi tossed aside Deng’s “hide-and-abide” (韜光養晦、有所作為) approach to international relations and gave a triumphalist speech, announcing that China had not only arrived on the world stage but that it deserved central position on that stage. With the outbreak of the Covid-19 epidemic, Xi used sharp-elbow tactics to block scientific investigation into its origins in China and ordered sweeping zero-Covid lockdowns to highlight his government’s ability to take more effective action than was possible for democratic governments in the US and the West.  The Winter Olympics were meant to be Xi’s star-turn to demonstrate — more to the Chinese people than to international audiences (many of whom undertook diplomatic boycotts of the Games because of oppression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and other issues) — that he was a flawless and unrivalled champion.  He even went so far as to claim that the authoritarian system he presided over represented a superior form of democracy to Western liberal democracy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping during a show commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China

Along this path to unrivalled power in China, Xi first jettisoned the system of collective rule by the Standing Committee of the Politburo which Deng had put in place to guard against recurrence of unbridled rule by any one individual, epitomized by the last years of Mao’s rule.  Longer term, Xi’s aim in amassing power has been to discard the limit of a president to two five-year terms, another safeguard Deng put in place and which he himself observed.

The announcement of leadership for the next five-year term will happen at the CCP’s 20th Party Congress in Beijing this autumn. At that meeting, Xi is widely expected to be named for a precedent-shattering third term. This will mark a historic high-point for Xi. His systematic consolidation of power has been designed, in part, to create an air of inevitability about this outcome. While his selection is still overwhelmingly likely, a number of significant fissures have appeared in recent weeks which crack this façade of total control.

ZERO-COVID

While undoubtedly successful in limiting the number of infections, hospitalizations, and deaths in the first two years of the pandemic, Xi’s Zero-Covid policy has created a raft of problems for China more recently, most notably during the highly-transmissible omicron phase. While incidences of infection, hospitalization and death have been dropping worldwide, they have been surging in China, with the number of confirmed cases more than quadrupling from mid-February to mid-March of this year. Elderly citizens are especially at risk due to their low rates of vaccination and hospitals have already become overwhelmed, due in part to the low number of hospital beds on a per capita basis in China. While it can be argued that the Zero-Covid policy ‘bought time’ for the development of vaccines, Xi’s championing of the locally developed Sinovac vaccine and his refusal to permit the use of more clinically-effective vaccines developed in the West, has blunted that advantage somewhat since the Sinovac vaccine is notably less effective against the omicron variant. The Zero-Covid policy has also meant that there is practically zero immunity in the Chinese population as a result of exposure to the virus as it becomes endemic worldwide. If SARS-COV-2 can be compared to a flame, China’s population is like a vast field of tinder. Finally, the economic and social costs have become glaringly apparent with the lockdown of an entire province, Jilin, in the northeast and the of Shenzhen and Dongguan – China’s two largest manufacturing hubs for information and communications technology (ICT) — in the south.

While Xi will, with considerable justification, continue to claim credit for his “triumph” over the coronavirus, China is by no means out of the pandemic woods and the setbacks of the last month make his strident claims ring more hollow, both internationally and domestically.

REAL ESTATE

In September last year, Chinese real-estate development firms began to feel the severe discomfort of a massive hang-over following years of real-estate speculation partying.  The problems were most evident in real-estate giant Evergrande but soon spread to a host of other significant players in the field such as Fantasia, Modern Land, China Property Group and Xinyuan Real Estate Group.  At the institutional level, the problems hitting the $5 trillion sector were the result of a unique PRC nexus of aggressive real estate development, lax banking, and local government incentive structures.  More simply, the problems resulted from “unrestrained borrowing, expansion as an end-in-itself, and corruption.”  

