Much has made of Trump’s shake-up of foreign policy norms even before he’s officially taken office, whether it’s connecting with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, having his daughter sit in on meetings with both Japanese PM Abe and Turkish President Edrogran, or launching misspelled Twitter rants in China’s direction.  I’ll be the first to admit that after Trump’s call with Tsai, I was somewhat elated that someone had recognized how impressive Taiwan’s efforts had been to create an open and democratic society in a little over 20 years.  For someone who has been an amateur Sinologist his entire life, I was also startled that I liked that the two had spoken.  I was startled because I, like many in the foreign policy establishment, had taken the official “One China” policy as a given for maintaining regional stability and had never contemplated challenging it in any sort of way for fear of what the consequences may be. Yet, with his phone call, Trump called China’s bluff and the world did not end.  However, I cannot give him credit for being any sort of visionary possessing a coherent world view or adherent to any discernible tenets of foreign policy.  I think it was purely accidental that this phone call started a dialogue about what the “One China” policy means and to what ends both sides will go to maintain a fiction that has served everyone well for nearly 30 years.  One only has to look at Trump’s subsequent actions to see that this seeming stroke of brilliance was not pre-meditated on his part (his staffers may be a different story) and does not reflect a President-elect with a strategy or plan for advancing U.S. interests abroad.  His follow-up tweets and interview on Fox News that he could use Taiwan as a bargaining chip to extract concessions on trade from China demonstrate that he understands nothing about U.S. – China relations and Taiwan’s place in the middle of that power dynamic, but merely took a phone call from someone congratulating him on and inflating his ego for winning the election.

Where does that leave U.S. – China relations when Trump assumes office next month?  If we try to extrapolate the type of foreign policy he and his team are going to conduct once in office, it might be instructive to examine his reaction to China’s seizure of an underwater drone off the coast of the Philippines.  Upon hearing about the incident, he blasted out a tweet calling the act “unpresidented” and once it had been settled that China would return the drone, he then tweeted to “[l]et them keep it!”  While there is seemingly not much to go on here, the worrisome takeaway from all of Trump’s commentary on U.S. – China relations, commentary being a generous word to use to describe his tweeting, is that the man does not have a clue as to what he’s doing and the people surrounding him are encouraging this no-nothing behavior.  At worst, Trump and his team believe unpredictably poking China like a third-grader to provoke a reaction is the best approach to calibrating U.S. – China relations and advancing his “America First” agenda.  This approach completely ignores the nuances of U.S. – China relations and the search for common ground on issues like climate change and North Korea that the Obama administration worked so hard to achieve.  While U.S. – China relations are anything but easy or predictable, it is one of the most important bilateral relationships in the global order and will only continue to become more so as China continues to rise and the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific.

I have argued here before and perhaps now believe it even more, but the U.S. needs a new grand strategy when it comes to the Asia-Pacific region.  Recent history shows us to be reactionary throughout the region, whether it’s stationing more U.S. troops in Darwin or carrying out more multilateral military exercises to respond to a rising China or slapping even more punishing sanctions on North Korea after their latest missile test.  Rather than reacting, we need to be proactive to create a regional architecture that promotes peace and prosperity in the region for everyone, including China.  Even the TPP, which would have gone a long way towards laying one part of the foundation for such an architecture, was flawed in that it kept China outside.  The U.S. decision to remain outside of the AIIB was another such decision that was more a reaction to China having created the institution rather than actually thinking about what the U.S. could do to shape it as a founding member.  Unfortunately, we now have a President and his attendant team taking power that barely knows the meaning of the word strategy when it comes to foreign affairs, let alone something that requires more forethought and nuance like a grand strategy for the Asia-Pacific region.


I never thought that I would be writing about 9/11 nearly 11 years after it happened and while sitting in Linyi, but here I go.  It all started yesterday when Ms. Jiang, the woman from Linyi University who is responsible for the international programs, picked us up for a farewell dinner.  She took us on a scenic tour of the city along the river and then down some side streets that I had not been down, including one that went past one of the best schools in Linyi.  Like most Chinese cities, there were quite a few plots of land cleared of old buildings and waiting for new ones to take their place.  As we were driving down the street, one of the plots still had debris from the previous building that had been demolished, including a large portion of the front of what looked like a two or three story market.  From the back seat of the car, John (one of the other professors from UNH), remarked to me that I probably had not seen anything like that (meaning the demolished building) since September 11th.  As soon as I heard his comment, I had a visceral reaction.  I tensed up, turned around, and told him that I thought his comment was highly inappropriate and not something that I expected to hear out of his mouth.  What was most remarkable was that he did not apologize or even act as if he realized that his comment had affected me deeply.  He just continued prattling on about how there were so few new buildings in New York and even went so far as to ask me where I was for 9/11.

