For the past couple of weeks, the Trump Administration has been saber-rattling about TikTok, a Chinese-based social media platform popular among America’s youth and full of silly short videos – relatives dancing together, kids lip-syncing, teens sharing beauty tips. According to Reuters, 60% of TikTok’s active users in the U.S. are between the ages of 16 and 24. The idea that TikTok is a national security threat and a danger to our democracy seemed preposterous.
But over the weekend, these seemingly preposterous ideas became very real, with U.S. President Donald Trump stating that he was going to “ban” TikTok from the U.S. market. And on Monday, Slate’s What Next podcast took on the TikTok debate, interviewing Axios reporter Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian on the reasons behind the Trump Administration’s desire for a ban. While an informative interview on the Trump Administration’s justifications behind its threats to ban TikTok, China Law & Policy came to realize that it’s time to take a deeper dive on TikTok.
Is TikTok A National Security Threat?
Much of the What Next interview centered around TikTok as a national security threat, arguing that because TikTok’s parent company, ByteDance, is located in China, TikTok may have to share information with the Chinese government under Chinese law. As China cybersecurity expert Samm Sacks recently noted, theoretically, this could happen. But according to TikTok, it does not maintain any U.S. users’ data in China. Instead that information is kept on servers in the U.S. and in Singapore. Additionally, TikTok has allegedly cut off China-based engineers to TikTok’s source code and data.
Bytedance and TikTok founder Zhang Yiming
There is potential here for the Chinese government to obtain a large swath of U.S. users’ data, especially if the protections that TikTok has allegedly put in place don’t work. But as Sacks points out, we have no evidence that this has actually occurred. But yet, the U.S. government is asking the American public to accept a forced a sale of TikTok to a U.S. company – something that feels more and more like a shakedown – without providing a scintilla of evidence that this song-and-dance social media platform popular among teenagers is an actual national security threat. Our elected leaders owe us more than just conclusory statements. If they want us to forgo one of the core tenants of our society – a free and flourishing market economy – they need to provide us some evidence.
And as Sacks points out in her piece, if the Trump Administration is truly concerned about potential national security threats, it would be wise to develop a system to test the safeguards companies have put in place to guarantee that U.S. users’ data will not be used by any government:
The way to deal with this problem is to develop a country-agnostic set of criteria with robust rules not just for TikTok, but for how all companies collect, retain, and share their data. Instead of playing a game of whack-a-mole against a rotating cast of Chinese tech companies, the U.S. would be wise to spend more time developing legislation and standards for how all companies, regardless of country of origin, protect online privacy and secure data.
But such forward-thinking ideas that would actually solve the problem do not seem to be a part of the Trump Administration’s TikTok calculus.
Is TikTok A Danger to Democracy?
According to Allen-Ebrahimian, the Chinese government could use TikTok to wage a campaign of disinformation to influence our elections. But that danger is not unique to TikTok. Remember the 2016 election and Russian interference? According to the Mueller Report, that election interference was largely done on Facebook through fake accounts and purchased ads. TikTok is no more or less susceptible to disinformation than any other social media platform, be it FaceBook, Instagram, Snapchat, YourTube or Twitter. There is nothing holding the Chinese government back from using those sites if TikTok is banned in the U.S.
But if you’re China, why stop there? As Jeremy Daum recently pointed out, the best way for foreign governments to influence our elections is through limitless donations to Political Action Committees (PACs) by U.S. subsidiaries of state-owned enterprises. After the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, this is perfectly legal. By treating corporations the same as individuals, Citizens United leaves the door wide open for foreign influence in our politics. In the case of Chinese corporations, this also means foreign government involvement. Most multinational Chinese corporations, like Haier, China Telcom, and China State Construction Engineering Corporation (CSCE), have U.S. subsidiaries. These are companies incorporated in the United States: Haier’s U.S. subsidiary, Haier American Holding Corporation, China Telecom’s subsidiary, China Telecom Americas, and CSCE’s subsidiary, China Construction America, are all incorporated in Delaware.
Under Citizens United, all three of these subsidiaries are citizens of Delaware and enjoy the same political speech rights as any other citizen of the United States. Citizens United does not permit us to look behind their corporate veil to see their relationship to foreign corporations. Haier, China Telecom and CSCE are all officially government-run. While the Chinese government does not meddle in the corporation’s daily affairs, it will exert its influence if it suits the government’s self-interest. For example, in 1994, Haier, a manufacturer of washing machines and refrigerators, was pressured by the Chinese government into acquiring a pharmaceutical company, a venture that ended badly. And while Citizens United forbids “foreign influence” on a U.S. subsidiary’s political donation decisions, how are we going to find that smoking gun in the complex and complicated world of multinational corporations?
TikTok is not the demise of our democracy. We are. In the past four years, neither Congress nor the Trump Administration has done anything to put in place structures that protect our elections from foreign interference via social media. And a decade later, Citizens United still stands.
There are serious issues with TikTok. It is necessary to understand better what it does with U.S. user’s data and some of the examples of censored speech, especially if the speech is anti-China, are problematic and need to be looked into.
But in the end, these are insufficient bases for the extreme tool of divestiture for national security reasons. Banning TikTok is not going to solve our problems. Setting up smart laws, rules and systems that ensure that foreign tech companies are not national security threats nor a danger to our democracy will go a much longer way. But that doesn’t seem to be in the cards with this Administration.
For Those Who Don’t Have TikTok – Three Fun TikToks:
government makes it really hard to believe that its detention – and now arrest –
of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor is anything but politically
motivated. It adamantly protests the charge that Kovrig and Spavor’s detention is
somehow related to the troubles Huawei Technologies is facing in North America;
it denies that this is tit-for-tat diplomacy.
actions reflect otherwise. The initial
detention of Kovrig and Spavor on December 10, 2018, came only days after
Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer and the founder’s daughter, was arrested
by Canadian authorities in preparation for extradition to the United States.
And now, the formal
arrest of the two Canadians – after 5 months in detention without access to
a lawyer – came only hours after U.S. President Donald Trump signed
an executive order prohibiting U.S. telecom companies from purchasing
foreign equipment from companies deemed a national security threat and the United
States Commerce Department officially
listing Huawei as such a threat. Not
only does this lock Huawei out of the U.S. market, by being listed as a
security threat, Huawei will also no longer be able to purchase key component parts
from U.S. tech companies such as Intel, Qualcom, Broadcom and Google; parts that
are integral to the future success of its business.
On Thursday morning,
less than 12 hours after the U.S. government issued its announcements, the
Chinese government announced that Kovrig and Spavor had been formally arrested
of stealing state secrets, Article 111 under China’s Criminal
Law (translation courtesy of China Law Translate).
Kovrig is suspected of “gathering state secrets for transmission outside of
China” and Spavor is suspect of “stealing and providing state secrets for
transmission outside China.” Although the
prosecutors are required to issue an arrest warrant upon arrest, it is unclear
if this was done or to whom it was given (see
Article 93 of China’s Criminal Procedure Law (CPL),
Art. 93 – translation courtesy of China Law Translate). Professor Maggie Lewis does a great
analysis of what the world can expect at this stage of the case.
