Deeply Wounded

Let me make myself clear. Anytime I open my mouth about China, its coming from a perspective of love and affection for the Chinese people and the desire to see China grow into a formidable nation of prosperity and peace. A nation, whose people can enjoy the autonomy and accountability that people in the West have enjoyed for centuries. These days, demagoguery has mired the institutions that have produced the prosperity we enjoy in America and Europe, but not nearly in such a way that autocracy has done in the East. While we have shining  examples such as South Korea, and Japan of how a nation can move relatively peacefully from one end of the spectrum to the other. We are also seeing a slow and peaceful transformation taking place in Vietnam. But China’s thirst for legitimacy and relevance is coming at a heavy cost. A chasm is widening to a horrifically familiar tune sung in throughout the 20th century that left millions dead. History repeats itself. Can we avoid the repeated failures of the past and help keep a giant from stumbling and crushing millions and halting the progress we’ve made as humanity?

China has had a legacy of subjugation and brow beating from powers going back to Genghis Khan and his stretching empire of war and fury. The Great Wall was built as a defense against the waring factions from beyond. European colonization of its chief ports rendered control to Western powers until the modern era as Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997. At that time Hong Kong was 25% of their economy. A deal was struck in favor of the people of Hong Kong, but China has never been thrilled with a compromise. Japan invaded and conducted horrendous acts that it refuses to apologize for. Much in the same way we name buildings and raise statues after war heroes of our own, Japan continues to honor its own without hesitation. China regularly reminds the world of who the imperial forces are even today. They have never moved on from the historical beating they have taken. Ever since Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon visited China in 1972, the country’s leaders have not extended a warm hand in  return, but looked for ways to recover what they feel was lost—legitimacy. Greatness. 

Recently, China has exercised a great amount of reach with their Belt-and-Road initiative, providing countries, far and wide with investment opportunities, reminding them of who they are and how much power they have. But instead of being a warm hand of support, it has reached out with a frosty embrace, striking fear in the hearts of many. They have spent hordes of  money to entertain countries around the world with massive infrastructure projects as far as Panama and Nigeria. They have built military installations in the Indian Ocean and continue to build depots with weapons on islands claimed by other countries, countering earlier promises that this wouldn’t be the case. They have wowed the world at home as well. At a turn of a switch they were able to shut down their cities and factories to isolate confirmed cases of Covid-19, and I have no doubts they did it successfully. We saw them shut down their cities before with the SARS epidemic and to clear the skies over Beijing for the olympic games. Determinism in some manner looks like a tempting option in a world rife with arguments and a Western world that has proved flawed and collectively incompetent when facing crisis. China has painted a very pretty picture for the world of the benefits of having such control, glossing over evidence that free countries can wield and have wielded much greater power before to fight common enemies that threaten the planet. They would like us to believe, as evidence from their propaganda suggests, that their way works best.

China has exhibited a longing for power and legitimacy, not at behest of the powers that granted its freedom from Japan after the Second World War, but under its homegrown uniting force of Maoism. Mao harkened the nation back to its ancient roots and united the country in a way that was self-reliant and a snub of the West. The eclectic materialism and Marxist underpinning fit in well with the determinist philosophies of Confucianism. In a similar fashion as Russia, it was able to exploit the idea that power brokers didn’t have the best interests at heart for the proletariate. This mechanism still holds true today in modern China. The system is a totalitarian regime that uses fear and control to silence dissent and keep a uneasy “peace” among its people. Enough people unwittingly and nonchalantly march along to a nationalistic beat to keep the system rolling. It’s nationalistic cries show a  thirst for legitimacy in a manner that resembles a child growing up with a huge chip on its shoulder from being dominated and taken advantage of from all sides throughout history. The power brokers in this case have fine-tuned the message that people need to keep silent and sacrifice to reach an ultimate goal of silencing its enemies, ancient and beyond. Their history books tell the story in exactly that way.

Many Americans do not know or forget that our bloodiest conflict outside of our own civil war was fighting China. It took decades for Americans to put up a memorial for those that lost their lives in the Korean War. General Douglas MacArthur who witnessed the worst of World War II, had never seen anything worse than the conflict in Korea. The UN forces had beaten Mao’s proxy North Korean army and Korea was reunified. With the UN at their doorstep, the Chinese counterattacked, causing the ugliest battles our world has ever fought. EVER. To think that it’s forgotten in history. General Douglas MacArthur was famously relieved of duty for making overtures toward striking at the heart of the real enemy—Maoist China. I’m certainly not suggesting we should have used nuclear capabilities against them at all, but I often wonder why we decided to split up Korea with China to begin with following the Second World War, failing to recognize the travesty that would eventually befall the peninsula.

