The United States’ China-centered existential crisis

Politics & Current Affairs

This week on Sinica Jude Blanchette joins to talk about the House Select Committee on United States Competition with the Chinese Communist Party, and how its focus on the CCP as an “existential threat” adds up to an embarrassing moral panic that distracts from the serious issues the U.S. confronts when it comes to China.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

Below is a complete transcript of the Sinica Podcast with Jude Blanchette.

Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with The China Project. Subscribe to Access from The China Project to get, well, access. Access to, not only our great daily newsletter but to all of 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 Beijing’s ambitious plans to shift the Chinese economy onto a post-carbon footing. 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.

I hadn’t originally intended to do a separate show about the Congressional Select Committee, the United States House Select Committee on Strategic Competition in between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party, to use its full official name, but after it televised its first hearing in prime time on Tuesday night, and after just seeing so little forceful pushback against the hyperbole and the alarmism, I’ve changed my mind. So, thankfully, my good friend Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, CSIS, was not only able to make time, but willing to share his thoughts. Jude is, of course, familiar to anyone who’s listening to this show, as well as anyone who listens to his terrific podcast, Pekingology, on which he interviews up-and-coming China scholars. and some established ones as well, about their work. He makes it accessible. It’s a fantastic show on a really important set of topics. I think it’s important to make it accessible to people who are adjacent to, but not ensconced in the ivory tower. And I think that’s what you do. Right, Jude?

Jude Blanchette: I hope to. So, yeah, I appreciate the kind words, Kaiser.

Kaiser: So, check that show out if you’re not already listening to it. And Jude, man, thanks again for making time to join me on Sinica.

Jude: Well, thank you, Kaiser. I appreciate the time and look forward to the conversation.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, let me start with this. We’ve talked before about all this is starting to feel a little like 2002 in the run-up to the Iraq invasion. There’s that drum beat that I talked about with Mike Mazarr. Thank you actually for your introduction to him. But there is actually a much more recent year that this current climate reminds me of even more, and that’s 2020 when the Trump administration really pulled out all the stops and basically declared open season on China across all agencies and departments of the U.S. government. This time, though, it feels even maybe more serious but also less serious. That may be in part because this is happening under a presidential administration that is less unhinged than the former guy. But it does feel to me like in these few years, the middle ground has shifted the Overton window on China as the source of global evil and perfidy has somehow widened. Is it just a coincidence, or are all these things cresting right now, things that were set in motion earlier, or do you think something is changing profoundly?

Jude: Yeah, I don’t know if I can take door D, which is all of the above, because I think there’s a, as you say, there’s a confluence of events, and I certainly think things like Balloongate, COVID-19, the visit to Taiwan by Speaker Pelosi, you’ve just had an accumulation of events which have continued to strengthen a narrative about the relationship between U.S. and China as increasingly being Cold War-like, Cold War adjacent, or something of that ilk. And then I also think it’s the fact that a number of events such as the controversy over the NBA and Daryl Morey have made the China discussion really seep into democratic politics, small-d democratic politics, which has I think made this dynamic more complex, but also has put us on this path where we are now, where I think almost everyone at a national level seems to be framing this as a Cold War, or as Mike Gallagher said at the hearing the other day, “An existential crisis.”

Kaiser: Yeah. Let’s talk about his use of that phrase — existential. Is that just rhetoric, or do you think he honestly believes that the Chinese Communist Party is somehow a threat to the very continued existence of the United States?

Jude: Well, one of the challenges, whether he actually believes it or it’s rhetoric, it has an effect, right? To have the initial hearing of this much vaunted and influential select committee on China, start out with the chairman framing this as an existential struggle, and just to read the whole quote, he says, “This is not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century, and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.” The stakes don’t get higher than that. Again, even if this is a cynical political ploy, or if he deeply believes it, I think this is a profoundly important debate to be having rather than just something which is asserted and everyone nods their head at, which seemed to be the case at the hearing the other night.

Kaiser: Yeah, I mean, that’s what really worries me. And when I talk about the center having shifted, people seem to accept this pretty extreme framing of it now. I can’t help but feel like our whole national psychology, in all its current manifestations, all the pathologies, are quite clearly on display with this. I mean, for sure, my sense with Balloongate, obviously, the whole balloon episode, the Select Committee, though, really kind of drove it home. I mean, honestly, my main emotion isn’t so much outrage or sadness as it is embarrassment — just like this deep abiding embarrassment. I see you… Yeah.

Jude: Yeah. Just to say, when I tuned into the hearing the other night, I have to say I had no real built-in expectations. If you look at, there’s many serious people on the committee. Again, it’s a bipartisan committee. You’ve got people like Ro Khanna, you’ve got Andy Kim, and I’ll even say, Mike Gallagher, sort of serious people with serious credentials. And there is indeed a very important set of challenges that confront us as we think about the bilateral relationship with China. So, I have no inherent problem with having a select committee focusing on how do we engage in a form of strategic competition that’s smart and re-downs to U.S. interests and strengthens the country. But what I saw was just an absolute and total embarrassment, where within about five minutes, I think I just looked at my wife, and we just both put our heads into our hands.

Because I came away with, if you were an alien and you tuned into this, you would think the United States is a pathetic, weak, scared nation, which is being beset by an omnicompetent, omnipresent enemy of just galactic proportions in terms of its capabilities. I think that was both, analytically, it’s such an untrue framing of the problem. It’s such a vast underestimation of the strength of the United States and such an overestimation of China. And I guess more importantly, and you said this in your introduction, this is a bilateral relationship and the challenges around it which demand utmost seriousness and nuance and comfort with complexity. And there was absolutely none of that in this. And so, even just diagnostically, if we continue to follow the playbook outlined at that committee, it will lead to, I think, tragedy and devastation and extraordinary amounts of waste. Even from a get-tough-on-China positioning, I just think this was an utter embarrassment.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, if that’s how it lands with the aliens, just imagine how it lands in Beijing. I mean, this does not exactly make us look like the mature, confident superpower that we believe ourselves to be in our more sober moments.

