Jaw-Jaw: Peter Mattis on the Intentions of the Chinese Communist Party
What threat does a revisionist China pose to the United States and democratically minded states around the world? Where should we look to find out the intentions of the Chinese Communist Party? If left unchecked, will China export its illiberal form of government? These and other questions are explored in this week’s episode of Jaw-Jaw.
Peter Mattis is a Research Fellow in China Studies at the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and a contributing editor at War on the Rocks. He was a Fellow in the China Program at The Jamestown Foundation, where he also served as editor of the foundation’s China Brief, a biweekly electronic journal on greater China, from 2011 to 2013. He previously worked as an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency for four years. Prior to entering government service, Mr. Mattis worked as a research associate at the National Bureau of Asian Research in its Strategic Asia and Northeast Asian Studies programs, providing research assistance and editing support.
Brad Carson is a professor at the University of Virginia, where he teaches in the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy. He served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2001-2005 and was Undersecretary of the Army and acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel & Readiness in the Obama administration. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Elizabeth Economy, The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, (Oxford University Press, 2018)
- Jonathan Ward, China’s Vision of Victory, (Atlas Publishing and Media Company, 2019)
- Adam Brookes, The Night Heron, (Redhook, 2014)
- Adam Brookes, Spy Games, (Redhook, 2015)
- Adam Brookes, The Spy’s Daughter, (Sphere, 2017)
Brad: Peter Mattis, In evaluating China’s intentions, you’re advocated what you have termed the “party congress test.” Can you explain what that is?
Peter: Well, every five years the Chinese Communist Party holds a party congress, and the general secretary of the party at the time delivers a work report on the state of the party and what it’s trying to accomplish. And in that document, which has been coordinated across the party of the major bureaucracies have all provided inputs. They’ve been frantically turning for months with “turn in a paper and answer this question now.” And they never know when it’s going to stop until the congress has announced.
At that point, this is a big speech. And Xi Jinping’s speech in October, 2017 was three and a half hours long. The party lays out its objectives, what their intentions are, and in some cases how they think they’ve done or not done, primarily what they’ve done on accomplishing those objectives.
Brad: So let me ask you two questions to follow up on that. What in those documents is stated or written that you think reveals China’s intents, and what is that? What are those intentions? And I think the second question I want to ask you about is because they’re written down in a bureaucratically produced document much like our various national security documents are here. Why should we think that they are the authoritative views of actually the people in power?
Because for example, when Bob Gates was secretary of defense, he famously said, “I don’t read the Quadrennial Defense Review. I don’t read the National Security Strategy.” These are just bureaucratically produced documents that may or may not actually reflect the motivations of the actors who can do things in the world in the U.S. So why isn’t the same in China?
Peter: Well, there are two points here. The first is that it lays out the logic. It may not provide all of the details, but it sets the objectives and it explains the ways and the means that the toolkit, if you will, for what the policymaking bureaucracies are supposed to do.
The second is that there’s always been entrepreneurism at the policymaking level. Experimentation with how to bring things together. And the Chinese system, yes, is authoritarian. But even under Mao, this kind of experimentation took place. The party sets the objectives, and the people down below play around with it, and they try to stay within the bounds. And often what takes place after a period of experimentation is that there’s a conference held, people brief out the results, and then a more specific route is advocated for people to go through.
So, you can see that taking place at our levels. I think a final reason to take it seriously is that all of the documents that come out afterwards, whether it’s five year plans, whether it’s the plenary documents, whether it’s leadership speeches, are often explaining and flushing out the bare-bones logic that’s put in the party congress work report.
Brad: So, if you look at all of these documents, these speeches, what do you find about China’s global ambitions?
Peter: Well, I think the most important point about this is that the Chinese Communist Party sees itself as operating on a global stage. And if you look at these documents going all the way back, you see this. when you look at the way Mao began his speeches to the party. He may be talking about a purely domestic issue. The state of the economy, of the state of the party bureaucracy. But he would give these speeches about here’s the state of the world and the Communist Party’s place within that and why it’s important to do these things.
Brad: Is that a vestige of just the communist international movement?
