Robert Scheer SI Podcast

The China Dragon Roars Back Whether the US Likes It or Not

Professor Suisheng Zhao explains China through the lens of three of its most prominent leaders in the contemporary world.
Suisheng Zhao. Photo courtesy of Josef Korbel School of International Studies

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The Western world, in the midst of being primed for a war with China, often has a limited understanding of who this supposed enemy is. Is it a communist force ready to challenge the U.S.’s capitalist and hegemonic structure? Is it an economic ally providing an indispensable factory floor for our corporate interests? Or is it somehow a combination of both? Joining host Robert Scheer this week on Scheer Intelligence is Suisheng Zhao, professor and director of Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver Josef Korbel School of International Studies, who hopes to provide clarity to these ever growing questions.

His new book, The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy, attempts to frame China and its history for today’s moment in time. It demonstrates that it was never just communism that drove China to be the world power it has become but rather nationalism. Zhao focuses on three leaders in China’s contemporary history, who serve to represent this dragon that has roared back to the world: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and their current president Xi Jinping. Zhao and Scheer go back and forth, diving into the nuances of each ruler’s time and their relation to the international order.

“[The Chinese leaders] are all first nationalists, then Communist Party members. They all share the same dream to make China prosper and [be] powerful and also redeem the so-called century of humiliation,” Zhao says. These are the dragons roaring back, and under their leadership, China will not be denied its place in the world. This place was once respected and a sort of peaceful balance was achieved during the era of Nixon and Mao. Fast forward to today however, and, despite successful economic interdependence being achieved between the two countries, the U.S. has rejected the possibility of a multipolar world with its advances in Taiwan, and this can of worms that Nixon and Kissenger worked to quell has suddenly burst again.

Scheer and Zhao agree on what The Dragon Roars Back strives to clarify: “I think what your book challenges is the centrality of the enemy that we had after World War II, of an ideology of communism, and says the real problem is nationalism and that China, with its great history and its importance, is driven by nationalism, which is now threatening our view of the world,” Scheer says. This nationalism and enormous success under Xi, Zhao responds, is now challenging U.S. predominance in the world, which perhaps the U.S. cannot accept.

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Robert Scheer


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This transcript was produced by an automated transcription service. Please refer to the audio interview to ensure accuracy. 

Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guest, in this case a distinguished professor in the United States who is an expert on China, was born in China: Professor Suisheng Zhao. And he’s got a book out just now that is a must read if you want to know about what’s going on in the world, because it’s mostly about U.S.-China relations. People who are very concerned about it think we may be on the precipice of World War III. We certainly know there’s a great deal of tension, but we also know we’re very dependent upon China as they are on us, and that during the pandemic, most of what we consumed through Amazon and others was made in China. So the title of the book is called The Dragon Roars Back, it’s a Stanford University Press Book. Let me hold it up here. Let’s discuss the content. The subtitle is Transformation of Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy. And the book singles out three of these Chinese leaders Mao Zedong, who Nixon went and negotiated the era of peace with China. But Mao had been this feared revolutionary leader in the world. Deng Xiaoping, who presided over a transformation of China into the factory floor of the United States in an era of good relations and so forth. And now, for the last ten years or more, we’ve had President Xi Jinping, who is the great transformational leader, who is asserting, I guess, in terms of The Dragon Roars Back, the dragon is roaring back stronger now. So why don’t you tell me about the title? Because it goes through two millennia of Chinese history and then goes through the 19th century, when China was fragmented and conquered and disoriented by Western imperialism. And now we’re at a time where China is demanding its place at the center of the world stage. So tell us about… 

Suisheng Zhao: As you said, China was an empire before the Western powers came to China in the 15th, 16th century. Then China was defeated, it suffered the so called “century of humiliation,” in the powers of Western and imperious countries. Then the Communist party ignited the Revolution and built the People’s Republic of China and started what they call a new time for the Chinese history. And during these 70 years now, is it has been over 70 years, and there are a lot of turns and twists during this period and foreign policy making. Also, you experienced fundamental changes. How these changes have taken place, scholars have a variety of explanations. The most used theories are, in our fields, one is so-called structural realist theory, which argues that [inaudible] relative to power has determined its behavior in the national behavior. One is a weak, it will try to avoid confrontation, though, when there is a more powerful, it shows a confrontational attitude, tries to redefine its national interests, try to challenge the US dominance in international arena, and also redefine its borders with its neighbors. But from both perspectives, I find this theory, it’s a pretty static because it can tell us in the period of PRC fighting powers. For example, in the last several decades China has become increasingly confrontational along with the rising power. But in the 70 years of PRC history, when China was weak, during most of the time, China also took a very confrontational position, fighting wars with U.S., the most powerful nation in the world and also fought wars with the Soviet Union, India, many other countries. But Deng Xiaoping, as you said, moderated the Chinese foreign policy, tried to integrate into the US dominated international system and avoid all the confrontation. But China’s relative power did not change that much. And his successor is Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao continued his low profile foreign policy, but China’s power, relative power increased dramatically during those periods. Now, Xi Jinping changed those policies, not more confrontational, but Chinese economy is slowing down. And many people argue that China is overreached, overplayed its hands beyond its capacity. So structural realism cannot explain these transformations. And the second theory people use mostly is the regime type theory why China becomes confrontational because authoritarian regime. You have to change the regime to change its foreign policy behavior. However, China’s foreign policy behavior has changed from confrontation to moderation, out of confrontational. But the regime type has not changed. So my book tries to understand the fundamental transformation by focusing on the transformational leaders. That’s what you talked about, the subtitle. Transformational leaders played the key role. Who are the transformational leaders? These leaders have regions. They have the political wisdoms to survive in the jungle of PRC politics and also mobilize other domestic resources to respond to the international challenges. And three leaders, as you said, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and currently Xi Jinping, are the most important national leaders. Each chaptered a new course for China that Reagan, when we say rolls back we are talking about not by these leaders and they spoke twice to systematically document how these transformational leaders have formulated their visions and set up their foreign policy priorities. 

