Sunday, September 19, 2021


Nixon and Mao went against the odds to find points of common national interest

(published in China-US Focus, Sept. 20. 2021)


“There has been frustration for the business community at the lack of concrete China economic policy,” opined veteran China hand Charles Freeman, speaking for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not as if this crowd came in without any experience or any preconceived thinking about China.” 

President Joe Biden, bestowed with a decidedly more diplomatic demeanor than Donald Trump, has left China watchers wondering if his policy is really any different from the anti-China stance of his predecessor. He has added to Trump’s list of sanctioned officials and widened the list of companies in which investment is banned due to alleged links to China’s military. 

Biden has a better track record in the diplomatic realm, especially in collaborating with allies. This works to counter China’s interests as he is capable, in a way that Trump wasn’t, of bending allied will in a pro-U.S. direction. In doing so, he has garnered some support in Europe for his tough-on-China policy that the go-it-alone, tone-deaf Trump administration was unable to do.

However, members of Biden’s own administration seem to be taken aback by the hardball approach to China. “Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen told The New York Times that tariffs were hurting American consumers and the National Association of Manufacturers sent a letter to the Biden administration urging it to “act as quickly as possible to finalize and publicize” a China strategy.”

Biden has little political incentive to reduce tariffs with China despite the protests of the pro-trade business community. Anti-China posturing is one of the few areas that puts Democrats and Republicans on the same page, and this shared bellicosity has the potential to shore up fractured U.S. unity at home. Furthermore, anything that smacks of a concession to China may present the media and opposition politicians with the optics of weakness in the face of China’s documented military expansionism and wolf warrior rhetoric. 

There are some minor indications of reconciliation between the two rival powers. Huawei, a company singled out for ritual humiliation under Trump, got a small reprieve from the Biden administration. Even though the sale of auto-related microchips is not deemed a strategic technology, the move prompted a quick counter-thrust by Republican Senator Tom Cotton. "It's unacceptable for the Biden administration to ease the pressure campaign against Chinese spy companies like Huawei." 

Wiser, more seasoned observers such as Charles Freeman, who was present at the historic Mao-Nixon talks in 1972 as a translator, take the long view with China. Indeed, despite the deserved opprobrium attendant to both Mao and Nixon in other areas of political life, the February 21, 1972 talks offer a good template for looking at U.S.-China relations in the long-term through a long lens. As Nixon said at the time, “We can find common ground, despite our differences, to build a world structure in which both can be safe to develop in our own way on our own roads.” 

Mao’s personal doctor Li Zhisui recounts in his memoirs that Mao agreed to disagree at the time of the pivotal talks, and expected Nixon to do the same. Their candid exchange of views was private at the time, because countries had sizable constituencies opposed to U.S.-China rapprochement, and both leaders had to tread carefully not to give away too much in advance of public opinion. 

“Mao explained to Nixon that even though relations were better, the Chinese press would still carry articles attacking the United States,” Li Zhisui explains. “And he expected the American press to keep up its criticisms of China. The peoples of both countries were so used to the criticisms that readjusting to the new friendship would take time.” 

This tradition of talking tough, while seeking accord on points of common interest, lives on in various guises today. So-called track two diplomacy serves the vital purpose of keeping lines of communication open and a private conversation going even when the public airwaves are filled with vituperative rhetoric, emotional accusations and mutual recriminations. 

Some of the better-known discrete efforts at presenting an olive branch look good in retrospect. Nixon’s “nothing leaves this room” chat with Mao, now declassified, is an example where private rapprochement served the very public function of getting the two nations on the track to establishing formal relations. Other conciliatory efforts, such as National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft’s under-the-radar meeting with Li Peng in Beijing in the immediate aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, functioned to keep the ruling-class happy with one another despite dissipating public goodwill among each side’s constituents. 

In either case, the stakes between two contending nuclear powers are nail-bitingly high and track two conversations, back-door negotiating, and even secret talks have their place in maintaining the peace. 

While the Biden administration has been more vociferous in its criticisms of China and retained a reflexive anti-China stance, not unlike the nadir of U.S.-China relations under Trump, there is some evidence that the bark is worse than the bite. 

A pivotal moment, one that could have plunged U.S.-China relations into a hard-to-repair free fall, came and went this past August as the U.S. intelligence report on the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic was deemed inconclusive and stripped of sensationalism. The official statement was carefully hedged not to pin too much blame on China. Presumably this less-than-accusatory tone is backed by a dearth of evidence in real-world investigation, but it is also worth remembering that intelligence findings are often ambiguous, and it’s left to politicians to argue whether the glass is half empty or half full. 

The ambitious, rambunctious Mike Pompeo was prone to pounce on the tiniest sliver of evidence to excoriate China while he served as Secretary of State, whereas his successor Antony Blinken, while maintaining a “tough” anti-China tone, has not unduly upped the stakes where evidence is spurious, partial, or entirely lacking. 

While the Biden administration has failed to revoke some of Trump’s more ill-considered policies, such as limiting the types of Chinese students who can study in the States, there are signs of amenability to exchange. Applications for visas to study in the U.S. are being approved at a much higher rate than last year and have already reached the 2019 high point after a dismal year due to the pandemic and political posturing. 