But here is
the rub that makes it increasingly hard to believe that the Chinese government’s
actions against Kovrig and Spavor are not retaliation for what is happening to
Huawei. The Chinese government decided to arrest Kovrig and Spavor one month
earlier than they had to. Because Kovrig
and Spavor were being
detained under Residential Surveillance at a Designated Location (RSDL), under
Chinese Criminal Procedure Law, the public security authorities had up to six
months – or until around June 10, 2019 – before they had to request the official
arrest of the two (CPL
Art. 79). Once the prosecutors formally arrest the suspect, the time frame to
investigate becomes much tighter. As
a result, it is a rare occurrence for China’s public security bureaus not to take
full advantage of these six months. But it appears that announcing the arrest
of these two only hours after the U.S. declared Huawei a threat to national
security was more important.
to say that the U.S. is innocent of gaming the Huawei situation as a way to
gain leverage against China in the current trade battle. But what is different
here is that Chinese government is dealing with two lives; two people who could
end up in a prison for a very long time basically as pawns in this game. Trade disputes can be settled. But the criminal justice system is a body on
to itself. And once it is engaged, especially in China, it’s hard to turn back.
daily, Donald Trump
talks about building a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border. According to him, it’s needed to keep
immigrants out. It was his commitment for
a border wall that lead to a 35-day
government shutdown back in January and, when Trump failed to secure any
funding for his wall, caused him to declare a national emergency. But Trump isn’t the first world leader to
look to a wall as a way to keep people out. That dubious honor belongs to the
Chinese. It was the Chinese who built a 5,500-mile-long wall along its northern
border to keep out the different tribes just outside its borders and to
maintain the purity of their Han culture.
he Chinese have been building walls for over 2,000. Starting with the Qin dynasty (China’s
“first” dynasty), a wall was seen as a way to keep foreigners to the north out.
But for most of China’s history, this wall was largely mounds of rammed earth.
It wasn’t until the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD) that a more permanent
structure of mortar and bricks was finally contemplated.
the Ming did not build a wall out of strength; it built it from a place of weakness.
After more than a century of expansion in trade and influence, with one of the
most powerful navies in the world that promoted trade as far off as the coast
of east Africa, by the mid to late 1400s the Ming Dynasty began to retreat
inward. It no longer sought trade abroad
and its global power and influence receded. And its aversion to trade was not
just restricted to the maritime sphere; it also included the tribes to the
north. It was the Ming’s trade embargo on arms, copper, iron and horses with
its northern neighbors that caused the northern tribes to unite and begin
constant attacks on the Ming.
these attacks, the Ming began to spend more and more resources on building the
Wall. For the next 150 years, the Ming’s
sole focus – and at great expense to its empire – was the defense of its
northern frontier, including constant repair and reinforcement of the Great
Wall. What tourists see today – the reconstructed
Wall at Badaling and Mutianyu or the wild Wall at Simatai and Gubeikou – are
relics of this emblem of a dynasty in decline. In 1644 the Manchus, a non-Han
Chinese tribe to the north, breached the wall, defeated the Ming and
established the Qing Dynasty, a non-Chinese dynasty that would rule until the
dynastic model was overthrown in 1911.
the Great Wall is more than a symbol of ineffectiveness; it also demonstrates
the danger in a country’s own isolationist policy. For the first 150 years of
the Ming Dynasty, China, through effective trade relations with the northern
tribes, was able to keep peace with its neighbors. It wasn’t until it began to
turn inward and cut off trade that trouble emerged. But instead of reversing
its policy, the Ming dug in, directing more and more of the empire’s resources
and attention to building the Great Wall.
appears to be on the same collision course with history, taking the American public
with him. In addition to shutting down the government for over a month, a move
that appears to have
cost the American public $11 billion in lost economic
opportunities, by declaring a national emergency, Trump now seeks to siphon off
other federal agencies $8 billion to build his wall.
In addition, instead of addressing some of the causes of the current
immigration trends at the U.S.’ southern border – such as the failing
central American states of Honduras, Guatemala and
El Salvador – Trump is digging in his heels, punitively
threatening to cut off all forms of aid to those countries.
Like with the Ming Dynasty, Trump’s demand for a wall is not just a call for
something ineffective –most undocumented individuals in the U.S. are a result
overstays not physically walking over the border – it is
also continues the United States’ path on an isolationist, anti-trade and
anti-engagement strategy. For the Ming it was the beginning of their decline.
Time will only tell if the same holds true for the United States.
 For this post, CL&P relies on
two sources for the history of the Great Wall of China: Jacques Gernet, A History of Chinese Civilization (Cambridge
University Press, 2nd Ed. 1996) and Peter Hessler, Walking
the Wall (The
New Yorker, May 21, 2007).
By now, most people have heard of One Belt, One Road (“OBOR”) – the Chinese government’s program to build up the infrastructure in developing countries across Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa. OBOR has largely been seen as a brick-and-mortar type of operation – building railroads, ports, pipelines. But in 2017, President Xi Jinping announced a new initiative within the government’s OBOR – promotion of a digital silk road.
And on Monday night, the China Institute hosted a discussion of that ambitious new program featuring Winston Ma, Managing Director and Chief Investment Officer of China Silkroad Investment Corporation, and moderated by Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University Arthur L. Carter Center of Journalism. But, while the event was advertised as to be a lively, thought-provoking one that would confront pressing issues such as whether China’s digital silk road will lead to China’s domination of global internet standards and whether China’s technology will actually help emerging economies, Ma and Shirky’s conversation ended up being shallow and, as one audience member stated, blindly “techno-optimistic.”
Camal on the Digital Silk Road
For sure, the event did highlight some of developments that the rest of the world should wake up and take notice of. Going from building physical infrastructure in the developing world to cyber infrastructure unmaksks the Chinese government’s grand ambition to open those markets to its companies and become a global superpower. And in some ways, as a country that developed simultaneously with the internet, China is uniquely situated to do that. As Shirky pointed out, China was more of a blank slate to develop, and continuously modernize, its internet infrastructure. The United States on the other hand, is saddled with the infrastructure of earlier telecommunications. Ma noted that this structural freedom enabled 800 million people to access the internet largely through mobile devices. In fact, China has by-passed the use of credit cards – moving from a cash-based economy to a mobile payment one. Cash is often not an accepted form of currency, even by street vendors. Instead, the only way to pay in many places is with the swipe of your phone. What happens to those 600 million people without phones – and thus access to this economy – was not addressed.
But Ma further noted that it is this type of technology – and way of thinking – that China is also seeking to export to emerging economies. The Taobao Villages – where farmers in rural areas can open an online “shop” and sell their produce or local crafts – is a model that could be replicated in other emerging economies. But is this good for the farmers in these other countries – to be dependent on exporting their craft goods to richer individuals? Is it even good for the Chinese farmers? Instead of demanding that their government do more for them – such as provide quality education, health care, and social benefits that are on par with east coast cities – they must settle for peddling their goods in a virtual mall. Unfortunately, these questions were not answered.