Peter: It would be if you didn’t see the ambitions to push alongside it. And the way you see this is a discussion, for example, of a “new type of international relations” or “community of common destiny.” And those are descriptions for how the Chinese Communist Party would like to see the world work. And when you look at how the One Belt One Road, or the Belt and Road Initiative, is described, it’s in a sense the practical means of getting there. And it never was just one belt and one road along the maritime or the land Silk Road. It includes a huge variety of countries, some of which are thousands of miles off of that pathway.
Brad: So, China, though, is a wealthy country. And so the Belt and Road Initiative is in some ways $1.3 trillion foreign aid package to folks. And it also has domestic economy benefits in the sense that it helps bolster the domestic industries that might suffer as they try to transition their economy. I’m still trying to understand if we are to read these documents carefully, that the Communist Party in China produces. What we find in there that as Americans we should be concerned about. Because really being wealthy and giving aid to other countries who begin to build harbors and ports, etc. It’s not inherently, it’s not per se worrisome to us. So why should we care?
Peter: Because under the headlines if you will, of a “new type of international relations” or the “community of common destiny,” is what has been called the reform of global governance. And the reform of global governance seems like, in a straight statement seems like a good thing. The world has changed. Some of these institutions to change a little bit with it.
But what the CCP means by the reform of global governance is the extension of social governance overseas. Okay. What is social governance? That’s the effort to basically institutionalize or tie together economic development and political control so that those two things go hand in hand. And if you’re talking about applying social governance overseas, this is the trying to build a consultative democratic system on an international stage.
Again, a bit of bit of a jargony piece, and this is what makes reading these documents hard. The Chinese to English is the easy part. It’s from “party speak” into “normal speak” that’s a bit tougher. But would you consider China a democracy?
Brad: No, of course not.
Peter: Right. Consultative democracy is about controlling the mechanisms of feedback. That if you are in a position to provide this feedback into the political system, you’ve accepted certain parameters. You’ve accepted the party’s leadership, you’ve accepted their influence and their legitimacy. You’ve agreed that these are the appropriate channels through which to operate. And if you take a look at what takes place inside the People’s Republic of China and how those information flows are managed, think about that being applied to the global stage. And I have to say when you compare that to liberal values that underpin the United Nations, that underpin the WTO, all of these other international institutions, I think it raises some questions for us to grapple with.
Brad: So, I want to press to you on that point. The authoritarian nature of the Chinese government is not something I think anyone wants to see exported abroad and made a part of the international community. But what makes us think that they want to do that as opposed to saying we’re rich, we’re wealthy. What we do in our country, our sovereign borders is our business. We want it to have ties, we want to have power and leverage. But this idea that you’re suggesting that they actually wanted to export in some way, kind of a quasi-ideology of social control plus economic liberalism.
Peter: I wouldn’t say that they liberalize too much economically, but that’s a separate discussion. I think the place where you can see that this is a problem is in the extension of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work overseas. And in a short form, Mao Zedong described it as mobilizing your friends to strike at your enemies.
The CIA in 1957 described it as an effort to essentially how do you control, monitor, and mobilize the masses outside the party. And there seems to be this, wherever you see Chinese people, wherever you see Chinese businesses, wherever you see party committees. Whether it’s set up on university campus abroad, whether it’s in a joint venture. You’re seeing the party push into all these spaces that we would consider part of civil society in an effort to shape and control them. And that’s not just confined to the domestic —
Brad: But isn’t it just about the domestic affairs? It’s sure. In the U.S., they don’t want the Dalai Lama to have a major platform. Because he could use that to destabilize Tibet and the Chinese domestic situation. The Chinese students here, if they were to agitate for freedom, if they were to agitate for political change in China then that would affect the Chinese domestic situation. We don’t seem to see China involved in things that you don’t look at it and say, “I get how that affects life in Beijing.” They’re not active in manipulating our opinion about many U.S. domestic issues or things outside of China itself. So what are we so concerned about here? You may not agree with that characterization of their actions.
Peter: Well, no I don’t think I would agree with that characterization of those actions. I think some of the evidence from Australia, New Zealand, the Hoover Institute Task Force on China’s interference in the United States. What’s been seen in Canada, elsewhere. It is a push. It isn’t just about the Dalai Lama or agitation related to Tibet. It’s about controlling the conversation about China.
