symbols of u.s. and china in blue, on a red background
Illustration by Derek Zheng

A recent essay by scholars Thomas Pepinsky and Jessica Chen Weiss argues a persuasive case that the Biden administration is making a bad move in foregrounding the ideological dimension of competition with China.

About a year ago, with the U.S. election still months away and with Trump lashing out viciously at Beijing, pulling out all the stops and exhorting every U.S. government agency to just vent its frustrations at China, I was on a Zoom call with numerous people who work on China. The topic had turned to cold wars, and whether we were already in one or were soon going to be in one with China, of course. One participant whom I admire deeply said that he defined a cold war situation as short of war, of course, and in which for two given nations, the primary organizing principle of each was hostility toward the other.

I thought that was a really good, succinct definition and that by that definition, neither society was really organizing itself around hostility to the other. And so we weren’t in one or weren’t likely to be in one anytime soon. Surely, I was thinking, the Democrats are going to retake the White House in November, and we’re going to move further away from that state still.

Now, five months into the Biden administration, I am, frankly, pretty saddened and disappointed to find that, if anything, we’re actually closer here, at least in the U.S., to a cold war, by that definition. Competition with China is now invoked constantly by the administration. And while it doesn’t always tip into overt hostility, it’s hard to miss the subtext. Not long ago on the Sinica Podcast, Ryan Hass, who was China director at the NSC during the second Obama administration, lamented the way that competing with China has become a justification, a fix for everything. He said, “It feels like China has become the policy equivalent of duct tape. It’s capable of fixing anything. If you have hyper-partisanship at home, talk about China. If you have transatlantic problems, talk about China. If you need to give NATO purpose, talk about China.” He might have added, “If you want to get industrial policy through the Senate, talk about China.”

On this week’s Sinica Podcast, I held a discussion on how the ideological dimension of competition is now being foregrounded by the Biden administration and why that’s a bad idea. Joining me were two guests who co-authored a Foreign Affairs piece about this topic: Thomas Pepinsky, the Walter F. LaFeber Professor of Government at Cornell University, where his focus is on Southeast Asia, and Jessica Chen Weiss, a professor of government at Cornell University, the author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations, as well as a political science editor at the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog.

Listen to the episode or read a lightly edited transcript of the podcast below:

Kaiser: So let’s jump right in and talk about the genesis of this piece in Foreign Affairs. What sets you off? I mean, I have a sense of how these things typically come about, and it’s usually one person tearing his or her hair out and saying, “God damn it. I’m going to write an op-ed.” And then reaching out to a logical co-author, someone who’s also, maybe they’ve seen them in the hall missing a clump of hair also. Is that anything close to how this came about?

Tom: Yes, that’s something like how this collaboration started. Jessica and I are both asked in different ways and for different reasons to comment on the rise of China, its relationships with partners around the region, and its implications for U.S. foreign policy. And Jessica and I are also both Americans who think about the state of American politics and how we ought to compare ourselves with the rest of the world as well. So I think we were both sort of tearing our hair out in slightly different venues about what is the right way to conceptualize the rise of China and what is the strategy that we ought to adopt as Americans in thinking about the United States as a strategic competitor.

Jessica: Yeah, I mean then the piece actually — going back, we actually developed the idea back in the Trump administration when the outgoing administration was really emphasizing almost the existential nature of the threat that China posed. And we started to compare notes. Tom’s office is just down the hall from mine. And we really wanted to push back against the idea that China was bent on exporting a so-called “China Model” to the world, including Southeast Asia. By the time the piece actually came out, we continued to be a little bit concerned that the aspects of the Biden administration’s rhetoric, particularly the focus on democracy versus autocracy, was in some ways almost validating the claim by some Republicans, such as Mitt Romney, that China indeed posed an existential threat to American democracy, one we couldn’t look away from. We argue that actually it’s Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 election, to suppress voting rights, that really constitutes the existential threat to American democracy. It’s really within and not without. And so that was, I think, some of the ongoing reasons that we felt it was really urgent to make these points.

Kaiser: I couldn’t agree more. Your piece actually opens with references to two speeches made by President Biden, first in his late March trip to Pittsburgh, where he kind of unveiled the economic vision for the future. And then second, his mid-June trip, very recent trip to Europe, his first overseas trip as U.S. president, when he tried to reassure allies that “America is back.” These were totally different audiences and would, one would think, call for very different speeches and very different substance, a very different tone. And yet this “China challenge” was right up front in both contexts. What do you see as the reason that Biden sees fit to invoke this choice between, as you say, autocracy and democracy (read: China)? What is he trying to do here?

Jessica: So I see here the convergence of two things in the administration’s thinking. One is the real concern, which I share and I think Tom shares, that democracy in the United States, as well as around the world, is under threat, but largely from forces within. The other part where this is coming together is the belief that we need to come and approach our relationship with China from a position of strength, including this building back better at home, but also working with allies and partners. And so I think in this messaging, which is delivered here, both in the United States, as well as in conversations with allies across the Atlantic, is that kind of confluence. But we argue that this is a potentially misguided or even counterproductive strategy because this binary framing between democracy and autocracy makes it harder to find partners abroad, especially in East Asia, in Southeast Asia.

Kaiser: And we’ll get into exactly why that is, what makes it more difficult. But before we get into the weeds too much, maybe it’s important that we define ideology. I mean, throughout the op-ed, you and Tom give examples of things that don’t constitute an ideological threat: The CCP’s corrosive effects on free speech, you talk about very upfront, but these are not necessarily an ideological threat. So what exactly do you mean by ideology and ideological competition? I mean, something short of full-blown export of communist revolution like we saw in the ’60s, is there anything that would still qualify as ideological and I guess maybe more specifically, is authoritarianism itself an ideology? I mean, there are no serious people who are arguing that Beijing is now promoting its own brand of Marxism-Leninism or “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era.” So what is this ideology that the Biden team seems to believe that Beijing is hell-bent on promoting?