Jude: Yeah. I don’t want to make too much of this, but I could imagine a world where Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 looks at this and is thinking, “Damn right. I’ve got the United States, after decades of us being worried about infiltration and the soft power of the United States, and worried about its global influence.” For the ‘80s and the ‘90s, it was China and the Communist Party who were wary of the United States. “And I, Xi Jinping, I’ve now turned the tables.”

Kaiser: Yeah. I’ve heard you describe this as a moral panic, and that’s certainly what I would describe it as. There are all sorts of examples of moral panics in American history. I mean, we’ve had the, what was like satanic child abuse in the ‘80s, and the dirty lyrics and the backmasking in Led Zeppelin in-

Jude: Dungeons and Dragons. You remember that?

Kaiser: Dungeons… Yeah, absolutely.

Jude: That was the thing you were going after in the ‘80s.

Kaiser: Yeah, yeah. Comic books in the ‘50s. It’s just, yeah, it’s crazy. Jude, what’s a moral panic, and, and why would you classify the current American reaction to China as one? And maybe one more question, I mean, what do you think is the best way to understand the kind of psychology that underlies this particular moral panic?

Jude: I would consider this a moral panic in the sense that is the way that we’re framing the problem and the solutions we’re proposing are wildly disproportionate to the actual existing harm or challenge. The reason I think this is different than the Dungeons and Dragons moral panic is I don’t think we could say that there is no challenges presented by the Communist Party of China. To me at least, and not to get into debate with you, but I think, to me, it’s clearly true that there are extraordinary challenges that the United States is confronted with, and there are elements, and, and very important ones, where I think we need to be thinking about how do we confront, compete with the Xi administration. That’s just undoubtedly true.

Kaiser: No, I couldn’t agree more.

Jude: But it is when you begin hyperventilating and framing the problem, not as a serious challenge to U.S. national competitiveness, U.S. power and influence, but as an existential threat to the entirety of the 21st century, and every single value that we hold, now the delta between the actual problem and the way you’re framing it is such that you will begin proposing solutions wildly disproportionate to the problem, where really, if you’re framing this as an existential problem, then all bets are off, right? If you’re saying this is actually live or die for the United States, well, then things like the rule of law, democratic process suddenly need to go out the window, because if we don’t deal with this menace, then the entire country comes collapsing down.

And so, like we’ve seen in previous moral panics where you see witch hunts, you see innocent people slandered, you see the United States whip itself into a frenzy, but most importantly, or as importantly, come up with solutions that don’t actually solve the problem because you’re going after phantoms, that’s what we’re positioning ourselves for here. This is a, as I said previously, I’ll probably say it eight more times, these are profoundly serious challenges we’re confronted with as we think about how do we compete with China? Where are there areas of Chinese power that we feel like we need to push back against? Those are really complex challenges that will require all six cylinders firing. But so long as we’re freaking out about Chinese purchases of agricultural land and we’re thinking about barring all Chinese citizens from being able to purchase land in the United States, that is a moral panic.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, a lot of people frame this in terms of American domestic politics, and there are a couple of ways in which to do this. There was this Washington Post editorial board op-ed piece that said the select committee was off to a promising start. And it’s starting to concern me how this uncritical view is so often just sort of all about the appeal of bipartisanship. That’s how they start, and that’s how so many people do. I mean, are we just chasing the willow wisp of bipartisanship? Can China lead to something substantively bipartisan? Or is the GOP just kind of leading the Democratic Party down the path toward this kind of unfixable and placably hostile relationship with China?

Jude: The comment about bipartisanship is, to me, a sad reflection of just how broken we think our system is, where we’re looking for bipartisanship qua bipartisanship. The recipe is bipartisanship plus serious issue plus finding practical solution to that issue. Looking at the committee, you’re right. What we’re doing is we’re… These are hosannas for bipartisanship. Missing is the next step, though, which is bipartisanship for moral panic, I want nothing to do with, and is a sad indictment on our system. The other thing I should say in fairness, though, is I think there were a few members on the committee who did try to raise some of the more important issues here. I think Andy Kim from New Jersey deserves some plaudits here because with his time and questioning, he did try to, I must admit, make a bit of a political statement by tying it to January 6th.

Although my feelings about January 6th are the same as his. But his point he was making is national unity and domestic resilience and strength are the foundation of any possible policy we would want towards China. So, what do the witnesses think of that? And I think that was a through line with a few of the Democratic members, Krishnamoorthi, who’s the ranking member in the Democrat side, his opening statement made that same point. If I can just quickly reference it, he said, “There’s three metrics by which the success of this committee would be judged. Are we protecting American values, our interests and interests? Are we as the committee finding ways to up our game in terms of workforce improvement, weaknesses in the U.S. economy supply chains, and are we avoiding anti-Chinese or anti-Asian stereotyping?”

So, he led off well, but then I just think the rest of the committee, and most of the members violated all three of those rules by either ignoring them, or, again, as we said, when you frame the Communist Party as this shadowy cabal that is everywhere and nowhere at once, that’s underneath your bed, and that is capable of threatening the very foundations of the United States, you’ve got to imagine that anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism is coming next.

Kaiser: Yeah. I mean, that’s not even in question for me, but let’s zero in on this use of the Communist Party, the name of the select committee itself is sort of a strange sort of asymmetry. The competition is said to be between the United States, a country, and the Chinese Communist Party. Does it strike you as odd that these two actors in competition are not equivalents? You have a Party, on the one hand, and a whole nation on the other. What is that supposed to be about and what is it actually doing?