One of the things that’s lost in the party’s aggressive efforts to shape this discussion is any conversation of what China’s future looks like. Or what could China’s future look like without the Chinese Communist Party. And preempting any kind of discussion about that future.
Brad: But isn’t that what every country in the world more or less does? They mobilize their diaspora population. They use businessmen who have ties between say the United States and the home country. They give money to think tanks. We know this is common, not just China but our European allies. Israel, others. Is this just not the way the countries do business?
Peter: Well in many cases these are, particularly from democratic countries, these are things that are done in the open. It is completely above board. It is understood who is providing the funding, where the public diplomacy is coming from.
And the problem is that the Chinese Communist Party’s activities abroad cross over into what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull put very well, “The covert, the coercive, and the corrupting.” Say, well, what does that mean? It’s a little bit euphemistic. The easiest one to explain in clear straight forward terms is the coercive piece. This is actually a foreign government or a foreign political party committing or inciting acts of violence or criminality against our citizens on our soil. How do you not respond to that kind of issue?
Brad: We’ll talk about that because Larry Diamond, from Stanford, was on the program, and we talked about his report. He didn’t really identify acts of criminality, that Chinese students in America were being watched. They seldom had to report to the embassy. That again, inviting the Dalai Lama was a sure-fire way to have Chinese students no longer come to your school. But you just said that they are doing criminal activity in this country. Can you talk about what that might be?
Peter: So, there’s an article that finally put a story out there that’s now about a decade old, by Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian and Zach Dorfman in The Atlantic talking about the violence and the incitement that took place during the torch relay in 2008, for the head of the Olympic Games. And this took place in the United States, Australia, France, the U.K. This was something that was present.
Another piece though that I think actually gets to part of the response not being a national security one is the issue of the people within our borders exercising their civil rights. We do have a crime in the United States called “conspiracy against rights.” Meaning that if you are preventing someone from exercising their constitutional freedoms, that you are, depending on the circumstances, committing a federal felony.
So, if a consular official decides to go up to a university and tells a student, “You can’t write that paper and you can’t meet with these people,” it doesn’t matter whether they’re a U.S. citizen or not. They’re preventing that person from exercising the rights that they have on U.S. soil.
Brad: Well that’s a very serious matter to that. But it doesn’t seem to give rise to something that gets into the National Security Strategy. So one of the things, to play devil’s advocate for a moment, we’ll hear lots of people who are quite hawkish on China to say, “This is a very authoritarian regime. The Chinese Communist Party are thuggish. They’re thuggish to their own citizens within the borders of mainland China, and they will be quite thuggish to Chinese abroad. And they will try to manipulate the diaspora community or students, to benefit the whole nation.” The devil’s advocate will probably say, “That’s probably exactly right. But that’s not a threat equivalent to what the Soviet Union was during the Cold War, nor even maybe what al-Qaeda is to us today.” But nonetheless, so many people in Washington say, “China is a threat,” almost equivalent to the Soviet Union and is probably the number one security risk for us today. But they’re merely being a deeply illiberal society. Doesn’t seem to necessarily and logically mean do they have to be that level of a threat to us. Or so the argument would be made.
Peter: There’s a lot to unpack in that framing of it. On the first point of they’re thuggish to overseas Chinese. It’s worth pointing out that everyone that I’m aware of who has talked about United Front Work and drawn attention to it has been on the receiving end of threats in one form or another. Sometimes they’re physical, sometimes there are people showing up in places where they probably shouldn’t be. There are efforts to send messages through family. Text messages saying, “We’re watching you,” sort of thing to other people.
So, it’s not something that’s just confined to overseas Chinese communities. Not that that would matter because we shouldn’t be treating them as second-class citizens anyway. If they’re on the receiving ends of these kinds of threats, they should be protected. On this issue of deeply or they’re not a threat on the scale of the Soviet Union. Yes, there are some very fundamental differences. One is that we aren’t divided into two blocs. They’re in fact inside the system already. And that means because they were invited into the system without having had to make the necessary reforms politically, it creates a tension in how do institutions that were supposed to be guided by liberal principles function when you have a country the size of China in terms of its political weight, its economic weight, its military weight. Its shipping fleet. All of the ways in which China is big.
