Saturday, June 27, 2020


“China Unquarantined”


  • Philip J Cunningham
    Independent Scholar

    (published in China-US Focus, June 26, 2020)
"China Unquarantined" recently released in the National Review (link) has unleashed the specter of China as a seething monster needing containment. 
Authors Dan Blumenthal and Nicholas Eberstadt have taken the approach of throw-everything-on-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks to sully China in service of a reactionary current in US politics. The authors summon up well in excess of ten thousand words to say that the US is good and China is bad.

It’s a hit job, part and parcel of a campaign to reorient the US away from China in just about every aspect of life. It is deeply reactionary in that it seeks not just to upend, but to undo and destroy efforts to build the US-China relationship in the last forty years. 

In tone and content, the piece corresponds well with the PR output of the Pompeo faction in US politics – China can do no right, the US can do no wrong.

What little it does have to say in an original way is either spurious or not well-supported. It’s long enough, and there is a long litany of complaints cited, but there is not much new here to anyone who reads the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, except perhaps that the authors have the gall to use Covid-19 as an all-encompassing narrative theme.

To put it plainly, they create a straw-horse, thinking China might be bad, and then light it on fire, and it burns, so China must be bad.

There's implicit racism underlying the whole piece, starting with the title. 

It has the dynamics of self-fulfilling prophecy, painting the other guy as the enemy and then setting out to denigrate the designated enemy in every way. 

It does not consider what valid fears and concerns China might rightly have about current, disruptive economic and political shifts. China is still struggling with the Covid-19 epidemic. It has come of age in the world where the US dominates the high seas and maintains military bases encircling China in all directions. 

Ironically, the National Review case against China flouts the term “unquarantined” but does not address China’s reasonable sovereign desire to be “uncontained”, or at least less tightly “constrained”, by the military might of US and its ability to impose trade tariffs and punitive sanctions. The US can look to Australia, Japan, and South Korea for support, buttressed by an archipelago of military bases around the world. The US’s military might has no equal.

The authors take to China-bashing, impugning Chinese students as spies and stressing the need to limit visas, and then pause to wonder why this tremendous talent pool is starting to race back to China. (link)

If the authors succeed in their quixotic quest to drive Chinese students away, they will have unwittingly given new life to the story of US-trained physicist Qian Xuesen writ large. The Chinese-born MIT genius was ruthlessly bullied by FBI under McCarthyism; bending to pressure, he returned China and helped work on their bomb.

On some of the more particular points, the authors make a reasonable case, such as lack of reciprocity in particular industries, and the film business in particular. They accuse Hollywood of kowtowing not just to China’s tastes, but also to China’s censors. 

While these restrictions hurt China’s domestic industry as much as, if not more than, the US market, it’s uncertain if America’s movie industry bending to China is really China’s fault. 

Hollywood has always played to the prejudices of its audience and always bent to the censor board. Whitewashing is at least as old as DW Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and for years Jews and gays and Asians and African-Americans had to wait in line to get a starring role. 

More generally, the article is unified by a totally opportunistic and illogical deployment of COVID-19 as a theme. The writers stoop to deploying the already-tiresome trope of the pandemic as a way of invoking a political fear of contagion. 

“Letting the CCP loose in our house is part and parcel of America’s grand strategy and has been for decades.” They draw on old quotes from Nixon that buttress their disease model of China invoking “containment without isolation” and “dynamic detoxification.” 

And after a whopping 10,000 words in service of portraying China as a political peril, they conclude:
“And so today we must begin the task of quarantining ourselves from the CCP.”

The tacit conflation of China and Covid-19 serves as a kind of narrative glue to hold the rest of their loosely-assembled hodgepodge of ideas together. Chinese influence is portrayed as a kind of contagion. The authors say in effect that the CCP is the virus we really have to watch out for, wink-wink.

This is nothing more than abhorrent propagandizing.
Plenty of mistakes have been made every place where the virus reared its ugly head. China's early response reeked of bureaucratic squirming and the desire to deflect or ignore bad news, but its subsequent response was concerted and effective.  

