Can Biden’s China policy be more than ‘Trump lite?’

Foreign Affairs

Jeff Bader, former senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council, joins the Sinica Podcast to discuss a growing divide in U.S.-China relations.

Xi Jinping and Joe Biden in Beijing, on December 4, 2013. REUTERS/Lintao Zhang

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Jeff Bader.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily Access newsletter to keep on top of all the latest news from China, from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at We’ve got reported stories, essays, and editorials, great explainers, and trackers, regular columns, and, of course, a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs, from the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to the tectonic shifts underway, as China rolls out what we call the Red New Deal. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.

I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

It’s a rare thing that I read anything these days and find myself in emphatic agreement with every bit of it, the descriptive and prescriptive alike. But that’s how I felt about a recent piece for the Brookings website by Jeff Bader, a veteran diplomat, who was senior director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the first years of the Obama presidency until 2011. Ambassador Bader served as U.S. ambassador to Namibia and is now a senior fellow at the John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings.

But he was deeply involved in the U.S.-China relationship at the State Department from his first posting to Beijing back in 1981 for the next 21 years, really through 2002, before being tapped to head Asian Affairs at NSC after Obama took office. After leaving the Obama administration, he wrote a fascinating book on Obama’s China policy, Obama and China’s Rise: An Insider’s Account of America’s Asia Strategy. The Brookings piece in question was titled “Biden’s China policy needs to be more than just Trump lite.” And in the next hour, we’ll talk about that piece and much else. Ambassador Bader, Jeff, if I may, welcome to Sinica.

Jeff Bader: Thank you, Kaiser. That’s fine, I prefer Jeff.

Kaiser: So, Jeff, I want to focus today on U.S.-China policy and specifically on your critique of the Biden administration’s policy to date. But I should note that first there’s an excellent podcast interview with you that was actually conducted by James Green, another diplomat with a lot of China experience, who runs — ran, rather — the U.S.-China dialogue podcast that went from 2019 to 2020. Yours is a two-parter. In fact, it covers a lot of ground. I highly recommend that [interview to] listeners who are interested in Jeff Bader’s storied career, his relationship with Richard Holbrooke, his experiences in China in the 1980s, and the management of the Tiananmen crisis, the participation in the WTO accession negotiations at the turn of the millennium. And, of course, his decision to back the young Illinois senator rather than the former first lady, who everyone was sure was going to win the Democratic nomination. You should check that out. It’s fantastic. Wait until we have Jeff back on Sinica and we can really do a deep dive into his career.

But I do want to point out that by coincidence, you and I actually, Jeff, we have in common the fact that our first stints in China were in the year 1981. I was just a teenager back then and only stayed for that one summer, while you were on your first extended posting to China for the State Department. How has seeing the extent of change in China and watching it unfold in person over these several decades, how has that shaped the way that you approach China, that you think about China?

Jeff: Well, I was there from 1981 to 1983 as a political officer. I was responsible for China’s internal politics, which essentially was an impossible job in those days. There was no publicly available literature beyond the People’s Daily, which had its limitations in value. Talking to people was highly risky. People didn’t want to talk to you and if they did, they were taking a risk. So the job itself had, let’s say a low ceiling in what you could accomplish. The city itself was a pretty dreary, dismal place. My main recollections are of about 4 million people in identical blue suits, riding around on bicycles in the bicycle lanes every day down the Jiànguómén Wài 建国门外 Boulevard. And a handful of cars weaving their way through. There were no restaurants, no publicly available restaurants at all. I had every meal essentially in the Peking Hotel for two years, which is a fate I wouldn’t wish on anyone.

So it was a dreary place, it was hard to understand. I remember Dèng Xiǎopíng 邓小平 saying that China planned to increase its GDP fourfold in the next, I think 20 years was his target. And that seemed impossible as one looked around at what was a state dominated, Stalinist society. You couldn’t travel anywhere. While I was there, there were about 27 cities that were opened up for travel without prior permission. And even there, you were tracked pretty closely. So when I came back from my first subsequent visit in 1987, when I was deputy director of China at State, in just four short years, I was astonished by the visual changes in the city, the dynamism, the neon lights, the restaurants, the variations in people’s dress, the opening of malls. You could see the direction China was going, it was going much, much faster than one could have imagined.

Kaiser: It’s a bit like going from black and white to color suddenly.

Jeff: Yeah, I came to Beijing from Taipei. I had been studying Chinese in Taipei. And Taipei was a modern Chinese city. It was like Hong Kong in those days. And so the shock of going from Taipei to Beijing was all the more stark because of the different levels of development and the different levels of dynamism.

Kaiser: So how has that shaped the way you think now, just seeing the rapidity of change, the sort of compressed nature of China’s development experience?

Jeff: Oh, in several respects. I mean, one is never underestimate the Chinese people. I mean, that’s my main conclusion. You had a population that had gone through 30 years of the People’s Republic of China and Maoism, essentially a totalitarian system. Before that, the civil war and occupation of the 1930s and ’40s. And before that, the chaos of the Republic of China and the Qing dynasty. And yet, in just a few short years, they were on their way to creating a modern society and it was readily apparent. So I never underestimate what Chinese people can accomplish. I mean, when I was there in 1981, 1983, my feeling was, from what I observed, that Chinese people only could accomplish great things when they were outside of China.

Because of course we all know that overseas Chinese are dynamos in every country that they serve in. But that there was something about the Chinese system that made it impossible to have that kind of achievement at home. But I clearly was wrong on that. In three or four years, just tremendous achievements. I guess the second conclusion I draw from that is that many Chinese who were alive during that period and it’s 35, 40 years ago, remember the bad old days, remember what the life of poverty and grayness and being cut off from the outside world was like. And they have a sense of appreciation for what’s been accomplished and a sense of gratitude. Gratitude to the leadership for the changes that have been brought about. Now to the degree to which that extends to the younger generation is a whole ‘nother question. But for older people, the contrast between the China that they grew up in and the China today is very apparent.

Kaiser: Absolutely. It really parallels my own experience because I took my second trip there in 1986, I was in college. And that experience, just seeing the trajectory really changed the trajectory of my own life. I decided I really needed to sort of take a front seat to watch this happening and decided there and then that I would be back and I would spend a lot of time watching what happened, what unfolded in China. Fantastic.

Let’s get into your critique now, fast forwarding a couple of decades now to the Biden administration’s policy, as you laid it out in that piece for Brookings. The piece calls that policy Trump-lite, and I’ve heard people refer to it, quoting people even within the administration saying, “Trump, but with allies.” But to be fair, there are other points of departure besides the multilateral approach, right? Could you identify first where do you think credit is due? The ways in which Biden, Tony Blake, and Jake Sullivan, Kurt Campbell even, and the rest have actually moved away from Trump.