Jude: I think two things. Here’s what I think, here’s what they would say, which is we’re trying to make it very clear that our beef is not with the Chinese people or the People’s Republic of China. It’s with the ruling Communist Party. That’s what they would say they’re doing. And the reason they would say they’re doing that is precisely so that we’re not broad-brushing the Chinese people as malign actors. That’s their theory of the case. I think the other element that they know is it’s we’re still living in the 1950s and in a Cold War view of the world. And so, anytime you mention communism, that’s going to help clarify the challenge for the American people and simplify it for them. So, the more you say Communist Party, Communist Party, it will trigger all of our muscle memory of the Cold War.

And that’ll help facilitate a speedy conversation that this is a strategic rivalry. That’s what I think they’re doing. I think they’re too clever by half because I just don’t think it works on any level. First of all, imagine that Xi Jinping gave a menacing snarling speech talking about an existential struggle with the United States, and then said, “Don’t worry, Americans. I’m not coming for you. I’m just coming for all of your government.” I’m not sure that would put us at ease that much, right?

Kaiser: No, no, no.

Jude: As a diagnostic point, I’m not sure people on the committee realize just how embedded the Communist Party is in China. It’s 95 million people. It’s roughly one out of every 14 people will be a Communist Party member. And guess what? They all have parents, they’ve got cousins, they’ve got siblings. So, the amount of people who are directly related, I don’t have the data, but I think we could just extrapolate, we’re thinking about something like a quarter of the country would probably be a direct relative of a Communist Party member.

Kaiser: Not so many siblings, Jude, right?

Jude: Not so. Well, nowadays, Kaiser, nowadays, and if you’ve lived in China, you also know a lot of Communist Party members, and virtually none of them are part of the apparatus of the Party-state system, right? Of the 95 million, again, I’d have to look up the data, but I think it’s something like 10 to 14 million are formally a part of what we’d call the Party-state system. The rest of them are hairdressers. I mean, I used to work at a very small firm in Washing–, or excuse me, in Beijing.

Kaiser: That’s a lot of hairdressers.

Jude: Well, they’re farmers. They work at white-collar jobs. These are not people who are involved in labor camps in Xinjiang. They’re not devising ways to invade Taiwan. I think there was just a… In thinking you’re saying, “Oh, it’s just the Communist Party,” you’re still broad-brushing an extraordinarily large part of the Chinese population, which has nothing to do with the problems that you’ve outlined, you’re frustrated about.

Kaiser: The other domestic piece of this is that you’ll hear Biden’s tough-on-China posture is really about protecting his right flank, his vulnerable right flank, which is susceptible to the allegation that he’s soft on China. I wonder if that’s really on their minds at all, and the Democrats who are participating in this, or if they too have just accepted this idea that China is our great adversary.

Jude: I mean, without wanting to psychoanalyze anyone, and I don’t want to make a partisan comment, I think you did see threads of what the Democratic position is in contradistinction to Republicans from some of the comments, which is investments in domestic resiliency capabilities innovation. I didn’t hear really any of that from the Republican side, and I heard that from several of the Democratic members. And indeed, I think, if we’re thinking about the administration’s policy, when they hold up their achievements, it’s the CHIPS Act, it’s closer relations with partners and allies. There are things to critique here, but I would say I do think the administration’s U.S.-China policy is very different from what you would see if you saw Republicans in office, and is much more focused on domestic innovation investments and strengthening allies and partnerships.

I’m not sure I entirely see they’re all the same. That being said, it does feel to me, in Congress at least, that it’s Democrats following Republicans to the right on the China issue. And there was a good political article the other day on why haven’t Democrats found their voice on China? That I thought was…

Kaiser: Right. I saw that.

Jude: I thought it put its finger on a few points of there’s not enough areas where the Democrats have clearly demarcated how they have a distinct approach to China that yes, recognizes the threats or challenges that Beijing poses to the United States and the interests of us and our allies, but also is a uniquely democratic spin on what we do about it that is combining in a more coherent and coherently articulated manner; domestic investments, what we do about partnerships and alliances. And what was missing from all of the select committee’s discussion the other day was, if you want to have global influence, you need to solve global challenges, right?

And when you talk to third countries, if you talk to countries in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, Latin America, Africa, what they’re looking, looking for, for U.S. leadership is we have practical functional challenges around economic development, around climate change, right? Around public health that we’re crying out for global solutions to, and there’s very few powers in a position to do that. That was more or less absent from the discussion. I don’t know how you could have a discussion on competing with China in a global arena where you’re not articulating a strong strategy about leading on solutions to shared global challenges. Again, that’s one I would imagine Democrats in Congress could do a better job of owning, because I think that will be more organic to their own view of what government can do than to many of the Republicans. But so far, you’ve heard some platitudes about that, but if we’re going by the committee and what we heard from some of the Democrats, it wasn’t as present and center as I would hope it could be.

Kaiser: Sure. I mean, just so that we don’t paint too rosy a picture of the Democratic policy or the Biden administration’s policy toward China, there is an awful lot of this sort of Tonya Harding to China’s Nancy Kerrigan as well. There’s a lot of the kneecapping of-

Jude: Trying to figure out how that analogy plays out. Who’s…

Kaiser: Well, the U.S. is Tonya Harding here, and we’re kneecapping…

Jude: Well, this is a different discussion because I think there’s a lot of things-

Kaiser: I’m talking about October 7th, and I’m talking about just this sort of using these alliances and partnerships to help in this, I mean, much in the same way that Tonya Harding hired thugs to

Jude: Well, not to distract the conversation, I guess there’s probably areas of that I would agree with what the administration is doing and areas where they’re not. But then again, that to me is in the ballpark realm of serious discussion about what do you do about serious challenges? That I think the administration is having more of those. I think where I find much more problematic right now is what we’re seeing on the Hill and by the committee.

