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Western elites are making China stronger—Journalist and scholar Isaac Stone Fish explains how

Podcast & Video

Author, journalist, and scholar Isaac Stone Fish joins Hub Dialogues to discuss the ways in which Western elites have aligned themselves with Chinese interests, the threat China poses to American hegemony, and why decoupling from China will be hard but ultimately necessary.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, Spotify, or YouTube. A transcript of the episode is available below.

Transcripts of our podcast episodes are not fully edited for grammar or spelling.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues, I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Isaac Stone Fish, who’s the Founder and CEO of Strategy Risks, a contributing columnist for The Washington Post, an affiliated scholar at various universities and think tanks, a regular guest on different cable news programs, and most importantly, the author of the new book, America Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger

I’m grateful to be able to speak to Isaac about the book, its key insights, and their geopolitical consequences. It paints an alarming picture of the failure of Western foreign policy vis à vis China for which we are now facing the consequences. Isaac, thanks for joining me, and congratulations on the book.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thanks so much for having me. I’m looking forward to the conversation.

SEAN SPEER: America Second is a provocative title. But it’s not just about the shock factor. You document the extraordinary extent to which former government officials, academics, business leaders, and even Hollywood have essentially traded off personal gain for advancing Chinese interests or kowtowing to Chinese demands. When did this start? And how did it happen?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It started way back in the mid-1970s, early 1970s, with Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger, sitting in a room discussing Chinese philosophy. And over a patient and very manipulative several years, Zhou managed to convince Dr. Kissinger, one of the most brilliant Americans, frankly, that ever lived, that not only were the U.S. interests really deeply tied in with Beijing’s interests but that strengthening China would be beneficial for the United States. 

And with some starts and stops, that’s basically been the dictate of U.S.-China policy until just several years ago. Kissinger is fond of saying that five U.S. presidents, seven U.S. presidents, have had the same policies on China, and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. You know, those aren’t Kissinger’s words, that’s my summary of him. But frankly, it’s been broke for a long time. And I’m glad that the U.S. government and a lot of various interests around the United States are looking to fix it.

SEAN SPEER: And I guess my follow-up question would be, how did China come to exploit this American policy position that was really, as you observe in the book, a cross-partisan position. One that came to be reflected in elite opinion, academic scholarship and, of course, in American policymaking.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Beijing excels at offering both financial and psychological rewards to individuals that it feels like will be, what it calls, friends of China, and people who are willing to advance Beijing’s interests, often to the detriment of the interests of their home country. And it’s a very long-term, very patient process, but it’s about convincing the people that they should take the party’s views on how they see China and how they see China’s external relationships. It’s important to distinguish that from the Chinese people’s views, which are quite varied, and what’s in the best interest of China; it’s what’s in the best interest of the Chinese Communist Party. It’s something that we see repeated time and time again, across the financial sector, nonprofits, universities, hospitals, this process of creating people who are friends of China.

SEAN SPEER: Isaac, one question I had as I read the book is how much of this story is one of old-fashioned corruption versus the flawed yet perhaps less unscrupulous idea that greater engagement and collaboration with China would contribute to political reform in the country? I guess in other words, is this the story of personal graft? Or it about the diffusion of bad ideas? Or both?

ISAAC STONE FISH: It’s a great question. I wish I had put it that way in the book, I think that’s very well worded. It’s certainly about both. It’s about how doing well by doing good can lead to disaster. Sometimes—it’s tough when you’re, you know, putting on my old reporting hat for a second, how much can you ascribe motive to someone? How much of it is malice? How much of it is incompetence? How much of it is them truly believing that a strong and stable China is best for the United States and the world?

