Time for Less Long-Term Thinking About China

Today, an old friend and former colleague of mine, the Canadian diplomat and political analyst Michael Kovrig, will mark a horrifying milestone: 1,000 days in detention in a Beijing jail, held as a human bargaining chip. With the conviction last month on spurious espionage charges of another Canadian detained at the same time as Kovrig—the entrepreneur Michael Spavor, who was sentenced to 11 years in prison—and new allegations involving Kovrig in Chinese state media, there are now fears that both may be held indefinitely. It is a nightmare made real because of Beijing’s cynical decision to use the two as leverage in a dispute involving American efforts to extradite a well-connected executive of the Chinese telecom giant Huawei from Canada on sanctions-busting charges.

Unfortunately, even if the “Two Michaels” are soon freed, they will forever bear the scars of their long captivity at the hands of a regime infamous for its mistreatment of political prisoners. The isolation and stresses resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have been overwhelming for many. My friend’s term in solitary confinement began a full year before the first reports of a strange new virus began emanating from the other side of China. A thousand days is a long time.

Meanwhile, if they are freed as part of a quid pro quo or larger settlement, China’s gambit will have succeeded, paving the way for more hostage-taking, or far worse. And not just in the long run.

It is a truism that China’s political class operates on a longer time horizon than those of the West, and for decades Westerners have likewise been encouraged to take the long view when thinking about China. Washington’s rapprochement with Beijing in the early 1970s was framed as a geostrategic chess move, an opening to an impoverished and chaotic rival of the West’s chief Cold War adversary that was brilliant simply because it was so farsighted. For years after the first secret meetings between Henry Kissinger and the Chinese leadership, China-watchers dined out on a line attributed to then-premier Zhou Enlai. Asked by Kissinger about the influence of the French Revolution, Zhou is reported to have replied, “It’s too early to say.”

Normalization of US-Chinese diplomatic relations in turn led to the biggest exercise in corporate continence in American business history. At the same time that they were focused intensely on quarterly earnings and short-term stock movements at home, executives like Goldman Sachs CEO (and later Treasury Secretary) Hank Paulson bragged about taking 50 or 100 trips to China just to lay the groundwork for future success.

Non-specialist elites and ordinary citizens have been encouraged to think about China in similarly long horizons. The Harvard political scientist Graham Allison’s popular 2017 book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, put the epochal nature of the question in the subtitle, tying it to the great chronicler of the Peloponnesian War of fifth century BC Greece. The same goes for many China “hawks”; Trump advisor Michael Pillsbury claimed in his book, The Hundred-Year Marathon, that China had a secret plan to replace the US as global hegemon by 2049, the centenary of the founding of the People’s Republic. Even when scaremongering the shorter-term pitfalls of a rising China, the crisis always seems to be a decade or more off. This March, the much-admired retired US Admiral James Stavridis published a speculative novel about a global conflagration caused by an impulsive and expansionist China entitled 2034: A Novel of the Next World War.

While this atypical commitment to long-term thinking is in many ways admirable, modern China’s horizons, and the circumstances surrounding its rise to great power status, have in reality always been more short-term. Nixon and Kissinger correctly envisioned that China could become a strategic counterweight to the Soviet Union. But they certainly didn’t foresee that within little more than a decade the Soviet Union would dissolve, leaving China the most powerful actor in Eurasia. We also tend to forget that within months of the formal establishment of US-China diplomatic relations in 1979, Beijing launched a hasty ground invasion of Vietnam, in response to Hanoi’s move against the (China-allied) genocidal regime in Cambodia, and the inking of a mutual defense treaty with Moscow the previous year. And as Kissinger's translator later conceded, Zhou’s legendary quip was actually a legend; he was likely commenting on the upheavals that had shaken France not in 1789 but in 1968, little more than 1,000 days earlier.

China’s post-Mao economic transformation is also less of a methodical “long march” than it might appear. Its economic model has from the start put rapid current GDP growth and the maintenance of party control ahead of all other priorities, not least the ability of patient and law-abiding foreign firms operating in China to earn a return on their investment. As someone who covered emerging markets for several decades, I see no reason to assume that China figured out how to suspend the normal laws of economic development. The country’s now-abandoned “one-child” policy was a poorly considered response to a short-run problem, and its continued bet on coal is the very definition of a shortsighted industrial policy. Put simply, China’s rise from collectivized agrarian backwater to globalized industrial (and increasingly post-industrial) giant should have taken longer than the 40 years it did. The many shortcuts taken along the way to becoming the world’s largest economy—before the end of the decade in dollar terms, or already when measured by purchasing power parity—are likely to come back to haunt not just China but the entire world.