While the PRC Government claimed this week that the real-estate free-fall has been “stabilized,” pricing data from real estate developers across the country continue to show sharp deterioration. Also this week, Evergrande announced a further delay in sharing its plan for restructuring and for paying back bonds and other financial obligations.  The government has strong reason to put on a brave face while throwing up a curtain of opacity around the problem.  Property-related industries account for more than 30% of China’s economic output.  Continued problems in the sector could drag China’s growth below the optimistic, post-pandemic official target of 5% growth, a minimum level which must be maintained in the years ahead for China to escape the ‘middle income trap.’ More immediately, it risks alienating an important swath of the urban public, 80% of whose household wealth is tied up in real estate and who see their property values plummeting. (A particularly aggrieved segment of this population are buyers who have paid up front to the developers, as is common in China, for a property not yet built and for which construction has halted indefinitely while values continue to slide).

While Xi has voiced loud promises to not let the bottom fall out of this sector and to support homeowners currently caught in the fallout, there is little evidence on the ground of these promises translating into reality.  Meanwhile, the situation risks alienating the public and sowing dissent among officials.

‘COMMON PROSPERITY’

As measured by the Gini coefficient, China ranked fourth in the world in 2022 for greatest wealth disparity and inequality (after South Africa, Namibia and Sri Lanka). While Deng Xiaoping had announced famously in the late 1980s that “to get rich is glorious” and to “let some get rich first,” the extreme degree of inequality persisting in China four decades later is a source of growing social and political concern. The heady days of 10% growth have long ago disappeared and Chinese who thought they would be boarding on a later rail-car in the national train of prosperity now worry that the train may have departed, stranding them on the platform.

To counter this source of social unease, Xi unveiled with great fanfare in 2021 a policy of ‘Common Prosperity.” Writ large, this policy was meant to cement Xi’s place — side-by-side with Mao and with Deng slightly in the background – in China’s pantheon of modern heroes.  In this telling, Mao was the one who roused China to throw off its ‘Sick Man of Asia’ bondage to foreign imperialists and to stand up. Deng contrived a transitional stage of capitalist-style wealth-creation for enough Chinese that China could attain wealth and power (富权). It was left to Xi to complete this project of national rejuvenation, by reinstituting a Marxist “Common Prosperity’ for all Chinese and returning China to the center of the world stage.

Without getting into either the ideological weeds (such as Xi’s ‘Dual Circulation’ strategy) or deep into the tangle of economic measures (e.g., restrictions on overseas listings by Chinese companies, user-data and other controls put on Chinese Big Tech firms, clampdown on student test-prep and video game commercial sectors, etc) which Xi embraced in 2021 to advance his Common Prosperity agenda, the general effect was felt quickly and keenly in the form of abrupt economic slowdown. In the first quarter of this year, the Common Prosperity program has been ‘walked back’ by numerous party officials who have emphasized that it represents a historic project more than an immediate project. Premier Li Keqiang, in his lengthy speech to 3,000 deputies at the opening of the National People’s Congress earlier in the month, mentioned Common Prosperity only one time. For educated Chinese — who have been skillfully parsing official pronouncements closely ever since the Cultural Revolution for clues about where the country is headed — this lack of visibility and endorsement for Xi Jinping’s signature program represents a remarkable degree of push-back for Xi by top-level leaders.

UKRAINE

Chris Buckley’s report in last Friday’s New York Times traces the contours of what is potentially the most damaging crack to appear in Xi’s carefully-crafted, monolithic façade of power and control.  The article details the war of words that has erupted on the Chinese internet following the warning delivered by a respected scholar and politically-connected insider, Hu Wei, to the effect that China “risked becoming a pariah if it didn’t denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.” As was covered in last week’s post and as continues to play out this week, Chinese officials have contorted themselves by claiming to be neutral and wanting peace while following Putin’s lead in not calling the ‘special military operation’ either a war or an invasion, in not objecting to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and in amplifying Kremlin disinformation about U.S. bio-military labs in Ukraine. 

