Tonight, we sit down with Miles Yu, who served as Senior China policy adviser to Mike Pompeo when he was secretary of state. While many today still harbor illusions about the Chinese regime, the CCP seeks to “replace the U.S.-led international order with its own authoritarian model of governance,” Yu says. And “their internal designation of the United States as chief adversary has never changed.”
Miles Yu grew up during China’s Cultural Revolution, a decade of revolutionary change and violence in which millions were killed. In 1985, he came to the United States as an exchange student.
He’s been a professor at the U.S. Naval Academy for 26 years and after finishing his time at the State Department, he’s now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute. I interviewed him in his personal capacity.
This is American Thought Leaders, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Miles Yu, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Miles Yu: Glad to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: Miles, you were the senior China policy adviser to Secretary Pompeo. Just about all the China policy, as I understand, is something that you played a significant role in. Before we jump into this whole world, which is of course the big focus of this interview, [let’s talk about] your own perspective on China in the writings that attracted Secretary Pompeo to you and your work. Do you want to give me a summary, a picture of what that is?
Mr. Yu: Basically, what you see is that China is a big country with a binary image in the West. On the one hand, China is the great wall. China is a country of history. China is a country of incredible people and pandas and great cuisine. That cultural aspect is very important. And that’s what the Chinese Communist Party wants the world to know.
China is, on the other hand, also a Marxist-Leninist entity, ruled by a Marxist-Leninist political entity, with [an] absolute dictatorial tendency and disposition. And it’s a system that basically prohibits individual thinking and individual freedom. It’s a system that also demands unanimity in opinions. And the system of brutal dictatorship, they call it—in a very Leninist way—dictatorship of the proletariat.
Basically, China is a country of great repressive nature. So we can see that in recent years in particular, because the Communist Party has been enabled by high technology, which encouraged them to fulfill its tendency to control people, to monitor people, to exercise complete Marxist-Leninist control of the country.
So those two sides of [China] are very confusing. People who wish China well always take the former as the definitive dominant nature of China, that is traditional China, non-confrontational, nice people, great heritage. That is a mistake. As a policy advisor, we have to understand both. This is one of the beginning points that I think many of our previous policymakers in the U.S. government have made a mistake of.
This administration, actually, we tried to change that, and to a certain degree, we succeeded, because this administration had a completely different understanding of the nature of the Chinese Communist rule. As Secretary Pompeo often said, the Chinese Communist Party is not the same as the Chinese people. And the Chinese Communist Party is not the same as China, as a country. There is a completely different concept.
That actually is a very important distinction. And I think the world is taking notice of that. And more and more countries are rallying around that concept in making their own policies toward China.
Mr. Jekielek: I was thinking, there’s this one traditional culture element, cuisine and this sort of element. Then, of course, there’s the Marxist-Leninist one [as well]. But there’s also in the collective consciousness to some extent, for years, there’s this idea that China is actually becoming capitalist, right? That there’s this ability for people to rise, lifting millions of people out of poverty, to be rich is to be glorious, right? That whole mantra, so how does that fit into your vision?
Mr. Yu: This is very important for us to understand the distinction between the Chinese Communist Party and the Chinese people. In modern society, we’re heavily dependent upon two very important concepts. One is free enterprise, which is more reflective of human nature. So to be capitalistic is not really guided by some kind of theory, complicated hypotheses, economic theorems.
Capitalism in a way is kind of reality. People have this natural tendency to espouse their free enterprise spirit to [achieve their] self-interest. [It’s] not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a regulated self-pursuit. And that’s what the American systems is about. That’s what the Enlightenment spirit is all about, based on the free market idea, because the market has the invisible hand to regulate some of these things, to make people inspired to excel.
Another aspect of that is the free market spirit, enterprising spirit, must go along with individual freedom. That freedom is a great idea because without that, nothing can happen. You cannot have a free market system without freedom. Freedom basically means many things, right? The most important thing, obviously freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and basically, government will be checked by the consent of the people.
So, I think what you’re talking about, the capitalist society in China, is basically a reflection of the Chinese people and their daily practice in revealing their nature, as a free-enterprise-loving people and also freedom-loving people. The Chinese Communist Party, on the other hand, goes against that. That’s one of the reasons why the Chinese system as a whole is still a planned economy. There is some free enterprise going on.
But the Chinese Communist Party is sort of parasitical, sitting on that wealth created by the free enterprise system, capitalist sector of China. And also, the Chinese Communist Party obviously is the enemy of freedom for the Chinese people. That’s why they spend more money each year on suppressing the people, on internal security and surveillance than its entire defense budget, which is second [largest] in the world.
Incidentally, nobody can deny the fact that the Chinese economy is worse. And number two, the Chinese economic growth is tremendous, but almost 100 percent of China’s economic growth comes out of the private sector. So the Chinese economic growth, in other words, is not because of Chinese Communist Party, it’s in spite of that. That’s why you see this very big, seismic struggle in China, between the freedom-loving [inaudible] expressed by the very capitalistic people and the opposite, the Chinese Communist Party.
