Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Biden gets dream team on China: But what if the game is changing?



(published in the Japan Times, January 27, 2021)

Biden’s China-related appointments represent a Democratic Party dream team of consummate insiders with a Beltway accent, fluent in the business of politics and the politics of business.

The placement of Anthony Blinken as Secretary of State, Kurt Campbell and Laura Rosenberger at the National Security Council, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, Lloyd Austin heading the Pentagon and William Burns leading the Central Intelligence Agency is a manifestation of Biden’s centrist worldview. It’s an old-school business-as-usual approach, a congenial crowd comfortable with both the security establishment and corporate giants, especially energy, tech and defense contractors.

More ideologically hawkish candidates, such as Michele Flournoy for the Pentagon, and Mike Morell, formerly of the CIA, met with internal Democratic Party resistance and did not secure the jobs they vied for. Flournoy may have over-extended herself in the private sector, including affiliations with WestExec, Booz Hamilton, Boston Consulting and Pine Island Capital. Pine Island, a private equity firm, has emerged as another boutique power nexus to watch. Both Blinken and Flournoy were partners there, and its outsized influence in the new administration includes newly-appointed Pentagon chief Austin.

The new team includes many Obama administration retreads and Hillary Clinton loyalists who know how to play the game -— but what if the game is changing? A question is whether these foreign policy elites, who have played along Washington’s tune, have what it takes to deal with an emboldened China.

A paradigm shift is underway on account of the ongoing pandemic, redefining “normal” as we know it. Then there’s the diminishing returns of an economic downturn and the rise of provocation on both sides of the U.S.- China divide. Given these challenges, it will take more than the usual inside-dealing of the usual Beltway beneficiaries to get U.S.-China relations back on a balanced footing again.

Most of Biden’s China team, though competent, comprises partisan professionals who work in the orbit of Pentagon-friendly think tanks and lucrative consulting firms. To put it another way, these are the agents who not only espouse the policy vision of the Democratic Party but help to shape it. It is unclear whether they can remain immune to the wish-lists of the consulting firms and corporate hands that put a silver lining on their political exile during the Republican-dominated Trump years.

The well-connected team of Democratic party loyalists is a tight-knit network in its own right, but it is also riddled with cliques and potential conflicts of interest that come with private sector backgrounds. The line between public service and private pecuniary activities tends to overlap and firewalls get blurred in the corridors of the Beltway. What’s more natural than favoring people who have also favored you? Conflicts of interest will arise.

That spoils are attendant to the two ruling oligarchic parties that vie to put a president in the White House is a feature built into the game, but just because both parties do it doesn’t make it any better. Consultants and analysts are often dependent on the largesse of big corporate donors with vested interests. Being disinclined to bite the hand that feeds them, appointees are not particularly well-positioned to carry out a supple foreign policy free of fear or favor.

U.S. China policy going forward will be more muscular than that of the timid Obama era, but it will also be miles away from the tantrum-a-day style of Trump’s leadership. Biden policy will be somewhat closer to what the relatively strident Hillary Clinton would have sought had she won the ticket in 2016. However, the absence of Clinton stalwart Michele Flournoy, and the demotion of former Obama “Valkyries” Samantha Power (to direct USAID) and Susan Rice (to head the domestic policy council) to roles less relevant to international security hints of a policy shift away from humanitarian intervention and more inclined to hard realism.

Incoming Secretary of State Blinken has set the tone for Biden’s China policy by acknowledging that Trump’s decision to get tough on China was correct. More surprisingly, he said he supports declarations made by his unpopular predecessor Mike Pompeo, who has accused China of originating the “Wuhan virus” and genocide in Xinjiang.

WestExec, founded by Blinken and Flournoy, has been a favored bureaucrat bunker of the Biden moment. Aptly named after the West Wing of the White House, it has Ely Ratner going to the Pentagon, and Avril Haines directing National Intelligence. With Blinken now the nation’s top diplomat, this relatively new boutique firm can be said to have eclipsed think tanks with venerable veneers, such as CSIS, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the Albright-Stonebridge Group and the Brookings Institution.

The New Center for American Security, a think tank founded by Campbell and Flournoy, gets its juice from major clients in aerospace and energy. It is also unusually well-represented in the new administration, with the appointments of Campbell at NSC, Biden aide Ratner as the China point man at the Pentagon and ardent anti- communist Victoria Nuland at State.

The complex web of relationships in the Beijing leadership is frequently defined by personal networks or guanxi, and the same could be said for Washington. The Trump era, with its high turnover rate and constant revolving door was something of an anomaly in this respect, and some advisors, like the maverick Steve Bannon, were in and out the door several times.

For Trump’s China team, Peter Navarro’s White House role as an anti-China fanatic was balanced by the relative gravitas of Michael Pillsbury of the Hudson institute, while the initially discreet Matt Pottinger at NSC didn’t bare the fangs of a deeply anti-China agenda until later in the game.

Biden’s China-related appointees, in contrast, are mostly mild-mannered Beltway insiders, consummate players in the game by which ambitious bankers, lobbyists, recycled bureaucrats, Silicon Valley czars and Pentagon factotums mix behind a respectable facade of high-end consultancies. Beijing, where money and power exist in sometimes indecent proximity, won’t have any problem with that.

Philip J. Cunningham is a freelance writer on East Asian politics and author of “Tiananmen Moon” and “Tokyo Crush.”