As argued last week, this has the potential to grow into a strategic blunder for China with significant geopolitical fall-out. It may affect not only Xi’s ambitions to retake Taiwan – the last territorial piece in his China Rejuvenation plan – but to bear long term costs for China as a rising power in the Indo-Pacific region and for its standing in the world at large.

None of this is to suggest that Xi will not get his third term as President this fall. It is only to say that the carefully-cultivated blooms of infallibility and inevitability are now off the XJP rose.

Xi has been in power for less than half of Putin’s tenure (18 years as President and 4 years as the power behind the throne for Medvedev) but there are doubtless people in Zhongnanhai wondering to themselves, post-Putin’s invasion, whether Deng didn’t get it right with his moves to limit the untrammeled exercise of power by an individual leader.

The Shanghai Communiqué was signed on the evening of February 27, 1972 at the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai, home to a restaurant my wife and I frequented weekly during my posting to the U.S. Consulate in Shanghai from 1988 to 1990. The Communiqué, as distilled by Wikipedia, “pledged that it was in the interest of all nations for the United States and China to work towards the normalization of their relations, and affirmed a mutual interest in détente.”

Earlier this week, a China-hand friend of long-standing texted me to ask my thoughts about the South China Morning Post’s report on the ceremony conducted a few days ago by the Chinese Government to commemorate this event. Specifically, she asked my thoughts on the comment by PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi to the effect that China was “willing to work with the US on the Build Back Better World, a G7-led global infrastructure plan, and would welcome Washington joining its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).” (This comment was contextually painted by Wang into a broader picture of how Nixon was far wiser than the current administration in engaging cooperatively with China and that the US should immediately cease and desist from its current posture seeking “hegemony” in Asia.)

Here’s my reply:

“Wishful thinking on Wang Yi’s part. 77 years of U.S. international development assistance have been based on principles of democracy promotion, free market strengthening, transparency and anti-corruption. BRI projects tend to work best where none of those values flourish and instead where those projects serve the personal interests of autocratic (and near-autocratic) leaders. The Rajapaksa family in Sri Lanka and Lukashenko in Belarus are prime examples (with Ukraine being the oddball exception which proves the general rule). Right-thinking US Govt officials have ZERO interest, I believe, in joining BRI projects or in allowing PRC entities to participate in Build Back Better World initiatives until PRC intl-econ-dev standards rise to the level of US/European/Japanese standards. Until that happens, the focus is on out-competing China in the less autocratic BRI countries and with working particularly closely with Japan and Australia in the Asian arena of development assistance competition.”

“So summing up: Wang Yi’s statement is a non-serious and unrealistic throw-away line but one that sounds warm and fuzzy to say on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of signing the Shanghai Communiqué. It has the added advantage of having no prospect of actually going anywhere.”

In July 1989, I was at my desk at the U.S. Consulate General Shanghai when I received a call notifying me that a small group of senior officials from the Shanghai Municipal Government would be coming for a meeting that afternoon.  I was asked to make sure that the newly-arrived Consul General — Pat Wardlaw who had just replaced my first Consul General Charlie Sylvester earlier in the month — join the meeting.

A couple of things about this. First, you’ll note that a meeting wasn’t actually requested and that none of us were asked about our availability in the afternoon.  We were instead informed that the group of government officials would be coming and we were simply expected to be available when they arrived.  Second, anyone who has worked in China will notice something quite extraordinary about this phone call.  We were not summoned, as is typically the case with Chinese government officials, to go meet with them at their offices. They were coming to us. This would be the only time in my working career in China when Chinese government officials came to us rather than vice versa.

At my desk, U.S. Consulate General Shanghai, 1989

A word of context. This phone call took place in the latter half of July, a month and a half after the June 4th Tiananmen incident. Roughly a week before June 4th, my wife Grace and I had left Shanghai on a one-month Home Leave, traveling first for one week vacation with my sister’s family on Kauai and then expecting to spend the remainder of our time in Philadelphia with family and with me traveling to Washington DC on consultations. As we transited San Francisco International Airport on June 4th to catch our onward flight to Philadelphia, there was a palpable tension in the air and we soon saw the near-identical banner headlines about Tiananmen in a row of vending machines along the terminal wall as we made our way to Passport Control.

