Butterfly Effect: China Doublespeak Will Backfire on America
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Overcoming a reputation for hypocrisy is a lot harder than posting on Twitter.
It was no staged show of anti-Americanism. In fact, Chinese police officers were trying to disperse the crowds of Chinese onlookers cheering as the American flag was pulled down from the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Monday. China’s decision to shut down the U.S. mission was in retaliation for America’s order shutting down the Chinese Consulate in Houston last Friday over allegations of intellectual property theft.
Yet even amid the heightened tensions between the nations, the public response in Chengdu was a repudiation of the Trump administration’s latest approach to China — portraying itself as a friend to the Chinese people, and enemy only to the country’s ruling Communist Party. The problem doesn’t lie in drawing that important distinction. It lies in the lack of sincerity in that approach, and how that doublespeak is part of a pattern that has left the world distrustful of foreign policy pronouncements by Washington.
Last Thursday, just four days before the Chengdu incident, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a major policy speech at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, where he said democracies must work to “induce China to change,” and placed America’s outreach to ordinary Chinese citizens as the centerpiece of that strategy. “We must also engage and empower the Chinese people — a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.
That sounds great, but how do you influence young Chinese people about the diversity and openness of American democracy when, in reality, you plan to stop a giant chunk of them from seeing that alternative to CCP rule in action? In late May, President Donald Trump signed an executive order banning student visas for all Chinese postgraduate applicants who have received support from universities described as part of Beijing’s “military-civil fusion.”
In other words, those who are pursuing studies at universities that have collaborated with the Chinese military on any research needn’t bother to dream of American postgraduate programs. Most top Chinese science and tech universities participate in research that could in some way be used by the country’s military establishment, so this in effect means that a majority of the brightest students from that nation are barred. To consider a parallel, it’s like an American military rival banning all Ivy League students since some research from these schools routinely feeds into the Pentagon’s work.
That divergence between “engage and empower the Chinese people” and the ban on the entry of many of that country’s brightest isn’t an isolated case of the intellectual dishonesty in America’s dealings with nations it views as enemies.
Consider Iran. As that country convulsed under popular protests late last year and security forces brutally cracked down, the Trump administration was quick to offer support to those raising their voices. “America hears you, America supports you, America stands with you,” Pompeo said. “We do so for the sake of freedom, for the sake of human dignity, for the sake of respect.” He used similar language in 2018 to draw a distinction between the Iranian regime and the country’s people. Yet how does that square with the fact that Iranians were among those targeted in a blanket, seven-nation entry ban introduced by Trump in one of his first acts after taking over as president in 2017? You can’t claim to support a people and treat them with suspicion at the same time.
For sure, China in particular is guilty of significant industrial and military espionage. And it has used its consulates in the U.S. to direct those activities, including through some students. So improving scrutiny makes sense. But that’s a surgical process that needs tweezers to yank out troubling cells, not a tank to blow the body apart.
That’s precisely why the Trump administration’s own May 20 report on future relations with China outlines a more nuanced approach. “The United States values the contributions of Chinese students and researchers,” it says. “We are improving processes to screen out the small minority of Chinese applicants who attempt to enter the United States under false pretenses or with malign intent.”
Using a scalpel to weed out student applicants who plan to spy once in the U.S. would have been particularly easy this year. The coronavirus pandemic has already upset the recruitment plans of American universities in China, and most U.S. schools expect a drop in international students in 2020.
Instead of screening out a “small minority” from a reduced number of students, Trump’s executive order will affect a vast majority of China’s smartest postgraduate science and tech applicants. As the official policy document implicitly acknowledges, the absence of their “contributions” will eventually hurt America.
In his speech at the Nixon Library, Pompeo said the Trump administration had decided to go not by China’s words, but by China’s actions. “The only way to truly change communist China is to act not on the basis of what Chinese leaders say, but how they behave,” he said.
That’s a fine premise, but it cuts both ways. The rest of the world — including China, Iran and America’s own allies — now increasingly treat the U.S. the same way: Because far too often, the Trump administration’s words and actions don’t match.