China’s mass surveillance technology

Have you heard how the Chinese government used drones when they were first trying to limit the spread of the coronavirus?   

One video shows a man working in Wuhan without a mask, when suddenly a voice from the sky says “Why did you come outside without wearing a mask?”  The man seems confused and looks around to locate the voice.  When he spots the drone, he smirks a little.  “Don’t laugh,” the drone says sternly.  “Now get on your cart and go home immediately.  Don’t come outside if not necessary.”  The man looks at the drone again, and starts to drive his cart away, but apparently not quickly enough.  “What are you looking at?” asks the drone operator.  “Go home now.”  Which the man does.

According to a CNN piece a few weeks ago, a variety of mass surveillance techniques have been used in the first few months of trying to stop coronavirus, and “China’s top prosecutor issued a notice warning that anyone… who refuses to accept quarantine or treatment, will be ‘severely punished.’”   

Now I must admit that when it comes to trying to prevent a worldwide pandemic, there’s an argument to be made for doing whatever it takes.  But if I heard voices from the sky telling me what to do, I’d either see a psychiatrist or join the resistance.

My recent post on the social credit system mentioned a few of the ways technology is being used for mass surveillance, but those were only the tip of the iceberg.  Throughout China, there seem to be cameras everywhere.  According to a Comparitech study of the relative number of CCTV cameras in 120 cities around the world:  “Eight out of the top 10 most-surveilled cities are in China.”  (The other two are London and Atlanta).  And it’s only getting worse.  The same study reports that “By 2022, China is projected to have one public CCTV camera for every two people.”

In some cases, these systems are being used to fight crime.  For example, some individuals violate customs laws by illegally buying tax free goods in Hong Kong and then reselling them in mainland China.  This got a lot harder when facial recognition systems were installed at several border check points to compare travelers’ appearances against a database of faces and travel information.  That system now informs custom officials whenever a suspected illegal trader has been flagged.

Can this type of technology be applied when an individual is walking around in a crowd?  You betcha.  Some police in China have been given smart sunglasses that allow them to snap a quick photo of anyone they see, and then instantly compare each face to a database.  In one demonstration of this technology, police in a crowded high speed rail station used this systems to capture suspects accused of crimes ranging from hit and run accidents to human trafficking.

Of course, the basics of facial recognition are not exactly cutting edge technology.  If you use an iPhone, you may have unlocked it this morning by showing your face.  But in China, “Facial recognition… has become a normal part of many people’s lives, used in subways, office buildings, schools and even safari parks to check season-ticket holders.”  Another article provided additional examples, including “a KFC outlet in Hangzhou, China, has rolled out a ‘Smile to Pay’ system [and] universities use it to screen staff and students.” 

There are even facial recognition systems outside some restrooms to prevent people from wasting toilet paper.  Step in front of a camera for 3 seconds, and you will be rewarded with 28 inches of toilet paper on your way in.  But if you need more, you are going to have to wait 9 minutes, because the system knows who you are, and 28 inches is all you’re getting.  (To see how people reacted, watch this video.)    

Facial recognition technology has even been applied in classrooms.  According to a 2018 government press release, a Hangzhou classroom installed “a facial recognition camera that scans the classroom every 30 seconds [and]… records the facial expressions of the students and logs whether they look happy, upset, angry, fearful or disgusted.”  Not to mention whether they are paying attention.

However, this classroom experiment was greeted with a wave of bad publicity.  The negative reaction to this system was too much even for China.  Last September the Ministry of Education issued guidance recommending that in the future “schools seek the opinions of parents, students and teachers before introducing technology.”

So if you are working for a startup that hopes to develop mass surveillance technology for China, keep this in mind:  toilets may be OK, but classrooms are off limits.

Note that as this is written, none of the systems described have been installed throughout the entire country from border to border.  And there is no nationwide big data analysis in progress to integrate all the data from independent computer systems, so that the government can track everywhere you go and everything you’ve done.  So if you are a known toilet paper waster in Beijing, you can probably get away with more waste in Shanghai.

But that doesn’t mean the Chinese aren’t working on combining data from multiple sources.  The New York Times reported one experiment on combining mobile phone and CCTV camera data to increase accuracy at “a dingy apartment complex in Zhengzhou… which hosts cheap hotels and fly-by-night businesses.”  They compared facial data with phone location and “if a face and a phone appeared at the same place and time, the system grew more confident they belonged to the same person.”  Within four days, the system had matched 3,000 phones with their owners’ faces.

So the systems of the future may be far more accurate and complete.  But even with just today’s technology, some mass surveillance systems have been quite effective in helping to suppress dissidents.  Some of China’s most advanced and intrusive mass surveillance systems are being deployed in Xinjiang, a vast territory of mountains and deserts on China’s western border.  The area is home to many ethnic minorities, including about 11 million Muslim Uighurs. 

The Uighur minority has been subjected to a wide variety of harsh policies which will be described in my next post, with the goal of forcing them to abandon traditional Muslim practices and embrace Chinese identity and nationalism. 

Here’s just one example:  A few years ago, mobile phone users in the capital of Xinjiang received a message from the government requiring them to install the “Jing Wang” app on their mobile phones.  The notice came complete with a QR code to simplify downloading the app, and an explanation that the app would “automatically detect terrorist and illegal religious videos, images, e-books and electronic documents.”

One article describing this included a photo of police checking phones with this caption:  “Authorities from Xinjiang are checking to make sure that people are using the official Jing Wang application… If they are caught at a checkpoint and their devices do not have the software, they could be detained for 10 days.”

And if that’s not invasive enough, according to a NY Times opinion piece, “All communication software is banned except WeChat, which grants the police access to users’ calls, texts and other shared content.” 

As an excellent New York Times overview noted:  “By themselves, none of China’s new techniques are beyond the capabilities of the United States or other countries. But together, they could propel China’s spying to a new level, helping its cameras and software become smarter and more sophisticated.” The proliferation of systems like this seems inevitable in an authoritarian state that values security over privacy.

China’s social credit system: Myths and realities

In some parts of China, Santa-type lists of “who’s been naughty and who’s been nice” are being used by the government to control behavior in their widely publicized “Social Credit System.” 

If you’ve been naughty – which could mean anything from committing a crime all the way down to jaywalking – you may be banned from

  • Getting your kids into private schools
  • Getting a good job
  • Staying at luxury hotels

According to Business Insider, nine million people with low scores have been blocked from buying airline tickets for domestic flights.

When you cross certain intersections in Beijing, the combination of advanced facial recognition technology and CCTV cameras everywhere enable a computerized shaming system to project your face and ID number on a giant billboard.  And when friends call you on the phone, the first thing they hear will be a siren and a recorded message such as “Warning, this person is on the blacklist.  Be careful and urge them to repay their debts.”  Even bad dog owners can be punished.  If BaoBei’s loud barking keeps your neighbors awake at night, she could be taken away. 

