House Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed in Taiwan on Tuesday, ending speculation about whether she would visit the island during her tour of east Asia. Political reactions in the U.S. have been divided, particularly among progressives. Tobita Chow of Justice is Global and Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders, join Intercept reporter Mara Hvistendahl to discuss.
[Deconstructed theme song.]
Mara Hvistendahl: Welcome to Deconstructed.
I’m Mara Hvistendahl, filling in for Ryan Grim this week.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi landed yesterday in Taiwan, where she was scheduled to meet with President Tsai Ing-Wen on Wednesday. She is the first Speaker of the House to visit the island since 1997 when Newt Gingrich spent a few hours there, and her visit has been mired in controversy since the news leaked last week.
Newscaster: U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has landed in Taiwan after weeks of speculation over her potential visit. Beijing has called the move a major political provocation, and the Chinese defense ministry said it will launch targeted military operations to counter the visit.
Newscaster: If Speaker Pelosi visits Taiwan, said the Chinese Foreign Affairs spokesman, it would grossly interfere in China’s internal affairs. He warned the Chinese military would never sit idly by.
Newscaster: Biden administration officials had warned the House Speaker against it. This is the highest-level visit to Taiwan by a U.S. official in 25 years.
MH: Despite Taiwan having its own government, culture, and history, the Chinese government claims that it is part of China, and Beijing has threatened to launch “targeted military actions” in response to Pelosi’s visit. Already the People’s Liberation Army has conducted live-fire drills in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.
Pelosi’s Taiwan trip has divided Democrats and the left, so this seemed like a good time to reach out to two leading progressive foreign policy strategists for their thoughts on the U.S.-China relationship.
I spoke with Matt Duss, foreign policy adviser for Sen. Bernie Sanders, and with Tobita Chow, director of Justice Is Global, which is a project of the group People’s Action.
Along with Pelosi’s visit, we discussed the pitfalls in mixing human rights with national security concerns, how the repression of the predominantly-Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang connects to the U.S.-led War on Terror, and what they think of Biden’s approach to China.
Over conversation happened last week, before Pelosi’s visit was confirmed. And to begin with, I asked about her expected trip and whether she should go.
Tobita started us off:
Tobita Chow: My overall view is that the trip would be a bad idea, that it would further inflame tensions between the United States and China at a time when I think that’s the last thing that we need, and would predictably lead to escalated threats from China against Taiwan — and, meanwhile, contributing nothing that anyone can name in terms of improving security for Taiwan. I think we should be prioritizing in our foreign policy supporting Taiwan’s security and self-defense. But it is unclear how this trip would make any material contribution towards that goal, while potentially making Taiwan less secure overall.
On the other hand, I’m concerned that some of the criticisms and arguments against the trip that end up at the same conclusion, that she should not make this trip, have engaged in what I see is just like rampant threat-inflation, talk about how China’s response could include a no-fly zone or a naval blockade. And I think those kinds of concerns are not well grounded, and engaging in a pattern of overall threat inflation regarding Taiwan, that I think is counterproductive and actually functions to make Taiwan less secure in the long run.
MH: Right. So I mean, there has been a fair amount of rhetoric coming from the Chinese government. Biden talked with the Chinese leader Xi Jinping on July 27 and a description of the call issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry afterward warned: “those who play with fire will perish by it.” It’s a quote.
And I mean, so Matt, what do you think?
Matt Duss: I mean, first off, I mean, Sen. Sanders hasn’t commented on the speaker’s trip. I’m not going to get out in front of him on this.
I would just say, generally, I do think it’s important to show solidarity with other democracies and other populations in democracies and not in democracies. But I think the question to be asked is, you know, whether that cause is advanced or not. And I also would echo the second thing that Toby said about when people are issuing these dire warnings about the Chinese government’s response, I mean, I think there’s a problem in that, too.
I think the goal here, as I see it for progressives and for Democrats, is to not be drawn into this kind of hawkish discourse that just inevitably, and always, I think benefits conservatives and national security hawks and really undermines, I think, progressive goals.
And I think that’s kind of a broader issue that Sen. Sanders has certainly addressed with regard to the shift in U.S.-China relations and this kind of broader idea of great power competition or conflict, whatever term one wants to use, and some of the dangers that poses — just looking at very recent history, and the way that could crowd out avenues for for cooperation, and ultimately undermine, I think, a lot of important human security goals.