I never got my homeleave or consultations in Washington. Secretary of State Jim Baker was determined to have his thumb on the pulse of decision-making by McDonnell-Douglas, 3M, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-cola and the other top U.S. investments in Shanghai. He knew it wouldn’t be reliable to just count on what he heard from the CEOs at U.S. headquarters. He wanted to know the calculus of decision-making that was taking place on the ground by the Shanghai-based executives in charge of the major U.S. investments in Shanghai. Having just landed in Philadelphia, I was given one-day to help Grace (early in her pregnancy with our older son Todd) get settled in and was instructed to then turn around and fly back to Shanghai to start providing anything I could learn from my business contacts in Shanghai in a series of classified cables.

So back to the July meeting. The Consulate guard (not a Marine because no U.S. military presence was allowed in China at that time) notified me that the government officials had arrived. I escorted the group of four or five officials into the ground-floor meeting room where a handful of my Consulate colleagues were waiting. One of the officials was just barely managing to carry a big armful of long paper rolls. They did not wait to be seated and didn’t begin with any pleasantries. The senior official simply took the first roll of paper handed to him, unrolled it on the conference room table and announced “This will be the new Pudong. We want you to report about Pudong to your government. We want Americans to invest and help develop it. They will make a lot of money.”

¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤ ¤

Today’s post falls into the TEA Collaboratives’ A-Series of content dealing with PRC government planning Ambitions. Over the weeks and months ahead, I will have a chance to share insights developed through the Masters-level course (IMPA 608) which I taught at the University of Pennsylvania in the spring semester of 2019 and 2020. The focus of that course, based on Mandarin language research, is the forty-year trajectory of China’s macro-development planning vision and execution. Domestically, the trajectory of that storyline begins with Shenzhen in the early 1980s, continues smoothly through Pudong throughout the 1990s before encountering turbulence in Tianjin in the 2000s. Following 2012, the first stage of this macro-development model gets jettisoned and the second stage ignites with the twin megalopolis projects — the Consolidated Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei Project (‘Jing-Jin-Ji’ or 京津冀) in the northeast and the Guangdong-Hong-Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area Project in the southeast. Simultaneous with the unveiling and cranking up of this pair of Version 2 domestic macro-development projects over the last decade, China has also been systematically extending its macro-development model to its 139 international partners through the Belt & Road Initiative.

I look forward to sharing the insights gleaned from this multi-year, instructor-and-student knowledge co-creation effort in the TEA Collaborative’s A-series blogposts on Fridays over the remainder of the year. Understanding the vision and values driving the momentum of this forty-years macro-development effort helps chart where China is headed in the future. I hope this small, personal anecdote about Pudong’s emergence into China’s macro-development planning process serves as an apt way to kick off our Macro-Dev series.

ambitions

Bear with me. I’m going to kick off today’s post with a snapshot about how we organize the blog’s content week by week in order to set the stage for then revealing the slight wrinkle with today’s post. Boring. Hang in there, though … there’s a good reason.

 

The TEA Collaborative produces three blog-posts per week: on Mondays (aspirationally, at least) we put out a tech-related post which takes care of the T in our name; on Wednesdays (ditto) an energy/environment post which covers the letter E; and on Fridays (ditto) an A post for Ambitions (by which we mean the effort to chronicle the seventy-year undertaking by the government of the People’s Republic of China to leverage their huge population, along with other assets, to confront the world with a new, ambitious model of change at vast scale and speed).

So as not to get trapped into rigidity, we have also been planning all along to fold occasionally a so-called X-factor post into this T-E-A formula.  X-series posts will generally be the contribution of an invited guest blogger who is an acknowledged Xpert (sorry, couldn’t resist) in the broad field of U.S.-China relations.

