The Chinese Communist Party is a nasty regime. But sometimes one marvels at what it has accomplished. And no, we’re not talking about the Shenzhen skyscrapers or the new Beijing airport.
Rather, the CCP over the last four decades has pulled off the most successful psychological operation in history. It has managed to neuter the United States – the only country that might have prevented it from building an economy and a military able to challenge and conceivably defeat the Americans.
And it didn’t have to fire a shot. More impressive, it got the Americans to assist and even fund the effort – convinced that the PRC was unthreatening (or could be made so), indispensable and a gold mine.
The Chinese didn’t exactly hide their intentions. One only had to pay attention – and take Beijing at its word.
Like all good psyops campaigners, the Communists knew their target’s vulnerabilities. They capitalized on American avarice, ignorance, naiveté, vanity and hubris.
And Beijing attacked on a broad front – successfully manipulating American business and Wall Street, government officials and the political class, academia and even US military leaders.
American industry was easy – given the hypnotic allure of Chinese money and the vast Chinese market.
One can hardly name a major American company that stayed out of the China market – despite well-known risks.
Motorola – once a top American company – got in early and did everything right. But it was just committing suicide. Boeing, Apple, Pratt & Whitney, Microsoft, Tesla and many others remain – naively expecting a different outcome.
The psychological dependence is such that when China threatens market access, American corporations – and basketball players – prostrate themselves.
Wall Street was an even easier target. It‘s still falling over itself to get into China – with other people’s money, of course. The bankers get their cut no matter what happens.
Indeed, financial luminaries such as Henry Paulson (former head of Goldman Sachs and US treasury secretary) and Stephen Schwartzman of Blackstone seem more committed to the PRC than are the Chinese elites spiriting their own money out of the country as fast as they can.
Silicon Valley? Never saw Chinese money it didn’t like.
And willfully blind US securities regulators convinced themselves that Chinese companies deserve less scrutiny when listing on US exchanges than do American companies.
Money works with Americans. The CCP didn’t even have to break a sweat.
The political class
Beijing was equally successful in Washington – making a clean sweep of US administrations until Trump came along. Of course, each “had its reasons.”
President Obama was keen to “de-escalate” regardless of Chinese provocations or broken promises. Obamacare was more important. George Bush was busy with Iraq and Afghanistan and anyway lacked the stomach for challenging the PRC – as his treatment of Taiwan revealed. The Clintons? The Chinese just bought them off. Not exactly difficult.
George H.W. Bush thought he ‘knew’ the CCP – having lived in Beijing for 15 whole months – so he comforted the CCP after it massacred thousands of its citizens at Tiananmen Square. Even Ronald Reagan, who brought down the Soviet Union and hated communism, listened to his too-clever-by-half advisors – handing over military technology to the PRC to “split” the Chinese from the Russians.
Jimmy Carter? He threw away Taiwan without ever explaining just why. Beijing presumably didn’t ask. And Richard Nixon started it all – begging the PRC for a relationship when it should have been the other way around. His biggest mistake? Listening to a former Ivy League professor who knew little about China, and whom the Chinese have played masterfully ever since.
And at the “working” level in DC China has found many officials keen to accommodate Beijing. All in the name of “statesmanship.” And all are convinced they alone know China and how to handle the Chinese – especially if they speak some Chinese. The Communists gladly let them think so.
The Obama administration’s Asia policy director was in Hong Kong not long ago – advising American businessmen that to make money in China they should align themselves with Xi Jinping’s interests. Some claim that’s what the same man did when on the US Government payroll.
Another prominent former official, who nearly got the State Department’s top Asia job in 2018, recently advised a Shanghai audience that included Chinese officials to wait out Trump until more accommodating people take over.
And it was easy pickings for the Chinese over on Capitol Hill.
Powerful Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein was curiously accommodating of the PRC for decades. Even musing: “I sometimes say that in my last life maybe I was Chinese.” Meanwhile, her husband made a bundle from Chinese business dealings.
The Republicans were equally “subvertable” – Senator Mitch McConnell having family connections to Chinese money, a lot of it.
Former Vice President and current presidential candidate Joe Biden earlier this year declared that there’s nothing to worry about from China. Maybe the Chinese government’s interest in his son’s investment company had more to do with manipulating the Vice President than with Hunter Biden’s financial brilliance?
Former legislators are also juicy targets for the PRC.
Joseph Lieberman – once the conscience of the US Senate – signed up to lobby on behalf of Chinese telecom firm ZTE last year. Ex-Senator and conservative Republican David Vitter has become a shill for Hikvision USA, the American branch of the Chinese company whose equipment is a backbone of the PRC’s surveillance state and complicit in the imprisonment of a million Uighurs.