Tom: You know, Kaiser, I think that the way that you framed the question actually contains a lot of the answer, specifically with reference to the way that we thought about superpower competition being about democracy versus autocracy, or democracy versus communism during the period of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. During that period, I think it was fair to say that both the Soviet Union and the United States rhetorically promoted a vision of what is the just internal structure for governments and what is the proper ordering of the international system around those internal principles. And so when I think about why does Biden say things like “democracy versus autocracy,” I think that that way of framing the United States versus its competitor or opponent or rival, it makes sense. But it’s actually not content full when we think about the way that China approaches foreign policy and promotion of its interests.

So if I were to define ideology, I would think of it in terms of that alignment between sort of morally just internal structuring for particular states and its relationship to an external world order. I do think that many in the United States, and I’m included in this, I have an ideology of democracy for myself. I’m not sure how to export that or whether or not that’s appropriate, but the idea certainly that I would confess readily, that this is my own way of thinking. The error is in imagining that the other thinks the same way in reverse, that because I have a ideology of democracy that I hold for myself and I in principle think is universally applicable, that there exists a coherent mirror image version of that from China, and it can be exported in the same way. And so at least in my experience, looking at Chinese relations with Southeast Asia, the notion of an ideological project simply isn’t there. It’s based on interests and sort of pragmatic efforts to achieve foreign policy goals.

Kaiser: So think big picture here for a second. I mean, in my many years in China, I have engaged with countless Chinese intellectuals in discussions of authoritarianism. And I mean, just as you said, it’s not that they have a program that they believe to be universally applicable. It’s that it’s a rejection of the idea that Western ideas, so-called Western ideas of democracy are universally applicable. They’re challenging that applicability. And it’s not that they’re challenging it in an absolute sense. There’s a sort of cultural relativism that’s always part of that explanation. So you see this sort of passive defense, it’s not an active one. There’s this tacit acceptance of some version of modernization theory. Really, this idea that authoritarianism is held up as not so much a positive good, but as an expedient — the only choice for a country that is still burdened by a really large population, by low levels of education, by an underdeveloped political culture, low levels of civic virtue, low levels of societal trust and these sorts of things.

And we’ve seen this in China. I mean, Jessica, as you certainly know from way back in the early Chinese liberals and Sun Yat-sen’s ideas about a tutelage period that we’re supposed to pass through before full democracy can be realized. And it’s amazing. I mean, I still see this all the time, this kind of it’s kind of Whiggish and teleological, this idea that there’s this kind of a national development version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, where people, once they have their basic needs met, they start naturally aspiring to higher political needs that culminated I guess ultimately in kind of liberal multi-party electoral democracy. I mean, Jessica, I’m sure this is something you’ve encountered. I mean the apologetics for authoritarianism. I mean while they may be objectionable to some people, I wouldn’t construe them as like active promotion of authoritarianism.

Jessica: So what I see coming from China is an effort to push back against a Western defined universal definition of what constitutes democracy. And you see it in the recent essay by Yan Xuetong in Foreign Affairs.

Kaiser: Exactly, I was going to talk about that.

Jessica: You also see it in Zhang Weiwei recent interview that he did, or with Chinese language media, Zhang Weiwei was recently featured at the Politburo study session on China’s international communications and propaganda strategy, where they’re saying that Western discourse is essentially confined and ultimately found China’s political model of governance wanting, not up to par and what they are trying to do in these pieces, which I think reflects the CCP’s own thinking is the idea that China is going to take and change that notion of democracy so that China too can claim to be democratic.

And we may not agree with that, but nonetheless, I think it reflects a desire to use ideology a little bit more flexibly and chiefly to push back against the sort of one size fits all kind of sense that democracy lies at the end of history, which is threatening to the CCP as it seeks to continue its increasingly personalist one party rule.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Jessica: So when I say, when you say okay, what do we mean by ideology here, when we say the United States should avoid elevating ideology in U.S.-China relations, it’s not to say that ideology is going to go away. Ideology exists out there. It’s just that we should be a little bit less rigid and placing it at the center of our strategy for dealing with China, recognizing that these differences in regime type or differences in the kinds of ways in which we want to define democracy or trying to, we’ll continue to aspire to, upholding socialism with Chinese characteristics. Those will be there, and there are fundamental domestic differences and preferences, but making them the centerpiece of the competition, I think, is likely to inflame this source of mutual insecurity in the ideological realm. And it is going to make it harder, as Tom just noted, for the United States to work with a variety of different countries around the world, as it seeks to push back against some of the behaviors that we find most objectionable.

Kaiser: Because for people in a lot of those other countries, and it’s really, it’s not just Chinese people who find these ideas compelling that there are economic conditions or social or educational conditions that kind of need to be met before a transition to democracy is possible, but here in the United States, I mean we don’t engage with that idea anymore. In fact, I think, we caricature it. It’s now a kind of a punchline — “Asian values,” from the ’90s. And this is something, Tom, you must certainly encounter in your studies in Southeast Asia, the people who hold these ideas. The Singaporeans obviously were big progenitors of the Asian values thing, but now it’s dismissed as a kind of racism of low expectations, but there’s this immediate assumption I think that anyone who’s claiming this, who was making these arguments is assuming that these cultural or sociological impediments to democracy are immutable. That not ready for democracy means never ready for or incapable of democracy. I just don’t hear people making that argument at all. Tom, let’s hear the view from Southeast Asia. I mean, there are examples of democratic countries there, Indonesia and the Philippines. They’re flawed, flawed democracies, but what is the state of discourse on this? I mean, because this surely is on the minds of people, as they’re looking at this burgeoning ideological conflict and pitting authoritarianism against democracy in the American telling.

