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The Unreality of the China Pigeon

July 24, 2020
CPA's take: China pigeons. Those who acknowledge Chinese racial authoritarianism or other bad behavior but then pivot to argue for no action or for irrelevant or cliche solutions.


There is a new breed of China watcher stalking editorial pages. Potentially concerned, though not always, about various China misdeeds which few deny but clinging to unrealistic beliefs about solutions or simply unwilling to adopt firm beliefs about solutions, the China pigeon is unable to target workable solutions with difficult choices. We see this easily tossed softness in a variety of guises that remain unable to grasp the difficulty facing the world today.

[Christopher Balding | July 23, 2020 | Balding's World]

The first failure of the China pigeon is an unrealistic belief in the non-China state of the world. For many this is an obvious defense mechanism. Many of them agree that China has done bad things like Xinjiang and Hong Kong so clearly they cannot be faulted because they agree with you. Where this pigeon goes wrong is in holding unrealistic views on the non-Chinese world. The most obvious, but just one of many that could be cited is the oft repeated but poorly understood phrase of relying on allies to challenge China.

In reality the fall back on clichés about allies are a defense mechanism revealing little more than intellectual emptiness about actual realistic state of the world or steps that could be taken to challenge China. They do not demonstrate any great profundity of thought but lack of understanding about the world outside their university campus or newsroom. Look around the world, talk to civil servants or political appointees in governments throughout Asia and Europe and one quickly discovers relative lack of interest for a variety of reasons to take any tangible steps to challenge China. Europe is in the midst of doing its best to appease China and Asia generally wants to avoid the topic as much as possible. The commendable idealism of those talking up the importance of allies to challenge China is quickly drowned in a sea of 2020 real economik politik.

We can seek to remake the world more to our liking but we must work with the world now as it is not as we hope it to be. The reality is that almost no countries have any real interest in addressing the myriad of problems obvious to the China hawk and China pigeon.

The second primary defense of the pigeon is the ability to spout profound sounding clichés that are nothing more than empty words devoid of policy steps that could be taken to balance reasonable concerns. China pigeons lack concrete thinking about how to address the myriad of challenges China presents. Skilled at critique and clichés, they lack ability to provide concrete policy steps to challenge China. The examples of allies reveals the bankrupt nature of these cliched talking points. Recruitment of allies, leaving aside the state of countries, is positive only if they can be marshalled into taking tangible policy steps to challenge China. China pigeons talk only of allies with no thought that this is only an intermediate step and not an end in and of itself. Most allies lack the willingness to even issue anything beyond vague concern over Chinese behavior but somehow these allies are the bedrock of enlightened foreign policy thinking.

Take a simple example. The leader of Europe Germany cannot bring itself to offer even any statement on China other than vague unspecified concerns about Chinese behavior. Falling back on the importance of allies is only valuable if those allies move much closer to the US position on China rather than the US moving closer to a German position on China. The inclusion of allies ultimately requires them to both honor commitments and gives them influence over the position. It would be a terrible tragedy if working with allies required watering down the US position on China. However, the China pigeon unable to recognize either the state of the world or requirements of allies believe that allies are simply a basic unqualified good.

Examples of the China pigeon as stunningly common despite the widely held perception that China hawks dominate. A recent blog post by Brookings capture this charade well. The post entitled “Why now? Understanding Beijing’s new assertiveness in Hong Kong” spends most of the piece analyzing Beijing’s strategy in passing the National Security Law. While reasonable people could have reasonable disagreements the author posits various theories about why Beijing chose the summer of 2020 to pass the NSL and gives nod to the fears they create. At this stage of the piece, if one read no further, you could be forgiven for believing the author would be in favor of any number of policies that would seek to punish Beijing. However, the blog closes with a few paragraphs that call for “goal of America’s presence in Hong Kong should be to keep as many relationships open with as wide a range of key figures as possible…(and hoping) the “one country, two systems” model can be preserved.” This is not any type of debatable policy response to CCP termination of civil rights like free speech. This is nothing less than dressed up appeasement of the rankest nature.

Another recent piece by Harvard professor Ezra Vogel talked about the need to continue engagement policies between China and the United States. Leaving aside the obvious failure of historical engagement that brought us to the point in time and enmity we are at now, the author compounds the original error by failing to grasp the state of the world outside of the college campus. It trots out the agency and context free one sided view that “it is not in the United States interest to turn the Chinese into our enemies. If we want to encourage them to work with us for our common interests, we need some fundamental rethinking of our policies.” The simplistic view of 2020 China makes two fundamental errors. First, the United States has worked for years to that end while China has engaged in an unceasing pattern of adversarial behavior. The shift in US policy and attitudes is not happening in a vacuum as the author supposes. Second, it further assumes the US is the only side in this relationship removing agency from the Chinese. At what point do the Chinese become responsible for their own country and making it a responsible actor in the global liberal international order? The last major problem of this piece is its complete lack of any mention of Chinese behavior. Forget Xinjiang. Hong Kong is never mentioned. Security threats are made up stories divorced from reality. Complicating this is that the author literally works at an institution where a colleague has been charged with illegally working with the Chinese but yet we are supposed to believe America is turning Chinese into enemies.