The idea somehow that the Chinese Communist Party can speak for 1.4 billion Chinese is absolutely absurd. The Chinese government knows this. That’s why when Secretary Pompeo said, “the Chinese people and Chinese Communist Party are different things,” they basically panicked. And that’s the one they care about most because that facade is so profoundly absurd, and they knew it. And they fear that facade will crumble under its own absurdity.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s an overlap here. For example, let’s take someone who’s been incredibly successful in China: Jack Ma, for example, right? Of course, recently he’s been checked by the Chinese Communist Party, and that’s kind of an interesting story in itself. But he had to work within the system. It’s not like he had a free hand to do whatever he wanted. How does that work exactly?
Mr. Yu: That perfectly illustrates my point. Jack Ma became Jack Ma precisely because of the government making Jack Ma [into] Jack Ma. Jack Ma started [Alibaba in] cooperation with Yahoo. Yahoo cooperated with Alibaba initially in China, and Alibaba basically gathered technology, the operating model, from Yahoo, from Amazon, from other things. And then the Chinese government used various restrictive regulations to kick those companies out. And then what you have is Jack Ma, right? Alibaba.
So in a way it’s a state-protected monopoly, not direct monopoly, but in a very indirect oblique way, to protect people like Jack Ma, who is very enterprising, very smart guy. He uses state protection to become what he is. But that’s also very ironic, because once you become too big, once he became too big and once his operational model touched upon some of the monopolistic economic and financial practices of the Chinese Communist Party, he has to be disappeared, right? He has to be gone.
For example, Jack Ma, in my view, he is a major problem for the Communist Party [because] he’s too smart, too enterprising, and he ventured into the financial sector, the payment system. That has to be monopolized by the Communist Party. So that’s one reason that, in my view, explains his downfall.
In other words, the Chinese economy, it’s a very weird hybrid of some sort. The Chinese Communist Party controls major economic operations. It can allow private sectors to thrive only to a certain degree, only to serve its own self-interest. Once the economic growth is unleashed by the free enterprise system, the party is not going to tolerate it.
Virtually one of the most dangerous professions in China is a billionaire, because they’re too influential. The party takes precedent. So, that’s not a free market economy. Actually, in a philosophical way, it’s insane, to allow a non-free market economy to participate in the free market system of global trade. That’s why China’s participation, membership in the WTO is very, very ironic. No major institution, no international financial institution, no major country in the West, recognizes the Chinese economy as a free market economy. Keep that in mind.
Mr. Jekielek: Yet it has full access to the international system.
Mr. Yu: Exactly. So that’s fundamentally unfair. That actually is the major reason why China could thrive, because by taking advantage of the international free market system.
Mr. Jekielek: Miles, perhaps you knew this all along, but when did you realize that U.S. policy towards China was fundamentally flawed? And what was it that was the starkest to you?
Mr. Yu: I cannot really pinpoint to [a certain moment], like I have a piece of sushi and then I have a sudden epiphany about what went wrong. I think it’s a gradual, gradual realization. And I think one of the turning points perhaps was the Tiananmen massacre of 1989. I was not the only one who reflected on our China policy at the time.
The entire western world was shaken by the brutality and callousness of the Chinese Communist Party toward human life. But because of my personal experience, there is this weird sense of schadenfreude because I said, hey, I told you so. Because I hoped that finally, that was a wake-up call and people would have a fundamental change of course on China. Obviously, that didn’t happen.
We still harbor this same kind of illusion about the nature of the Chinese Communist Party. We still have this kind of 19th century, very obsolete, missionary sentiment. Somehow, the Chinese government and Chinese people have this burden of history. It’s incumbent upon us to bring these hapless Chinese from the pre-industrial age to the modern world, to make China a stakeholder, a responsible stakeholder, so to speak.
That is completely, completely off-the-wall to me, because as I said, there is a fundamental difference between Chinese people yearning for freedom, just like anybody else, and the Chinese Communist Party, which is a very brutal, Marxist-Leninist entity. And we in the West, constantly, constantly underestimate the degree to which China is still a communist party.
If you look at all these communist parties in the world, the Soviet Union, the Vietnamese, North Korea, and Cuba, Laos, the Chinese Communist Party is probably the most ideologically intoxicated, most dogmatic political party of Leninist stripe in human history. Yet, we don’t tend to think of the CCP in that way.
We always think about China as somebody with the burden of 5000 years of history, led by some reformers like Deng Xiaoping, Zhao Ziyang, all those people, without thinking about them, first and foremost, that they are dogmatic followers of this Western-originated radical ideology. Look at the domestic policy. Look at international policy. Every single major policy move there is motivated by this kind of ideology, and we don’t look at it that way. I think that’s the ultimate shortfall of the U.S. foreign policy.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s fascinating when you describe it this way. To me, having watched this unfold for some years, what I’m thinking is, one of the very, very successful forms of what’s called unrestricted warfare, in this famous book by the two Chinese military leaders, is information warfare. It’s the manipulation of information, the creating of narratives, the passing on information or creating demands from diplomats with an expectation that the U.S. will respond in a particular way. That’s what you’re making me think of here.