Tom: That’s right. What’s interesting to me is the way that the Asian values debate or discourse ebbs and flows over time. So it was big in the ’90s. It was out in the 2000s. It came back in the 2010s. I think we’re seeing a little bit of it right now, but I think I agree with your implicit perspective, that the source of the notion that these values are distinctively “Asian” is not Asians. It’s probably the west, right? This is the idea that Asian values can be summarized usefully as “Asian” in some particular way. Within Southeast Asia, I don’t encounter anyone making an argument about the propriety of liberal democratic forums for national communities based on a common Asian heritage or anything like this. It’s individualized to the country. It’s oftentimes expressed in stark opposition, not only to the United States and say Australia, which is the other relevant partner there, but also to China itself. So the distinctive feature of Indonesia is not just that it’s not a liberal democracy, but it’s also understood to have a very different political culture than China itself. And so the notion that there’s an open channel through which a discourse about socialism with Chinese characteristics could be translated to Indonesia or the Philippines, much less to a harder authoritarian regime, like say Thailand or Vietnam, is just that’s not how it would work. What there is perhaps is a notion of national characteristics being important features of how countries go ahead and embrace democracy on their own terms. So you can hear about say, what’s often called Thai-style democracy, which is a version of politics, which is not very democratic by my standards. Or you can hear in Indonesia, the notion of Pancasila democracy, which is supposed to reflect the diversity and essential character of the Indonesian people. But these are all interesting things to talk about in a national sense. But I just think it’s almost ludicrous to imagine that China could use its own experience, its own culture, characteristics, or values as an argument for spreading China’s model to somewhere else.

Kaiser: I’ve often joked in the past, I mean half joked that America and China both have their own versions of exceptionalism. America posits that American values and institutions are true for all time and true for all peoples and they’re universal. Whereas China, equally arrogantly, claims to be so uniquely predicated on the Chinese historical experience and on Chinese civilizational qualities that they’re not really relevant to anyone else. Anyway, I mean Tom, so obviously your area of concentration in Southeast Asia in the Foreign Affairs piece, you look at China’s relations with, I think it was like six different countries of the region just to make the point that China’s foreign policy is more or less ideologically agnostic when it comes to dealing with these countries, if I’m not mis-characterizing. So you look at Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Burma, Cambodia. Can you walk us through these really quick and show how Beijing’s conduct is as you describe it, mostly “transactional and coercive” and not ideological?

Tom: Sure. So when I think about the image of Chinese ideological expansionism, or sort of a Chinese effort to spread authoritarianism based on the Chinese model to other places, what I would look for is evidence of China having, displaying favoritism for certain types of countries, being easier to form common strategic alliances with countries that have similar political forms or even discourse made in this way. And so, as you walk through the cases in Southeast Asia, the nature of Chinese bilateral relations with each of them is totally uncorrelated with that expectation. The country that is closest to China in institutional form and ideological background and structure is Vietnam. And not only have China and Vietnam fought a war within my lifetime, the nature of Sino-Vietnamese relationships is fundamentally determined, not by the commonality of their founding moments, but rather by their concerns over competition over regional influence in the South China/East Vietnam sea, but over a host of other things as well.

China finds it easiest to work with countries that don’t share much of its political form at all. Duterte is not a Chinese socialist. He’s not a Marxist-Leninist. He’s more leftist than people understand, but the nature of that bilateral relationship is merely because Duterte shares common interests in regional architecture with China. Likewise with Cambodia, Cambodia is a sort of single party authoritarian regime. Hun Sen has some of the strong main characteristics that I understand Xi Jinping to have, but these are not countries that have an alliance based on the fact that they share a socialist history or Marxist history in some form.

Rather, you should understand this as a kind of geostrategic and historical alliance that long predates— it goes back to the Khmer empire with its counterpart in what is today China versus various empires in Vietnam, and should be understood as such. Vietnam during the Cold War was a closer partner with the Soviet Union. So the Sino-Soviet split translates in Southeast Asia to a Vietnam-Cambodia split. And then when it comes to cases like, we can talk more, I won’t go on at length about Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, but people make a lot of hay about the relationships between Singapore and the CCP, the People’s Action Party and the CCP. And there is something there. It’s often talked about as something having to do with Chinese or Confucian cultural values, but that’s the only country in the region—

Kaiser: Or the deeply technocratic nature of those two regimes, yeah.

Tom: Yeah, but that’s the only plausible country in the region in which that would be possible to say. That’s not going to externalize to Malaysia or Indonesia in any meaningful way.

Kaiser: And Tom, how do the various nations of the region of Southeast Asia see this sign of American competition? Are they worried about being forced to choose or do some, perhaps, see this custody battle between their two parent states as an opportunity to extract concessions from both, as like many of my friends did from their divorcing parents, places them against each other.

Tom: That’s a great question. Again, it depends entirely on the country that we’re talking about. Vietnam has found it very convenient to partner with the United States on issues of common interests. I mean, I think that that relationship is going to strengthen over time for various and very obvious reasons. And then you can address that to a country like Indonesia, which conceives of itself in non-aligned terms still, it’s never been a treaty ally of the United States. It was a founding member of the Non-Aligned Movement back in the day that you will remember the famous Bandung Conference of ’55. Even though the days of Sukarno are long past, Indonesia has in various ways, a foreign policy, which is often described by the terms Bebas-Aktif, which means free and active. So unaligned, partnering on issues of concern, but not fundamentally driven by either an alliance with the West or with China.

Kaiser: So you guys, that’s great. I mean, that’s a fantastic tour of the region. And I think that it’s a perfect region to illustrate that point. Jessica, you’re laughing.

Jessica: I was just giving Tom a thumbs up. That was great. There was no space in this piece for that detail. I think it’s fantastic.