Surveillance in Xinjiang
Instead, both Shirky and Ma were unshaken in their commitment to the good that the internet and mobile devices can bring to all societies. Even when an audience member asked a pointed question about the use of this technology in surveilling and unlawfully detaining a million Muslims Uighurs in Xinjiang province, Ma evaded answering the question, instead re-focusing on antitrust issues. Shirky fared no better; he neither pressed Ma on the question nor rescued Ma from it by addressing it himself.
Ma was right to note that the global, technology infrastructure is the future and largely that future is still unwritten. That is why – as Shirky noted – it is dangerous for the United States to be backing out of so many global treaties and alliances when, as Ma stated, the world is on the cusp of writing “new norms for a new game.” Not only will the United States’ retreat from the global stage mean that U.S. businesses will be at a disadvantage for decades to come, but China will be the one writing those norms. And given how easily Ma ignored the question on surveillance and mass detention in Xinjiang and how quickly Shirky acquiesced, the question is, is this a good thing?
Presidents Trump and Xi Jingping at Mar-a-Lago, April 6, 2017 (Photo courtesy of JIM WATSON/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
To say that the U.S. air strike on Syria overshadowed the Trump-Xi summit last week would be an understatement. The event basically eclipsed the two day conference, pushing the meeting between the leaders of the world’s two largest economies to second page news.
But even without the Syrian air strike, the summit would not have created much news. In fact, in the way Trump and Xi each described the outcome of the meeting – deepening their friendship and making progress in their relationship – it seemed more reminiscent of a marriage proposal in Elizabethan England than a discussion between two powerful countries that have been having a difficult relationship.
But did anything substantive come out of the summit? The South China Morning Post has a great review of the issues discussed – and not discussed – at last week’s summit. But here are some highlights:
At Mar-a-Lago last week (Photo Courtesy of AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Trump did raise the issue of trade and, according to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump “underscored the need for China to take concrete steps to level the playing field for American workers, stressing repeatedly the need for reciprocal market access.” But it is unclear if the statement resonated with the Chinese delegation. And, contrary to some pundits’ expectations, Xi did not come to Mar-a-Lago with a peace offering, namely proposing job-creating investments in the United States.
Instead, the two sides announced the 100-Day Plan, a policy to completely overhaul their trade relationship within 100 days. While most countries take years to rebalance a trade relationship, Trump and Xi are going to do it in a mere 100 days. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross correctly noted that this approach would be a “very big sea change” but offered no explanation exactly how all of this can occur in a matter of three-and-a-half months or even why it should; why such a rush to recalibrate the most important trade relationship in the world is a good idea.
While both countries acknowledged North Korea as a growing nuclear threat, no middle ground was met. It appears that Trump continued to warn China that if it did not do more, the U.S. would follow its own course of action, and with the Syrian attack in the backdrop, one can only imagine what Xi was thinking in all this. China’s foreign minister however noted that if North Korea ceases its nuclear program, then military action in the region should also cease. Interestingly, this was the suggestion that Beijing made last month: to halt the joint U.S.-South Korea military drills to induce North Korea to coming back to the negotiating table. The U.S. did not listen and instead continued with the drills.
Just say no to human rights
Neither side mentioned whether human rights was raised during the summit and, given the agendas of these two men, it likely was not. But in a White House-approved statement after the summit, Tillerson again used the vocabulary of the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”) to describe the U.S.-China relationship: one of “mutual interest.” For the Chinese, this is not rhetoric but words that come with baggage. Mutual interest is often used by China to scold other countries when those countries question China’s domestic policies. Usually used in relation to China’s interest in Tibet and Taiwan, it can also be used in defense of foreign criticism of policies that seek to viciously stamp out civil society. So expect human rights to play a low role in Trump’s policy toward China.
State Visit & U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue
Trump – already big in China
Xi invited Trump to a state visit in China this year and Trump said yes. But more importantly, the U.S. and China established a framework by which to hold high-level talks, the U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue. Make no mistake, this is not a new idea. Under the Obama Administration, the U.S. and China would periodically host the Strategic and Economic Dialogue, the Human Rights Dialogue and on occasion, the Legal Experts Dialogue. It appears that Trump and Xi are going to replace these dialogues with the U.S.-China Comprehensive Dialogue (date yet to be announced) which will have four tracks: a diplomatic and security dialogue; a comprehensive economic dialogue; a law enforcement and cybersecurity dialogue; and a social and cultures issues dialogue. Again, human rights was not named as a specific issue and if it is unclear if this issue will merely be squished into the social and cultural issue dialogue.
So in the end, not many outcomes from the Trump-Xi summit. Perhaps what is more telling though is what was not said at the summit. No mention of Taiwan, no mention of human rights and no mention of increased Chinese investment in the U.S. to create jobs. But check back in 100 days.
On Thursday, President Donald Trump will host Chinese President Xi Jinping at his resort in Mar-a-Lago for their first summit meeting. While it is not clear what will come out of this two-day meeting, what will certainly be on the agenda is North Korea. But is Trump and his administration ready?
Trump has barely staffed up the upper echelons of the State Department or the Department of Defense and on Sunday, in an interview with the Financial Times, Trump yet again claimed that “China has great influence over North Korea.”
But, as North Korea expert Jenny Town made clear in an interview with China Law & Policy, China does not have the influence over North Korea that Trump thinks it has. “China’s current relationship with North Korea is not very good either, especially compared to past years” Town told China Law & Policy. “I think that there’s a lot of problems with the way that people think about China’s influence on North Korea, and I think they really over estimate that influence.”
Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute
And in a way, Trump underestimates the influence that the U.S.’ rhetoric has on North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un. “I think some of [North Korea’s] antagonism with China is maybe also somewhat triggered by all this U.S. talk of ‘if we just push China enough, China will take care of this problem'” Town told China Law & Policy.
In his interview with the Financial Times, Trump also stated that if China won’t exert its influence – which, in reality, may not be that strong right now – the U.S. will go it alone. But will it really? Any actions the U.S. takes with North Korea will have a strong impact on South Korea and Japan, important strategic allies in the region with populations that will unfairly bear the brunt of the U.S.’ bellicose engagement with North Korea. In terms of a preventive strike on North Korea (preemptive strike is in fact a misnomer in this situation according to Town), “North Korea is almost guaranteed to have some kind of response. The response might not even be directly on the U.S., but again our allies in the region” stated Town.
Now if the Trump Administration’s idea of going it alone is one-on-one dialogue with North Korea, that could actually be game-changing. According to Town, the Obama Administration’s policy of
North Korea leader Kim Jong-un (Photo courtesy of CNN)
“strategic patience” – where it ignored diplomatic relations with North Korea and instead doubled-down on sanctions – was a failure, allowing North Korea to rapidly advance its missile technology. The Trump Administration has stated that it rejects the policy of strategic patience. But in her interview, Town questions if that is true, especially if the Trump Administration is just looking to issue more sanctions: “[W]hen [Secretary of State] Tillerson said strategic patience is over, we all look at the things that he talks about after that. Those are really just tenets of strategic patience. So again without negotiation you’re still just doubling down on the same tactic and hoping for a different result. Even if you’re making them harder-edged, it’s still not a new tactic. Again, if it’s been ineffective now for eight years, what makes you think just pushing a little harder is going to help?”