Today’s post turns out to be a bit of a hybrid between A and X.  Originally, we were lining up an X-series post which I thought might appear today but, for various reasons, that expert will need to hold off her appearance until September.  Since I did not myself have anything particularly cogent prepped for Ambitions as a fall-back, I went through much of the day yesterday mentally open, in equal measure, to either inspiration or dumb luck. Dumb luck won the day.

As a result, I am able to present here both a fortuitous hybrid — content that actually does fit the A-Series perspective but happens to be delivered by a different X-series expert.  (The wrinkle is that the X-series expert is not yet aware that he is filling in this way.  I’ve written him today to explain and to get his blessing.  Having gotten to know him in a sense after listening to more than 100 hours of his podcast series, I’m pretty sure he’ll go for it.  If not, though, I’ll have to pull this from the blogsite.  So, you might want to read fast.)

OK, here we go …

In our T(ech) post from last week, Fiddling Around with U.S.-China Tech, I asserted: “there was undoubtedly a measure of optimistic naïveté in the West in assuming China’s willingness to dutifully assume the role of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the post-WWII world order.  If the Chinese had conceived of their nation as only having been born in 1949, assuming the mantle of responsible Pax Americana stakeholder might have fit more comfortably. As it was, Chinese conceived the People’s Republic of China as the heir to a Chinese polity which had been the dominant economy in the world for sixteen of the previous eighteen centuries.  They weren’t predisposed to simply adopting some newcomer’s rules and norms as to how China should conduct itself on the world stage.”

Today’s post is going to put meat on the bones of that assertion.  In order to do so, I will turn to Mike Duncan — creator, author and narrator of the magisterial History of Rome podcast series.  On the occasion of the 100th episode of his series, Mike took listeners’ questions.  For the remainder of this post, I am going to take his answers to two questions from that podcast, reverse the order in which he answered them, and share his erudition here to shine a bright light on the two component parts of my assertion:  first, why would the Chinese not naturally think of themselves as heirs to something very special which pre-dated 1949 by quite a few years; and, second, why would the Chinese not naturally have some skepticism about falling in line with a new-fangled U.S.-led world order dating back to 1949.

Except for the headings, the following two points of text are entirely drawn from the 100th episode of Mike Duncan’s History of Rome podcast.

  1. China Has More Historical Continuity Than The Roman Empire (And That’s Saying Something)

Question:
What, if any, relationship existed between ancient Rome and China?

Answer:
The majority of the contact between Rome and China was indirect, but the two great bookends of the world certainly knew that the other existed. The Han Dynasty, which persists in one form or another from about 200 BC to 220 AD was rising at the same time as the Romans, and as Rome headed East, the Han headed West. And it was during this period that the links became more overt. With the stabilizing hand of the Han in place the famous Silk Road was able to knit itself together, carrying silk and other Oriental treasures from China all the way to Antioch, and from there to Rome, while, among other things, Roman glasswork made their way back to the Chinese.

In 97 AD a Chinese embassy was sent West to try to make contact with the kingdom of the Da Qin, which is what the Han called Rome. But apparently they were stopped short in Mesopotamia after the Parthians explained that the difficult crossing to Rome would take another two years at least. This bald faced lie was meant to keep the two poles of the lucrative trade routes, which Parthia controlled, from ever meeting and working out a way to bypass the Parthian middlemen.

In 166, though, a Roman embassy was sent east and was able to make contact with the Chinese emperor. Debate still swirls about how the Romans got there, whether by sea or overland, but a meeting definitely occurred and the Romans offered up all kinds of gifts from the West, including a book of Greco-Roman astronomy. Nothing concrete seems to have followed the meeting though, and thereafter the two sides continued to simply trade with one another indirectly via the Silk Road or by the sea routes around India.

For the remainder of the Empire, Chinese silk remained a highly sought after luxury item in Rome, and was a major point of contention, both for old school conservatives who found how revealing the fabric was disturbing, and proto economists who worried about how much gold was disappearing east for nothing but a few scraps of cloth.

