Scholarstage on War in Taiwan, China Watchers, and Xi's Theory of History
Tanner Greer of the Scholarstage blog came on the ChinaTalk podcast this week. Our conversation was so good that I banged out a transcript. Below is the first half where we start out talking about China doves, then get into Xi’s theory of history and prospects for war in Taiwan. Listen to the podcast to hear us get into the tools of CCP rule, Mormons in China, and GPT-3.
How China Watchers’ Training and Incentives Leads to Dovish Views
Jordan: How would you rate the level of understanding that the US has towards China today compared to how much the US got the Soviet Union during the Cold War era?
Tanner: In some ways, we understand China currently in ways that the Americans of say the '70s could not understand the Soviet Union. The access we have is incredible. That's especially true if you're studying something like technology. In other respect, though, I almost feel like increased access to China has hindered our ability to understand maybe strategic intentions at the top level, what the party wants to do, and what they encode and things like their political work reports.
I would give three reasons why our increased access can sometimes cloud our understanding instead of enlightenment. The first is what I call the ‘My Friend From Beida Problem’, which is that all these people go to China now and have these formative experiences setting in Shanghai or Beijing. They have this new friend who goes to Beida [China’s premier university whose students are among China’s most liberal] and is this really smart college student liberal who doesn't take Marxism seriously at all and laughs at the party. He is not at all representative of the standard Chinese view, much less the view at the top-level of the party.
It's really easy for somebody who comes to China to hang out with these people because these are the people who want to hang out with Westerners, imbibe their attitudes, and project it on the rest of China or on the Chinese leadership. To an extent, this is even true of people in the party. You can meet party members, officials, especially at lower levels or younger generations who, say, don't take Marxism seriously at all. Even if, as I believe, the leadership really does.
Jordan: That's an interesting analogy because, of course, during the Soviet Union, the former Soviet dissidents were the ones that Americans had the most contact with.
Tanner: In a way, we'd have maybe the opposite problem or tendency that we did in the Cold War. Back then, the only sources we get are either the Kremlinology top-line official documents or their dissidents who are very much against the system that they're coming from, which naturally leads to a hawkish tendency. I tend to think that for the last 20 years, we've had the opposite problem that our sources and connections and ways of looking at it have led to us to maybe not take the issues that should be taken seriously the way they should be taken.
Jordan: There's an interesting personal aspect to it too because, say you're interested in China in 2010. The option set of things you could be doing that are connected to China that don't involve sitting at home reading party documents all day are enormous versus if you're interested in Russia and it's 1970, your only outlet is Kremlinology.
Tanner: That's exactly right and leads to my second point. The way increasing access could sometimes cloud our vision or at least give us an incomplete picture has to do with the way China experts are trained today. They're trained differently than they would have been in, say, the '50s or '60s, precisely because of the access they have. Most China had experts tend to be social scientists, political scientists especially, but there's a fair number of economists and sociologists thrown in.
What these guys are trained to do in their home discipline is data wrangling large data sets, regressions, and then sometimes formal models, but right now, there are so many opportunities to make these massive data sets from this ministry or that that answer empirical questions.
There are important questions you cannot answer this way. You will not be able to say why the party is deciding to reduce Uighur births in Xinjiang, or what the party's intentions are towards Taiwan through a large-N data set study. You find that out by looking at party documents and looking at the organization of the government and the party-state, and by trying to piece together the ideology that holds it together and modern China watchers are not studied, or they're not trained how to do this. People who study modern China rarely learn this way of working unless they're in maybe working for the CIA.
Then the final way that increased access has maybe distorted our vision has to do with how are the individuals involved. Take somebody like Kissinger. He doesn't speak Chinese but he can call himself like a China expert. His claim to insight comes from his deep connections to people of importance in the party-state and in the princeling communist establishment. That's where he gets information from, and it's these connections that lead to business for his consultancy.
No Mandarin but decent chopsticks skills way back in the 70s!
His access, his status as somebody who can say something about China depends on his access to key individuals. These individuals would not give that access to somebody who they think isn’t treating them fairly. That means it's very hard for somebody in Kissinger's position, even if you set aside the money question, which for Kissinger is an issue. It's very hard for, say, him to come out of the bar, and be maybe critical or point out the problems. Of course, he's going to be taking the line of the people whose position he's channeling. It's hard to question your sources and push back if you know that you're going to get your access cut off.
I think in 1999, you could make a very convincing argument that if you were one helping liberalized China and China was liberalizing at that time, integrating it into the world system was doing a good thing. I don't dispute that. What that means is that if you were one of those people at that time, that's now your legacy. That's where, partially, your authority comes from as well. You have a great desire to defend that. You don't want to be thought of as, "Oh, I'm the person who's enabled the rise of a quasi-genocidal authoritarian state who may now control the rest of the 21st century.”