Kaiser: That’s why we do this podcast. I mean, and here we go with another. Jessica, lots of bad things come from casting the U.S.-China relationship as an ideological contest. But I mean, one that is very top of mind for me and I suppose for you too, just given that we’re both ethnically Chinese, quoting your op-ed here: “No matter how carefully the administration differentiates between the Chinese government and people of Chinese ethnicity, this good versus evil rhetoric creates a permissive environment for Sinophobia, anti-Asian racism, and violence against anyone perceived as foreign.” Amen to that, I say, I mean, but when I brought this up, I’ve brought this up many times, when I’ve suggested that this wave of Sinophobia has been a contributing factor in the uptake in hate crime against East Asians, which to me is just sort of obvious and a no brainer thing, I get attacked for allegedly carrying water for the Chinese Communist Party. I’m told that I’m just repeating a CCP talking point. What do you guys say to that allegation, which I’m sure you’ve heard as well?

Jessica: One of the features of China’s increasingly aggressive so-called Wolf Warrior diplomacy is that it’s amplifying real domestic criticism. And that doesn’t mean we should shy away from making those concerns heard. And most of our essay I would say is based upon my academic analysis, but this point is really quite personal. So as the daughter of Chinese, as well as a couple of generations of Jewish immigrants, I’m really concerned about what this kind of binary framing in confrontation, especially against Chinese influence, does to our society at home. Because nobody agrees on how to defend democracy at home, but it’s quite easy to overreact to the specter of Chinese influence, not only abroad, but right here in our society. So it’s programs like the China Initiative that the Trump administration launched. I know you’ve talked to Maggie Lewis not too long ago, as well as continued calls for a whole of society response to the threat from China.

This really creates a cloud of suspicion over Chinese and Chinese Americans. And so, even my mother who moved here in the late ’60s, she doesn’t want to walk around the streets of Pittsburgh or Seattle for fear of being attacked. And I want to add that it’s not just Asian Americans. Even international relations scholars like Charlie Glazer, can’t write an essay in Foreign Affairs contemplating how to avoid war over Taiwan without being called un-American. And so this too, I think is, this is the fabric of our democracy. Even when we disagree, we need to defend and protect the right of one another to disagree. So as I wrote with Ali Wyne, we need to be very careful not to out-China China, where we sacrifice our greatest strengths, our openness, our dynamism, even our potential global appeal in the name of countering or competing with China. And I’d say, this is not just sort of a lofty goal, but this is also I think politically important, because a climate where voices of moderation, calls for tolerance are automatically suspect, that doesn’t make for a healthy democracy and it doesn’t make for good policy. And ultimately it will make it harder for centrist leaders, including President Biden, to win the day.

Tom: I was going to say, I mean on this point, I don’t know how we know that that is true or false, but certainly it’s plausible. And the Chinese are quite correct to diagnose the rise in anti-Asian American violence and rhetoric in the United States. And if we can’t see it, we need them to tell us.

Kaiser: That’s right. That’s right.

Jessica: Or I would just say that our comparative strength is being able to course correct here at home. And that’s something that they have been shown less able to do.

Kaiser: Sure. Yeah, for sure. Yeah. I mean, it’s the whole thing, it’s what you flipped at earlier, just this faltering confidence, it’s not attractive. It does not look like we are speaking from strength. And the other thing that you talked about, this mirroring tendency that we tend to see in cold wars, where we’ve seemed to adopt the worst features of the other side. And that’s really distressing to me. So Jessica, you described in the quote that I just read this kind of Manichean, “good versus evil” framing here. I don’t think that is uniquely American necessarily to want to cast ideological contests as kind of totalistic, including moral ones. But I suspect that in doing so, we, or pretty much any other state, tends to want some kind of a moral basis for ideological mobilization. And there’s one that in the American context can resonate on both sides of the political spectrum — both ends of the spectrum. Has the U.S. found that moral basis in the repression, which a growing number of countries are calling genocide in Xinjiang? How much of a factor has this been in the ability to cast this as a grand ideological moral contest? So it seems to me, it’s one of the main features of the American position now.

Jessica: So I see a lot of transatlantic support for the U.S. position in calling out what’s happening in Xinjiang and in Hong Kong, and the specter of Chinese military aggression across the Taiwan Strait. But I will say that across the developing world, it doesn’t seem to be such a point of unity. And so when you have dueling statements on Xinjiang or China’s human rights at the United Nations, for example, China’s mobilizing more countries behind its stance than is the United States. So I think it’s easy sometimes to conflate human rights and democracy versus autocracy, but I think that those are different things. One could speak up for human rights and condemn human rights abuses without necessarily making this a grand contest between democracy and autocracy. In fact, one of the points of our piece is that we ought to emphasize good governance rather than this binary, and it’s something where even autocracies can perform better and worse. And if anything, what the United States ought to hope for and try to work toward is a CCP that kind of returns to some of the more, I mean, this is in relative terms, the less forcibly assimilating ethnic minorities and repressing of different forms of civil society to where the CCP itself was—

Kaiser: 20 years ago, yeah.

Jessica: 20 or 15, 15 years ago.

Kaiser: 15 years ago. Absolutely, no I couldn’t agree with you more. Tom, what about in the reason that your study contains the world’s largest Muslim majority country, the largest population of Muslims in the world, Indonesia, of course, what is your explanation for the sort of lack of very vocal response to the Uyghur atrocity?

Tom: So there’s a couple of things going on, but it’s a fantastic question. And this is I think a sign of, if you’re looking for examples of where Chinese messaging and Chinese foreign policy influence has been successful, it’s in tamping down a commentary on what I consider to be a genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, not only in Indonesia, but in other countries like Malaysia, like Turkey even. The way that this happens is it’s a combination of messaging. It’s a combination of elite management and recognizing Indonesia’s own delicate position on this sort of question. So the Indonesian government has organized travel trips for Indonesian political elites and Muslim elites in particular, to go to Xinjiang on sort of self-contained tours designed to reveal something other than the harsh repression experience for the people who lived there. And the notion here, which is successful is that these elites can come back to Indonesia and report that there is nothing to be concerned about, or to say that it’s as if they say it’s more complicated than simply a question of repression or cultural extermination or something like this.