Thursday, January 21, 2021

The ugly truth about a 'beautiful sight' in Hong Kong


June 4, 2019 AP Photo

by Philip J Cunningham 

(Published in Japan Times,

Given the mutual recriminations that characterize the sorry state of U.S.-China relations as of late, it is hardly surprising that China’s state media should pounce on the optics of U.S. democracy under siege earlier this month. The Jan. 6 “incident” has gotten ample coverage in the Chinese media, though, perhaps against expectations, much of the reporting has stuck to known facts and is generally fair and balanced. One glaring exception to the generally even-handed coverage of turmoil in the U.S. capital concerns an out-of-context quote by U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi that has been twisted to suggest she found beauty in the vandalism and violence in the riots that beset Hong Kong in July and August 2019.

The quote is not in question. She did describe a mass gathering in Hong Kong as “a beautiful sight to behold.” But she was not talking about riots, violence in the streets or the takeover of the Legislative Council; her quote predates all of that. Yet the notion that she condoned mob violence as a thing of beauty has a seemingly unstoppable life of its own. The idea of karma coming home to roost is a compelling gotcha narrative, even if the assertions it is based on have been misconstrued.

One weaponized use of the Pelosi quote in reference to the Capitol attack comes from a staunchly nationalistic Beijing tabloid. Global Times Editor Hu Xijin was an early adopter, if not the initiator, of the incorrect observation that Pelosi was praising Hong Kong violence when she invoked the term “beautiful sight,” though in fact she was talking about something altogether different.

Hu Xijin, despite his reckless, and often careless characterizations, gets quoted far more often than he deserves. As a state-sanctioned curator of outrage, his intemperate views make for colorful copy. His newspaper outlet, conveniently published in English, has become something of a global go-to source for quotes about what China is thinking.

The Global Times is state media, linked closely with the People’s Daily, so it is not entirely wrong to imagine that opinions published under Hu’s byline reflect official thinking to some degree. But his column also bears the idiosyncratic imprimatur of a single individual, a firebrand who has at times found himself on the wrong side of the party line, though not often enough to diminish his usefulness.

Hu’s hawkish remarks can be seen as nationalist blather, but they are also test balloons. His takes on topics vets views not easily expressed in the tightly scripted world of Chinese diplomacy. With the rise of wolf diplomacy, however, Hu is not a lone voice in the wilderness, either.

Hu’s appropriation of Pelosi’s “beautiful sight” quote got ample play around the world, too, mentioned in Reuters, CNBC, Fox News, Time, Variety, Indian Express, Ahmedabad Mirror, New York Post, Independent and so on, but the place where his mockery is most volatile is on social networks where the meme, bite-size and digestible, feeds frothing commentary.

Hu posted a photo montage on his Twitter account on Jan. 6 comparing violent scenes from the Hong Kong protests with violent scenes in Washington. He takes on Pelosi directly, pairing a photo of a street aflame in Hong Kong adorned with her words, “a beautiful sight to behold.”

Next to that, a shot of a bearded protester sitting in Nancy Pelosi’s office chair is snarkily captioned, “seat occupied.”

Lu Xiang, a U.S. affairs specialist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, was quoted on the topic that same day in the South China Morning Post. Inadvertently or not, he also echoes the meme launched by Hu Xijin.

Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, not known to mince words, spoke extensively on the topic of comparing violence in Hong Kong and Washington in her Jan. 8 press briefing, but the English transcripts of her comments make no mention of the “beautiful sight” quote. Perhaps she dropped it out of respect for diplomatic protocol. Perhaps she was aware that Pelosi originally made that comment in reference to a June 4 candlelight vigil, a topic that she would not relish debating with a roomful of Western journalists.

Pelosi did indeed utter the famous words “beautiful sight” in reference to a crowd scene in Hong Kong, but she was looking at a photo of a mass candlelight vigil just held in Hong Kong. The gathering was huge, but orderly and peaceful, without a hint of vandalism or violence.

Now that’s beautiful

The candlelight vigil was not about Hong Kong, but staged in memory of the Beijing demonstrators who lost their lives in the Tiananmen demonstrations on June 4, 1989. Hong Kong, to its credit, is one of the few places in the Chinese world where this important event is openly remembered, an event that Communist Party censors have done their best to erase from public discourse, or frame in the worst possible way.

The voices and images of Capitol Hill, bastion of U.S. democracy, under attack will not soon be forgotten. But it is also worth remembering that it was President Trump’s cocktail of lies, twisted quotes and incendiary untruths that fired up the mob in the first place. Hua Chunying is correct in pointing out that words we use to describe political incidents matter a great deal. But she does injustice to her own point by quoting a misappropriated Pelosi quote that was ripped out of context.

Deliberately twisting a well-documented quote about the serene memorial of an event that cannot be discussed openly in China, and then pretending or imputing that it was a reaction to unrelated political acts of violence, which took place many weeks later, is plainly dishonest. A demonstration can be a beautiful thing, as the photographic images of the peaceful candlelit June 4 vigil readily attest. But the memory of that mournful event has been vandalized in the service of a false narrative propagated by agents of the communist party of China, and that is the ugly truth.

Philip J. Cunningham is a freelance writer on East Asian politics, author of “Tiananmen Moon” and “Tokyo Crush.”