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Seeing China Clearly

Seeing China Clearly

Remarkably, a coherent, unifying China policy emerged out of the chaotic Trump years. The Chinese regime itself deserves much of the credit.

Ellen Bork
Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century
by Josh Rogin (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 384 pp., $30)

The title of Josh Rogin’s book, Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century, refers to a saying attributed to Mao Zedong: “There is chaos under heaven; the situation is excellent.” According to the China scholars Roderick MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals, it came from a letter that Mao wrote to his fourth wife, Jiang Qing, in 1966 as he prepared to launch the second phase of the Cultural Revolution. In the letter Mao said he was determined to “create great disorder under heaven” so that he could eventually achieve “great order under heaven.”

Xi Jinping, current general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao, must have hoped to exploit the personal and policy disorder created by President Donald Trump to advance China’s own new world order. Trump’s contempt for America’s historic democratic allies, his deference to dictators, and his narcissism and limited attention span certainly affected America’s ability to respond to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) assertion of power and influence. That a cadre of U.S. officials was nevertheless able, amid the resulting turbulence, to overhaul America’s China policy—“flying the plane while building it,” as Trump’s Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger put it—is the story of this engrossing and important book.

So ubiquitous is chaos in this account of the Trump Administration’s China policy that it should have its own index entry (see also “dysfunction,” “dissonance,” “confusion”). “[T]he notion that the Trump Administration had a coherent approach to China, or on anything related to foreign policy, was hard to defend when Trump got directly involved,” Rogin writes. “His swings back and forth—sometimes within the same day—ensured that nobody ever really knew what his China policy was at a given moment.”

Rogin deftly describes the competition that raged between the administration’s factions: the superhawks like Steve Bannon; the Wall Street clique, including Gary D. Cohen and Steven Mnuchin; the hardliners, including John Bolton, Pottinger, Matt Turpin, and others at the National Security Council; and Mike Pompeo, Robert Zarate, Mary Kissel, David Feith, and Miles Yu at the State Department. There were also “adults” like Chief of Staff John Kelly and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, charged with keeping the President’s chaos in check, who inevitably failed and were forced out. Then there were a bunch of the President’s “billionaire friends” who were usually also “billionaire friends of China,” such as Blackstone Group CEO Stephen Schwarzman and casino magnate Steve Wynn.


When it came to reconciling these groups’ competing policy agendas, Trump often sacrificed national security to trade—except when he blew up both at the same time. Trump lifted sanctions imposed on Chinese telecom company ZTE on grounds of its violating Iran sanctions, citing, of all things, the need to protect Chinese jobs. Once he told Xi at Mar-a-Lago that he’d go easy on China in trade negotiations if Xi helped him deal with the nuclear threat from North Korea.

In other words, Beijing could keep selling Washington the same rug.

America’s legal system imposed more constraints on Trump in the matter of Meng Wanzhou, scion of the owner of tech giant Huawei, who was arrested in Canada for Iran sanctions violations. But U.S. officials still worried about what Trump might do and delayed telling him about the arrest while he dined with Xi Jinping. Time and again, in Rogan’s account, Trump appears uninterested in competing policy efforts, “between which he wandered with varying levels of awareness or intentionality.” Meanwhile, Xi had Trump’s number, writes Rogin: “Every time there was a national security or law enforcement action against [China’s] illegal or corrupt behavior, Xi would try to throw it into the trade negotiations. It often worked.”

Despite the chaos, major changes took place. Trump officials began addressing important shortcomings in law and policy that allowed an alarming degree of Chinese influence inside America’s economy, institutions, and politics. Legislation governing Chinese investment in the United States was improved, despite being watered down by Mnuchin and his allies. Espionage networks were rolled up. Chinese officials responsible for abuses in Xinjiang and the destruction of Hong Kong’s autonomy were sanctioned. State and local leaders and universities were informed about China’s efforts to acquire technology. Officials reached out to European and Indo-Pacific allies to inform and enlist them in American strategy.

When it comes to the depth and breadth of the PRC’s influence efforts inside the United States,

Rogin, a foreign policy and national security columnist at the Washington Post, has done serious reporting. (He credits a loose network of experts, officials, and activists he calls the Bingo Club, who have exposed and opposed Chinese influence operations.) While “Confucius Institutes”—outposts of the Chinese government on American campuses—have gotten significant attention, Rogin tracks other Chinese overtures intended to cultivate and coopt Americans and condition public opinion.

Sometimes the Americans involved didn’t realize what they were a part of, but others must have known with what and whom they were dealing. Rogin reports that the George H. W. Bush Foundation and the Carter Center both partnered with groups belonging to a constellation of Chinese influence organizations that have been active in the United States. As a result, Rogin writes, the CCP’s agenda regarding various self-proclaimed “core interests” of China—Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang, as well as a Communist Party definition of human rights—have been promoted “under the most venerable of guises.” Rogin also raises carefully worded questions about a number of prominent Americans and potential conflicts of interest with their connections to Chinese influence organizations.


The hardliners didn’t prevail in every bureaucratic battle, but by the end of the administration they had fundamentally changed America’s approach to China. Just being “tough on China” doesn’t convey the significance of the shift. Most of the hardliners had little time for the President’s vile rhetoric and seat-of-the-pants tactics, but neither did they subvert him. Strategy papers drafted by Pottinger and others like Nadia Schadlow won the President’s approval and provided the coherence and direction that the President himself lacked. What made these contributions invaluable was their attention to the sources of the CCP’s conduct and the motivations and ambitions of CCP leaders, which were woefully overlooked in the preceding era of “engagement.”

With the outbreak of the coronavirus in 2020, the character of the Chinese Communist Party and the character of President Trump collided, with results known to all of us. Under the fraught conditions created by Chinese misinformation and the Trump Administration’s response, some things became muddled. Rogin does an excellent job of tracking American efforts to understand the outbreak, including disentangling conflated theories about an accident in a “gain of function” experiment at a Wuhan lab and more sinister, unfounded charges that the virus was created as a bioweapon. As expected, the recent report from the World Health Organization did not settle the questions about the virus’ origin.

The Biden team appears to have embraced much of the new China policy. This was not a sure thing, despite the awakening that Rogin describes among policymakers and the public. Most senior Biden officials served in the Obama Administration—which, Rogin writes, “didn’t see China’s aggression as an urgent problem that needed solving,” while they judged that they “needed Beijing for the things they cared about more, such as climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.” Despite Xi’s broken promises to President Obama—about, for example, cybertheft and the South China Sea—the Obama Administration believed that a successful China policy “needed to portray the relationship as copacetic,” a need that “manifested itself as willful blindness to the changing reality.”

Will the new team revert to wishful thinking? Will they subordinate Hong Kong, the Uighurs, and the Tibetans to illusory progress on North Korea, Iran, or climate change—or shrug, as Rogin reports that Trump did, at the notion of defending Taiwan? Will they go further than a Summit for Democracy and establish an effective coalition of democracies to push back against China’s assertion of anti-democratic norms at the UN and, indeed, throughout the world?

The days when America’s policy imagined the Chinese Communist Party would willingly join the U.S.-led international order should be gone forever. This fact, writes Rogin, is not due to the American hawks’ superior bureaucratic infighting skills or even their command of the issues; instead, he concludes, “the hard-liners came out on top because the CCP proved them right.”

Ellen Bork is president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. An American Purpose contributing editor, she writes about American foreign policy with a focus on democracy and human rights.

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