The China Conundrum

by Ethan Gutmann
inFocus Quarterly
Winter 2010

How significant that the architect of the original U.S. overture to China now feels compelled to write a primer on averting war with his own creation. Henry Kissinger’s essay, “Avoiding a U.S.-China cold war,” published in the Washington Post on the eve of the recent U.S.-China summit, was less concerned with U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, but warned of elites in both countries who emphasize “conflict.” America’s elite sees “China’s increasing global economic reach and the growing capability of its military forces.” In China, the elites that Kissinger consults “seem convinced that the United States seeks to contain China and to constrict its rise.” Both sides risk “self-fulfilling prophecies,” Kissinger warns, leading to “an international choosing of sides, spreading disputes into internal politics of every region.” While the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may well possess greater internal vulnerabilities than the U.S. political system, it is easy to concur with Kissinger’s statement that conflict between the U.S. and China would collectively “exhaust their societies”—particularly given the proxy proliferation and steroidal terrorism that Beijing would likely employ.

Aside from admonishing U.S. and Chinese elites to avoid the subject—an act of strenuous doublethink—in favor of mutual reassurance and the employment of a “consultative mechanism,” Kissinger has not clearly identified why the threat of a new Cold War has emerged at this particular time. The passage of Permanent Normal Trading Relations (PNTR) in 2000 not only ended the tedious “linkage” debate and consigned human rights concerns to Washington’s policy orphanage, it was intended to foster U.S.-Chinese economic bonds that would make political conflict increasingly irrelevant. By any measure, that economic interdependence has never been higher, and the summit should have constituted one more victory lap for Kissinger. Instead, in stark contrast to Obama’s recent state visit to India, Hu’s visit was tainted with unease, masked by a slavish attention to protocol on the American side, while Chinese handlers slipped in a performance of an anti-American propaganda song for the Chinese domestic audience. Kissinger’s inability to see the deep roots of this unease exposes his realist blinders and a self-defeating tendency to brush aside core ethical imperatives in both societies that may decide our collective future.


The realist school employs a standard template to most conflicts: assign blame equally by invoking tragic historical trajectories. Kissinger follows the script; China’s actions are to be understood in the context of a sort of genetic recall of millennial Middle Kingdom primacy, with a barely scabbed over memory of the “Century of Humilation” by Western and Japanese imperialists. By contrast, America’s actions are—a full 56 years after the publication of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American—the faults of callow youth: an engineer’s belief in quick fixes, unhinged optimism, moral naiveté, and a generalized impatience with the world and its complex historical baggage.

Kissinger’s analysis presumes a replay of the dreadnought race, or a classic action-reaction dynamic. On the Chinese side, the military acquisition policy supports such analysis: from short-range assets to be employed against land neighbors (Deng Xiaoping) to medium-range missiles and Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) for the Taiwan scenario (Jiang Zemin) to a blue-water navy, long-range missiles, satellite warfare, and a stealth fighter danced out precisely as the American counterpart went into retirement (Hu Jintao). The target is obvious. A decade ago, Chinese hacking and Internet espionage were focused on “internal” enemies such as the Falun Gong movement and Taiwan (the Green Army, the Red Hacker Alliance, and the 6-10 Office), to government centers around the world by 2007 (GhostNet), and last year’s surprisingly potent attacks on the Pentagon, the State Department, and a wide range of U.S. corporate assets (Operation Aurora).

On the American side however, Kissinger’s analysis falters. While U.S. rhetoric concerning China runs the gamut at any given time, defense and foreign policy towards China over the last decade has been surprisingly restrained. The Pentagon has tirelessly promoted military exchanges to foster crisis stability, while forfeiting the battle over high-tech export controls. Following 9/11, U.S. intelligence emphasized collaboration with their Chinese counterparts, even allowing Chinese officials to interrogate Uyghur detainees at Guantanamo. Successive Washington administrations neutered any Taiwanese yearning for independence, encouraged the Beijing Olympics and, particularly under the Obama administration, gifted the status-hungry Chinese leadership with regular ceremonial takeaways. Even on a regional basis, U.S. resistance to China’s aggression in the South China Sea against a multitude of neighbors is clearly reactive, while distribution of missile defense assets to South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan—actions that could appreciably reverse the emerging regional strategic calculus—are not employed, even as a bargaining chip (no American elite promotes such realpolitik; the “Blue Team” of the late 1990s effectively disbanded following the War on Terror). In short, are U.S. actions those of a youthful power, or an aging one?