This also resonates though, because countries like Indonesia have their own minority problems. They have their own small populations that don’t fit neatly into the national narrative that they view as foreign threats. In Indonesia, most notably right now, this is the people of West Papua. So West Papua is a better example because Indonesians view Aceh in many senses as kind of like the most Indonesian place. I saw this firsthand after the Boxing Day tsunami, whereas they conceive of the people of West Papua as almost primitive, sub-human.

Kaiser: Pagans.

Tom: Yeah, and racially inferior. So, and the condition of West Papua was not as dire as the condition of the Uyghurs, but Indonesia will never let that go, and they will never tolerate any criticism by any other country of the occupation of West Papua. And so that is the similar domestic foreign policy problem that China is able to access there.

Kaiser: Fascinating, fascinating. So you guys, in March, we all got to look at the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, which in case you’re wondering, mentions China 16 times and all in contexts like growing rivalry with China, more assertive China, holding China to account, China seeking unfair advantage, supporting China’s neighbors against Chinese aggression, upholding American values in business dealings with China — a couple of desultory mentions of working with China only when it’s of course in the American national interest to do so. Russia, by the way only gets five mentions, and most of them are alongside China in that new kind of Russia-and-China kind of blend. It’s feeling more and more like the emerging U.S. grand strategy consists of not much more than “Let’s beat China, let’s win against China.” And it’s sounding like for the U.S. at least this is the new organizing principle, which given that definition of a cold war that I talked about earlier, frankly scares the shit out of me.

Much of this American debate I think it comes down to arguments of what Beijing actually wants — about right-sizing China’s actual ambition. And Jessica, you have been in the forefront of this conversation and the way that you framed it a couple of years ago — “making the world safe for autocracy” — has found purchase with a lot of people. Yan Xuetong, who we talked about earlier, who is the Dean of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua said something similar in his essay, in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs: that for Beijing, the ideological contest is about discrediting of claims to the universality, like we talked about, and it’s not advancing China’s own values. So in the past, Jessica you’ve described it as “advertising an option,” rather than pushing a particular system or approach. Have your assessments of Beijing’s ambitions in the last couple of years since that Foreign Affairs article came out, have they changed at all? Have you given, have you had any reason to rethink what you originally say? What’s the closest maybe that China has actually come to promoting authoritarianism or proactively advocating for a given country to actually reject electoral democracy and instead embrace a one party system?

Jessica: So first of all, I still stand behind what I wrote in that article. My thinking hasn’t really changed, but I think that the emphasis is that many put on sort of China’s authoritarian influence. Some people refer to any sort of illiberal influence that China is having in the international order as being the export of a model. And so I think if I were to describe this today, I would state that those sort of negative influences have become more prominent in the sense that China is clearly seeking to play a more active role in pushing back against the idea that the United States and a handful of liberal democracies can be the arbiters of international order. You see this in repeated Chinese official statements about how this is sort of a minority view, and the international order that China defends is the one that centered on the UN system.

And so we’re beginning to see this sort of bifurcation or this sort of clash between two different ideas about international order. China’s view and what it’s trying to do with the United Nations is more illiberal. It is trying to weaken the role or marginalize the role of the so-called universal values or the individual political rights, and instead elevate state sovereignty and noninterference at the center of that vision. But ultimately, the way I see it is that China is perhaps best described as a disgruntled stakeholder. It is in some ways a staunch defender of the status quo, the UN charter and the principle of noninterference at least rhetorically, although we can talk about the ways in which China’s own behavior and trying to shore up regime security and violate that noninterference, what we call in the essay, sort of “extrusions of sharp power” to intimidate criticism of the CCP around the world. In other areas, China is more of a revisionist and even a free writer and other areas where it’s less important to the Chinese Communist Party’s domestic rule.

So summing up, this variation in China’s behavior toward the international order isn’t just captured in the idea of a world safe for autocracy. There’s a lot more, if you will, nuance, I know that can be a bad word in some circles.

Kaiser: Not in mine.

Jessica: But there’s a lot more variation in how China is approaching the existing rules of the system. And so, casting China as purely a revisionist as the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy suggested I think is too simplistic and in fact, it could set us up for a devastating confrontation. So in that sense, I think that the interim National Security Guidance is a modification, is a moderation away from that. I think we still need to see now where the Biden administration will take things, whether it will, and indeed, of course, China is a big challenge, but that doesn’t mean that the United States needs to put competing with China at the center of its national security strategy. That could be one component of a broader, a more affirmative vision for renewing democracy at home and solving global challenges around the world. And that’s my hope that our essay, but also other pieces recently that have come out, begin to push in that direction.

Kaiser: I like that — “disgruntled stakeholder.” I mean, sort of, an activist shareholder, who’s kind of leading this little kind of a rebellion against the board, but doesn’t want, maybe wants to change the chairman, but does not want to run the company itself. Maybe that’s a good neoliberal analogy. So how do you think Beijing sees this now? Does it view things as an emerging ideological contest? I mean, Jessica, you spent a lot of time looking at party pronouncements and speeches. I mean, is it your sense now that Beijing also casts the contest in terms of ideology, or is this something that it’s careful not to do lest it lose the ability to blame Washington for making it all about ideology?

Jessica: So there’s no question that the CCP is ideologically insecure and has long seen the CCP as under siege from hostile ideology from the West that sees again democracy as lying at the end of history. But the CCP also, I think it is cognizant that a direct engagement in putting ideology at the forefront of contention between the United States and China is unlikely to work in the CCP’s favor. You had actually Yan Xuetong say this outright in his brand new Foreign Affairs essay. And that recognition that there is this belief in Chinese exceptionalism, but there aren’t going to be many others that want to follow China’s domestic political model, and not many that really can copy China’s economic success.