Jeff: Well, what’s striking to me, Kaiser, is if I were writing a defense of the administration, which I was not, and do not intend to do, I could identify changes from the Trump administration. And I’ll mention a few of them. But what’s striking to me is that the administration does not do that. And that was one of the things that inspired me to write this piece. The administration emphasizes continuity. They emphasize, as you just said, that they are looking to compete, using allies and partners. If you ask a senior administration official, “how is your policy different from Trump’s?” And I’ve heard many of them answer this question. The answer is invariably what you just said, “Oh, we do it with partners. We’re not doing it unilaterally.”

So to me that suggests a certain bashfulness or a certain shyness about embracing any change from the Trump policy. They are, I think, looking over their shoulder at the Republican party, at their right wing and are deathly afraid of being seen as having departed from a ‘tough on China policy’, getting directly to your question, what are the actual differences? There are a few. For example, the climate change bilateral agreement that John Kerry signed with his counterpart, Xiě Zhènhuá 解振华 at the Glasgow summit. I mean, the Trump administration didn’t believe in climate change, no less in cooperating with the Chinese on the subject. So that was one big example. I think that the most fundamental difference is on the issue of regime change. I think that the Trump administration tiptoed up to the line of calling for regime change in China.

If you look at the series of speeches that were given by Mike Pence, Mike Pompeo, and other senior Trump administration officials, they had a whole slew of them. They all left the impression that living with China, under communist part of the leadership was impossible. That in the Chinese communist party DNA, that they’re not only thieves and predators, but they had the nerves to dominate internationally and that they could not coexist with the United States in a manner that serves our national interest, unless their regime were toppled. That’s the way I read their speeches and I think that’s a fair reading of them. This administration, I think, clearly he does not believe that. They won’t say they don’t believe it, but their speeches aren’t filled with the same kind of vocabulary that calls into question the legitimacy of the Chinese regime.

They seem to accept that. I think that those are the principle differences so far. I think that this administration also is a little bit more cautious on the subject of Taiwan. Its actions have been kind of all over the place, but I felt that the Trump administration, towards the end, were in the process of basically tearing up the rule book. They essentially threw out the policy on contact with Taiwan officials. They had scheduled a visit by the U.S. ambassadors, the United Nations to Taiwan, which was would’ve been an event revelant with symbolism, if not absolute recognition of Taiwan as a sovereign state in the international community. So this administration has been more assertive in talking about a one China policy. And although there’s some missteps, I think they do believe in it.

Kaiser: So I’m going to want to ask you about the extent to which Biden finds himself constrained, looking over his shoulder onto his right wing, as you said. And I will ask you about what space there is for him. And you’ve addressed quite a bit of that in your posting for Brookings. But before we do that, let me give you an opportunity to simply lay out what you think is missing or misguided in terms of the Biden administration’s approach to China. What is the heart of your critique?

Jeff: I think that Secretary Blinken’s formulation of a relationship with China that is largely competitive, that is collaborative when possible and adversarial when it must be, is not a bad formulation. I think that those three aspects of a modern U.S.-China relationship are realities. You can accept that framework and still wonder about the administration’s approach to implementation of it. If your approach is one in which, first of all, you’ll notice they never use the word cooperate. They use collaborate in that instance. And most of the time, since then they talk about interests being aligned. It’s as if it’s a, I don’t know, it’s the C word. It’s a word they’re not willing to use, as if they think that talking about cooperating with China, leaves them open to the charge of being soft on China, which is quite amazing to me.

I mean, the thought that we can’t cooperate with another major power on issues like combating the current or the next pandemic, which there’s a decent chance it will come from Asia, since the last two did. Cooperating with China on climate change, which this administration has identified as an existential challenge. And where China and the United States are the two chief emitters of greenhouse gases. Cooperation on non-proliferation, which essentially means North Korea and Iran, where we’ve cooperated in the past. Our interests aren’t wholly aligned, but there’s a significant area of overlap, and we’re not going to solve those problems without working with China.

I think that one can reapportion those three buckets in a different way than they have. If you look at the comments that senior leaders in the administration make, they are invariably all about competition, severe competition, extreme competition, strategic competition, never about cooperation, never about common interests. I think that they need to think much longer and harder than they have about economic issues, and particularly about the issue of decoupling. They’ve said almost nothing on the subject. They’ve just sort of trundled along with individual agencies, adding Chinese companies to the entity list, which forbids them to interact with American companies, with maintaining the tariffs inherited from the Trump administration, 20, 25% on Chinese products with a substantial cost for American companies and American consumers.

And if you listen to administration officials, they will acknowledge, they don’t have a trade policy. They don’t have a trade policy towards China. They don’t have a trade policy towards Asia. They don’t have a trade policy globally. And what Asians care most about in their relationship with the U.S., frankly, is economic and trade issues. I mean, security issues matter to them, but if you don’t have an economic and trade policy, you’re not an actor in Asia. I mean, all the countries in Asia have intensive economic relationships with China. In almost all cases, China is their number one trading partner. In many cases, it’s becoming a leading investor.

And if all we can do is carp about the spread of Chinese influence and not offer anything of our own, then it’s no surprise that the objective of making friends and influencing people among partners and allies is going to have a very low ceiling. I mean, take one example, this isn’t in Asia, but the recent switch of Nicaragua from recognizing Taiwan to recognizing the PRC. This seemed to shock the administration. The State Department put out a statement saying that Nicaragua had excluded itself from democratic nations of the western hemisphere by doing so. Actually, not only just the United States, but virtually every country in Latin America recognizes the PRC. But just leave that aside for a moment.

Leave aside the hypocrisy of the statement. Why should we be surprised? The PRC is waving lots of money at Nicaragua for development projects, as they are with all recipients of the Belt and Road Initiative. They are ready, willing, and able to provide infrastructure projects. Whereas, the United States has imposed a series of sanctions on Nicaragua because the Ortega regime is undemocratic, authoritarian, and frankly, a terrible regime, okay? So there, there are reasons for imposing sanctions and I accept those. But don’t be surprised if a country, when it’s given the choice between someone who’s imposing sanctions every chance they have and someone who’s waving a lot of money at them, make a choice that is contrary to what we’re seeking.

Kaiser: Indeed, indeed. To your point about what we are bringing to the table when it comes to Asia, Evan Feigenbaum had a very clever turn of phrase. He said that, “Oh yes, we are bringing security, right? But that makes us sort of the Hessians of Asia. All we’re doing is just sort of being mercenary soldiers.” In my day-to-day work, I hear a lot of people complain that the Biden team doesn’t have a real China strategy or variations on what one heard during Trump, like the administration doesn’t have China strategy as a China attitude. Is it though, an unalloyed good to have an explicit strategy? And if so, is it wise to talk about it explicitly and publicly?

Jeff: Kaiser, I think you’ve got to have a strategy. Day-to-day, the strategy does not drive every single decision, a tremendous number of decisions you make are tactical decisions. But they’ve got to be within a broad framework. Now, administrations always pride themselves on putting out national security strategies and Indo-Pacific strategies. And if not China strategies, then at least China military reports. To be candid, these reports, a lot of effort goes into them, a lot of clearances, a lot of actors and different agencies. And then they go into the safe and they are referred to only when someone writes a speech.