Mr. Yu: We always have the best wishes for the Chinese people to succeed—in the policy circle, it’s China to succeed. Again, China, Chinese people, and the Chinese Communist Party were without distinction before, until in the Trump administration, we made that very clear, and I think there is a very interesting dichotomy here. While we have always harbored good wishes for the Chinese people to succeed, the China that was ruled under the Communist Party never ever considered the United States an ultimately friendly country, because the Chinese Communist Party always regarded the United States as a leading force of an anti-China conspiracy, trying to sort of stifle the rising socialist experiment in China.
And that’s why their strategic paranoia has been completely deep. Every single policy engagement with the United States, they affirm it in this way. And everything, either trade talks or engagement with the U.S. scientific community or with the U.S. military, is all a matter of struggle. It’s all a matter of how to overcome American hegemony, as they say.
The internal tension against the United States, internal designation against the United States, as its ultimate adversary has never been lax inside the inner circle of Chinese Communist Party. That’s basically paranoia. If you look at their Belt and Road initiative, if you look at trade, it’s a Lenninist fighting group. It’s a very vigilant group. So that’s something that we have to keep in mind.
As a policy advisor, when I hear the Chinese leader talking about mutual respect, you have to look at the other side. You look at some other speeches that he made. It’s widely available in China. It’s actually very astonishing to me sometimes, to see in American news media, in the American climate and opinion framework, we don’t see that part.
When Xi Jinping makes some hostile belligerent speech—[inaudible] socialism triumphant, the return of Chinese leadership under the glorious Communist Party—we tend to think he is joking. We don’t think that’s just the natural way. So that’s what they are.
We [the Trump administration] don’t want to create a Chinese Communist Party that is not true. And we look at them as what they are, not what we wish them to be. And that’s one of the things that we did during the Trump administration.
Mr. Jekielek: Just to clarify, basically up until the Trump administration, you’re saying that the foreign policy establishment was looking at China and the CCP through these rose-colored glasses, basically?
Mr. Yu: Yes, intentionally or unintentionally, that’s the case. I think there were some conceptual shortfalls there. One of which is that the American foreign policy establishment is such a big machine, big bureaucracy, just maintaining this bureaucracy is a daunting task. So that’s why much of our foreign policy toward China in particular, has been consumed by how to maintain and manage a smooth, operable relationship, rather than doing the right thing and concern with doing things right. And that’s our shortfall.
We don’t look at how the policy has been flawed, but we only operated based on how to maintain and run a relationship based upon a flawed framework. And what [the Trump administration] did is we tried to change the framework. Rather than focus on how to do things right, we focus on how to do the right thing. And it’s a combination of both. And that has really explained, I think, the success of the Trump administration.
Of course, we didn’t do everything right. But at least we did the right thing. And that actually is a very important legacy of Trump’s foreign policy toward China in particular.
The second most important shortfall is that every president has his priorities. China has always been up there, but it’s not always at the top. We tend to reach some other short-term political objectives, foreign policy objectives by playing the China card. In other words, China is never the ultimate objective of our foreign policy. Rather, it’s a conduit through which other strategic goals [are accomplished], defeating the Soviet Union, getting out of Vietnam, or solving the North Korean nuclearization problem.
So China always is a conduit. We’ll play the China card for some other reasons. China knew that. So China basically took advantage of this and manipulated us. So while we try to play the China card, the Chinese Communist Party played the U.S. card much more adroitly, much more successfully. And it was President Trump, [the first president] since Richard Nixon, who first realized this problem. And he called China the top strategic priority. We have to change the dialogue, change the mechanism.
On U.S.-China relations, we put China as the focus, the objective of our foreign policy initiative. And because there’s no other major challenge than the Chinese Communist Party in our foreign policy, so China is no longer a conduit. China is China itself in our foreign policy circle.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s very interesting. We know, at least from what I’ve understood, that the National Security Council, in the current Biden administration, every department will have some kind of China-related activity. Basically, the entire NSC supposedly is going to be China-focused, which is very interesting. Perhaps this is something that’s inherited from the Trump administration.
Now, my question is, there are of course a number of very large foreign policy challenges. You could say Iran; you could say North Korea, right? You could say Russia even. Why are you so certain that China is the absolute top most important, in a class of its own?
Mr. Yu: You can look at this from three perspectives. One is intention. Secondly, is capability. Thirdly, is opportunities. In terms of intention, in the old days since Richard Nixon, we only care about political expediency, right? And we only care about managing a relationship, managing the U.S.-China relationship. So we rarely talk about intent.
The Chinese Communist Party is not going to compete with us peacefully in a nice genteel way with dialogues, coffee, and banquets. They want to basically replace the U.S.-led international order with its own authoritarian model of governance. Many people thought they were comfortable when they were ruling China this way. Now, they’re expanding globally. So that becomes a challenge not only to the United States, but also to the entire world.
