It’s too late to do anything about China. The contest for global supremacy is over. Beijing now sets the pace—economically, politically, even militarily—and there’s nothing for America to do but accept China’s inevitable victory.
Whether that’s true or not, it’s the message coming out of President Joe Biden’s Washington. A raft of appointees with alarming ties to Chinese state institutions, including China’s spy services, suggests that much of the U.S. ruling establishment just wants to get paid.
Since Barack Obama’s first term, the Democratic Party has served as the vehicle for a U.S.-based oligarchy comprising big tech, finance, manufacturing, and the media and entertainment industries, which sees Chinese labor and markets as the core of their businesses and is therefore dependent on the good graces of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Donald Trump promised to decouple U.S. national interests from those of China, but now that he’s gone from the White House, America’s China Class rules Washington, D.C., uncontested.
On Thursday, Vice President Kamala Harris broke a 50-50 tie in the Senate to advance Biden’s nominee Colin Kahl for undersecretary of defense for policy, the No. 3 job at the Pentagon. What most concerned Republican senators during Kahl’s confirmation hearing was his paranoia-laden social media presence, in which he pushed the Russiagate conspiracy theory and claimed that Israel was trying to sucker the United States into war with Iran.
What is more disturbing, though, is the last job Kahl held in the private sector. Starting in 2018, Kahl co-directed the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute, which also runs the Stanford Center at Peking University. According to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peking University “is designated high risk for its involvement in defense research and links to China’s nuclear weapons program.” The Federal Bureau of Investigation says that Peking University has been a recruiting ground for Chinese intelligence officers targeting American students, while its professors and students have penetrated U.S. institutions and industries.
In fact, Peking University’s role in subverting the United States through academic exchanges with universities like Stanford is so vital that its head is the former chief of Beijing’s State Security Bureau, responsible for espionage and counterespionage. It’s not clear why the Biden team wants its head of defense policy to be a man who drew his salary from an outfit with links to a Chinese espionage operation, unless the administration’s chief national security interest is to grease the rails for China’s rise.
Biden’s CIA director also has China issues. While former senior State Department official William Burns was head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a prominent D.C. think tank, the organization took between $500,000 and $999,000 in 2017-18, and between $250,000 and $549,000 in 2020, from a Chinese businessman who belongs to a leading CCP advisory organization, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Unlike Kahl, Burns, a career diplomat, cruised through the confirmation process. In a prepared statement for his February hearing, Burns employed boilerplate drawn from a special Beltway lexicon to demonstrate tough talk on China: “Out-competing China,” wrote Burns, “will be key to our national security in the decades ahead.” Compare this to Kahl’s similarly vapid Senate testimony from March: “Successfully competing with China will require us to lean into our inherent strengths. That means building back better at home, spurring technological innovation, leading with our values, and reinvigorating our unrivaled network of alliances and partners.” Buzzwords like “challenge” and “compete” and concepts like “innovation,” “alliances,” and “partners” are meant to demonstrate pro forma seriousness about what Kahl called China’s “pacing threat,” when there is no real plan to do anything about it.
Take Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken, for instance. He says that Trump “was right in taking a tougher approach to China,” though he disagrees “very much with the way that he went about it in a number of areas.” What did Biden’s predecessor get wrong? He didn’t play nicely with allies and partners. “The United States won’t force our allies into an us-or-them choice with China,” Blinken said of his boss’s diplomatic style. “We will rely on innovation, not ultimatums.”
That’s just more Beltway rhetoric. By ultimatum, Blinken is likely referring to how the Trump administration compelled the United Kingdom to keep Huawei out of its 5G mobile networks. Even though the Chinese telecoms company is reportedly run by the Chinese military and intelligence services, London was loath to ban its equipment for fear of angering Beijing. “China has been the biggest contributor to global GDP in the last 20 years,” one British official said after Trump strong-armed Prime Minister Boris Johnson, “So why would we want to cut ourselves off from that?” Many U.S. allies across the board feel the same way, which is why Washington has no choice but to issue “ultimatums” if it’s serious about “challenging” China.
If the Biden team was serious about innovation, it might have thought better of naming Kahl to a senior post, since it sends the message that in spite of U.S. officials’ tough talk about protecting U.S. academic research from Chinese state theft, no one really cares. In a 2018 report, the FBI warned U.S. universities against the kinds of “joint research opportunities” Kahl was involved with, since they “can enable a foreign adversary to obtain your research.”
Since 2010, according to a 2019 Department of Education report, Kahl’s former employer “has reported over $64 million in unidentified, anonymous Chinese donations.” A letter to Stanford from the U.S. Education Department asked for a list of all visiting or temporary Stanford scholars “from or affiliated with” China-based universities and educational institutions, the Chinese government, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In February, federal fraud and obstruction charges were brought against a Stanford researcher who destroyed evidence that she was an active PLA officer.