Yesterday’s incident instantly took me back to that time.  I was living in Hong Kong at the time, working as an investment banker at Salomon/Citigroup, and it was evening in HK when the events transpired back in New York on what was a most perfect late summer day.  Being 7000 miles from home when something unprecedented of that magnitude happens is indescribable, so I am not even going to try.  What I can do is tell you what happened in my office in Hong Kong because of course we were working past 8pm on a Tuesday night as investment bankers.  As word of the attacks spread, most of us were either on the phone trying to connect with loved ones back in the States or watching the events live on big projection screens in one of our conference rooms.  The Hong Kong office of Salomon had quite a few Chinese nationals working there and they were also watching the events unfold back in New York.  When the first tower fell, many of these Chinese bankers began clapping and cheering as if their national soccer team had won the World Cup, like what was happening was some spectator sport.  One of my American colleagues was so angry at the combination of the towers collapsing and the apparent glee of the Chinese bankers that he punched a wall.  I also remember feeling angry and intensely American at that moment, scared of what this moment meant for the future of my country and wholly cut off from my Chinese colleagues.

John’s comment yesterday immediately brought me back to that moment when my Chinese colleagues were clapping and cheering as the first tower fell and I felt alone.  In all my time back in China since that moment, even when U.S. – China relations were at low points, when I would be asked where I was from and I replied “America” or 美国 (Meiguo, meaning beautiful country), the reaction was always largely positive.  I am not one for the sacred or taboo, but to joke about an event like 9/11 feels like crossing some invisible line.  Perhaps I am overreacting, but I just think back to that day many years ago when there was a feeling of glee from my Chinese colleagues that America had received her comeuppance and I wonder if that feeling still persists among Chinese people.  Having lived abroad relatively long periods, I have learned that many people are able to separate their love of Americans and all things American from their distaste for the country’s leaders and policies, something especially apparent during the Bush years.  But how sincere is this separation and what is to prevent distaste for one from seeping into the other.  Whenever I travel and live abroad, I try to be the best ambassador for the States that I can be, taking a balanced view to America’s policies and avoiding any of the typical “Ugly American” behavior.  Yet sometimes I cannot avoid this feeling of intense patriotism and the need to defend my country from unwarranted attacks, which is not something that easily jives with my liberal and largely unpatriotic tendencies.  The fact that John, someone who made the choice to leave China to raise his family in the States with a job in American academia, a comfortable existence in suburban Connecticut, and a son at a top American college would choose to make such an insensitive comment just baffles me.

The comment also raises the larger issue that I touched on before about whether the professed love of America by the average Chinese person is genuine.  It also raises the question about soft power, which I think is one of America’s greatest tools in its foreign policy arsenal.  American brands and culture are everywhere around the world and have pervaded even the most remote corners of the planet.  We all have a story about being in the middle of nowhere and then stumbling upon something that reminds them at home, whether it’s a song, movie, or product.  Secretary of State Clinton has made repeated comments about the strength of American soft power and its importance in the overarching umbrella of American foreign policy, but those more hawkish on American foreign policy tend to pooh-pooh this part of our diplomatic efforts.  Living and visiting China, I think it’s folly to downplay the importance of soft power.  If it was not important, China would not be trying to do the same thing and harness its soft power to extend its influence around the world.  It’s why Xinhua, the Chinese government’s news agency, opened its North American headquarters in New York’s Times Square in 2011 and announced plans to launch a 24-hour global English-language news channel.  When our main rival is seeking to project its own soft power around the world, I think it’s a clear sign that this part of foreign policy should not be ignored.

All of the various exchanges that American institutions and companies have established with Chinese counterparts are part of extending the reach of soft power and provide tangible and meaningful interactions for many Chinese people who only know about Americans from what they see in movies and TV shows.  Will more soft power eliminate reactions like those from my Chinese colleagues all those years ago when the Twin Towers collapsed?  Perhaps not completely, but such power will go a long to building links between people and tapping into that universal human feeling of sympathy and understanding.  As for John’s comment, he’s a nice guy and has been very welcoming, so I am not taking it personally, but I must admit that I did look at him a little differently when we met to go to class this morning.  I think my change in how I view him is merely because I am just incredulous that someone could make a comment like that, especially to an American who he knows has strong ties to New York.

I’ve been reading about the Uighur uprising and the subsequent Chinese government response with a certain amount of sadness and lack of surprise.  What I find interesting is the province’s top Party official has invoked the death penalty to punish anyone who is found guilty of perpetrating the violence.  The death penalty is a big black mark on China’s criminal justice system since the country kills more people each year than any other nation in the world and to invoke this cruel method of punishment against unknown targets is even more troublesome.

In my classes this semester we had discussions and debates about whether the death penalty should be abolished in China and most of my students said that the death penalty was necessary in China in order to promote a harmonious society and bolster economic growth.  I’m not sure about the latter point, but the emphasis on the nebulous concept of harmony that I have denigrated more times than I can count in this blog as a justification for the death penalty is in line with how most of my students stake out positions on controversial issues.  They start with a very general justification for a certain policy position, continue to speak in generalities, and then conclude without providing any concrete examples. For example, harmony as a justification for the death penalty.  Then some comments about it’s important for Chinese society to be harmonious.  Finally concluding that harmony should be maintained at all costs, including the possibility of erroneously killing some people when invoking the death penalty.  Errors such as these are a small price to pay when harmony is at stake.