So from the very beginning of this administration, we believed that the Chinese Communist Party threat is not just to the United States, but also to the entire freedom-loving world. So we tried to bring all different allies together in a very multilateral way. And Secretary Pompeo, I know he spent most of his time building this global awareness, global coalition to face the China challenge.
Many of our friends and allies didn’t see [China] that way initially. As a matter of fact, they were the ones who accused us of being unilateralist. But they were the ones [who were] the most unilateral because they didn’t want to go along. Only in the last year or so they came around, facing the China challenge as a global threat, and particularly because of COVID. So many more countries, friends and allies came to our side. That basically is a very important part of the story.
Mr. Jekielek: That was the intent part.
Mr. Yu: That’s the intent. So we understand China is not going to be nice, because they always look at the United States as its chief adversary. By the way, one of the most important reasons why they think that way: [it’s] not only because Marxist-Leninism tells them that. [It’s] also because of the enormous inspirational impact of American democracy, American model of governance.
It’s extraordinarily appealing to the Chinese people. And that scared the Chinese Communist Party enormously. So that’s why they spare no effort trying to discredit the American system, American democracy. And COVID gave them the opportunity. Listen, this country is not perfect. There are a lot of inadequacies when it comes to racial equality, when it comes to gender equality, many other things.
But the Chinese Communist Party is in no position to criticize America as systemically racist. The Chinese Communist Party is the most racist political entity in the world. It classifies entire ethnic groups, the Uyghurs, for example, as some kind of pariah of society, and it took action against them, put millions of people into some kind of restrictive confines. Yet, this is a country that criticized the United States [for] being racist after the death of George Floyd. And the hypocrisy couldn’t be more disgusting. So that’s basically the intent part.
[Second is] capabilities. Now, because of failed policy in past decades, China took advantage of the global free enterprise system and became very rich and wealthy. And much of its practices are actually very predatory, particularly in forced technology transfer, industrial and trade espionage, and many other aspects to make China rich and weapon-rich.
And also, most importantly, because of the hardworking Chinese people who contributed to China’s collective wealth. But the Chinese workers, working-class, are sort of alienated in a way. Their own creation comes back to torment them because they create the wealth, but the Chinese Communist Party owns it, and comes back to haunt them. And working conditions, union rights, they don’t exist in China. And also the working conditions are pretty bad. So that’s why there is this aspect. Because of all these very good conditions, the Chinese Communist Party could take advantage [of them]
They became very wealthy, and it did become technologically strong and advanced. So they’re much more capable than say 30 years ago, when [the] Tiananmen Massacre took place. With that kind of technology, with that kind of capability, and economic power, they have built a very powerful military, for example. They have built some of the critical weapon platforms, in space, cyber, undersea to name just a few.
And so their capabilities are much more threatening to us. So we have to take China more seriously. That’s another reason that qualified China as number one. [China] is much more capable than Russia. Russia is more capable than China [in] only perhaps one area, that is its nuclear arsenal. A nuclear war between the United States and Russia has a long lasting impetus. It’s highly unlikely. There’s no deterrence reason for Russia and the United States. In other words, Russia and the United States are not a real match.
The Chinese economy is about seven, eight times bigger than Russia’s, and [China] spends twice as much money on its defense than Russia. So that’s a capability we have to take very seriously.
And China and Russia are very different in a way. [And that relates to] my third point why China is the number one national security threat to the United States and in the world: that is opportunities. So I mentioned intent, I mentioned capabilities, and the third aspect is opportunities.
In the old days during the Cold War, it was the United States against the Soviet Union. Each country led a camp of their own, a coalition of their own. They were completely separate economically, militarily, and even socially [inaudible] interaction. China is different. China enjoys many, many more opportunities than the old Soviet Union to enrich and empower itself, because China is integrated into the global system under strictly Communist Party guidelines.
So they have a lot more opportunities to exploit. And that’s why China is much more difficult to deal with and to integrate China within us. Its technology is penetrating globally. It’s a full member of the global trading system. It’s also a member of many technological regimes. So China, for example, can send its near monopolized WeChat to the United States and gather enormous amounts of monitoring information.
Still, we have a problem dealing with that, mostly from a legal point of view. So that’s why it’s a much more serious threat than anybody we know. That’s why, based on these three points I just laid out—intent, capabilities and opportunities—China is this country’s number one security challenge. We have said from the beginning. In December 2017, at the beginning of the Trump administration, the White House published the national security strategy and clearly said that we have to really focus on the threat, the primary of which came from China.
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned earlier that the Chinese Communist Party is basically parasitic on China and the Chinese people. And this sort of integration into the global system, does that effectively make it parasitic, essentially, on the whole world?
Mr. Yu: You can say so in a philosophical way. I think much of the world has come to the conclusion that somehow it has to change. It has to change. Because it’s always very nice to think that the two systems, we can peacefully compete with each other. But no, it’s not [possible]. The Chinese always say the struggle against international capitalism is a matter of “ni si wo huo” (你死我活)—you die, I live. And so that’s their perspective.