2.   What’s the Enculturated Chinese Attitude Towards a ‘Pax Americana’ Dating Back to 1949?

Question:
“One of the earliest topics that was brought up is the purported similarities between ancient Rome and the US. What are the main similarities and differences between ancient Rome and the present and historical US?”

Answer:

Well, let’s go through the obvious list. The United States kicked out a monarch, founded a republic wildly skewed in favor of a rich aristocracy (that was self-consciously modeled on Roman institutions), dealt with violent upheavals as the lower social classes attempted to capture some power for themselves, expanded aggressively on their own continent before accidentally capturing overseas territories, and is now utterly dominant militarily, politically and economically. What else do you need to know?

Throw in the fact that if you believe the Soviet Union was Carthage and that the Cold War is our equivalent of the Punic Wars, then you can even locate us within the larger timeline right around the rise of the Gracchi brothers and, hey, look, Tea Parties.

Except that one thing that’s really been driven home to me lately is that while you can find these superficial similarities, there are much deeper differences. Every powerful nation follows its own trajectory, for its own particular reasons, towards own particular end, though usually at the height of each one’s power, they claim that they are the rebirth of the Roman empire.

For me, the biggest difference between America and Rome is that compared to Rome, the United States is a baby and could be very well proved to be merely a flash in the pan. The Roman Empire became the dominant state in the Mediterranean around 200 BC and remained as such in one form or another until the fall of Constantinople in the 1450s. I mean, we are talking about a nearly 2000 year period where you simply cannot talk about anything that occurred in North Africa, Europe, or the Middle East without talking about Rome. America, by contrast, was a pretty decent regional power for about a century, a pretty major world power for about 75 years after that, and has been living with the kind of unipolar prestige Rome enjoyed for centuries for about the last 20 years.

If the United States of America is still around in 3010, I think maybe then we can start talking about comparisons to Rome. Until then, things happen, nations rise and fall, and borders shift. I’m not saying America can’t dominate the world for a millennia. I’m just saying that it’s an awful lot to ask of anyone.

Rome was all about longevity and stability, and that is a test that no one in the West has been able to pass since.

My Personal Postscript

We live in a polarized time.  Many people who I encounter in the blogosphere will be inclined to take this post as evidence that I am somehow an apologist for the PRC.  Let me set the record straight on that possible perception:

  • My entire professional life has been dedicated to supporting U.S. Government institutions (e.g., the U.S. Foreign Service), U.S. Government programs (e.g,. the U.S.-China EcoPartnership program) and U.S.-led People-to-People cooperative programs such as The Philadelphia Orchestra’s engagement with China
  • Above and beyond my professional involvements, I personally believe that America’s multi-cultural, future-oriented perspective is the world’s best path forward, at least as far as I have so far encountered
  • I do not believe in historical determinism.  There is nothing about either Rome’s or China’s longevity which I find instructive for understanding their futures, except for the single fact that the people who grow up in that cultural tradition feel it in their bones
  • But, as I took pains to lay out in my Where I Stand post, I will never shy from seeking to understand, take into account, and respect my counterpart’s reality when grappling with a shared problem so that solutions which work for “my side” will also work for theirs.  Those are the solutions that stick.

Volume 2, Number 3 in Global TECHtonics: U.S./China Fault-line series

A U.S.-led initiative to reach out to China and to welcome it into the community of Western nations began with President Nixon trip to Beijing in February 1972.  Orchestrated by Henry Kissinger, Nixon’s National Security Advisor at the time, the trip was a brilliant Cold War gambit to exploit the growing rift between Moscow and Beijing. The trip kicked off a seven-year process of “normalizing” relations between the West and “the sleeping dragon” of Asia and, in so doing, divided the Soviet bloc. Through almost half-a-century and a bipartisan succession of Presidents, the effort to engage with China continued as that country woke from its Cultural Revolution nightmare and began to rise up, shaking the world as it did so.