In the last highlighted piece, the author at least gives a nod the misbehavior of China in recent years writing in quiet confession that “I cannot excuse China’s behaviour in recent years…”. However, after this seemingly heartfelt and honest acknowledgement it falls a part in misguided logic and appeasement. The author actually argues that the current behavior is nothing more than a long pattern of behavior that should have been fully expected writing “What it is doing is not shocking if you have paid attention to the way it obtained power and has held it over the past seven decades.” If this is the case why was the United States engaging with this type of power so hard at all? This leads into the next piece of misbegotten and tortured logic. What has caused this conflict between China and the United States given the authors recognition of China’s “current behavior”? It is not China that is responsible for the state of affairs but the United States! The author argues that relations were driven by engagement which allowed, if we follow the authors logic, a malign state to metastasize but now the United States challenging these nefarious actions is driving the current state of conflict. This misguided logic is at least part right in that the relationship has tumbled because the United States has said this type of behavior will no longer be tolerated. Instead the author chalks the problems between the United States and China up to “blind confrontation” by the Trump administration. The author offers absolutely no suggestion, however misguided, of even a policy worth of consideration that might better respond to China’s acknowledged misbehavior other than continued engagement. Like many who will at least nod towards China’s behavior he authors nothing other than vague clichés. The reality is that the problems of decoupling are driven fundamentally and overwhelmingly by an increasingly intolerant and totalitarian China. While I personally sympathize and have lived the upheaval the author talks about of moving from China after living there for many years, it is nothing less than misguided appeasement of racial authoritarianism to continue a failed policy of engagement.

I could continue to cite example after example of people or institutions who try to sound enlightened looking at US China relations but fundamentally struggle to grasp the fundamental nature of the problem.

I believe there are three specific points that must be addressed for any argument to be considered reasonable. First, is the given state of the world an accurate representation of the reality we must deal with? To take a simple example, one is free to argue that greater ally involvement is positive, but any argument that fails to grasp the national level concerns of individual states can be considered nothing more than cliché writing. The hard reality is that irrespective of President Trump, countries have a myriad of issues that cause them to be reluctant or opposed to challenging China. That is the state of the world we must deal with.

Second, any argument of serious weight must present actual policy solutions. Let me emphasize, this is not clichés about challenging China or critiquing current policy but what are tangible policy options in the same tangible policy domain that would result in improved outcomes? For instance, when the Trump administration announced PLA linked graduate students would no longer be allowed to attend university in the United States, the policy proposal came under all nature of criticism such as cutting off lines of communication to racism but I know of no proposal to address the valid security concerns linked to an adversarial military power and key research put forth by any interested party. We must recognize the state of the world about China and the PLA and valid American interest in protecting certain information. In reality, barring PLA graduate students impacts a relatively small number of students and is not racially motivated and protects relatively narrow specific types of research. If universities want to argue for better policies designed to address specific downside risks or threats, I for one would be interested in how to better address valid and documented security issues. Until that time, there public demonstrations of concern are sound and fury signifying nothing.

Third, any serious argument about China must focus on the relative costs and benefits of cost imposition policy A v. cost imposition policy B rather than cost imposition policy v. status quo. In each of the examples cited, the underlying argument being made is that the deterioration in US China relations was due to US actions to punish or challenge Chinese behavior and that a return to engagement or no action should be taken. The Brookings piece actually said the recommended course of action was do nothing. This is simply not a remotely reasonable position. It is reasonable to debate whether an expedited visa policy, human rights sanctions, financial sanctions, or other policy actions should be taken or the details of these policies but returning to a policy of engagement or inability to take tangible actions against Chinese misbehavior is simply an untenable position. We should only be debating which cost imposition policy are we prepared to impose, accept the costs, and specific policy outcomes desired with comparison to results.

When the China pigeon is prepared to recognize the true state of the world, put forth words beyond cliched critiques, and engage in debate between cost imposition policies that challenge Chinese behavior, then and only then will they be considered credible.

1. https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/07/17/why-now-understanding-beijings-new-assertiveness-in-hong-kong/
2. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/07/22/us-policies-are-pushing-our-friends-china-toward-anti-american-nationalism/
3. https://www.businesstimes.com.sg/life-culture/kicked-out-of-china-and-other-real-life-costs-of-a-geopolitical-meltdown

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