MH: I mean, you talked about concerns about being overly hawkish. And that was a cornerstone of Trump’s approach to China. And I’m just curious what both of you think of the Biden administration’s approach to China so far? On the one hand, after the period of [indistinct phrase] stances and sanctions and overtly racist comments of the Trump administration, and if anything seems more rational, but there have also been a number of critiques of Biden’s policy. So I’m curious where you stand?
MD: Yeah. I can take that one first. My view, and just a caveat here, I’m here expressing my own views, not representing the senator, although obviously a lot of what I say will echo things he has said. In general, I think the Biden administration has been careful in a way that I think it’s certainly refreshing after the Trump administration, with all the really just straight-up racist rhetoric around China’s government policy, and obviously around the pandemic, stuff that had a real physical impacts for our communities here in the United States, our Chinese and Asian fellow citizens, in similar ways that we saw impacting our Muslim-American communities around the war on terror. And that’s, unfortunately, something that’s been repeated throughout history, and yet another reason why I’m glad that they tended to avoid this kind of inflammatory rhetoric.
Now, having said that, I think the danger is — I mean it’s good to avoid that kind of rhetoric that demonizes any people, or really any country, but at the same time, I think if you are arranging your foreign policy around this idea that China represents the biggest threat to American security and prosperity of any country in the world, that policy sort of speaks for itself.
I’m not going to make an equation between the Biden administration and the Bush administration, but I would say in the weeks after 9/11, George W. Bush went to a Muslim center, right? I mean, I think his rhetoric showed — he said, at least, — that we are not at war with Islam, we are not at war with Muslims. But his policy spoke very much for itself. I mean, these policies that he pursued: the military interventions, the wars, the assassinations, torture, detention, all kind of painted a very, very different picture that suggested that maybe we were, in fact at war with a religious faith. And I think that’s something to be very, very careful about.
MH: Yeah, I guess the counterpoint that I hear often is that progressives frame the U.S.-China relationship as being primarily about us actions when there has been increasing authoritarianism in China, the slide toward fewer freedoms, and life has gotten worse for many people, not least ethnic minorities under Xi Jinping.
So, Toby, I wonder how you respond to that, or what you think generally of Biden’s approach to China?
TC: Yeah, I think the growing authoritarianism and nationalism and repression that we’re seeing from the Chinese government is extremely worrying. And I have friends and people that I’ve worked with in both mainland China and Hong Kong that have directly suffered from that. So I take that stuff very seriously.
I think my concern though, and my critique of how these issues have been approached by the administration and the foreign policy establishment overall, is that this approach of intensifying competition, zero-sum competition between the U.S. and China is an approach that is not well designed to actually encourage better behavior from the Chinese government. And I think I have a pretty different analysis of where those really bad policies in the Chinese government are coming from.
I see the growing and intensifying nationalism and authoritarianism within Chinese politics as part of a much larger global trend that we’re seeing around the world with authoritarian and nationalist movements and governments in, yes, in China; also here in the U.S. and the Trump administration; in Brazil, India, Poland, Hungary, like we could go on. And I think it is important to understand the root causes of this global trend, which I think have to do with severe and growing dysfunctions in the neoliberal global economy since the 2008 crisis, that the global economy has not fully recovered, global economic growth has been very weak, that encourages a sense of zero-sum competition, which becomes, then, a breeding ground for this kind of nationalist and authoritarian politics. So I think that it is very important to have those root causes in mind. And we need a strategy that can attack this problem at that root, which has to do with the global system.
And the problem with seeing how these issues of authoritarianism and nationalism are taking shape in China, and then turning that into a reason to engage in more severe competition and more aggressive actions against China, is that I think that can just end up feeding into the dysfunctions of the system that makes the whole system worse, that does not actually create incentives for the Chinese government to behave better, and actually creates lots of excuses within Chinese politics for the most extreme forms of nationalism, which then get used to justify further repressive and authoritarian policies within China.
MD: Yeah, I think — if I could just for a minute.
MH: Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead.