To listen to the full podcast of China Law & Policy‘s exclusive interview with Jenny Town of the John Hopkins’ US-Korea Institute, click the media player below (total time – 37:08). To read the full transcript, click here.
Yesterday, China Law & Policy published Part 1 of its exclusive interview with Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the U.S.-Korea Institute and noted expert on North Korea. While Part 1 of the interview focused on North Korea’s military build-up and the U.S.’ prior policy toward North Korea, in Part 2, Ms. Town discusses Secretary Tillerson’s announcement that no options are off the table, the precarious future of U.S-North Korea relations, and what role can China play in all of this. Is it really that “China has done little to help” as President Trump tweeted a few weeks ago?
Read the transcript below for Part 2 of this two-part interview where Ms. Town explains the role of China on the Korean peninsula. Or click on the media player below to listen to the interview (total time – 20:38)
Secretary Tillerson at the DMZ, March 2017 (Photo courtesy of CNN)
CL&P: I guess in that regard, I mean when Tillerson was over there this past month, he stated that he was going to leave all options on the table. What exactly do you think he meant by that, and is this harsher stance? I mean it sounds like it’s a harsher stance than strategic patience. Is it good or bad for peace on the Korean peninsula?
JT: I think it’s a little bit out of context. I think that the reality is Tillerson is not a seasoned diplomat, and so when he says certain things, he says certain things in ways that a seasoned diplomat wouldn’t. The reality is right now the [U.S.] government is going through a policy review. And as part of the policy review of course, they’re reviewing all options, including military options, including negotiations, and so they haven’t necessarily come out with their policy yet. So part of what he was saying is that yes, all options are still on the table, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing in the future.
President Xi Jinping (Photo courtesy of Time)
The [U.S.] government is expected to be done with their policy review in the next couple of weeks, especially before the visit by Xi Jinping to be able to have some level of strategic discussion with Xi Jinping. But, you know, it isn’t helpful for him to have said it either, again without those qualifiers, because it does come across more aggressive and more belligerent at a time when tensions are already very high. This kind of talk is very dangerous especially if that isn’t the direction which we end up going because it already put the thought out there, and it’s already sort of antagonizing the situation more than it needs to be.
CL&P: I think that’s true, because I think of lot of the press already have interpreted that statement as also equating it with preemptive strike. How serious of a possibility do you think right now in diplomatic circles down in D.C. people are talking about preemptive strike against North Korea?
JT: I would say people are talking about it, and they’re talking about it a lot. But most of the discussion about that’s happening right now is why it’s a really, really bad idea because all of the things that could go wrong in the process. Here’s the problem. It’s not even preemptive strikes. It’s not like we’re watching them load up an ICBM that we know is coming to the U.S. which would give us the right to defend ourselves from an attack. That’s what preemptive means.
What people are talking about now is more preventive strikes or surgical strikes. So basically preventing them from having the technology by trying to disrupt their systems; preventive strikes on say missile bases or missile arsenals, things like that. But, I think there’s a huge miscalculation if people think that North Korea wouldn’t retaliate. If the U.S. were to do something, North Korea is almost guaranteed to have some kind of response. The response might not even be directly on the U.S., but again our allies in the region. It makes it very dangerous. It’s a very dangerous proposition, one that could easily escalate into war.
CL&P:You had mentioned the new Trump administration figuring out a more precise North Korea policy before Xi Jinping comes to visit Trump, and I think that’s interesting. Because in President Trump’s Tweet a couple weeks ago about the North Korean situation, in addition to saying that they were behaving badly, he also brought up China, and stating that China has done little to help. I guess just to start us off if you can explain a little bit more what exactly is China’s current relationship with North Korea.
Better times. Prior N.Korea lead Kim Jong-il meeting with prior Chinese President Hu Jintao (Photo courtesy of the Wall Street Journal)
JT: China’s current relationship with North Korea is not very good either, especially compared to past years. Under Kim Jong-il China had a good understanding of North Korea and had a relationship with Kim Jong-il and could signal to him when he’s gone too far. They had a personal relationship with him and knew how he would react to certain things. Since Kin Jong-un has come to power, Kim Jong-un does not have a relationship with Xi Jinping. He hasn’t been to Beijing. They don’t know what to expect from him. They don’t know him. Everything that anyone is doing that’s trying to send signals to North Korea, we don’t exactly know how he will react.
We knew how Kim Jong-il would react because Kim Jong-il had been there for 20 years. He had been apprenticed under Kim Il-sung for 16 years before that. Kim Jong-un only came to the scene a year before his father died. We never got to know him as the successor before he took over, and now that he’s in power there’s a lot of times where people say he’s unpredictable. Well, of course he’s unpredictable to us because we don’t know him and we don’t have a relationship with him. And we don’t know how he’s going to react. Too many people assume that he will react like Kim Jung-il did, but he’s proven he’s not his father.
The question is now when are people finally going to take the time to accept that notion – he’s not his father – and try and build a relationship with him. To try and get to know him and better understand how he’s thinking and how he’s going to react to things.
Kim Jong-un’s half brother, murdered in Malaysia. (Photo courtesy of the South China Morning Post)
CL&P: I mean I guess also in that regards with Kin Jong-un taking over leadership and the relationship with China, it’s been mentioned a number of times that he hasn’t visited Beijing. Also, my understanding, correct me if I’m wrong, is that the execution of his uncle. His uncle was close to Beijing, and then also the half brother was protected by Beijing. Are any of these things being done to sever even further the relationship with Beijing or to prove something to Beijing, or do we just not know?
JT: It clearly has had a damaging effect on an already frustrated Beijing. I think that there’s a lot of problems with the way that people think about China’s influence on North Korea, and I think they really over estimate that influence. Again, under Kim Jong-il, I think it might have had a little bit more credence just because, again, they had a legacy of working together. With Kim Jong-un, it’s a much different relationship. It’s one of those things where Beijing does not want North Korea to have nuclear weapons either. But it’s hard to imagine a scenario where they [China] have this secret formula where if they just did certain things, North Korea would fall in line and that they just choose not to do it.
China’s Wu Dawei (center) visits North Korea
I think this is how a lot of Americans think about China policy towards North Korea. In the meantime, I think China has done a lot to try and address the issue, but has limitations on the influence that they have. They say this to us all the time. It’s not like China has a China-North Korea joint army like the U.S. and South Korea does. They don’t have a presence in North Korea. They can certainly send messages and send signals, but even the fact that back in 2015. Was that it? No, in 2016, even when Wu Dawei had gone to Pyongyang to talk to the North Koreans about settling things down. The fact that they announced that they were going to do another SLV launch on the day that he landed, I think shows a lot about how Kim Jong-un thinks about Beijing right now.
And I think a lot of it is the relationship has been damaged as Kim Jong-un is trying to show he can’t be pushed around. I think some of this antagonism with China is maybe also somewhat triggered by all this U.S. talk of ‘if we just push China enough, China will take care of this problem.’ I think it puts the Chinese in a very awkward position, but the Chinese always come back to us and say ‘hey look we’re doing what we can, but the U.S. should be doing more, too.’ And the doing more part has to do with direct bi-lateral diplomacy as well. So without that factor, all we’re doing is kind of skirting around the issue and just putting more pressure on an already boiling pot.