The Soothing Scenario

The “Quiet American” may exist, but he is rarely found in U.S. diplomacy, defense, or intelligence circles. His home is the American business class, of which Kissinger Associates is a primary member. Although the opening to China was born of perceived strategic necessities of the first Cold War, the dream in corporate America has been remarkably consistent since the mid-90s: As the Chinese proverb has it: “When brothers are of the same mind, the earth will turn to gold.”

Getting rich collectively not only seemed to solve the problem of China’s terrible past, but also China’s future, particularly its inevitable rise as a great power. Any moral dilemmas presented by cooperation with the CCP was mitigated by a belief in what James Mann labels “the Soothing Scenario”—capitalism will, at some unspecified-but-inevitable time, bring democratic reform to China; it just needs to get some money in people’s pockets first. PNTRs passage in 2000, then, was essentially a faith-based ratification of American business as the ultimate arbitrator of China policy. The only catch was that the Soothing Scenario had to work.

The Chinese leadership never really fretted over the details of PNTR—they would run their shop in their own fashion from the value of their currency to the most byzantine variety of market restrictions that the world has ever seen. And the Soothing Scenario was blatantly contradicted by the CCP’s actions; while village elections dutifully performed for Western media, actual trends in human rights, press, and freedom were headed on the opposite trajectory. In 2000, Chinese State Security was already implementing its greatest action since the Cultural Revolution. Beginning in the year 1999, the elimination of Falun Gong became the most potent issue in China, as reflected in the incarceration rates of Falun Gong practitioners (about 450,000 to one million in any single year) and it did not officially subside from that position until the middle of the next decade. At this point, the true casualty rate started to emerge from refugee testimony—approximately 70,000 fatalities, mostly through organ harvesting in military hospitals.

Don’t Mention the Dead

Most readers are likely seeing that figure for the first time, a fact that tells less about the evidence, which continues to solidify, and more about the Western agencies and NGOs who were tasked with tracking such atrocities. Amnesty International, for example, claimed to be doing research on harvesting of prisoners of conscience. But in the absence of publication, where have they reported their results? Human Rights Watch (HRW) has not issued a press release about Falun Gong since 2002, while its researchers have been quoted in the media claiming third-party investigation of Falun Gong abuses is “difficult to substantiate.” Multiple sources of independent documentation—some even carried out on the Mainland at great personal risk by rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng—demonstrate the essential passivity of the HRW claim. Yet HRW may have an underlying point: Outside of a few exceptional individuals such as Edward McMillan-Scott of the EU and Manfred Nowak of the UN, there was little demand for such information from Brussels or Geneva. It was commonly understood that the scale was breathtaking. Yet to acknowledge that such action was taking place meant something had to be done.

The doing-something conundrum was even more pronounced in the sole superpower, where Falun Gong defenders became thinner still. The American Left identified Falun Gong as religious fundamentalists, and thus unworthy of victim status. The Right tended to be sympathetic, but Falun Gong’s claim to be non-political suggested that they would be unreliable long-term allies. Washington moderates preferred to avoid controversy. The Bush administration triage strategy was to pool U.S. diplomatic clout to defend Chinese House Christians. The policy achieved a temporary Schindler’s-list effect, which the Obama administration promptly abandoned, with predictable effect.