MD: I think that’s such an important point, is just understanding not just the sources of nationalism, but the purposes that nationalism serves for governments. And one doesn’t have to equate the Chinese government and its policies and practices with the U.S. government to recognize that there are real similarities with regard to the way that nationalism and fear and suspicion of other countries is deployed to achieve certain goals for certain elites. I mean, whether it’s the U.S.-China relationship, or the U.S.-Russia relationship, or the U.S.-Iran relationship [laughs], it’s always a mutually reinforcing a kind of relationship between, I would say, nationalist hardliners in all of these countries, that their rhetoric, in some ways, mirrors each other because it is performing very similar functions at a basic level, even though I think that these systems are in many ways different,
MH: Right. Yeah, I know that historians of the Cold War period often talk about this cycle of mirroring and escalation. And that definitely was a factor then.
To get into history a little bit, in the time that I’ve been reporting on China as a journalist, and certainly in the time that you have worked on China, there’s been a dramatic shift in how centrist politicians and corporate America perceived China and spoke about China. Think back not not that long ago, Mark Zuckerberg was displaying Xi Jinping’s book on a visit by the Chinese leader — it is not even a book that anyone would read — and went for a run in Tiananmen Square, which is also not somewhere you would run. And Google is building a censored search engine for China.
And today, you have some of the same big tech executives arguing that America needs A.I. weapons to counter China. So just this same trend has played out, of course, across multiple sectors, not just in tech. So the consensus in Washington has dramatically shifted, and that’s something that Sen. Sanders has pointed out in his writings.
Can you talk about what has driven that beyond the 2008 economic crisis, as Toby mentioned?
MD: Yeah. I mean, as you mentioned, Sen. Sanders kind of laid out this argument in a piece he wrote for Foreign Affairs, I think it was April of 2021, just noting, as you said, the 180-degree shift with regard to the kind of consensus position on what China wanted, what the Chinese government wanted, and what the nature of the U.S.-China relationship should be.
I will note, as many and he has also noted, despite this completely different perception of China, the answer for Congress remains the same, and that is that big corporations should receive tens of billions of dollars in American taxpayer money. That’s just really interesting.
But, yeah, back around 2000, as he noted, the sense was: Well, China is growing, we’re going to give it a most-favored-nation trading status, talk about bringing it to the WTO — the idea being China’s economy is going to grow and it’s going to help a lot of people, going to lift a lot of people out of poverty, which it did, I mean, as he has recognized many times. I think that the transformation of large parts of China has been pretty amazing in that respect. But the idea was like, as the Chinese people become richer, then they will become more liberal and China will become less repressive. And obviously, that has not worked out.
Now, I would say, that often does not work out. But it’s one of those arguments that involved giving enormous tax incentives to companies, that enabled them to offshore and see cheaper labor with fewer labor standards. And here we are 20 years later, where China is now perceived as a much bigger competitor, if not an outright threat to American security and prosperity. And yet again, the answer is to provide enormous tax incentives to bring [laughs] essentially the same corporations back onshore and rebuild our supply chains and our manufacturing capacity — all important things to do. We should not need a threat of a foreign country to do these things, to build American industry, to build American supply chains and help Americans generally. Unfortunately, that’s the way this stuff often works.
So yeah, I think the point that the senator was making in that piece was just: There was an unassailable consensus about what China wants 20 years ago, there now appears to be a fast-forming, unassailable consensus about what China wants now, and we should be a bit more careful about making these assumptions given that it was apparently so wrong then and might well be now.
TC: I think this shift in the position of corporate America is really essential to the emergence of this new consensus in D.C. Professor Ho-Fung Hung, from Johns Hopkins, has written about this based on a study of the position of corporate lobbyists in D.C. on various bills regarding China. And what he argues is that since the 2008 crash, because of economic policies in China, in response to that economic crisis, we’ve seen a radical transformation in the relationship between China and U.S. multinational corporations. And there was a rapid shift from China acting as a source of low-wage factory labor to U.S.-based multinational corporations occupying a subordinate position in their supply chains to the rise of Chinese companies, as rivals and competitors, to U.S. multinational corporations. And these rising Chinese companies first started to out-compete U.S. companies in the Chinese market, or in some cases, the Chinese government pushed out U.S. companies — for example, this happened with social media companies. And then increasingly, we see Chinese companies competing or out-competing U.S. companies in the global market. So for example, we’ve seen that with Huawei.