It’s going to exercise an influence in that system that you don’t get from having a smaller liberal Middle Eastern dictatorship in, because they’re capable of leading, they’re capable of driving, and they’re more difficult to influence and to shape.
When you compare it to the Soviet Union, one thing that’s worth pointing out, is as a percentage of the U.S. GDP, China is much larger than the Soviet Union was. So perhaps it’s not necessarily the same military threat. There’s not an obvious land border. But let’s remember what happened when Soviet equipment was stacked up against western equipment in 1991. We had far less to fear in one sense than we thought. And I think where we are with the PRC today and the balance of the People’s Liberation Army and their neighbors, and what U.S. capabilities are, I suggest that it’s quite a bit closer than it was in the 1980s or other times when we were concerned about it.
Brad: [inaudible 00:17:12] this question though, the threat they posed to us. So let’s compare it to the Soviet Union, which you do hear sometimes in the rhetoric from military officials, D.O.D. officials and things like that. If I was talking to somebody in Kansas City about the threat the Soviet Union posed to them, I would say, “Here is a nation guided by a revolutionary ideology. And if they had their druthers, you here in Kansas City would live under a Soviet-style system as well. And their stated goal, both in theoretical literature and shown in practice, is to promote that form of government around the world.” And the people in Kansas City would say as they did during the Cold War, “We that as a real threat and we’re willing to fight against it.”
So, let me give you the thought experiment with China. Let’s say we did nothing to rebut China’s growing assertiveness in the international system. We did nothing to do that. So China realized whatever global ambitions it might aspire to. It reached the maximum of that global ambition. How would you tell the person in Kansas City that their life is worse?
Peter: I would think of this in two ways. In part because the Soviet Union, both in ideology and practice, did shift in the kind of effort that they put to spread world revolution. There is a remarkable shift from Stalin to Khrushchev, and onward. The same way that under the Chinese Communist Party, China has shifted from Mao, to Deng, to the present day.
Because of the role of nationalism in the Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to mobilize the population, and that being the key feature rather than communist ideology of the past. There’s a bit of chauvinism in saying our model can’t really be exported because you’re not us, and therefore you can’t practice what we do.
That said, when you look at the sale of surveillance equipment and other things to equip authoritarian states or to equip fragile democratic states to practice the worst impulses of the paranoid. It’s not just the sale of technical equipment, it’s also the sale of training and services. And these are part and parcel of what they’re calling not the export in their model, but a “China solution” that can be used to address these social problems and issues with social control. And what these technologies do is they augment, or they make it easy to opt in for convenience and make it easier to bring political control along the same way.
This is one of the pieces that we miss about the Cold War and how the Soviets governed their system or how the Warsaw Pact countries functioned. It wasn’t all jack boots all the time. To make people go along to get along, there had to be this issue of convenience and control and bringing them together so that people would try to go about their lives, keep their heads down, not be bothered. And do things that supported the regime but didn’t bring them to fall afoul of it.
Why is this important? The first piece would be the spread of consultative democracy or social governance spread on a global scale. That is about conditioning the way. If at home it’s about conditioning the way individuals will act, on an international stage, it’s about conditioning the way countries will act. So, shaping the way that they understand China, shaping the way that they understand the threats are, as a key function of that piece?
Brad: Let me ask this question about what China wants. It seems like you could argue that if you follow your reasoning that they might want one of two things. One, on the most malign level, they want to create countries more or less in their image. And when they find leaders around the world who are authoritarian, that they will give them the tools to maintain that power and keep those nations illiberal as well. In the Middle East, in Africa, elsewhere. That’s one thing. But what do you think when devil’s advocates will say, “What China wants is this. A return to the Westphalian system, basically.” What happens in each country’s borders is what happens to that country’s borders, and stays there. A return to the status quo ante before devil’s advocates will say, “The Americans decided to erode those boundaries and intervene around the world.” So that doesn’t necessarily imply that you’ll have more authoritarian nations or some kind of confederacy of dictatorships. But this idea that state sovereignty really matters. What goes on within your borders is determined by the nation’s capital, and other people don’t have the right to get involved in it. They support that idea too. It seems less than malign, even if we don’t like it. It’s less maligned than a confederacy of dictatorships.