The border between China and North Korea
CL&P: I guess in that regards, with the situation today in the relationship between China and North Korea now, then how instrumental is China in easing the tensions on the Korean peninsula?
JT: I think China definitely plays a big role, but it doesn’t play the only role. It’s not something where if we just use China enough that China can scold North Korea and North Korea’s going to come to the table. The other problem too is that even if China – and here’s always sort of these clash of tensions – is that China’s national interest is to prevent instability in the region because instability is good for no one. The U.S., part of strategic patience, they’re kind of hoping that North Korea will collapse and that if we put enough pressure on the situation, we can get the regime to change which is sort of the path of most resistance and the most danger.
I think there is a certain degree to where China also recognizes that the more pressure it puts by cutting off,. . .Implementing sanctions is one thing, but a lot of people think ‘well if China just cuts of North Korea and all trade and all oil and all goods, that North Korea again will just bend over, and will come running back and beg for forgiveness kind of thing,’ but I think the problem is that that scenario is very unlikely. Even if China does that, North Korea’s more likely to be more belligerent. Belligerent could be belligerent towards China as well, so you never know. We talk about this a lot these days: be careful what you wish for. Getting China to cut off North Korea could go one way in a positive way. It could go really bad as well.
Xi to meet Trump next week at his Florida resort, Mar-a-lago
CL&P: When Xi Jinping meets with President Trump, what do you think he’ll be asking the U.S. to do with North Korea? What do you think his request will be?
JT: I’m almost positive he’s going to tell the U.S. that negotiations have to be part of any new policy. For instance if you look at the U.N. Security Council resolutions, when the U.S. talks about the U.N. SPR 2270 or 1718 or 2048, all the different resolutions now, they always talk about the sanctions resolution. In the last round, in the 2270 resolutions for instance, in those negotiations, I think people came away thinking ‘wow China really agreed to some tougher measures.’ We’re kind of impressed that China agreed to these tougher measures definitely sending signals to Pyongyang that they were unhappy with Pyongyang’s behavior.
When the Chinese talk about 2270, they talk about resolution 2270, not the 2270 sanctions. The big difference is that in that resolution, there’s also a mandate for negotiations. So when the Chinese talk about these things, and in response to pressure or criticism that they’re not doing enough, they always come back with ‘but you’re not fulfilling your end of the portion either.’
U.N. Security Council
CL&P: So basically the 2270 called for not just sanctions, but also going back to the table, and that hasn’t happened?
CL&P: Okay. So what they’re looking for, Beijing, is reverting back to the six party talks?
JT: Not necessarily. But at least getting some level of negotiations going and some level of engagement going because we’re not going to break this cycle of provocation and response until there’s some kind of diplomatic offer.
CL&P: In terms of getting negotiations going again, do you think that’s even possible given the current regime in North Korea and what’s been happening and also the language that’s been being used by the Trump administration, even if Tillerson misspoke. Do you see that given the tensions between the U.S. and North Korea right now, negotiations are a possibility?
Trying to get all parties to the negotiation table
JT: I think if it was up to the North Koreans, yes negotiations are possible. If it’s up to the Trump administration, I have increasing skepticism that we’re going to get anywhere. This is going back to your question of when Tillerson said strategic patience is over, we all look at the things that he talks about after that. Those are really just tenets of strategic patience. So again without negotiation you’re still just doubling down on the same tactic and hoping for a different result. Even if you’re making them harder-edged, it’s still not a new tactic. Again, if it’s been ineffective now for eight years, what makes you think just pushing a little harder is going to help?
CL&P: I know the new administration’s still getting together their policy team. Do they have anybody in the administration that specializes in North Korea to advise them on some of these issues?
JT: Well, in the State Department, there is a U.S. representative for North Korea policy, Joe Yun, Ambassador Yun. But it’s unclear to us who else is working on these issues at this moment because there still hasn’t been an effort to staff up the State Department or senior leadership in the DOD [Department of Defense]. There’s still a lot of questions even here in D.C. that we just don’t have answers for.
North Korean soldiers. Looking for the six party talks? (Photo courtesy of Int’l Crisis Group)
CL&P: If you had the opportunity to advise the current administration, assuming that it’s goal is to avoid war on the Korean peninsula, what would your advice be?
JT: My advice has been pretty consistent. The fact that yes, you can double down on sanctions and bolster defenses, but without the diplomatic track, the situation is going to get worse. The longer it takes to try and actually try to have talks about talks and see what’s even possible any more, the higher the stakes are going to be in the process and the more leverage that North Korea builds over time as it continues to grow its strategic arsenal. So if we really want to make a difference, then create a different relationship and one that serves our national interest, they’re going to need to have some kind of diplomatic track and need to be able to shoulder the criticism that’s going to come along with that from all the skeptics.
CL&P: The criticisms within the United States?
JT: Yes. There’s always the arguments of ‘well we’ve tried negotiations before, but they didn’t work,’ or ‘North Korea always cheats.’ Well just because we tried it before, does that mean … Diplomacy is not a one-off, and it’s not a linear path, and national security is not a linear path. If you don’t have at least talks about talks to figure out what’s even possible within the negotiating framework, you’re losing the battle. You’re limiting yourself as to what you can do. But these days there’s so much criticism because we’ve gotten so far off track. Whichever president decides that the situation’s gotten dire enough where we need to suck it up whether we like it or not and try some level of diplomacy, it’s going to come with criticism, and they need to be able to deal with that.
CL&P: I guess if you’re leaving all options on the table, why would you take diplomacy off the table?
CL&P: We talked about China, and we talked about the United States. I guess Japan and South Korea, I mean I would assume their interest is for more negotiations, or …/
JT: Not necessarily. You have a pretty hard-line government in Japan these days. They want to build up more missile defenses. They’ve even talked about missile interception and they sort of take the lead from the U.S. as far as that goes. With South Korea, it’s different. South Korea, it’s hard to tell what they will do next because it really will be dependent on who the next president is. Their policy could change drastically towards North Korea. It could be at odds with what the U.S. decides to do as well. Then that is going to really put pressure on the U.S.-Korea alliance.
Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute
CL&P: Well, this is a very interesting interview. It doesn’t sound like there’s any solution any time soon. I want to thank you again for spending time talking to China Law & Policy. Hopefully, people will listen to this interview, and conflict can be avoided.
Jenny Town, Assistant Director of the US-Korea Institute
Since January, the situation on the Korean peninsula has become increasingly tense with North Korea test firing missiles, using toxic nerve agents to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half brother, and announcing that it has the capability for its missiles to reach the West Coast of the United States. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has responded to North Korea equally bellicose and frightening with threats noting that no options are off the table in dealing with North Korea including possibly preemptive strike.
Are we on a collision course for nuclear war, and what role does China play in all of this? To answer those questions and more is noted North Korea expert Jenny Town. Ms. Town is the Assistant Director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and is the managing editor and producer of 38 North, a web journal and vital resource on all things North Korea.