Kaiser: We’ll keep it to that. And what you’re worried about, what I’m worried about are these very McCarthy-like throwbacks to the 1950s, and props def Fareed Zakaria, I mean, he’s trying his best. He actually wrote in a Washington Post op-ed, “to watch Tuesday’s hearing of the New House Select Committee on China was to be transported back to the 1950s.” And you made a reference to that. I mean, maybe he is… He’s not going to be our Edward R. Murrow, although what he said was brave. I mean, when are the Army-McCarthy hearings going to happen? I mean, who’s going to say, “Have you no decency, sir?”

Jude: Maybe a slightly different framing for that is the reason I always hesitate to use McCarthyism is, in the McCarthy era, there were actually Soviet spies at the highest levels of U.S. decision-making. So, McCarthy was a slandering drunk, but he was actually articulating, which we know with the collapse of Soviet Union in Venona papers, there were actually high-level spies in the U.S. government. So, I don’t think we should actually even frame this as McCarthyism because there are not, so far as anyone has ever put out there, high-level Chinese spies within the U.S. government. To me, this is more 1903 in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. This strikes me as all the hallmarks of antisemitism with shadowy cabals that have racial implications, that are capable of sophisticated degrees of manipulation of all the levers of financial power.

That’s what struck me about the way that we’re talking about this is, with the Soviet Union, there was a clear moral vision that the Soviet Union articulated that when people were spying for the Soviet Union, it was often because they were fellow travelers. We don’t have an Averell Harriman [NOTE: Jude misspoke here; he meant to say Alger Hiss]  or others that we know of that have gotten to the top levels of policymaking. There’s no sort of Cambridge here like we had in the UK. This is more the way that we talk about the antisemites talk about Jews. That’s what really troubled me about a lot of the rhetoric here. Because it’s, you’re out of the bounds of reason because you’re framing the Communist Party as sort of… Here’s an example that bothered me. When the protestors came into the hearing and General McMaster began speaking again, and I’ve got the exact comment here so I don’t say it in incorrectly.

Without knowing who these people were, he immediately said, “I think these eruptions are indicative of really the effect that the United Front Work Department has had. The United Front Work Department is both real and both problematic. It is also now taken on a life where it is, and this is where the anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism, xenophobia and violence comes in, you can’t prove you’re not a member of the United Front, right?

Kaiser: Right.

Jude: And we’re seeing what with Dominic Ng right now.

Kaiser: And Judy Chu.

Jude: And Judy Chu, where part of this is the challenge of, and again, I’m not… I know Dominic M. from UC San Diego days. I have no knowledge one way or the other, but extraordinary accusations require clear, extraordinary proof. And if you read the letter that the members the Republicans gave to FBI director Wray, calling for an investigation of Dominic. There’s not extraordinary clear evidence there. It’s innuendo. And I think precisely because the United Front is a problem, and precisely because we have a propensity and clear examples of rising anti-Asian racism and xenophobia, we need to be very careful and clear about how we talk about things like the United Front. And before we ever make an accusation, there needs to be very, very clear, serious proof. Again, that’s why the McCarthyism doesn’t fit for me as much as sort of all the hallmarks of antisemitism. [Editor’s Note: Jude has clarified some of his statements including the remarks comparing the current moral panic to antisemitism here.]

Kaiser: Right. That makes sense. I’m still going to go on calling it McCarthyism because it just really does just feel like it an awful lot to me, and I am holding out for those Army-McCarthy hearings. You talk about…

Jude: Well, the Dreyfuss affair. We’ve got… This is more-

Kaiser: Sure. It’s just a little more obscure. It’s hard for me to…

Jude: Okay, fair enough.

Kaiser: I mean, people don’t remember their European history classes. I mean, don’t remember-

Jude: Give the masses credit, Kaiser, you snob.

Kaiser: Look, you talk about the need for more seriousness, and I think that part of the problem, part of the root of the problem that I would identify is that for so many Americans, China just simply isn’t real. I mean, it’s just something of the American imaginary, whether Americans impute good fanciful qualities or bad ones, it’s just this fantastic realm. It’s about big numbers, whether those big numbers are addressable markets or the teaming hordes of people taking our jobs, or the miles of high-speed rail. It’s whatever. I mean, what I worry about the way things are going is that with less and less direct connection to China, I mean, look, we’re going to have as much feel for China, for the reality of China as we do right now for Iran. I mean, what are your thoughts on that? I mean, this is something that I worry about constantly and I have fretted about for the last three years.

Jude: Yeah. I think, as you say, one of the abstracting China or the “CCP,” in many ways leads to a dehumanization of the people who will suffer the downstream consequences of this on either side, by the way, both in the United States and… If this is a new Cold War, you remember the amount of violence that occurred in proxy wars that led to the death and destruction of millions. So, the Cold War is not a great playbook to rerun. So, I agree, and I think one of the things that should be centered in this discussion is when we’re thinking about China, thinking about the individuality and the dignity of the 1.4 billion people who live there, who are thinking about how do they provide a better life for their kids? And who have as every much of right, as every American does, to prosperity, to freedom, to security. And so, that doesn’t mean kumbaya.

It doesn’t mean hard choices don’t need to be made. And we don’t, nor should we run foreign policy off of the idea that we can’t and never can inflict suffering. That’s one of the tragic elements of international politics. So, I’m not saying hold hands and let’s Woodstock. But I do think it’s imperative that those of us who are out in the public discussion constantly remind people about the ethical dimensions of quote unquote great power competition. And that, look, again, going back to the October 7th export controls, and I don’t want to make it about that, I think there are choices like that, that sometimes will be hard to make; that are tough. But it’s also important to remember that keeping China a generation behind on technology has functional impacts on the livelihoods of Chinese people.

