Thursday, September 30, 2021





(first published in China-US Focus)


The three Chinese astronauts who spent three months in China’s inaugural space station returned safely to earth in the Shenzhou 12 capsule on Friday, September 17, 2021. The mission was a success, as was the televised coverage. CCTV and associated channels beamed real time images of the craft as it entered Chinese airspace from the southwest before deploying a huge parachute to slow its descent into the western deserts. High-definition cameras showed the returning craft swinging back and forth like a pendulum, suspended by a billowing red-and-white striped parachute set against a cerulean blue sky. 

A record number of people were orbiting the earth in mid-September.  In addition to the Shenzhou 12 crew, there were 7 crew members aboard the U.S.-led International Space Station, and perhaps more amazingly, four civilians orbiting the earth at an altitude higher than the Hubble Space telescope as part of a four-day journey as “tourists” on the SpaceX craft Endeavor.  

While the inclusion of civilians in a commercial space adventure makes the whole idea of space flight seem almost routine, rocket science is still an evolving field of endeavor with many frightening touch-and-go moments. Liftoff and landing continue to hold great perils, though the march of science, necessary modifications, and quality control applied to known problem areas has helped to render the periodic tragedies that struck U.S. and Russian programs in the early days of Soyuz, Apollo and the Space Shuttle less likely. 

Still, it takes physical courage on the part of participants, and political courage for a nation to venture into space. The extensive live coverage of Shenzhou 12 represents a shift in perception management on the part of the Chinese government, letting the world see it as it happens despite the high-stakes and precedent for catastrophe to strike. 

As an American who grew up watching the U.S. space program evolve from Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs to the Shuttle and Space station, I have watched recent live coverage of China’s program, SpaceX, and others with great interest. There are numerous nail-biting moments when an aerodynamically shaped canister with human beings inside is vaulted into the heavens or comes hurtling back down to the home planet for a not-so-soft landing. 

Watching the September 17 landing of Shenzhou 12, covered comprehensively from many angles, the moment when the craft hits the dry desert floor leads to a flash and presumably a bang, followed by a puff and outpouring of smoke. The rough landing may not be as dangerous as it looks, but it is a reminder that this is not exactly a runway landing either. After the impact of landing, the spacecraft rolled onto its side, rather than remain upright, but this proved to be a minor glitch. 

Follow-up footage showed the three Shenzhou 12 crew members Nie Haisheng, Liu Boming and Tang Hongbo, chatting with a reporter nonchalantly reclined in outdoor chairs designed to accustom their bodies to gravity after 12 weeks in space. Chinese flags were strategically planted on the landing site, adding a dash of color to the arid, desiccated landscape that bore an eerie resemblance to the surface of Mars.  

Although China has been characterized as having become more inward-looking as of late (and where in the world hasn’t, given the halt of normal travel, trade and exchange due to pandemic concerns?), the outward media coverage of its budding space station, and the inaugural flight to and from, has been as confident as it is transparent. 

This bodes well for a field of endeavor that ignites and unites human imagination. Space might be limitless but when it gets mixed up with nationalism, it gets parochial, such as the U.S. legislation known as the Wolf Amendment which banned Chinese participation in the “international” space station as of 2011. 

China’s go-it-alone program is praiseworthy not because go-it-alone is the way to go in an ideal world, but because it is a mature and measured reaction to being deliberately excluded from a global joint venture due to American political prejudices. China’s burgeoning space station program, which included space walks, testing of new equipment, and the usual micro-gravity shenanigans can be seen in a way as a literal embodiment of U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s famous quote about prejudice. 

“When they go low, we go high” 

How much more productive it is, not just for a man or a nation, but all mankind (to riff on another quote from another famous American, Neil Armstrong) to get ahead instead of sulking about exclusion, trading insults, or engaging in self-defeating ways to get even. 

As forward-looking as China’s space program looks to be, there are limits to future cooperation that extend beyond the political. One problem with re-inventing the wheel and building go-it-alone programs from the ground up is engineering compatibility. As it stands now, each program has its own idiosyncratic specifications which makes joint exploration, or even a space rescue unlikely. If the ports and docking mechanisms do not match, a meeting up in space is almost impossible. Given that much of the Shenzhou hardware is influenced by the Russia’s legendary (and still active) Soyuz make of spacecraft, an exchange of personal or equipment is theoretically possible between Chinese and Russian programs, though even there, significant adjustments to docking mechanisms are necessary and a re-alignment of specifications would be required. 

The quasi-moribund U.S. efforts at human space exploration through the offices of NASA in recent decades have received a critical shot in the arm from private industry, nowhere more spectacularly than by SpaceX and other projects spearheaded by space entrepreneur Elon Musk. U.S. government involvement is still a critical element, especially in funding and underwriting development costs, but it is the entrepreneurs who have captured the imagination of America’s space enthusiasts. Unlike NASA's bloated and aged bureaucracy, key newcomers in the field are animated by the kind of daring dreams and youthful enthusiasm that was so essential to the U.S. Space program in its early days, and is so evident in China’s proud embrace of its very competent space program in the present day.

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.