Michael Schuman On China's Threat And Confucius

An expert on East Asia helps me think through the complicated challenge of how to deal with Xi.

  
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Michael, currently in Hong Kong, is a veteran journalist on East Asian affairs and a regular contributor to The Atlantic and Bloomberg. He’s written a book on Confucius, and his most recent one, Superpower Interrupted: The Chinese History of the World, explores the driving force behind the current Xi regime. After our episode with Peter Beinart that touched on China, and after the reader dissents that made me rethink, we wanted to bring on a Sinophile to help us sort through the most important foreign policy issue of the next decade.

You can listen to the episode right away in the audio player embedded above, or right below it you can click “Listen in podcast app” — which will connect you to the Dishcast feed. For three clips of my conversation with Michael — on whether China is really that culturally alien to the West and its economic system, on the overt structural racism and sexism in China, and on the current relevance of Confucius in foreign affairs — head over to our YouTube page.

Keeping the debate going, a Canadian reader who recently moved back from China responds to my initial column on the darkness visible there:

I wanted to say thank you for finally talking about international politics again, even if it is just to reach another disappointingly isolationist/non-interventionist conclusion. It’s so sad that there aren’t any bold freedom hawks in the West any more, whether conservative or liberal. I thought freedom mattered, you know? Spreading democracy, trying to make the world a better and fairer place.

I don’t know what the solution on China is, but I wish we got to hear more varied opinions than “work side-by-side with a genocidal government because climate change is worse than authoritarianism,” or “ignore the foreign fascists trying to shape media narratives internationally because U.S. journalists writing about systemic racism is a bigger threat to the liberal order.” It’s depressing that there isn’t a unified voice of resistance. That means the authoritarians already won, since they seem to have already defeated the spirits of most Western elites.

In that spirit, here’s a tangible tactic from a reader that doesn’t involve the military:

Your column on China was the most clear-headed piece I’ve read on the subject and I appreciate the practicality of it. But you missed something major: We can accept refugees. One of the greatest moral errors of the 20th century was the failure to accept Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler. One of our greatest moral triumphs against Communism was the open arms with which we embraced refugees from every place the Soviets and their allies controlled. 

This is the right course of action on principle alone, but in an ongoing struggle for global hearts and minds, it’s practical as well. No one flees a utopia, especially not en masse, and especially not toward a country that’s a nightmare. The sight of refugees arriving on the shores of America, telling their stories, using newfound freedom to organize in a way that's impossible in the land they fled from is devastating to China on a global scale. Think Avital Sharansky campaigning across the world to free her husband but boosted by TikTok. (The irony of a Chinese platform serving endless anti-China content would be delicious.)

I know the escape would be difficult, but as the Talmud says, he who saves a single life, it as if he has saved the entire world. And perhaps we’d be lucky enough that Xi would pull a Castro and allow people to flee. If we coordinate well, we can probably also prevent the sort of backlash that came from the Syrian refugee crisis. Regardless, it’s the right thing to do.

Offering Hong Kong citizens asylum seems a no-brainer to me. To his credit, Boris Johnson has offered a path to UK citizenship to anyone fleeing the former British colony. Maybe the US could do the same for Taiwan. What other forms of soft power can we deploy? Vaccine aid, says this reader:

I’m curious about your take on Pfizer and Moderna raising prices on their Covid vaccines and not sharing manufacturing capabilities with the rest of the world. This behavior and its lack of coverage seems both tragic, hypocritical, and an inevitable blow to America abroad.

For the past year and a half, we’ve made tremendous sacrifices to confront this pandemic and forced many of those sacrifices upon small businesses in the name of public health. Why won’t we force similar sacrifices upon the large vaccine manufacturers? How can people decry the possibility of mutations developing among the unvaccinated in the US without screaming about our corporations refusal to do all that they can to end the pandemic abroad? And how can we claim a moral standing in the world when even the tyranny of China can take this right-minded step?

I wish I could trust our companies and their corporate leadership to make these decisions. But the vaccine manufacturers stand to benefit far too much financially from a never-ending pandemic with ongoing cycles of mutations and booster shots.  In my view, it’s time to examine nationalizing this capability and making it available abroad. We can help the world recover as well as build manufacturing capacity that can assist during the next pandemic.

