The Longer Blog Post: Comments on American China strategy

The Atlantic Council recently posted an 80-page article entitled The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy (a shorter version was posted by Politico here). The author, we are told, is “a former senior government official with deep expertise and experience dealing with China” who wants, for reasons the Atlantic Council finds acceptable, to remain anonymous. (Note that “government” need not mean “US government”.) Of course, some questions have been raised about why a former government official needs or deserves anonymity, given the importance of the subject and the magnitude of what the author is asking the US government to do. When George Kennan wrote in Foreign Affairs as X, he was a serving government official, not a former one.

But it’s not my purpose here to go further into that issue. I want instead to make some comments on the article itself. I will not comment extensively on the parts I agree with; the author says some very sensible things, such as that the US needs to get its domestic act together and work much better with allies, which includes giving the allies a reason to want to follow US leadership. In short, the US has to jettison the Trump approach to foreign policy. Presumably this will not be a hard sell to the incoming administration. (I would note that the author’s advocacy of keeping the national debt “within acceptable parameters,” to the extent it does not simply express a tautology, is perhaps straying a bit beyond his expertise; there is considerable serious debate over whether the national debt really is something to worry about.)

The author also suggests setting specific priorities and drawing clearer lines. Even if one disagrees with his (it could be a her, of course) particular list and where he places things, one can hardly quarrel with the basic point that general slogans are no substitute for a well thought-out strategy, and that we have a surplus of the former and a shortage of the latter. If one had to put the article in the hawk box or the dove box, I think it pretty clearly belongs in the hawk box, but it is a much better informed and realistic hawkishness than the untethered ravings of Peter Navarro or the pseudo-hawkishness of his former boss (when his former boss was in a hawkish mood, and not praising Xi Jinping or applauding his putting Uyghurs into camps). And Taiwanese—most of them, anyway—will be gratified by the article’s call for firm and unambiguous support US for Taiwan against forced annexation by China.

That said, there are some oddities and false notes.

The term “Marxism” appears frequently throughout the piece, but the author never tells us what he means by it. The meaning of “Leninism” is pretty well settled, but “Marxism” means all kinds of things to all kinds of people, and if you assert that someone is a Marxist, you really do need to tell us what you mean by “Marxist” before we can decide what we think of your statement, and whether we agree with the conclusions you draw from that premise.

For example, the author writes that “Xi has returned China to classical Marxism-Leninism” (p. 6) and “an older form of Marxist-Leninist orthodoxy” (p. 26). The CCP has “a profoundly Marxist worldview” (p. 26). Xi “skillfully deploys the language of cultural nationalism to mask the underlying ideational nature of Xi’s Marxist-Leninist enterprise” (p. 59).

First, a minor quibble: apparently what Xi has returned China to “is different from not only Deng, but also Mao” (p. 26). So in what way is it a “return,” since apparently China has never been there before?

But more importantly, what can all this possibly mean? What does classical or orthodox Marxism-Leninism mean? Marx never ran a state. Lenin and the successors who claimed his mantle did; is what they created classical or orthodox Marxism-Leninism? But to claim that that is China today can’t be right, for China today looks nothing like the Soviet Union, unless you argue that the differences in the economy are not important.

It may be that the author thinks the Chinese economy really is like the Soviet economy; he writes that “its private sector is now under direct forms of party control” (p. 6). But this is going way too far. Yes, the Party is attempting to exert more control on the private sector; yes, it is unthinkable that a private sector firm could Just Say No to some demand from appropriately senior political authorities, lawful or unlawful. But that is a long way from saying that the whole private sector is under direct Party control where Xi (or the local Party secretary) says “Jump” and everybody jumps. Party/state control exists along a continuum, with large SOEs on one end and a mom-and-pop bicycle repair shop on the other. Large private enterprises such as Alibaba no doubt get a lot of attention from the Party; smaller private enterprises less. There is just no comparison with the Soviet Union or pre-reform China, where small private enterprises essentially were not allowed to exist at all.

So what exactly is the content of this orthodox Marxism-Leninism? What is the content of this profoundly Marxist worldview? To say the least, it is not self-evident. The author writes of “Xi’s advocacy of Marxism-Leninism” (p. 39), but this is to confuse saying “we must study and promote Marxism-Leninism” over and over with actually doing things involving the study and promotion of policies and methodologies generated by an ideology that can usefully be called “Marxism-Leninism.” Read Xi’s speeches about Marxism-Leninism and try to figure out where he stands on issues like labor protection, minimum wages, and property ownership. In effect, the Party has defined whatever the Party does as Marxism-Leninism and socialism. But there is no, or at least very little, there there.

If the CCP possesses a Marxist worldview, then it is a Marxism that is consistent with the violent suppression of the rights of the proletariat, the exercise of power by a near-hereditary class of fabulously rich plutocrats, a prickly ethno-nationalism, and a Gini coefficient worse than the capitalist strongholds of Europe. If someone tells me Bernie Sanders is a socialist or a left-winger, then I can have some hope of predicting how he will stand on particular issues. But if you tell me that Xi Jinping is a Marxist, that is of no help at all to me in predicting what his policy stances are. I’m pretty sure he comes out quite differently from where Marx would come out.

The problem shows itself acutely when the author lists the fact that “[s]ubstantive belief in Marxism-Leninism remains problematic among the Chinese people” among the Party’s vulnerabilities (p. 36). It is true that lots of Chinese don’t believe in Marxism-Leninism. But those that do—at least those that believe in the Marxism part—are getting censored at best and put in jail at worst. The Party does not want people believing in Marxism in any form that Marx would recognize. It wants people to support the Party. To think that the Party would get more support if more people believed in Marxism-Leninism is either just wrong or else involves a very idiosyncratic conception of Marxism-Leninism meaning little more than “support for the Party in power.”

I’m not trying to be pedantic here or to insist that I have some universally correct definition of Marxism. There may indeed be some way of usefully understanding the CCP and its leaders as motivated or influenced in some way by Marxism, but just saying they are Marxist and leaving it at that cannot possibly lead to sound policy, since nobody is going to understand what you mean, and worse, they will probably think they understand what you mean. What specifically is the “ideational nature of Xi’s Marxist-Leninist enterprise”? Spell it out!

* * *

The author writes that “[f]ull employment and rising living standards are the essential components of the unspoken social contract between the Chinese people and the CCP since the tumult of the Cultural Revolution” (p. 11). Here my question is not for the author personally but rather for the whole China field, in which this idea is utterly commonplace: has anyone ever tried to figure out, in a serious scholarly way, whether this view actually holds water? It’s perfectly plausible, but as I read that sentence it leapt out at me as one of those things that everyone says but has perhaps never been subjected to much scrutiny.

* * *

Finally, I was brought up short by the author’s reference to “[a] debilitating separatist movement in Xinjiang” (p. 36) that has “intensified as a result of China’s crackdown” on the Uyghurs. Really? There has never been a separatist movement in Xinjiang that could possibly be described as “debilitating,” much less one that has actually intensified as a result of the crackdown of the last few years. This is buying into the Party-state’s talking points about Xinjiang, not expressing a reality. For a thorough debunking of the claims of separatism and terrorism, I highly recommend Sean Roberts’s recent book, The War on the Uyghurs.