So what about today? I’ve never met kinder and nicer people than my friends from PRC, the People’s Republic of China. In 1996, I went to Kunming as a senior in high school. It was amazing. I played basketball with Chinese students and sat and talked to an MIT graduate who was a math professor there with 4 kids living in the US. I haven’t been back since, but I would loved to go. There is much to experience and see. There is no doubt in my mind that it is a great country today because of greatness exuded from a very determined people. I applaud them for wanting to be great. I applaud them for desiring to raise their standard of living and destiny in an otherwise determinist society. In many ways it mirrors American exceptionalism. Under the great Deng Xiaopeng, economic reform and economic trade zones started the trend that has brought a breathtaking transformation that is only surpassed by Japan, Korea and Singapore. I’ve had very, very interesting and enlightening talks with students about their home country of China. One thing I have noticed in each conversation is this: They will never say anything negative about their government, however when prodded about their future plans, it never involves their country. Once they have experienced a life outside, they instantly want to remain in the freedoms available in those locations. It could be said that many expats speak like that, and that’s true; but I always feel an underlying anxiety emanating from them that they are being watched and a guilt that they need to be thinking about the benefits of a greater China, not about their own plans. Many of my Korean students have also spoken of a similar idea during their economic rise of the 1970’s and 1980’s. There are over 700,000 Chinese students in the U.S. now, with the hopes of getting a good job back home, but quietly many of them hope to remain in the U.S. and continue to live without having to look over their shoulders continually, stifling their political or philosophical or religious views for the sake of the Party. Why would students and professionals quietly look for a way out, an alternative to a country that continues to broadcast its greatness and show great advances and change? Don’t look any further than what is going on with it’s private companies. We see some really ominous contention in the private realm of business, the most autonomous element of Chinese society.

Firstly, TikTok is an app that is wildly popular with my kids and my wife. In fact, I’ve seen many of my Filipino friends throughout social media posting Tiktok content. I teach corporate executives here in Korea and one of my students gave a brief on a news article on how the U.S. government was reviewing Tiktok as some kind of security threat from China. Tiktok recently decided not to provide its services in Hong Kong. ByteDance, the progenitors of Tiktok have seriously considered leaving China as some of the political fallout materializes. India blocked the app in retaliation for the humiliating incident recently along their border.

Secondly, Huawei’s CFO, Meng Wanzhou, the founder’s eldest daughter was arrested in Canada for committing fraudulent acts to conduct transaction that would force banks to break American sanctions in Iran; putting these banks in very awkward positions. In turn, China arrested two Canadiens, presumed to be innocent and have held them for almost 500 days now, with no known trial. In fact, there has been no known evidence that they have done anything other than be model residents. Meng Wanzhou has been living in house arrest finding time to read and do oil paintings, while these men are alone, without their families under extreme duress .. held hostage. Hostage!! 

Tiktok and Huawei’s only crime in my eyes has been their uncontrollable circumstances of being Chinese firms. If you track their success along with many others such as Alibaba, Baidu, Tencent, Haier .. and the list goes on; you will see how private companies have innovated and accepted the challenge granted to them to grow competent businesses in China to keep pace with others .. however, they are subject to an all powerful force and that cuts their stock in half. A forced, shadowy stakeholder is always in the wings ready to snatch up their success as their own. The government allows this innovation because of the intoxication it has with power. These companies have influence and efficiency necessary to bring economic might to China, but heaven forbid they allow their people to be set free and experience a similar fate as their world beating corporations.

Despite the vast material changes to China, their central power has retained a tight grip on thought. It has perfected the art of thwarting independent-minded movements, and has exercised its well known tactics now on the no longer semi-autonomous region of Hong Kong. Mind you, the 1.5 million Muslims that are detained in the Xinjiang region are asked to give up their beliefs. One witness said he was arrested for giving rites at a funeral and along with 30 others were scooped up and dropped into these “education” facilities. While inmates in the U.S. are studying college education and learning new skills to prepare themselves for a world outside, these folks are guilty, not of crimes against the law, but of being a racial and cultural threat to the Han Chinese way of life. Does this sound familiar? Jews in the 1920’s and 1930’s .. Israel today stands as a nation of immigrants of people purged by totalitarian fascist and communist regimes. What is fascinating to me is the we suggest that Chinese people are the “Jews” of the East because of the prosperity they have brought themselves outside of China in all corners of the world in a similar manner. No one would dare say that Singapore was another “Israel”, but let’s be honest. They are 79% Chinese.

