Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Has China won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

DATE: 11th May 2020, 2:00pm – 3:00pm

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Kishore Mahbubani, Ed Lucas, Didi Kirsten Tatlow



Dr Alan Mendoza 00:21

I think we will kick off. Hello and welcome to the Henry Jackson society at 2pm in London, 9am in New York and 9pm in Singapore. Various people are joining us today, delighted to see such a large crowd for I think one of the most interesting questions of our time. A very provocative thesis, has China won, essentially is the topic of the day and it’s based of course, upon a book by Professor Kishore Mahbubani of the very same name, which analyses whether, in a sense, US mistakes are going to lead if there is to be a clash. And of course, the idea isn’t that there shouldn’t be, US mistakes might well lead to China winning and already having laid the foundations for that. Let me quickly introduce our panellists and then we’ll get straight under way. So, Professor Kishore Mahbubani is a veteran diplomat, student of philosophy and author of eight books. Currently, he is a Distinguished Fellow at the Asia Research Institute, the National University of Singapore, but he was previously founding dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. And, of course, a former president of the UN Security Council. During the rotation or period of that approach, what he brings is, of course, an interesting look from China’s neighborhood into this topic, and one, which I think will be eagerly anticipated. We then move to in response to Edward Lucas, and Edward is a senior vice president of the Center for European Policy Analysis, a columnist for The Times, and he was recently editor for Standpoint and of course, was a long-term senior editor at the Economist. And Edward responded to the thesis in the times a couple of Saturdays ago and will be looking forward to having that discussion between the two of them, but they are of course, joined as well by Didi Kirsten Tatlow, who is a senior fellow of the DJP Asia program. She’s at the German Foreign Policy Institute, which, since October 2019. She’s had a long, long, long and interesting history looking at China. She was a fellow at the Mercatus Institute for China studies, but before then she was a journalist in Asia and Europe for 23 years, most recently as correspondent and columnist for The New York Times in Beijing between 2010 and 2017. So, an interesting look within China coming out, as well as of course, from the European continent today. So, without further ado, let me pass us on to our first panellist, Professor Mahbubani. Professor, it’s a fascinating thesis, understandably, given what we are currently looking at with regard to the COVID-19 situation. There’s been a lot of interest in what you’ve had to say, lots of discussions about geopolitical clashes, we can see the sort of rows that are going on between the US and China, even today. Could you briefly outline your thesis for those listening at home today?

Kishore Mahbubani 03:15

Thank you, thank you. It’s a great honour to be invited by the Henry Jackson society to speak about my book. And I want to emphasize that the goal of my book, hopefully, is a noble one, to prevent what I see is an unnecessary impending tragedy in the form of a fallout of geopolitical contests between the US and China. Sadly, as I say, in my book, it’s both inevitable and avoidable. So, what I’m going to try and do in five minutes is share with you five of the key messages I tried to put across in this book. The first I think, is the United States has made a major geopolitical mistake in launching a geopolitical contest against China, without first working out a comprehensive, long-term strategy. And as I say, in the book, this came out a (inaudible) one on one lunch I had with Henry Kissinger and my book builds on that insight and explains the dangers of the United States going into this contest without a strategy. Of course, the second point I’m going to make is that of course, China has clearly made mistakes too. For example, it eliminated the American business community, which was a major source of support for engagement with China. China became arrogant after the global financial crisis, began to push countries around. So, it’s not a case of one side being virtuous and the other side not. But at the same time, that third point I’m going to make which is, I guess the most critical one is that when I say the United States made a major geopolitical mistake in not having a strategy, sorry, not the advice that soon, Sergei, many years ago when he says, know thyself, know thine enemy, fight a thousand battles win a thousand battles. And what’s strange is that United States is aware of its strengths. And of course, the United States has great strengths, but it’s unaware of his weaknesses, and the United States is aware of China’s weaknesses, but not aware of China’s strengths. And that’s where the mismatch comes in the relationship. Just to give you some examples, about the strengths, weaknesses (inaudible) United States has got this strange ideological assumption that if you ever have a battle between a democracy and a communist regime, of course, democracies win, because they’re vibrant, strong, adaptable, Communist Party systems are rigid and destined to fail. By say, if you dig beneath the surface, what you actually see in the contest between United States and China is not a contest within a democracy and a Communist Party regime, but a contest within a plutocracy. In United States where the decisions are being made to favour the rich, and United States, the only major developed country where the average income of the bottom fifty, 50% has gone down over 30 years and even Martin wolf describes the US as a plutocracy. And China, by contrast, has become a meritocracy where for the first time in 4000 years, the Chinese have been able to utilize the brains of all their people, bring them forward, channel them, use them. And so, in an in a contest with the plutocracy and the meritocracy, the meritocracy can win. And this is an idea that is, of course, absolutely unacceptable to an American mind. And at the same time, the United States has become so rigid and inflexible, they cannot make U-turns, they cannot stop fighting wars in the Middle East, cannot reduce their defence budget, when it’s obvious that’s what you need to do, to take on the contest with China. By contrast, and I explained in the book, China can be very flexible and adaptable. And you see also by the way in how they manage this COVID-19 outbreak. Two other quick points; the fourth point is that the key people who will decide the outcome of this contest are the 6 billion people who live outside the United States and China. In the first Cold War, there’s no doubt the United States got tremendous amount of support, lots of friends and allies rushing to support it. But it’s very clear, there are very few countries this time around, are rushing towards the United States and saying, hey, we want to join you, we want to join you. Most of the countries are saying, can you please stop this, we really got more important things to deal with. And certainly, when it comes to dealing with COVID-19, we got more important things to do than for you to have this geopolitical contest. But the final point I’m going to make is I try to end the book on an optimistic note by saying that actually, at the end of the day, this entire contest is avoidable. And I give several reasons for that just let me mention two; First, if the primary core interests of the United States is improving the wellbeing of its people, and in the core interests of the Chinese is to improve the wellbeing of their people, they can achieve that more by working with each other than working (against) each other. And the second point, which is very equally critical is that we live in a world today, where the primary challenges are global in nature, whether they be COVID-19, or whether they be global warming. And these are far more important challenges than this zero some, 19th century geopolitical games. So let us remind ourselves, we are no longer in the 19th century, we are in the 21st century that has come together to deal with the global challenges.