And seeing these shifts, U.S. multinational corporations, which used to play a key role in defending the U.S.-China relationship, because that was profitable for them, now, increasingly, a number of these companies would like to see the U.S. government help them fight back against the rise of these Chinese rivals. And professor Hung looks at the record of corporate lobbies in D.C. And there’s a discernible shift in their position from being staunch champions of the U.S.-China relationship and fighting against any anti-China bills in D.C., to either remaining silent on those bills or actually advocating for them. And so I think this shift in the attitude of corporate America to the U.S.-China relationship is really essential to understanding the emergence of this new anti-China consensus in D.C.
MH: Right, so the multinationals have largely been kept out of the Chinese market or have not been able to break in for various reasons. And so we see, for example, the push against industrial espionage.
Maybe this is a good time to talk about the CHIPS and Science Act, which passed Congress yesterday. And that’s a bill that has been promoted as boosting U.S. technological and manufacturing capacity in order to make the U.S. more competitive with China. The previous version was called The Endless Frontier Act, which kind of brings to mind the 1980s computer game Oregon Trail, kind of like the Manifest Destiny notion.
MD: [Laughs.] To me, it reminds me of Star Trek. I was hoping there would be some kind of —
MH: Oh! OK. [Laughs.]
MD: — warp drive development plan, but no, but yeah, sorry. You can cut that out!
MH: [Laughs.] Maybe that’s the follow-up!
MD: I’m working on it. I’m working on it. But it’s hard to get my boss to go for that.
MH: Right. But maybe if you frame it as making the U.S. more competitive against China —?
MD: List, warp drive by 2025 — I’ve been trying to sell this for so long and I just can’t get anyone to bite.
MH: But that’s been very much the framing. What’s your stance and Sen. Sanders’ stance on the bill and how it has been framed?
MD: I mean, Sen. Sanders has spoken about this multiple times, including on the floor of the Senate. He recognizes the need to rebuild American manufacturing, specifically relating to semiconductors. But his question on this as on so many things is: Do we need to be providing enormous taxpayer subsidies and incentives that essentially transfer American tax dollars to already enormously wealthy companies and CEOs? And the answer that Congress, unfortunately, always seems to give is, yes. There are supporters of the bill who will say: Well, there are safeguards with regard to stock buybacks and other things like that. But we can point to many examples of how those guardrails were written into these bills — or even look at the American Rescue Plan or money that was given to the airlines with the understanding that American taxpayers are going to bail you out, so you don’t have to lay people off. And they said: Thank you very much — and went ahead and pushed people into retirement, which is why people are having flights delayed and canceled all over the place now.
Going back even to the 2008 financial crisis, American corporations bailed out, their CEO says: Thanks so much — and took enormous bonuses. And so whatever rules might be written in, these companies are very good at skirting those rules, and just taking the cash.
So that’s been his position. And again, it’s in some ways tough because, as I said, we recognize the need to rebuild American industry and create jobs, and the security aspect of having an onshore semiconductor industry, but he has had very serious questions about whether this is the way to do it.
MH: Toby, do you have thoughts on CHIPS?
TC: Yeah. So one is that the CHIPS Act that has passed is significantly stripped down from earlier versions, so it comes out of the U.S. innovation and competitive Act that was passed in the Senate, and then there’s a TJ Competes Act that passed in the House. Those early versions of this bill were much more comprehensive and included a lot of foreign policy provisions, mostly geared towards a competition with China, many of which I saw as quite dangerous. So I’m quite gratified that what ended up passing was this CHIPS bill, which stripped out a lot of what I think were very often dangerous foreign policy provisions.
But I think it is important to keep track of how anti-China politics is playing out in Congress and in D.C. This CHIPS bill was one of the premier products of anti-China politics under the Biden administration. So much of the politics regarding China isn’t really about China. It’s really about us, and internal U.S. dynamics, and how China gets used to sort of displace internal tensions or gets used as a way to sort of project our internal tensions and anxieties outwards. And one of the key pieces of discourse regarding China across the political spectrum has been this idea of U.S.-China, competition is going to save U.S. politics, that in the face of growing polarization, in particular, the growing radicalization of the right in the Republican Party, that we can bring the country together through competition with China that this can be something that can unite the country and allow us to govern again. And there was this dream of rebuilding bipartisanship, even given the radicalization of the right, rebuilding bipartisanship around competition with China. And there were even arguments that this could be used to pass bold, progressive legislation.