Read the transcript below for Part I of this two-part interview, where Ms. Town discusses shifting U.S.-North Korea relations. Or click the media player below to listen (total time – 16:26).
CL&P:Thank you for joining us today, Ms. Town. Before we get into the current situation on the Korean peninsula, I wanted to give our listeners a little bit more background on North Korea. In the western press, North Korea is often portrayed as a hermit impoverished kingdom run by a dictatorial mad man, but is that perception true? Is that how we should view North Korea?
Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) (Photo courtesy of CNN)
JT: Thank you. It’s great to be here. I’m happy to be a part of this podcast. I think you’re asking all the right questions. The problem is that the more we treat North Korea as a caricature and we don’t take it seriously, the harder the problem becomes in the long run. A few years ago my colleague and I, we did write an article that talked about these myths about North Korea. It’s not a hermit kingdom. I think at some point we’re more isolated from it than it is from the rest of the world. There certainly are restrictions on information access and travel and movement, but there is a lot of contact with the outside world. There’s a lot of trade that goes on. There’s a lot of businesses, a lot of tourism. There’s a lot of NGO workers and diplomats, and so they do have access to the outside world. Not the same level that other countries have, but it’s not completely isolated.
The idea that Kim Jong-un is a mad man is also a dangerous characterization because he’s actually very calculating. The North Korean regime, even when Kim Jong-il was there, people liked to make fun of his sort of eccentricities. But when it came to state security, the decisions that he made were very rational. Sometimes miscalculated, but he’s the ultimate realist. They’re a country that perceives to have many enemies, and in the process will make decision on how to protect itself and how to protect the regime.
North Korea’s missiles in a military parade. (Photo courtesy of BBC)
CL&P: So in essence, we should see their movements as something that is rational if your goal is to protect the current regime?
JT: Yes, and we should take them seriously for what they’re doing because discounting them is not serving anyone’s good.
CL&P: Agreed. Recently there seems to be a lot of bellicose activity from North Korea. In the middle of February it test fired a medium long range ballistic missile, and then it used, I guess, what’s known as an illegal nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong-un’s half brother at an airport in Malaysia. Then two weeks ago, it announced a successful test of a high thrust rocket engine. Then this week they had two failed missile attempts.
Why are we seeing such activity, so much activity that seems warlike in the past month or two? Why now? What’s going on?
US-South Korea joint military drills (Photo courtesy of The Sunrise)
JT: Well, some of this is a little bit expected. This is a time when the U.S. and ROK [South Korea] are running their joint military exercises in South Korea. Over the past year, especially the last year and this year, the nature of those exercises has expanded. It’s become more belligerent and it’s also included such things as decapitation drills and strategic over flights. These kinds of things always spark some kind of response and a strong response from North Korea because again, they do see it as more than just business as usual; but as a more provocative, more aggressive signaling to North Korea. Over the past couple of months, though, we’ve really seen an acceleration of testing and demonstration of capabilities over the past year.
At the end of the Obama administration, when it was clear that the nature of U.S.-DPRK [North Korea] relations was not going to change under the Obama administration, we saw a lot of demonstrations. In the past, there might have been missile tests, but they [North Korea] didn’t send out pictures of it, for instance. They didn’t send out pictures of Kim Jong-un celebrating different successes. I think now they’re clearly trying to prove capacity to the outside world. I think it was actually though very quiet from elections until inauguration and for a short time after inauguration as they [North Korea] were trying to figure out what to expect from America and if there was room for changing the nature of our relationship.
CL&P: Just to go back, when you were talking about the exercises that the U.S. and South Korea are doing, you’re saying because those have become stronger and more belligerent, North Korea is taking it more serious?
US and South Korean soldiers at the DMZ
JT: Yes. The exercises have been going on for decades and part of the function of the exercise is also signaling as to how the nature of the relationship with North Korea. There are times when they’re much more kind of routine standard operations and drills, but over the past couple of years, they’ve been adding drills and expanding it. And on top of that, the messaging coming out to the media about the [U.S.-ROK] drills and to the public about the drills has really emphasized certain things like decapitation strikes and strikes on Pyongyang and things like that. So it’s really become a much more antagonistic venture.
CL&P: Then [what about] the recent U.S. response to North Korea’s actions the past couple months, especially with the new administration. So Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, when he was visiting South Korea this past month, announced that the U.S. policy of what he called strategic patience has ended. I guess can you first explain a little bit more what this policy of strategic patience is or was?
U.S. Secretary of State Re Tillerson visit South Korea, March 2017 (Photo Courtesy of NY Daily News)
JT: Sure. So strategic patience was the Obama policy. Basically it was a supposedly principled approach that negotiations were only under certain conditions, and that in the meantime it was kind of doubling down on pressure on the regime to change it’s strategic calculus using such tactics as mostly sanctions. And then also trying to bolster defenses in the region, so in South Korea and Japan as well. But it was largely dependent on this whole intimidation, kind of pressure and intimidation factor to try and get North Korea to change its mind about how it wants to move forward.
CL&P: Under strategic patience, I assume that the policy, whether or not it was a failure, was put in place to try to limit North Korea’s ability to develop its nuclear weaponry. Was it successful with that at all?
JT: Absolutely not. It was a complete failure. If the goal of strategic patience really was to deter
President Barack Obama implements Strategic Patience
North Korea from developing it’s weapons programs, it’s WMD programs, it’s a complete failure because they have completely accelerated their programs during the Obama administration. In 2013, for instance, they restarted their five megawatt reactor to help produce more plutonium for nuclear weapons. In 2010, they had revealed that they had a uranium enrichment program, and in 2013, we saw that the main facility that they had shown to U.S. inspectors before had doubled in size. The centrifuge hall has doubled in size, potentially doubling it’s capacity to create weapons-grade uranium or highly enriched uranium.
We’ve seen several demonstrations of tests. Last year alone, we had two nuclear tests and over 20 missile tests. During the Obama administration, there’s been four nuclear tests. So, if the goal of strategic patience was to deter North Korea from moving forward and making the cost of nuclear weapons programs and WMD programs so untenable that it had to come back to the table, then of course it completely failed.
CL&P: So then they’re not going to come back to the table?
JT: Well, I wouldn’t draw that conclusion that they’re not going to come back to the table. What I’m saying is that the policy is not compelling the right response.
CL&P: In terms of all this development, I mean I guess this goes back to the first question, and your answer to the first question about not perceiving North Korea as this shut in country, where do they get the ability to develop this technology? How do they have the knowledge to develop this technology for nuclear weapons?
JT: They’ve been working on this program for a very long time, for decades. They have scientists in country. We know there has been cooperation with other states. They’ve gotten information from Pakistan and Syria and Russia in the past. There’s definitely plenty of people that they’ve worked with over the years to get to a point where some of it’s indigenous, some of it’s reverse engineering of designs that they’ve gotten from other countries. They’re a very resourceful people, and I would go back to again your first question and tying this all together, too. I think the underlying premise of strategic patience was this idea that Kim Jong-un would never be able to consolidate power under a third generation of the Kim family and that all we had to do was wait them out, and that eventually the state would collapse and then we could deal with someone else. That’s just simply not the case.