Monitors display a video showing facial recognition software in use at the headquarters of the artificial intelligence company Megvii, in Beijing, May 10, 2018. Beijing is putting billions of dollars behind facial recognition and other technologies to track and control its citizens. (Gilles Sabrié/The New York Times)

But if you’ve been nice – which could mean anything from serving in an important Party position to just getting to work on time every day — you may be able to:

  • Get more matches on dating websites
  • Get a discount on your heating bill
  • Rent an apartment without a deposit
  • Get a better interest rate at banks
  • Buy tickets for China’s high speed trains
  • Skip hospital waiting rooms
  • And much more

Add it all up, and you have what Vice President Mike Pence described as an “Orwellian system premised on controlling virtually every facet of human life.” 

Oh wait.  That’s the myth.

In fairness, the myth can be traced to a 2014 official government document which described a 2020 deadline for assigning a single “social credit” score to every one of China’s 1.3 billion citizens, and using these scores to shape behavior.  The goal of this system was to “allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step.”

This goal has proven elusive.  Last July, an article in Wired magazine, described the current reality:  “The [social credit] system as it exists today is [just]… a patchwork of regional pilots and experimental projects, with few indications about what could be implemented at a national scale.”  As Chinese scholar Xin Dai summed up the current state of the art, “You have this really massive but also chaotic scene of different people trying to put together different types of programs.”

Every example mentioned above has been implemented somewhere in China, and many related systems are still being built and tested.  But as Time magazine summed it up:  “It’s difficult to generalize about all of them, since they can vary widely.”

So it is clear that the idea that a comprehensive Orwellian nationwide system being completed soon is a myth  The reality is that there is no chance that it will be completed by this year’s original deadline.  In fact, it may never be completed.

Nevertheless, although the components of the system are neither complete nor nationwide, some examples still sound quite frightening to my Western mind. 

From my perspective, one of the most interesting things about the planned social credit system is the reaction of China’s citizens.  If just one of the examples mentioned above were planned for the US, it would be blocked by ACLU privacy lawsuits for decades, if not forever.  But many Chinese citizens don’t seem to care.  In fact, they embrace it.

A recent “survey of Chinese citizens shows 80 percent of respondents either somewhat or strongly approve of social credit systems.”  As noted in a Washington Post article, “the reality [is] that there are different cultural expectations of the government in China than in other countries. China’s governance tradition of promoting good moral behavior goes back thousands of years… [But] fraud is now so widespread that anyone who has lived in China in recent years has most likely experienced it in some form.” 

According to an excellent social credit article in Time, “In China, cash has long been king. As recently as 2011, only 1 in 3 Chinese people had a bank account. The nation’s rapid rise from collectivized penury to the world’s No. 2 economy meant it never had the chance to develop Western-style credit histories. That meant people could default on loans, or sell shoddy or counterfeit goods, with few repercussions. Society was dogged by a question: Whom can you trust?”

China’s recent history compounds the problem.  During China’s Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), nobody could trust anybody.  Mao Zedong’s campaign encouraged students to form “Red Guards” to root out the “four olds” – old customs, culture, habits, and ideas.  They did so with a vengeance.  Millions were accused of being bourgeois reactionary rightists, had their property seized, and were harassed, tortured, and in some cases even executed.  Student groups attacked their teachers, their parents, and each other.  

Even Party officials were not safe.  Both Deng Xiaoping (China’s leader from 1978 to 1992) and Xi Zhongxun (vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress, and father of China’s current leader Xi Jinping) were exiled to work in rural work camps.  By the time the Cultural Revolution ended, as many as 20 million people had died.

So given that fraud is widespread, and that less than 50 years ago, parents could not even trust their own children, it is easy to understand why Chinese citizens would embrace a system that helps them know who to trust. 

The Time article quoted a shopkeeper in Chongqing as saying “Chinese people don’t care about privacy. We want security. It’s still not enough cameras. We need more.”  A high school teacher added:  “Because of the Social Credit system, vehicles politely let pedestrians cross the street, and during a recent blizzard people volunteered to clear the snow to earn extra points,”

No matter how sanguine Chinese citizens are about this, there can be no doubt that technology is being used to shape citizens’ behavior.  Details of a few key examples will appear in my next five minute post on mass surveillance.

Is the “Belt and Road” a step toward China ruling the world?

In 2013, soon after coming into power, Chinese leader Xi Jinping announced a new plan to invest in a “Silk Road Economic Belt” to improve railways, highways and airports that linked China to its neighbors throughout Eurasia.  Since then, this plan has evolved into the “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI) and has expanded several times to include Africa, Latin America, and the Arctic, as well as improved maritime ports, telecommunication networks, oil and gas pipelines and much more.

To date, China has signed BRI cooperation agreements with 123 countries and undertaken over 3,100 projects.  Chinese banks have invested more than $210 billion so far, and Chinese state-owned enterprises are getting most of the work, “more than 70 percent of the combined value of [the] contracts launched under the initiative.”  And they are just getting started.  The total cost of the BRI is expected to exceed $1 trillion

Typical BRI projects includes highways and roads in India, Georgia, Tajikistan and Montenegro; railways in Thailand, Laos, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia; ports in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Djibouti and the UAE; hydroelectric power projects in Cambodia and Uganda; improved fiberoptic links with Pakistan; pipelines in Azerbaijan; and solar power in Kazakhstan.  BRI has even expanded into outer space with the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System (BDS) which is scheduled to become fully operational this year.  BDS will provide a Chinese alternative to the US Global Positioning System (GPS), which enables Siri to give you directions to the nearest Burger King, and US missiles to hit their targets.

Is there a giant map showing all of BRI’s planned projects?  Nope.  On the contrary, “The Belt and Road is not an entity with fixed rules; rather it is deliberately intended to be informal, unstructured and opaque… It is an idea, a concept, a process.” (Belt and Road, p. 35, 24).  As a result, any maps of its major routes, including the one that appears below, are simply rough guides and very much subject to change.

Why would China invest over $1 trillion in other countries? According to a report from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Ministry of Commerce, the official BRI goals include working with China’s neighbors to “jointly create an open, inclusive and balanced regional economic cooperation architecture that benefits all… It is a positive endeavor to seek new models of international cooperation and global governance, and [to] inject new positive energy into world peace and development.”