If you’re in a principal’s meeting of the National Security Council, the thought that someone would pull out a national security strategy paper or a China strategy paper and say, “But aha, here the strategy paper says such and such, we’ve got to do that.” That doesn’t happen. But it does condition the way everyone in the administration, different agencies thinks about China. And so if you don’t have a general strategy, you have different agencies running off in different directions, doing different things, which conflict with each other. I think back to probably the best national security advisor we ever had was Brent Scowcroft. He was very clear with other agencies about what the objectives were on China.

It was the White House that was very clear about what they wanted done. And agencies essentially fell in line, whether it was because of a document or because of a general effective coordination, which didn’t really require a document, although one can argue about that. But I think you need to have some kind of a framework. And I mean, I tried to spell out some of the elements of the framework in my paper, talking about seeking a limit to decoupling, the understanding the decoupling comes at a great cost. Trying to narrow the areas of decoupling to those who are vital to U.S. interests rather than making it a reflex. Talking about the recognition of China as a major power with its own legitimate interests in which it’s highly unlikely there’s going to be a winner and loser in sporting sense in international affairs going forward.

The chances are in 20 years, in 30 years, in 40 years, we’re still going to be dealing with an international system in which the United States, and China, and quite a few other countries are major actors. So we need to think about how we’re going to compete with China, but also live with China and coexist and cooperate with China. I think we need to think much more and be more vocal about people-to-people ties. That’s a phrase that generally gets short shrift among serious strategists. They think, “Oh, people-to-people, that’s for tourists.” People-to-people is at the core of U.S.-China relations. The U.S. technology revolution of the last 20 years in Silicon Valley wouldn’t exist without Asians of which Chinese are a large part.

All you have to do is go onto any campus in the United States, in the engineering school, in the mathematics, science, technology department and look at a number of Asians and look at number of Chinese who are making major contributions to American innovation in those institutions. And the thought that we can descend into a hostile relationship with China and expect that they’ll continue to be an open spigot of top quality educated Chinese coming to the United States and being the backbone of most disciplines, either at some point, the Chinese party state will crack down on it because of the level of hostility or ordinary Chinese will decide they don’t want to come here anymore.

It’s just not worth it. It’s a country that disrespects them. And then they’re all reading about anti-Asian violence in the United States and about attitudes in the United States. And they’ll either stay at home or they’ll go somewhere else. There are other countries that would love to have them and that will be our loss. That’s an area where I’m frankly, baffled that the administration has not been more vocal and more forthcoming, particularly given the level as a practical political matter, the Asian American support for the Democratic Party in recent elections. They’re aware of that in this administration. And that isn’t something that can be taken for granted.

Kaiser: Yeah. Your words, Jeff, truly warm my heart. I mean, I’m in such profound agreement with you, everything that you’ve just said. It seems to me that there are some unavoidable assumptions that underlie and you might even say practically define one’s approach to China. And these are always questions that I like to put to people in conversations like this. First is, what do you reckon China’s ambitions to be? Because if you think China is hellbent on displacing the U.S. as the global hegemon, you’re going to come to very different conclusions about what we need to do than if you assume China only seeks primacy regionally and doesn’t desire the whole enchilada.

So let’s start with that one. I mean, because these days it looks like, I mean, what I keep hearing is that while that strategy document isn’t even tucked into a safe, there is a book that people do come out with at the principles meetings, and that is Rush Doshi’s The Long Game. And apparently it’s now required reading on the Biden-China team. It seems to be sort of regarded as gospel when it comes to the question of Chinese intentions. Do you get that sense? And what do you personally see China’s scope of ambitions to be?

Jeff: Well, I think Rush wrote a good book. Rush is a fine fellow. He did great research, it’s well documented. I think that Rush’s three stages of Chinese development, building, blunting, and displacement as I recall. Building China to compete with U.S., blunting U.S. aggression, and displacing the U.S. as a global leader is how he conceives of it. I think the building is about right, the blunting is about right. And the displacement is made up. It’s a guess, okay? His guess could be right. His guess could be wrong. But the evidence for it is, let’s say is lacking. I don’t see, in China’s behavior, something that suggests the ability to become the hegemon to use the popular IRR phrasing of a global system.

They have no allies in the world. If you get past Pakistan and question marks about Cambodia. Chinese soft power is basically economic-commercial. There is not global admiration for the Chinese system of governance. Among Chinese speaking peoples in Asia, Taiwan, and Singapore there’s no admiration for it and no desire to emulate it, no less elsewhere. I don’t see China as effectively having the ability to pursue a global ideological agenda of spreading its system beyond its borders. There’s a lot of discussion about the degree to which China wants to explore this model. Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 said some things in various addresses to Party congress’s and plenums about the utility of aspects of Chinese governance that other countries might find valuable.

That’s a long way from Stalin did in 1945 to 1953, where he basically imposed communist systems upon all of Eastern Europe and then attempted to do it elsewhere. And what China has been doing is, it has been exporting some of its systems of surveillance, which I think authoritarian countries find valuable. And frankly, so do some democratic countries, for law enforcement purposes. But that isn’t driving countries into making ideological choices about the kind of governance system they’re going to have. Those are driven by internal dynamics. And I don’t see Chinese missionary efforts to affect that. The Chinese, I think, are equal opportunity traders.

Their relationship with Europe, with countries in Latin America and Asia is not related to regime type. And in the rule system, generally, if you look at all the international institutions that have been built up since 1945, China has not been the dominant rule maker in any of them. At least until the last few years, the rules have been basically written by the U.S. and allies. Now it’s another question about the degree to which China should be brought in as rule maker and I hope we can talk about that a bit. But they have not played that role historically in the thought that China is going to show up in the WTO, or WHO, or the UN, or any of these other organizations and suddenly going to attract a vast following in rewriting charters and objectives, I think is fanciful. So I think like great powers generally throughout history, their objective is to maximize their influence.

Now historically, that’s mainly been Asia-Pacific region, the area of greatest concern and interest to them from a security point of view and also from an economic point of view. But clearly their ambitions for influence and for interaction do go beyond Asia. And I regard that as normal. I don’t see that there is anything exclusive about the U.S. relationship with, let’s say Saudi Arabia and the Chinese relationship with Saudi Arabia. The relationships may be competitive to a degree, but the thought that China is one day going to be the dominant actor in these relationships around the world, I find very unlikely. And I think that they have a realistic sense of their own limitations and they are not expecting or anticipating doing that. They do want to expand influence, but China’s got enough problems at home so that a hell-bent effort on becoming a global hegemon in the face of the major challenges of home, which are going to determine the future of their governance and the future of their society, that seems to me an unlikely choice.

Kaiser: Yeah. Again, in full agreement with you. A second question, and I do want to get to talk about China’s role in the so-called rules-based international order and whether it will become more of a rule maker rather than a rule taker. But there is a second sort of foundational question, and that is what are China’s legitimate interests? Where should the United States draw the line? What is out of bounds and what is in bounds? Because it seems to me any form of coexistence involves a recognition of those interests from both sides. And that is going to involve a compromise and departure, certainly, from where we are right now.