Er, no. I’m a big supporter of private sector healthcare and pharmaceuticals. They’re essential complements to universal access to insurance.

Here are a few other suggestions from a reader to counter the Chinese Communist Party:

1) the massive, well-organized underground Christian church made up of believers who have proven they are ready and committed to suffer hardship and even death for their faith. The CCP has yet to learn what every other totalitarian regime in history learned: the Christian faith thrives under persecution. As selfless compassion, real faith in God’s imminent and powerful love, and the supernatural work of the Spirit infiltrate a totalitarian culture the culture is transformed.

2) Unleash the dynamo of the American and British satire industry to expose the ludicrousness of CCP propaganda. No threats of violence or embargoes needed; the CCP will cower before the West in shame.

Unfortunately, the West has been completely compromised by its lust for cheap (and mostly unnecessary) goods provided by China and Vietnam. This lust might well be the West’s Achilles heel.

Sadly, Hollywood is so craven the chance to deploy mass culture to ridicule the Chinese is pretty remote. Matt and Trey will have to keep doing the heavy lifting.

Next is a reader who dabbles in some whataboutism:

I was fascinated by your column on China. I have worked regularly in the country (and most of Asia) over the past 30+ years, and I have never sensed that my freedoms were more restrictive in China than most other countries. I realize that the Uyghur situation is particularly challenging and horrible, and I would never apologize for such oppression of any people. Having said that, it is hard for our nation to be taken seriously about oppression of minorities with our own history, and our own continued treatment of certain folks here as second-class citizens — which I trust you would not deny, even if it is not so obvious in your own daily life and work.

You and I are both fortunate in our birth (I am a mongrel of German, Swiss, and Scots-Irish heritage), but I regularly see disrespect shown to immigrants and people of color— my wife being a good example of somebody who regularly receives second-class treatment. She is not imprisoned, but she is harassed and disrespected on a weekly basis from folks who are no better than she is.

While I appreciate your advocacy of a pragmatic approach to China relations, I hope you can see the need for at least as much attention paid here in our own nation. These past few years have made me all but hopeless about the future of the US as a civil and coherent nation, and we need those who have influence (as you do, even with its limitations) to keep pushing for fair, honest, civil behavior in our own nation. I think that we will  be much stronger advocates of fairness in China when we see a lot more fairness here at home. At the moment, we seem to be casting stones from within an increasingly fragile glass house.

Comparing micro-aggressions in a free, multiracial society with organized genocide and rank racism in a totalitarian regime is preposterous. Equating resilient racism in America to full-on Han Supremacy in China is just as mad.

On the more specific topic of Taiwan and its tensions with China, here’s a dissent from a U.S. sailor stationed in Hawaii who insists that “Taiwan is extremely important to our strategic and military posture in the Indo-Pacific”:

I agree with most of your analysis regarding our strategy vis-a-vis China and the depressing choices we face in regards to the Uyghur genocide and rollback of democracy in Hong Kong, but I must strenuously object to your strategic assertion that Taiwan is not a critical interest to the U.S. Back in the 1950s during the Cold War, American officials came up with the idea of three island chains dominating the Pacific — a kind of defense in depth:

  • The First Island Chain (FIC) runs from Japan, through the Ryukyu Islands, Taiwan, the Philippines, and rounding out in Borneo

  • The Second Island Chain (SIC) consists of the Mariana Islands, Guam, and Palau

  • The Third Island Chain (TIC) is the Hawaiian Islands stretching from Midway to Big Island.

What’s critically important about Taiwan is that by being a hostile, anti-CCP entity, it prevents China from easily projecting power into the Western Pacific and thus threatening the SIC. We maintain bilateral security alliances with Japan and the Philippines, and our policy of strategic ambiguity regarding Taiwan helps keep Cross Strait tensions down.

Nevertheless, if Taiwan were to fall, the SIC — specifically Guam, which its many U.S. military bases — would be threatened by China’s ability to break the FIC and project power deep into the Western and Central Pacific. Taiwan would also turn into a giant forward operating post for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which would threaten our security guarantees and forward deployed forces to Japan and the Philippines.

Make no mistake, if Taiwan falls, our positions in the Western Pacific and our ability to project power to defend our allies in Japan and the Philippines (and even Thailand and South Korea) becomes gravely endangered. Our forward deployed forces in Japan specifically become highly endangered. I urge you to reconsider your position on the importance of Taiwan.