Dr Alan Mendoza 09:12

Thank you, professor. That’s a very timely summary of some of the main themes. Of course, just to remind you can purchase the book we’ve sent the link out in both the original confirmation email and also in the reminder just earlier, so do have a look at that. Edward, you wrote about this extensively in the Times as a response. What do you make of the five points what and would you like to pick up out of those and, and sort of have a discussion about?

Ed Lucas 09:39

Well, thanks very much indeed. And also, to my fellow participants, and to all the people who’ve tuned in for this very important discussion. There’s a lot that I agree with Professor Mahbubani, I think his critique of America of the United States is very powerful. The inability of that country to harness the talents of its people, the influence of money on politics, the short-termism in decision making, and particularly under this administration, the blind spot or seeming blind spot towards the importance of allies. There, I have very, very little disagreement with him. I think that his remarks about China, I would leave to other people to talk about because I make no claim to be a China expert, but what I do think is a genuine point of friction is the People’s Republic of China’s desire to control discussion of China in other countries. And that presents a profound challenge to the way we think that our media, our publishing, our freedom of association in public, and other core elements of our political system are allowed to develop. I highlight in my column in the times where I devoted 2000 words to discussing the thesis of the book, the way in which the London police cooperated with the Chinese authorities during Xi Jinping’s visit here, and three utterly harmless protesters; to Tibetans to a tenement square survivor, who fled to London were arrested not just under public audit charges, which itself would have been quite unfair given that they were making completely peaceful protests, and were arrested under a counterterrorism conspiracy charges, which then meant that their computers could be seized and various other things done. We’ve seen a whole swathe of books coming out now in, in Canada; the cause of the panda, in Australia; (inaudible) invasion, Isaac Stonefish is writing one in the United States, Clive Hamilton and a German colleague of ours, are writing one about Hidden Hand about Chinese pressure on Britain. And I think this is serious, I think we have the right in our countries to say what we want about Tiananmen square, to say what we want about Tibet, to say what we want about Taiwan, say what we want about the underground church, in China, say what we want about Hong Kong. And clearly, we can’t expect the communist regime in Beijing to agree with us, that’s fine in a way that we also can’t expect that they should make us agree with them. And so, when we see these pinch points happening, I get worried. And there’s a particular thing, where I think this really affects our welfare, which is right now on the pandemic, where Taiwan which for years was an observer member of the World Health Organization, a nice convenient fudge. Obviously, Taiwan regards itself as a country, China regards it, the People’s Republic regards it as a rebel province. Most countries recognize the People’s Republic, a handful still recognize Taiwan. But this didn’t get in the way of practical cooperation and under intense Chinese pressure in 2016, Taiwan had its observer status removed from the World Health Organization. And that seemed to me to be bad at the time and now it really matters because Taiwan has real expertise in dealing with this environment. They are very close to mainland China. But they’ve managed to deal with it extremely effectively from a medical point of view, but also in a very innovative way from a social economic point of view. We should be able to exchange data with Taiwan to learn from their expertise without the neurotic obstacles put in the way by the Beijing regime, interfering with that cooperation. So, I just take that as one small example, this is a case where you have the ideological approach of the Chinese Communist Party affecting the global commons, the global welfare. Now, I didn’t want to start a new Cold war with China, far from it, I think we have immense amount to gain by cooperating. But at some point, we have to draw a line in the sand and I think that when it comes to international diplomacy, or matters of common interests, whether it’s space or health, or whatever, and particularly also on the functioning of our internal political system, academic freedom, things like that, we have to say to the authorities in Beijing, we don’t expect to agree, but you must accept that we’re going to do things differently. And it is not your job, not your right to interfere with them. So that’s where I see a real, a real conflict brewing. And I hope that through collective action, we can make it clear to the Chinese authorities that they’re not going to succeed in bullying us and we will then be able to get on with more pragmatic cooperation.

Dr Alan Mendoza 14:38

Thank you for that opening thought. Didi, I’m going pass it over to you now. I mean, by all means, pick up the challenge Edward has thrown at you, of an internal China. Look, but of course, you know, feel free to comment on anything that’s that you’ve seen already.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow 14:50