February 1972 was the Year of the Rat (Water Element) in the Chinese zodiac.  Forty-eight years later we are again in the Year of the Rat under the Metal Element.  In Chinese traditional thinking, we have gone from a time of suppleness and fluidity to a time of hardness and intransigence.  In the minds of most Western observers, we have passed from a strategic engagement with China to, under President Trump, a time of open competition on the world stage and strategic disengagement (“de-coupling”) in the technology arena.

This post will save for another time the broader discussion about how and why this shift came about other than to make three general, even obvious, points.  First, there was undoubtedly a measure of optimistic naïveté in the West in assuming China’s willingness to dutifully assume the role of a ‘responsible stakeholder’ in the post-WWII world order.  If the Chinese had conceived of their nation as only having been born in 1949, assuming the mantle of responsible Pax Americana stakeholder might have fit more comfortably. As it was, Chinese conceived the People’s Republic of China as the heir to a Chinese polity which had been the dominant economy in the world for sixteen of the previous eighteen centuries.  They weren’t predisposed to simply adopting some newcomer’s rules and norms as to how China should conduct itself on the world stage. Second, there has undoubtedly been tactical overreach and ill-advised swaggering by President Xi Jinping since his triumphalist speech at the 19th Party Congress in September 2017.  U.S.-China relations would undoubtedly be on a more stable track today had Xi Jinping played his cards differently, following suit more with Deng Xiaoping’s opening bid of “keeping a low profile (hiding one’s capacity) and biding one’s time” (韜光養晦、有所作為) rather than flashing his Made in China 2025 card so conspicuously. It can be argued that it’s better from the U.S. standpoint for this “world order competition” to be out in the open. Third, the horse is definitely out of the barn.  No U.S. Administration is going to try to get that horse back on the 1972-2017 normalization track. The world has changed and what is needed is a U.S. Administration which recognizes real challenges from China but does not exaggerate them and which marshals the resources to address those challenges in an efficient and effective way, rather than wastefully and non-productively.

The remainder of this post uses last week’s The Four Levels of Risk post as a backdrop to a quick sketch outlining just how wasteful and ineffective the Trump Administration’s policy of technology de-coupling from China is becoming.  I’ll do this sketch with three brushstrokes – the view from U.S. boardrooms, the view from the cultural sidelines and the view from history.

 

The View from U.S. Boardrooms

A CNBC.com article by Arjun Kharpal published on June 4, 2019 made no reference to the Tiananmen anniversary but did point out that the Trump Administration’s Huawei policy was quickly hoisted on its own petard  – failing to get allies to broaden the campaign but leading to a marked acceleration of China’s efforts to develop its own semiconductor industry to supplant U.S. semiconductor supply in the Chinese market and, eventually, in world markets.  “The Huawei incident has indeed stimulated the development of China’s domestic chip industry,” Gu Wenjun, analyst at China-based semiconductor research firm ICWise, told CNBC by email” wrote Kharpal at the time. Now, one year later, Trump Administration policy is digging this hole deeper and at a faster pace:

  • Qualcomm is reported to have lost current orders worth as much as $8 billion as a result of the Trump Administration’s May 2020 tightening of trade restrictions imposed against Huawei. The new regulations block all chipmakers that use U.S.-made equipment or software from producing chips for Huawei (though companies can apply for a license to continue supply)
  • Following the Trump Administration’s August 6th signing of an Executive Order banning transactions by U.S. companies with Tencent, the owner of the WeChat app, market research firms scrambled to assess the impact on Apple and its installed base of iPhones in the strategically vital Chinese market. The surveys all pointed to the same result – as many as 90% of iPhone users in China would drop the Apple product and switch to Android devices if the WeChat app were no longer available on their iPhones.
  • The same August 6th Executive Order targeted Bytedance, parent company to the massively popular TikTok app. Seasoned observers who are able to gauge the U.S.-side push-back against this action and know the sloppiness with which the Executive Order was drafted, expect an eventual climbdown by the Administration – if not before the November 3rd election, then shortly after it.