But to imply, as Eberstadt and Blumenthal do, that it could have been contained in Wuhan (when it was still poorly understood) begs the question: Why wasn't it contained in Seattle, or in New York? Why was it allowed to spread, even with adequate time to prepare?

One of the article’s more powerful claims is that China hoarded masks and protective gear, and then resold the same at a profit. This and other details are, in places, damning, but it still doesn’t add up to a call to arms to ditch the hard-won accomplishments that have been won in US-China relations, especially when so much of each country’s affluence and well-being is dependent on the other. 

In politics, cooperation is an urgent necessity under pandemic conditions. And as for science, Covid-19 is a free agent under no one's control. The virus doesn’t take marching orders from anyone but merely follows a ruthless, unrelenting Darwinian march of its own.

In "China Unquarantined", Covid-19 is weaponized in a weird and retrospective way. The authors make spurious calculations about how much the virus has cost the US in treasure and blood, citing numbers certain to anger and enrage readers.  

Trump has resisted the calls of the anti-China line longer than might be expected given the way he surrounded himself from the start with China-bashing advisors such as Steven Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, Michael Pillsbury and Peter Navarro. But his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner both have business interests in China, as does one of his biggest benefactors, casino-magnate Sheldon Adelson. 

From title to the last line, “China Unquarantined” is a call to arms to remind the Trump camp to keep up the fight with China, if only for domestic reasons. Pivoting against China is seen as a necessary tactic in the battle against the "radical left" Democrats (that is, Joe Biden or anyone who doesn't agree with them). 

This work of rhetoric, sponsored by the National Review, is a kind of cheat sheet to remind Republicans to stay on message and speak in unison. The message? China is to be categorically demonized. It might not be true, in any case the pro-US tale they have to tell is only half the story, but laying blame on a rival is a useful foil in times of political crisis. 

Fear of the “other” is being used to rally economic nationalists and inflame public opinion at a time when President Trump is desperately trying to shirk responsibility for America’s home-grown problems. 


Friday, June 19, 2020


Sino-India frontier at Galwan Valley

What role, if any, can the United States play in moderating Sino-Indian tensions?

Philip J Cunningham

The recent melee between Indian and Chinese troops in the stark, precipitous and almost Martian-like terrain of the Sino-Indian border near Pangang Lake in Galwan Valley will not be soon forgotten. Although cool heads have prevailed in both Beijing and Delhi, calling for an immediate halt in fighting, both countries are extremely incensed, not to mention face-conscious, about the “heroes” lost on their respective side on the conflict. While it is reassuring to learn from reports that not a single shot was fired, it is shocking to think that hand-to-hand scuffles in treacherous terrain could result in dozens of deaths.

In the English-language media there is emotional talk in India of shifting its policy away from China and looking to shore up support from other quarters abroad, particularly America. Within hours of the conflict, India indicated it was thinking of joining the US bandwagon in banning Huawei and other Chinese firms. The US has never been a strong influence in India, especially during the Cold War, because it was seen, with sufficient justification, to favor Pakistan which was locked into SEATO and other strategic treaties with the US, and was also a major recipient of US aid and military largesse.

Ironically China, too, found it within its interests to lean toward Pakistan, especially after the Sino-Soviet split, because India was seen as being in the Soviet orbit. It’s no coincidence that the secret diplomatic legwork that culminated in Nixon’s visit to China was largely conducted via Pakistan.

US Pakistani relations subsequently cooled to the point that it was possible for Pakistan to shelter Osama bin Laden without US knowledge and approval, not that approval would have been forthcoming.

What if any role can the US now play in soothing tensions among the three restive neighboring nuclear states of India, China and Pakistan?

History provides an example of a terrible intervention, one that surely made things worse, and a deft, minimalist intervention that clearly helped calm things down.

It’s worth comparing and contrasting the role of Britain’s last Viceroy, the regal envoy, Lord Louis Mountbatten, and John F Kennedy’s man in India, John Kenneth Galbraith.