It means, at the margin, your access to advanced healthcare, medical technology will be stunted. All of the downstream effects of technology, which are wonderful, and oftentimes amazing, except in the case of ChatGPT, but can often be wonderful for improving livelihoods. If you read Scott Rozelle’s work about the challenges that China’s facing in rural areas with human capital development, there are things technology can do to improve nutrition, education. So, when we say deny access to advanced semiconductors, I know what we’re talking about is, because we’re worried that those semiconductors go into missiles which will be targeted at Americans. I realize those are hard choices you sometimes need to make, but I think it’s also important that we just make sure our moral aperture is always open to the full effect of some of these choices and what they mean on people who have absolutely nothing to do with labor camps in Xinjiang or invasions of Taiwan.

Kaiser: Well said. Well said. Xinjiang, Taiwan, you mentioned COVID, obviously that was a major factor — the Pelosi visit, all these things that we talked about earlier that seemed to be either converging or we were constantly reminding ourselves of, to whip us into this frenzy. One of the things that seems to have emerged recently, of course, is China’s position in the Ukraine war. What do you think of this recent American strategy of publicizing intelligence or publicizing at least the claim to possess intelligence to try to warn Beijing away from certain behaviors in two cases now? I mean, potentially providing war material to Russia ahead of the meeting that was supposed to take place in, or it did end up taking place in Rome. There was one leak, and then of course, just ahead of Munich, there was this other leak. It wasn’t a leak; it was a deliberate statement.

Jude: I mean, I listened to the great podcast you just did the other day on this. I have a pretty cynical view of Beijing’s relations with Moscow, or insofar as I find that… I actually think there’s a lot more there, there in Beijing’s support and relationship for Moscow than many of us want to admit. I think I wrote in a Washington Post piece about a year ago that I actually think the worse the war got, or the more prolonged it was, the more Beijing would consider it the margin ways to try to support the resolution of the war on Moscow’s terms. I think, by or beware, we’ve heard these leaks before from the administration a year ago that did not pan out. And you could see an element to where just “publicly warning” is a way to position China’s relations with Europe or impose a cost on China without doing it, without… because there’s not much, China’s in a bit of a tricky position there.

Once you’ve been accused of something, it’s hard to sort of walk back the accusation. That being said, I could see areas where China, in its own bounded way, that is trying to support Russia, while doing so below a threshold, would consider things like provision of ammunition, for example, which is very hard to trace, which you could move through third countries, and would be within the bounds of China sort of having some plausible deniability, but trying to tip the war in the favor of Putin. I think the elemental math for me on China’s relationship with Russia is the Putin and Xi relationship has gotten stronger than many could have expected. They’ve met 39 times now, vastly more than any other leadings with a foreign leader. And start from a very basic mathematics of we have a 2,500-mile-long border.

As the Chinese say in their discourse, we now, because of our relationship, can be looking back to back out at the strategic landscape. We don’t have to think about our border. And we just translated a piece for our CSIS translation project by Feng Yujun, who’s at Fudan University and one of the leading Chinese analysts of Russia. And his conclusion was, over the last year, that Chinese-Russian relations remained incredibly strong. Indeed he called it one of the China’s diplomatic “bright spots.” I think you could make too much of this and say that this is a new axis of evil. I’m not saying that at all. It’s a complicated relationship. There are deep divisions and fault lines. I don’t think China wants the war. I don’t think China wants to be dragged down by Russia.

But as we’ve seen with North Korea, China should, in its own interest, be a much better partner on North Korean issues, but its view is regime change would be the worst thing ever. And so, I think we should bound our expectations for how much China will help us. And we saw that with its position paper on Ukraine last Friday. I mean, it was largely a recycling of its traditional talking points there. And you wouldn’t know from reading it that Russia had invaded Ukraine. So, I’ll stop my rant there, but I could totally foresee that in limited ways China would consider a low-level ways that it could support Russian battlefield. The final, final comment, I think some of the warning may have been, not necessarily that Beijing is orchestrating this itself, but as you know, Beijing doesn’t always know what its companies are doing.

This is why I’m always skeptical of the fact that Xi Jinping is in the mothership, turning the dial on every Chinese firm, and moving it around a map. One of Chinese challenges is Beijing just often doesn’t know what companies are doing in profit-maximizing ways out in the world. So, you can imagine some defense contractor that is doing things with the Russians that Beijing doesn’t know about.

Kaiser: I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but when it comes to Russia’s antics, I do make some exceptions. And I can imagine them looking at the U.S. and China a married couple who are very much on the rocks, but still maybe like living together in the same house. So, absolutely, the Russians hate the U.S., they want to hasten the breakup, right? So, what does it want to do? It’s going to leave China a note where America will find it. It says, “Hey, last night was wonderful, can’t wait to see you again. Have you thought about what I asked you about maybe going away together?” I mean, and it leaves these notes, like where I said, where the U.S. is going to find them. I mean, if I can come up with that, surely some devious FSB officer can come up with that. I mean, I seriously think that it’s entirely possible that this was intel that came via Russia deliberately. It forces China into a difficult position, right?