So I think that the CCP is very aware that this is becoming, or has become under the Trump administration, in this early phase of the Biden administration, a real focus of contention, but I don’t think that it feels that that is inevitably the grounds on which this competition needs to be waged. And there are different ways of thinking about ideological competition that, for example, that Wang Jisi in his Foreign Affairs essay, in echoing something that he said in the past, that a more benign form of this competition is a competition over which system can perform better on its own terms domestically in terms of providing for people. If you have a contest, a beauty contest, if you will, that’s a very different kind of a contest than one where you condition cooperation with allies and partners along kind of rigid ideological lines.

Kaiser: Right. It’s a race to the top contest. And we’ll talk about that Wang Jisi piece in a little bit. Tom, I want to go back to you. You guys argue succinctly, and as you’ve looked at this earlier, that U.S. grand strategy that’s based around confronting authoritarianism could backfire. You say that, first, it could provoke China to actually escalate on the ideological front. Jessica talked about that, but it could also push other countries closer to China who don’t want to make that choice and feel more comfortable going along with Beijing’s no strings attached assistance and so forth. Can you go a little deeper into your concerns? What kinds of scenarios do you see where these sorts of things might happen, where an ideological framing could actually goad Beijing into either getting more ideologically sort of, or goad other countries into actually forced to choose choosing Beijing?

Tom: That’s a great question and forces us to speculate just a little bit, because I don’t think we’re there yet fortunately, in terms of we haven’t pushed China that quite that far on the question of direct challenges to the Chinese ideological model or constructing it as an export of authoritarianism. So I think that this is most likely in cases of strategically important third country partners, who for whatever particular reason have important roles to play in issues of U.S. interest. I’ll use the example of Cambodia because it’s an important one. As I mentioned before, I don’t think that there’s any particular export of a Chinese model to Cambodia happening right now. But you can imagine a moment in which the United States, if attacking China and Cambodia for the similar general problem of the absence of a competitive democratic system creates a greater alliance or a greater sense of common interests between these two countries. So that’s directly contrary to U.S. interests. Cambodia is a small country, fairly poor, but a veto player on every issue that ASEAN could be part of. And I think in most interpretations that’s because of its understanding of its bilateral relationship with China.

So holding aside that, I think that the general challenge that values first foreign policy has, is that values are sometimes hard to achieve. It’s hard to implement them in the short term, but money talks, and it can be freeing to not have a values-based policy. So in cases, not just Cambodia, we can think more broadly in cases around the region and beyond Southeast Asia, what China offers is no strings attached development assistance, which is a thing that countries want. And I think that’s I think a clear-eyed understanding of that as the true mechanism of Chinese influence in third country partners is a much more helpful for helping to imagine what a proper response to that would be, rather than casting that as something about in the lines of dictatorships or a commonality of autocracies.

Kaiser: At the recently concluded G7 meeting, there’s this new idea now that the U.S. and its Western democratic allies are going to team up to offer something comparable to China’s Belt and Road initiative. Do you see this as a healthier form, more of a race to the top kind of competition than the ideological competition that you’ve decried in this piece?

Tom: Well, so I’m of two minds about it. On the one hand, I do think it’s likely to yield better results than talking first and foremost about ideology and values, which I don’t think any American administration in the foreign policy space is very credible about anyway. So I think it’s more realistic, but the other thing that I’d emphasize is that whatever the benefits of that sort of approach to development partnerships with the rest of the world, more important than that, I think, is correctly understanding the alternative that is being offered by China, which again is we don’t have to become China, or we don’t have to adopt the mirror image of their strategy towards engaging with developing countries around on the world, in order to understand that what the strategy they’re following actually is and how it’s supposed to work.

Kaiser: Yeah, couldn’t agree more. So Jessica, in that same issue where we’ve talked about Wang Jisi had this essay, so he’s the president of the Institute of International Studies at Peking University. His piece focused on this Chinese perception that the U.S. has sort of re-awoken deeper older sources of antagonism as he puts it. He writes, “In Chinese eyes, the most significant threat to Chinese sovereignty and national security has long been U.S. interference in its internal affairs aimed at changing the country’s political system and undermining the CCP.” And then he goes on to invoke a litany of, I think familiar to all of us, a litany of alleged American perfidy like ensuring somehow that Liu Xiaobo was given the Nobel Peace Prize, or encouraging and funding Color Revolutions or Arab Spring-like uprisings, and meddling in the peripheral areas in Xinjiang and in Tibet, in Taiwan, and in Hong Kong, encouraging the “splittists.” I mean, anyone who reads China’s media is familiar with these things, but he’s very careful, I should add ,that these are subjective Chinese perceptions that they’re not the truth as he sees. And I think he’s pretty clear that a lot of this is just conspiratorial thinking or just straight up paranoia. But at the same time, he clearly thinks, as I do, that we do need to be aware of these perceptions and he cautions like you guys do against inflaming Chinese nationalism. So I want to ask, I mean, are U.S. policymakers oblivious to what the view out Beijing’s window is? Do they just dismiss it simply as paranoia and feel like no need to address it? Are they unable to imagine, like for example, just in the last year and a half during the pandemic, what things have looked like from Beijing’s window, as all our conversation about this happens out in the open? They hear every crazy thing that Tom Cotton says and every crazy thing that came out of Trump’s mouth and every gratuitous insult. They see the revival of this lab leak theory and stuff like that. And they know what’s going on. What is wrong with us? Why are we unable to exercise a little God damn cognitive empathy here?

Jessica: That’s a tough question, Kaiser, because I don’t think that there’s quite— so there’s a whole lot of variation, I think, in the attention to domestic audiences inside of China and how U.S. policy statements are registering inside and whether or not this paranoia is in fact paranoia or grounded in some kernel of truth, which is that for a long time, the United States has hoped that the Chinese regime would change and become more democratic. So there are those, in the United States that in fact do want to see the CCP fall. I don’t think that regime change is core to the Biden administration strategy such as we can tell so far. But there is an equal belief that we need to stand up for the rights of individuals around the world. And so that leads to strong words, as well as actions increasingly, including sanctions on those seen as violating those fundamental human rights.