CL&P: No, it doesn’t look that way. I guess since the Obama administration’s policy of strategic patience allowed North Korea to develop it’s weapon technology, and it had all these tests and it’s really advanced, just to put it in more perspective, where exactly is North Korea as a likely nuclear threat? What can it do right now to its neighbors in Asia, and is it really true that they could potentially in very near future have something hit at the West Coast of the United States?
JT: We did a series of reports last year that was a technical assessment of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. And based on what we know or what we estimate to be their capacity to make fissile materials or to produce fissile material for nuclear weapons, we estimate the baseline for their nuclear weapons arsenal to be somewhere between 12 to 15 nuclear weapons. They would have enough material to be able to make at least 12 to 15 nuclear weapons now. Given the capacity that they have to produce more – their five megawatt plutonium reactor, their uranium enrichment facility – we did projections that with the worst conditions for North Korea, making it most difficult for them for instance, that even by 2020 they could double the size of their arsenal.
By 2020 under mid-range with a little better conditions and getting their experimental light water reactor partially militarized as well, so they’d have more fissile materials, they would be able to produce maybe 50 nuclear weapons by 2020. Under the best conditions for them, if they have ample procurement, international procurement, and they have everything running in tip-top shape, at the high end we estimated they would have the potential to make about 100 nuclear weapons by 2020.
We see them really now in those ranges under those conditions that are laid out in the report. They’re somewhere on that mid to high range track. Then you add in the ballistic missile programs, and the fear is always for the how soon are they going to get an ICBM, an intercontinental ballistic missile. With the new engines that they tested last year and this year, [engines] that would be suitable for missiles and not rockets, space rockets, we’re talking that once they have an operational capacity, that they would be able actually to hit the East Coast of the United States, not just the West Coast. What we see that is probably given the designs that we’ve seen in the prototypes that they’ve displayed to us, we would suggest somewhere around 2020, somewhere in that range. Some estimates have that a little bit earlier. It really just depends.
But the reality is that they don’t need ICBMs to be a strategic threat because our strategic partners and strategic alliance partners are in Asia, so it’s South Korea and Japan. They definitely have missiles that can reach South Korea and Japan already. The big question is whether or not they have miniaturization capabilities. A lot of experts do believe they have the capability even if they haven’t been able to demonstrate it. Given the number of partners that they’ve worked with and the programs that those partners have as well and how long that they’ve been working on it. We do believe they do have the capability. It’s a huge threat, and it’s a growing threat the longer it takes to be able to have a real strategic dialogue with them.
President Donald J. Trump (courtesy of whitehouse.gov)
For years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was in denial about the extent of its air pollution problem, often referring to smog-infested days as perfect “blue sky” ones. Then, in July 2008, @BeijingAir, a U.S. Embassy-created twitter account, began tweeting accurate pollution data throughout the day. Beijing was furious, claiming sole legal authority to monitor and publish air quality numbers. But the U.S. Embassy stood its ground, and slowly, the CCP began to acknowledge that pollution levels were dangerously high. By January 2013, the Beijing government began reporting accurate, hourly data and by the end of 2013, climate change, pollution levels, and green technology had become important parts of the CCP’s platform.
Fast forward four years, and it is now the United States that is censoring tweets about climate change. Instead of the transparency that has long been a bedrock of the United States’ political system and that we encourage in other, less democratic nations, President Donald Trump appeared to take a page from the CCP’s playbook: he ordered that the Badlands National Parks remove tweets about increased CO2 omissions and climate change, statements he disagrees with.
In fact, in much of the first week of Donald Trump’s presidency, the parallels to authoritarian regimes, specifically the CCP, have become all too real. It has become clear that Trump is not going to be the rational businessman that people had hoped for; he is not going to surround himself with advisers who temper his rash decisions. That is not how authoritarian leaders behave.
Upending Society – Trump, America’s Mao Zedong?
Chairman Mao Zedong
Mao Zedong came to power as a revolutionary, a populist and as a man intent on turning over the old world order. Those tendencies – among other things – help to explain why China was enveloped in disarray for most of Mao’s 27-year reign. Similarly, these are the same impulses found in Trump, his campaign and thus far his presidency, as noted China scholar Orville Schell pointed out two weeks ago at an Asia Society event. Trump’s preeminent goal is not necessarily to advance the United States economically or even to advocate a coherent, ideological policy platform; rather his motivating impulse is to upset the current world order: “I think there is a bit of an outsider, troublemaker, turner-over of old orders, putting fingers in the eyes of the establishment in Donald Trump” Schell noted.
It is the disarray and the upending of society that appeals to Trump. “If you don’t destroy, you can’t construct” was a favorite saying of Mao as he took China on the pointless path of a continuous revolution. Understanding that aspect of Trump is important in figuring out how to deal with his presidency. Appealing to economic logic when he calls for a 20% tariff on Mexican goods and calling on American values when he institutes a ban on Muslim immigration is not going to resonate with Trump.
Projects That Are Ideological, Not Beneficial
Rural residents and victims of China’s Great Leap Forward
Part of an authoritarian regime is the dedication to ideological-based projects, even at the expense of economic or social progress. For Mao, the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) stands out. In order to prove that China had made the “great leap” to an industrialized, rich, communist society, Mao ordered the complete collectivization of farms, factories, and most of society. Harebrained ideas of digging crops deeper, smelting steel in backyard furnaces, and building useless irrigation projects, resulted in one of the greatest man-made famines in history. Within a year, the leadership knew that the program was a failure. But the CCP ignored this fact and continued the campaign, committed to the ideological line.
In his first week, Trump has already called for an ideological project that most agree will hurt America more than it will help: building a wall between the United States and Mexico. But most undocumented immigrants over-stay their legally-obtained visa, not walk across the border. Trump ignores this fact and instead has proposed building a border wall that will cost between $10 billion (Trump’s estimate) and $38 billion (MIT’s estimate) and distract America from dealing with more compelling issues. While he demands Mexico pay for the wall, the only proposal Trump has offered is a 20% tariff on Mexican goods, a tariff that will likely be borne by the American consumer.
Some of the wall that already exists between Mexico and the U.S. (courtesy of NBC News)
Because the emphasis is on ideology and not practicality, ideological projects are neither particularly well-thought out nor properly executed. During the Great Leap Forward, Mao decided that China would double its steel production. To meet this goal, Mao instituted “backyard furnaces:” every item made of metal – doorknobs, farm tools – was smelted down. But as Mao would find out, smelted down metal produces inferior quality pig iron that cannot be used, let alone sold abroad as steel.
Similarly, Trump’s January 27, 2017 executive order, to ban immigration of Muslims from certain countries, gave no thought to its legality or to its implementation. Signed after 4 pm on a Friday and to take immediate effect, the world was left unprepared. Immigration officials, who had no prior notice of the precise contents of the executive order, were left largely in the dark, and when refugees, green card and visa holders arrived, chaos ensued.
But logical arguments and exposing impracticalities are likely not going to cause Trump to change his mind. His campaigns are about ideology and like Mao, expect Trump to double down when confronted with facts and the failure of their implementation. Much like he did on his twitter feed on Monday regarding Friday’s executive order.