Scheer: Let me begin with the first transformational leader, Mao Zedong, because I found that, really, a very interesting section of your book. And the fact is that before Nixon went to China, the conventional wisdom in the United States is that the revolutionary PRC regime of China, led by Mao Zedong, was bent on world conquest, as was the communist conquest, not the Soviet Union anymore. We were negotiating with the Soviet leaders and so forth and we were at war in Vietnam, another communist country, which remains a communist country. So the conventional theory was the real danger was not just communism, but a particular communism focused in China. Okay. Your book basically challenges that view because there’s been a Communist Party, the same party under Deng Xiaoping now under Xi, under Mao. But I want to begin with the beginning of your book, because what Richard Nixon did and Henry Kissinger has actually been quite outspoken recently defending his views, they said, they challenge the American consensus and they said we can do business with China. We can live at peace with Mao Zedong and in the middle of a war against communism in Vietnam, and the idea was somehow the Chinese communists were supposed to be the sponsor of Vietnam, nonetheless, this incredibly improbable event happened. Nixon and Kissinger went to China and met with Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai and ushered in a new peace and central to that, was relation to Taiwan. And China’s concern about its own security, including those islands it now contests with Vietnam. Let’s take the Taiwan incident, Nixon and Kissinger said they could accommodate China’s view about Taiwan. That, it seems to be, at the issue of tension, center of tension, right now, not just Nancy Pelosi, but actually a good part of the US government is saying no, we no longer can tolerate an understanding that Nixon and Kissinger negotiated with Mao. How did this change? This is not about transformation in China. It’s about transformation in American attitudes towards China, isn’t it? 

Zhao: Yes. Both, on both sides. In fact, Mao Zedong was a communist leader. But I will say in name, he is more nationalist, tried to make China independent and defend China’s security, the newly founded The People’s Republic, because the international environment and domestic environment was very severe and the U.S. took a very confrontational stand against China and even sent troops through the Korean Peninsula to the Chinese border. And Mao decided to send Chinese troops across the Yalu River and fighting the most powerful nation’s military in the world. And that’s why, in the eyes of America… 

Scheer: And defeated the most powerful… 

Zhao: I would not say defeated… 

Scheer: They pushed the U.S. back right across Korea. 

Zhao: To restart the status quo. And on the 38th parallel, that was the first war that the U.S. did not win, but they did not lose, neither China win nor lose. And so that’s why Mao Zedong became such a dangerous threat to the U.S. interests in this area. And since the Korean War, the U.S. containment of the communism in Asia targeted primarily at China. But Mao Zedong was very strategist. Other than that, he was a nationalist and a communist. He understood what China’s national interests were at that time. 

Scheer: I’m not disagreeing with you, but the assumption of United States foreign policy after World War II, was that there was something called the International Communist [inaudible] Movement, and it was inherently revolutionary and it was following some sort of communist ideology. And the main exemplar of that inherent aggressiveness and desire to conquer the world, we transferred our feelings about Hitler to Mao, that because he was a communist and a revolutionary communist, he was bent on… Now, what you say is true. He turned out to be much more of a nationalist. But how could it be? But what does that say about U.S. thinking? You are someone who is now, by the way, I didn’t identify your university correctly, so help me here. But your current position is as… 

Zhao: Director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

Scheer: And you also are editor of a leading publication trying to understand China. And so forth, so you’ve worked very hard at U.S. perspective of China, and you’ve been a professor here and a leading figure in the academic community trying to understand China. But evidently we had China exactly wrong when we had Mao as the pinnacle of a communist revolution. And now, and just to sort of, you just say, as a matter of fact, well, Mao really wasn’t a communist. He was a Chinese nationalist. How did our political establishment get it so wrong? 

Zhao: And they learned the lesson from World War II: appeasement to the aggressors and would encourage those aggressors. You have to contend them. That was the Cold War. 

Scheer: But China had been our ally, including the Communist… 

Zhao: But that was a nationalist government. They assumed the nationalist government was and I, not only and I, was pro-democratic, it was not true either. And the Communists… 

Scheer: You mean Chiang Kai-shek.

Zhao: Chiang Kai-shek. He was not a Democrat. His wife spoke so good English, the Americans like his wife. They were just a Communist Party, then the party was funded with a support from Soviet Union at the Communist Party in the 1920s.

Scheer: Chiang Kai-shek. 

Zhao:  Yeah. And the fighting of the power between Nationalist Party and the Communist Party, well, was not between the Communists and nationalists, both are nationalists just that they have different approaches to make China strong, and they had different social foundations to mobilize and the fighting. And during this process you had a case. 

Scheer: So can I just interrupt you for a second there? Because what you’re saying has profound implications, because you’re saying the culprit here is not Marx or communism, which, after all, influenced both Chiang Kai-shek and Mao. You’re saying the problem is a nationalism, that there is a desire for a certain Chinese stability, security, greatness, the dragon, that your book… Because I think this is really important contribution of your book is that there is a force that we have to reckon with, just as there is an Indian dragon, I don’t know what the image is and there’s probably a Brazilian one. It strikes me in reading your book, the real problem is, it goes to this notion of U.S. hegemony. Does the United States have to be central to world history or is there a place for other nationalists, historically-rooted movements like the Dragon in China, which by your reasoning, would have confronted us, whether it was Chiang Kai-shek or Mao. And in India now we have Modi, who’s not a communist but he’s confronting us. And you have in Vietnam, we’re trying to be allies now with Vietnam, which is still communist, but I guess they’re communist…So I think what your book challenges is the centrality of the enemy that we had after World War II of an ideology of communism and says the real problem is nationalism and that China, with its great history and its importance, is driven by nationalism, which is now threatening our view of the world.