Peter: Yes, but that’s a do as I say, not as I do. Because for the entire history of the Chinese Communist Party, there’s been this effort to have the party’s presence overseas, to shape the way countries operate. To, at the very least, neutralize the Chinese diaspora as a source of transmission of liberal ideas into the PRC.
So, if it were about sovereignty, you wouldn’t see party committee set up on U.S. or other university campuses. You wouldn’t see the direct control by consulates and embassies of Chinese students and scholars’ associations on universities to provide a surveillance network. You wouldn’t see Hong Kong businessmen and Chinese businessmen donating to university chairs to shape, or to think tanks, to shape and control platforms. You wouldn’t see the takeover of Chinese-language media outside of the PRC to the point where it’s almost impossible for an independent Chinese-language media to exist that’s not controlled either directly or by proxy from the CCP.
The key piece here is I think how the party views security. It’s worth taking a quick look at the national security law of 2017. In essence, how it defines security is the absence of threat to the party’s ability to govern. And I think there are a couple of important features here. But the most important for us is that the way that we define security is the ability to manage threats and risks, and resilience in the face of catastrophe. It’s very different than the absence of threats to the party’s ability to govern. Because one, that means that the party’s effort is constantly going abroad looking for enemies. Because how can you be sure that nothing’s there?
The second, the party’s ability to govern. That’s about ideas as much as mucha as it is anything material. Certainly the U.S. military could be something that would affect the party’s ability to govern had we decided to invade 20 years ago, or something along those lines. But at the same time, they do define ideas that are problematic. Document Number Nine that was issued in 2013 provides a nice rundown of some of those ideas, about the state of competition in the ideological sphere. And it identifies freedom of speech, civil society, freedom of association, rule of law, constitutionalism. The concept of an objective and free press as being ideas that are dangerous and have to be nipped in the bud.
Brad: But do you think that the absence of those freedoms in China itself is a threat to people in Kansas City?
Peter: If it were kept inside China, you’d have to say, “Okay, well maybe it’s just a deeply illiberal regime and maybe we can sort of say they’re over there and we’re over here, and that’s fine.” Except that, who controls the Chinese language paper that’s distributed in Kansas City? How is the way that the person in Kansas City understands China affected by the party?
Brad: They’re not trying to buy the Kansas City Star, and in fact [inaudible 00:25:48]. They’re keenly interested in how the Chinese diaspora, which could pose a potential security risk to them, gets the news.
So, let me rephrase the question. Because the Soviets in their heyday, communism in its heyday, was at an evangelical aspect. They were preaching the gospel of communism. The United States itself with our liberal views often, have an evangelical approach. We think this is the better way to organize your society, and we will encourage and sometimes compel you to do that. Do you see the Chinese as being evangelical for this unusual capitalist/communist mix that they’ve got working?
Peter: I don’t think they’re going to be satisfied with not influencing, not impacting the way too democratic countries operate. As long as they are practicing those values that they deem to be a threat, and as long as there are ways for that country to be transmitting those ideas back into the PRC.
So as long as those two things are the case, I don’t think the party is ever going to relent in the way that it’s operating overseas. So the question is, are we able to blunt that and inoculate our systems to it, and protect our industry, protect our political system? Protect the fabric that is political, and economic, and social that makes a democratic system work in the face of those threats. And if we can’t, then what?
Brad: Well then what is perhaps a good segue to ask you what you would do about this. So China’s going to be increasingly wealthy. Wealthier than the United States in all likelihood. They’ll no doubt have a more robust military capacity. As you’ve said, they seem to have great ambitions not only for Southeast Asia, but in the international stage too. So given that arc, what should the United States and its allies do, if anything, to try to have it land in a different place?
Peter: I’m going to pick at your first point. Because you said that just then, and I’ve heard you say it in a couple of the previous Jaw-Jaw podcasts. “China’s going to get rich. China’s going to be the biggest economy.” It’s going to be these things. That’s one possibility.
I know you’re familiar with the weaknesses within the system. The level of debt corruption, social unrest. I think it’s really important for us to remember that China’s rise is contingent. There are a lot of things that could go wrong, and there are a lot of things that could go right. And I think any discussion of China’s rise, China’s politics today. It behooves us to have more questions in our head than China is this, Xi Jinping is that. Because it traps us into a particular mode of thinking rather than saying, “wait a minute, the world has gone a lot of different and often unpredictable directions.” Why should China somehow go across these waves in human history without so much movement one way or another?