Jeff: Great question, Kaiser. I say legitimate interests, certainly one obviously is their economic commercial relationships with other countries in the world. Those are a legitimate interest of China. The United States should accept the reality and we frankly have no choice but to accept the reality that China’s going to be a big actor in its economic and commercial relationships around the world. And we should not be wasting our time with speeches the way the Trump administration did, denouncing the Belt and Road Initiative and denouncing China’s predatory economic behavior here and there as imperialists thinking that countries in the world will somehow, the scales will fall from their eyes and they will suddenly see the light. And they’ll say, “Oh, we’re not interested in trade and investment ties with China anymore.” It’s a nonsensical approach and we may as well accept the reality, okay? That’s one.

Second, we need to understand that China is going to be a great power, if it isn’t already. And I would say it probably is already. And being a great power means a military that matches its national security needs. Now, I think we need to watch to see do they develop a military capability that is purely based upon the wishes of projection of great powers. That is, “Gee, we are a great power and therefore, we need to have a military commensurate with our great power status, so that we can act around the world as a great power.” I don’t think that that’s a standard that they should seek or that we should accept. I think that China’s legitimate military interests are those consistent with a reasonable national security strategy for China rather than be a global military competitor. I think the third is the right of China to have its own political, economic, and social system.

Clearly the Chinese have a fear of so-called color revolutions that we’ve seen in the 20 years, where states in Central Asia, the Middle East have been subject to internal pressures that have attempted to convert them from autocracies into more democratic systems. The Chinese have tended to attribute that to American pressure. I think wrongly, these generally come from domestic reasons. But one can’t control perceptions. The Chinese perceive that we are a threat to the stability and the sanctity of their system. And certainly, there’s enough evidence in American political speeches for them to believe that. And I said, during the Trump administration, it would’ve been a logical conclusion, frankly. I think that whatever we may think of the communist system and whatever wishes we may have for China to develop a more participatory pluralistic and democratic system. And that’s not something I strongly believe in, I imagine you do, and all of us in the United States do.

Kaiser: Yes.

Jeff: We need, at the same time, to recognize that these decisions are not going to be made by you and me or by anyone in the United States. They never are. And when we attempt to make them, we both frustrate ourselves and we create turmoil that we may be able to affect outcomes, but not in the way we want. There are unforeseen consequences from what we do, when we try to destabilize countries. We should accept that China is going to determine its own future, while without the wisdom or the guidance of the United States. And finally, and this one I think is complicated. China’s territorial claims, which means at this point, primarily Taiwan, somewhat the South China Sea and the East China Sea. I think we need to acknowledge them. We need to show respect for them. And let me define the word respect for the moment. But we do not need to accept them.

And then these verbs are hard to parse for Americans who like straight talk. We established relations with China on the basis of acknowledging the Chinese position, that Taiwan was a part of China. We didn’t accept the Chinese position that Taiwan is a part of China. And by acknowledging it, what we were saying was, “We are not going to be frontal in challenging your claim. Your claim is your claim and we are not denying your claim. We are not asserting the validity of your claim, at the same time. We are basically recognizing it is an extremely sensitive issue for China because of history that these areas are all areas that historically were claimed by China and the Chinese nationalism is not going to quietly surrender these claims.”

So we need to respect them in the sense that we need to understand they come out of Chinese history and that they are supported, overwhelmingly, by the people of China. But at the same time, we do not endorse or accept them in the sense that we do not think that PRC rule should be imposed upon Taiwan until and unless there is a voluntary, uncoerced agreement between Taiwan and Beijing, so it’s a recognition. The Chinese use the term core interests. That was a term that we didn’t much like. I don’t think that we should be using it, but we should understand that these are the most sensitive national issues for China, which means a high degree of care in the way we handle these issues.

Kaiser: Thank you for that very thoughtful answer. Implicit in that is the answer to another question, which is really about what American national interests are and whether we are able to accept a genuinely multi-polar world. I think that we sort of pay lip service to the idea, but we don’t really change our behavior and continue to behave in ways that has Beijing concluding something. This is what really keeps me up at night and has me worried. I am genuinely afraid that Beijing has concluded or is close to concluding at this point, and by that I mean that a critical mass of influential Party leaders have reached the conclusion that the U.S. position, irrespective of what party is in power, who occupies the White House, is now fundamentally hostile to the idea of China emerging as a peer competitor, as a great power. The forwarding of China’s rise, the preservation of unipolar hegemony. I mean, do you think that this idea has or might soon to be so unchallenged within Xi’s inner circle, that we’re at a point of no return?

Jeff: That’s another really hard question to answer. Gosh, my sense is that that notion on the Chinese side has gained widespread acceptance, that it is not unchallenged, but that it is the dominant view at the moment. That it reflects views on the Chinese side and also reflects perceptions of the way the U.S. has behaved, that persuade them that there is nothing that can be done to prevent a basically zero sum conflict of interests. Now to me, there are lots of shades of gray and the Chinese Communist Party certainly is capable of nuanced thinking. On the one hand, I think they think that containment of China which is sort of the favorite word they’ve developed over the decades, is deep in the heart of U.S. policy. And that is going to remain the case.

The question of the degree to which that policy requires that the U.S. seek to hold back China rather than simply compete or out-compete China, I think that’s an open question. I think that’s an open question, frankly, on both sides. Is it onto the Trump administration? I felt that it was, picture a couple of sprinters running a 400 meter dash and there are two ways you can run. And one is outrun the other guy and the other is to try to trip the other guy. And I felt that the Trump administration thought that tripping the other guy was a pretty useful way of winning the race. I think in this administration, there’s more of an emphasis on the straightforward competition, but there hasn’t been a complete abrogation of the thought that we have to hold China back in some ways.

And look, I mean, inevitably we’re going to hold China back on its access to military technology, that’s a certainty. No matter who’s in power in the United States. And inevitably, in the area of technology, access to technology, technology sales, technology transfer, there’s going to be constraints that go beyond purely military, that are going to find ways of trying to ensure a dominant role for U.S. technology in key areas going forward. And that, in some cases, will mean depriving China of access to technology. So there are a lot of gray areas in the middle here, but it doesn’t require that every decision be in terms of, is this helping the United States and thereby hurting China? Or is it helping China and thereby hurting the United States? There needs to be some understanding that there are going to be some decision areas where maybe it’s mutually beneficial.

Kaiser: So let’s talk about how you see China in its relationship with the international system, the rules-based international order, some call it. And here, we’re talking about not just things like multinational organizations, like the United Nations and all of the organizations underneath that, not just about standard setting bodies as well, but also about the Bretton Woods system. You’ve made clear that you wouldn’t like to see China supplant the U.S. as the main rule maker, but you also believe that Americans will have to accept that China is going to be a rule shaper, that’s the term that you’ve used. And given China’s sheer size and its economic clout, that seems only fair. Do you think that current Biden administration policy is making the accommodations that will be necessary to allow China to take its rightful place as a rule shaper? And what are your ideas about how to get China involved, invested in international system as a participant?