Certainly, with some of the things that various people have done, former Secretary of State Al Haig is a good example, as is Dr. Kissinger, we really can subscribe ideas of corruption, ideas of enriching themselves at the expense of both U.S. taxpayers and this vague idea of U.S. interest. And then I think for others, President Jimmy Carter, for example, he seemed to truly believe that what he was doing was beneficial for both Beijing and the United States. But, unfortunately, it played a role where he deflected criticism from the Party and from the great work he did in the 1990s in the 2000s trying to bring digital village elections to China, pivoted when Chairman Xi came to power to working to strengthen the party.

SEAN SPEER: Before we move on to what comes next in the U.S.-China relationship, it’s just so great to set up the key thesis of the book. How is China’s influence manifested itself in U.S. government policy, corporate decisions, and academic partnerships? Can you point to the ways in which it has shaped particular outcomes injurious to American interests?

ISAAC STONE FISH: The most concrete is how it’s strengthened the revolving door, pioneered by Kissinger and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, former National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, where they learned that they could make a lot of money with their Chinese contacts after leaving office by acting as door openers for major U.S. multinationals. The idea is not that when these people were in government they did sweetheart deals. It’s certainly possible. I haven’t seen any evidence of it. It’s not what I’m alleging. Rather that when they left government, they were quoted as a former National Security Adviser, former Secretary of State, as opposed to CEO of a consulting company that is making money helping Bloomberg or Coca Cola or McKinsey in China. That’s one thing. 

I think for the U.S. corporations, a lot of it is this idea of, “Okay, in what ways is a company’s foreign policy and company’s interests distinguished from America’s?” I think one way certainly is with all of the offshoring that we’ve seen. Another way is with how corporate values on China don’t reflect the United States’ values. We’ve seen this a lot more lately, where companies will suppress freedom of speech about China when they wouldn’t dream of doing the same thing about other aspects of the United States. 

In terms of the U.S. government itself, Beijing has always preferred keeping China policy in the hands of a handful of old white men. With very few exceptions, that’s been the audience that they want to dictate to. Again, something pioneered by Kissinger, Hank Paulson was one as well, the former Treasury Secretary, the idea that you’re the only ones who are brilliant enough to understand China, and let’s make sure that the mettlesome House doesn’t get involved, that this mettlesome Senator can’t be involved the policy because only you are truly brilliant enough to understand what our needs are.

SEAN SPEER: Isaac, if we can now turn our conversation to looking forward, you alluded in an earlier answer that your book release comes at a time when there seems to be growing recognition that these old assumptions about China were wrong and need to be replaced with new ones. How should American policymakers think about the country’s relationship with China? What, in your view, needs to change?

ISAAC STONE FISH: They need to understand, and a lot of them already there, that a strong stable China is not necessarily in the best interests of the United States. And playing around with issues of regime change or destabilizing the Party is incredibly dangerous, but so is waiting for the Party to seize Taiwan, to seize the Senkaku, the disputed islands of the East Sea, to seize territory, more territory, from Bhutan, Mongolia, other countries that it borders. I think there needs to be a growing understanding that China jeopardizes U.S. hegemony.

I think a lot of people, especially on the left, are uncomfortable with the idea that the United States is the world’s most powerful country. It still is, maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe another country should be, maybe we should live in a bipolar world. But we need to be having a vociferous national debate about do we want to gracefully yield from the world stage what America has won? Or what are the costs we’re willing to shoulder to fight to keep our stance?

SEAN SPEER: Another aspect of this renewed thinking about America’s relationship with China is leading to growing calls for, what is sometimes called, “decoupling”, particularly with respect to certain industries or technologies. Is that a practical or desirable option in your view? And if so, how should American policymakers distinguish between what one might describe as strategic versus non-strategic parts of the domestic economy?

ISAAC STONE FISH: This reminds me of that over-quoted adage about democracy being the worst best system we have. A decoupling is not desirable. It’s not advantageous, but it’s the best option that we do have in certain areas. And I think what businesses haven’t quite realized yet about U.S. policy towards Xinjiang, the region in northwest China where upwards of a million Muslims are in concentration camps, is that the U.S. government is training businesses on how to reduce their reliance on China and Xinjiang is a great way to do it because the human rights cost is so appalling. It’s going to happen in certain, perhaps limited, perhaps extreme ways, with the People’s Liberation Army, with the Ministry of State Security, with other Chinese arms. 