Lord Mountbatten, last viceroy of India

Mountbatten, intent of staging a gallant British retreat and anxious himself to return to Britain before schedule in 1946, put pomp and circumstance above the practical amelioration of communal violence and desperate conditions on the ground. He accelerated the partition of India and Pakistan in secret, while assigning a person with no experience in the subcontinent to hastily draw maps and borders that have been unstable hot spots ever since.

A decade and a half later, a bloody conflict broke out between China and India in Ladakh, near the site of the present-day conflict. US Ambassador Galbraith was the man for the moment. He credits the fact that his friend the President had his back, but also tellingly noted that JFK had his eyes on Vietnam and Southeast Asia and Cuba was not at all interested in intervening in India. 

JK Galbraith conferring with Jawaharlal Nehru

This was an inadvertently propitious arrangement, for it gave the US Ambassador maximum leeway to rely on the diplomatic toolbox without resort to weaponry, though some logistic support eventually was sent to India, with the interesting condition, and one which PM Jawaharlal Nehru readily agreed to, that the anti-American Defense Minister Krishna Menon “had to go.” Nehru wanted a show of American military support but the US was preoccupied by the Cuban Missile crisis. By the time Kennedy turned his hawkish gaze to India, Mao had already ordered Chinese troops to withdraw.

Galbraith’s comments on the crisis are as relevant and ring as true today as they did then. He described it as “an accidental conflict” over a “totally useless piece of land.” An agronomist and economist by trade, he saw professional militaries, bored by long periods of peace, as over-anxious to provoke conflict.

In a 2003 interview with retired Indian Colonel Anile Athale, the sagacious elderly Galbraith remarked:

"In the old days, land was important as the giver of all things. That period is gone now. Technology and brainpower are all that matters and yet conflicts over land, specially one like on the India-China border, that yields nothing, continue. This is a burden of ancient history that we continue to carry. If tomorrow there is settlement on planet Mars, we will begin to worry if others are interested."

Wise words for the ages.

Galbraith refused the opportunity to inflame passions over which side was right or to sing praise of one side over the other by noting in the same interview that “inventive journalism is a great danger to mankind.”

He worked quietly with an understandably agitated Nehru to deescalate, but he later remarked that the US State Department wasn’t of much help, either. As he related to Colonel Athale, the State Department “considers foreign policy something which is to be conducted for the convenience and enjoyment of people in Washington.”

The current US Ambassador to India, Kenneth Juster, may be in a similarly propitious position as his predecessor Galbraith was. His conservative, sterling reputation and his on the ground role in arranging the Trump-Modi summit give him discreet leverage in the current context. (disclosure: Kenneth Juster and I were classmates as AFS exchange students in Thailand

With the Trump administration distracted every which way, the inability of the US executive branch to focus on India might provide an apt moment for quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy to help keep the peace.
In the very least, the US should not exploit this dangerous rift, whether it be to goad India to support the US trade war, exploit India-Pakistan tensions or stoke paranoia in Beijing by adding to the already considerable US military encirclement of China.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020



The sudden outbreak of Covid-19 at a wholesale food market on the outskirts of Beijing in Fengtai is an unwelcome reminder that there is still much to be learned about this particular coronavirus and its means of transmission. The world’s attention to the mysterious outbreak was first riveted to a wet market in Wuhan, which accounted for a high percentage of early cases.

Leaving the question of ultimate origin of the virus to the research of scientists, it still seems fair to speculate that there is something about markets that requires immediate attention.

Wet markets have gotten a bad name, unfairly so in the sense that cultural prejudices have been brought to bear. Supermarket shoppers, especially in the West, are accustomed to buying meat and produce wrapped up, packaged and branded, no questions asked. The fish are no longer swimming, the chickens no longer clucking, and the food chain is an abstraction.

Traditional Asian markets, and farmer’s markets in the West are a step closer to fresh food, the desirability of which speaks for itself, but sometimes problems arise on account of freshness.

Indonesia is reckoned to be at a crossroads as Covid-19 wreaks havoc on many of the nation’s 12,000 pasars, or traditional markets, where crowding also contributes to risk, especially in Java. But it’s not just traditional wet markets of the sort that can be found across Asia that have attracted negative attention as nodes for outbreak.