I could wax on about the Cultural Revolution that may have ended up to 60 million lives. No one knows or can count accurately in China, even now, as their number of Covid-19 cases and death counts remain a mystery. A friend of mine who lived in Beijing for 25 years said they lie about everything, from the level of air quality to even the temperatures on the local news. We could talk about Tiananmen Square and the blood path that ensued and ended any hopes of a democratic movement in China that may have changed the fate and trajectory of its people. Their autocratic system of government isn’t unique in the world. There are plenty of cases of autocracy that have moved a society along somewhat successfully with morose bloodshed in the rearview mirror, but none has been as costly as this one. China will not even claim that they were the aggressor in the Korean War and rally around it as a just cause to stop the assault of the imperialist aggressors .. not even a decade after that aggressor (the United States) helped supply them and free them from Imperial Japan. 

For a moment, as Chinese netizens stewed with anger over the lack of transparency in Wuhan, I thought we might see rapid changes. Instead, the Chinese government is tightening its grip, not really knowing how to fight the good fight any other way. They see the West in the same way they saw us in the Korean War .. a threat at their door, sacrificing as many as a 1 million soldiers for the sake of N. Korea. What are they willing to sacrifice this time? Hong Kong? Taiwan? Korea? I am not the enemy of China as I write vehemently against their current trajectory. I want so badly for them to transition in their own time and cultural element, as other countries have to the rule of law and setting their people free from thought police—Having a free media that can hold its government accountable and broadcast without fright of being arrested for questioning authority. 

The NBA, Lotte Mart, recent threats against Australia and the UK—China’s government thrashes around like a child, attacking any entity caught questioning its legitimacy. They seem unaware of the intricacies required to be a major power and they seem to carry the same stick they use on their own people abroad. As already said above, it’s icy and smacks of expansionism in the 21st century. They matter now.  They have reached greatness, but at a horrible cost. They seem to lack an imagination to move forward. They have a glaring and vacuumous hole in their institutions of accountability. Their judiciary is a sham. Ask Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor from Canada, who have been held hostage for more than 500 days. There is no accountability for the Communist Party of China. The lack of accountability became an instant eye-sore during the breakout of Covid-19. Yes, they successfully stamped it out, but so did Korea, Taiwan and Japan. They are all democratically free. China did nothing special, but the Chinese Communist Party would like to rewrite the script (especially to their own people), that it is their centralized control that gives their people a successful fate, rather than being held accountable for allowing it to spread in the first place. They are the savior from the disease. Trust them. They can’t be trusted. Rewriting scripts is not the way forward. Acknowledging the truth is the way forward. All nations great and small have stumbled in this regard, and like individuals it’s important to soul search and ask how we should change our ways before we hurt others.

It stands to wonder what is the best move to make at this time. What looks like a gross failure could be the start of real change. A tightening grip on power in China, may really backfire now that their disguise is off. Eastern Europe and Africa, were anxious to gain Chinese investments, but now are less keen and wary of the control they suggest is necessary in each and every transaction. What seemed to be a pivot by the Philippines from America to China ended with fear of more colonization that has wracked the country for hundreds of years. I believe China isn’t capable in this era to maintain their cold dominance. The world is too interconnected at this point. They can’t hide. They want to assert themselves over the South “China” Sea yet they have to tirelessly assert control over their own 1.5+ billion people. They can’t do both. There is a chance of conflict, but wars are fought differently these days. Taiwan may become a battleground at the very worst, but it’s highly unlikely we will ever see violence like the Korean War again. The massive emigration we are about to witness in Hong Kong may lend some notion to China how much people love their style of governance. People who have grown up experiencing something other than what is offered on the mainland, will not put up with their determinist philosophy. Millions of them cannot be bought. Millions of them can be bought for a time, like any fracture, many will give way. I pray that a transition, if any can be similar to that of Korea’s transition to democracy.

I try to stay out of the monolithic villainizing of China, especially its people. It may sound bizarre, but if we had spent some time of reflection of empathy toward Germany after WWI, we may have avoided Hitler and the holocaust. Instead of dividing countries up after wars, we should have recognized the evils that persisted in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China. The Vietnam War looked grossly like other mistakes as a defense of colonialism, rather than nation building.  The West needs to own up to his diplomatic failures in this regard. We didn’t take a stand to bullies before they became the monsters that they are. The United States can not pick fights anymore, especially with a behemoth like China. They already have the technology to sink our greatest military assets—our aircraft carriers. We are responsible for creating China’s rise via the WTO and other facets of free trade with our addiction to cheap goods. The iPhone—the icon of American ingenuity and brilliance is assembled in China. Why? How has this commitment panned out in our favor .. or in the Chinese people’s favor for that matter on a moral level. The phone still costs $1000 dollars. Did we think that materialism was going to change their minds? That sounds like eclectic materialism .. one of the underpinning philosophies of Marxism. It’s too late now, so where do we go from here?