I think we do also want to remember that Beijing is far more decoupled from the United States than vice versa. It’s far more difficult to get into China, it’s far more difficult to get your company or your products into China than it is on the reverse. And that’s probably always how it should be, the United States gets a lot of strength from being so open. But we do want to take less heed of the lip service that Chairman Xi plays to globalization and reform and opening and recognize that to get into China now, you mostly have to sit in a hotel room for 21 days, 28 days, and that is a very extreme form of decoupling.

SEAN SPEER: We’ve talked about policymaking; we’ve talked about industry. The book also shines a light on Chinese efforts to influence American post-secondary institutions. What in your mind should universities be doing to protect themselves from this machinery of Chinese influence?

ISAAC STONE FISH: So, the one great strength that American universities have is their openness both to international students and to debates. It’s a very tricky situation because there are so many wonderful, brilliant Chinese students who disagree with the Party, some who disagree partially with the Party, some who stand in lockstep with the Party, but really want to study engineering at MIT. I think the best thing we can do is foster a very open debate about what’s going on in Xinjiang, what’s happening with the Party, issues involving the United Front, and not let fear dictate our actions. 

I think that will also require people to stand back and say, “Hey, listen, we shouldn’t be partnering with this Chinese University because of the awful things they’ve done, or are very credibly accused of doing.” So, I think the idea is that it cheapens Yale’s brand to have a partnership with Singapore, which they’ve had for a while, and students having very limited ability to, say, express their sexuality and an LGBT perspective. Or for NYU to have its partnership in Shanghai and to pretend that it has full freedom of expression there, which it doesn’t.

So, I think universities need to say, “We’re not doing these because it contravenes our values,” or “Listen, we know that China’s an incredibly repressive place, we’re not going to lie to you and pretend that we have freedom of speech here.” Which, frankly, is what NYU did, either out of naiveté or hopefulness, because it was, you know, it was once hopeful that you can preserve the same level of freedom of speech, but being honest and open on these things to engender debate, as opposed to suppressing it.

SEAN SPEER: Throughout those answers Isaac, and indeed the book, one hears your call for a greater kind of clear-eyedness about China’s intentions and its activities. We’ve spoken mostly about America in this conversation. If we can wrap up on Canada. China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner. Yet we’ve seen the consequences of its asymmetric relationship. 

Do you have any advice for Canadian policymakers about navigating the country’s relationship with China, especially in a context in which the U.S. and China are entering a sustained period of geopolitical and technological competition? 

ISAAC STONE FISH: Canada gains little from acting as a wedge issue between the United States and China or figuring out where it can work with China that the United States can’t. Every country in the world is increasingly being forced to choose sides. And it’s a sad reality of the world that we live in today. But it’s always worrying when Canadian policymakers or business people try to use that to see, “Ah, okay, well, this is a good way for us to balance against the United States with China.” 

I think like in many countries around the world, the Canadian elite and Canadian policy views of China tend to differ from say the average Canadian (because the average person doesn’t exist anywhere in the world), but the general views about China and especially the Chinese Communist Party are a lot more negative among people in the streets, so to speak, than people in the halls of businesses and the government. We are representative democracies, and while at the same time, we want to manage and reduce the ability for any sort of mob rule, we also do want to listen to the voters who want, like I think you said, a clear-eyed view on China and on what is in Canadians interests.

SEAN SPEER: Well, the book is America’s Second: How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger. Isaac Stone Fish, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues to share your insights and analysis. And again, congratulations on the book’s release.

ISAAC STONE FISH: Thanks so much. Really appreciate the smart questions. Great to chat with you.