The list goes on. Ex-Secretary of Defense William Cohen, a former senator from Maine and a model of Down East sensibility, runs a consulting firm pushing business with the PRC. He just hired another ex-defense secretary, retired Marine General James Mattis. Say it ain’t so. “About those Chinese concentration camps, General?”
Looking on the bright side, the Americans are usually just doing it for the money – not the ideology.
And believe it or not, things could be worse. There have always been officials and legislators in Washington fighting a holding action – starting with the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979 – to keep China’s agents and “useful idiots” from completely giving away the game.
American news media have gone quiet. They gladly savage Russia and Putin, but when it comes to China they put on the kid gloves as most major media companies have been keen not to offend Beijing.
There are good reporters and columnists, but there’s also the other kind. Tom Friedman has been singing Beijing’s praises for years and once said he’d like to be the Chinese government for a day so he could fix America. Indeed. Newspapers print PRC government talking points uncritically as often as not – or even accept Chinese paid propaganda, as in the Washington Post’s China Daily insert.
Beijing benefited from US administrations being too afraid to challenge Chinese restrictions and harassment of American reporters. And this while Chinese reporters and media companies operate freely in the US. The Americans convinced themselves they needed the PRC’s help with climate change, transnational crime and North Korea – even though the help never came. It’s not Beijing’s fault if Americans are gullible.
With a few exceptions, Hollywood practically gives the word “whoredom” a bad name. Money has always been king, but there’s so much Chinese money around that patriotism has been declared persona non grata – along with “human rights.”
As for American universities, Beijing correctly calculated the price of academia’s principles: That’s X number of Chinese students paying full tuition. A visa, a business class ticket and a seminar invitation to the PRC work well, too.
The Washington think tanks have always been rattling the tin cup for money, but some have fallen prey – willingly in most cases – to PRC blandishments and cash.
They, of course, claim they are still objective. But read carefully and it’s more often an attempt to sound objective while not offending Beijing.
Recently a DC think-tanker noted that “Taiwan gets better treatment from the PRC when Beijing’s relations with Washington are smoother.” In other words: Give the CCP what it wants and it’ll strangle Taiwan more slowly.
Do-gooder NGOs such as Greenpeace? They’re intimidated, speechless and cowering while China destroys South China Sea reefs, vacuums the oceans of fish and builds even more coal-fired energy plants. Bother the Chinese and they might shoot you. The Americans won’t.
But how about the US military – the one organization that is supposed to be clear-sighted about threats to the nation and defending against them.
China has done rather well. Until recently – say, a year or two ago – the US military leadership largely ignored the Chinese military buildup – even refusing to refer to the PRC as an adversary.
The military ruling class was even keen to help the PLA improve and professionalize itself. One often heard the cliché: “A strong China is a good thing.”
And PACOM (US Pacific Command) commanders with rare exceptions gladly appeased China out of limitless gullibility, a desire to curry favor with the White House – or simply not being very bright.
One can’t blame the PRC for taking advantage.
But certainly younger officers know the score? Maybe not. Too many young officers of all services know little history and even seem to lack critical thinking ability. Their understanding of China is based on Graham Allison’s book and the movie Kung Fu Panda.
Everything described here is the result of conscious decisions by well-educated, pedigreed Americans. Their tendency to explain away Chinese behavior is only surpassed by skill at explaining away their own behavior. And it’s neat, pleasing sophistry.
The argument goes something like this: What I’m doing is ok since it will lead to China liberalizing and buying into the “rules-based order.” And the more I do the more likely this will happen. The alternative is thermonuclear war. And if I make some money or get a promotion in the process, that’s a win-win.
The Trump administration is the first in decades to challenge China. But does this indicate a sea change that will roll back Chinese psyops successes?
Don’t bet on it.
Just look at the guest list of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg’s New Economy Forum held in Beijing recently: business, finance, and government heavy hitters – all happy to pose for a picture with Xi Jinping. Bloomberg himself even declared Xi is not a dictator. Really.
The Mongols are famous for their psychological operations as they swept through Russia and into Eastern Europe in the 13th century. But they had to throw a few headless bodies over the town wall and give residents a choice: “Surrender now or everyone dies tomorrow.”
The Chinese Communists have had it easier. Some combination of money, flattery and a 10-course dinner is usually all that’s needed with Americans.
You’d think they would know they are being played. Perhaps. But maybe they just can’t imagine it or just don’t care.
Regardless, sometimes you have to step back and gaze in awe at what the Chinese have gotten the Americans to do to themselves.
Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and a former State Department Foreign Service officer.