Jeff: I haven’t seen any indication that the Biden administration has thought about acceptance of China or ways to induce China to participate constructively in the international system. Every senior level statement I see from the administration talks about ways in which China defies the international system, and then does not proceed to, “Here’s what they need to be in conformity.” There’s obviously a certain arrogance about this, leaving aside the degree to which we conform with the international system. We can leave that aside for the moment, but things like the UN Convention and the law of the sea, which we have never ratified or the Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty which we have never ratified, or any of a number of ways in which we have chosen to define the international rules-based system, in a manner consistent with our immediate objectives and interests.

I have not seen that from the administration, but you remember back under Bush II, George W. Bush administration, Bob Zelek, who was then deputy Secretary of State gave a speech talking about China as a responsible stakeholder in the international system. He was talking about that as an aspirational objective. He wasn’t describing a present reality. And the Chinese reaction to that at first was baffled. They had trouble with the translation of it and some trouble with the concept. But over time they, I think, began to understand that this was, from their perspective, a constructive formulation that allowed them to play a role in, I don’t think Zelek talked specifically about rule making, but it was implicit in the concept.

Now, President Obama was quite explicit about the need to take countries like China, and India, and Brazil, countries that had been relatively minor actors when the whole Bretton Woods system was set up and give them a role commensurate with their newfound power. That was an explicit objective of administration policy. Trump with America First, obviously didn’t believe in that. And the Biden people have frankly been silent on that. They’ve just been focusing on the negative side. So there’s a number of aspects to this issue, Kaiser. And one is the whole weakness of the institutional framework of the international system.

China criticizes the UN Conception, which emphasizes alliances and partnerships. Says, “That’s all irrelevant.” That says a small clique of countries. What really matters is the UN, okay? That’s what they say. Well, the UN is a pretty feckless body as we know. All of the major bodies in the UN system, whether it’s the UNGA, the UN General Assembly, the IMF, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the World Trade Organization, all are in need of fundamental reform and fundamental restructuring if they’re to play the kind of role that they played for a while and that they need to play. I think that’s an enormous agenda. The thought that we could both bring China into a system of those institutions and at the same time reform those institutions, that’s probably asking too much. But I think as a theoretical and as a policy objective, we need to be thinking in terms of both.

Kaiser: Do you think that it’s too late, Jeff, for Biden to change his tune on China? Already the administration has used China to push so much of its agenda, the Innovation and Competition Act, the infrastructure plan. It seems like everything the administration announces is couched in this language of competition with China. So has he left any space for himself to be able to, if not make a 180, at least to turn in a less oblique angle?

Jeff: Yeah. I think you’ve framed it right, Kaiser. I think that first of all, this year is an election year in the United States, leaving aside what’s going on in China with Party congress. And so the thought that we’re going to see serious adjustments in China policy and election year when the Democrats feel highly vulnerable seems unlikely. But at some stage, we discussed earlier the fact that this administration doesn’t have an economic trade policy. At some point they’re going to have to have one. Yeah, you can’t go four years without a trade policy.

And when the economic agencies are heard from, in particular treasury and commerce, both of whom have secretaries who are Janet Yellen and Gina Armando are going to be heard from. And they are more preachers of openness, and market access, and the international system than the voices we’ve heard so far. Now, that doesn’t mean a reversion to 20 years ago, but it does mean that there’s going to have to be a greater balance in policy between economic interests and other interests, where the economic interests at the moment are not represented at the table, frankly. So I think that that’s one thing that’s going to happen at some stage, I don’t know when.

Kaiser: Likely after November. I mean –

Jeff: Yeah. I mean, after November I think is right. I think that the fundamentals of what Biden wants to do are in place, but personalities matter. I don’t believe in the school of the extreme realist thought that countries are just sort of Newtonian objects moving through space. Actors matter and like in this administration, for example, I think John Kerry has played a role. I think obviously he played a central role in formulating the U.S.-China Climate Change Agreement with Xie Zhenhua, that wouldn’t have happen without him, without his determined efforts. But beyond that, I think that the phone call, I guess it was a Zoom meeting or they don’t use Zoom, whatever they use. The encrypted webinar that Biden and Xi Jinping had. I think that John Kerry had a lot to do with that as well is my guess.

I think that Biden pays attention to John Kerry. John Kerry used to be his Senate colleague and was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And he’s someone who Biden regards as a peer. And I don’t think that Kerry has been altogether satisfied with the overall framing of policy. I’m speaking from 3,000 miles away in Venice, California. But rumors do make it across the country. So I think that that’s… I’ve mentioned Yellen, I’ve mentioned Armando, and Kerry, these are people whose voices have been somewhat muted, but who may have different views. I think the general framework is in place. I don’t expect, as you say, a 180. I think as you put it an acute angle or an oblique angle of that is possible.

I think that one of the reasons that Biden did that virtual meeting with Xi Jinping, was he was concerned about the degree to which the relationship was off the tracks. Succession of shouting matches by senior officials in meetings with poorly prepared agendas, where both sides were posturing to each other’s domestic audiences, I think that that did not impress Biden. And I think that Kerry probably helped reinforce the perception on Biden’s part. So when there is a concern that a relationship is going to run off the tracks, I think that that’s when one sees Biden become more personally, directly involved, which I don’t think is a bad thing. I think that Biden’s own instincts on China are a balance of competition and cooperation. I’ve noticed that he seems to be unafraid of using the word cooperation, unlike the people who work for him.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. He’s a little looser in the vocabulary in both directions. So a good portion of the piece that we’re discussing today is about, of course, Biden’s domestic political circumstances. And the extent to which his choices are circumscribed by Congress and by the voters who will go to the polls in November. So the conventional wisdom is that he has his hands tied, but are they really tied? I mean, you cite that Chicago Council poll on American attitudes toward China as evidenced that the so-called bipartisan consensus on China isn’t maybe as pronounced, at least within the public certainly, as people would have you believe. And I certainly agree. I’m sure that you still talk to lots of people in the Democratic Party, whether in Congress or in the White House, and I assume that you’ve raised these poll results with them. Do Democrats feel like this gives them more space when it comes to China? Do you get any sense that maybe there is a little bit of an opening?

Jeff: I mean, I talked to people who were going into the Biden administration before January of 2021, and I made the argument that there was nothing that they could do to satisfy the hard Republican right on China. And we named names and they wholeheartedly agreed and understood that point. I was pushing on an open door when I made that point. It doesn’t matter what Biden does, he will continue to be attacked from the right on China. You look at the ads that are coming out already now, in congressional races around the United States and Republicans in primaries are denouncing the Democrats or even their own primary opponents in the Republican Party as being stooges of the Chinese Communist Party. That will happen no matter what.