And I think that is not what we are seeing. We’ve been trying this for a while now. And that’s not what we are seeing. What we’re seeing is that what anti-China politics is good for is bills that amount to enormous corporate giveaways, and the two major beneficiaries of that have been the military and industrial complex. And now the certain elements of the tech industry and companies that are already highly profitable. And that’s what this politics looks like in practice.
MH: Toby, your group Justice Is Global released a report last summer on anti-Asian racism. And when you talk about what an anti-China policy is good for, the report really made the argument that these sorts of policies have promoted the idea that China is an existential threat to every American — not just a threat to U.S. global domination or to U.S. national security, but actually to every person in the country, and that notion that in turn feeds racism and has driven some of the hate crimes that we’ve seen over over the past few years. I should disclose that I offered feedback on an early draft of that report. But can you talk about specifically how you recommend counteracting those narratives? I mean, what are alternatives to what you describe as an anti-China approach?
TC: Yeah. So one major alternative is to stop using China as a scapegoat for problems in U.S. society, problems like the threat of authoritarianism, problems of growing inequality and the loss of good jobs. And I think that we, as progressives, need to clarify, and promote narratives, and promote policies that put the blame where it belongs: problems of corporate power and unaccountable elites within U.S. politics, politicians that have worked to support corporate power and undermine the power of working people, undermine labor unions, and so on. And that is the most important thing to clarify, who is actually responsible for the problems facing the vast majority of people in this country and to promote real solutions that can actually make people’s lives better.
The other thing is we argue that we need to make a careful distinction between these inflated threat narratives, which we see as unjustified and dangerous, versus what we see as like legitimate criticism of the Chinese government — the policies of repression, and so on — and criticisms of the Chinese government grounded in principles of democracy and human rights. And also understand that those principles of human rights and democracy are not going to be served through a politics of increasing rivalry that is driven by these inflated threatened narratives.
MH: Right. So when you talk about human rights concerns, I would like to ask you both about Xinjiang. And you know, the situation there, which is that you have estimates of over a million Uyghurs that have been detained in internment camps over the past few years, many others that have been forced into labor, a kind of cultural annihilation at work. And you both pushed back against the tendency to tether human rights issues to national security priorities. And the plight of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang has largely been taken up by conservative Republicans, who in the past have fanned Islamophobia in other parts of the world.
And, and so I’m just wondering: How do you counter that? And what does a leftist approach to Xinjiang look like?
MD: Yeah, no, I think that’s a great question. And my first response without being too glib is just to note that conservatives always seem to identify human rights problems in countries they want to fight with. But I think the progressive response is to take a consistent position with regard to human rights obviously here at home, but around the world, and having a realistic understanding of the actual tools we have to improve human rights and press governments to stop abuses of human rights.
Now, I think, with Xinjiang, one of the things we can do, and I think the United States has been doing, is simply raising the issue, which is important. There’s something valuable in that. I think, ultimately, it’s going to work better if it’s not just the United States pointing this finger, if it’s as large as possible, a coalition, a set of multilateral institutions like the U.N. and others who are calling this out. I mean, there are sanctions tools that the U.S. can use on specific officials, I would make a distinction between kind of broad-based sectoral sanctions — I mean, if that were even possible with China [laughs], given its own economic power and the kind of interrelationship between our economies, it’s not possible to do that in the way that’s being done with Russia, for example.
But I would also add that U.S. credibility on human rights now is not great. And here, I would say, just for example, look a couple of weeks ago to the President’s trip to the Middle East. How much credibility do we imagine that the United States might have to note these abuses in China while he is bumping fists with Mohammed bin Salman, or inviting Egypt’s President el-Sisi to the White House? I think ultimately, if we want the words “international, rules-based order” to have any meaning whatsoever, I think we need to understand that that applies to us and our friends as well, and not insist upon a special dispensation or special rules for us and our friends, and that’s exactly what we do right now.
Last thing I would add to this is one of the justifications that the administration gave for that trip to the Middle East was precisely because of China. Their argument is that we need to stay engaged and be a presence in this region, or else it will be filled by bad actors like the Chinese government and the Russian government, and it just shows how this kind of approach can be used to excuse a whole number of things, not only on human rights, but my question is what kind of double standard couldn’t you smuggle in under that kind of framework?