Of Purges & Sycophants
As part of his purge, Liu Shaoqi, was often publicly criticized during the Cultural Revolution
From Mao to Xi Jinping (pronounced See Gin-ping), Chinese politics have been roiled with political purges. It is a way for the current leader to eliminate threats to his power, maintain his authoritarian control and ensure that those remaining quickly fall in line. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Mao purged Liu Shaoqi (pronouced Leo Shao-chi) and Deng Xiaoping, two senior officials who had gained support among the Party for their economic reforms. Liu eventually died in prison but Deng was able to survive, and in the early 1990s, implemented those economic reforms that caused Liu his life.
Current President Xi Jinping has also purged those he considered a threat to his rule, using the Party-controlled legal system to do so. In 2012, photogenic, ambitious and popular politician Bo Xilai(pronounced Bwo See-lie), long considered competition to Xi and his power base, was arrested and tried on charges of corruption, receiving a life sentence. In 2015, Zhou Yangkang (pronounced Joe Yongkong), the former head of China’s powerful Ministry of Public Security and a supporter of Bo, received the same fate. A life sentence in a Chinese jail is a good way to eliminate perceived rivals
Former Acting Attorney General Sally Yates
Under Trump’s rule, New Jersey governor Chris Christie was the first to go, even before Trump officially took office. While the reason is unclear, some saying his son-in-law didn’t get along with Christie while others maintaining that Christie’s honest advice was too much for Trump, it wasn’t the most practical move to remove the head of your transition team – and all of his staff – in the midst of executing the transition plan.
But on Monday, Trump carried out his first purge of his Administration: the firing of Acting Attorney General Sally Yates who, like the courts, questioned the legality of his executive order and called on the Justice Department staff to decline to defend it. Reminiscent of CCP use of inflammatory rhetoric for its purges, Trump issued a similar factional statement, stating Yates’ “betrayal” of the Justice Department and that she is “weak on borders and very weak on illegal immigration.”
But these purges are not just about eliminating threats and consolidating power, it is also to ensure that those remaining toe the party line. Before the Great Leap Forward, Premier Zhou Enlai (pronounced Joe N-lie) had fallen out of Mao’s favor. Desperate to get back in his graces, Zhou became an ardent supporter of Mao’s Great Leap Forward even though he quickly became aware that the program was a failure with hundreds of thousands starving to death. But, fearful of a purge, Zhou never revealed the truth to Mao, afraid to challenge him. Instead, Zhou remained committed to the program and ordered that Mao’s irrational demands be fulfilled: that China immediately pay off its international debt through grain export.
Pence and Mattis watch Trump sign Friday’s executive order.
Most Republicans did not speak out against Friday’s executive order that essentially banned Muslims from a select list of countries from legally entering the United States. Even those who had previously condemned Trump’s call for a for a Muslim ban – Vice President Mike Pence, Speaker Paul Ryan, newly appointed Secretary of Defense James Mattis – have yet to utter a word. But speaking up may mean falling out of Trump’s favor. And like Zhou Enlai before them, they appear to prioritize their position in Trump’s inner circle over everything else.
This is why Trump’s cabinet appointees’ statements to the Senate – that climate change is real, that water boarding is torture – cannot necessarily be relied upon. Once in office, will they be like Pence and Mattis, willing to fall in line with Trump’s extreme views and carry out his orders? And now that Trump has appointed Steve Bannon, his chief strategist, confidant and heretofore intelligence novice, to the National Security Council, while simultaneously downgrading the director of national intelligence and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to a need to know basis, is Trump messaging to his cabinet that ideology takes precedent over expertise – that in red versus expert, red wins?
Attack on the Press
Press Secretary Sean Spicer on January 21, 2017 discussing the size of the crowds at Trump’s inauguration (courtesy Getty Images)
Calling the press “the opposition party,” lecturing reporters on what they “should be writing,” referring to journalists as “the most dishonest human beings on earth,” are all a part of the Trump Administration’s strategy on how to interact with the media, or more aptly, how to crush it. Eerily, it is also the strategy of the CCP, in its efforts to ensure that freedom of the press never takes hold in China: “the ultimate goal of advocating the West’s view of the media is to hawk the principle of abstract and absolute freedom of the press, oppose the Party’s leadership in the media, and gouge an opening through which to infiltrate our ideology” (translation of the CCP’s Document No. 9 courtesy of Chinafile).
With its attacks on the media, the question remains just how far the Trump Administration will go in trying to clamp down on the press. The CCP offers a frighteningly effective alternative, with its arrest and prosecution of journalists on trumped up charges, its random detention of reporters critical of the government, its toying of the visa process – and for some outright repulsion from China – for foreign journalists when the CCP does not approve of their coverage of China.
But even in light of the Trump Administration’s censure, the U.S. press continues to try to serve its role as a watchdog of the government. But if the Trump Administration steps up its campaign against the press à la the CCP, who is going to win that battle?
(courtesy of China Digital Times)
Creating a Ministry of Truth
Throughout his campaign and now, in the first week of his Administration, Trump has been accused of telling lies and at times, trying to censor the truth. But alternative realities are nothing new to an authoritarian regime. The Chinese government is a master at it. Referring to hazardous pollution as mere fog? Trying to hide from your people and the world that SARS is spreading and hitting epidemic proportions? Blaming the recent downturn in the economy on mysterious foreign forces? Having web pages just disappear? All alternative realities that the CCP uses to maintain its authoritarian control.
Insisting that your inauguration crowd was larger than President Barak Obama’s when the pictures clearly depict otherwise? Pretending that your executive order is not a ban on Muslim immigration? Claiming that you lost the popular vote because millions of people voted illegally? Having web pages just disappear? These are all alternative realities the Trump Administration has offered in just the past week alone.
Lies and alternative realities come with a real danger – that people will start to believe them or will never know the truth. Take for example the Chinese government’s censorship of the its violent crackdown in 1989 on the students protesting in Tian’anmen Square. For the first few years after the Tiananmen massacre, the question was, how long will the Chinese government refuse to investigate the government-sponsored murder of hundreds of Chinese students. Twenty-eight years later, the question now is, will the Chinese ever know their own history? Most below the age of 30 have never seen the photo of “tank man” let alone have any idea about what happened on that fateful night in June 1989.
Protests erupt on Saturday at San Francisco International airport (courtesy of AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
To be clear, America is not China. This is not how things have to progress nor necessarily how they will. But what we see with the Trump Administration is a start. And even a start is dangerous. But at the same time, many of America’s most revered democratic institution – the courts, its lawyers, the media, the American people – have spontaneously stood up to try to protect this country and its people.
But for the past week, Congress has been too slow to realize that the Trump government is no ordinary administration: this is a president and an administration that in its first week in power is more reminiscent of an authoritarian regime than a democratic one. The ordinary tactics of politics – the give and take, the horse trading – are not going to suffice; bolder steps need to be taken. Like the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, politicians need to constantly and publicly pressure and oppose the Administration if they want to ensure that America stays true to her democratic ideals.