Considering the xenophobic influence of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, who advocated banning all Chinese students, and the ideological anti-China rhetoric of Steve Bannon, which had a profound influence on the previous administration, a de facto return to something close to normal educational exchange is a positive achievement of the Biden administration, quietly implemented without froth or fanfare of Trump China policy.

Wednesday, August 18, 2021


Since the time of Hu Shih, Cornell University has a strong tradition of welcoming students from China

by Philip J Cunningham

If the administration of President Biden is serious about healing the reputational damage inflicted on the United States by the prejudiced words and deeds of the intemperate Donald Trump, it must reverse presidential proclamation 10043 (PP10043) which calls for the “Suspension of Entry as Nonimmigrants of Certain Students and Researchers from the People’s Republic of China.

The proclamation, signed in 2020, is still in force, unfairly disrupting the study plans of legitimate researchers and scholars from China.

The ill-considered proclamation rarely gets the headline treatment it deserves because it does its damage, one broken dream at a time, leaving some students stranded in the midst of degree programs, others despairing of ever entering graduate school after so many years of English study and specialty preparation.

It’s just another cloud over the stormy sea of U.S.-China relations.

Trump’s successors seek to expand the proclamation’s purview. Republican senators Tom Cotton, Tommy Tuberville and Marsha Blackburn made a call in April of this year for a so-called “Secure Campus” act that would deny visas to all Chinese citizens studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

It is high time that Biden took the high ground on U.S.-China relations instead of lurking in the odious swamp of hate created by Trump and his congressional supporters.

Among the colleges that trigger visa refusal are Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications, Beijing Institute of Technology, Harbin Institute of Technology, Harbin Engineering University, Northwestern Polytechnical University, Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics and Nanjing University of Science and Technology. 

According to a report in Caijing, the visa discrimination does not stop with the above list but also includes institutions such as Shanghai Fudan University, Shanghai Jiaotong University, Tongji University and University of Electronic Science and Technology of China. 

These are reputable institutions who train tens of thousands of good students. The insinuation that because there exists a degree of institutional government influence that everyone who passes through the gates must be a government agent is demonstrably ridiculous. 

GoFundMe project has been launched in the name of combatting the proclamation saying “P.P. 10043 has introduced racism, discrimination, and political restrictions into the U.S. higher education system, and has made thousands of students sacrifices to political rivalries.” 

President Biden has already demonstrated his discretionary power to revoke odious and inappropriate proclamations of his predecessor. Within weeks of assuming the presidency, Biden revoked Proclamation 10052 because it “does not advance the interests of the United States.” 

The proclamation in question is subtitled: “Suspension of Entry of Immigrants Who Present a Risk to the United States Labor Market During the Economic Recovery Following the 2019 Novel Coronavirus Outbreak.”  

The language invoked by Biden suggests there was pushback against the measure both for humanitarian reasons and because the U.S. recognizes the key contribution that foreign talent makes to the U.S. economy and sense of itself as a progressive nation. 

The proclamation had to be revoked, according to Biden, “because it harms the United States, including by preventing certain family members of United States citizens and lawful permanent residents from joining their families here. It also harms industries in the United States that utilize talent from around the world.” 

The same can be said for Proclamation 10043, so what’s Biden waiting for? 

There are 370,000 Chinese students in the U.S. who contribute tens of billions of dollars to the U.S. economy, trailblaze science, contribute to the workforce, produce university patents and come up with new inventions, so this is not a niche issue. 

CNN recently drew attention to the poignant plight of Chinese students trapped by politics. A Michigan Daily article on the unseen challenges faced by Chinese students in the U.S., for whom the door is now only “half-open,” offers a personalized glimpse at the harrowing restrictions and racial vilification that came to a head during the Trump presidency. 

When Biden was elected, there was a tentative hope that things might go back in the direction of normal, with a more temperate U.S. leader at the helm. U.S. consular staff in China saw a bump in student visa queries, and various polls have shown the U.S. crawling out of the diplomatic shadows of the dark Trump years. 

“It felt like a light switch being suddenly turned on,” said Frances Zhang, a dean of college counselling in Shanghai. “Chinese students saw Biden as a president who would be more welcoming and friendly towards international students. The change could not have come sooner.” 

The current administration’s reluctance to right Trump’s wrongs on China is hard to read. 

Biden was supposed to be different from Trump. Blinken was supposed to be an improvement over Pompeo. But the anti-China bias of the Trump administration remains intact. 

What’s up with that? 

Perhaps U.S. domestic politics are part of the problem. After four years of intemperate nationalistic rhetoric, and the added trauma of a pandemic, the origins of which are still clouded in mystery, the knee-jerk anti-China impulse in U.S. politics has only gotten stronger. 

There are votes to be had by taking a hard stance on China. 

Kicking China, as has become the trend, is actually a U.S. self-goal because it makes a mockery of fair play. Using Chinese students as hapless pawns to score points against China’s government hurts U.S. higher education, robbing it not just of much-coveted tuition fees, but its claim to be the world’s best. 