“Modern” beef-packing plants from Iowa and South Dakota to Rio do Sul in Brazil have been hard-hit with explosive outbreaks. By mid-May half of the coronavirus hotspots in the US were factories that process beef, chicken and pork.

Brazil, the biggest exporter of beef and chicken in the world, has been hard-hit by the virus, and is now second to the US in numbers with half a million infected. In a single state in Brazil, Rio Grande do Sul, nearly two and a half thousand cases of Covid-19 can be traced to 24 slaughterhouses across the state.

Texas has seen its infection numbers jump, and not necessarily in big cities. Rural Moore County, population 20,000, has an infection rate ten times higher on account of the local meat-packing plant which processes five thousand cow carcasses a day.

The startling number of hot spots associated with meat-packing raises critical questions. Does the cool, refrigerated air play a role? Is ventilation the crux of the problem? It raises anew the anxious question of whether the greatest risk simply comes from human beings breathing in close proximity. While respiratory droplets have been identified as a vector that can be mitigated with spacing, the problem of aerosolized exposure is far harder to control.

In what seems like a nightmare scenario, combining the already-established dangers of confinement on a floating vessel, as exemplified by the Diamond Princess and dozens of other big ships, there is a newly emerging awareness that something about the processing of animal flesh poses serious problems, too.

The American Dynasty, a combination fishing boat and fish-processing plant limped into the port of Seattle due to a coronavirus outbreak on board in early June. 92 out of 126 workers tested positive for the virus. The US fishing industry which works the waters off Alaska has reported other outbreaks, so the scramble is on to contain the spread of onboard infection and to find protocols that allow for safe fishing and processing.

The outbreak in the US fishing industry perhaps contributed to early speculation that salmon might be a source of contamination. Too soon to say, but the salmon trade is another example of an industry being shaken to the bones by the Covid scare. There is even talk of cancelling the 2020 salmon fishing season off Alaska.

Markets that sell meat and fish, fresh, frozen and processed will be under pressure to ever more exacting sanitary standards. This is surely a good thing, but it takes time and money.

The US meat-packing industry is responding in a piecemeal fashion, issuing masks and temperature checks, but testing remains inadequate. The failure of the US to produce, distribute and administer tests in sufficient numbers still hampers the national response to Covid-19. In contrast China and South Korea have tested aggressively, and authorities in cooperation with the populace have mobilized the necessary resources to trace, identify and isolate in response to outbreak nodules.

It is hoped that the rapid and thorough response of Beijing authorities to the Fengtai outbreak, where widespread testing and tracing is now underway will present statistical clues not just as to what caused this particular “out-of-the-blue” outbreak but also help markets around the world understand the vectors and take necessary precautions.

Saturday, June 6, 2020


The May 29, 2020 White House statement on Hong Kong by President Trump was not as bad as it could have been—the stock market took it in stride-- but it wasn’t very good, either. Read straight through from a Teleprompter, it was laced with Trumpian complaints about the US being “ripped off” and the obligatory pinning of blame on past presidents, but it was largely free of the incendiary innuendoes and malevolent malapropisms that recently led the President to getting admonished on Twitter, by Twitter, for postings that contained hatred and lies. 

Instead, the President’s Hong Kong speech, though not at all milquetoast, represented a patchwork of clashing voices within Washington: some reasonable, some not; some trying to wedge the door open, others trying to slam it closed.

There were cheap Churchillian cadences, lashing China with strong verbs:“raided our factories, off-shored our jobs, gutted our industries, stole our intellectual property…smothering Hong Kong’s freedom.” 

The “carnage” section was redolent of the pessimistic White House speechwriter Stephen Miller, but regardless of authorship, there was ample red meat for red-hatted constituents and dog-whistle nationalists. But there were also a few carefully phrased formulations and open-ended ambiguities, directed at anyone in China who might be listening, suggesting a less combative school of thought.