And we know in the party’s history that they’ve done some crazy things, whether it’s the Great Leap Forward, whether it’s the Cultural Revolution that threw it off its course of national rejuvenation in really substantial ways.
So as much as we should think of we’ve got China moving in this direction or China could fall apart, we do need to consider that range of possibilities, and how that might take place.
Brad: It does seem like there are writers. Minxin Pei, who’s been on the show, David Shambaugh and others, who are quite skeptical about China’s long-term prospects. That it will be difficult to transition from its developing status now into a developed one. But you raise the specter of something that hasn’t been much talked about in policy circles that I’ve heard, which is perhaps the U.S. should do something assertively to throw China off its trajectory toward, as you call it, national rejuvenation. Using one of their terms. Should we do something like that?
Peter: So, I’m going to align that question briefly, but it raises the … The first bit is that we have to have some sense of an end game. What are we comfortable with? Like I mentioned with United Front Work, can we blunt this interference or do we have to live with this? Are the costs too high to mitigate these risks? And then what do we do? We actually have to have a discussion of, what are our objectives, what are the things that we can live with? What do we want to do? If we’ve determined that, for example, we want to pursue a Cold War-style containment and pursue decoupling and all of these things. And we want to break a PRC governed by the Chinese Communist Party. Then we also have a moral obligation to think about what comes after. And we need to think about those pieces.
If we do these things, it’s not just about those tools or those options. It’s also about what comes next and what are our obligations in that world are in that situation.
Brad: Does that lead though to — this is doing the thought experiment. Because no one seems to be willing to contemplate some of the more aggressive measures you might take. So for example, if you wanted to throw China off of its course toward national rejuvenation. We could do things like they have, we know, tremendous internal security issues. Tibet, Xinjiang, famously, notoriously, now. We can foment that or encourage that, right? We could encourage Taiwanese agitation. There’s lots of things we could do to make the choke-hold on power of the CCP much less intense. Should we do those kind of things?
Peter: The article in the Texas National Security Review, the tools to compete with China. It was trying to push back on this issue of, “What are we going to do?” For the last two decades, we’ve known about intellectual property. Well if we push back, what is China going to do? About deterrence in the South China Sea. And we kept agonizing over what China would do in response, that we forgot that if you’re an enforcement posture or in a deterrent posture, that’s not the question. That policy requires you to act. And we didn’t act in those cases. And part of it was this agonizing, what leverage, what influence do we have?
And the three points in that article were to point out that if we want to influence the system, we need to look for where it’s vulnerable, and we need to watch the flow of power across it. Understanding the structure of power, the people, and the institutions of it. The second was that we need to be thinking about how do we make leverage happen? How do we make it personal? We can agree that we would like to cooperate with China on North Korea, but let’s remember that most of our cooperation has been coerced. They haven’t agreed because we reasoned with them. They’ve agreed because we’ve put pressure on them.
Brad: So, let me you ask you about specific policies though. So you’ve written about the Magnitsky Act, which became famous in the Muller probe as something the Russians cared a lot about. That of course has its origins there. We could apply the Magnitsky Act against people evolve say in Xinjiang human rights abuses, or other human rights abuses against dissidents and others like that. Should we do that?
Peter: We shouldn’t do those things as a one off. We should be thinking about, again, those first order of questions like what kind of China do we want? What kind of China can we live with? What are we expecting those tools to do? I think that the point that you have, one, one and a half million Uyghurs in concentration camps. And the U.S. government recently said it may be closer to three. That’s one of those things related to the never-again statements in the 20th century. That is, where do we want to go with this? Is this something we can tolerate and live with? Do we want this coming close to our economies?
We also have a lot of other ways to generate risk for those firms. Because if those companies are potentially sanctionable themselves under those things and they are publicly listed companies, did they disclose that risk? If they haven’t, then we have a bunch of tools for regulating stock markets and risk that can also be applied.
I recognize that I’m kind of dodging this question. I think the main point that I would argue is we need to think that we have tools, that we have agency in where this goes.