Yet all humanitarian reasons aside, there were solid strategic reasons for America to pay attention to Falun Gong. According to Chinese state security in 1999, Falun Gong numbered 70 million—far greater than the Tiananmen movement. In contrast to the elite students of Beijing, Falun Gong’s demographics ranged from illiterate peasants to professors, entrepreneurs and high-ranking party members, as if they had been selected for a nation-wide Chinese focus group. The viral spread of Falun Gong had been eerily similar to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party—a major factor in Jiang Zemin’s original decision to eliminate the movement. The party grasped that authoritarian societies do not fall in a moral vacuum, and Falun Gong represented a powerful revival of traditional Chinese and Buddhist values. The movement’s claim to be strictly non-political and non-violent had no mitigating effect; the Party knew that all resistance in China has political ramifications, and non-violent resistance has tremendous historical power. If the CCP fell, Falun Gong would—reluctantly perhaps, but inevitably—become one of the key actors in a post-CCP China. And with the revitalization of Falun Gong in the West, that threat only increased over time.

The U.S. chose to ignore this dynamic, but it is far from clear that it won any points with the Chinese public by doing so. The most egregious error in Kissinger’s analysis is interpreting Chinese elite attitudes at face value, given Chinese restrictions on information and free expression. Even if many Chinese enjoy invoking the once and future Middle Kingdom—a safe enough gambit in a Chinese Internet discussion—there are equal numbers who quietly crave external interaction—ergo the flowers strewn across Google’s Beijing headquarters when the company announced its departure, an anonymous protest against the state power that limits the Chinese people’s connectivity with the world and indeed, with each other. And is the Chinese mind truly haunted by 19th century humiliations, like a jilted lover graphically replaying a former partner’s infidelities?

Perhaps, but better to admit American ignorance of the inner workings of the Chinese psyche, save one indisputable fact: Dwelling on the Opium War, the Nanjing Massacre, the Korean War, and the foreign-outrage-of-the-week are actively encouraged as healthy obsessions by the Chinese Communist Party of China, while dwelling on the Great Leap forward, the Cultural Revolution, the Tiananmen massacre, and the more recent crackdowns on Falun Gong, the Uyghurs, the Tibetans, and the parents of dead schoolchildren in Sichuan are discouraged—and there are serious consequences for those individuals who do not grasp the distinction (for example, a Chinese woman recently received a year in a labor camp for a single, satirical tweet). How much then of the Chinese feedback loop of shame and rage over external enemies is thinly disguised displacement for shame and frustration over the Chinese people’s passivity in the face of extraordinary internal tyranny? While the scale of Maoist excesses has diminished, the efficiency of targeted repression has increased, constituting an omnipresent physic burden to most Chinese, no matter how much they—or indeed, Americans—try to suppress the consciousness of it.

Walking Back Cold War Dynamics

Thus, the real problem with PNTR’s passage actually centered on the word “Permanent” itself. The Chinese leadership understood—quite correctly—that on the elite level, the U.S. was implicitly accepting the Chinese Communist Party’s right to hold power in China indefinitely. Why else would the party allow its medical establishment to butcher religious dissidents on operating tables throughout China? Why would they allow a public persecution to spin so wildly out of control? Only if there was no accountability; only if the party controlled history; only if the party imagined itself as a permanent Reich. This, in fact, was the self-fulfilling prophecy that ultimately led China to the formative stages of a new Cold War.

Reversing that dynamic is an extraordinary undertaking. China’s past and present trauma cannot be unwound without a massive society-wide media and legal bloodletting, one that would dwarf in length and intensity the serial discussions of race in America. The Chinese elites cannot be judged harshly for their reluctance to enter into such an onerous task—particularly when America has chosen not to press the issue. Yet the U.S. must start somewhere, and the lessons of the last decade are clear enough. Control business class influence on policy. Avoid defense and policy appeasement. And reintegrate ethical considerations into Internet, trade, cultural, and dissident policy with China. That’s what brothers do. The gold can wait.

Ethan Gutmann is an adjunct fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the author of Losing the New China.