Critics have called the program “a dagger aimed at the heart of [Western] economies and societies” and noted that “Whoever is able to build and control the infrastructure linking the two ends of Eurasia will rule the world.” (Belt and Road, p. 11, 3)

However benign or malicious its intent, there can be no question that from the Chinese perspective, the BRI is an absolutely brilliant idea because it provides so many different benefits, including: 

  • Increased economic growth, by opening new markets to China and providing an outlet for the industrial overcapacity that resulted from China’s over-building boom.
  • Support of a “‘going global’ strategy funded by Chinese banks… and staffed by Chinese workers”
  • Increased trade by lowering transportation costs through improved infrastructure.
  • Closer diplomatic and economic relations with BRI countries so that “Instead of gunboat diplomacy and coercive military power… China [can] use economic leverage both as an incentive to garner support for its interests… [and] as a means to punish recalcitrant countries.”
  • Increased stability.  For example, “By investing in volatile countries in central Asia, [Xi] reckons he can create a more stable neighborhood for China’s own restive western provinces of Xinjiang and Tibet.”  
  • Increased returns on China’s immense foreign exchange reserves, most of which are currently invested in low-interest US government securities.  The interest rate on loans to finance BRI projects are higher.
  • Increased use of the official Chinese currency – the renminbi – to replace the dollar in international trade.
  • “Debt-trap diplomacy.”  Countries that owe China money are less likely to challenge China on human rights or territorial disputes such as the South China Sea.  And if countries are unable to repay, China can restructure or forgive the debts in return for strategic concessions.  For example, “In 2011, China wrote off an undisclosed debt owed by Tajikistan in exchange for… 447 square miles of disputed territory.”  Debt-trap diplomacy is seen as a particularly troublesome challenge to the US.  “In September 2018, the head of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), a U.S. government international finance development agency, accused China of purposefully plunging recipient countries into debt in order to ‘grab their assets’ and to go after ‘their rare earths and minerals… as collateral for their loans.’”  (I wonder whether China would forgive part of the growing US national debt if we offered them South Dakota.  Just a thought.) 
  • And last, but definitely not least, no one should ever lose sight of the potential military benefits.  As one expert put it:  “If it can carry goods, it can carry troops.”    

It is important to note that these benefits focus on BRI’s physical infrastructure projects.  More broadly, however, BRI aims for “‘five connectivities’: policy coordination, infrastructure building, unimpeded trade, financial integration, and people-to-people exchanges. Taken together, these five links reflect the Chinese leadership’s vision for a region more deeply integrated around China… The ultimate objective of BRI is not only to enhance infrastructure connectivity across Eurasia but to ‘move toward a community of common destiny and embrace a new future.’” 

Yikes.  Guess what country would be the dominant power in this new future.

However, it is also worth noting that there is no lack of controversy about whether BRI will succeed.  Critics outside and inside China believe the initiative “might easily fall short of the great claims made for it… It could [also] give rise to new problems for Chinese financial institutions, and debt service problems for countries with weak credit ratings.”  (Red Flags, p. 175)  According to a New York Times article, “The initiative has been plagued by allegations of corruption, overspending on vanity projects, excessive debt and other problems in countries like Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Uganda.” 

If we wanted to review all of BRI’s main projects and discuss what will and will not work, we could be here for weeks.  Indeed, the BRI has become “so big it is almost impossible for one person to have mastery of it.”  (Belt and Road, p. 8). 

But this post is designed to provide a five minute big picture summary, so let’s stop here and return to two of the BRI goals quoted above.  Which seems more accurate?  Is the BRI a “new model of international cooperation… [to lead to] world peace and development” or part of China’s attempt to “rule the world”? 

Actually, from the Chinese perspective, it may be both.

If you ask me, the Belt and Road Initiative is still another example of China thinking long-term while the US thinks short-term.  We are getting outsmarted again.

The biggest theft in human history

In 2012, the director of the National Security Agency warned that intellectual property theft cost the US $250 billion per year, much of it attributable to China, in what he diplomatically called the “greatest transfer of wealth in history.”  Since then, the problem has only gotten worse.  According to a 215 page investigation of China’s trade practices published by the US Government’s Trade Representative office (Appendix C, p. 9), “while precise quantification is difficult… the commission estimates that Chinese theft of American intellectual property currently costs between $225 billion and $600 billion per year.”  $600 billion! That’s more than I spend at Whole Foods in a decade.

A 2017 NY Times op-ed described what is involved: “Intellectual-property theft covers a wide spectrum: counterfeiting American fashion designs, pirating movies and video games, patent infringement and stealing proprietary technology and software…. Perhaps most concerning, China has targeted the American defense industrial base… Chinese agents have gone after the United States’ most significant weapons, such as the F-35 Lightning… and the Patriot missile system… and [even] stolen documents related to… the F-15 fighter and… the Space Shuttle.”

However, as explained in a recent Chicago Tribune article, “Beijing typically doesn’t dispatch spies on missions of commercial espionage. Rather, it encourages Chinese who study and work abroad to copy or steal technology and rewards them when they do.”

One example quoted in the article was based on a federal prosecution now in progress:  “The Chinese tech giant Huawei…  was obsessed with a T-Mobile robot nicknamed Tappy that could detect problems in cellphones by mimicking how people use them… T-Mobile was letting Huawei engineers into the Tappy lab to test their phones. In 2013, according to [a recent Federal] indictment, a Huawei engineer spirited a Tappy robot arm out of the lab in a laptop bag.”

The impact of intellectual property theft is widespread.  Last March, a CNBC survey of members of its “Global CFO Council” that found that one out of every five companies said “Chinese companies have stolen their intellectual property within the last year.” 

Some experts believe that this type of industrial espionage is an inevitable cost of doing business in China.  After all, it is the world’s fastest growing market, with 2.4 billion potential customers. 

And Chinese experts have argued that emerging economies have always stolen intellectual property.  For example, when the US was a rising power in the 1900s, Pillsbury stole technology from European companies to “[process] carloads of wheat and oats… into flour and cereals.” (p. 157, The Hundred Year Marathon

Some believe, as the title of one article put it, that China’s Record on Intellectual Property Rights Is Getting Better and Better.  “Trade, foreign investment, licensing, international research collaboration, cross-border movement of experts, collection of open-source material, imitation, reverse engineering, and, yes, theft have all contributed to China’s technological progress. Most of these activities are legitimate and voluntary and have clearly benefited U.S. business interests.” 

Similarly, a thought provoking article published two weeks ago entitled The New China Scare: Why America Shouldn’t Panic About Its Latest Challenger argued that “among U.S. companies doing business in China, a recent survey found that intellectual property protection ranked sixth on a list of pressing concerns, down from number two in 2014…. Why this shift from 2014? That year, China created its first specialized courts to handle intellectual property cases. In 2015, foreign plaintiffs brought 63 cases in the Beijing Intellectual Property Court. The court ruled for the foreign firms in all 63.”

Let’s see.  A $600 billion per year problem, and 63 court cases.  It is easy to conclude that most companies that are interested in breaking into the Chinese market are reluctant to sue their future partners.  Should we see the intellectual property theft “glass” as 2% full or 98% empty?