Brad: I accept your point that we need to think what kind of China we want. But I want to press you on what you see is the China we want. So say we change our policies, or whatever. We do something to try to change China’s arc from being a severe adversary of ours. We try to find a way to shape the world situation to our benefit. What’s a China that we could live with? Is the Communist Party still in power? Is it still an authoritarian regime even if the Chinese communists are no longer doing it? Does it have to be a democracy? Does it have to be more pacific than militaristic? What do you see is a China we can live with, that we could then think about what policies might get us there?
Peter: The China that we can live with is very different than the China we might want. And there are again, I mentioned one of those things that would affect our ability to live with it. Can we inoculate ourselves or can we not? Would there simply be too much pressure on our economic and social fabric to be able to function? If that’s the case, then you have to say, “Well that’s pretty close to an existential threat,” and we have to deal with it that way.
Brad: But do you see that that China threat could be that way, an existential threat?
Peter: There’s an argument that can be made on that. Just like there’s an argument that could be made on certain forms of accommodation. But it also requires being able to articulate what are the behaviors that China should stop. And that, if those things continue, this is now where we’re going to respond.
In an ideal world, I think the only moral answer to the China that we want would be one that treats its citizens with dignity. It gives them the freedom to make choices of their own. And ultimately, that China would look like a free and democratic China, one form or another.
Brad: Are you presuming that a free and democratic China would not be a military adversary of the United States?
Peter: One of the things that democracies can do to deal with each other is to simply a much higher level of trust. And democracies can often be warlike. As we learned in the 20th century or as you might comment on the United States.
But let’s also look at where democracies have those tendencies. They’re almost always with authoritarian regimes. A democratic China is more likely to have problems with North Korea. A repressive Burma, repressive Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia. Not necessarily the Indians, not necessarily the Japanese, not necessarily the South Koreans, not necessarily Taiwan. That’s kind of the ultimate question of what this looks like. But democracies have the ability to find accommodation to make peace with each other without the appearance of surrender.
Brad: I think that’s a coherent thought in the sense of you’re relying on “democratic peace theory,” as the international relations specialists call it. An idea that a China, even if say it was extremely wealthy and enormously developed, much more so than even the United States. That if it was a democracy, the theory goes. It’s more likely to have comity with other democracies in the international system.
Brad: So, if that’s true and, again, all those points are contestable among academics. Is our goal then to say if you believe all of that, our goal should be to find a way to get a democracy working in China?
Peter: The question would be is that a feasible choice? Is that something that can come about? If that’s a possibility to go back to what you said. Should we foment unrest in Tibet and Xinjiang, I’d point out that those minority groups are not going to have better human rights until there are better human rights for the 1.3 billion Han Chinese. That’s the 90 percent or more of the population that if they’re not treated better, the rest of it isn’t going to matter.
Brad: But if you’re the president of United States yourself, is your end goal of your foreign policy toward China to say, “We must make this country a democracy, or at least a Singapore style democracy. And if we do that, most of these other problems will solve themselves.”
Peter: If you’re going to go down that road, it’s a long road. It’s not an overnight one. You’d have to be gearing the U.S. system in some fundamentally different ways to try to accomplish that goal.
One of the reasons why I’m a little bit cagey about specifically what is wanted is because I want the questions. I want a discussion. For too long it’s felt like there were more answers in the China community than there were questions. This is the way things are. This is how things are moving. And not necessarily opening ourselves to the bigger questions of what is this China that we could want? What is a moral outcome? What is a realistic outcome? What are the tools that would help us with either of those? How do we deal with repression that begins inside China but then gets exported? If we’re going to use our military to deter, what are we deterring? What are we trying to buy time for?
As Thomas Schelling wrote about deterrence, basically only can anger and frustrate the adversary. So the key question that should underpin any view of deterrence is what are we buying time for? And I don’t think we’ve answered that question of if we need to maintain a military balance in East Asia, if we need to accomplish these things there militarily, what is that purpose? I would rather have the conversation around those than simply throwing up, “This is what I think China should be.”
Brad: What are your views on decoupling? Which some people, the China, American watchers have talked about. The idea that we should decouple our economy from China in a way that will presumably stunt their growth over time. And people many times see what Donald Trump is doing, right, as the first step to start the coupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies.