What my students do not seem to get or articulate is that the Chinese government sometimes uses the death penalty at inappropriate times, such as this uprising in Xinjiang (新疆), when using such methods makes today’s Chinese government seem less associated with the economic juggernaut that China has become to much of the world and more akin to the China of the Cultural Revolution and all its attendant chaos and injustice.  However, my students do not view the government’s actions or policies through such a lens and are unwilling to criticize the government when they also depend on that same government for their jobs and livelihoods.

I understand the difficulty attached to criticizing your own government.  We as Americans seem to have made criticizing our government and its actions a national pasttime, which is also not always the most productive approach to building a successful civil society.  But at least such criticism keeps all the parties involved vigilant about trying to do better. Perhaps China will one day reach this point, but I’m not holding my breath that this day will arrive anytime soon.

I decided to go with a play on a 60s rock song for the title of this post.  And now on to the post.

So it  seemed a little too good to be true. I had a few weeks where I was able to blog from China without logging into my VPN, but today I was unable to connect without the aid of my trusty Yale VPN.

At least once a month someone asks me why I decided to take a year out from practicing law in New York to come to China to teach at a university.   My answer usually require explaining my long interest in China stemming  from college and extending through law school, but somehow getting subsumed by the realities of studying and building my career as an attorney.  I took this chance from Yale-China to come back here as part of a respected and well-structured program to learn about modern China by living and working here.  Being on the ground is superior to any classroom instruction I have ever had about China because I get to meet and talk to the people who are going to be a part of the next generation of leaders in this country.   I have been able to begin figuring out how China can fit into my longer-term plans as an attorney, which is easier done on the ground versus 8000 miles away.

I sometimes have very real encounters with people that bring my lofty reasons for coming here into sharp relief and jolt me into realizing how important my role here is for some of my students.  Last Thursday I met with one of my students  in response to an email  he had sent me last month.  Because of the content of the email, I decided it was better to meet in person instead of leaving a paper trail.  For those who don’t want to or have the time to click on the link to read his email, the email raised a lot of questions about the limits to freedom in China, the sycophancy of the general population, and the repressive nature of the government.  When I received his email last month, I almost started crying because my initial reaction was that this kid needed to figure out a way to get out of China because there would not be any opportunities to do anything with his ideas anytime soon.

We met and talked for over an hour and a half about his thoughts about the government, the education system, and the inability to express his ideas on freedom and human rights.  One note about this student.  His English is quite good, even th0ugh he is extremely self-deprecating about it.  But when he’s searching for the right word in English, he appears almost spastic as he is trying to get his words out to express his complex thoughts.  It’s endearing and something all of the other fellows here who have taught him have also noticed.  When we did satirical presentations in class, he was the student who brought in little stuffed grass mud horses to use for one segment of the presentation.  So as I write about our conversation, try to picture this student in your head.  

As we were talking, many ideas came out.  Some of the more salient points of our discussion include his decision over the winter holiday to read a book by a professor at the university about individual freedoms and the writings of Kafka and Kundera.  He said this book changed his view about individual rights and he wished there was some way to give the individual more power, but the government does not care about the individual and only seeks to promote harmony.  He expressed extreme disdain and contempt for the government’s promotion of harmony and community because he felt that it completely ignored the individual.  We also talked about the education system and he felt that the system brainwashed students into thinking that there was no other way to do anything.  I had heard this sentiment from other students in the past, but in tandem with all of the other thoughts he was processing, it created a very powerful realization for him.   He told me about how the government tries to get students involved in party-related activities at a very young age when they cannot question the efficacy of such activities because they are highly dependent on their parents and the school system exerts tremendous control over them and their futures.  He also shared his thoughts about some of his professors who tell the students not to criticize or question the government because it will only hurt their futures.  He could not understand why more people do not share his ideas, but he also said he could not really talk about them with anyone else because he did not know if they would be well received by his classmates.    

As I listened to his ideas, I was at a loss for words in terms of advice to give him.  My hands were kind of tied because I had to be somewhat careful about what I said lest someone else find out about what ideas I might be putting into my students’ heads and the reality was that there was little I could tell him that would change the situation.  Throughout the conversation I could see him chafing against a system that does not tolerate individual expression and works to leave most people believing that the government is too far away to be concerned about its activities (something borne out by my students when we talk about the role politics plays in culture and how most Chinese people do not talk about politics because they feel that the government does not concern their daily lives), so the government can do its work unimpeded.

Towards the end of the conversation, he told me that it is his dream to emigrate to the United States and I told him that such a goal should be something he keeps in mind throughout his 20s as he embarks on building his life post-college.  He said one of his professors told him that because of the financial crisis, the government will not make any significant political reforms in the next five to eight years.  The reason for this is apparently that if the government can steer the country through the financial crisis, it will be able to use this feat as justification for the continuation of the status quo.  After talking about so many different topics, we parted ways with the understanding that we would meet again in a few weeks after he had the chance to process everything that we discussed.

Walking out of that conversation, I understood a little more about how important it was for that student to have someone to talk to about these things who would not rebuke or reprimand him, but just listen and encourage him to let his mind work through these things.  But I also felt helpless because I felt like there was very little I could do to change his reality aside from listening to him.