If the current educational decoupling continues apace, China need no longer to worry about losing so many of its best and brightest to the U.S., for the U.S. is becoming a beacon that no longer beckons. 

Proclamation 10043 is an example of bad politics getting in the way of a good education. 

It should be revoked immediately.

Thursday, August 5, 2021






Even as the Covid-diminished Summer Olympics grind to a conclusion in the hot Tokyo summer, the winter Olympics scheduled for Beijing have become a scorching topic. On July 27, 2021 several members of the US congress made an incendiary call for a boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. 


This poorly-timed act of political grandstanding is an insult to the august Olympic tradition of bringing nations, including rivals, together for a round of peaceful competition.


Due to a pandemic-related postponement, the winter games will follow the summer games in short succession. Only half a year apart, the Tokyo games and Beijing games invite inevitable comparison. Which of the two historic rivals will have the satisfaction of having hosted the more satisfactory of the back-to-back Olympics?


Japan, hobbled by its own sluggish and irresponsible response to the Covid pandemic, had to postpone the Tokyo games for a year before the LDP-led government finally insisted on it, going against popular opinion and the advice of public health professionals.


There may be some latent satisfaction in staging the ill-starred games, since a downsized performance is presumably better than no performance at all, but Covid rates continue their inexorable climb and the stubborn insistence of putting on the games, come what may, has come at the price of barring spectators from almost all venues.


Japanese athletes are performing well, but Japan will lose money on the games. The losses come not just in terms of low ratings and reduced advertising revenue, but in tourism, stimulation of the economy and the ineffable but not trivial matter of generating good will.


The most expensive Olympics ever, with a billion-dollar renovated stadium as its centerpiece, world athletes played to empty stands. it’s a sad spectacle.


China’s response to the pandemic, universally decried in the early months of 2020, now looks in retrospect to have been not only robust but unexpectedly effective. Keeping up the current remarkably low rate of infection is necessary if the winter games are to be held, let alone deemed a success, but Beijing seems on track to reach that objective, barring unforeseen epidemiological developments.


Where Beijing stands to suffer is in the political arena, as a group of righteous, right-wing politicians US are currently leading the charge to boycott the games. The ostensible reason is Beijing’s policy in Tibet, Hong Kong and other integral parts of its own country, but in this season of knee-jerk China bashing, any old reason would do. Simply put, there is a constituency in American politics that has determined China to be a Cold War type enemy that has to be countered at every turn. Nor is it possible to appease or please America’s hardcore hyper-nationalists; in their eyes China can do nothing right and America can do nothing wrong.


Japan, which is normally quick to follow the US lead in global politics, both for reasons of opportunism-as evidenced in the chummy relationship between former Prime Minister Abe and former President Trump, and for reasons of quiet coercion, as evidenced in decades of yielding to a heavy-handed US military presence in Okinawa and other bases around Japan, has prudently been quiet on the topic of the upcoming winter games.


Had Beijing and Tokyo started to engage in a shouting match before the summer games were held, the prospect of tit-for-tat boycotts would have loomed and ruined both games. Instead, Japan took the high ground diplomatically, making team China feel reasonably welcome, and team China, with its hundreds of athletes and dozens of top medal-earners, is surely one of the pillars, economically and athletically, of the Tokyo games.


If, once the summer games are safely in the past tense,  Japan should turn around and threaten to boycott the China games in keeping with the mean-spirited US attempt to do the same, it will be a betrayal of Pearl Harbor proportions.


Presumably Japan will take the high road and participate in the winter games, returning China’s favor of lending credibility to the tainted Tokyo games, but if both the US and Japan should both refrain from participating in the Beijing games, it could very well mark the death knell for the modern Olympics.


It is true that the games, scheduled every four years on a clockwork basis have a knack for intersecting with deplorable political developments. The best known case of pulling off a reasonably successful set of games against frightening political headwinds are the Berlin games of 1936. The Tokyo games of 1940 were cancelled by all-out war. The Soviet games held in Moscow, were boycotted by the US, and the USSR, with 14 aligned Eastern Bloc countries, returned the “favor” in skipping the Los Angeles games four years later. Since then, the games have resumed, with China’s participation growing in every cycle, despite the imperfections of politics.


For the US to single out China and boycott its upcoming Olympics to “hold it to account” is a laughable exercise in hypocrisy. The US would not have looked kindly upon being shunned as an international pariah and “held to account” for its merciless dropping of bombs and aggressive deployment its lethal war machine over the years in places like Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, to name a few foreign invasions, and there are deplorable goings-on in the streets of America as well.


Furthermore it’s hard to say what’s really going on in China. Chinese reports reflect access but don’t shed much light, the US offers exposés from a distance, often extrapolated from dubious data. While Chinese propaganda is recognized as pernicious, the US media is increasingly vulnerable to being led by the nose, whether it be pre-programmed and deftly-coordinated information campaigns emanating from the Pentagon, Republican Party hotheads or the buttoned down hypocrites of the current White House. There’s still a free press operating in America, but its adherents are increasingly drowned out the by noise and detritus of a zone flooded with bad information, skillfully honed misinformation, public relations spin and outright lies.