 

The View from the Cultural Sidelines

There are two culture wars raging – a partisan one in U.S. domestic politics and an international one between a suddenly tarnished U.S. model and a much-hyped “bright and shiny” new Chinese model.  The same dynamics at play with the COVID-19 pandemic are at play in the technology sphere.  Domestically, Trump works to energize his base with claims that China is the enemy and that his Administration’s COVID response and China de-coupling response are “the best” that any President could possibly do.  Front-line health workers and tech experts know that, in both cases, the claim lies far afield from the truth.

In China, the popular view cuts to the bone of Trump Administration posturing.  His new nickname is 建国 (Jiànguó), a popular name given by parents to their infants especially during the nationalistic years of the Cultural Revolution.  It means “Build the Country.”  In other words, Trump Administration policies are widely seen as accelerating the same nationalistically-driven Sputnik-type race to advanced semiconductors, artificial intelligence, robotics and the tech future which the policies ostensibly are meant to forestall.  Trump’s impulsive “Only I Can Fix It” approach playing to a grandstand of partisan supporters has made the challenge which Xi Jinping’s China presents the U.S. more acute.   An approach which takes measured and deliberate stock of that challenge and which aligns interests and works closely with the U.S. business community and international partners would be far more effective.  Pumping up nationalist sentiment in both the U.S. and China serves only to narrow options and increase risks of conflict spiraling.

 

The View from History

A pithy take on Trump’s approach to the U.S.-China technology challenge comes from a widely-respected former colleague who has decades of high-level experience with China from political, national security, economic and think-tank perspectives.  He writes “(Trump is like) King Canute trying to fight, instead of the ocean tides, the tides of technology.”

I’ll conclude with another, somewhat longer historical reference which illuminates Trump’s campaign of China-bashing as a central element of his re-election strategy.  It is drawn (almost) verbatim from Episode 66 of The History of Rome podcast series by Mike Duncan:

“Conscious that his standing with the people was taking a hit, the Emperor decided he needed to find someone to take the fall for the fire.  Someone he could point to and say it was them, not me, I didn’t have anything to do with it.  But he couldn’t just grab someone off the street because, with his popularity sinking like a stone, that would just engender the further charge that he was setting up some innocent to take all the blame.  What Nero needed was someone, some group that the people disliked even more than him, someone that the people were ready, willing and able to believe had done this horrible thing if for no other reason than that the people were looking for an excuse to round up and punish them. Enter the Christians. In the thirty odd years since the death of Christ, nascent Christian communities had begun cropping up throughout the Empire.  At first, they were primarily Jewish in character but through the missionary work of St Paul, known later as the Apostle to the Gentiles, this new religion began to spread into the Greco-Roman world.  By the Emperor’s reign, a tiny community of believers, led according to tradition by St. Peter, had established a religious beachhead in Rome itself. The problem the early Christians faced in Rome, though, was not just that their religion, in comparison to the wider pagan world, struck the average Roman as downright weird, but also that at this point most Christian adherents were non-citizen resident aliens in the city who spoke primarily Greek or Hebrew. So the Christians in Rome looked different, spoke a different language, usually came from the lower rungs of the social ladder, and belonged to a strange monotheistic cult that seemed to have cannibalistic overtones. All in all, they were capital O Other in every sense of the word. And as has been proven over and over again by history, whenever terrible things happen to a community – economic problems, floods, plagues, fires – it is the capital O Others who usually get blamed. So desperate to shift responsibility for the great fire away from himself, the Emperor looked at these Others and decided to lay it all on them.”

The only change I have made to this podcast text, recorded in August 2009, was my substitution of the central character’s title instead of his name.  Even with that switch, there’s little surprise who that Emperor was.

Nero.

 

 

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