Jude: Yes. We all have a different view of either what the conspiracy is or what Occam’s razor is. Occam’s razor for me is, I’m sure we probably picking this intelligence up on the Russian side, but that’s because we have better access enabled to hear, and we might be hearing Russian companies or cutouts in discussions with Chinese corporate actors talking about this. And so, I just don’t dismiss this as either a PSYOP by the Russians or just bluster by the administration. I can completely see this occurring within the bounds of what I know and think about sort of Chinese calculations and strategic calculations. And the thing is, look, if Xi Jinping is rational, which he is, he’s hearing the discourse in the United States, and his view is, “Yeah, I don’t want to call it a Cold War, because in the actual Cold War, the Soviet Union lost. But yeah, I’m thinking of this as some sort of rivalry because the United States is telling me it is, and that’s my view of the world.” And in that world, Russia, it’s not the best partner in the world, but like we saw with Belarus, like, China’s Russia relationship with Belarus is stronger than I think it should be, given that the war is ongoing.

And Belarus is one of Moscow’s greatest supporters. And yet Xi Jinping chose to meet with Lukashenko, just the other day, basically on the anniversary of the war. So, they’re sending us signals. And Wáng Yì 王毅 was in Moscow meeting with Lavrov, and he met with Putin as well, right? Basically on the anniversary of the war. And what’s so confounding to me is if you want to devise a symbolic trip to create tensions with the Europeans, go to Moscow on the one-year anniversary and meet with Putin.

Kaiser: Right. It hardly supports the theory that China is now launching some sort of charm offensive to try to prise the Europeans away and grant them genuine strategic-

Jude: I think they’re trying to do both. I think what Beijing misses is-

Kaiser: Well, they’re not doing a very good job then.

Jude: No. I think Beijing oftentimes has two conflicting objectives that it doesn’t always understand the trade-off between them. And I think this has been the case with the war in Ukraine. What does Evan call it? The Beijing straddle or something like that. I’m not sure it’s quite a straddle, because one side has sunk, and that is its relationship with Europe. Its foot is in the mud on that part, deeper than it was more than a year ago, but I’m not sure Beijing understands how costly, or how much its efforts, for example, just on the timing, to meet with Belarus and to meet with… and to send Wang Yi to Moscow on the one-year anniversary, how that’s going to land in European capitals. Go two weeks later.

Kaiser: Jude, I’m not sure though that these things aren’t of a piece. I see the warnings about the publication of the intelligence that we supposedly have about China pondering providing war material to Russia, and the energy department coming out, leaking this famously low confidence estimation on the origins of COVID as being sort of related. This is part, maybe I’m being paranoid here, but the same kind of, it’s open season on China thing. And then it was not surprising to me that Christopher Wray came out and talked about the FBI. I mean, he’s probably still smarting from the whole China initiative debacle and hasn’t really backed off from the whole of society threat thing. Yeah, it feels-

Jude: I would disagree insofar as our-

Kaiser: We’re not that coordinated.

Jude: Our government isn’t coordinated that much, just to be honest. And these are separate tracks that these are operating off of.

Kaiser: But there’s signaling still. There’s sort of this, what you declare open season and you don’t need to coordinate, right?

Jude: Well, I don’t want to end the podcast on a sour note, Kaiser. I guess I do not see this administration as an open-season administration. You can disagree with their choices. You could think the rhetoric is at a 12, when it should be at an eight, and we could have that discussion, but I just think this is substantively and qualitatively different than the end of the Trump administration where I completely agree that it was open season. I think in Congress, looking at the select committee, it’s open season. I do not think the administration, State Department, NSC, DoD, again, I interact with these folks a lot. I think they’re wrestling through hard challenges. We may come out on different places, but I think they’re genuinely trying to wrestle with hard challenges.

I agree with you. To me, the issue wasn’t the Department of Energy coming out with this conclusion. It was the reporting on it, which missed the key point, which is low confidence. And also the other headline was not all other ICE entities agree, right?

Kaiser: In fact, four of them simply don’t.

Jude: The headline should be U.S. government not unanimous on origins of COVID. That’s what the headline is.

Kaiser: It should be. Right.

Jude: And those who have come out with a conclusion like Department of Energy said low confidence. So, part of this is just… Some of what’s occurring is just enters into a media ecosystem that I think strips out some of the nuance, which is critical to understanding the reality.

Kaiser: Yeah. Well, don’t worry, we’re far from ending. And one area where we certainly do agree is look, we’ve both lamented the way that the sort of simplistic Manichean messaging that we hear from the Josh Hawleys or from the Mike Gallaghers is just a whole lot easier of a sell than what the messy, heavily context-dependent, caveat laden version that people, like us in camp reasonable, are trying to persuade people of. What’s your idea about how we can be more effective?

Okay. Here’s one thing that I wonder of the efficacy of this because one of the things that we’ve taken to doing is doing that whole obligatory recitation of the whole litany of Chinese perfidy. We do that almost like reflexively now. And lots of people who are our friends have told me privately, they feel like they need to take a shower afterward. They feel like, God, I mean, that wasn’t what I wanted to say, but we feel like we need to, before the thing that we do want to say is taken seriously. But I worry that we are conceding too much, actually undermining everything that we say afterward. How do you feel about that as an approach?

Jude: I guess I don’t have the same initial reaction on the first part of that. I don’t see inherently anything wrong about clarifying areas of Chinese behavior we see problematic. I guess I just think that gets you to the two-yard line. I think we’re beyond that in the conversation. I think that’s all well socialized. I think the debate is what do serious people want to do about it? One thing I would recommend is Mike Mazarr, who we talked about earlier at Rand, came out with a really, I think, impactful report on national competitiveness that looked at all the hallmarks and elements. He did sort of historical case studies at who wins these sort of strategic competitions. And of course, as you and I would probably imagine, the systems that win it are resilient, are dynamic, are liberal, are open.

Kaiser: Sure.