They’re not going to peacefully compete with us. When [Nikita] Khrushchev said to the Eisenhower administration, let’s just compete peacefully, he didn’t really mean that, because the Soviet system was meant to bury imperialism. They were supposed to kill, eliminate the international capitalist system. China has to carry the mantle in a much more sophisticated way. And we allow China to be part of the international order. I think the world should wake up.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things that you’ve said—I think I have a direct quote here from an article about you a little while ago—you said, “The Chinese Communist Party has been able to capture a significant portion of our China policy elite class.”
Mr. Yu: True.
Mr. Jekielek: But what does that mean, exactly, capture?
Mr. Yu: It means that China can use its influence, this extraordinary control of access to China, to Chinese leadership, and the influence of money, funding, to create a dependency upon Beijing, so that many people after their work in the government would have to go to the Chinese Communist Party elite, to get any access to China. So that created a very unhealthy and very dangerous, permanent class of a China lobby group.
There are so many people who were in the U.S. government in very high positions. When they retire, when they get out of government, they do consulting, right? And they consult not only [for] the corporate world, which is okay. They also consult for the Chinese government. They’re for hire. And that’s what free enterprise systems are about, ironically, but unwittingly they become agents of China.
They exert tremendous influence in our country’s foreign policy, and particularly China policy, the formulation process. And that’s extremely dangerous. One of the crowning achievements of the Trump administration is that we minimized that kind of unhealthy influence of the China lobby during our China policy formulation. And trust me, I know this because I was in the whole play.
Mr. Jekielek: I think we can summarize the Trump administration’s approach to China, and approach to the Chinese Communist Party, in something that Secretary Pompeo said in his speech at the Nixon library: “distrust and verify.” I don’t know if you’ll agree with that, but that seems like the three word summary. Can you describe for me, briefly, the core tenets in your mind of the Trump administration’s approach?
Mr. Yu: One of the most important things that we’ve seen in the last 20 years or so, is obviously a phenomenon called globalization. Globalization, not [only] in terms of economic integration, technological integration, but also national borders were changed. People’s travel habits changed, and Europe became more united.
So all this is wonderful in a very philosophical way. But because of globalization, there is also a danger to eliminating individuality, particular nations’ characteristics. So there are two major things that are going on simultaneously. There is a natural reaction to stick to the roots. The Chinese Communist Party is doing that. So is the United States, we’re doing that too.
Let’s talk about China. The Chinese Communist Party, since Xi Jinping, in the last eight years of his rule, has been going back to its fundamental roots in defiance of the harmonizing international globalization trend. Xi Jinping said, “wu wang chu xin” (勿忘初心) which means go back to your initial ideological commitment, by which he means: “Don’t forget, we’re a Communist Party. Don’t forget, we are the Communist Party with a mission to carry out a socialist system to its ultimate triumph.”
That’s why Xi Jinping’s first and foremost achievement during his reign is to bring the nation back to its Marxist-Leninist ideological roots. You can say every aspect of the nation is geared up, hyped up for that. If you look at the internet apps about Xi Jinping’s thought, there is a reintroduction of political studies and ideological training and indoctrination. They lock up Uyghurs in the camps to study not only just some basic trades, that’s basically a ruse to study Xi Jinping thought, to study party documents, to study Marxist-Leninism in replacement of their religious and cultural beliefs.
This is basically a movement to go back to the roots, in response to the globalization phenomenon. In the United States, we also went through a similar experience. The 2016 election victory by Donald Trump was a reaction to that harmonizing, globalization trend that threatened to eliminate national uniqueness. So that’s why he came up with the thing that we have to go back to our roots.
Our roots are what? America first. In everything we do we have to place American interests first and foremost, foreign and domestic policy, so we could no longer allow the elimination of American jobs, and elimination of American sovereignty in the name of globalization. So that’s what Trump’s essential message was all about. America first. America is a sovereign nation, and we’ve got to go back to the roots.
Under Secretary Pompeo, our foreign policy carried exactly that kind of message. We created, for example, the Commission on Unalienable Rights, going back to the fundamental impetus of American democracy, that is freedom versus tyranny. This nation was built upon that. So that’s our original blueprint for this nation. So there is this kind of tendency to look for the roots, the nation’s spiritual roots, both in China and in the United States.
That’s one reason that prompted Secretary Pompeo to say—if you pay attention in the Nixon library speech that you mentioned, which was a wonderful speech. He said, “We can no longer ignore the fundamental political and ideological differences between China and the United States.” Because we represent something that’s fundamentally different in terms of values, ideologies, and governance models. There are many other things too. One of the very important things that we carried out, obviously, is to try to restore America’s international reputation, our trustworthiness in the world. It has to show that we mean business when we say something.
When President Obama told the Russians, “Here’s my red line in Syria. If you cross the red line, we’re going to do something against you.” Vladimir Putin never took President Obama seriously. When they did cross [the] red line, the Obama administration didn’t do anything.
The Trump administration is different. When we told Russia, [here’s] A, B, C, D, that you cannot cross, we meant business. When they did cross, we took action. We literally stopped Russian interference in Syria. We did the same thing [with the] dictator in Syria, and in Iraq. We said, “If you do this, if you [inaudible] people through biological and chemical weapons, we’ll take action.” So we bombed their military facilities.