Although the revocation of preferential treatment of Hong Kong was the ostensible topic of the talk, Trump offered few details and in sum, it sounded more like the end of the beginning than the beginning of the end.  The “death knell” invoked by Pompeo after his rash determination that “One Country, Two Systems” was no longer in effect did not resonate loudly.

Trump started out with pointing fingers, continuing to heed the advice of Republican strategists who see blaming China as the best way to deflect from the President’s own shortcomings, of which there are many.

America’s top diplomat Mike Pompeo, who has been telling European leaders that Covid-19 should rightly be called the “Wuhan Virus” scored a petty victory in getting Trump to use exactly that term. While that might represent a mild dial-down from the incendiary usage of “China virus” that Trump resorted to in mid-March, it still reeks of an attempt to “point over there” instead of reckoning with the stark failure of Trump-backed public health efforts in the US homeland.

Flanking the President at the podium were US Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. The former has a reputation as a tough trade negotiator but at the end of the day he wants a deal or his efforts are waste. Mnuchin represents a more conciliatory approach. He is generally positive on China trade. He has clashed in the past with hardliners such as Peter Navarro who view China with great suspicion. 

A tea-leaf reading of stage line-up reveals that Trump is a boss who can tolerate some dissension in the ranks as long as they are unbending in their loyalty to him. Different factions, to his left and right, but alike in their silent obeisance. Mnuchin, for example, offers a counterbalance to Pompeo, which signals that the business of  business has not been entirely ruptured by the pointed politics of combative diplomacy.

Hong Kong has clearly been censured, and may indeed face serious sanctions, but it’s not the nuclear option that Pompeo was alluding to despite some bombastic rhetoric.

It is telling that one of the few truly decisive measures taken was not directed directly at China, but at the WHO. The US is cutting funding and pulling out, declared Trump, ostensibly as punishment for the organization’s alleged leaning towards China, but that’s a political ploy.
It’s far easier to pick on a hapless UN organization than Beijing, which controls the levers of the world’s second largest economy and is backed by massive military might.

Whether it was for matters of face, or simply an absence of facts, Trump merely hinted at the possibility that the coronavirus first detected in Wuhan was something conspiratorial. Though he came short of claiming the virus was manufactured or weaponized, he made vague, fuzzy claims that will allow the more fanatical of his followers to connect the dots and put the blame squarely on Beijing.

"Why is it that China shut off infected people from Wuhan to all other parts of China. It went nowhere else. It didn't go to Beijing, it went nowhere else, but they allowed them to freely travel throughout the world including Europe and the United States.” 

Wuhan International Airport was closed for two months, except for emergency evacuations demanded by the United States and other countries who had nationals stranded in a closed city.
Domestic and international travel were both strictly curtailed.

Trump then reiterates the claim of the hardliners who say "the world is now suffering as a result of the malfeasance of the Chinese government.” Wuhan’s bad luck being the first city to succumb to the virus on a massive scale bought time for other cities in China and around the world, but Trump keeps harking back to a delay of a few weeks in Chin when he himself dithered for more than two months with a great deal more information at hand. 

Trump’s speechwriters prudently left Xi Jinping out of his diatribes which can be construed as a calculated conciliatory gesture in an otherwise ill-tempered theatrical strike against China.
Just a week before, the President was railing against an unnamed figure in China in this way:

“Some wacko in China jut released a statement blaming everybody other than China for the Virus which has now killed hundreds of thousands of people. Please explain to this dope that it was the ‘incompetence of China’, and nothing else, that did this mass Worldwide killing!”

At the same time, a split between two of Trump’s top China advisors broke into the open on Fox TV.  Talk show host Lou Dobbs pit outside advisor Michael Pillsbury against White House advisor Peter Navarro over the issue of an unsigned White House position paper on China that Pillsbury characterized as watered down and weak, (on a par with something you’d expect from Obama or Biden, a stinging rebuke among Trump faithful)

This hawkish perception led to Navarro getting grilled by Lou Dobbs a few days later. Navarro did not take ownership of the “soft-on-China” memo, which admittedly had a bureaucratic, interagency ring to it, but Lou Dobbs did not back down, accusing Navarro of “peddling pablum and BS.”