Zhao: That’s exactly the situation. All the Chinese there is from Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Xi Jinping, these are all first nationalists, then the Communist Party members. They all share the same dream to make China prosper and powerful and also redeem the so-called century of humiliation. And Mao Zedong started the whole, I mean, Chiang Kai-shek also started the process, but Mao Zedong defeated Chiang Kai-shek and took over this process. But his vision, his new republic was threatened by the U.S. in his mind. And the Western powers tried to contain China, try to destroy the new republic. So he took a very firm position against those Western powers, even to fight wars. And Deng Xiaoping had a similar dream to make China strong but he changed the approach, tried to integrate into the U.S.-dominated, international economic system, and also tried to use the Western technology, Western know-how, Western investment, trade, everything to make China strong. And when the Cold War ended, Deng Xiaoping formed in that so-called low-profile, “taoguang yanghui” policy to avoid all the confrontation in order to create those so-called peaceful environment for China to rise. And Xi Jinping now continue that process by giving up Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile policy and China is in a position to compete with the US to challenge US predominance. That’s the situation for the US part of the world too, I think the US has done a fantastic job to lead, try to build new international order based upon rules and norms, newer rules and norms. But the US saw the Soviet Union, China as challengers to this order, tried to exclude them from this process. Then we saw the Cold War and the two camps. Now Cold War was over and China is rising and the US has its own problems today. So the issue here is for the US to rethink its place in the world. As you said, can US maintain its hegemony, dominant position in the front of those rising dragons, or elephants or whatever and how can US accommodate or work with, coexist with those countries. Are these competitions zero sum? Or in this situation, we can just work together. At this time, I think US will not accept China’s rise. China’s rise is a threat. The dragon is not like what the US could like. So that’s the problems of the competition today. 

Scheer: Time for a break. We’ll be back in a few minutes. We’re back with Scheer Intelligence and our guest. Because it’s very important to establish that communism itself had very little to do with this, because ironically, we’re now going well, we have a proxy surrogate war with Russia over Ukraine, but Russia is ruled by somebody who defeated… Yes, he grew up in that system, but Putin defeated the Communist Party candidate. So Putin is like a Chiang Kai-shek, if you like, a nationalist, but not a communist, a… 

Zhao: Chauvinist, nationalist chauvinist. 

Scheer: The irony is that since Taiwan, again, we always have these ghosts of the past. But it was Chiang Kai-shek who took over Taiwan. I mean, it was part of China’s empire. But nonetheless, Chiang Kai-shek is the one who went to Taiwan and established a Chinese control. He brought an army to Taiwan when he was fleeing the Communists, right? They were the dominant party in Taiwan. And one of the ironies of the moment is we may go to war with China over Taiwan, but China’s power over Taiwan was solidified by Chiang Kai-shek, who we accepted and thought of as a great Democratic leader, isn’t that one of history’s great ironies. 

Zhao: Chiang Kai-shek was not a Democratic leader. He was a [inaudible] authoritarian leader. But he was defeated and fled to Taiwan and brought the Republic of China with him to Taiwan. After that defeat, he tried to reform, but he maintained those authoritarian rule in Taiwan until 1980s. He died. He passed away in 1970s… 

Scheer: But it’s still the second largest party in Taiwan right?

Zhao: Yes it’s true. Now, the power in the democratic competition but Taiwan issue was left by this history. In fact, U.S. were involved very deeply from very beginning because after the founding of the PRC and U.S. put Taiwan and also Korean Peninsula out of the security parameter and just let them go because even during Chinese civil war, the U.S. policy was to let the dust settle, to see what will happen. U.S. did not support, I mean, did not get militarily involved in the Chinese civil war. And the situation in… 

Scheer: For people who are not that familiar. What you’re referring to is the Mao-led Communist PRC against Chiang Kai-shek’s [inaudible]… 

Zhao: Right, the National Party. 

Scheer: And in that situation, yes, there was sentiment, originally in the Roosevelt administration and even after, that maybe they could get along with Mao as opposed to Chiang Kai-shek. And there was debate about it. But let me because… 

Zhao: …was ready to attack Taiwan by force in 1950 after they took over Hainan Island, but the Korean War took place, the U.S. changed its position [inaudible] to patrol the streets, that stopped Mao Zedong’s military attack. 