Jude: And so part of this is, I think, getting a good story out there that is simple to understand, and I think we’ve talked more about the importance of strategic narrative insofar as complicated stories don’t sell. I don’t mean that as a… It is hard to capture attention when so much is going on. And I think a existential struggle narrative is easier to grasp than the inverse of it, which is, well, it’s complicated, right? I mean, I think about Mike’s work as being actually a really good blueprint of focusing on what are the pillars of dynamism and resiliency for liberal systems that make us infinitely superior to authoritarian systems, both in terms of brittleness innovation? And really sort of doubling down on those. And that was, if you look at George Kennan’s Long Telegram, I mean, that was basically the last three paragraphs of it was focusing on domestic resiliency, making sure that as you compete against rival systems, you don’t simply mimic or beat them.

Kaiser: Exactly. So, this is the point that I’ve been trying to push and that I’ve always thought was a good and simple one in response to, for example, all this worrying that we have about the United Front Work Department hiding under our beds and trying to infiltrate us. Our strength is we’re supposed to be an open society, and that confers on us a kind of immunity to this. It’s sort of an immune system, if not full immunity at least. By sacrificing that, doing things like banning TikTok, how are we then any better? It’s like this loss of confidence that, just to bring us back to the beginning of our conversation about the select committee, what I see on display is we’re just sort of waving our lack of confidence in everyone’s face. I mean, it’s just like-

Jude: Prima facie, in of itself, my definition of camp reasonable is not someone who agrees with me, but it’s someone who can sit down and have a reasoned conversation, shows their math, can think about prioritization and think about scale. And that’s, to me, camp reasonable. It’s not you’re as hawkish or as dovish a as I am. Take an example, like on TikTok, I don’t actually have a pre-packaged answer on it. I just find… I don’t know. I’m open to a world in which we decide that it’s a problem. To me, it’s just, as I think about the immediate challenges the United States Front faces, like Confucius Institute issue, I was always thinking that was number 8,281 on my list of things to get to. And more troubling for me than the TikTok question is this one about land ownership by Chinese citizens. Because that to me is so deeply…

Kaiser: Un-American.

Jude: Oh, so deeply un-American. And also, by the way, just diagnostically, if China wants to spy on U.S… damage U.S. critical infrastructure or spy on military installations, buying a piece of property next to them is probably not the way you’re going to do it, right? There are probably simpler ways. And again, I looked up the data…

Kaiser: Balloons, Jude. Balloons.

Jude: I looked up the data on this today. So, Department of Agriculture, in its most recent report on foreign ownership of U.S. land, says that less than 1% of foreign held land is held by China. And foreign countries only account for 1.8% of U.S. land. So, China owns 1% of 1.8% of the land in the United… Chinese citizens or Chinese firms, right? So, talk about a moral panic. There’s not a problem of scale, right? If you had a problem with scale, it would be Canada we would be worried about. But just Occam’s razor, if you are the Ministry of State Security and you want to get access to intelligence on a U.S. military base, what would be the way you would do it? Register a purchase by a Chinese national in an adjacent piece of property, and then what? Like launch your balloon from there? Or would you try and infiltrate the base through a human asset, which is a lot cheaper? So, that to me is both un-American, this blanket ban, right? But also just as ineffectual, right? It is a moral panic, insofar it is vastly-

Kaiser: The wrong response.

Jude: It’s both immoral and it’s the wrong response. So, that bothers me more than the TikTok one, because the TikTok one is sort of a technical issue that not all of us have a handle on. This, the land purchase, is just prima facie, I think un-American.

Kaiser: Yeah. So, as you say, as you’ve been quick to point out, China does present real challenges to the United States. You’re not somebody who takes the sort of maximalist version that we cannot except any tweaks to the American-led global order. Anything that we change is revisionism and is totally unacceptable. American power and primacy has to be preserved at all costs in the world. So what then, for you, are the priority issues? What should we really be taking more seriously?

Jude: Number one I think is focusing on domestic resilience, and not in a kind of yada, yada, yada, or make it a socialist grab bag, but actually thinking about the foundations of, of resiliency, thinking about the health of the body politic. That doesn’t have to come at the expense of other objectives, which I’ll mention a moment out in the global arena. But for me, just as a citizen, first and foremost, it’s about the health of the republic and a place… making sure that our economy is resilient, thinking about upgrading and upskilling workforces to compete in these technologies of the 21st century. Again, Ryan Hass and I at Brookings have been doing a project on the role of human capital in U.S.-China…

Kaiser: Immigration.

Jude: Yeah. Immigration. Again, I think you can walk and chew gum at the same time, but I don’t see much point in focusing all our attention on stopping invasions in Taiwan if we’re not giving even more attention to the resiliency and health of the body politic here. Number two is I am not a relativist about what I want the orientation of the international order to look like. I want it to be tolerant, open, and liberal, but I don’t think that always means that the United States has to be the hegemon. And I think indeed, one of the ways that we should be thinking about international order is power is shifting, not because necessarily China is rising, but other countries are rising — Southeast Asia, right? Like all good quarterbacks throw the ball to the receiver, I think we are moving to a multipolar world, and I think we should embrace that shift, and do what we can to build democratic resiliency and participants and stakeholders in the liberal order rather than sort of planting our flag in 1995 and doing everything we can to sort of fix the world in a place where the U.S. leadership is valuable because of U.S. leadership.

I’m comfortable in a world where Sweden is the global leader, so long as we’re all moving towards a goal of a maximally participatory international order that is liberal open and is oriented towards solving functional, practical challenges that we as a globe face in the 21st century. So, that’s where, for the time being, I would like to see the United States playing a more active role in the international order in multilateral institutions. I’m happy to have China participate in those, but I’m also happy to have us push back when we feel like China is participating in illiberal authoritarian ways. If China wants to be more of an AIIB player in the international order, bring it on, right? I welcome it. Where we see China as posing problems, then I think we need to vocally and firmly push back, and especially doing so in organic buyback from other stakeholders in the international system. One final tweak-

Kaiser: And specifically, let’s drill down on that a little bit, so in what international organizations do you think China right now is playing a more nefarious role, it is pushing an agenda that advances or that diminishes openness, tolerance and liberalism?