That's not something that you had a problem within the 1950s, and '60s, and '70s, when people were looking at the Soviet Union.
Tanner: That's absolutely right, it's not just the issue of, "Oh, all these people are being paid off."
I think honestly, there's a lot of talk in the China world about how the younger China hands versus older China hands have very different perspectives, and the younger ones are more hawkish. I think this is partly why, the younger ones don't have the guanxi to maintain. Then of course, they experienced China in a more authoritarian China, but this is a part of it.
Jordan: All right, Tanner. After trashing the prior generation…
Tanner: After trashing the prior generation, oh my.
Jordan: Don't worry, we'll be old soon enough.
Tanner: Even the work done by those people isn't bad, it's just incomplete. I feel like, until really quite recently, there hasn't been enough work that is focused on, more or less, just reading the party documents and figuring out what they say. Maybe I should explain why this is important because I think Americans in particular, they look at something like a speech by Xi Jinping and say, "This doesn't really matter, this is cheap talk."
The political science phrase is that it's, I think they say, "cheap talk." The idea is that [what he says] is just rhetoric. Leaders all the time, signal things to their speeches and then do something different. What is going on here? My answer to that is that, the Communist Party of China has 90 million people in it, a little bit less. What about that?
If you're Xi Jinping, you have a very difficult task. You need to find some way to get everybody on the same page and to get people to coordinate this gigantic mess of a bureaucracy. One way that the party does this is through ideology.
Most of those speeches by Xi Jinping, they're boring. They're not meant to be read by normal people and to be inspired and to change their mind or make them feel like, "Oh, I'm so glad this guy is our president." Instead, there are just the party members and the slogans and the catchphrases that they use are guideposts, constructions that are supposed to be used to help guide party members in what they do.
If I'm going to look at China's intentions for the future, I think the first place to go is to see, "Okay, what are they actually telling their people?" Is the purpose of what we're doing, why we're doing it and how to do it. That's what these documents are about, and it's not just, the government of China is other things like the party journal Qiushi is something I rely on a lot as well.
Xi’s Theory of History: Globalization, Multipolarization, and The Futility of Military Force
Jordan: What is the theory of history that guides China?
Tanner: One way to start is to look at the constitution of the Communist Party of China. On its very first page, it talks about how one of the reasons the CCP is in charge of China is because it is able to use the dialectical tools of Marxism to understand the laws of history. It’s a very old Marxist idea that there are productive forces that create structure and superstructure and then if you understand them you can understand the future course of world history.
A lot has been thrown out of the Communist Party's understanding of Marxism and its relevance to China today, but I find it interesting that when Xi Jinping had these study sessions with members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo in late 2018, he emphasized this aspect of the Marxist tradition.
Whether or not there's actually a scientific process involved, that’s something I think about a lot. I haven't seen a lot of evidence if there is, because the party never presents it as in, "Here's how we figured out." They just tell us all, "This is what we figured out." It's really clear that Xi Jinping believes that history has a trajectory and that the job of a leader and a statesman is to understand this trajectory, to understand where the way of history is going, and to ride that wave instead of trying to swim against it.
In his speeches, he regularly identifies three forces of history, ‘trends of the times’ is what he calls them. In particular, he talks about how globalization and the economic integration of the different economies and the technological integration of different economies of the world together is an unstoppable force of history. He has compared it to the ocean. The ocean of globalization is there, he says, and trying to stop it is like trying to force the water of the ocean back into the rivers and lakes where it came from.
The next one is what he calls, multi-polarization, or the democratization of international affairs, this idea that you're moving from a uni-polar system led by the Americans to this inevitable distribution of power among many different power centers across the globe, and hopefully, he says, the change in global governance structures, which will also make it less western and America-focused. Then his final one is he thinks that peace is the trend of the times, that in this current historical environment, those who try to use military force to impose their will on other countries, it will backfire on them, see Iraq, and that the way forward, the trend of the times is towards economic development, and that the interest in economic development is much more powerful than things that lead to conflict. In places where you don’t have economic development, you have conflict.
This is his assessment, is that the communist documents often talk about how he has a clear-eyed assessment of the course of world history, that the world is going towards these three things and so Chinese grand strategy or has to be in accordance with these trends instead of fighting against them.
Jordan: Here's a harder question, Tanner. Is he right?
Tanner: That's hard to say. What I think is interesting about them is how similar they are actually to what a lot of Westerners were saying about 2000 to 2005 or so. An interesting book to read is Thomas P.M. Barnett's, The Pentagon's New Roadmap. I think it was published in 2004. It was based off a set of slides that this individual, former Naval War College professor and consultant, gave to almost every four-star in American service between 2003 and 2005.