Scheer: Okay. For people who are finding all this interesting, it is all in this book: The Dragon Roars Back, which I learned a lot from this book. And, you know, I was once a student in the Center for Chinese Studies at Berkeley, and I thought I knew something. And I traveled to China quite early. But it’s a fascinating book. I don’t want to lose the thread here, and I’m not doing justice to the author here by interrupting and raising questions. So his argument is quite coherent. It’s clearly laid out and it’s an argument about that, there are three transformational leaders, Mao, Deng Xiaoping and Xi Jinping, and that in fact, we are in a most dangerous moment. I want to get to that now because the book says, the book is just coming out, come out now. And the argument that the book is a troubling one because it says actually relations are at the most dangerous point now with China and that the battle is really one of a competing nationalist visions of central planning of the United States to a world order or the challenge from China. And the challenge is coming out of a variant of Chinese nationalism, not out of an ideological dispute. We’ve established that part. So can we now move to the thrust of the book, which is how can China and you were head of a center that has something to do with friendship or relations with China, Right. You’ve had a lot of experience dealing with China. You’ve gone back and forth and I want to get to the current tension. And your book ends on a pessimistic view that basically Xi, the current transformational leader of China, is picking an unnecessary fight, that he’s being aggressive, he’s being imperialistic in his ambitions or chauvinistic and so forth. I want to ask you, though, of course, what they argue back is, no one, just let me state the counter position. They’re getting along with a lot of nations. They’re getting along with Saudi Arabia. They get along well with Iran. They get along with Brazil, they get along with South Africa. They get, even increasingly, get along with India. They just negotiated a deal with Pakistan and Afghanistan, to work together, a country that is, the U.S. and Russia failed to bring about any peace. So from that point of view, it looks like they’re very successful in getting along with a lot of other nations. On the other hand, one that they’re clearly not getting along with is the United States. And I want to ask you, because you didn’t really go into that in your book or in your talk at USC, where I heard you, about any U.S. responsibility for this tension. You put all the energy on the transformational leaders of China. But after all, it was Nixon who had, and Kissinger, who had the wisdom to reach out to Mao and to accept things from Mao, like the position on Taiwan. And I’m just asking you whether, and I want to switch it a little bit to economics, whether some of this tension, for instance, the fight over Huawei and 5G and all that. Does it have to do with the U.S. demanding the heights of economic profitability and trying to keep China as a lower factory floor? And that’s why we’re denying them advanced chips and so forth, that we really are more threatened by the economic success of China when it gets to a higher, more profitable high tech…. And in your book, you even mention that most of these nations in the world, outside of Western Europe, have been frozen into an economic position of not being top tier where the real profit is, and that maybe China is rebelling against that. 

Zhao: The US engaged China after Nixon’s visit and try to assure China the U.S. would help China to be integrated into the US net in a national system. The objectives are three faults. One was strategic and try to use China against the Soviet Union threat and second is economic because as I said, that they thought China had a huge market. If everyone bought a can of Coca-Cola, they could sell, six, seven hundred million Coca-Cola to the Chinese people. And a third is ideology and values. And because they thought that China was communism and that Nixon famously said in his article in 1967 that the world cannot be safe if China is not changed and China, which counts as one quarter of the mankind cannot be left out of the family of nations where they nurtured their fantasies, cherished their hatreds and all of those kind of situation. So the US has to change China so that with all the three objectives, the U.S. has, from American perspective, the US has not accomplished almost nothing, even during Cold War. China worked with the US and the strategic triangle worked with both the US and the Soviet Union to defend its interests. Economically, China with US investments, US trade everything developed. China eventually entered so-called WTO in 2000. And Bill Clinton at that time said that China entered WTO, China will play our games and follow our laws. And China promised they would open up their market and also those strategical sectors. Eventually, while they enjoyed the protection as a developing country, but China never opened up and China protected its own market while US opened its market to China and also from the value the original perspective, the China maintained authoritarian. China never accept liberal values. So in that context, the US thought it its engagement policy failed. It created a rival, very powerful threat to the US. And since these, I mean especially after end of Cold War, there was no Soviet Union to worry about. So the only  giant rival was China. So the US responded to the China threat very forcefully, especially since Trump came to office, launched the [inaudible] all front clash with China. Joe Biden has continued [inaudible] and try to stop China’s rise, trying to prevent China from rising to be a pure power. I can stand American’s position on these disappointments, on all those issues, but I think this has been some kind of overreaction. China is overreached as we talk that Xi Jinping overreached. China is not in the position to challenge US, yet. And although China overall economy, it has been divided, but China has so many problems, there’s no single country which could overcome so-called middle income trap without to be democratic. And China is still authoritarian. Chinese economy is in big trouble and China, for quite a while, Xi Jinping had a hubris and standing of China strength, the US trade war everything like that has been somehow a wake up call for the Chinese leaders to understand they are not in the position yet. But [inaudible] at this point, U.S. has made its mind to stop China. That’s what we see in today’s situation. China overreached, the US overreacted and this will bring us to an escalation of a confrontation and maybe even bring us to a new Cold War and perhaps a hot war over Taiwan, so that’s very dangerous situation. 

Scheer: So can I raise a few questions about what you said in that respect? You said China has never had, does not accept any liberal values, but one liberal values coming out of World War II, embraced by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and others, was the notion of rising prosperity for the world. The peasants of China was a perfect example, not be frozen into tilling the fields with primitive tools. And China’s actually produced a middle class now of hundreds of millions of people who can travel, who can work with higher level of technology. And is that not a liberal de Tocqueville achievement of… When you spoke at the University of Southern California, there are 6200 students from China, getting an education, learning, you know, can travel here. You have at your own college, right? 

Zhao: Yeah, that’s true. This is a big accomplishment of the Communist Party to the economic development since Deng Xiaoping, lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. But this has been done under state capitalism, not what we call liberal market capitalism. That’s very different from American markets. 

Scheer: And let me push this a little bit more, because America is under Roosevelt, certainly, and that kind of liberal, that really it wasn’t capitalism that we were pushing. It was human rights and a right to housing, right to health, right to speech, right to activity, but the right to shelter. And after all, liberalism was in part of the FDR, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, kind was a response to the deprivation of the depression and so forth. And the irony is, I want to get you to talk a little bit about this. Everything I have in front of me now, the computer I’m talking to you on, the speaker here, actually, even maybe the book was printed, I don’t know if your book was printed in China, but a lot of books are printed in China. Everything around me here, the clothing I’m wearing, is made in China. Okay, so you tell me that the United States has not economically benefited from this relationship to China. I don’t know if we could have gotten through the pandemic without China. 95% of what was delivered to our doors here came from China in the worst moments of the pandemic. So you’re implying that somehow the U.S. has not benefited economically from the factory floor of China? But I want to ask a human rights question: shouldn’t one of the concerns be not whether they embrace capitalism, but whether they have the right to be in a labor union? These people taken from the farm and working, assembling the iPhones right? This iPhone, shouldn’t we, in our trade agreements, as we did a little bit with NAFTA—by the way, under Trump, at least there’s something about working conditions and pay—shouldn’t one of the big human rights concerns, be whether those women assembling this iPhone have the right to join a labor union. And we never hear about that. So it seems to me, one possible criticism with what you just said is maybe U.S. policy wants to keep China as the exploitable factory for, of workers who are exploited, and then defies human rights, not the interests of those workers, but whether China will kowtow to our corporate demands. 