Yet the bossy tenor of US foreign policy, under Biden almost as much as under Trump, continues to insist that the countries it criticizes “do as we say, not as we do.”


Given this toxic information ecosystem, the current rearguard actions of a few odious US lawmakers to boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics may actually gain enough steam enough to inflict damage if not shut down US participation in the games. Already major US advertisers who have signed on the games (Intel, Coca-Cola, Proctor and Gamble, Visa, Airbnb,) are being harassed for not caving into demands for a total boycott by the likes of US Senator Tom Cotton, an irascible populist and ill-willed opponent of Beijing.


Avowed Maoists and Marxists know better than anyone that politics permeates all aspects of human endeavor. And athletes and sports fans know better than anyone that fair competition in the field can, at its best, transcend politics, race, national tensions and human discord.


So if the modern Olympics, based on those legendary Greek games so long ago, are to exist, let alone thrive in a world racked with political tensions, war and injustice, the games need a break from heavy-handed political posturing. The games can and should go on, but the politics has to be toned down to allow the magic of bringing people from around the world together in a single venue for good-spirited competition to happen at all.


The responsibility to keep the Olympics cosmopolitan falls most heavily upon the host country, but all participants must be good sports as well. The International Olympic Committee, much-maligned, and perhaps rightly so, for its inflexible rules and arrogant leadership has a role to play as mediator. It is good for the games that Japan’s initial plans to make of the Tokyo Olympics a calculated spectacle of Japanese public relations—Fukushima is fine and we’re on the way to a boisterous recovery—was quietly restraied by the IOC. Likewise, it is to be expected and hoped that China will be a gracious host and treat all athletic delegations, visiting journalists, sports fans and other participants with consummate respect while also keeping the best interests of the Chinese people in mind.


Japan had numerous missteps in getting the tone right. Its grand opening ceremony was greatly curtailed by both necessity and choice. The opening ceremony director was fired due to an abuse scandal, politicos refused to attend an event in an empty stadium, and much-awaited musical galas and manga-themed entertainment were cancelled. But even the pared-down ceremony had its moments.


The eerie and enlightening drone display of our planet, a single dazzling floating world rotating against the blackness of night, is as good an image as can be attached to the international games, and it is in that spirit that the Beijing games should go forward.


Thursday, July 22, 2021



Yushan aka Jade Mountain aka Niitakayama


 Philip Cunningham

Independent Scholar 

(published in China-US Focus, July 20, 2021)  

Japan’s Defense Minister Kishi Nobuo wrote the preface for a recently released whitepaper that paints China as a threat to peace and “free world” values. He says that Japan should collaborate with Australia, Britain, Canada, France, Germany, India, New Zealand, and the United States because of shared values and a military need to counter China’s rising might and assertiveness. 

"It expresses my determination as defense minister to protect the country, including values” such as freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for fundamental human rights, he further said in defense of his country’s new strategic posture. 

In March, Defense Minister Kishi and Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu met with their American counterparts, Lloyd Austin and Antony Blinken in Tokyo for the so-called “two-plus-two talks” aimed at shoring up a U.S.-Japan scheme to counter China in defense of cultural values such as human rights. 

A month after trumpeting a “clash of civilisations” mentality worthy of the Cold War, Kishi visited Yonaguni, a remote Japanese island close to Taiwan. There, he stirred the already troubled South Sea waters when he said if Taiwan turns red, Japan has to be prepared. 

“Taiwan turns red” is not only dated but it’s a bigoted way of talking about a historic province of China that was colonized by Japan. It provocatively posits a red scare and a new domino theory, since Mainland China is nominally red and Taiwan isn’t. 

Known in Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) as a loyal booster of Taiwan, Kishi most recently visited Taipei for the September 2020 memorial service of former leader Lee Teng-hui. 

“The peace and stability of Taiwan are directly connected to Japan,” Kishi said, “and we are closely monitoring ties between China and Taiwan, as well as Chinese military activity.” 

So, who is Kishi and why do his words carry weight? 

Kishi is Abe Shinzo’s younger brother. Although Abe has stepped off center stage, the hawkish tune being played in Tokyo hasn’t changed much; if anything, it has intensified. 

Kishi Nobuo, like his brother Shinzo, is an active member of the right-wing nationalist group Nippon Kaigi, but the two siblings also share a personal animus in their much-heralded drive to distort history and keep China at arm’s length. 

Both men are grandsons of convicted war criminal Kishi Nobusuke, who was known as the “monster of Manchuria” when he served in the World War II cabinet of Tojo Hideki. Munitions minister Kishi Nobusuke spent three years imprisoned as a Class-A war criminal, but was cynically rehabilitated due to his uncompromising anti-communist stance and actually went on to serve as Prime Minister with clandestine U.S. support. He is known for pushing through a controversial, widely-protested U.S.-Japan security treaty.  

Kishi Nubuo shares the same parentage as Shinzo, but was raised in the Kishi household by his childless uncle and infamous grandfather, so one might argue that he is even more a cut off the old block than Abe Shinzo, who himself made no secret of revering his “illustrious” grandfather. 