So long as U.S. institutions incentivize theft, China will have the leg up on innovation—the research tab for stolen information is zero. As for development, China’s state-run enterprises produce goods and services at a fraction of what it costs private industry. Moreover, China doesn’t even pay a large part of its labor force, which is held in detention centers where at various points they have been put to work producing goods on behalf of U.S. companies—an excellent illustration of why talk of challenging or competing with China is worse than useless.
Yes, it’s good to sanction the Chinese for running forced labor camps in Xinjiang, but the demand for cheap labor is coming from outside China, too. Among the most significant consumers of cheap and forced Chinese labor are U.S. corporations who use “social justice” in America as a shield and sword for their own appalling business practices.
Just look at Nike’s No. 1 pitchman, NBA All-Star LeBron James. By serving as Beijing’s biggest public defender in the world of professional sports, James cashes multi-million-dollar checks on the backs of forced Chinese labor. Smearing American cops who protect teenagers as racists is one way that James the social justice activist whitewashes the sociopathic behavior of the NBA and Nike—and the CCP officials who control their purse strings.
It is a fact of American life today that the Democratic Party, including its corporate sponsors like Apple and it’s bureaucratic assets like the CIA, is structurally pro-China. The party’s major sources of fundraising—like Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and Hollywood—are dependent on either a huge pool of cheap Chinese labor or on an enormous Chinese consumer market; access to both depends on not displeasing Beijing’s vicious authoritarians. In advancing China’s interests, the Democratic Party also advances its own.
At the end of last week, the Senate passed Democratic-sponsored legislation that links calling COVID-19 the “China Virus” to the recent explosion of hate crimes against Asian Americans on the streets of major American cities. Because the previous president was not bashful about identifying where the pandemic began, the law is meant to suggest that these attacks are being perpetrated by Trump-loving yahoos hopped up on China hate. But for starters, the geography is wrong—there don’t seem to be very many MAGA supporters in places like Harlem, Oakland, and San Francisco, where violent assaults on Asian Americans have become a frequent occurrence.
In fact, the legislation is a cynical and unsubtle bit of misdirection to absolve two sets of Democratic Party clients at opposite ends of the economic spectrum: members of urban groups—adolescent thrill-seekers hoping that their assaults will go viral, and criminally deranged predators who see groups like Asians and Orthodox Jews as easy and acceptable targets—as well as the overlords of the China Class, for whom the fact that COVID-19 originated in China is a political and financial liability that they are eager to erase.
The bill passed 94-1 because Republicans feared that the Democrats were also using the bill as a platform to crash the Senate filibuster (see, just like Biden and Obama said, the filibuster is inherently racist, even against Asian Americans). Thus, the Democrats gave the CCP cover for what was arguably an act of war. U.S. intelligence officials believe the coronavirus may very well have escaped from a lab where the Chinese military was working on a classified “gain of function” program to make viruses more lethal, perhaps including for use in bioweapons. Accordingly, lying about the virus, how it is transmitted, and its likely origins—as the Chinese government did—should not be classified as an accident. Rather, it’s more like a stealth attack, one that killed and impoverished Americans, ravaged the economy, and helped shape a presidential election.
Nothing suits the CCP better, of course, than for the inconveniences of recent history to disappear, and for Americans to assume the role of the villains instead: How dare Washington single out Beijing for crimes against the Uyghurs when Americans are the real racists? A recent Chinese report critical of American society opens with “I can’t breathe,” a reference to the late George Floyd. Like LeBron James, Chinese state media have been messaging on American racism nonstop since last spring, when Democratic politicians decided that plunging the country into a perpetual race crisis in the midst of a pandemic— thereby destroying years of economic, social, and educational gains for American minorities—was a necessary tool for remaking society in ways that most benefited them.
That leaves the Republican Party as the only major political institution that Americans, right and left, have to rescue them from an establishment that increasingly sees China’s one-party technocratic surveillance state as a model to emulate. The problem is that there is no clear leader after Trump. While Sens. Ted Cruz, Josh Hawley, and Tom Cotton have all established themselves as China hawks, the Republicans aren’t yet prepared to match up with the extensive corporate, political, cultural, media, and academic network that has thrown its weight behind the Democrats.
It doesn’t help that GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell is also entangled with CCP interests. His wife, former Trump administration Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, is the daughter of a billionaire Taiwanese shipbuilder, James Chao, who owes his success and wealth, in part, to longstanding ties to Chinese state enterprises and senior officials, including his college classmate Jiang Zemin, China’s former president. McConnell’s father-in-law has given the couple between $5 million and $25 million.
Other GOP officials are influenced by China less directly. “There are incentives from big tech and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which wants to leverage China to build their wealth,” a senior congressional foreign policy aide told me. “Some Republican senators are trying to avoid alienating both of those entities, mostly because they want money for campaigns, and to prevent money from going to their opponents. And then others are simply naive, and never concerned themselves with the implications of China’s agenda.”
The ways of current-day Washington are very different from the governing norms of the Cold War years, when members of both parties understood the threat that an authoritarian communist regime posed to the future of the United States. They wouldn’t have dreamed of intermingling U.S. interests so deeply with such a state. Now, the marriage of two elites, America’s and the CCP’s, has become the new normal.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).