Zhao: I think you… This is a very interesting position to understand that relationship. In fact, China’s economic contribution to the global economy and also to the US economy has been very, very clear in a globalized world. But the problem for, in fact, as you said, those are illiberal aspects of the economy. It was not a problem for the American business community. In fact, those were attractions for them because there was no labor unions. People, the workers could not strike, could not negotiate their salaries. Those were harmful for the corporate profits. But these benefits have been disputed, mostly among those American multilateral companies and also very small portion of the Chinese bureaucratic… 

Scheer: Anybody who has benefited from the run up of Apple stock, for example. Which has been the most prosperous stock we have in this country. And there are large numbers of Americans who bought Apple stock and continued to benefit from it.

Zhao: But the problem… 

Scheer [00:39:11] But we should be very clear that these people who are easy to condemn China don’t condemn them for the low cost of Apple products. Well, they condemn the large part of the profits that are sucked away in Silicon Valley and throughout America. And so the human rights question really seems to me, to stumble upon who do you care about? Chinese people or American people? 

Zhao: Double standards is always the case of Americans. 

Scheer: Double standard, yes.

Zhao: Yeah, of course. But the issue here is that for many years, China was the lower end of the production value chain. And China wants to move up to the value chain from [inaudible] manufacture to high tech. And China wants to get US technology transferred to China and limit the US business operation in China as you transfer your technology. And also they try to protect their own [inaudible] those technology companies and Chinese companies. And in that context even American business in the corporate world lost interest in China and become a grievance to the Chinese policy. That’s how now almost everyone in the US have joined these calls to condemn China economically and also ideologically and strategically see China as a threat to the regional security in the South China Sea [inaudible]…

Scheer: There is another model, and let me bring up Elon Musk and others. But I mean, for instance, Tesla just built their biggest plant in China, and they’re also building a plant that makes intact… 

Zhao: Elon Musk made so much money in China with that Chinese market… 

Scheer: Well Buffett made a lot of money in China with BYD, which now is the dominant automaker in China and is exporting to other countries. And what they’ve managed to do, because this evokes images of Henry Ford, the rise of General Motors and so forth. The fact is the biggest change economically in China is the move to reliance less on oil and more on… or using oil in regions where you’re less polluting than in Beijing. So you favor the electric car and they’ve been very good on conquering or getting access to lithium and other ingredients and so forth. And their actual trade in that sector is rising quite dramatically. So that’s a model of production that gets you into a higher end of profitability. And so, for example, if you are driving where I am living here, as a lot of people seem to buy Tesla now, I happen to have one myself. I used to have a General Motors Volt. It was less reliable but the fact of the matter is there are chapters of the Chinese economy that are working. And the question again is will America really accept competition on a higher profit level for other countries? It seems to me the argument about hegemony, which the Chinese have raised front and center, but they’re not the only ones, they’re getting a lot of support. The argument is: does US hegemony a requirement of a new, of a world order, or can we in fact have other nations like India and maybe Turkey and Brazil and smaller nations, have power and that means abandoning the dollar, it means abandoning U.S. trade supremacy? And is that not the issue that any, I’ll grant you, any chauvinist or leading figure, whether they’re in India or China, will demand now? They want new rules of the road in which they can get in the higher end of profitability so they can have a higher standard of living. Is that not reasonable? 

Zhao: I think that’s reasonable, but that’s not reasonable for American politicians. 

Scheer: Oh. 

Zhao: That’s the problem, because… 

Scheer: We’re academics and I’m a journalist.

Zhao: We can talk freely, cheaply about those issues because we don’t worry about losing elections. All we worry about the oppositional parties to undermine our positions, we can talk. But from American current political environment, I don’t think that could be taken as acceptable because the US always [inaudible] Chinese same thing has detonation of thinking. Think US exceptional, US is the most advanced economy and political system and the US should take a lead in the world. The US cannot give up its leadership, cannot give up its dominant position in the world otherwise, the world will be dominated by those authoritarian dictatorships like China. 

Scheer: That’s a convenient… 

Zhao: Yeah, convenient. Exactly, on the other hand… 

Scheer: But it’s very interesting, you know, whether America is represented by Donald Trump or Joseph Biden, they then have this mantle that whatever they do is virtuous and on the side of freedom, even if it means peasant women in China drafted to assemble iPhones without any basic human rights and may be driven to suicide, as has happened and exploited in every way. But that’s consistent with human rights, why? Because we own the franchise for human rights. So if we exploit people in the world, oh, that’s a good thing. Now, other people might see it a different way. And it’s interesting because Vietnam for instance, we fought a war with Vietnam over something called communism, which turns out to have no significance. And now the US wants Apple to move part of its operation to Vietnam. Why? Because the Vietnamese Communist Party will give them a more docile work force. Well is a docile workforce in the interest of human freedom? Shouldn’t it be people paid a living wage and be able to afford more and work less hard and so forth? Doesn’t [inaudible] put the U.S. in the position of a hypocrisy? 