Another reader tries to thread the needle of not going to war with China but backing our allies against the Chinese military:

It strikes me that thinking about Taiwan has suffered too much from over-reliance on the binary of “abandon Taiwan completely” or “roll the dice to try to stop an invasion.” The following is a note I wrote to myself in an effort to think through this issue and the possibility of pursuing a different, less direct path to both defending core interests and averting a wider war. (It was partly inspired by reading about how Queen Elizabeth I worked to undercut Spain by walking right up to the line of open war without stepping over.)

Rather than use US forces to prevent an invasion of Taiwan, we could accept that an invasion will likely occur and be at least temporarily successful, so we would commit to doing everything we can to convert that short-term victory into a long-term defeat for the CCP. This means working before, during, and after an invasion — in concert with our allies— to make the occupation of Taiwan into a bleeding ulcer for China.

In the near-term, we would help Taiwan lay the groundwork for serious military, economic, and civil resistance. Being open about our choice not to put US troops between China and the island would presumably give us space to be quite explicit about our intentions there (“We won’t block you, China, but we will bleed you”). We could then use the long-term subversion of a Chinese occupation as a rallying point for our diplomacy in the region.

Even in a best-case scenario for China, pacifying an island of 25 million people who do not want to be pacified would be a monumental undertaking. We would keep our commitment — we would underwrite chaos for China in Taiwan, and in Taiwan’s name, just as ruthlessly as Iran funds proxies to get its way in the Middle East.

This next reader thinks that China wouldn’t have to invade Taiwan to take it over:

Instead, it will look more like Hong Kong. China started defanging corporate entities in Hong Kong by investing in them and coopting their leaders. Taiwan has enormous investments in China, all of which are at risk. Lately China has been showing the world that it has no interest in corporate independence, by screwing with its own Internet titans. That message is not lost across the strait. It is very much in Taiwanese firms’ interest to stay in China’s good book. They will not resist.

Then there’s the government in Taiwan. It can be subverted in old-fashioned ways — by blackmail, bribery, post-government sinecures, etc. It doesn’t happen overnight, but China’s timeline is measured in decades.

Finally, there are the citizens of Taiwan. They come basically in two groups, as in Hong Kong. The older group has found its way in the world. As long as daily life is not disrupted, they won’t resist, and they are likely to object to the disruption stemming from the protests that will come from the second group. The problem is the youth, who are more sensitive to political matters and how the tightening noose can disrupt their futures. Hong Kong shows what will happen to them: a gradually shifting mix of intimidation and incarceration will shut them down.

I see this as the optimistic scenario, but one that fits China’s recent and longer-term history. The pessimistic one, of actual war, seems less likely, partly because of China’s poor history of fighting. The border dispute with India shows China’s propensity to use its army more as a demonstration than as a fighting force. This is also illustrated by their gradual moves in the South China Sea. Slow and steady is how China win races.

If you want to get into the weeds of semiconductors, a reader recommends a long Substack piece by an expert on the subject: “It’s a combined case for why China wouldn’t gain control of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company, even after a successful invasion (which they probably know), and for why China’s aggression is about reducing TSMC’s customer base in the West.” One more reader for now:

Support for Taiwan should be about more than semiconductors. It troubled me that the well-written dissents from your readers failed to mention the values-based reasoning for America to stand by Taiwan: liberal democracy.

After the civil war in China ended, two despotic regimes chose two different routes: one maintained an autocracy while changing economically, the other became a functioning liberal democracy. The latter country, Taiwan, is much richer per capita and much freer. The only major advantage that Mainland China has is sheer numbers.

Will the United States have any credibility once it lets China crush the 20th largest economy in the world? Will there be any hope for Asian forms of liberal democracies once China runs amok over a not-so-small democracy? You talk the talk about defending liberalism, Andrew. Don’t over-learn the lessons from Iraq, and walk the walk in calling for support for an important, successful yet vulnerable democratic and liberal ally. 

I hear you. For much more on the subject, a new cover-story for NYT Magazine reports on “how young Taiwanese people watched the Hong Kong protests be brutally extinguished — and wondered what was in their future.”