Yeah. I mean, thanks very much. It’s very nice to be here and to be speaking with such illustrious people as yourselves. I think a fundamental point to make here, which is twofold, really, first of all; I also agree that small humility, perhaps is called for at this point in the United States, in terms of how the system is or is not functioning there. I think that there are serious problems there and it’s one of my personal beliefs that we should be also building up alternatives to a very specific style of China critique that takes place in the United States right now quite broadly, which I largely in many points agree with but I think it’s not enough. I think we do need to take on board the weaknesses in the United States as well and perhaps create a more self-critical approach towards what’s going on in China towards the Communist Party. So, a more self-critical, self-reflective approach, if you like, I think is very important right now. And a lot of that does hinge around the issue of the economy. Mr. Mahbubani, you mentioned the issue of plutocracies, absolutely the growth of monopolistic capitalism in America is a huge problem. Traditionally, this was always an issue that America was extremely concerned about and fought back and pushed back on very hard. This is a very important part of a healthy economy of a healthy capitalist economy, if you like seems to be failing in the US now, in some ways, not in all ways, in some ways. However, you tied that to the idea of China, as supposed to being a meritocracy. Now, this is where I begin to have problems with this analysis, because I think that it’s very clear that if China is a meritocracy, then it’s a meritocracy, only within very, very narrow boundaries, which are clearly defined by the party. The party absolutely controls what is to be judged as right what is to be judged as wrong, what is to be judged as working, what is to be judged as not working. And I think that we can’t really talk about a meritocracy per se, under those circumstances, because we’re not addressing the elephant in the corner of the room, if you like, we’re not addressing the issue that really gives all of this its shape. So that’s one point that I initially wanted to make. Now there are, in fact, of course, people who are sort of on them sort of more the intellectual left of the spectrum, who would in fact argue that, that China is nothing like a kind of a, you know, meritocratic, successful state that it’s, in fact, something more like a kind of a, do you use the one with a better phrase, a kind of a neo liberal post political space, precisely because there is no possibility of real politics in the country under the Communist Party, it’s just not possible, you can’t have those debates in public. Information control is how that’s achieved in the public sphere, we all know how it works in the government is all kinds of things that affect party members, you know, a party member has to be defrocked, made a non-party member, before they could even be tried in a court. It’s all kinds of things that protect their status, in very particular ways that I think we need to look into when we look at the idea of China being, you know, kind of a more organic, broader or even more kind of differentiated space, I think, at this point is still isn’t a very differentiated space in some ways. So that’s, that’s one other point I wanted to make, and another point would be the idea of the this being a geopolitical contest between the United States and China put broadly. I actually, you know, I actually disagree that we’re looking at a great power rivalry, I don’t think we’re looking at a great power rivalry except on a superficial level, I think we’re looking at a systemic rivalry and I know that, you know, in Europe, too, people do believe that. However, there are all kinds of problems to do with the transatlantic relationship. Europe has a more nuanced vision, definitely. But I don’t think we’re looking at a kind of a, you know, 19th century, great power, traditional geopolitical style context, I think we are absolutely looking at values clashes here, they’re very profound in the way in which it is a 20th century version of that, perhaps, would be the fact that we’re dealing with the Communist Party. Communism has been around for 100 years, we are really dealing with a whole new phase of that very, very powerful ideology. I mean, communism, more than perhaps almost anything in the world apart from, you know, religion, shows the power of an idea and you know, we’re still dealing with that in China today. So, for better or for worse, that’s another debate but the point being that I don’t think this is just a geopolitical sort of great power contest. I think it’s more than that, I think it’s more profound than that. You know, I think there’ll be lots to talk about, one an issue that I have particularly myself been pursuing since I left China in 2017, after 17 years in total in Beijing and 22 in Hong Kong, is the issue of the influencing and interfering which Edward mentioned, that we are seeing now in European societies, in Australia and New Zealand, in America, in Singapore, by, again, by the party through its various, you know, interests overseas. We are now mostly all familiar with the idea of the United Front, which collects support for the party, from people whom the party thinks can be worn over to support the party isolates the enemies and destroys them. That’s the theory, that’s the practice. And what I’ve been doing here in Europe is really tracking a lot of these groups and looking at how they were set up, who founded them, how many of them are there, what are they doing, and also their ties to technology transfer. Now, this is incredibly important, because a lot of China’s rise has been fuelled by enormous amounts of technology transfer from the west spoken broadly, including Japan, including South Korea, including other places, from democratic nations which are high, which have been traditionally highly creative, because of their democracy, and their chaos and their freedom, if you like, and really looking at these very vast systems of technology transfer that have taken place now since 1949 at least, and you know, these are intrinsic to China’s rise. And I think that this also suggests to us some of the strengths of these democratic open systems and some of the, perhaps the weaknesses of the, of the of a communist system that has not really let people’s energies sort of go out there and, and challenge and create chaos. Yes, absolutely, in some ways to. We see it in America every day, but also create enormous creativity and all those sparks. And, you know, that might be shifting now, China, just to wrap up that point, China has perhaps reached a point where that balance is shifting to is, you know, starting to innovate and create out of fundamental basic science ideas, for example, but again, you know, the system is highly effective. And I think that we are looking at, some, we are looking at values questions, more than just, you know, great powers jockeying for supremacy.

Dr Alan Mendoza 22:23

Thank you, Didi. As expected, the initial round has opened up a Pandora’s box of issues. Now professor, it’s a little unfair you face two V, in a sense. I’m going to give you a chance to, to come back on some of the things you’ve heard, just to reflect on what you agree with, what you might disagree with?

