Trump official Matt Pottinger quotes Confucius, in Chinese, to make point about language and truth


“In the United States, competition is not a four-letter word.”

So said Matt Pottinger, senior director for Asian affairs on the American National Security Council, at a weekend event at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C. He was responding to a speech by Ambassador Cui Tiankai 崔天凯 that the South China Morning Post characterized as “highlight[ing] the importance of cooperation.”

Pottinger made less friendly noises: “We at the Trump administration have updated our China policy to bring the concept of competition to the forefront. It’s right there at the top of the president’s national security strategy.

To justify the change in language, Pottinger quoted Confucius in crisp, clear Mandarin, earning a few approving giggles from the audience: “If names cannot be correct, then language is not in accordance with the truth of things. And if language is not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success” (名不正,则言不顺;言不顺,则事不成 míng bùzhèng, zé yán bù shùn; yán bù shùn, zé shì bùchéng).

Pottinger speaks Mandarin, and was a China correspondent for the Wall Street Journal. He left journalism to join the U.S. Marines, where he did tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He joined the NSC last year, at the Trump administration’s invitation.

You can watch excerpts from both officials’ speeches here:

That short video is an interesting contrast. Cui Tiankai’s speech sounds like any official Chinese boilerplate from the last few years, all talk of win-win, cooperation, and mutual understanding. Pottinger quoting Confucius in response is really just a highfalutin way of calling BS on the old clichés.

For more on U.S.-China tensions and the trade war, see our regular updates:

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