Jude: Well, one, the challenge with this is, this is also one where we’re abdicating our role and/or we have given up, but is the World Trade Organization, right? I always bow down to Mark Wu’s “China Inc. Challenge of the WTO,” which I think is just a phenomenal paper about some irreconcilably of China’s actual existing political economy. And what I would see is what is a global good, which is a framework and a multilateral institution for promoting global integration and trade. There were problems of integration of China into the WTO. The challenge is the United States is also not a good-faith actor in the WTO. So, this is a twin version of the United States yet again being a leader for liberal international trade

Kaiser: But not leading.

Jude: Well, not playing an actively hostile role, which it did throughout the Trump administration, to the WTO, right? So, there’s an issue of where I’m not sure I want to live in a world where China is setting the rules of global trade because I think the unique components, the sui generis components of party state capitalism in China don’t always mesh well with global trade rules. But the problem now is it’s as much that the United States has left the field on global trade that has made this problematic. And again, we’re seeing discussions on CPTPP that are happening without the United States because we have just decided that domestic politics is going to drive our position on global trading. And guess what? China’s happy to step in there.

Kaiser: Yeah. We have not returned to the field, and we become, in Evan Feigenbaum’s memorable phrase, just a security provider in, for example, in the Western Pacific: We’re just “the Hessians of Asia.”

Jude: One final thing I was going to say is, in the discussion on… I know many people don’t want to have the discussion of where does this all end? If this is a competition, what does the finish line look like? I kind of understand not wanting to firmly narrow down exactly what the finish line looks like, but I think, increasingly, it’s becoming critical that we do articulate some version of coexistence with China that on our part, it has a clear defined view of where we see China integrating. I think that’s one area where I do think Beijing is right to say, “Well, what is it America?” I don’t think we’ve articulated a clear vision of what is the permissible place base for Beijing in the international arena. And I think the end goal of our U.S. policy has to always have a core component of coexistence. There is no alternative. There are biological realities to the world and economic realities that make us intertwined with China. There is no ignoring that. You can’t put China in a corner.

Kaiser: This is why the language of existential threat is simply unacceptable then in our rhetoric,

Jude: Impractical and unacceptable on both. And because, of course, if it is an existential struggle, you know how those end, with defeat of one or the other side, right? I don’t know what that looks like outside of World War III, which to me is unacceptable. So, I think a part of the maturity in the discussion in the U.S. is yes, forceful pushback. And I recommend a piece by Mike Greene, my former boss in Foreign Affairs recently, called The Real China Hands, where at the end of it, he said, “Yeah, pushback against China is early innings, but the end of the match is finding a durable coexistence with China.” That’s the real long game.

Kaiser: That’s right. Absolutely. Hallelujah, and I completely agree with that. Jude, what a pleasure it is talking to you. It’s great to see you so riled up. It makes for a fun conversation. Let’s move on to recommendations. First, a really quick reminder that if you like the work that we do here with the Sinica Podcast or with the other shows in the network, the best way that you can support us is to become an Access subscriber. It’s a buck a month right now for the first month anyway. After that, we get ya. But sign up, check it out. You’ll love the newsletters. You will absolutely love getting Sinica early on Monday. Go to the, and check out China Access — a one-month trial for $1. All right, let’s move on to recommendations. Jude, what do you have for us?

Jude: This is something that I’d recommended to you over a text message a few months ago, but it’s an Audible, sort of, I guess, audiobook or audio production. It’s called Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon. It’s a five- or six-hour kind of conversation storybook, co-hosted by Malcolm Gladwell and Bruce Headlam, which in long interviews with Paul Simon, interspersed with clips from songs, and other interviews from other artists. It’s just an exploration of Paul Simon’s sort of songwriting lineage, but I think more importantly, the craft of songwriting. I love Paul Simon, and Graceland remains one of my sort of desert island disc favorite albums. But I think even if you’re not a Paul Simon fan and you just appreciate artistic craft, I think this is so well done. I found it so captivating, and just that it really got my sort of creative juices firing. So, I highly recommend it.

Kaiser: All right. Fantastic recommendation. Yeah, I love Rhymin’ Simon. I listen to a lot of Simon & Garfunkel still, and just because I’ve been fixated with their vocal harmonies and how difficult and, oh my God, they’re just amazing.

I want to recommend something a little closer to home. It’s an interview with Angela Rasmussen, the virologist, who’s really been out there among the bravest and most consistent voices arguing the case for zoonotic origins against the unkillable, and still, as we’ve said, poorly supported lab leak theory. She is not an apologist for China in this interview that she does. The one that I want to recommend is with Slate, the What Next: TBD Podcast with Lizzie O’Leary. She’s very candid about what China did and didn’t do with the Huanan market in Wuhan. It’s very sad that so few virologists are willing to stick their heads above the parapet these days. But I don’t blame them because you just get so viciously attacked out there. Who wants that? I mean, who needs that? I certainly don’t. Anyway, give it a listen. It’s a really good sense-making on the whole debate.

Jude, man, thanks once again. That was just a lot of fun.

Jude: Thank you. Real great to be here.

Kaiser: Yeah. And don’t forget to check out Jude’s excellent podcast, Pekingology. I was just listening to your latest one with Kellee Tsai. She’s terrific. All right, stick around for just one second here, Jude, while I read the outro.

Jude: Sounds good.

Kaiser: The Sinica Podcast is powered by The China Project. It is a proud part of the Seneca Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would 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 @thechinaproj, and be sure to check out all the shows in the Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.