I’ve grown up in a world that seems to be obsessed with rules and punishment. Yes .. Crime and Punishment. Sanctions don’t work .. tariffs .. punishing China North Korea, Iran, and Cuba. The United States has not been able to push the Castro administration out of Cuba for 6 decades, nor has there been any real change in Russia since the end of the Cold War. The positives are that Russia could not hold its grip on its  Soviet Union thus shedding reluctantly many countries that have since run to the West for support. I couldn’t possibly spell out a complete plan that would work in this diatribe, but I certainly want to call into question some of our institutions and their current framework. The UN. How is it possible that Russia and China are permanent members? Not only did we split Germany and Korea (noticeably NOT Japan or Italy), but we failed to face down these evils. How is it that a UN Security Council can just stand around while Turkey and Russia go to war against each other in Libya. The UN is not a device that will bring world peace folks. They aren’t. We don’t need permanent members and we need to rethink a world council. The WTO is toothless as well. We invited China into the WTO on an amoral basis in hopes that what would happen? That they would respect the rule of law and the freedoms of their people, or so that we could create economic efficiency and free trade to boost our sagging advanced economies, and turn a blind eye to Tibet, North Korea, the Muslim Uighur’s, and now Hong Kong. US companies started to admit at a roundtable discussion recently that profitability is not the end game. Social responsibility is important and as we build the next generation of organizations and international bodies, we need to hold each other to that standard. Instead of lying about their technology (Huawei) being a national security threat, we should be working to hold them to the international standards expected of other multinational companies. Instead of getting into a tariff war with China to force change, we should broker economic incentives for countries that pursue needed changes in human rights.  Our economic coddling of China can be our own undoing. We could have had a million Cubans or Poles making our iPhones years ago, but no. We lack an imagination of social change. We spent trillions of dollars on a pointless war in Iraq, a much more innocuous foe that provided an unsteady balance of power in the Middle East, rather than pivoting to Asia early with subsidies for willing human rights loving constituents. It’s too late.

Why hasn’t China government rebuilt North Korea like the U.S. has supported the economic reconstruction of Germany, Japan, Taiwan, and Korea into formidable allies. North Korea stands as a dismal portrayal of what China sees in the rest of the world. Why isn’t it a powerful player in the world as former British colonies like Australia, India, Hong Kong and Ireland? That’s their model of international success. North Korea. They are not a world power, but a world provocateur. They are not builders, outside of their own ambitions. They are afraid to show mercy where they have received none. They are obsessed with revenge—Drunk with revenge for the humiliation they faced several centuries ago. They are a powder keg and it may get ugly soon if the world doesn’t collectively move to stop them. They don’t need more humiliation, but reconciliatory overtones from the US and the West. Can you imagine that the U.S. spent billions of dollars (still does) supporting countries around the world that killed Americans in the past. I’m very proud of that tradition. I sat in a room filled with English students from Vietnam, China, Korea and Japan .. and looked at them with a teary eye and said. “Wow, the world can change.” We were were all fighting each other at some point. I want more of that. We shouldn’t be kicking Chinese professionals out of the U.S. at this time. We shouldn’t be discouraging competition, nor should we give them a cold shoulder. We should invite them to a party with people that love human rights and teach the virtues of it. We need to embrace their young people as they flock our shores, not ostracise them as some kind of spies. That’s how we’ve done it successfully in the past. Let’s hope China can overcome the wounds of the past as others have. Let’s help them do that.

Fish, E. (2020, July 4). Campus Wars: How US-China Strains Played Out At One US University. South China Morning Post. https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/3091643/how-strained-us-china-relations-are-playing-out

Renouard, J., & Liu, W. (2020, June 25). ‘The War To Resist America’: How China Remembers The Korean War. The Diplomat. https://thediplomat.com/2020/06/the-war-to-resist-america-how-china-remembers-the-korean-war/

Sherlock, T., Bilefsky, D., & Zhong, R. (2020, May 27). Extradition Of Huawei Executive Clears A Major Legal Hurdle In Canada. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/27/world/canada/huawei-extradition-meng-wanzhou.html

(2020, July 10). TikTok Halts Hong Kong Access After Security Law. BBC News. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-53358669?intlink_from_url=https://www.bbc.com/news/world/asia