Kishore Mahbubani 22:41

Yes, I mean, let me let me thank the two contributors, project panellists and contributors they are wonderful. But you know, when I heard Edward Lucas speak about the principle of non-interference in internal affairs, and I think he’s absolutely right. If China tries to interfere in the internal affairs, UK, Australia, Canada, I think US, UK, Australia, and Canada will fight back, push back and say this is our internal affairs. But as you know, the problem about the concept of the principle of non-interference in internal affairs is a double-edged sword and paradoxically, this is a song that China likes much more than the West. And if you look at it, objectively, and ask yourself, which countries are trying to interfere more in the affairs of other countries, I would say the West wins the gold medal for interfering in the affairs of other countries. The State Department has an annual Human Rights Report where it declares which countries are good, which countries are bad. So, the State Department is the prophet and the mountain that understands the world better than anybody else and the problem with that is that elites, therefore (inaudible) not just pass comments, but you then invade countries, you drop bombs, you export democracy with armies, and it results in tremendous disasters, which actually John Mearsheimer, I just finished reading his book called The Great delusion. And I recommend it to both (inaudible) Lucas and Didi, read that book and see the disasters that have come from Western interference in so many societies. And if you really want to believe in the principle of Internal Affairs, then it’s a two way street. You’ve got to stop interfering in the internal affairs of China and I can explain to Edward why this would be difficult because Edward made a very strong case. And by the way, I do agree that Taiwan should have a say in the World Health Organization it’s played a big role, a good role in fighting COVID-19. But at the end of the day, the fate of Taiwan was settled when the United States recognized China as a legitimate government. Beijing is the legitimate government of China, and they say China and Taiwan agree they’re one country. And as far as the Chinese are concerned, Taiwan is their internal affairs. And as a matter of international law, by the way, it is a fact that the minute the United States switch the recognition to Beijing, it settled the fate of Taiwan. And I can guarantee you that very few countries, except for you island states, are going to recognize Taiwan as an independent country. And it’s also important to remember that from the Chinese point of view, Taiwan is very sensitive, because if there’s one big symbol that remains from their century of humiliation that they suffered from 1842 to 1949 it’s Taiwan when the Japanese seized it in 1895. And if you don’t understand Chinese history, you won’t understand why they react so strongly to interference in Taiwan. Second point about communism and meritocracy. You know, when I was in Columbia University, I was assigned a very bright young Chinese graduate student pursuing a master’s in Columbia University, and we discussed her life, and I said, How was it? Like she said, oh, when I graduated from high school, I was very sad. I say Why? She said she graded at number two in the school. I said, what’s wrong grading number two in the school, she said, only the number one, get selected to join the Chinese Communist Party. Now, that, by any definition, is meritocracy, because if you only select the number one student in any high school to join the Chinese Communist Party, it means that people aspire to join it, and one to get in. And of course, the Chinese communist system is different from the democratic system. But it’s all you know, when Didi was making the point, democratic societies are far more vibrant, communist societies are rigid. You know, the data, and this is where hopefully my book makes a contribution. You know that living standards of the bottom 50% in America has created, as two Princeton University economists document that case in detail, it’s created a sea of despair among the white working classes. So you have all the signs of social dysfunction; opioids, inequality, domestic violence. This is not the kind of vibrant society that George Kennan was speaking about in 1949 when he said in the end of the day, it’s what we do domestically, spiritually that matters. And then I cited Stanford University psychologist Jean (Inaudible) points out that if you go to China today, and you see the vibrancy of the people, you can feel that sort of dynamism and vitality and the big mistake we are making is to see that China’s goal is to export communism. China has absolutely no desire to export communism, it stopped doing so when Deng Xiaoping came to Singapore and Lee Kuan Yew told him, hey, you keep on exporting communism, nobody will want to deal with you. So, they stopped immediately after that. And today, their main goal is to revive Chinese civilization and not to revive Marx or Lenin or Stalin, that’s all gone. If you wanted to revive Marx, or Lenin or Stalin, they wouldn’t have entrepreneurs and businessmen at the Chinese Communist Party. And you won’t have the kind of entrepreneurship and dynamism that you have in China, if China was a rigid, sclerotic Communist Party. So, if you want to feel vibrancy, I say all you have to do is visit the bottom 50% in United States, visit the bottom 50% in China, and then come back and tell me which society is more vibrant.

Dr Alan Mendoza 28:53

Okay, good points. Edward, Didi, I’ll ask you to come back quickly on any of those you’d like to or bring in something else. For you watching at home. There is a q&a button at the bottom, you can submit questions we’ve had quite a few already. We will start to call people after Edward and Didi have a quick response. Edward, over to you.

Ed Lucas 29:11

Yes, I think that it’s too easy just to say the West interferes in China, China interferes in the West, this is all the same thing. First of all, I think it implies moral equivalence between the Chinese Communist Party leadership which has got a certain amount of blood on its hands, and the broad ideas of Western civilization, which I suspect have been less lethal over the past decades. It conflates the mistakes in specific Western foreign policy, notably in the recent years, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the general idea of the freedom and the rule of law. On are something worth sticking out. So, I think there’s a little bit of slight sleight of hand there. I also think it’s too easy just to say Taiwan’s fate has been settled. There are a lot of nuances in this, not least the Taiwan support act public passed by the United States Congress. And the, I think no one is suggesting, unfortunately, I would say that we switch on diplomatic recognition. The Chinese are trying to take a work, something that was a workable compromise of the Wests outside world’s ways of dealing with Taiwan and with the People’s Republic. And pushing, I would say, ridiculously hard, demanding that airlines can’t call Taiwan, Taiwan, they have to call it Chinese Taipei, trying to strip out every sort of particle of recognition or political relations. And the point I made in my times column today, is that I think this is actually counterproductive. If I go into a bar and say, I have absolute fundamental objection to anyone here, who is wearing a blue tie and I will really kick up a fuss about this, if I’m a very big, intimidating guy, and maybe people start nervously fingering their ties thinking do I have a blue tie? In the end, this sort of absolutist desire for complete conformity makes the person demanding it look weak and what we’re actually seeing now, and this is the point I made this morning in the times is a kind of global backlash against this sort of obsessive thin skinned bombastic Chinese diplomacy. So, the Netherlands, for example, has just very subtlety changed the name of its office in Taipei from being a trade and investment office just to Netherlands office Taipei, and it used to have a bland sort of tourism logo, it’s now got the covers of the Dutch flag. We see all sorts of things happening in Australia, in Canada, in the United States and in Britain, in Germany, in all sorts of countries where people saying, Hey, you know, maybe this is just ridiculous. Another example was the EU ambassadors’ letter to the People’s Daily. Some viewers may be familiar with this or not. But this was a letter from EU ambassadors on the 45th anniversary of the diplomatic relations opening between the EU and China. And it was a rather anodyne call for greater cooperation, they had one sentence mentioning the Coronavirus, and the Chinese authorities said we can’t publish that in the Peoples China Daily unless that sentence is taken out. And the EU envoy in Beijing not only agreed to that but did so without consulting his counterparts from the EU governments. Now that had an interesting effect. He got a public ticking off, off his bosses in Brussels. But you also saw countries like France, Germany and Italy, which are not in the forefront of criticizing China say, hang on, this has gone too far. So, this idea of I think the technical term is hegemonic discourse control, demanding that every word in every sentence uttered anywhere in the world about China must be in conformance with the Chinese Communist Party’s rules. I think this is very brittle. It’s actually prompting a backlash and is leading to a series of tactical defeats in the short term and possibly strategic defeat in the long term.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow 33:41