American experts now trying to negotiate a trade agreement with China certainly believe there’s a problem.  The same article notes that Peter Navarro, Trump’s top trade adviser, sees “the theft of our intellectual property… [as] issue number one in the United States’ trade dispute with China.”

So how are the trade negotiations going, when it comes to this issue?  Here’s a hint.  Last June, the intellectual property issue almost led to the Chinese walking away from the table.  “State Council adviser Shi Yinhong says America’s insistence on strong intellectual property protections is asking too much of Beijing… Chinese officials have started to think ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ as the gap between the two sides continues to widen.”

But then, last week, President Trump tweeted in his inimitable fashion that the US is “Getting VERY close to a BIG DEAL with China.”  How was the intellectual property theft issue addressed in this “Phase One” China trade agreement?  Few details are available, and nothing has been signed yet.  When the New York Times reported last Sunday on what’s known so far about that deal, it was mainly about Chinese promises to increase its purchases of US goods by at least $200 billion over the next two years in return for tariff reductions.  There were no specifics on intellectual property and the article’s title did not offer much room for hope: “China’s Hard-Liners Win a Round in Trump’s Trade Deal.”

Of course, even if Phase One does little or nothing about intellectual property theft, there could be a Phase Two or Phase Eleven agreement that does address US concerns about intellectual property theft.  Which would lead to the question of whether China would actually abide by any agreement it signs.  Their track record so far reminds me of Rosie Ruiz.    

Details of China’s past non-compliance appear in a definitive report from the US Trade Representative’s office.  Its summary concludes that (p. 7): “The evidence adduced in this investigation establishes that China’s technology transfer regime continues, notwithstanding repeated bilateral commitments and government statements.” 

Perhaps the Chinese trade delegation subscribes to tactics from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” especially his idea that “All warfare is based on deception.” 

So what should US companies and government representatives do?  Mostly these days they seem to either ignore the problem or wave their hands about it, as in the Bloomberg Businessweek cover headline seven years ago (March 19, 2012):  “Hey China! Stop Stealing Our Stuff.”

But nobody seems to know how to make this happen.

Do the Chinese people want democracy?

Yesterday, Hong Kong voters provided a “landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in [its] district council elections.”  This came, of course, after months of pro-democracy protests.  Does this mean that a majority of Chinese citizens want democracy?  No, it does not.

As explained in the previous post in this blog, accounts of the Hong Kong protests in the mainland Chinese media have been incomplete and slanted to describe them as an “anti-Western prelude to terrorism.”  Similarly, today’s first election accounts from the official state news agency Xinhua “reported [that] the votes had been counted, but did not detail the results. It said ‘some rioters harassed patriotic candidates’ on election day, and that the ‘most pressing task for Hong Kong at present is still to bring the violence and chaos to an end and restore order.’” 

At this very moment, it is fair to assume that the way the central government in Beijing responds is being discussed at the highest levels.  A hint at the initial reaction came a few hours ago when Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized that “no matter what happens, Hong Kong is a part of China…  Any attempt to mess up Hong Kong, or even damage its prosperity and stability, will not succeed.”

Yesterday’s results at the polls make it crystal clear that a majority of Hong Kong voters want a more democratic system. But the 7 million people who live in Hong Kong represent only about 0.5% of China’s population, and have a radically different history and cultural background from the mainland Chinese population. 

Hong Kong became a colony of Great Britain in 1842 when China lost the First Opium War.  For the next 150 years, the island lived under British rule and became accustomed to Western law.  In the negotiations that led up to returning Hong Kong to China in 1997, then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the “one country, two systems” constitutional principle, which gave the government of Hong Kong autonomy, and its people more rights than on the mainland. 

Simply put, the Hong Kong protestors are fighting to hold on to the democratic rights they have held through several generations.  Most mainland Chinese have no experience with democratic rights.

Given Beijing’s control of the media and the internet, it is hard to know how the mainland Chinese feel about democracy.  But the best available evidence suggests that most are reasonably content with the current authoritarian system. 

“According to valid polls conducted by Western standards, the overwhelming majority of the [Chinese] population sees the central government as having benevolent intentions and, notwithstanding serious mistakes, as having largely filled those intentions.”  (China’s Crisis of Success, Kindle location 6219)  If China’s persecuted minorities were polled — including Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims – the results would surely be more negative.  But these persecuted minorities represent only about another 0.5% of the total population.

It is no surprise that most Chinese citizens are content with the stable present, considering their chaotic past.  Within living memory, China was one of the poorest, most backward countries on the planet.  For example, the older generation lived through the Great Famine of 1959 to 1961, in which as many as 45 million people died of starvation. 

Now, a half century later, thanks to the Chinese economic miracle (to be discussed in a future post) the biggest food challenge some Chinese face is what to order at Starbucks.  Should they get a red bean oats scone to go with that Mango Passion Fruit Frappuccino?  (According to a recent article in China Daily, there are now over 3,000 Starbucks in China.  Within five years, in partnership with one of China’s largest distributors of soft drinks and instant noodles, Starbucks expects to have over 125,000 locations in 400 Chinese cities.)

For countries that are still stuck in poverty, democracy is not a priority.  As William Overholt put it, “If you are malnourished and ill and illiterate and your children are at risk, participating in an election doesn’t help much…. [In India’s democracy], a malnourished illiterate 12 year old girl whose mother died in childbirth… and whose father is crippled by air pollution far more debilitating than China’s, who has never seen a toilet and who was forcibly married to an old man, will have the right to a vote, but is that really what’s most important to human dignity?” (China’s Crisis of Success, Kindle locations 684, 307)

At least since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, “Beijing has firmly adhered to one core principle: uphold the rule of the Chinese Communist Party at all costs.”  (End of an Era, p. 18)  The country’s leadership is especially concerned with avoiding the fate of Russia’s experiments with democracy in the 1980 and 1990s.  As the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of China’s Communist Party summed up the results of the Soviet Union’s ill-fated attempt at democracy: “Gross Domestic Product fell by half… oligarchs emerged to plunder state assets; Russians lined up on the sidewalk to face supply shortages; war veterans had to sell their medals in order to buy bread.”  (Age of Ambition, p. 365)

In China, the Party has been extremely successful in growing the economy and preserving their power.  In fact, according to Richard McGregor “The Party’s marginalization of all political opponents makes it somewhat like the Iraqi army after the second Gulf War.  Even if it were disbanded or fell apart it would have to be put back together again because its members alone have the skills, experience, and networks to run the country.”  (The Party, p xxii)

No one can predict the future, but that’s never stopped experts from trying.  Twenty years ago, most academics believed that China was on a slow road to liberal democracy.  But these days there are fewer who predict this rosy outcome.  As Michael Pillsbury put it (Hundred Year Marathon, p. 182) “Of course, there’s a chance that… China will turn away from tyranny and embrace democracy at home and abroad.  But there is little reason to be optimistic.”