Zhao: The US is always have hyper [inaudible] in its foreign policy, always. For example, U.S. wants China to follow the U.N. clause role, but U.S. Congress never ratified the UN convention on this. A sea of law. The U.S. never, never ratified. The U.S. wants China to follow the law. The U.S. will not even want to attack. And the U.S. is a U.N. Security Council member and organized the coalition winning without U.N. Security Council approval to attack Iraq. I mean, U.S. has always have credit on the human rights issue is a similar situation. And though when Nixon visited China, China’s human rights record was much, much worse. But in order to work with China, [inaudible], you did not say anything about China’s human rights and just criticize the Soviet Union’s human rights. I remember Jimmy Carter said, and I went to the Carter Center meeting, he tried to mention human rights to Deng Xiaoping in 1979. They said, “You want to give the Chinese people human rights? Great idea! How about I give you 200 million Chinese people, immigrants to the United States? Give them human rights!” Jimmy Carter said, “No, no, no, we’ll stop here.” So it’s always hypocritical, America. Only after the Soviet Union collapsed and China emerged as a possible rival and the USA began to talk about human rights issue inside of China. And so it’s always like that. Now, even in talk about economic policy, I said China was a state capitalist using the so-called industrial policy, try to use state power to guide economic policy, try to produce a production trend to protect the industrial sectors domestically. U.S. is learning from China today doing exactly the same thing, to have all those industrial policies to try to protect American companies. U.S. criticized the Made in China 2025, the U.S. now is advocating many U.S.A. and everything have to be moved back to the United States. The U.S. even tried to build those redundant production lines in the world. So it’s have hypocritical, for sure. But that’s international politics. Every country tries to protect their own interests and try to maximize their position in national committee, especially those big powers. The Chinese people are challenged, neither think of international politics in terms of the role of the jungles might [inaudible]. That’s exactly Americans think so too, although we talk about rules based international order, who are making those rules? Americans! So that’s the international politics unfortunately and that’s why when you said on the human rights issues, the U.S. has its own problems and the U.S. would have to accept China’s rise and the U.S. benefits from this process. And the U.S. should appreciate this process. No, that’s not international relations, unfortunately. 

Scheer: So let me present alternative view, which was the view of the classical economists, which is that international trade benefits everyone, that investment throughout the world benefits everyone, and ultimately that human rights everywhere around the world. Because you’re talking about your customers, talking about customers, and there are advantages to different nations doing different things. Using their resources. One big resource in China, of course, is a labor force as it is in India. And maybe you should pay that labor force more and they should have the right to be in unions because they will be then better customers for our movies, our products, the things we do well and so forth. So there used to be an argument, and I think it was basic to the founding of the United Nations, which is that we are all in this together. Now, let me take you finally, you’re being very generous with your time, but if we could take a few more minutes. When I was reading your book, I was thinking to myself, you know, wait a minute, why isn’t China’s rise a good thing? And in the sense that, you know, it’s a big and India’s rise, let me take it away from a particular nation. But we gain, right? For instance, if they can be a market, they are right now for, say, soybeans producing. Now Brazil is starting to compete in the soybean. But the fact is America has wonderful agriculture. China has an exhausted land, obviously a too big population. So American agriculture will always benefit from a more prosperous China or India. Right? We are still relatively underpopulated. We have an incredible climate, great natural resources. So there are ways of accommodating the rise of other nations. It isn’t always a zero sum game. And the assumption of Richard Nixon, I never thought I would in my life be celebrating Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon, but clearly they saw that a more prosperous China would be ultimately more peaceful, would be a great market for the United States. We lost that vision. We are back to this primitive thinking that China’s success is a defeat for the US. And yet I have the examples, or even the glasses I’m wearing were made in China. Why isn’t that a good thing for me? Right? 

Zhao: It is good thing from a classical liberal economics perspective. That, it was so-called liberal globalization promoted by the U.S. and European countries after the end of Cold War, which really produced that economic prosperity in many countries, including both the US and China. But the problems are first, this liberal globalization has produced unequal distribution of income. Some countries benefit more than other countries. Some sectors benefit more than other sectors, some people benefit more than the other people. That’s so clear during the whole liberal globalization process. From the Chinese perspective, the [inaudible], global south perspective, global north, those Modi transnational corporation, Wall Street, they benefit most and not average people in the US. Also, those factory workers, they lost their jobs and to the Chinese factories and all the third world countries. So that’s the problem. One problem of the…

Scheer: Let me just let me just interrupt for one second. First, the fear was they lost their jobs to Japan. 

Zhao: Right. 

Scheer: Right? The key sectors, General Electric making better products, they were made in Japan. Your autoworkers. No, there were being made in Japan. But we don’t single out Japan and say we have to have a war with them. We somehow accommodated that trade was… 

Zhao: US out Japan in 1980s and tried to do everything to undermine Japan just like they are doing today in China. Japanese bubble burst in 1990s. Then the U.S. feel good, now is not a problem anymore and China is in a similar situation, I think… 

Scheer: Let me sound like the old communist here. Let me ask your question. Let me sound like an old classical economist. Adam Smith was against monopolies. The classical economists. They were afraid of imperialism. They knew it would produce inequality, right? They believed in the invisible hand of free markets and so forth. What we lost in this country and in China and India was some notion of government intervention and regulation to distribute the profits more equally. So there would be no problem about people not having to make iPhones here at low wages, if in fact the profits that Apple has made went into supporting life for people here. A living wage. If the people making all the high end… But what we’ve seen in the last 40 years, is the most unequal swing of income in the United States, not in China, as a result of this prosperity, what we lost was the wisdom of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and that early Eleanor Roosevelt and the U.N., was you got to spread it around and you have to spread… In China, at least they’re forced to because modernization means you have to pay factory workers a little more and you have to have public transportation. But the fact of the matter is what you’re really talking about is politicians being unwilling to redress the inequality. America is very prosperous. We’re just not spreading it around. And we are prosperous because we exploit Chinese labor. And China has its billionaires who are prosperous just as Russia after the Soviet Union, has plenty of wealthy people running around the world. But their wealth is not more equitably distributed. Isn’t that the great problem here? And we’re blaming… 

Zhao: That’s exactly the market failure. That’s those liberal economics cannot resolve. You have to have some kind of a state government regulatory law to have a redistribution of income. But the problems are in both China and the U.S., the government has not played that role. 