MH: Right. You mentioned the U.N., but the U.N. has largely been silent on the issue of Xinjiang. You had the recent visit by the U.N. High Commissioner on Human Rights to the region, in which she declined to call out the abuses that were going on. And there is the perception that other arms of the U.N. are kind of compromised, you’ve had massive bribery cases involving U.N. officials in China. And so with international bodies failing on those issues, what can progressives do?
TC: Yeah, I think part of the paralysis at the U.N. is that there have been repeated attempts within the United Nations by the U.S. and U.S. allies to condemn the human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and this has happened a number of times, where countries always line up in the same way, the countries signing up to condemn China are the U.S. and mainly U.S. allies, mainly among the wealthier countries of the world. And then China, on its part, organizes countries to oppose these statements of condemnation, and it is disproportionately developing countries of the Global South that sign on on China’s side. And it is notable that majority-Muslim countries, to my recollection, have yet to join the U.S. and U.S. allies in condemning the oppression in Xinjiang, even though it is justified in terms of Islamophobia.
And to the question of credibility, I think that a part of the problem here is the U.S. and its advocacy internationally around Xinjiang has yet to really face up to its role in the problem. There are a lot of aspects to the system of repression in Xinjiang, but one core way that it gets justified in legitimated within China is through Islamophobic narratives and Islamophobic counterterrorism narratives: the idea that Islam is a source of terrorism, and the narratives that Chinese leaders use to justify these policies, that Islam is a source of terrorism, and the only way to deal with that is by intensely, surveilling the Muslim population and engaging in a program of coercion and repression. And these Islamophobic narratives that are used to justify [it], these are War on Terror narratives that the Chinese leadership explicitly borrowed from the U.S.-led War on Terror and Islamophobic ideas that were used to justify the U.S. approach to the War on Terror. And in order to attack that form of legitimation in the way that the Chinese government uses that to perpetuate his program of repression in Xinjiang, we need to confront and repudiate our government’s own record of engaging in Islamophobic, War on Terror policies, and to do that in front of the whole world.
MH: You even had Uyghurs who were detained at Guantanamo.
TC: Exactly. Exactly. Exactly.
TC: And early on in the War on Terror, China was a solid partner — a solid and valued partner — of the United States in the U.S.-led War on Terror.
MD: Right. As was Vladimir Putin. [Laughs.]
TC: Yes, yes, yes.
TC: Just one other aspect of this that scholars and researchers that look at this stuff have have have pointed out repeatedly is that the repression in Xinjiang, one of the grotesque parts of it, is the integration of these state of the art tech systems, surveillance technology tech systems designed to aid in ethnic profiling and how those have been integrated into policing practices in Xinjiang. That has to stop.
A problem is that those very systems are also developed and used here in the United States, and are embraced by police agencies and are used as part of policing strategies here in the U.S. If we want to stop their use in China, then we need to stop their use and development here and create global standards to stop U.S. practices and curtail these systems internationally. And, in effect, the current approach is to say that we’re going to stop these systems in China, while here in the U.S., we’re going to engage in research and development, we’re going to invest in these systems in the U.S., and we’re going to use these systems in U.S. policing. And, of course, that’s not going to work.
TC: We need some consistent standards that will apply to us in China and everywhere.
MH: And there’s been a lot of exchange [weird cut here] of information and technology. I mean, early on some of the major predictive policing scholars go to China to lecture, and you get companies pushing their technologies there as well. So it’s a good point.
TC: Yeah. Close collaboration. Yeah.
MH: Matt, you wanted to say something?
MD: Yeah, if I could just say a bit more on your question about the U.N.
MH: Yeah. Yeah.
MD: Because that’s a really important one, because I think as a progressive, I believe that building a system of international institutions that can facilitate cooperation and establish a set of norms related to human security, human dignity, and human rights is really important. And we’ve seen just over the past 10 or more years — I mean, obviously the U.N. has never worked perfectly, ever. [Laughs.] It’s an organization built by humans; it’s always going to have its problems. But especially over the past 10 years around things like Syria, we’ve seen how the Security Council has been used — and, let’s be clear, the United States has always kind of abused its role on the Security Council to advance its own interests and stop others from pushing back when it wanted — but I think it’s just been clear on Syria, the way that Russia has used its veto, and on Xinjiang, obviously, as China has. And I’m thinking here of a comment, this was over 10 years ago at an international conference where the question was asked to [a] panel of representatives from countries from the Global South. And the question was asked: What does your country want from the international system? And one of the responses was: Well, what we would like to do is rescue the international system from the victors of World War II. [Laughs.] And I thought that was an interesting way to put it, because this system was designed precisely in that era, for that reason, to empower a very small set of actors. And I think thinking about how we go about really trying to strengthen, and affirm, and build legitimacy for a set of norms requires broadening the circle and empowering frankly, a much, much larger circle of countries with populations that are very young, very dynamic, and want to be engaged in writing the rules. They don’t want to just be following the rules that are written for them, but they want to be very engaged in developing, I think, that consensus and ultimately, hopefully, that legitimacy.