I think a lot of the discussion we’re having here right now depends to a large extent on, you know, which version of history you take as your starting point, I mean, some really fundamental issues of interpretation and reality. And the reason I say that is because you know, the time frame from 1842 to 1949, the so-called century of humiliation is of course, a very contested one, even within China. It was in Chinese history, to the extent that it can be publicly contested in the mainland of China, which is not very, not hugely wide, wider than one might think sometimes. But certainly, when you look at, say, Hong Kong, where it’s, where I’m from, you know, we have a very different view of Chinese history people have been, you know, people came from the mainland of China, even before the Communist Party arrived, in order to do and achieve all kinds of things and they’ve never stopped, you know, since 1949. Certainly, they never stopped, and they were fleeing famine, they were fleeing political campaigns and murders, probably around 60 million dead between 1949 and the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, You know, it was a lot of people, obviously. But I think, but you know, having said that, that it does depend on what reality one chooses to pay more attention to. And you know, I’ll give you an example. When I was living in China, I met so many people who, extraordinary hardworking, hungry wanted a place at that middle class table, wanted to succeed, because they knew the price of not achieving that the price for their families, the price for themselves the price for future generations. And you know, the Chinese government claims credit for this economic growth which has taken place, it says we’ve lifted you know, six hundred million people out of poverty, five, six, seven, eight hundred million, however many you want. My own interpretation is that, in fact, it’s the Chinese People who have lifted themselves out of poverty, with incredible, smarts, hard work, and a real sense of why it matters to do this. And, you know, I think that hunger is missing to some extent in some countries in the West now. That’s a sort of a question historical phases, of historical development, what stage of historical development you’re at. But that’s, you know, it’s not as if the Chinese Communist Party is some sort of giant crane that just kind of scooped up seven, eight hundred million people and kind of lifted them into prosperity. It’s simply not what happens, you know, I met people who said, I have to go and do this now, otherwise my whole family will fail, we will be left in the countryside, we will be paupers, because they knew they could only rely on themselves. Now that’s since the death of Mao, of course. So, you know, the Chinese Communist Party has benefited incredibly from that energy, from that intelligence that get up and go. So again, it depends what side of this story you want to kind of emphasize, believe in, which version of history you take as your starting point in debating these things. Um, I did want to address very specifically, the issue of that I that I somehow suggested that a communist nation like China is rigid or sclerotic, I don’t actually think it’s really rigid or sclerotic, mostly because of the people issue, which I just addressed. But I think that in terms of the political structure there is no question, but that it is a communist nation, that is a Leninist nation. And I think that one of the, you know, we see that just in the very beginning, from the Constitution, it’s the People’s Democratic so-called dictatorship, (inaudible) Democratic dictatorship. And you know that phrase is very important, it’s a Leninist phrase, the idea is that it has to be dictatorship, because it has to be able to crush its internal enemies, because those enemies will otherwise overturn the collective will of the Chinese people as it is defined by the party. So, there you have a very circular political logic, it’s implacable. There is no discussion of lifting that, despite the, you know, millions of sorts of cases we’ve seen just in the last decades, when you count it all together of the people who are then defined as not belonging into that framework, who are so called not normal, according to this, these political standards. And here, I include the number one in the class, you mentioned, who fulfilled your meritocracy criteria, that person who performs the best, who does the best in all subjects, including in politics, by the way, is then defined as the best. Well, you know, there’s a whole other reality, we’ve got the hundreds of 1000s of people in Xinjiang who are, you know, in camps for thinking wrong, we’ve got whole groups of people, lawyers, many of whom I knew, of course, when I was living in China, we’ve got just people who might be trying to protect their houses from the local government, who’ve been told to sort of take over the land and turning it into an Economic Development Zone. We’ve got, you know, all kinds of religious practitioners. Falun Gong is a massive group of people that have been earmarked for eradication for a couple of decades now. So, you know, we’ve got these different competing realities, and I don’t think it is a monolithic reality that the party wants us to believe it is. I think that’s part of the story. I think the party does have quite a lot of support. A lot of people see what side their bread is buttered on. They know, they gauge their strengths very well, they make decisions which will benefit their family, I can’t, I don’t blame them for that. So again, I think that we’re not, you know, I think we have to differentiate a bit more between the so called, you know, official China of the party, if you like, and all these criteria that follow from that, and the unofficial China, which is the other people, you know, of whom there are very, very many. And I think just one tiny final point, if I may, to wrap that up is when we look at evidence of the sort of lingering, enduring, very important communist nature of the society has run politically apart from the people, you know, their intrinsic energies and wonderfulness, etc., is, you know, it’s not just people’s dictatorship at work as a system. It’s also I think, very tellingly, it is the United Front which you know, very clearly must gather together people who can support the party in order to increase the party’s strength. And this is among women, among all kinds of groups, social groups, entrepreneurs, whatever you want intellectuals and to isolate and destroy the enemies. Now, this is still how it functions. And increasingly it functions like this overseas as well. So, there we see this process of like sifting out the wheat from the chaff, if you like, which is constantly ongoing in China. And I think which produces a very specific kind of reality, which isn’t the full picture.

Dr Alan Mendoza 40:31

Great, thank you. We’ve covered a lot of territory there. Now I’ve got a ton of questions as you might expect, we’re going to open up to two rounds, at least hopefully three. And we’re going to need panellists or other questioners to read the question very quickly, please. And panellists, if you get brief responses, you’re going to take a basket of three here. So, you’ve got a choice of what to respond to, but do give quick responses, then we can move on to the next round. So, our first question comes from Michael Danby, who’s the former chairman of the Australian Foreign Affairs Committee, former MP, Michael over to you.