Scheer: But isn’t that the trap… I know I talked to you briefly when you spoke at USC. And so I want to end this. I don’t, I agree. It’s an authoritarian government, we can argue about the quality of American democracy. There are, you know, issues. Otherwise you wouldn’t face this choice of Trump and Biden, have the banking meltdown and the banks come out whole and so forth. But it seems to me, as I look at the current leadership of China that you are very critical of. And by the way, I want to stress this is a very thoughtful book. Okay? Whether I disagree with some things in it or agree, I, first of all, learned a lot from this book is called The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy. My guest is Suisheng Zhao, it’s Stanford University Press. But it’s not written like an academic treatise. It’s a very interesting… You want to know about China, this one book you should go buy right now, whether I agree with everything it or disagree as we’re having a discussion, it’s very important to read it because you are talking about complexity. We’re talking about a very complex society, complex history, and you have to understand it. And this book, you know, does a very challenging job. I mean, it’s very well documented. I do want to end on the controversy I have with you, where you make the current leader of China seem like the worst of these three transformational. You’re really down on Xi and I’m asking you a question whether what happened in China was not so different than what happens elsewhere, where you had suddenly a billionaire class, you had Jack Ma’s, you had these people that have a lot of wealth, and yet many of the ordinary people who are making these products that I use, this computer, they are not benefiting so much. They are working very hard, their families, there’s anxiety, suicide and everything else. Is this not an attempt of the leadership in China to say we have to distribute it more, we have to get it on the higher end, we have to have more to pass around, and so that people can have a living wage and higher prosperity or they are going to roar back at us. After all, China has had emperors killed. They’ve had you know, I happened to have visited there during the Cultural Revolution. It was not fun. You know, the leadership was quaking at that time. So might not be that the current leadership of China says, look, we can’t be the low end factory for—this is true in India as well and Brazil—we can’t be the low end factory floor and satisfy the needs of our people and they’re going to rise up and they’re going to kill us because no, they’re not going to stay in those sweatshops that Apple has and make some of us rich. We have to reform. We have to change.  I know you dismiss the common prosperity argument that Xi has advanced but I wonder, isn’t this survival of any leadership? 

Zhao: Well, the problem is not the common prosperity itself, it’s how to reach common prosperity. You cannot do that by suppress private sector. Try to deprive those billionaires. You said that ordinary people did not benefit from this process. Those business people benefited. Jack Ma. Those people became billionaires. I mean, Chinese government now is destroying not only those ordinary people’s living, but also try to destroy those billionaire’s private sector which were, for so many years, the most productive sector, and they tried to promote the most inefficient state owned enterprises and try to tighten information control, tighten ideological control. People lost even freedoms to travel overseas. Today, as you said, those years thinking all these years now are missed by so many people in China. So that’s the problem. In this case, the economic growth in China will not continue, will be in danger of not only slow down, but also stagnation. So if that happens ordinary people will suffer more and also the private sectors would suffer and own the state, the bureaucrats, the government, the Communist Party leaders, they maintain their status. That’s not good for China. That’s dangerous, I’m concerned about. 

Scheer: But let me ask you. That’s obviously true, that any leadership of this, why we believe in our Constitution, whether we honor it all the time, we believe power corrupts. We believe state power has to be controlled. Those are all very valid. But when I look at the current situation, what is the U.S. Congress criticizing about China most of all? TikTok. A private company that actually the leader of the company is in Singapore. They succeed because they have created a product that many young people around the world, particularly United States, like. And somehow that’s very scary. Huawei is another one. They were very good at developing 5G all over the world. Now, Huawei has to get out of 5G because we won’t let them have the most advanced chips. We arrested the daughter of the founder or had her arrested. So I just really wonder whether, you know, the US, that talks out of both sides of the mouth. You know, we say we believe in capitalism, but every time anyone, it started with Japan, but any time anyone in the world gets into the high end profitable part of an enterprise, not the factory floor assembling. And, you know, my mother was a garment worker in New York City. I know what that kind of work is like, you know. I wouldn’t wish it on anybody, If you can, with artificial intelligence and machinery, replace it, that’s a good thing. What everybody wants is the high end, the high end profit, where you can use machinery and capital investment, right? And get labor to be more educated and significant white collar and so forth. And that seems to me what our Congress people want to deny in China. And this is using the American worker as ammunition against them, instead of saying we will retrain American workers, we will let their children go to college tuition free, we will give them some guaranteed medical care. We will give them guaranteed annual income so they can live a good life, whether they’re on an assembly line or not, or if they work on an assembly line, it’ll be high tech. We’re saying we want to have the ownership of high tech because that’s where all the profit is and our ruling people will have it. And I’m just asking, just to open up the question, whether we are… It’s not human rights we care about in China and it’s really not Taiwan. What we are, because Taiwan is a major supplier of chips and everything to China, what we are concerned about is that China will get into the more sophisticated production, be another Japan and compete with us. 

Zhao: It’s correct. The ban on TikTok and 5G Huawei were all against capitalism free market system for sure. But we are learning from China. China did the same thing. China banned Google China, banned Facebook. 

Scheer: So you are saying that the U.S. is learning the authoritarian. 