Beijing’s reaction to the West’s belated pushback against its toxic economic model also challenges the image of a leadership willing to make sacrifices in the service of long-term stability. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin’s outstanding exposé Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the Twenty-First Century paints a portrait of a reactive trade negotiating partner almost as focused on short-term loss aversion as a White House in thrall to the hourly news cycle.

If China has never been a land of philosopher-kings planning in millennia, today it is very much a country in a hurry, and in the worst possible way. The government’s repression of its restive citizens and regions has recently taken on a more frenetic character. I was in Hong Kong with US policymakers in 1997, when Beijing vowed to respect the city’s democratic institutions with a system of “one country, two systems” for 50 years, until 2047. While few at the time probably expected that pledge to hold for five decades, I doubt any foresaw it being summarily and violently abandoned in less than half that time. Out west, in Xinjiang Province, the murderous campaign against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities can be tracked by satellite images of bulldozers and construction crews working non-stop.

China’s response to the COVID pandemic has been similarly short-sighted, focused on containing the problem at home and hobbling inquiries into the pandemic's origins, despite the incalculably greater damage to its reputation if it turns out that such a lab accident or wet market spillover occurred but was then deliberately covered up. The scholars Philip Potter, Chen Wang, and Claire Oto recently called this compulsion to cover up bad news an “addiction to short-term thinking” on the part of the authorities. Even the seizure of Kovrig and Spavor seems to have been less a carefully-calculated “long game” than a hasty response to an immediate problem.

To paraphrase Zhou Enlai, it is also not too early to say that China’s current leadership is becoming increasingly impatient in its regional geopolitical ambitions. Its determination to assert sovereignty over much of the South China Sea—following and expanding on the so-called “nine-dash line” that reaches as far as the shores of Malaysia—has led to increasing tensions with countries throughout the region. Writing last month in Foreign Affairs, the analysts Bonnie Glaser and Gregory Poling were blunt: “China’s control over disputed waters is steadily growing, and the path to a resolution that all sides can live with is narrowing,” they wrote, stressing that “time is running out.” Just last week, China decreed that several classes of foreign ships entering “Chinese territorial waters”—meaning everything within the nine-dash line—will be required to provide detailed information to its maritime authorities.

As or more ominous is Beijing’s growing bellicosity towards Taiwan. The day after the publication in March of Admiral Stavridis’s book about a US war with China in 2034, it was revealed that Chinese President Xi Jinping had ordered the People’s Liberation Army to accelerate its timetable for developing the capability to invade the island republic, from 2035 to 2027.

As Xi was issuing his alarming directive I was by coincidence participating in an extended series of confidential negotiation exercises focused on key fault lines in the US-China relationship, as a non-specialist among several dozen China-focused professionals from both countries. Throughout the sessions I was struck not just by a sense that the China teams generally had more leverage and “optionality” than their American counterparts, even when I was put in the Kafkaesque position of advocating for Beijing’s seemingly weak position in the case of the Two Michaels. It was also hard to shake the feeling that over the course of just a few months the Chinese side became noticeably more bold.

I am optimistic that my friend’s life-defining ordeal will not last another three-and-a-half years. But I am terrified that within a similar period of time millions of others could end up hostage to a crisis caused by a growing impatience on China’s part to reclaim what it sees as its rightful role as a regional or global hegemon. Unjustly cut off from family and friends, a thousand days in captivity is an eternity. It is likewise time to start thinking about China’s challenge less in terms of decades or centuries, and more in weeks and days.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/09/05/time-for-less-long-term-thinking-about-china/
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And so the policy prescriptions are…what? Marxist ideology is a cancer upon the world yet the West loves its Chinese toasters. More than 380 concentration camps have been built in Xinjiang but they are the tip of the iceberg. The West is silent about the Gulags in the remainder of Communist China. Xi just had a ringside seat to view Biden in action. When Communist China invades Taiwan in the next few years, Biden’s response will be to have John Kerry write strongly worded letters demanding that the CCP troops wear masks and use electric tanks.

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The idea of China as a nation of long-term thinkers, is belied by the recent economic history of China. China has had two stock-market bubbles just since 2000 (in 2007 and 2015). There is a claim that property in China is a bubble right-now (this may or may not be true).

China has a long history as a nation and a long history of long-term thinking. However, in recent decades short-termism has been more the rule than the exception. That does not mean that the growth and development of China has been less real. It (China’s growth) is very real. To put this in perspective, was US economic thinking in the 19th century long term? Probably not.