Peter: The other side of decoupling I think is trying to protect U.S. industries. So there’s both an offensive and a defensive purpose behind that idea. I’m not sure it’s that well-coordinated as a thought. What came first? Someone suggesting it, or someone doing something?
Again, I think it depends on what kind of China do you think we can live with? If you don’t think that we can live with the current one, then it’s something that makes a lot of logical sense. Yes, it bears costs for us, for U.S. citizens, for people in other countries. But if you believe that China governed by the Chinese Communist Party is an existential threat, then it makes a lot of sense to try to reconfigure things in that way.
Brad: But do you have any opinion on that question? I know you’re trying to avoid specific policy prescriptions, but do you fundamentally see China, the Chinese Communist Party, as an existential threat to the U.S.?
Peter: I’m not sure that I would want to live in a United States that’s accepted the CCP social governance applied on an international stage. Because that is a kind of Chinese suzerainty.
There have been over the millennia, a number of different kinds of Chinese dynasties. Some of them have been enlightened, some of them have been virtuous, and some of them have been tyrannical. If I were to pick where would I like to spend time in the PRC or in Taiwan, in the PRC or in the United States, I infinitely prefer Taiwan and the United States because it’s a different atmosphere. It’s a different way to live your life. It’s a different way to engage your fellow citizens.
The idea that your citizenship has obligations to your fellow citizens and not to another political authority is an important piece of living in a democratic system. And I’m not sure, I wouldn’t like living in the United States that’s accepted those kinds of limitations.
Brad: We ask all our guests on Jaw-Jaw to recommend two or three books for listeners who might want to follow up on some of the things we talked about today. How would you answer that question? What are some books that people might check out?
Peter: Well I’ve got two books and a trilogy that I’d recommend. The first is Liz Economy’s The Third Revolution. And I recommend it because it’s a good encapsulation of the Xi Jinping years and all of the things that have become much more in your face about the Chinese Communist Party since Xi Jinping took power. But it also captures the moment really well. We’ve seen these big changes, but what do we do about it? And she’s identified a set of massive changes, but the policy prescriptions maybe we just tilt a little bit this way or a little bit that way. It’s not a fundamental rethink.
And in that way, I think it’s a book that really captures this moment in history quite well. It’s one of those books that we’ll come back to 20 years from now or 50 years from now because of how well it took that picture.
The second would be the newly published book by Jonathan Ward, China’s Vision of Victory. And I wouldn’t let the provocative cover put you off, because it’s generally a very sober assessment of what is in the party documents about Beijing’s international ambitions, economic ambitions, military ambitions. The efforts of social control. And it hues very closely to what the Chinese Communist Party says itself, and making sure that its words are accessible and available.
So that makes it useful in terms of how broad its coverage is. You could sit down with Xi Jinping’s 19th party congress work report for a few hours as a substitute, because it does look very different when you don’t try to quote from a paragraph here or a paragraph there. But just read it from start to finish and see the logic in which the concepts are built out.
But really for fun, if Tom Clancy described good parts of the Cold War, and captured a bit of the zeitgeist, there’s been a China gap, if you will, in the spy literature. Adam Brookes with his trilogy, The Night Heron, Spy Games, and the Spy’s Daughter are an entertaining read. But it’s also quite serious. The Night Heron captures the difference between the 1980s and the hopes of reform, versus what took place in the 2000. How intellectuals were brought into the state and to serve the state. It captures the trends of those times in a way that’s useful if you weren’t there when those things happened. Spy Games is almost a thought experiment in how the children of the elite bear the burden of history of their parents. Because if anybody tells you that the princelings are one group, I think they’re selling something. Because these were people whose parents literally tried to kill each other.
And if we think that that history gets passed on, then you have to recognize yeah, they tried to kill each other. They tried to imprison each other. They tried to wreck each other’s fortunes in a contest for power. And that piece is present in there.
And The Spy’s Daughter is about tech transfer in the United States. It’s a good dessert. It’s a little more entertaining, less of good spy bureaucracy-type stuff. A bit faster paced. But on the whole, I think he does a good job of capturing how Chinese intelligence works. A bit of the brutality of the system. It makes contemporary China accessible in a good novel way.
Brad: We will put links to all of those works in the show notes of today’s podcast. Peter Mattis, thank you for being a guest on Jaw-Jaw.
Peter: Thank you very much for having me.