And so I think those actions are taken more from the perspective of U.S. domestic political values, as well as what’s politically necessary and with an eye to how these are being viewed inside China. And so I do think that it is important to recognize that efforts that the United States takes to put more pressure on the CCP — especially in the areas that they have defined as their so-called core interests — are ones in which international pressure is more likely to backfire by stoking Chinese nationalism and by separately potentially provoking a more aggressive or disruptive Chinese government actions abroad that could take a couple of different forms. It could be that they engage in this kind of wholesale ideological evangelism, converting others to authoritarianism or to socialism with Chinese characteristics, but perhaps more likely, and I think what we’re already seeing, is efforts to go on the negative to disparage and diminish other countries’ forms of governance, liberal democracies in particular as being as bad or worse than China’s own performance. And so that’s what we’ve been seeing, I think over the last year plus now often referred to as “wolf warrior diplomacy.”

Kaiser: Yeah, I sure as hell wish that China would stop stoking American nationalism too.

Jessica: Absolutely.

Kaiser: It’s absolutely foolish, yeah.

Jessica: What we’re seeing is a really ugly development in Chinese diplomacy.

Kaiser: You guys, when I talk to people who, especially people who worked hard, like I did — I did a lot of phone making and stuff to get Joe Biden elected — when I have shared my disappointment in some of the rhetoric that’s come out of the NSC or the State Department around China, I often hear some version of, well, they’re probably back-channeling very different messages to Beijing. And the rhetoric is it’s politically expedient in this terribly polarized political environment that we’re in. And Beijing kind of probably gets that. I mean, assuming that’s true and yeah, that would be a huge assumption, would that allay your concerns at all? I mean, do you think that that is true, first of all? I mean is there any indication to suggest that there is that kind of back-channeling happening?

Jessica: I hear the same reports as you do that what we hear for example about the public versus private discussion that took place in Anchorage was quite different. At the same time, the audience for U.S. public diplomacy includes the Chinese public and elites. And so even if there is this kind of short-term kind of pragmatic disconnect, I don’t think that it is healthy for the overall prospects for avoiding an all-out confrontation if in public, there is no sense that cooperative or competitive coexistence is possible. Right now we’re seeing, I think that sort of adversarial tendency become a lot more prominent than any kind of cooperation. I think it’s having costs for our ability to make progress on things like climate change.

Kaiser: One last question for both of you here before we move to recommendations, and that’s this: Wang Jisi cites American “neuralgia and anxiety” in diagnosing what’s happening in the United States in response to China’s rise, and that is running up against, on the Chinese side, a lot of confidence and pride, I would say hubris at times in China’s accomplishments. From where I sit, it’s hard for me to say he’s wrong. I mean, neuralgia and anxiety seems to be everywhere. But do either of you have a deeper diagnosis when it comes to why so many Americans at this moment in time seem so eager to embrace an idea of China that is just so much more antagonistic? They express this apparently quite deep animosity toward China.

Jessica: I’d say that there are a number of factors at work here. First is structural. China is becoming richer and more powerful — that kind of gap is closing. So China seems more like a challenge. It is a challenge to American preponderance, a luxury that we’ve enjoyed for decades. The second is I think very real insecurities about our own democracy and its ability to deliver. The kind of gridlock under the Obama years, followed by Trump, and followed by the January 6th insurrection, followed by ongoing Republican efforts to really neuter our democracy.

Kaiser: Could you have a cloture vote on a voting rights bill? My God.

Jessica: Right? Or a commission to investigate what happened. So there is a real anxiety there that our system is not working all that well. And so you have comedians like Bill Maher saying, “China can build high-speed rail in like a snap of the fingers. And here we are, how many years later.” So it makes for an easy foil that I think tends to hyperbole and doesn’t necessarily grapple with the challenges that China faces, but also the shared problems that both countries I think need to navigate.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. Very well said.

Tom: The only thing I’d add to that perhaps is I think that when you go outside of the realm of elite politics and you think about the ordinary American or the model American — the typical American’s perception of China’s — it’s entirely ungrounded in fact or reality. And this isn’t something that’s designed to insult Americans. I myself don’t know very much about China either and would not be a faithful interpreter of China’s foreign policy behavior were it not for my job to work with people like Jessica to help me learn about it. And so it’s very easy at a moment of uncertainty and it’s also, I think, consistent with the probably hundreds of years of the ways that Westerners have conceived of China: to imagine it without factual basis as a place which is different, which is exotic, which is in some sense threatening, which is in some sense problematic, but without any concrete reason to suspect that other than it is unknown. I wouldn’t underestimate the role that this plays in the American psyche.

Kaiser: Yeah.

Jessica: And I will also say that what news that Americans do hear about China is really bad. Things are going badly in China from the perspective of things that Americans care about, like political rights, tolerance for different forms of religious practice, minority expression. That’s an objective fact. And so it’s hard to escape these sort of structural as well as more value-based tensions that are making it really easy to caricature China.

Kaiser: Right, right, right. I think that that’s the really frustrating thing is that China is just not helping its cause in any meaningful way with this. It makes my job as somebody who’s really kind of trying to urge calm a whole lot more difficult. Anyway, my take on this is that China has just year after year just knocked out these kind of load bearing walls of American exceptionalism. They keep sort of defining these things that we believe sort of axiomatically to be true about the relationship between capitalism and democracy, about the relationship between freedom and innovation, about the relationship between technology and liberation. It keeps forcing us to sort of rethink these things that were so basic to our idea of ourselves as a people.

And it’s no wonder, I think, that psychologically it’s a difficult time, and I go on a lot about extending cognitive empathy to the Chinese, but I think that we should do the same when it comes to our country and in America. We know that it ain’t easy to watch yourself to sort of get passed.