So the question then becomes, how much do you feel the need to accommodate that perception of people who are never going to be with you anyway and who are going to use China as a political weapon, no matter what? Now, it’s complicated because within Washington, I wrote that there is not a consensus within the Democratic Party on attitude towards China. And I was showing that Chicago Global Council poll, which showed numbers on whether China’s an adversary, whether China-U.S. policy should be aimed at preventing Chinese influence around the world, whether Chinese researchers and students should be blocked from coming to the United States, whether tariffs should be raised. And in every single case, there was a very large gap between Democratic responses and Republican responses.

With Democratic responses being, let’s say calmer about China than Republicans. But that is candidly not reflected inside the Congress. I think that I will give the administration credit for correctly reading the Congress, that there is a reasonably hard line consensus within the Congress for a policy which focuses on strategic competition with China, to the exclusion of other issues. That said, in my experience in the U.S. government and through the odd years, administrations are perfectly capable of leading on China policy, preferably with Congress, but also it can be done without Congress. And I could cite many, many instances, obviously in the George H. W. Bush years when Congress kept passing legislation demanding conditions upon most favored nation status.

And President Bush kept vetoing it every year and continued with his policy, despite a torrent of congressional criticism. In my time in the White House, from 2009 to 2011, I did not find congressional pressure close to unbearable on any aspect of China policy. China policy on The Hill has always been more hawkish and always been tougher than the administration policy forever, forever. That will never change. But an administration that knows what it wants, can get where it wants by leadership, by finding the right people in Congress to bring them along. And yes, congressional [inaudible] are a constraint, but they need not drive policy. That’s not what our constitution intended and not what any administration should want.

There are a couple of pieces of legislation now, the Compete with China Act, which is mostly involved in building up U.S. industrial capabilities. It’s mostly what it does. And uses China as sort of a talisman. Look at China, we have to compete with them. Let’s do all of these things at home. Let’s rebuild our semiconductor industry. Let’s rebuild our educational system, let’s rebuild our manufacture capacity. Let’s rebuild here and there. That’s all good, frankly. I mean, it’s unfortunate that we have to use an excuse to do these thing, which we should be doing anyway. There’s some language in that legislation, there’s money. There’s a lot of money for propaganda against China for pointing out the flaws in the Chinese system. I’m not sure that that’s particularly good use of taxpayer money.

I think that the time in which people look to BBC and VOA for the truth around the world has long passed in the era of globalization of news and the private news. So I think that’s frankly, mostly a waste of money. But that’s the main bit of legislation we’re looking at this year, which I don’t think need do too much damage to the relationship. If it’s looked at carefully, there’s a house version and a senate version with different language, with different consequences for the relationship in it. There are down the road, depending upon what happens in 2022 elections, there are other possibilities being discussed, such as limitations of scrutiny of U.S. outbound investment to China, which would be a big deal. It would be the first time in the world we have imposed broad scrutiny of outbound investments anywhere, aside from well –

Kaiser: Cuba, Libya, North Korea.

Jeff: Countries like Iran and North Korea. And I think that is something that bears close watching and where the business community, which is already deeply, deeply invested in China, needs to keep a close eye on that and needs to let the Congress know what they think of that before that creates a whole new reality.

Kaiser: So if the Biden administration wanted to lower the temperature, what would you identify as some of the, let’s say more politically feasible things? I mean, because we do have to kind of acknowledge that yeah, they’re not completely constrained, but there are political hurdles that they would need to overcome. What are some of the things that they could do to signal an intention to lower the temperatures and things that the administration could do that might stand a chance at bringing congressional Democrats, at least, along with them?

Jeff: Everything has risks and everything will get criticism. They need to start by understanding that. There’s not going to be a free ride in anything to do with China. I would say one obvious one is the Department of Justice, FBI, China Initiative, which is –

Kaiser: On its last legs –

Jeff: Creating a climate of fear on campuses around the United States. No other way of putting it. It’s a kind of Neo‐​McCarthyism in my view. The FBI denies it, but it’s frankly singling out Chinese and Chinese Americans for particular scrutiny and for, in some cases, ridiculous, trumped up legal charges and it is hurting us. It’s hurting individuals and it is hurting the United States as a nation. We talked about that a little bit earlier. That is one that, I mean, I’ve talked to people on The Hill, at least some people on The Hill on the foreign affairs side, understand one of them used the phrase abomination to me in talking about that program.

Kaiser: That’s good to hear.

Jeff: I think that there are going to have to be some compromises, but I’d start there. Secondly, tariffs, the Trump tariffs were completely arbitrary. Trump said repeatedly, “I love tariffs. Tariff wars are easy to win.” I don’t know an economist in the world who believes that, okay? None, we are to take Donald Trump’s ignorant rants on the subject of tariffs as guidance for U.S. policy in perpetuity? That’s ridiculous. There are thousands of businesses and millions of consumers in the United States who are being hurt by these tariffs. I’m not suggesting that these tariffs should just be lifted in a negotiation. They were put in place for reasons, but I don’t see any, at the moment, disposition on the part of the administration to negotiate on market access and on Chinese practices, like IPR violations or subsidies, export subsidies, subsidies for Chinese companies.

I don’t see that they have a plan for negotiation on that, that might be usefully made part of a discussion about tariffs. Yeah, you don’t lift them all. You look around and see which ones will have the greatest impact, particularly at a time when we’re running 7.5% inflation. So I think those are two ripe candidates. I mean, the administration did negotiate a loosening of restrictions on journalists going in both directions. And they have made some minor adjustments in visas to, I think, make H-1B1 visas in the United States a little more secure and a little more available. But I think they can go much further on these. We shut down the Fulbright Program with China. That needs to be reversed. I mean, that should not be controversial.

Kaiser: The Peace Corps too, yeah.

Jeff: Peace Corps, we shut down as well. I mean, these are not national security issues. I mean, over the 50 years since Nixon went to China, we’ve built up tremendous people-to-people ties between our two countries, across every domain. And since Trump, we’ve been in the process of shutting them down. I think that the administration needs to come up with a sensible definition of what decoupling entails, what it entails in the military area, what entails in the technology area, what it entails in the economic area and try to limit that. I mean, the phrase has been high walls, small yards. I think that’s a good way of thinking about it.

But I think they need to have a conception about decoupling that is much more constrained. It goes back to your question, Kaiser, earlier, do they need a strategy? Yeah, that’s one of the reasons you need a strategy. You need to know how you think about China in order to decide how you think about Chinese coming to the United States. And how you need to think about Chinese researchers and how you need to think about the attitude of ordinary Chinese towards America and what impact that has on the future of the planet. I mean, I have good friends at Brookings who have looked quite intensively at popular Chinese attitudes towards the United States, it is very dismaying what has happened in recent years.

I mean, the years I lived in China, I have said many times that I never once encountered a manifestation of anti-Americanism, ever, in China. I’m not talking about editorials in the Global Times or things like that. I’m talking about in interpersonal activity, just none. Great warmth on the part of ordinary Chinese towards Americans, I fear that’s dissipating. And what I hear from friends who’ve looked at it closely is that there is evidence that that’s the case, maybe documentable evidence. And the thought that we can have a manageable relationship with China and the administration does talk about managing the relationship with China, I respect that. They don’t just talk about pulverizing China. They talk about managing the relationship, okay?