When we said, “We’re going to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem”—many, many presidents said the same thing before, and nobody took any action, so America’s credibility was undermined and was basically challenged. Then this administration did it. So when we say what we will do, we do it. That’s why America’s reputation was on the rise, contrary to popular belief. Many people didn’t like President Trump’s personal style, that’s understandable.
But whatever we did, we gained attention, because they took us seriously, and our credibility was back significantly. The idea that we somehow were doing this unilaterally—we’re going solo without the international community rallying around us—is not true. Because multilateralism has to have a goal. We have to have an object[ive]. What’s the purpose of multilateralism if we don’t have a common vision?
So we say the China challenge was the global challenge, our number one global challenge. We want our friends and allies to face that challenge multilaterally. Many of them resisted. We [used a lot of effort] to form that multilateral coalition. So that’s the hallmark of the Trump administration foreign policy—to forge a multilateral alliance to face the China challenge. To say that we’re unilateral is just completely untrue.
Mr. Jekielek: As the Trump administration came to a close, what did that alliance look like?
Mr. Yu: Better than ever. When you hear NATO Secretary Stoltenberg say that NATO should consider the China challenge in the Indo-Pacific, that is amazing. We convinced them. If we said this three years ago, it would have been unimaginable. He said that last year. When we sent our warships through the Taiwan Strait, which is in international waters—in defiance of China’s ridiculous demand claiming that we have to get their permission first—when we did that, major countries, allies, and friends followed through. France, Germany, the U.K. and even Canada sent warships through.
So that’s leadership. That’s basically: stick to your first principle. And I think we did that. America has to be the leader of the world. When we take the lead, free nations will follow. It’s not because we’re being arrogant. It’s because we’re the country that is capable, and also we’re the country that has the capability—we’re the country of consequence to China, to stem Chinese expansion globally. That’s why we’re in a position to do a lot of things that other countries cannot.
More and more countries are more comfortable with that. We have some very staunch allies—Australia, for example, and Japan, obviously, and even some countries not necessarily lining up with us ideologically, but for geopolitical reasons, we share common interests, and we do things together, like Vietnam, for example. So this is a global effort to face a global challenge. I think we should be proud in serving this administration and achieving this many good results.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s jump to the Biden administration’s approach to China, which we’re beginning to see how it’s looking. There’s been discussion of holding China accountable, and making sure that there’s—I think the term “extreme competition” has been mentioned. At the same time, it’s been said that it’s going to be different than what the Trump administration did.
Why don’t we start there? One of the last things that the State Department did, and I know that you were involved in this to a great extent, was to basically designate what the Chinese Communist Party is doing to the Uyghur people as a genocide. [This is] extremely significant to me, knowing what’s in the 1948 Genocide Convention, what the meaning of that is. What should the U.S. do now, in your mind, because the Biden administration has inherited this and agreed that this is indeed happening? What should the Biden administration do now?
Mr. Yu: Just follow the legal consequences of what that actually means. This designation is significant, as you say, because if you’re a genocidal regime, there are a whole bunch of international and domestic and national policies that should go along with it. The 21st century should never repeat what we saw in the ’30s and ’40s of the last century. We have enough evidence to make such a decision. The only thing that we have to be concerned about is political leadership and courage to face the [Chinese] regime with candor.
The best way to stop such a genocidal practice is to tell the perpetrator of such genocide, the truth. Only when we do that can the international community solve such a problem and prevent future genocides from happening again. The Biden administration, obviously, is new. They have a right to carry out his own policy orientation. But I think this is one of the areas where you can see a larger extent of continuity in terms of policy. To designate China’s Xinjiang atrocity as a genocide is no small feat. The new administration agrees with us, and that’s very reassuring, obviously.
My biggest hope is that the Biden administration will not go back to just treating the relationship as a simple matter of management, a simple matter of engagement for the sake of engagement. There has to be a goal. We should also be realizing, it’s not going to be a nice peaceful competition. I don’t know what serious competition means. Serious competition means that the Chinese system is basically poised to eliminate us as a competitor once and for all. We use the word existential. I hope that they will agree with me on that definition of seriousness.
Mr. Jekielek: Implementing this may be a bit of a challenge for the Biden administration. China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, not too long ago, basically laid out the red lines—the red lines of Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, of course, and Taiwan. “These are Beijing’s internal affairs, don’t go there America.”
Mr. Yu: The Chinese Communist Party wants to look strong. They have this tendency of bullying their people, so that kind of bullying has become a habit. They are in the business of telling their own people what to do, what not to do, and they’re experts on that. They carry that kind of habit to [the] international foreign policy arena, telling the world what not to do, what’s good for them, what’s kosher to the Communist Party. Some of it is clearly ridiculous.
They keep saying. “International ships, particularly foreign warships sailing through Taiwan, are a red line. Don’t go there.” For decades, since 1969 as a matter of fact, right after Nixon de-escalated the Seventh Fleet patrol in the Taiwan Strait, we gave up on that right. We basically succumbed to China’s bullying and demand on that red line. The Trump administration basically took a different [approach]. If it’s legal, if international law allows [for it], we have the right to pass through that [even if the] Chinese government tells us it’s a red line. We did it.