MH: So you mean, sort of building a global Progressive Alliance? Is that what you mean?
MD: Not specifically that, though obviously that’s something that Sen. Sanders strongly supports, I strongly support, I think Toby does, too. I think progressives have a particular role to play in building international solidarity and cooperation. But I’m here specifically, thinking about something like the U.N., or multilateral international institutions, just need to be much, much more representative of the member states within them.
MH: Right. Right.
TC: Yeah, and what we see in the idea of that kind of approach is a very different way that we could approach the idea of the role that the U.S. can play in the world and what U.S. leadership could look like. Because there is a lot of anxiety about like the future of U.S. leadership, and the way that often plays out is in trying to desperately hold on to that form of U.S. hegemony that this country has enjoyed for a number of decades, in spite of the fact that the world is changing, and that is increasingly unrealistic.
And I think that there is an alternative form of leadership that the U.S. could play in the world that could significantly increase the sense of U.S. legitimacy in the eyes of other countries that would involve reforming global multilateral institutions, and reforming the overall global system in a way that is more equitable and more representative and that deals with these severe and persistent problems of inequality between Global North and Global South, both economically and in terms of just to say — the amount of voice — that different countries have in how the global system works and how these multilateral systems work. And I think there could be a very powerful and progressive role for the U.S. to play in creating more equitable systems. And that would be an approach that would make the world more equal, make things better for a lot of people and also reestablish a sense of productive U.S. leadership on a different basis.
MH: So when we talk about the left in China, I think it’s important to acknowledge a group that exists primarily online, but that has increasing influence in some circles. Earlier this year, you were both interviewed for an article by David Klion in The Nation on the left and China. And that article got into some groups that are ostensibly leftist that push what many people would say is misinformation on China. These are groups like Qiao collective, which has a lot of influence online, doesn’t have a lot of political power as far as I know, but is a group that many on the left have had to contend with. And so these are groups that are largely seen as friendly to the Chinese government, that deny that there is significant repression in Xinjiang, that have pushed back against critiques of repression in Hong Kong, and have really become a thorn in the side of some progressives who work in China. And so I wonder how you push back against that sort of misinformation? I mean, do you just ignore it? What’s the best way to address it? Because these groups do have growing influence online.
TC: So I think an important piece of perspective for me is that they do have growing influence online. But in the grand scheme of things, they are still addressing a fairly small audience, really a portion, and I think a minority, small portion, of the U.S. left. And if you look at debates within Congress or in D.C., I think their influence is fairly marginal on these questions. They are, however, a significant problem within left organizations. So for me, as someone who operates within the left ecosystem, this does become an issue.
And I think the main solution is to build as much power and infrastructure as we can around what I see as a principled, progressive and internationalist politics that both opposes anti-China nationalism in the U.S. and works towards a building an alternative to a great power conflict between the U.S. and China, and holds firm on what I see as core progressive principles around human rights and democracy, and clarifies how we can maintain those principles in a consistent way while opposing hawkish policies in U.S. foreign policy. And I think that we can organize much more power in U.S. politics, around this approach to the U.S.-China relationship, rather than this other approach, which is engaging in what I see as apologetics on behalf of authoritarianism and nationalism within China.
I think that approach is not just a violation of our principles, but also deeply flawed from a perspective of political strategy. One way to look at that question is one of the key fights within U.S. politics is against authoritarianism, and in that fight against authoritarianism, I think progressives have both the opportunity and maybe the historic calling and duty to lead in the struggle against authoritarianism within U.S. politics, and it hurts the credibility of any forces on the left within that overall struggle, if they are simultaneously excusing authoritarianism and nationalism in other countries.