Michael Danby 41:18

My question is to Professor Mahbubani, and your thesis about social guidance, dynamism, and military aggression by China being much less so under the current leadership. Surely that was the case under Deng Xiaoping. But isn’t this belied by the assumption of non-merit, meritocratic, permanent dictatorial power by the General Secretary Xi, two; by the guide the growth in aggressive military power by Beijing, including military bases in seas determined by international bodies to be places where 50% of the world’s trade should be able to, to partake, and lastly, as the growth of a COMINTERN style organization all over the world, the United Front department that is actually attacking us in our societies. We’ve seen that very extensively in Australia.

Dr Alan Mendoza 42:17

Thank you very much, Michael. Next up moving to Charles Salmon. Charles, over to you.

Charles Salmon 42:22

This is also to the professor. To what extent do you think China’s attitude during the Coronavirus, that is the banning of flights to China, whilst not banning flights to Europe, from Wuhan. Failure to allow independent outside inquiry into the origins of the pandemic, failure to close down the wet markets. The threatening of Australia and the arresting of the doctor in Wuhan, and the pressure for the WHO not to adhere to the warnings of Taiwan. To what extent do you think that will affect Europe and America’s desire to withdraw from China, particularly in relation to trade in the future?

Dr Alan Mendoza 43:24

Thank you very much. Finally, Roger Garside, Roger. You should now be unmuted over to you.

Roger Garside 43:30

In the 24 hours following the death of the whistle-blower, Dr Li Wenliang, messages expressing grief and outrage were viewed over 1 billion times in mainland China, and millions of people posted demands for freedom of speech. Those views were then deleted by censors as the regime seized back control of the narrative. Now how can a regime that subordinates truth and trust to lies and control prevail in the long run over liberal democracies which for all their grievous faults, allow the pursuit of truth under the rule of law?

Dr Alan Mendoza 44:17

Great, three questions our take on what you would like Professor Mahbubani over to you first but please everyone, do try and keep two brief comments. We can get our next round in.

Kishore Mahbubani 44:29

Yeah, I think first general comment. I will say I will say respectfully to the three questioners that they get the distorted views on China from the Anglo-Saxon media, where often the facts are not the facts in the real world. And I’ll give you a simple example. Everybody believes that in the South China Sea. President Xi Jinping offered to demilitarize South China Sea and then immediately after that he militarized it and therefore, he lied. If you read my book I quote Ambassador Stapleton Roy, for one, a distinguished former US ambassador to China who said, actually, it’s right president Xi offered to demilitarize South China Sea. Unfortunately, he said, the United States turned down that offer, it sent in naval vessels and Xi Jinping said okay, if you don’t want to demilitarize you want to militarize I’ll join you. And yet today, everybody believes that Xi Jinping lied about that, because that’s repeated over and over again by the Anglo-Saxon media. So, I hope what my book tries to do is to tell you that there is an alternative point of view about China, which was the number one economy in the world from the year one to the year 1800. And so, the last two hundred years of Western domination of world economy is a major historical aberration. All aberrations come to a natural end, until we go into a multi civilizational world where you cannot step into the shoes of other civilizations, and you just wear Anglo Saxon media lenses to understand this world you’ll be blind, completely blind. And to give you a concrete example, on COVID-19 everybody is blaming China in the west for not giving up information on what happened COVID-19 now let me read to you what Richard Horton, the editor of Lancet, is a very prestigious one of the most prestigious medical journal most prestigious medical journals in the world. He said in end of January, the Lancet published five articles fine, pointing out that a new virus had broken out in China, it was deadly, greater than SARS, killing people, the number of deaths were rising, the patient being admitted to ICU required ventilation. And there was no treatment for the virus you need PPE, all the warnings are given. At the end of January, you know what? nobody listened. So today when you want to blame somebody, for the fact that the United States, UK can’t react, it’s so easy to blame China. It’s an easy scapegoat. But I will say please, if you believe in western standards, on honesty, of being rational and critical, look carefully at the data. And the one final point about Dr Lee it was absolutely wrong for the Chinese government to suppress him. Absolutely. And I agree completely. And fortunately, they’re made in the martyr and acknowledged he did the right thing. But all the statements made by DGN. All of you give the impression that 1.4 billion people in China are being suppressed by this Chinese Communist Party and poor chaps, they have no freedom at all. Let me just give you one statistic. Just one every year 134 million Chinese, Okay, twice the population of UK, leave China freely as tourists, they travel around the world they go everywhere. Every year 134 million Chinese returned to China freely. Why are they doing so? Because the Chinese people today in China are experiencing the best condition that China has had in 4000 years, and they are very proud of their ancient civilization. They’re very proud that this ancient civilization’s coming back. That’s what they focus on. They’re not focusing on communism, or Marxism Leninism. Those are all irrelevant now. So, my sincere advice to my friends in the West is Take off your Western lenses and try to put on other lenses to understand this multi civilizational world. And I hope my book tries to do that for you.

Dr Alan Mendoza 49:10

Right, Edward, over to you as a representative of the Anglo-Saxon media.