An extraordinary ten minutes of television ensued in which the hawkish Navarro, author of “Death by China” was hammered by Dobbs for being too soft on China, in part because the President wasn’t calling it “China virus” anymore, not even “Wuhan virus.”

The rift among hard-liners jostling for favor is very much evident in the mixed messages of Trump’s May 29 speech. Concessions are made to two contending schools of thought, alternating between “wacko” hard-core haters and mainstream hardline conservatives.

(published in China-US Focus, June 2020)

Tuesday, June 2, 2020


Dark clouds of light-obscuring dust are being kicked up by the hooves of an angry posse that is bent on wreaking havoc with US-China relations. The president of the United States, high on his big white horse in the White House, is the leader of the pack. He daily makes a mockery of the pestilence sweeping the land, but when pressed to take responsibility, he points to China. No stranger to strange and shocking tweets, he recently reached a new diplomatic low with this unhinged May 20 attack:

"Some wacko in China just released a statement blaming everybody other than China for the Virus which has now killed hundreds of thousands of people. Please explain to this dope that it was the 'incompetence of China', and nothing else, that did this mass worldwide killing."

A statement so breathtakingly unpresidential as to be unprecedented.

Photo from Intercept

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, quick to go red in the face spewing insults and offense, continues to utter China-baiting imprecations unbecoming of a diplomat. He failed to get Europeans on board his dubious "Wuhan virus" conspiracy train, but he has now discovered a potently divisive gambit, as seen in this May 27 CNN headline: "Pompeo says Hong Kong is no longer autonomous from China, jeopardizing billions of dollars in trade".

His unilateral declaration implies that Beijing's widely recognized "one country, two systems" principle for Hong Kong governance is no longer in play, which opens the door for deep diplomatic discord and ruinous economic sanctions.

US Attorney General William Barr, who represents the US government in all legal matters, is the symbolic holder of the balance of justice. A former Verizon executive, not in office when Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Huawei, was arrested in Canada at the urging of the US, Barr is something of a black horse in the pursuit of Huawei.

His antipathy for Meng's company is no secret-he has stated that Huawei and ZTE "cannot be trusted". But his strongly held belief in unfettered presidential power as expressed in the unitary executive theory often has him acting more as the US president's personal lawyer than as an advocate for impartial justice, so he can be expected to follow the US president's lead on this case. The president took action against Huawei lately, barring it from working with US companies or using US technology.

The likelihood that Meng will be forced to stand trial in the US has increased as a Vancouver judge ruled on May 27 that US and Canadian legal views are sufficiently concurrent to justify extradition. Meng, mandated to wear an ankle bracelet, pay for security and observe a curfew as a condition of being out on bail, is not free to move beyond the general vicinity of her home in Vancouver.

The pale-faced White House adviser Stephen Miller has been trying for years to end all visas for Chinese students. His evil, ill-conceived dream is a step closer to being realized, and it will hurt decent people for no good reason. Perhaps the meanest of the US president's mean-spirited team, the man with the sickly pallor has a penchant for picking on foreigners based on racially tinged notions of "cleansing" US society. He continues to target Chinese students, when he's not busy separating migrant families at the border, cutting work visas and curbing immigration.

In high school, Miller gave a speech deliberately insulting the work staff who were mostly Latino and black. "Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up our trash when we have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us?"

Back then, he was asked to leave the podium for the racist and classist implication of his snarky remarks. Now he's in the White House where there's no one to tell him to stop the trash talk and divisive actions. He has found a partner in racist dog-whistling in Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton who is currently seeking to block visas for Chinese students in science, technology, engineering and math among other fields.

US-China relations have fallen into a widening gyre for complex reasons of economics, history, politics and culture. It's happened before and the best hope is that the center will hold. But conflict is not out of the question; the ill-conceived actions of a few can inflict lasting damage.

Trump, Pompeo, Barr, Miller

It's time to rein in the four mad horsemen to avoid a political apocalypse.