Anyway, I want to thank you guys, both for carving out so much time to talk about this really great essay. I highly recommend it. I hope that we have you both back up in the show soon. Let’s move on now to recommendations. But before we do that, just a really quick reminder to listeners that the Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina. And if you like the work that we’re doing with Sinica and all the other shows in the Sinica Network, please show your support by subscribing to SupChina Access, our daily email newsletter. You’ll find it is chock-full of great stuff. All right, on to recommendations. Tom, what you got for us?

Tom: So my recommendation stems from my crippling television addiction and the fact that I think I finished Netflix during the course of the pandemic. So I have been watching over the past couple of weeks a bunch of shows from French TV. One that you may have heard of is Lupin, which is a very good show. The second batch of episodes just came out. But another one that you may not have heard of is called The Bureau, which is a story — we’re on season four right now — of the French external security agency and the dramas and personal lives of those within it. And it’s a fantastic watch and there’s tons of them so you can spend weeks on it.

Kaiser: Lots of action. I mean, the French do action in a very artful way.

Tom: It’s actually, it’s not bloody at all, but it’s very suspenseful and the drama is fantastic. And it’s also great. If you’re a failed European such as myself to listen to the French and read the subtitles, you can pretend that you understand what they’re saying.

Kaiser: Oh, great. That sounds fantastic. So Lupin and The Bureau, Jessica, what about you? What have you got for us?

Jessica: Two recommendations, both highlighting the role of humanity and human dignity in our policy. I’ve been trying to think about this a lot more as U.S.-China tensions continue to heat up. So the first has nothing to do with China, but is interview with my colleague Jamila Michener in the Ezra Klein Show. Just a really stunning interview. I usually don’t think about the politics of poverty in the United States, but this interview really highlighted some of the kind of almost unstated assumptions that drive U.S. policy discussions and political discussions around what people deserve, what you need to do to earn benefits in society, who is the government working for? I just can’t recommend that interview highly enough. And I’ve been trying to think about how it is that we center people in U.S.-China relations. And we think about U.S. policy toward Asia more generally.

And so in that context, I want to recommend anything that Yangyang Cheng writes. I know that she’s written for SupChina and a variety of other venues to really highlight the human lives that are at stake and the crossroads of this competition. So many of us are hyphenated in different ways and there’s a core difference between the U.S.-China relationship now and, for example, the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. There’s interdependence, and it’s not just about companies doing business. It’s also about the students, the scholars, the researchers, the entrepreneurs that go back and forth — or have in the past gone back and forth — and have these kinds of mixed ties, and it’s really difficult. I think we ought to be bearing in mind our shared humanity as we navigate all of these challenges. Obviously, nations are an important part of the international landscape and they’re kind of unavoidable at this point, but trying to look within them to the lives and the stories inside I think is just, is so important for anchoring our policy in the values that we are supposedly upholding.

Kaiser: Absolutely. Yangyang, for those of you who don’t know her and are not familiar with her writing, Yangyang Cheng is a particle physicist actually. She’s trained as a particle physicist and she works with the Large Hadron Collider, the CERN Large Hadron Collider, and writes a column for SupChina and has written, as Jessica said, in other venues as well. But her column really started out just really looking at science and China. And it’s really branched out and has become just one of the most, I mean, consistently sort of achingly beautiful— her prose is really gorgeous. And I think we’re super proud to have her as a columnist for SupChina. So thanks for that endorsement.

So as you guys know, my recommendations, I have to read a lot for the show. I read an awful lot. And I’ve been really trying to figure out what music I can read by. I mean, I love music and it’s just been so hard to combine the two and it’s come down basically for me to Bach. I can only listen to, and only the piano, I can’t listen to cello suites or anything like that. It’s basically three things. I can listen to The Goldberg Variations, The Well-Tempered Clavier, and The French Suites. And that’s it. But I mean, I have those three just on steady rotation as I read. My wife doesn’t understand why they don’t put me to sleep, but they don’t. I find them to be super stimulating. They’re so familiar to me now that I don’t need to actually listen carefully, but I feel like they do something synoptically to me when I’m listening. I feel like they assist in the reading. So those three are piano and I’ve actually found everyone listens to the Glenn Gould Goldbergs. They’re fine. I mean, there’s the old one from the ’50s, like ’57, but there’s also the ’82 recording. They’re fine. I like them. But the Lang Lang recordings are fantastic. I mean, just listen to them. I mean he is not anyone’s stereotypical idea of a kind of Chinese automaton who just mechanically performs. He’s so full of verve. I mean, it brings us to Bach, which is pretty straight, 16th century music, but anyway, fantastic. Check it out.

And then I have another musical recommendation, which is of moving ahead a few centuries, a YouTube channel of a guy named Rick Beato, B-E-A-T-O. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen this guy. He does a series called “What Makes This Song Great.” It’s fantastic. I mean, all of his videos are about music, but he dissects individual songs, all of them so well chosen and crossing so many different genres. I mean really from pop songs to heavy metal, jazz, grunge, everything, everything under the sun. And he somehow has these digital copies of these studio recordings. So he can actually separate individual tracks so he can play isolated tracks of what’s happening. So you can hear what the different instruments are doing in different passages of recordings. And he himself is a phenomenally gifted musician and he’s a really good teacher. So the combination of his deep knowledge theory, production, the actual playing, his enthusiasm and his charisma, I mean makes him just a really compelling presenter. So just check it out. It’s again, Rick Beato, B-E-A-T-O. It’s my favorite thing to watch on YouTube. Anyway, all right so thanks once again, Jessica and Tom for joining me. What a really interesting conversation we’ve had.

Jessica: Thanks so much, Kaiser. My pleasure.

Tom: Yeah, this was my pleasure. Thank you.

Kaiser: Thank you, Tom. Thanks, Jessica. The Sinica podcast is powered by SupChina, and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Drop us an email at Follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at SupChina News and make sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening. See you next week. Take care.