Zhao: Exactly, that’s what I feel. America is more like China today. I’ve been in the US 40 years when I came to US, I felt U.S. had more freedom and now USA. I mean, I don’t want to be a critical of America, but you can see you cannot freely talk on many issues in this country today in a university setting, for example. And the US is learning from China to ban those free I mean enterprises from other countries in the name of national security that’s what exactly China did. And the US is more like China. That’s the problem of the world. U.S. used to be talking about mutual benefit. So we all benefit. We win but US said now we have benefit equally. That is reciprocity, what you benefit, but you have equal benefit. You banned my company, I banned your company. So that’s exactly… You have industrial policy, I have my own industrial policy. America’s learning from China, America is more like China. 

Scheer: Let me ask you a question. Do you have a few more minutes? And let me give another push for the book. The Dragon Roars Back, Suisheng Zhao, Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy. It is one of the most interesting books that I’ve ever read about China. Even when I disagree with certain aspects of it, it’s informed. You learn. It has context. It has history. It’s a very sophisticated, knowledgeable view of China. And so I really appreciate taking time. But listen, we can’t understand other civilizations, you know, whether it’s historic Persia or current Iran or anyone, Mexico, if we don’t engage their history and people are always prisoners of their history, of their dominant narratives, of their past. That’s true. And China’s true in the United States. So let me take you back a little bit to U.S. history, okay? You say we learned from the Chinese about the authoritarian model. I was just reading, I asked you earlier about Gordon Chang, also at Stanford, who has done this really important work on the building of the American railroad with Chinese labor. And that allowed the opening to the west and allowed the U.S. to be the U.S. Those Chinese workers brought into the United States were not allowed to marry, and if they married, they couldn’t marry a non-Chinese. They certainly couldn’t marry a white person. They couldn’t become citizens. They had no… We’ve done that with people from Mexico. That then then became the new labor force. You know, so American capital didn’t have to go to China to get an authoritarian lessons. What American capital learned was that people will form labor unions, will strike, will struggle, will use the vote, yes, critically. But then they could buy off the vote and buy off the political parties. It’s always a struggle. And all I’m suggesting is that the human rights question has to be redefined internationally as including economic rights, you know, distribution of wealth, because that’s where power is. You know, the reason I mean, we’ve been taken on a joyride of the exploitation of Chinese labor, Mexican labor, other labor, cheap labor in the post-World War II period, Japanese at first also. And we’ve been taken on a joyride by our leaders saying, well, you are free. In fact, the slogan used to be free, white and 21; free white, 21 and male. The world is your oyster. Then the world stopped being the oyster. Labor unions lost their power. Workers lost their rights. And now it’s not so great to be in those jobs. So I’m asking you a question. The focus of your book is really important. We got to understand China. I’m recommending the book. That’s why I’m taking this time. But if we want to understand the international south-north tension, we want to understand why there are dissatisfied people in this world and India and Brazil who might look to China or want to cooperate with China. It’s a bigger issue, it’s an issue about freedom, that has to have an economic component and [inaudible] U.S. hegemony. You can’t have one nation control the world. It doesn’t work anymore, whether it’s the US, China or anyone else. 

Zhao: The definition of human rights in the US focuses on civil individual rights, and the Chinese definition of human rights emphasized the connective rights of development. Economic rights, as you said. A country has to develop economically before they can enjoy individual freedoms and rights. And so that’s what you’re talking about. You have to produce. In order to produce, a collective effort have to be organized and recognize first individuals may even have to sacrifice for those collective interests and the roots of political problems are poverty. So to eradicate poverty, divide economy, those are the first human rights. That’s what China emphasized. And this concept of human rights has a huge market in the global south. And that’s why when the U.S. try to teach those that divided countries how to build the democratic systems, build what the U.S. talk of civil rights, but they go to China. So the China model and they follow the China model because 30 or 40 years ago, China was as poor as those poor third world countries in Africa. But China now becomes the second largest economy. And that lifted millions, hundreds of millions people out of poverty. With these type of emphasis on economic growth. So human rights defined from the economic development perspective. In that context, the [inaudible] by those third world countries. So that’s what I think you are right. That today’s world we have to put those economic development first on the global south and also try to work together to develop together. That’s the problem that the US will not accept, as you said, those that non-Western countries to go different ways of developments. 

Scheer: The power of your book. And I’m going to bring it up again here. The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy. The reason, again, I’m pushing this book not because I agree with every single conclusion, obviously, we’ve had a good discussion and I’ve probably spoken too much here. But I want to say, if you read this book, you will understand it’s not simple. You will understand that every culture is complex. None, none in the world is any obviously any less complex than China in its rich history and to grasp it, it cannot be reduced to a slogan which it is in a stereotypical conversation and the startling thing, Mao and his leadership in China then was complex and we didn’t understand it fully then. We don’t now under Deng Xiaoping, it was complex. You know that we had Tiananmen Square. We had lots of problems. We didn’t understand it then. We don’t understand it fully now. And under current leadership of Xi, it’s the same thing. You can have a more negative view, as my guest does, and I tend a little bit more to the optimistic that they are trying to sort things out. But nonetheless, you cannot discuss foreign policy, our place in the world, our future, climate change, any issue, if you don’t develop a more complex, sophisticated, questioning view of this dragon and what it represents and you just can’t turn your back on it and you can’t reduce it to a slogan. So that’s the great service I think you have performed for us. I want to thank you for taking the time to do this.

Zhao: Thank you for taking your time to do this, too. 

Scheer: Yeah, well, I care about the future of the planet just as you do. And I want to thank the people at KCRW, the great NPR station in Santa Monica. Laura, I’m going to get this right, Kondourajian, who has been producing, posting this show. I always mispronounce your name Kondourajian, Laura and Christopher Ho who has also been posting it at KCRW. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, Diego Ramos, who writes the introductions. Max Jones, who has been the producer of this particular session, the video and the JKW Foundation in the memory of a terrific independent writer and thinker Jean Stein, for putting some funding up to make this possible. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. Thank you, Professor Zhao.

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