So we have done dozens of warship passages through the Taiwan Strait. As I mentioned earlier, allies followed our example, doing the same thing. That is very significant, because it shows two things. One is that, yes, China has a red line, but China’s red line is constantly shifting if they’re facing international resistance, particularly from America. So there’s a kind of bullying inside of that. They’re calling our bluff. If you care so much about how the Chinese Communist Party feels, about how much their feelings will be heard, then we’re going to go into a vicious cycle of constantly downgrading the relationship. So in a way we have listened to them, operated a bilateral relationship on their terms, void of international rules and mutual agreement.
So we sailed the warships through Taiwan Strait multiple times, last year about 13 times, a year before it was around 17 times, I forget the exact number. That is very significant, because we follow international law and follow our own principles. We essentially internationalized the Taiwan Strait. That’s the best defense of Taiwan, and that’s also the best example of implementing the original agreement between China and the United States back in 1972, or 1979. That is, we want the two countries, the United States and China, to agree to a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan situation.
The United States has always maintained that any application of force in the Taiwan Strait to solve this Taiwan Strait problem is against our national interests. So this is the way to restore international credibility. That’s one example. China has a red line in Hong Kong. China has a red line in Xinjiang. What China is essentially telling the world is that we’re going to lock up a million Uyghurs in concentration camps. We torture them, we suppress their freedom and you, the international community, are not allowed to say a word in protest. Otherwise, you’re not respecting us. You’re crossing a red line.
The world has to wake up to that kind of bullying. We cannot really agree to that kind of red line. So I’m trying to tell you that the Chinese red line is the Chinese Communist Party’s red line, that’s all. It’s not the red line based upon international law, international conventions—that China had to sign on to, but is never willing to implement.
This is not interference in China’s domestic policies, in domestic sovereignty, because at some point, you cannot kill people and commit genocide in the name of sovereignty. The International Committee has long established that rule since the 1940s. That’s my perspective on Chinese red lines. The international community should have its own red lines, and it’s incumbent upon the Chinese Communist Party to really heed those red lines.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. What do you make of the fact that the Beijing Olympics are happening in 2022, ostensibly, without too much challenge—we are hearing a little bit of some challenges now—with a regime that’s committing genocide.
Mr. Yu: It’s always soothing to say, politics and sports do not mingle. I’m for that. But from the Beijing perspective, politics and sports essentially are the same, because they use international sporting events like the Olympics to propagandize the Communist Party’s all-around greatness—to demonstrate to the world China is a country that nobody could be critical of, no matter what it does.
So, it is the Chinese Communist Party that has politicized international sporting events like the Olympics all along. The burden of proof should be on the Chinese side, not on the international community. As you mentioned, and you phrase it very well, “How does our conscience reconcile the fact that we reward China with such an honor as hosting these international events, while knowing it has committed genocide?”
Mr. Jekielek: Bottom line, what would you recommend to the Biden administration, vis-a-vis the Olympics, in this scenario?
Mr. Yu: First of all, so far, I don’t think the U.S. government has taken any concrete action on that, so there’s no policy change. But there has been growing pressure from international human rights organizations to call the world’s attention to this profound irony of letting a genocidal government host an international sports event. We, as a government, should take advantage of this situation to press China to change its behavior. That’s probably the safest way to do it, short of calling for a total cancellation or boycott. A boycott probably is not fair to the athletes.
But this is the dilemma in future Olympics awarding standards. That is, we should be very, very careful and stringent not to award regimes of a totalitarian nature any kind of honor like this. Now, I must say, there’s also a historical lesson to learn from here. China hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics. It gave China enormous prestige, but also gave the Chinese Communist Party a great opportunity to fancy itself as the ultimate representative of Chinese nationalism. So it basically legitimized the Chinese Communist regime as the national government, rather than a Leninist party government.
The International Committee went along, with the sincere hope that such international sporting events being held in Beijing would force China—at least the reformers within the Communist Party, to reform and to change. That didn’t happen. And that’s the lesson. Instead, the international community has been used to enhance the authoritarian regime of the Chinese Communist government. So that’s basically the lesson that we should learn in future awarding of international honors, such as hosting an international Olympic event.
Mr. Jekielek: We got a hint from the chief editor of the CCP propaganda mouthpiece, the Global Times, this idea that Beijing will sanction any country that boycotts the Olympics, or do some kind of sanctions. Obviously, they think this is very important that the Olympics go ahead without any issues.
Mr. Yu: Actually, this shows China’s paranoia. The world should take advantage of that. One of the very unique and comical features of the Chinese communist regime is that it has done enormous things and perpetrated many crimes against its own people. Yet, it wants to look good, it wants to be respected. That’s probably not a bad thing, because we can exert pressure on them to change. If you want to be respected, you behave better.
