Recently, I was fortunate to attend a World Trade Center Utah event attended by Minister Jing Quan, the number three-ranking Chinese diplomat in the U.S. This was the first visit by a high-ranking Chinese official since the imposition of the “Trump tariffs”, after which a massive delegation of Chinese officials descended on Salt Lake City looking for a friendly business environment.
Minister Jing is a consummate diplomat – more so than any other Chinese official I have ever engaged with. He previously lived in the U.S. and Thailand. He attended all U.S.-China trade negotiations under the Trump administration and is based in Washington, D.C. He was well-spoken, humorous, and open, but he was also unapologetic about China’s position.
China’s International Friction Has Only Increased
China is facing a hostile environment on the international stage, thanks to its increasingly aggressive and vocal stance on a wide range of issues. The U.S.-China trade war under the Trump administration, followed by Covid-19, only accelerated China’s prominence and highlighted the global risk factors that would be endemic in a unipolar global order chaired by China.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not hidden China’s ambitions, or its timetable for achieving them, as outlined in its Made in China 2025 Plan. It has continued to prioritize its political survival, militating against real or perceived threats including dissent and anything that could foment dissent, such as free speech and free access to information domestically. The CCP’s response to international concern and condemnation, rather than introspective soul-searching and reform, has been high-volume finger-pointing that the U.S. and its allies should get their own houses in order first and let China deal with its own issues.
Frosty Diplomatic Relations in Washington, D.C. Mirror Those in Beijing
Not surprisingly, Chinese diplomats in the U.S. have not received a warm welcome in the U.S. Minister Jing lamented the hostile environment in meetings in Washington, D.C. with U.S. officials who are not interested in rolling out the welcome mat for Chinese officials who toe the Party line (and they all toe the Party line in public).
I understand that the World Trade Center Utah event I attended was held at the request of the Chinese Embassy. This is not surprising given its knee-jerk response to the China Challenge Summit held in Utah earlier this year (a last-minute call sharing China’s urgent desire to bring economic benefits to Utah).
I spoke at the China Challenge Summit on viable alternatives to China, which is a popular topic and one on which I will be speaking next week in Oklahoma and again a few later days in Montreal. For a great overview of the summit, I recommend this discussion on U.S. China foreign policy with U.S. Ambassador to China Nick Burns and former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman. Ambassador Burns pulls no punches in describing the stark environment in China, which mirrors what Minister Jing is experiencing in D.C.
According to Minister Jing, the U.S. and its allies are working to “encircle” China, which is not an accidental term of art. As Michael Pillsbury explained in his excellent 2015 book, The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower, the term comes from the Chinese board game Go (圍棋weiqi in Chinese), in which the purpose of the game is to encircle your opponent. According to Pillsbury, this term also harkens back to the Warring States Period of Chinese history (476 BC – 221 BC), upon which much of China’s current military and development strategy is based.
China’s Subnational Charm Campaign Seeks to Reframe Relationships
In contrast to the difficulties in D.C., Minister Jing praised Utah’s smiling, happy legislators and business leaders. He led by commenting that we need to treat each other like friends. It was clear that he and the rest of China’s diplomats have determined that enhancing subnational relations is the best path forward.
Utah is the poster child for this strategic play. Given Utah’s heavy economic reliance on international business and that it produces 20% of the Chinese immersion students in the U.S. (2/5 of my children included), they must feel that Utah is the last bastion of pro-China people left in the U.S. They know that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, headquartered in Salt Lake City, would like nothing more than freedom of religion in China (as opposed to China’s current version, described as freedom from religion). Many businesspeople in Utah share this same sentiment. Utah is also home to dozens of direct sales companies that continue to mine China’s massive population for new distributors and customers. And the entrepreneurs comprising Utah’s large percentage of small business owners rely on China’s manufacturing prowess.
Comments on Taiwan, Xinjiang, Reform, and the Future of the U.S.-China Relationship
Based on comments from attendees, it was clear that many companies are carefully weighing the risks of entering the China market and using Chinese manufacturers full bore. Many would like to keep doing business with China if the obvious risks can be mitigated. Minister Jing did not provide much certainty in that area.
He did not avoid difficult topics, but he did not give satisfactory answers, either:
“The Taiwan question is a family issue between brothers. We want peaceful reunification with Taiwan. If the U.S. and China get into a hot war, it will be because both sides feel backed into a corner.”
“China is not committing genocide in Xinjiang or forcing labor. That’s fake news.”
“China will continue its reform and opening up in a very stable way, not in a dramatic way.”
“Regarding the China-U.S. relationship, there are three main questions both sides are wrestling with:
- Are we still friends (or at least working partners) or are we now enemies?
- Can we still cooperate and find new areas of cooperation to benefit the world?
- Should we have a full-blown Cold War?”
One Hopeful Note in the Future of Global Relations?
During the Q&A at the end, I expressed my doubt that so many countries could be willfully misunderstanding China. I asked Minister Jing whether it might be possible that China is committing bad behavior that should be changed. I specifically asked whether the CCP engages in robust, thoughtful dialogue behind closed doors. He replied that they absolutely argue internally about policies and whether they are working and that “sometimes they listen to me, sometimes not. But when the decision is made at the Politburo level, everyone gets in line.”
Although this last comment was not overwhelmingly positive, it reflects reality. But I take some hope in believing that China has experienced diplomats with real-world experience and that if the world continues to band together, China’s leadership will need to make measured incremental improvements. The announcement of new Politburo members this month will provide some insights into how and when those incremental changes might happen.
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