Ed Lucas 49:15

Yes. Well, I think we must be very careful about saying that there’s an Anglo-Saxon media point of view and a Chinese point of view. I read some of the most ardent pro Chinese articles and papers and viewpoints in the columns of Western media. And some of the fiercest critics of the Chinese Communist Party are in, for example, Apple Daily owned by Mr. Jimmy Lai, who I don’t think I can really say is a core Anglo-Saxon immediate media tycoon. I listened very carefully to the voices of Tibetans, and Uyghurs who have not been mentioned so far and people from Southern Mongolia, representatives of the underground church of Falun Gong, human rights campaigners who have lived-in, live-in exile. And I think one needs to take on all these perspectives into account and not just say that the Chinese Communist Party speaks for all of China. On the point about immigration, this is a very important point. And the professor’s quite right to say that it’s a, it’s a major safety valve, that of a regime that lets people leave the country and come back again, prevents the kind of pressure cooker that we saw in the Soviet Union towards the end, where people were desperate to get to the west and very frustrated that they couldn’t. It’s also worth pointing out there’s quite a lot of Chinese people who can’t go abroad. There’s also some Westerners in China who would like to leave China and can’t because they’re being held hostage here. And I think it’s also, it’s too much of a caricature to say that the Chinese Communist Party isn’t really communist, it’s Chinese. It’s very important point that this the Chinese nationalism pride in Chinese civilized nation sort of is absolutely, is probably more important, certainly than Marxism, the planned economy and the sort of economic side of communism. But I do think very strongly that Leninist political thinking, which is what I studied, in the 1980s, when I was a Sovietologist, I see the outlines of that extremely clearly when I look at the way the Chinese Communist Party operates abroad, not least the United Front work department, which has been mentioned already, and I’ve heard gripping presentations from Singaporeans, Taiwanese, and émigré Chinese scholars, none of whom could be cast as representatives of the Anglo American or Anglo Saxon media complex on the road of Leninist political theory in the way Xi Jinping thinks and operates. And one very final point on the South China Sea, it’s an important one, the Chinese did ask to demilitarize the South China Sea. And the Americans did say no. And the reason they said no, is they said, this is an international waterway. And as an international waterway, we have the right to send our Navy there, just as you have the right to send yours. So, be a bit like Russia saying, can we demilitarize the Baltic? Now, that would be very nice in one sense, but it would still mean that if anything happened there, Russia is the big country next door would have a huge advantage. So, I think the Americans are quite right to say to Xi Jinping, no, the South China Sea is an international waterway, your nine-dash line is complete nonsense. Let’s stick, let’s keep this see under international law with international passage for warships of all countries. And that China used this as a pretext, then to go and militarize the South China Sea with all these reefs and rocks and so on, in defiance of every other country in the region, nobody else agrees with the Chinese approach. I think it’s entirely legitimate object of criticism.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow 52:57

I think on the issue of myself as having previously been a member of the so-called Anglo-Saxon media for a long time, in fact, I started out in media in Hong Kong, Oriental daily group, (inaudible). And, you know, I think that Edwards point is well made that it’s really not that simple. There are, in fact, a look more broadly at Hong Kong. I think that what’s happening right now in Hong Kong, this enormous uprising, against the sort of CCP sort of full takeover, basically, of Hong Kong by the party, which of course, was supposed to have its hands off to a large degree, high degree of autonomy, etc. but has recently back in November, the fourth plenum declared that it had the right to supervise everything that happened in Hong Kong. And it’s really since taking that into to quite some extremes as we’re seeing. I mean, we’re seeing essentially a, you know, a popular uprising against the Hong Kong government, against the police, against the joint Liaison Office and against Beijing. You know, and I think that this does do something terribly important and that it really questions this version of China and what is China that is out there, there are different China’s there are different political organizations, there are different traditions, different memories, there are different experiences. They’re all Chinese, if you like, you know, the Communist Party’s definition of China is not the only definition of China in the world. And I think to make serious arguments about China and politics, we have to address these different China’s I think are sort of, should we leave it at that.

Dr Alan Mendoza 54:48

Now, very quickly, a couple of minutes over three more questioners, starting with Sir Malcolm Rifkind.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind 54:58

I take issue with Professor Mahbubani, of course China’s come a huge way, since (inaudible) reformed China. But that does not mean they have become a meritocracy. For the reasons that others have mentioned. You only advance in China, if you accept that your life is controlled by the Communist Party, your access to the internet, your political freedom and everything of that order. The proper comparison with China, you just have to go elsewhere in Asia, where you have countries like South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, who have achieved all the prosperity that Chinese Communist Party have achieved. But first of all, they achieved it 40 years ago. And secondly, they have combined it with the rule of law and democracy. So, China hasn’t identified some new way of achieving prosperity, as long as you accept the dominance of a totalitarian Communist Party. We just have to look not at the West, look at Asia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and India, which combine prosperity with the rule of law, without the loss of freedom. How do you answer that Professor?

Dr Alan Mendoza 56:09

Very good. And can we put in Lord Arbuthnot next?

Lord James Arbuthnot 56:14

Thank you. My question is, is there a way of are encouraging China to change its behaviour, particularly in relation to the South China Seas islands, and building those? So far, our protests seem to have no effect.

Dr Alan Mendoza 56:32

Thank you very much. And Noel Hadjimichael has a question on human rights over to you.

Noel Hadjimichael 56:38

Thank you very much. As a non-Anglo Saxon in London, I asked, has the appalling human rights record of China been sanitized or convenient, forwarded by observers, in the commentary of the 6 billion outsiders living in neither the US or the PRC is the global middle class in nations like India, Turkey, Australia, Canada and Indonesia, growing cold, about China, and its overreach.

Dr Alan Mendoza 57:16

Great, thank you very much. And over to the panellists to answer. Do you want to start Professor?