MD: Yeah, I mean, if I could just add quickly?
MD: I mean, I think we’ve seen similar dynamics like this; again, to go back to recent history in Syria, elements of the left that pushed disinformation, misinformation, whether it’s questioning the Assad regime’s atrocities, misinformation and conspiracy theories about the White Helmets, for example. And obviously, now with regard to Russia’s more in Ukraine. I wrote a piece in the New Republic a few weeks ago that addressed specifically the issue of Ukraine and the conversation on the left, in an attempt to try and kind of make my argument for why I thought the position of supporting Ukraine’s defense is the right one for the left, but I was also, I think, trying to foster a discussion on the left, because I recognize there’s a diversity of views. Suspicions of American military power are very well founded; suspicions of the way that human rights is used as cover for imperialism are very well founded. We have very recent examples of the way that human rights has been instrumentalized to advance goals, which have nothing to do with human rights.
So I think the challenge in all of these places, but with China certainly, is to continue to have a strong and consistent position on human rights, while at the same time working to reform the kind of national security approach and foreign policy approach that has really undermined human rights everywhere, including in the United States. And that’s challenging, but that’s the work we have to do on the left.
MH: Yeah. And, anecdotally, I’ve reported a number of pieces on human rights in China, and again and again encounter sources who are frustrated that by the fact that it seems like the most receptive people in Congress are people like Sen. Rubio and people who don’t otherwise share their values, and there’s this view that there’s a kind of appropriation of human rights causes when it comes to China.
So, Matt, you mentioned an essay that Sen. Sanders wrote in Foreign Affairs last year. It was called “Don’t Start a New Cold War With China”. And in that essay he pointed out that while there is a lot of talk in Washington about rising authoritarianism in China, we are facing a very real democratic crisis in the United States. Are there parallels between what’s happening in the United States and what’s happening in China? Or how do you conceive of January 6, for example, when it comes to foreign policy?
MD: Mmm. Right. Yeah, no, it’s a great question. I’m glad you cited that part of the piece, because I think that is really one of the most important points that he made in that, which is: Sen. Sanders is someone who has been sounding the alarm on rising authoritarianism for a long time. But he wants to be clear on the sources of it: inequality, corruption, among other things; racism, ethnic hatred, kind of this horrible stew. But I think even while he believes that we need to do everything we can to support democracy in the battle against authoritarianism, I think one of the key points there was understanding that the battle between democracy and authoritarianism is happening within states as much as it is happening between them. And if we are going to buy into this framing that well, it’s team democracy over here and team authoritarianism over there, not only is that a false framing, it will ultimately benefit authoritarians, both abroad and here at home, because as we were saying earlier, let’s understand the impact and the uses of this kind of nationalist framing, it benefits a very specific kind of politics, and that is not a Democratic politics.
MH: Toby, do you want to expand on that?
TC: Yeah. Here in the U.S., and in countries around the world, one of the most important tools in the authoritarian toolkit is this kind of nationalism, the promotion of narratives of foreign threats, and political strategies that are based on convincing the populace of a country to blame all of their problems on some supposed foreign rival that is undermining our nation. So here in the U.S., there’s an explicit strategy in the Republican Party, in particular, the most extremist, anti-China parts of the Republican Party, to use anti-China scapegoating, to build their power and legitimacy by telling American voters that all the problems they face, including a lack of good jobs and economic inequality, are really the fault of China, and that the future of the U.S. working class depends most of all, on combating China, and so therefore you should vote for Republicans, authoritarian Republicans, because they are the anti-China champions, and they use that narrative to cover up their record on issues of corporate power, and defending corporate power, and attacking, again and again, any measures that would improve wages or improve the ability of workers to organize and form unions, and so on. And they use China as a distraction from their pro-corporate, anti-worker record that continues to today. And so that is a major part of the authoritarian strategy and a threat to democracy. And if everyone who is committed to defending multiracial democracy against this racist, authoritarian threat needs to form alternatives to that anti-China strategy.
MH: Great. Well, thank you both for taking the time to come on the show. I really appreciate it. And I wish you the best.
MD: My pleasure. Thanks for inviting me. Great to see you, Toby.
TC: Yeah. Thanks, Matt. Thanks, Mara.
[End credits music.]
MH: That was Tobita Chow and Matt Duss.
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