But the thought that you can manage a relationship when the population of that country is moving towards outright hostility. And the same thing is happening on our side of course, if you look at ad polls, we’re creating a monster on both sides. This would be harder and harder to manage. That’s one of the reasons for example, the Chinese government has difficulty managing its relationship with Japan. I think China could manage a much more sensible, constructive relationship with Japan, except they’re always looking over their shoulder at the citizenry who bear long memories about Japanese atrocities in China and xenophobic attitudes among the broader population towards Japan in China. I would hate to see us reach the same point where the Chinese leadership is looking over its shoulder at its own population about whether it can have a constructive relationship with the United States.

Kaiser: I worry about that too. And I think the point that you made about the importance of people to people relations is certainly not lost on this listenership anyway. In your estimation though, for the leadership, is Beijing eager for, or would it at least be receptive to and willing to reciprocate if we did pluck some of that lower hanging fruit that you enumerated? Things like restoration of Fulbrights or the Peace Corps. I mean, maybe at a higher tier, dropping some of the more onerous tariffs. If we did make clear our intention to lower the temperature, would Beijing be receptive and would it be willing to reciprocate?

Jeff: The short answer is it’s hard to say unless you’re actually involved in a diplomatic negotiation because from the outside, you just see the hard line posturing and you don’t know what their degree of actual flexibility is until you get in the room with them over some months. But I mean, just two broad comments. Number one is that the Chinese system, historically, is not so much interested in low hanging fruit. Historically, their interest is in defining the overall character of the relationship. They want to know how do you see China? And they’ll go on at great length about how they see the United States.

And their attitude is once we have each sincerely demonstrated our attitude towards the others, in terms of our objectives and our interests, the specific issues will fall into place. And historically, frankly, Americans have tended kind of in the opposite direction. Americans, historically, have figured, “Well, we’ve got big barriers in relationships. Let’s try to see what we can do. Let’s find the low hanging fruit. And we will build confidence as we accomplish small things, so that when we get to harder things we’ll have a basis for trust,” okay? I mean, you can transpose that to the Middle East, it’s our historic approach to Middle East peace negotiations.

Kaiser: And you can transpose China’s attitude in that way to the India relationship. I was talking to a good friend of mine, who has been a reporter for the Hindu for a very long time, he’s based in Beijing. And one thing that he said was that India’s position is that they’ve got to resolve the border disputes, Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, before the overall relationship can improve. And Beijing’s position has always been, “No, let’s get the entire relationship right and then the border will be resolved.” Yeah, so no, you’re absolutely right. That is a perfect characterization of how Beijing approaches it, which worries me, because that’s a profound disconnect.

Jeff: Yes, that’s fascinating. Henry Kissinger talks quite a bit about this and his sympathy for the Chinese approach runs this way. He says that the Chinese attitude is that you can just solve a problem and then you can solve another problem. And doesn’t matter how many problems you solve, there’ll just be new problems that arise. So you’re always facing new problems. Whereas, if you agree on the framework, in their view, all the problems can be prioritized and dealt with. Not personally, I hate to be so wishy-washy, I think there’s wisdom in both frameworks, frankly speaking.

But the Chinese have, in their discussions with the United States over much of the last year, have been quite adamant that they need signs, clear indications of the overall U.S. approach to China. And that we can’t just pick off climate change, or pick off this, or pick off that and expect cooperation when we have an overall policy of hostility. That’s what they’re saying. Well, that’s fine for them to say that. I don’t believe it. I mean, because in fact they did reach an agreement with Kerry on climate change after saying, “we can’t do these things.” So clearly they can do these things, but they still have a, if you will, cultural orientation away from the low hanging fruit approach.

Kaiser: One last question for you before we move to recommendations. Even though you headed Asian Affairs at the NSC, one thing that’s consistent across all your writings on China, one thing that I think is a source of my admiration for all the work that you’ve done is that you never seem to view China or our bilateral relationship with China through that one singular lens of national security. And it strikes me, and this has been a consistent theme on the show, that we’re in a time where there is this kind of single lens view. Everyone only looks at China through this national security lens or too many people do in any case. Can you share with our listeners maybe, some of the precepts that you live by when it comes to thinking about China? You clearly have a broader and maybe, more holistic view of the relationship. And I’d love to hear what some of the maxims you live by are.

Jeff: I guess my starting point in thinking about China comes back to what I said earlier, and that’s an appreciation of what the Chinese people and Chinese nation can accomplish. And never underestimating that, you are underestimate it at your peril. And that is not meant to conjure up a China threat. It is simply a statement of reality of the last 40 years, what they have accomplished from such a low base. And the way in which they set their minds to achieving an objective and the way in which they can marshal resources from all across the society to achieving it. We all remember when COVID-19 first struck in Wuhan and the Chinese government announced they were building a, I can’t remember, I’ll get the numbers wrong. But either it was a 10,000 bed hospital in, I can’t remember how many days, a few weeks.

Kaiser: Like a week yeah.

Jeff: It was ridiculous, okay?

Kaiser: 3,000 bed I think it was, yeah. But yeah, yeah.

Jeff: Whatever it was, okay. Well, whatever it was, no one else could do it. And they did it, okay? I remember when I was stationed in Hong Kong in the mid 1990s, there was a famous China watcher there who said he wasn’t worried about Chinese technology he said somewhat dismissively. He said, because anytime he went to China, he couldn’t find a functioning flush toilet. So that’s one of the reasons why he was not confident about their nuclear power plant, just 40 miles away from Hong Kong. I always got a laugh when he said that. And here we are, 25 years later and they’ve circled the dark side of the moon, they have a space program to Mars. They’ve identified all of the major technologies of the 21st century and asserted their desire to be leaders in many or most.

They’re leading the world in construction of electrically powered vehicles. So I start with, so never underestimating the nation. Then the second place I go to is trying to come up with a realistic assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of the Chinese Communist Party. And I know that when we say the Chinese Communist Party, we’re all supposed to tremble and it’s a fairly complex operation. It does some things well, and it does some other things terribly and oppressively, but it’s a mixture. And if we just caricature it, we’re not going to react to it sensibly. It’s got 90 million members. It is capable of tremendous message discipline and of carrying out plans and directives decided by the center at provincial and regional levels in the way that other countries can’t.

It’s able to think longer term than Democratic systems find comfortable or normal. And it has overseen this spectacular rise of China into economic middle class prosperity and great power status in 30, 40 years. The weaknesses, it’s oppressive, information flow is uncertain towards the center. Who is talking to Xi Jinping? Is he hearing what he should be hearing? In a system like that, it cracked up under Mao. No one was willing to tell Mao what Mao needed to hear, everyone was terrified of him. One doesn’t hear encouraging signs of the readiness of people to offer different views to Xi Jinping, since he has acquired leadership of all aspects of the Chinese system in a way that hasn’t been the case for some years. Its treatment of minorities, the absence of rule of law, we know all of these things well, and the absence of human right protection. So I think we need to understand what China is about and then understand what the Communist Party is about in a serious way instead of just having a comic book picture of it.