Kishi Nobusuke’s brother, Sato Eisaku, also served as Prime Minister from 1964 to 1972, during which time he visited Taipei and doubled down on Japan’s support for Taiwan, saying it was necessary to the defense of Japan. Sato’s ambitious grand-nephews, Abe Shinzo and Kishi Nobu both echo this stance today. 

The Nippon Kaigi, founded in 1997, represents the merger of two of Japan’s most strident ultranationalist groups with roots in the bitter aftermath of Tokyo’s eventual turn away from Taiwan. Its core tenets include revising the Peace Constitution to augment Japan’s war powers, rejecting the Tokyo Tribunal’s findings of war guilt, and valorizing Japan’s war dead at Yasukuni Shinto Shrine, all part of a coordinated program to stoke nationalism and strengthen Tokyo’s military determination to counter China. 

The influence of Nippon Kaigi on Sino-Japanese tensions remains profound. Not only has its policy plank been the source of headline tensions: comfort women, textbook revision, denying the Nanking massacre, instituting mandatory respect of the wartime flag and imperial anthem, but it also serves institutionally to thwart the possibility of good relations with Japan’s neighbors, especially China, even after a change in prime ministers. 

It should come as no surprise that former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo is a combative member of this right-wing political cult, but it is still unsettling to realize that 15 out of 18 members of his third cabinet were also members. Other prominent LDP politicians with paid-up membership include current Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide, who previously served as Abe’s former chief cabinet secretary, and current deputy prime minister Aso Taro, who served briefly as Prime Minister. Aso shares with Abe and Kishi a direct blood relation to yet another influential post-war prime minister, Yoshida Shigeru. 

Right-wing firebrand Ishihara Shintaro is a member of Nippon Kaigi, along with a motley assortment of Nanjing massacre deniers, radical misogynists and even eccentric supporters of Hitler. 

Unsettling premonitions of tribalism and war are not coming from Japan-hawks alone. Secretary of State Blinken echoes much of the same bellicose rhetoric as his predecessor Mike Pompeo. Retired U.S. admiral and former NATO commander James Stavridis recently raised the unthinkable question of a U.S.-China war. 

“Who would prevail?” Stavridis asked. “At this moment, my money would still narrowly be on the U.S. military, but the trends are not moving in the right direction. The Pentagon will have to put more money and training toward cyberwarfare, employment of Special Forces at sea, unmanned vehicles, subsurface capabilities (both manned submarines and undersea drones); and air defenses against hypersonic cruise and ballistic missiles.” 

Echoing this fear, Kishi’s whitepaper states that “stabilising the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan’s security and the stability of the international community. Therefore, it is necessary that we pay close attention to the situation with a sense of crisis more than ever before.” 

The strategic balance with Taiwan is said to be tipping heavily to the Chinese side and the gap is widening every year. 

Former Prime Minister Taro Aso recently lent support to Kishi’s bellicose pronouncements, saying Japan should join forces with the United States to defend Taiwan from any invasion. 

Taiwan has long been a sensitive issue for policy makers in Tokyo. It’s a former Japanese colony, 1895-1945, that was once seen as so integral to the empire of Imperial Japan that Taiwan’s highest peak, Yushan, officially eclipsed beloved Mount Fuji as the highest mountain in the realm. Dubbed Mount Niitaka, it’s very name in Japanese means the new high mountain. 

Japan lost control of Taiwan at the end of WW2 but continued to maintain strong ties in terms of trade and culture, building on personal links, corporate links and residual goodwill for what some might argue was Japan’s only successful colonial occupation. 

Japan adjusted to the shock of Nixon’s overture to China in 1972 by normalizing relations the same year and quietly jettisoning official links with Taiwan. In recent years however, in the aftermath of Tiananmen and other shocks from the mainland, Taiwan has regained some of its lost stature. It does not rise to the level of a strategic partner, but it serves as an informal foil to Beijing and as a destination for trade and tourism enriched by a long shared history.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021



Philip Cunningham

Independent Scholar
(published in China-US Focus, June 30, 2021)  

The mild-mannered Dr. Anthony Fauci is a much-maligned man. As a man of science who has entered the media arena, he has to suffer fools, some less gladly than others, but he usually manages to keep an even temper and a smile on his face, befitting a wise man of 80. 

Fauci’s quiet but firm deportment as a man of science famously put him at odds with President Trump and continues to rile anti-vaxxers and conspiracy theorists who make wild claims of a Wuhan lab-engineered virus without scientific logic, documentation or evidence. Fauci has been ludicrously accused of helping China to create and weaponize the virus. 

China, for reasons of geography, biology and wildlife, especially the bat population on its southern border, is a well-documented site of zoonotic transmission of viral contagions, entirely of natural origin, most notably the 2003 SARS outbreak. Still it can take years to track down the cause and mechanism of a new virus and the zoonotic transmission of COVID-19 has not yet been traced. 

Science can be slow and methodical but it is neutral and illuminating. Politicians, on the other hand, can be impetuous and impatient, as personified by the Trump administration, its lapdog media and fervent domestic supporters. Beijing has understandably taken umbrage from the prejudicial and overtly politicized attacks from Pompeo’s state department and Fox News, but that doesn’t mean the lab should go uninspected. 