Part of the explanation was discussed in the first post in this blog “The cultural differences between China and America are so great that they can easily lead to profound misunderstandings.” 

According to Graham Allison “China abides by Confucius’ first commandment ‘Know thy place.’  For Chinese, order is the central political value, and the alternative to order is chaos.” (Destined for War, p. 142)  Or, to put it another way “The cultural heritage in which the good of a hierarchical society is prized far above the democratic rights of the individual… runs through the veins of the Communist Party, much as it did for the [5000 year history of Chinese] imperial dynasties.” (Red Flags, p. 18).

Why Winnie the Pooh was banned from the Chinese internet

Suppose you visited China, and had a sudden urge to read about Winnie the Pooh.  If you tried to search the internet for the portly bear, you would get the error message “Content is illegal.” Why?  Because censors have concluded that Chinese social media mentions of Winnie the Pooh were often actually sly references “to President Xi, as he walks with a similar waddle.”  (Like War, p. 98).

You would also get an error message if you tried to use Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Snapchat, Pandora, Netflix, HBO, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or any of the more than 8000 other websites blocked in mainland China by what has been called “the Great Firewall.”

These examples illustrate how “a government censor looms over the shoulder of every citizen with a computer or smartphone.  Web searches won’t find prohibited results; messages with banned words will simply fail to reach the intended recipient.” (Like War, p. 97)

In 2001, Jiang Zemin, then General Secretary of the Communist Party, gave a speech about the internet in which he mentioned its positive economic benefits, but also noted that it could promote the spread of “superstition, pornography, violence, and pernicious information [that could] harm the mental health of the population and of youth.”  (The Great Firewall, p. 90)  So you could say censorship protects residents of mainland China from child molesters in chat rooms, internet videos of ISIS beheadings, live streams of mass murders, and Nigerian bankers emailing offers of a small fortune if you just send them a few thousand dollars.  But it also shapes what people know, and do not know, about what is going on in China and the rest of the world. 

The Chinese government considers “censorship” the wrong word to describe the many functions of the Great Firewall.  The Communist Party might prefer a word like “harmonization,” since harmony has been an important virtue in Chinese culture since ancient times, and its importance has been stressed by many Communist leaders.    

Ironically, however, the word “harmony” was also banned from the Chinese internet after social media users who had found that the word “censorship” was banned creatively began using “harmony” as a cynical substitute.  Then they started to use the phrase “river crab’d” which sounds similar to “harmony” in Mandarin.  As a result, both the words for river crabs and their images have also been banned. (Like War, p. 98)

Almost as surprising as the list of terms that are forbidden is the list of topics which are permitted.  In Chinese social media “Political problems are discussed, corruption is exposed and criticized, national leaders are lampooned, and air pollution is discussed endlessly and at length.” (The Great Firewall, p. 73) 

However, some political discussions are off limits, namely anything that could threaten the government or social order, or organize collective action.  In other countries, the internet has been a powerful tool for organizing resistance.  To cite one example, in 2011, during the Arab Spring, a Google executive used Facebook to suggest people organize protests in Egypt, and 85,000 quickly pledged to march.  March they did, and soon after dictator Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign.  (Like War, p. 85)

Over the last few months, the demonstrations in Hong Kong have had mainland China censors working overtime.  Under the “one country, two systems” principle formulated by Deng Xiaoping, Hong Kong’s internet falls outside the Great Firewall.  And according to a CNBC report “social media has played a significant role in the documentation, organization, and assembly of the [Hong Kong] protests.”

But as of today, the disturbances in Hong Kong have not led to significant challenges to the Party in mainland China.  On the contrary, according to a New York Times article, China has “aggressively stirred up nationalist and anti-Western sentiment using state and social media, and it has manipulated the context of images and videos [of Hong Kong demonstrations] to undermine the protesters. Chinese officials have begun branding the demonstrations as a prelude to terrorism.” 

There has been a lot of talk about whether US reporters create “fake news.”  In mainland China, there can be no doubt.  More than 2 million people work for what is cynically called the “50 cent army” because they are paid 50 Chinese cents for each post they produce which “Promotes unity and stability through positive publicity… Today… [they] churn out at least 500 million social media postings each year.” (Like War, p. 100)

The most significant study of Chinese internet censorship was conducted by a Harvard research group that devised a methodology to analyze millions of social media posts which were later censored on over 1,400 Chinese social media sites.  They concluded that the Great Firewall is used primarily to “curtail collective action by silencing comments that… spur social mobilization, regardless of content. Censorship is oriented toward attempting to forestall collective activities.”

In extreme situations, the government has even turned off the entire internet in troubled areas.  For example, beginning in July 2009, Muslim Uighur riots killed nearly 200 people.  (The government’s repression of Uighurs will be discussed in a future post.)  As explained in a BBC news report, the authorities believed that internet communication had played a major role in organizing disturbances, and so they simply blocked access for all seven million internet users in the troubled Xinjiang region of Western China.  Service was not completely restored until ten months later.

In some ways, the term “Great Firewall” may be a bit misleading in that it conjures up an image of a single physical device or switch for controlling internet access.  The reality is far more complex.

While management of the physical backbone of the internet provides one means of control, much content blocking is done by software.  When China began its efforts to control internet access in the 1990s, it was a relatively backward country technologically.  How did it develop the highly sophisticated technology they needed to filter and manage key words so quickly?  They simply bought it from US companies, notably Sun Microsystems and Cisco.  (Like War, p. 98)

Government censors identify the terms which are forbidden, but they are often implemented by internet content providers.  “Blogging platforms, publishers [and] social media… are held liable for all content appearing on their websites, regardless of who created it… [As a result, most Chinese internet companies] employ teams of hundreds of in-house censors, who are generally far more vigilant and draconian than their government overseers, in order to protect their own backs.” (The Great Firewall, p. 72) 

Are most residents of mainland China outraged by this type of censorship?  Nope. “The regime’s efforts to control what makes it on to the… internet… have been so successful that most people are unaware of, or unconcerned by, the borders of their digital world.” (The Great Firewall, p. 71)  

The lack of reaction to censorship is just one more example of the profound differences between China and the US that make it so hard for us to understand each other.

Aging leaders and the risk of accidental war

World War I started with a series of accidents and miscalculations, when world leaders  “sleepwalked into the abyss…. None of these men understood the danger they faced.  None wanted the war they got.”  (Destined for War, p. xii, based on the Pulitzer Prize winning book The Guns of August.)  And as a result of the bad choices made by a handful of national leaders, 37 million people died over the next five years.    

If World War III were fought with today’s sophisticated nuclear weapons, more than 37 million people could die within the first hour of war. And World War III could easily start in a similar way to World War I:  with a series of accidents and miscalculations, aided and abetted by the judgment of 70 and 80 year old leaders whose thinking is clouded by stress. 