Mr. Jekielek: The Biden administration has indicated that it’s going to continue some elements of the Trump administration’s China policy, and that it’s going to do many things differently. One of the things that it indicated it’s going to do differently is this fairly recent rule about educational institutions disclosing their relationships with these Chinese propaganda organs—the Confucius Institutes. In December, there was a new rule that was submitted, and then in January, it was actually pulled back. So there’s a change there. My question is, what elements of the Trump administration’s China policy that you’ve been so deeply involved in are permanent and are going to make it through? And which ones will be tougher to keep?
Mr. Yu: Let me address the Confucius Institute issue first. Many people have to understand that once you make a policy recommendation, you have to make it official through a labyrinth of bureaucratic processes. This is one example. We made a decision about the Confucius Institutes, but the bureaucrats have to go through all these procedures to officially register it. The cancellation you’re talking about, of the disclosure policy, by the time the Biden team came along on January 20, that registration process had not yet finished. So that’s the bureaucratic reason to have this cancelled.
But of course, it always takes leadership to overcome that. You can continue this process, right? It all boils down to the new team’s leadership. Now, one of the things that we did was we designated the Confucius institutes’ U.S. headquarters as a foreign mission. I don’t think that has been changed. That’s something very concrete. We designated the Confucius Institutes’ U.S. headquarters, which is in Washington, D.C. and directly reports to Beijing, we designated that as a foreign mission. I think that’s been done.
The requirement of American universities and campuses to disclose their agreements and deals with the Confucius Institutes, that’s the bureaucratic process we’re talking about. That, to me, is a minor issue. Again, I still remain cautiously optimistic that the new team will continue what we have done. As a matter of fact, they agreed with virtually every major initiative we have done on Taiwan, on Hong Kong, and on Xinjiang, those major pieces we’ve done. I understand they have some issues about trade, and they have some issues about the approach, unilateral versus multilateral.
Give them some time and they will realize we actually have done similar things. They’ll also realize how difficult it is to do those things in the larger framework. But we did our best. To answer your question, to what extent will some of the Trump administration foreign policy stay, and to what extent will it be temporary—I think we have laid the foundation of a renewed understanding of the Chinese Communist Party’s intent, capabilities, and opportunities. We have won the argument. We have not completely finished the entire policy orientation, but we’re almost done.
Winning the argument about the nature of the China challenge is actually the most significant to me. That I think is going to stay. I don’t think anybody can look at China in 2021, the same way we looked at China in 2012, or 2015, for example. The Trump administration started with President Trump’s campaign, and it had a unique approach to the nature of the threat posed by the Chinese Communist Party. Initially, it was from the economic nationalism point of view. Gradually, with the leadership of Pompeo, for example, we expanded our understanding that the nature of the Chinese Communist threat was not only economic, but also military, and cultural, and you name it.
So it’s a comprehensive reorientation of our understanding of the Chinese Communist Party’s challenge to the world. Secretary Pompeo repeatedly said, “The challenge posed by the Chinese Communist Party to the world is the central threat of our time.” That part is going to remain. I even heard President Biden say, “The China challenge is number one, and the entire government is thinking about that.”
Mr. Jekielek: To finish up, I’m still thinking about the way that the Chinese Communist Party has co-opted, to some extent, international organizations. We have the WHO, which recently discounted the U.S. intelligence community perspective on the origins of the coronavirus. At the same time, we have the Biden administration’s interest in cooperating on certain issues, for example, climate would be a big one. Then, of course, there’s this threat of the China lobby, which you said is still quite powerful. My question is, what do you see as the biggest challenge Biden administration faces keeping this clear position on China?
Mr. Yu: Again, the most important thing is to appreciate the new argument about China, about the nature of the Chinese communist regime, about the separation of Chinese people and the Chinese Communist Party, and about China’s intent, capabilities, and opportunities. If you keep those major things in mind, it will be fine. One of the most important things is that the U.S. is a global power. The U.S. deals with major countries, not just China, but Russia, and Iran, from multifaceted perspectives. There are hundreds of regulations and policies toward one particular country.
U.S.-China relations are extremely complicated. There are thousands of regulations over there, thousands of policy decisions to be made. But we should always stick to the most fundamental [thing]. That is, American interests first, America first. We’re not dealing with China for the sake of political expediency. We’re not dealing with China through compromise. We’re not dealing with China for the sake of dealing with China. There’s always a result in our mind. If you keep the goal in your mind, that’s the first step to success.
By the way, the Chinese Communist Party never lost its goal. They played the long game, and from one regime to another, from Mao [Zedong] to Deng [Xiaoping] to Jiang [Zemin] to Hu [Jintao], and even to Xi Jinping, there’s a remarkable ideological consistency. Their policy toward the United States has never changed. Their internal designation of the United States as chief adversary has never changed, because of our enormous inspirational impact upon Chinese people. That frightens them majorly. So we should be confident in our own strength, in our own virtues and merits, and deal with China, not only as a primary adversary, but also look at China as an extremely weak and fragile empire, based upon repression and surveillance and a profound fear of its own people
Mr. Jekielek: Miles Yu, it’s such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Yu: Glad to be with you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.