It's more or less like a blueprint for the grand strategy the Bush administration adopted after 2003, the invasion Iraq. In this book, Barnett divides the world into two parts, the core and the gaps. The core is the part that's economically interconnected or development interests are all shared. The West, Japan, China. The gaps are places like Afghanistan, Iraq, Northern Africa, who are not benefiting from these things.
The job of America, he says, is to more or less go into those places. That's what the purpose of being Iraq is for, is to go into these places and integrate them, help them be part of the core, so that they'll enter this stream of history that is inevitably leading to globalization and we thought liberalization of the whole world. Now, though Xi Jinping rejects the military intervention part, it sounds similar, doesn't it?
This is the thing though, is that Americans discover the history didn't quite work out that way . Nowadays, people make fun of ‘end of history’ talk, this idea that globalization is the inevitable result of history. I wonder if the Chinese won't have their own moment. For us, a lot of that moment was 2008. For them, who knows what will be. It might be Taiwan.
They never said the way they promised many times that there won't be an aggressive hegemon, that they're not going to go and try to export their system through force. They're not going to be a military power in Africa, that stuff like that. They've said those things many times. They never make that promise about Taiwan. They've always held the option to basically invade it through military force. A lot of the military buildup in this time of peace and development is precisely about Taiwan evasion.
They said the same idea. They gave the same rhetoric and they propose the same idea for the Taiwanese people, "Hey, let's make our development and your development the same thing." Let's tie our peace together so closely that you won't need or want to be independent from us. They're very frank, when they said this stuff, and it hasn't worked out for them. The Taiwanese are as anti-China as they've ever been. They've soundly rejected this bargain. One wonders if that might not also happen in other parts of the world.
The Prospects for War in Taiwan
Jordan: Let's take up Taiwan. What do you think would precipitate an invasion? What's your latest how you think it might play out militarily?
Tanner: I wrote an article for foreign policy a few years ago, titled, Taiwan Can Win a War with China. A lot of it was based off research in a book by Ian Easton called the Taiwan Invasion Threat. He did most of his research 2014, 2015. I spent the last year in Taiwan, a lot of it on military reporting. I've changed my assessment and I think Ian Easton has too.
I now question whether or not the Taiwanese by themselves would be able to resist. There are certain things in their favor. Geography is hugely favorable. There's only certain months of the year that you can mount an invasion because of typhoon risk. There are only a few beaches you can go too. I've been to about half of them in person, took pictures. Those beaches have been like they grow spiky plants all over them.
The invasion of Taiwan would be the largest military amphibious invasion in human history. They wouldn't be able to hide it. We'd know weeks beforehand, months perhaps and technology favors the defender. The same thing that makes the United States really nervous about sending its ships close to Chinese shores is a problem for any potential Chinese invasion force coming across the strait, was the advantage the Taiwanese have, but they have some very fundamental disadvantages.
Fundamentally, there's a lack of willingness to make sacrifices for the sake of national defense. The Taiwanese people are extremely defeatist. They don't necessarily believe they can win.
The training of conscripts is very poor. Reservists on paper are not real. The political leadership hasn't had the courage to ask the Taiwanese people to change it. Taiwan is supremely defendable if they want to, they can save themselves, but they have to be willing to do real national service, not four-month fake stuff where they don't even really learn how to shoot a gun.
I've interviewed dozens and dozens of people who just got done with their conscript training when I was in Taiwan, and it's sad. You meet some of these guys who really wanted to learn how to be a soldier and how to use a gun and defend the country, and they come out feeling like their national service period was a complete waste of time.
That's a huge morale drain. The Taiwanese could be preparing to run an insurgency which would make a very tough dilemma for the Chinese. Having to fight an insurgency for years and years or months and months while engaged in a high-intensity conflict with the Americans, maybe the Japanese at the same time, that's a very different strategic gamble. Taiwan safety depends on them being able to more or less convince the Chinese that gamble is too risky for any Chinese leader to face.
It's easy for me to say, I'm not Taiwanese, I'm an American. That's a fair critique. I don't know if there's a way forward for them if they're not willing to make very fundamental changes. They have so many things going for them. It's possible. It's not like Hong Kong. I just don't know how willing the American people will be to have their own people dying for the sake of Taiwanese who are not going full measure themselves.
Listen to the second half of our conversation here.
China Twitter Tweets of the Week
Maybe once a month I get questionable people reaching out to me on Linkedin. In honor of all those overworked and underpaid Chinese spies spending too much time on Linkedin, in a first, we’re featuring a LinkedIn post on Tweets of the Week!
Maybe Zhang Yiming Christian!?