When the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists updated their Doomsday Clock last January, they estimated that the planet is now just “two minutes to midnight, as close to the symbolic point of annihilation that the iconic Clock has been since 1953 at the height of the Cold War.” 

One possible flashpoint that could lead to war is in the South China Sea, where territorial disputes have increased the potential for minor confrontations to escalate into major ones.  About one third of global maritime shipping passes through the South China Sea, and China is one of several countries that claim the right to its rich resources of oil and natural gas.  Since 2014, China has been expanding its presence in the South China Sea by piling sand on top of reefs it claims hundreds of miles from its coast, and building airstrips, military structures, and port facilities on top of these newly created islands. 

In 2015, the US began conducting “freedom of navigation operations” to defend international shipping rights in the area.  This in turn has led to a number of close calls as US and Chinese ships assert their claims by “playing chicken” in the area.  For example, last April a Chinese destroyer narrowly avoided a collision with the USS Decatur, when it passed as little as 45 feet across its bow in the South China Sea.  If lives are lost in a collision like this, US and Chinese leaders in their 70s or 80s could be required to make some very quick decisions about how to react in an enormously stressful moment. 

In the Democratic presidential debate on September 12, Julian Castro was roundly booed when he tried to make a joke alluding to Joe Biden’s age and memory lapses.  The joke felt awkward and politically incorrect, but it opened the door to discussing a sensitive and important issue.  When 78 year old Bernie Sanders had a heart attack a few weeks later, even more voters began to talk openly about age.

By the time of the October 15 Democratic debate, all three leading candidates – Warren, Sanders, and Biden – were asked whether age would affect their performance.  To no one’s surprise, all three said don’t worry, I will be fine.

When Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1977 he was 52.  Now 95, he recently told a reporter:  “I hope there’s an age limit [on the Presidency]…  I don’t think that I could [have handled the challenges]… that I faced [as President] in foreign affairs… if I [had been] ‘just’ 80.”

This sensitive discussion is complicated by the fact that there are enormous individual differences in the effects of aging.  One person’s 80 is another’s 85, 75, or even 70. 

By the end of a four year term that ends in January 2025, Bernie Sanders would be 84, Joe Biden 83, Donald Trump 79, and Elizabeth Warren 76.  Three of the four would be the oldest US president to date, passing Ronald Reagan, who was a few weeks from his 78th birthday at the end of his second term in 1989. 

Reagan was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 1994.  But some believe that he was experiencing the early effects of Alzheimer’s much earlier, while still president.  Reagan’s son Ron wrote in his memoir My Father at 100 that the president “might himself have suspected that all was not as it should be. As far back as August 1986 he had been alarmed to discover, while flying over the familiar canyons north of Los Angeles, that he could no longer summon their names.”

In China, President Xi Jinping is no spring chicken either; he will be 71 in January 2025.  In the middle of a crisis, he is also likely to consult with older advisors.  In China leaders “who step down continue to possess decisive and direct influence… far more influence than in… the United States… Over the past six decades, sixty-one people have exercised authority and influence from the pinnacle of political power in the People’s Republic of China. As of 2012, these leaders had an average age of 79 years and… one-in-five Chinese leaders has lived beyond 90.”  (Arunabh Ghosh, Chapter 6 in The China Questions, p. 52-55.)

During the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy was just 45 when faced with decisions that could have easily led to a nuclear war costing hundreds of millions of lives.  The Cuban Missile Crisis began when aerial reconnaissance photographs showed evidence of Soviet missile site construction in Cuba, 90 miles off the coast of Florida.  Some of Kennedy’s advisors urged an immediate and forceful military response.  General Earle Wheeler, the Army’s Chief of Staff, recommended that the US should “go ahead with a surprise air attack, [a naval] blockade, and an invasion [of Cuba].” (Listening In: The Secret White House Recordings of John F Kennedy, p. 153).  For thirteen days in October 1962, the world teetered on the edge of a global thermonuclear war when Kennedy decided to first establish a naval blockade of Cuba.  I was a teenager at the time, and can still remember the long lines at church and the widespread fear that we could all die at any moment.

Ultimately, war was averted when JFK made a secret agreement with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (aged 68) to remove US missiles from Turkey in return for removing Soviet missiles from Cuba.  Later, JFK told his brother Robert that he thought that the chances of a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis had been “between one-in-three and even.”  (Destined for War, p. xiii)  What would the odds of nuclear war have been if the negotiations were conducted between two older leaders who had just a little less energy, focus and/or impulse control? 

How much are we willing to risk even a mild cognitive impairment in our leaders, in a world in which North Korea, India, Pakistan, Israel, Russia, China, and others possess nuclear weapons.  A world in which one aging leader who is tired, stressed, or confused can make a single mistake that could literally blow up the planet.

In my opinion, we would be wise to choose leaders who will be less than 80 or maybe even 70.  But what else can be done to reduce the risks of war, accidental or otherwise?

In a recent speech in Beijing, Harvard professor Graham Allison briefly described a few of the ideas that he and others have come up with in the years since he first wrote about Thucydides’s Trap.  Allison concluded that after several years of discussing how to avoid war with experts, none of the ideas he’s heard “seem compelling to me at this point.”  That’s one of the reasons Allison’s research group is crowdsourcing ideas about how to escape Thucydides’s Trap in a contest entitled “Do You Have a Grand Strategy to Meet the China Challenge?”  

You have until November 27 to submit your ideas.  Assuming no old people accidentally blow up the planet before then.

Are China and the US edging toward war?

Have you ever had an anxiety attack about ancient Greece?  Me either.  Until I read about Thucydides’s Trap, named after the 5th century BCE Athenian historian.  In his History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides observed that when a rising power (in his case, Athens) threatens the position of a dominant power (Sparta), it can lead to war.

Harvard Professor Graham Allison has written extensively about Thucydides’s Trap, and how it applies to US-China relations.  As he put it in a recent talk in Beijing “China’s [dream]… is not about displacing the U.S.. [It] is simply about China taking miserably poor people and making them less poor, and then…  moderately well off and… then very well off… [But] as China realizes its own dream, it’s inevitably and inescapably encroaching on positions and prerogatives that the U.S. has become accustomed to at the top of every pecking order.”  And this competition could lead to war.

Allison has analyzed 16 cases from the last 500 years in which a rising power threatened the position of a dominant one.  12 of the 16 ended in war.  (For details, see the Thucydides’s Trap web page or Allison’s book “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”)

Does this mean a US-China war is inevitable?  As Professor Allison put it in the same Beijing talk “let me say this three times quickly. No, not inevitable, no, not inevitable. [My] book is not saying war is inevitable.”