In an age of competing nationalisms abroad and divisive partisanship at home, Dr. Fauci possesses the rare quality of quietly speaking the truth even if it is not to his political advantage. Although it would be humiliating for China to open up its Wuhan lab to a U.S. governmental inspection team, given the way U.S. populists have trumped up the so-called “Wuhan virus” to score political points, it would be reasonable to open the labs to Dr. Fauci and an independent team of respected scientists. He has not engaged in anti-China invective. Instead he gives praise where due to the work of his Chinese colleagues and finds it reasonable that the U.S. should, through funding and scientific exchange, support the work of the Wuhan lab. 

A respectful but rigorous inspection of the lab by dedicated scientists could squelch lab leak fantasies and assuage the rise of paranoia that threatens to thrust the U.S. and China deep into a cold war. 

As I prepared to join a group Zoom conversation with Dr. Fauci on June 8, 2021, a search for his name on Twitter produced among its top ten tweets the following entries from sitting members of the U.S. Congress: 

Sen. Marsha Blackburn: Dr. Fauci put Mark Zuckerberg and the CCP before American jobs and lives. He needs to go, now. 

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene: Earlier this year, I introduced H.R. 2316, the Fire Fauci Act. Should Fauci be fired? Do you agree? 

Rep. Matt Gaetz: “Dr. Anthony Fauci and his friends do not want the American people to know the truth about the origins of COVID-19.” 

Not only has his name been defamed by congress members, but at a New York City vaccination clinic that Fauci visited with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, anti-vax protesters called for him to be fired. Death threats, a feature of his life since the pandemic put him in the spotlight, have necessitated increased security for his family. 

Jeneen Interlandi of the New York Times, who hosted the Nieman Foundation Q&A, said that Fauci was sounding more forthright and emotional than usual, perhaps a reflection of the personal attacks in the latest media frenzy. 

Asked if he ever thought of resigning due to the vitriol and pressure he has been put under after clashing with Trump and Trump supporters, he said no. He respects the Presidency but didn’t want to play political games. He spoke out not only because he had his own reputation to consider but for fear of a vacuum of truthful information at the top. 

I asked him about MIT Broad Institute Fellow Alina Chan’s contention that a scientist should give equal weight to all possibilities, even extremely unlikely possibilities such as a lab leak. He reiterated that one has to allow for the possibility that a lab leak took place, but that even if there were a lab leak, it would not indicate a manufactured virus or bio-weapon. There is simply no evidence to support that, and the virus does not have those characteristics. The accidental transmission of a natural virus that infected someone in the lab is theoretically possible, but unknowable unless there was an examination. He added later that examining the health records of lab workers could help clear that up. 

When questioned about the location of the Wuhan lab, Fauci said it makes sense to locate research centers near the source of viral outbreaks. He cited SARS and related viruses traced to bat populations in China as prime examples of that. U.S. financial support was limited to about $125,000 a year, but such sharing of data and resources is important and necessary to tackle global issues such as a pandemic. 

He also stressed that lockdowns, masks and social distancing were key mitigations in slowing spread, but now that vaccines are available and have proven effective, widespread vaccination is the only way forward. 

But anti-vaxxers, who can be a hostile gutter media and recalcitrant die-hard supporters of Trump stand in the way. Trump continues to rail against Fauci, while Fox News host Tucker Carlson calls him the “patron saint of Wuhan” and insinuates that he instituted “medical martial law” to dampen questioning about his funding of experiments that released the virus.

Fauci insists that the U.S. has enough vaccines for its population and that he can see no reason why it shouldn’t be able to get the whole population vaccinated. But danger remains if the virus is not stopped elsewhere, which is why a global problem needs a global solution. It’s not only the right ethical thing to do but in the interests of the U.S. that people in countries without access to the vaccine get protection, even if it costs “billions and billions” of dollars. 

The thing that keeps him up at night is not the pot shots of the gutter press or even the name-calling, calls to resign and threats against his person, but a long-held theoretical fear that has sadly come true. 

Ever since he started working on pandemic research around 30 years ago, he said his greatest fear was that one day there would be an animal-to-man jump of a highly contagious virus with high morbidity and mortality that would spread around the world. But while he is now confronting the reality of Covid-19, the materialization of his long-held fear, he continues to navigate the road back to normalcy with science, logic, and grace.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021



Society & Culture

China Lands on Mars

China's Zhurong landing craft and rover on the Martian surface


Philip Cunningham

China successfully landed a spacecraft on Mars at 7AM Beijing Time on May 15, 2021. Within a week it was snapping photos of the red planet and the Zhurong rover took its first short spin on the Martian surface. 

It’s a huge win for science and technology. The U.S. remains the undisputed leader in Mars exploration, but just as it’s good for the market to have competition and at least two or three viable brands, it’s good for science to have some mission redundancy and originality of approach, aiming for the same goal from slightly different angles. 

One need only consider the sad reality that the U.S., a giant in the short but action-packed history of space exploration, fumbled its gigantic lead in sending humans into space after a series of tragic mishaps doomed the Space Shuttle program. In the aftermath of the last shuttle flight, the U.S. had no way to launch astronauts into space for a full decade. This unanticipated shortfall came about despite U.S. “supremacy” in space. 