Kishore Mahbubani 57:41

Let me thank you and thank everyone for the sitting so intently, and for giving me such wonderful feedback. Very useful for me. Let me just quickly respond to the three questions. The first one about how you know, you have Japan, you have South Korea, you have India. And I want to emphasize that if you read my writings, I always say the 21st century is not going to be the Chinese century, the 21st century will be the Asian century. And when I speak about the return of Asia, I talk about the return of China, India, Southeast Asia. So, the wonderful thing about Asia is that a variety of models, and it’s not just the communist model of China is the only model from Asia. There are other equally good models, like the ones mentioned, Japan, South Korea, India. But what’s interesting is that a small hint here is that if you listen to the Asian countries, they never pass judgments on each other. They always say, your system is good for you, my system is good for me. Let’s leave it at that. I won’t say yours is worse, mine is better. You don’t say mine is worse, yours is better. And if you mentioned like Indonesia, India, for example, they never come up and say, oh, why doesn’t China have a democracy? So, we want a democracy by ourselves. If China doesn’t want democracy, that’s it’s problem. We will keep what we have. The second question asked the question, very good question. How do we influence China? And I would say George Kennan gave very good advice at the beginning of the Cold War. He said, you know, at the end of day, if you’re going to win the contest, number one, it depends on your domestic vibrancy, make your model the more attractive one. Number two, cultivate friends and allies. Number three, he said, don’t stop insulting Soviet Union. I will say stop insulting China. And the fourth point he made is that be humble. So, I think if you listen to George Kennan’s advice in 1949 and apply to 2020, it will work with China. And finally, the whole question about human rights record and I will give the whoever the question was, I would strongly encourage you to read John Mearsheimer book about the great delusion because you will find, for example, when people talk about human rights violations. Let me just ask you a very simple question. Which regime Do you think kills more innocent Muslims in the world? Is it China? Or is it all the western armies who have dropped bombs on so many Islamic countries. And I emphasize that fact was, what’s interesting is that when the West launched this tremendous campaign against China on Xingjian, what really struck me was that not one Muslim country, not one, agreed to join the West in his campaign against China. And instead, a large number of them are actually pro-China, we understand what you’re doing. So, I want to just leave all your listeners with one statistic, we have never forgot that out of the population in the world, 12% of the population lives in the West 88% lives outside the West. And I hope the one small contribution I can make to all of you, is to make you understand that the 80% have a very different view of the world. And it’d be helpful for you to try to understand it. So, with that, excuse me, I have to rush to another meeting.

Dr Alan Mendoza 1:01:22

Thank you, professor for your contribution, we should, of course, let you escape. And of course, the book is available, I can see it on your shelf there. And no doubt others will want to buy it as a result. Thank you again for joining us. Thank you again for joining us. Edward, and do you want to just finish off just responding quickly to the audience because we still have a very large audience here.

Ed Lucas 1:01:42

Yes, I think that these are excellent debating points that the Professor makes, but it’s only part of the story. One of the reasons why Muslim countries are very unwilling to criticize the Chinese Communist Party’s is because China has used its economic power very effectively and countries like Pakistan, for example, which take a very hair trigger approach on questions such as blasphemy but have got excellent economic ties with China and don’t feel like criticizing the mass incarceration of a million Muslims in mind control camps in western China in occupied East Turkistan, if you take the other view of it. So, I think that there’s, there’s, there’s more, there’s more to that than meets the eye. I, unfortunately, also have to leave at this point, because I am very punctual person. I’ve booked another call for three o’clock. So, I wish you many thank you for the, thank you for the opportunity to share my views.

Dr Alan Mendoza 1:02:43

Thank you, very good as well, I’m really appreciate you taking the time out do you need that leads us to conclude the meeting.

Didi Kirsten Tatlow 1:02:50

So, it leads me to wrap up perfect. You’re very much, very kind. I just got struck by the dynamic of this discussion. Professor Mahbubani was making a point that received a fair amount of critique. That’s, that’s good, that’s healthy, I think he dealt with it wonderfully. Look, I mean, I don’t even know where to begin, in some ways on some of these issues, because I think that just let alone the statement. If China doesn’t want democracy, what does China want? I mean, we don’t really know what China wants. And it may be that China, taking it narrowly as meaning the People’s Republic of China, or the mainland of the People’s Republic of China doesn’t want to democracy as it is in the West, because it is in trouble in some ways in the West, no question. But that’s it, we have to ask, the first question is we don’t know what China wants, how are we even to know, you know, again. So, this is contested territory. So, I think on this one on build some of these assumptions, it’s very hard to, to really have a kind of a serious, you know, debate about those specific points, I just wanted to say for the record that I did not mean, I did not claim that the Chinese are all unhappy and don’t like that. I mean, in fact, I quite specifically said that, there are there are many people in China who do support the Communist Party out of a mixture of motives. One of them being, of course, that there really is no alternative and other one being that it has delivered economic wealth for a long time. Now a third You know, there’s all kinds of things going on there too. So, it’s simply not right to just say that, that that that claim was made. I mean, I guess with this issue, there’s so much more one could say but perhaps I’ll leave it there. Again, the West and outside the West, for me that’s simply too simple. You know, I’m born and raised in in Hong Kong. It’s, I know many people like me in the world and, you know, we don’t really think about inside and outside the West, we’re thinking on sort of slightly different, you know, on different tracks. And I think that these battles in Hong Kong and Taiwan now are incredibly interesting for looking to the future of Chinese culture, Chinese civilization, Chinese, you know, dreams, if you like as well. I mean, the last two elections we’ve had in Hong Kong and Taiwan returned overwhelming majorities for parties that were not necessarily completely pro-democracy in the sense that one might find it in the UK or America, for example, but which were actually quite explicitly anti Communist Party of China. Now, that’s a really important thing to look at. People are saying something there. And I just think that if we don’t take these kinds of events into account, then, you know, we’re not we’re not going to have a rounded argument. Having said that, was very interesting to hear those arguments we made. Thank you very much, everyone for your questions. I’m sorry, I wasn’t able to answer them all fully, to me too much to talk about.

Dr Alan Mendoza 1:05:52

There’s too much to talk about to people on the call. It’s just too popular a topic. But thank you for rounding it off. So, thank you, everyone, for joining us at home as well. We have another webinar, if you haven’t seen on Thursday at 3pm UK time, on how authoritarian states have taken advantage of the Covid-19 crisis, you can sign up from a website or from other approaches, but it’s quite clear this subject is not going to go away and we haven’t of course, resolved whether China has won or whether China will win. We’ve had a good discussion and a starting point about it hopefully that’s enlightened, some of you at home on that subject as well. And look forward to seeing you again at our next event.


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