Not everyone accepts the concept of Thucydides’s Trap, nor the idea that China will grow strong enough to challenge the US.  In one critical review James R. Holmes, a professor at the US Naval War College wrote that “The Greek precedent maps to contemporary circumstances imperfectly at best… The trend lines in East Asia point to competition or even conflict. But trends are not fate. How events unfold will rest mainly with decisionmakers in Washington, Beijing, and other regional stakeholders. That — not a simple parable of rise and decline — is the lesson from Thucydides.”

Whatever one thinks about Thucydides, there can be no doubt that as George Magnus put it in his book Red Flags: Why Xi’s China Is in Jeopardy, “The potential for rising tensions between China and the West is high (p. 8)… In less than forty years, China has quintupled its share of global output, and transformed itself from a poor country and source of cheap toys and textiles to a fierce competitor in high-end manufacturing, advanced technologies and military might (p. 1).”

It may be comforting that as one news organization summed it up “The United States has the best-equipped military on the planet.”  However, this same organization went on to say that “Both Russia and China have been modernizing their armed forces, and while their equipment still lags behind top-end American technology, experts say the gap is closing.” Which country is first, second or third will matter little if war escalates to nuclear weapons, since any one of these superpowers could end life as we know it. 

Yesterday, China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China with a Beijing parade as a massive “military show of strength.”  For example, the parade photo above shows the first public display of a new model of China’s DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile.  The DF-41 can reach any target in the world with ten separate nuclear warheads, that can be aimed at different targets.  It travels at MACH 25, or about 19,000 miles per hour.  To put this in context, it would take a little more than twenty minutes for a DF-41 launched near Beijing to travel approximately 7,000 miles to Washington DC.   (Much of the US news coverage discussed the parade’s contrast with continuing protests in Hong Kong, but that’s a topic for a separate blog post in the future.)

Not surprisingly, experts are divided regarding how great the risk of war is.  Now that I think about it, experts are divided on just about everything. 

As I explained in my introductory section “About this blog,” my money is on Michael Pillsbury, who has served as a leading China expert in eight presidential administrations, including the current one.  In his fascinating and frightening book The Hundred Year Marathon, Pillsbury argues that “China’s grand goal in the 21st century is to become the world’s number one power…” (p. 28) by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. 

Pillsbury traces this idea to a Chinese best-seller entitled The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era by Liu Mingfu, a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army.  Liu used the Mandarin word fuxing to refer to the 100 year goal of “China’s ‘rejuvenation’ within a ‘just’ world order… [But China] has never spelled out exactly what the final fuxing will be like, except to declare that it will be a good thing. “ (p. 28, The Hundred Year Marathon.)

Pillsbury does certainly not argue that every senior Chinese leader has a copy of a secret step by step plan for world domination by 2049 in a locked desk drawer.  Both the goal and the steps to reach it are much vaguer and more flexible than that.  But it is worth noting that Liu does not predict war. “The competition between China and the United States will not be like a ‘shooting duel’ or a ‘boxing match’ but more like a ‘track and field competition.’”  (p. 28, The Hundred Year Marathon.)

Others have emphasized this same concept.  In Destined for War (p. 150), Allison puts it this way:   “[Over the] centuries… China has perfected more than fifty shades of warfare in which the actual use of combat forces is the last resort.  As Sun Tzu wrote in the 6th century BCE in The Art of War, “The highest victory is to defeat the enemy without ever fighting.”  And in The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (p. 31), Richard McGregor notes “The Party has no compunction about arresting opponents who openly challenge the system… but it has little stomach for violent conflicts on a large scale.” 

Given all this, what is my personal bottom line?  Are China and the US edging toward war?  Yes we are.  The risk is not yet high, but it is going up.  And, in my opinion, the biggest risk is an accidental escalation of a minor conflict into a nuclear conflagration.  Which will be the topic of my next post.

Dueling superiority complexes: China and the US

China has a superiority complex that is several thousand years old.  The Mandarin word for China – Zhongguo – is translated as Middle Kingdom, since, according to the Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, in ancient times they “believed their empire occupied the middle of the earth, surrounded by barbarians.”

This self-image was challenged by Western powers in what contemporary Chinese leaders still refer to as its  “century of humiliation,” from about 1839 to 1949.  This period of numerous military defeats and unequal treaties began with the First Opium War, continued through the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and ended only when the Communist Party won its civil war against the Nationalist Party and founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949.  But even when China was losing war after war, the notion of Chinese superiority persisted. In 1860, Qing dynasty scholar Feng Guifen wrote of Britain and France: “Why are they so small and yet so strong?  Why are we so large and yet so weak?… What we have to learn from the barbarians is only one thing: solid ships and effective guns… The intelligence and wisdom of the Chinese are necessarily superior to those of the various barbarians…’”  (Destined for War, p. 322, italics added)

The rapid growth of the Chinese economy over the last few decades has led to the re-awakening of this Chinese sense of superiority.  This is seen most clearly in the “Chinese Dream,” announced in 2012 by Chinese leader Xi Jinping soon after he took power.  One of its most visible projects is the Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious plan to reinvent the Silk Road, a network of trade routes that linked China to the rest of Asia and Europe between approximately 100 BCE and 1400 CE.  The modern version is planned to increase trade with China by improving transportation in over 70 countries with half the world’s population and cost over $1 trillion. 

But the Chinese Dream involves much more than roads and sea routes.  It is a broad vision of China’s future which, according to an article in the US China Daily, “integrates national and personal aspirations, with the twin goals of reclaiming national pride and achieving personal well-being.”  According to George Magnus in his book Red Flags (p. 3) in terms of personal well-being its stated goal is “for the Party to lead China towards greater prosperity, a better quality of life, and dominance in modern industries and technologies.” Needless to say, this promise of a better life has been very popular. In the years since Chinese social media have been filled with plans for such improvements as “better air quality and safe food.”

In terms of national aspirations, Harvard Professor Graham Allison summed it up (Destined for War, p. 107) this way: “What does President Xi Jinping want?  In one line: to ‘Make China Great Again.’” Hmmm. That sounds familiar.  I wonder whether they have MCGA hats.

According to a special report from the German media company DW “The Chinese people… and especially the political class in Beijing, [now] see the strengthening of their country as the correction of a historical anomaly. President Xi Jinping’s ‘Chinese Dream’ …  [has] promised the Chinese people the return to the grandeur of…  a millennium-old civilization that was the world leader in culture, science, technology and administration right up to the 16th century.”

Will China achieve these goals?  Many experts have doubts, given the economic and social challenges that China faces, including excessive debt and an aging population.  Meanwhile, in pursuit of these goals, changes in Chinese law have made Xi “in effect, a dictator with more personal authority than anyone since Mao Zedong” (Red Flags, p. 3). This has created a backlash, albeit one that is tightly controlled by Party censorship and, when necessary, the arrest and jailing of dissidents.