In terms of the record book, U.S. prestige is secure in not only having reached the moon first, but holding an unbroken monopoly of manned flight to the moon as represented by the legendary Apollo program. A great success, but it’s already half a century old. 

Various arms of the U.S. space program, the work done out of the Jet Propulsion Lab in particular, continue to do stunning work with robotic craft, including the exploration of Mars and stunning flybys of Jupiter, Saturn and even Pluto, but the U.S. had to turn to Russia for a helping hand to get its astronauts aboard the International Space Station. 

Russia’s trusty Soyuz craft proved worthy of the challenge and did the heavy lifting until private industry in the U.S., led most dramatically by Space X, got the U.S. back in the heavy lifting game. 

When the U.S. landed Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the moon, definitively beating the Russians in the space race, who would have guessed that the U.S. would need Russian help to get into Earth orbit just forty years later? 

A similar question can be raised regarding China’s relatively late entry into the robotic exploration of Mars. Being number two or three isn’t as nice as being number one, but if number one gets sidelined for whatever reason, it’s nice to know number two and three are there as backup. Not just for the sake of a particular nation, but for the sake of science, or as the astronauts like to say, “for all mankind.” 

It is perhaps predictable that nationalistic U.S. media coverage of China’s Johnny-come-lately space efforts in recent years should be riddled with yawns or even worse, outright ridicule. 

But it is not fair. 

The New York Times has been promoting the tiresome view “we’ve been there, done that” in its coverage of China’s Mars Landing, but that’s far from the worst of it. One can also detect a hypocritical sense of alarm that China is doing precisely the kinds of things that the U.S. has done for decades, except that when China does it, it recast in a negative light, as potentially imperiling humanity and the planet. 

From the time last summer, when China’s Mars mission was launched, to the last few weeks culminating in the successful Mars landing and movement of the Zhurong rover on Martian soil, the New York Times has played down China’s success by couching it in the context of unrelated problems. 

When China launched the Mars-bound Tianwen-1 last July, this is what the paper of record had to say:

The timing of the launch comes at a moment when China is facing increasing international pressure over its handling of a variety of issues.

The article goes on to raise unrelated political topics of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, and then concludes:

"A mission to Mars might seem like a golden opportunity to change the topic."

The stunning success of the two most recent independent Mars missions, one by the U.S., the other by China missions can be appreciated as a human victory, the triumph of peaceful application of science and rationality in a world that could use a lot more of both. 

Not for the NYT, though. Its correspondent Steven Lee Myers wrote a May 6, 2021 scare piece with an assist from the NYT headline writers:

Heads Up! A Used Chinese Rocket Is Tumbling Back to Earth This Weekend.

No, you are almost certainly not going to be hit by a 10-story, 23-ton piece of a rocket hurtling back to Earth… Chicago, located a fraction of a degree farther north, is safe, but major cities like New York could be hit by debris. 

Myer’s article, for which Kenneth Chang shared the byline, alternates wildly between breathless tabloid style coverage (I’m guessing it’s not the science writer) and more factual details about the very real problem of space junk which has dogged the U.S. program for decades. 

On May 14, a day before the Zhurong Mars landing, the NYT ran a piece on China’s space ambitions giving Myer another chance to snipe at China, saying that one of its rocket boosters narrowly missed the Maldives and that China’s space program “continues to create danger, however small, for people all over the planet by failing to control the paths of rockets it launches.” 

Space debris is a serious problem that needs to be addressed in China as well as the U.S. (by far the leading producer of space junk) but what is really questionable is why such stories are squeezing out coverage of the Mars landing. 

Even when confronted with the undeniable success of China’s successful landing on Mars on May 15, Myers can’t help but couch it in comparative terms: 

The Chinese Mars mission may seem less sexy than NASA’s latest, since it is essentially repeating feats that the Americans accomplished decades ago… 

It’s easy enough for an armchair warrior to make fun of China for being “behind” U.S. accomplishments on the Red Planet, but it’s a cheap shot. The logistics of putting together such a mission are mind-boggling and represent the hard work and vision of thousands, if not tens of thousands of scientists and their support network. And when it comes to science, competition is a good thing. 

Not only does China’s Mars program test the viability of different approaches to the same problem—the technique used by China to drop into a lower orbit to more gently land a craft on Mars is significantly different than the dazzling U.S. technique—but it offers a viable alternative. Alternative systems are a boon to science and exploration, most especially should one party or the other fumble the ball again--for reasons of funding shortfalls, domestic discord, loss of focus, the rise of irrationality, or whatever. 

It happened when the U.S. yielded its lead in launching manned flights to Russia, with the result that the understudy got to play the lead role, and in space, as on the stage, that’s a good backup to have. 

U.S.-Russian cooperation and shared use of the Soyuz craft to keep the U.S. space station viable and fully manned is a gold standard for showing how two countries with wildly different political systems and ideologies can nonetheless pitch in and help each other out. 