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At 68, Xi is in his prime as a politician. He is a very ambitious man who is determined to take full advantage of American elites’ stupidity and greed. Looking at Biden he most certainly sees what is so easy to see: a mediocre man who rose to the top only because the elites were so eager to get rid of Trump. Compared to Biden even Busch 2 looks like a smart man. The Afghanistan fiasco proved how incompetent DoD, State dept, and the entire “intelligence” community are. The next 4 years is the best time for Xi to make his boldest moves.

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I don’t disagree with anything you write. However, how exactly can Xi take advantage of Biden at this point? Hong Kong has already fallen (de facto). The Chinese military won’t be ready for Taiwan until after 2024 Attack Japan? That would be insane on many levels. Seize some useless wilderness in the Himalayas? My guess is that China would win. But the price would be decades of ferocious Indian hostility. It’s not worth it.

My guess is that Xi will lean against foreign (mis)adventures for the foreseeable future. His boldest moves will probably be domestic. A possible exception might be an attempt to enforce the nine-dash line.

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You have this all wrong. John Kerry will be urged to denounce the leaders of China for not putting their pronouns in their bios. If this sounds like a joke, the US embassy in Kabul celebrated ‘gay pride’ with a flag and Kabul university announced that it was awarding degrees in gender studies.

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Almost a justification for Taliban takeover. I didn’t say ‘a justification’, just ‘almost.’ It is the perfect example of American Progressive hubris. The Pride flag itself might be interpreted as a prohibited graven image, But Afghanistan is off-topic for the current thread. Except to the degree that the Chinese, as intolerant as they are of Uighurs and other internal minorities, are not, in their internal dealings, in-your-face about the backward beliefs of the natives.

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I was intrigued by the idea in the article that their time table might have moved up from 2035 to 2027, with 2027 as a fairly near specific, but not 2024 or sooner. They’re doing all sorts of war exercises and mind games with floating islands, challenging sea traffic, overflying Taiwanese space, but not quite ready yet. As you say, move too soon, and get into ongoing significant hostilities with India and Vietnam, plus however Japan and Korea respond. Plus whatever economic actions by the EU, UK and Australia (assuming that Biden and the dems are just going to sleep thru it all, and let the hi-tech companies choose foreign policy.

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We are all already hostages to political/media/security elites who lie to us, allegedly for our own good.

Measure-for-measure retaliation takes place in the spy realm, just as it does in war and in other conflicts. Counterintelligence spies on the enemy’s spies and terrorists, keeps them under observation in order to collect more and more information, and then rounds them up when it’s the right time to do so. If one side in a cold war expels diplomats for spying, the other side will look into its books, decide which ones to kick out, and do the same.

The two Canadian men are prisoners because Canada, at the behest of the United States, decided to place the daughter of the founder of Huawei under house arrest, as part of the campaign to drive Huawei out of the west. Canada took a hostage, so China took hostages. And are we really supposed to believe that China just picked two innocent men, who weren’t already implicated in the covert struggle, to be its hostages? One of them organized Dennis Rodman’s trip to North Korea! The other was an ex-diplomat working for one of the west’s most institutionally connected NGOs.

But like the occasional western “academic” or “hiker” or “blogger” who gets arrested in Iran, only to then have their release negotiated, it would defeat the point of having a spy, for western governments to say openly, you got me, that was indeed one of our spies, please give them back. So, officially, cover stories are maintained, and meanwhile, deals are made out of sight.

The problem is that when there’s too much secret business of this kind, the headlines themselves end up choking with lies. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen this problem addressed by a political thinker - how to reconcile the ubiquity of secrecy and deception in relations among states, with the democratic ideal of the informed citizen. You have the insiders who play the game, you have the Assange-Snowden radicals who want to unilaterally neuter the western deep state, and… what else is there?

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The Chinese (the CCP) doesn’t love or even like the Taliban. However, they will be quite willing to do business with the Taliban as long as the Taliban don’t support Uighur terrorism in Western China. Afghanistan has minerals (apparently). China wants them and has cash. A strong business relationship is entirely possible between China and the Taliban. By contrast, the West was/is obsessed with pronouns. We can see how that worked out.

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Taking Taiwan requires a rather large sea-lift capability that China doesn’t currently have. Much like preparing for D-Day. China (the CCP) wants a short war and a quick decisive victory. That means that China must build up overwhelming strength in preparation for invading Taiwan. That will take time and cost vast amounts of money. China has both, but not before 2025.