But the vast majority of Chinese people have high hopes.  According to a survey conducted a few years ago, “When we asked Chinese what country they feel is most ideal today, they answered the United States. When we asked them what country would be ideal in 10 years, they said China.”  When a colleague of Harvard Professor Graham Allison interviewed a deputy mayor of Shanghai (Destined for War, p. 139), he said “he would know that China was rich again when every upper-middle-class family in Shanghai had an American houseboy.”  I hope he was kidding.

The US superiority complex is not even two hundred years old, but it is no less powerful.  While it would be politically incorrect for US politicians to refer to other countries as “barbarians,” there can be little doubt that our superiority complex is at least a match for China’s. 

By almost all critical measures, at this moment in history the US ranks ahead of China.  We’ve got more guns and more money.  Oh, and don’t forget the moral superiority of our democratic system.

In a graduation address at West Point in 2004, George W. Bush said that “The 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress, based on non-negotiable demands of human dignity, the rule of law, limits on the power of the state, respect for women and private property and free speech and equal justice and religious tolerance.”  Similarly, a few years earlier, US Secretary of State Madeline Albright argued that “We are the indispensable nation.  We stand tall.  We see further into the future… If we have to use force it is because we are America.”  As Carl Minzner summed it up (End of An Era, p. 162), Americans have a “near-genetic inability… to conceive that steady evolution toward a more liberal political order is anything other than the natural progression of history.” 

Some of this may sound a bit cynical, so don’t get me wrong.  Deep in my bones, I personally believe that our system is superior to China’s. Indeed, I believe the American system is the best in human history.  Of course we’ve got plenty of problems, starting with racism and poverty. And I can always find something to complain about. But, in my opinion, we’re still number one. 

Of course, the problem is that deep in their bones many Chinese also know that they are number one.  Could this duel of superiority complexes threaten world peace?  More on that in my next post.

Chinese accounts of American history

When the New York Times reported on the re-opening of Beijing’s National Museum of China in 2011, the headline read “History Toes Party Line.”  The museum descriptions of the US, the article said, supported “The general story line, ingrained in every Chinese student… that China was humiliated by Western powers.”

For example, one of the largest exhibits, “The Road to Rejuvenation,” included these exact words:  “Beginning in the 17th century… Western Capitalist countries developed rapidly and entered into a period of large-scale expansion and plundering…. After Britain started the Opium War in 1840, the imperial powers descended on China like a swarm of bees, looting our treasures and killing our people.”

When discussing World War II the exhibit said:  “In the 1930’s, the Japanese imperialists launched a war of invasion to subjugate China… The Communist Party of China (CPC) became the nation’s tower of strength in the war of resistance. After 14 years of bloody war, the Chinese people won their first victory in resisting and repelling the invasion of a foreign enemy in its modern history.”

There is no mention of the fact that the CPC and other Chinese forces fought side by side with United States and allied forces, nor that in 1945 the Japanese controlled more Chinese territory than they had in 1940, nor that World War II ended only when Japan surrendered to the US.

The same sort of historical bias is widespread in Chinese classrooms.   “Every high school student in China today learns to feel the shame of [the] ‘century of humiliation.’  The lesson is unmistakable: Never forget and never again.”  (Destined for War, p. 112)

An earlier New York Times article entitled China’s Textbooks Twist and Omit History quotes Ge Jianxiong, director of the Institute of Chinese Historical Geography at Fudan University in Shanghai as admitting “Quite frankly, in China there are some areas, very sensitive subjects, where it is impossible to tell people the truth…  in China, history is still used as a political tool, and… we still must follow the doctrine.”

The details of censorship vary from time to time based on the political climate, but become much stricter after 1989, when China’s leaders watched student demonstrators in Tiananmen Square quoting the Declaration of Independence and displaying replicas of the Statue of Liberty. Beginning the next year, “textbooks [were]… rewritten to cast America as China’s archvillain.. and new policies and regulations ensured that only this official view of America made it into China’s classrooms and libraries” (The Hundred Year Marathon, p. 104). 

According to Mao Zedong, American villainy started in 1844 when President John Tyler  imposed “the first unequal treaty signed as a result of US aggression against China.”

Wait a minute.  Is that the same John Tyler who was ranked number 39 out of 43 presidents by a group of historians?  Yes it is.  The same John Tyler who has been described by another historian as “unsuccessful with domestic, foreign and economic policies”?  Yup.  From the American perspective, Tyler’s Treaty of Wangxia set tariffs and gave foreigners the right to learn Chinese and to buy land in five ports, among other things.  Admittedly, this was during a period of worldwide imperialism, and it was not the high point of US-China relations.  But still, it is hard to agree with Xiong Zhiyong, a Chinese historian who described Tyler as “an evil genius, laying the groundwork for America’s plan to assert complete hegemony over Chinese civilization.”

The next major “anti-Chinese mastermind [was] Abraham Lincoln”  I would have thought Honest Abe was a little busy, what with the Civil War and freeing the slaves.  But in his spare time apparently Lincoln was dreaming of “control of the Pacific.”  He sent a diplomat named Anson Burlingame to China, which ultimately led to the Burlingame-Seward Treaty of 1868.  According to the Office of the Historian of the US Department of State, this treaty aimed “to reinforce the principle of equality between [China and the US].”  Among other things, it “promised the Chinese the right to free immigration and travel within the United States… in accordance with the most-favored-nation principle [and]… gave the citizens of the two nations reciprocal access to education and schooling when living in the other country.”  Chinese historian Shi Yinhong described this same treaty as an attempt to force China “to follow Western cultural norms.” (The Hundred Year Marathon, p. 105)

The list goes on.  When Franklin Delano Roosevelt provided American support to the Chinese in World War II, Tang Qing explained that his rationale was that it was “good for the United States to keep the Chinese fighting Japan… so that the US could someday completely dominate China and the entire world.”

When Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 to end 23 years of diplomatic isolation of Mao’s government, according to Xiong Xianghui it was actually a “sinister American plan… to provoke a nuclear war between [China and Russia]” by fracturing the Communist bloc (ibid, p. 106).

Do most Chinese historians actually believe all this?  Of course there are no published surveys listing the relative percentage of believers and  skeptics.  But when Michael Pillsbury, the author of The Hundred Year Marathon, visited Beijing in 2013 and asked one history professor about the gap between Chinese and American accounts of the same events, he “looked out the window, sighed, and explained…’I do not pick the text materials.  The entire faculty is Party members and the Central Committee keeps files on us.  Deviating from the approved teaching materials would end our careers” (ibid, p. 108).

Surely one would hope that this type of censorship is counter-balanced by the large number of Chinese who come to the US to study:  over 360,000 by the latest count.  But it’s almost impossible to know.  360,000 sounds like a large number, but it seems vanishingly small when you divide it by China’s total population of 2.4 billion.  And how many of that 360,000 study US history as opposed to science, engineering or business management?  Finally, and most importantly, after they return to China, how freely can they speak about what they learned if it goes against the Party line?