Let’s hope that China and the U.S., despite their differences, will be able to lend one another a helping hand when the going gets tough in the unforgiving environment of outer space and other planetary surfaces. 

(first published in China-US Focus, June 10, 2021)

Sunday, May 2, 2021



APRIL 27, 2021

by Philip J. Cunningham

In the West,'China the villain' is a narrative few dare to challenge

  • Vitriol aimed at contrarians who point to lack of evidence for Xinjiang genocide claims reflects how much Biden’s approach to China resembles predecessor’s
  • It is at such times of rabid nationalism that free speech and dispassionate research are needed

Something strange has happened to public discourse in the West, perhaps magnified by the dislocation and despair of the pandemic. People are not just covering their mouths with masks to avoid viral harm; they are covering their mouths so as not to say things that challenge the master narrative of the moment.

The free media is itself complicit in the silencing and outright ridicule of views that don’t comport with the flavour-of-the-month trends coming out of the corridors of power.

Take Xinjiang, for example. The

dominant narrative at the moment is that China is committing genocide in Xinjiang. This is an extremely serious charge – one that harks back to the Holocaust. But is it true?

Is it not worth considering the possibility that the freighted term “genocide” is being bandied about to inflict maximum pain on China, rather than to reflect an honest assessment of the situation on the ground?

“UK parliament declares genocide in China’s Xinjiang” screams a recent Reuters headline. To cavalierly and carelessly invoke the never-forget tragedy of European Jewry in World War II is an egregious insult to real historic victims of genocide.

Forcing people into work camps is indeed a terrible thing. And sadly, it is something which China has a long record of doing, dating back to the anti-rightist movement of the 1950s and the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, though in those days it involved mostly members of the Han majority.

Many Han people were treated in the same shabby way that Uygurs have been treated recently – forced to leave home, forced to work in state facilities. It’s shameful, it’s politically tone-deaf and flat-out wrong in moral terms, but is it genocide?

To date, the strongest accusations come from NGOs and researchers who wear the anti-China agenda on their sleeve. Take Human Rights Watch, which recently has accused China of crimes against humanity. Ditto for German researcher Adrian Zenz, who said he was “led by God” to investigate the camps in Xinjiang, using inference and second-hand data to estimate an imprisoned population of 1.5 million.

Their accusations, some quite horrific, are based on zero access and anecdotal information. The incompleteness of their research leaves no choice but to extrapolate. Some of the dots connect, some don’t.

Connect-the-dots was the mantra that the US and Britain used to justify the invasion of Iraq, regime change and slaughter by bombing, ultimately snuffing out the lives of hundreds of thousands of innocents. The spurious charges put forth by the US and Britain had the ring of truth, the imprimatur of respected agencies and elite analysts and, while they didn’t present a slam-dunk case, it was presented as such in the media.

That it turned out to be a crock of lies, half-truths and half-baked speculation was not enough to stop the subsequent war, which proved disastrous.

Now, as then, there are belligerent opinion leaders in Washington who seek war and regime change. Even in China. Yet even a “small, short war” (as was said about Iraq) would have terrible untold consequences. It’s not that the US couldn’t inflict horrendous harm on China, it’s that the US cannot hurt China without hurting itself. War with China is a lose-lose proposition of the highest degree.

It is precisely at such times of escalating threats and rabid nationalism that free speech and dispassionate research are needed, and voices against regime change and war need to be listened to attentively.

Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs was recently invited by the BBC to “discuss” with China human rights activist Teng Biao the futility of talking to China about climate change in light of Xinjiang and human rights abuses. He questioned the framing of the interview, wondering why the BBC talked about human rights as if it were an issue that only applied to China and not the US. That got him accused of whataboutism.

Sachs, who recently co-wrote

“The Xinjiang genocide allegations are unjustified” with genocide legal researcher William Schabas, has taken a courageous stand against the groupthink of the moment.

Another economist, on the other side of the world, got similarly roasted on social media

for having the temerity to speak up for the authors of an article that debunked the popular media story claiming one million Uygur Muslims worked in Chinese concentration camps.

Jane Golley, who researches China at Australia National University, said the scholars chose to remain anonymous for fear of a backlash for challenging the dominant narrative of the day.

China is now defined as the ultimate other, the enemy of our time. Not only have the hate-driven policies of Donald Trump’s China team been absorbed by the new US administration of Joe Biden,but they are doubling down on hot issues such as Xinjiang and Taiwan


Soft-spoken Secretary of State Antony Blinken has taken the place of the truculent Mike Pompeo, but it is hard to distinguish policy differences between the two.

There is only one acceptable American take on “Chy-na” and that is to accuse it of everything, give it credit for nothing and suspect it of the worst.

Philip J. Cunningham is the author of Tiananmen Moon, a first-hand account of the 1989 Beijing student protest

Philip J. Cunningham

Philip J. Cunningham

Philip J. Cunningham has been a regular visitor to China since 1983, working variously as a tour guide, TV producer, freelance writer, independent scholar and teacher. He has conducted media research in China as a Knight Fellow and Fulbright Scholar and was the recipient of a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard. He is the author of Tiananmen Moon, a first-hand account of the 1989 protests in Beijing.


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