Most Americans balk at the idea of the United States engaging in another Cold War competition, and they have every right to be skeptical of added resources when the U.S. domestic industrial base and economy are becoming more beleaguered by the year.
This is not, however, a fight in which we have the opportunity to sit out. For the Chinese Communist Party, the Cold War did not end with the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991; it only continued. Rapid industrialization and globalization provided China with the means to increase its global soft and hard power. The CCP is often portrayed as a masterful entity responsible for the success of its so-called economic miracle, yet the hardworking Chinese people are often left out of this calculus.
It was only when the CCP got out of the way of its citizens that tectonic shifts in the country’s economy came to fruition. Western firms and governments were allowed to expand their access to Chinese markets, albeit under the guise of forced joint ventures and subsequent incidents of technology theft, which enabled the Chinese people to prosper.
The CCP utilized these carefully crafted “openings” to strengthen its propaganda apparatus and rewrite the meaning of reciprocity itself. The United States, therefore, has no option but to defend its interests and engage with the CCP on a footing of equal diplomatic, economic and media reciprocity.
The People’s Republic of China’s response to the latest travel restrictions from Western nations on incoming Chinese travelers is an adept example of hypocritical messaging. While Xi Jinping adopted China’s let-’er-rip COVID-19 reopening after historic protests against the government’s handling of the pandemic, the CCP labeled testing requirements by the U.S. for incoming passengers “unacceptable.” Yet foreigners must still undergo testing when traveling to the mainland. In September 2020, the U.S. imposed further requirements on Chinese diplomats to receive approval for visits to university campuses and meetings with local government officials. Approval for large consular events at the PRC embassy and those outside of consular establishments were also required. The State Department also sought to ensure that PRC social media accounts were identified as government-affiliated accounts.
The PRC became outraged by these impositions, decrying them as unfair, and promised to retaliate with added restrictions for U.S. diplomats. What the PRC failed to mention was the already draconian restrictions placed on U.S. staff on the mainland. U.S. defense attaches could not communicate with their direct counterparts in the United States. Visits by U.S. diplomats to cultural events, official meetings with their proper counterparts, and especially university engagements were almost always off-limits even after an approval form was submitted into the opaque bureaucratic mechanism.
U.S. officials are not allowed to speak freely on Chinese social media platforms, as their PRC counterparts are in the United States. The PRC’s baseline restrictions are inherently at odds with its promises of engaging in “mutually beneficial cooperation” or “win-win cooperation.”
The footprint of U.S. journalists in China is virtually nonexistent. Before the PRC’s crackdown on Hong Kong with its 2020 National Security Law, journalistic freedom was curtailed to such an extent that any Western service was subject to harassment, expulsion or imprisonment for reporting on topics deemed routine in any other free nation.
Following the law’s imposition, journalism in China has been reduced to such an extent that credible reporting, even in Hong Kong, is at an all-time low. The PRC has treated foreign news services akin to how other nations monitor foreign intelligence officers. Meanwhile, China’s journalists are being forced to take exams to ensure their political correctness and loyalty, in addition to mandatory loyalty pledges to ensure their adherence to upholding the values of the CCP.
It is also no surprise that some Chinese journalists overseas are affiliated with the PRC’s intelligence services and operate under journalistic cover. At the same time, nearly all work for PRC state-directed media organizations tasked with shaping public opinion on China in a positive light.
Although the CHIPS Act of 2022 is a positive development in curtailing China’s access to advanced semiconductors, the PRC continues to wage economic restrictions on Western firms in even the most minute circumstances. It is nearly impossible for foreigners to obtain the proper permits or licenses to operate on the mainland without having to compromise the integrity and, ultimately, the intellectual property of their operations. All businesses are subject to CCP regulation that requires the adoption of a party cell into the businesses’ operating structures. Western firms must not only hand over their proprietary information to PRC joint ventures, but the CCP cells must also have a direct voice in the day-to-day business operations of the companies.
Meanwhile, the United States is struggling to audit PRC companies listed on U.S. exchanges, as they have previously allowed those firms to provide accounting data from PRC-friendly auditors.
These examples are not an exhaustive list of the PRC’s refusal to abide by the norms of reciprocity. The U.S. and its partners should continue to message the PRC that they will engage on topics of mutual interest only when the terms of engagement are defined in the context of an acceptable scope of reciprocity.
The very nature of our system will always allow some form of malign activity to slip through the cracks, but that is not to say that we should force ourselves to compromise our values and integrity in the hope of persuading an adversary to take a seat at the table. The PRC’s Cold War strategy is defined by hard power expansion globally, with particular attention to Asia, as well as a soft power dynamic that aims to diminish the United States’ ability to demand fair and equitable engagement.
We can defend our interests and values only when we operate in an environment that is truly reciprocal.
• Brian W. Cag is an intelligence professional for the U.S. government focused on East Asian affairs. The opinions of the author are his views alone and do not reflect official U.S. policy.
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