Kaiser: It’s just astonishing to me how consistently people are only able to focus on one side of the ledger, either the plus column or the minus column and to the exclusion of the other.

Jeff: I think we’ve covered a lot of the issues in previous questions when you talked about what are China’s international ambitions? And I think that that is one that we, as Americans, need to focus on. But I don’t think it serves our interests or it’s intellectually honest to imagine an end state of China’s international ambitions. And so the teleological way that, 40 the years from now, they intend to dominate the world. I think that’s a ridiculous way of thinking about countries in a multi-polar world, which this world is going to be in the coming century.

China is a major power, it’s feeling its oats. It’s throwing its elbows around, but it’s got severe limitations at home. We haven’t gotten into those, well, I’m sure you’ve done those in your other broadcasts about the demographic crisis China faces and whether China’s going to continue to be wage competitive at the low end of the income scale. Whether China can continue to create the jobs they need to, for all the kids coming out of universities. Whether a heavy handed approach to regulation of the business community, that has been in evidence for the last year, is going to be successful in creating the kind of moral society that Xi Jinping is talk about or rather is going to stamp out innovation.

I mean, all sensible Chinese leaders know that the private sector is driving China’s economic growth and private sector and foreign investment. And they’re not a straight line, innovation doesn’t work in straight lines. You have to allow for innovation. And something happens way over in the corner there that then affects your progress in areas you really care about. And if you’re just, as they are now, saying, “We’re not going to tolerate unfettered growth in social media, internet technology, home tutoring, financial services.” I mean, they need to be very, very careful thinking that you can just squeeze one end of the economy and it’s not going to come out in ways that you don’t like elsewhere.

Kaiser: Yeah. No, that’s another can of worms. I mean, we can spend another hour talking about the ins and outs of this Red New Deal. But thank you so much, Ambassador Jeffrey Bader, for taking the time to speak with me and for sharing the fruits of your truly formidable intellect and your very rich experience with our audience. I’m really honored and it’s just been such a great pleasure. Before I let you go, let’s give some recommendations as we do on every show. But first, a very quick reminder that Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina. And if you like the work that we do here, the best way to support us is by subscribing to SupChina’s daily Access newsletter. I’ll leave it at that. You know the drill. Okay, recommendations. Jeff, what do you have for us?

Jeff: Sure, Kaiser. I think, well, I just read a book by a gentleman named Stephen Platt called Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom.

Kaiser: Fantastic book. I love it.

Jeff: Yeah, there’s a lot to learn from that. When you read of 15 years, 20 years of mayhem in Central and Southern China, with 20 or 30 million people killed, you gain an appreciation for the obsession with stability that Chinese, high and low have. You also are reminded of the gaps between North and South China. North China was Manchu dominated, South China was Han dominated. And you also are reminded of the remnants of imperialism and the impact of imperialism on China in terms ofoutside powers in the 1850s and 1860s, which was horrendous. And which Chinese see in disguised form in much 20th century behavior. So I think that’s well worth a read.

Kaiser: Absolutely. Stephen Platt has another book that I absolutely loved as well, Imperial Twilight it’s called. And it’s sort of about China on the brink of the Opium War and the run up to the Opium War. That’s a fantastic book. But Autumn in the Heavenly Kingdom was so very, very good. It focuses on the Shield King, on Hóng Xiùquán ‘s 洪秀全 cousin and –

Jeff: The Shield King, yes.

Kaiser: His story, yeah. Which is an angle that I wouldn’t have thought to take. Because the focus is always on Hong Xiuquan himself, but his cousin’s experience and I’m spacing his name right now, I’ll maybe go back –

Jeff: Hóng Réngān 洪仁玕.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. Okay.

Jeff: Yeah, it’s fascinating. I agree. I tell you why it’s fascinating for you, and me, and many others, Kaiser, is that he was the guy in the middle. He was here, he had lived with the missionaries in Hong Kong and he understood how Westerners thought and he wanted to bring Western ways to China, Western industry, Western knowledge to China. On the other hand, he was the cousin of the Qing king, of Hong Xiuquan. And he was the chief actor for the Taipings and then ultimately in resisting Imperial forces, which allied themselves with the Manchu dynasty to try to crush the Taipings. And so these, if you will, well-intentioned people who one understood both sides got ripped apart. That’s the –

Kaiser: I know how he feels. I mean, it’s astonishing to me how close he came to succeeding in bringing in the British on the side of the Taiping. I mean, it reminds me so much of that contemporaneous war that was being fought on the other side of the world, where we almost, I mean, it was touch and go there for a little while. So dependent on American cotton exports that the Brits almost sided with the American South, still sort of smiting about 1776 too. So yeah, yeah. It just reminds you of just so much contingency in history and yeah. Yeah, fantastic book and great recommendation. I have a couple of historical books that I want to recommend as well. And I’m going to sort of re-recommend things that were recommended by other recent guests, because that’s all I’ve had time to do.

I’ve been trying to be good about reading the books that other guests have been recommending. Thank you for recommending one I’ve already read. Let me just second too, excellent, excellent recommendations from recent shows. I’ve plunged into them, and reading them in parallel. One was Anthea Roberts’ recommendation of the book, The Master and His Emissary by the psychiatrist, Iain McGilchrist, which it was fascinating enough at first, just talking about the two hemispheres of the brain and really upending so much of the popular understanding of the function of the right and left hemispheres of the brain. But most intriguing of all, he is relating it to culture and to the historical development of the West versus the rest. And that part is just more speculative for sure, but more intriguing as well.

You’ll be hearing more on this sort of thing on a big show that I’m working on for this series. The other is this fabulous book recommended by Dan Wong of Gavekal Dragonomics, who was on the show a few weeks ago, that’s called Unfabling the East. And, Jeffrey, if you haven’t read this, I highly recommend it. It’s called Unfabling the East: The Enlightenment’s Encounter with Asia by Jürgen Osterhammel, translated from the German. For my money, literally for my money, I went and bought it in hardcover, it’s just the best work of history I have read in years. Again, this one has already made its way into my prep notes for this show that I have planned. So stay tuned for that. Jeffrey, thank you once again. It’s just been an honor to be able to have you on the program. And I do hope that we can have you back again because there’s still so very much to talk about. And I so enjoyed this.

Jeff: Well, thank you so much, Kaiser. I really enjoyed it. Enjoyed hearing your perceptions, no doubt in large part, since they’re similar to mine. And I hope that next time we do this, we’ll be able to report on a China and a U.S. that have moved in different directions from where they are right now. And we can have a happy, more upbeat conversation.

Kaiser: Well, here’s to that. The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you drop us an email at or just give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews. And be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening and see you next week. Take care.