Former Asst. Secretary of State David Stilwell: The China Diplomacy Trap, Dangerous Aerial Intercepts, and Xi Jinping’s COVID Paranoia
“When we say war, the first thing Dave Stilwell thinks of is my F-16 with bombs, kinetics, killing people and breaking their things. … That’s not how the PRC thinks of war.”
I sit down with retired Brigadier General David Stilwell. From 2011 to 2013, he served as the defense attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing and was appointed assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 2019.
“We want this to be a cooperative relationship like we have with other countries. … But after 40 years, you have to assume that this plan isn’t working and we’re going to have to change direction. And so the relationship is defined by the lowest common denominator, and that’s the PRC approach, which, guess what, is a cold war. … It’s ideological, and in fact, is existential.”
Why is China engaging in dangerous aerial intercepts? What’s fueling the Chinese regime’s “zero-COVID” policy? And how is Beijing weaponizing our media and information systems against us?
We discuss all this and more in this episode of American Thought Leaders.
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Jan Jekielek: General Dave Stilwell, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Brigadier General Dave Stilwell: Thanks. It’s good to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: Dave, under the Trump administration, you were the assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. What exactly did you do? And actually, let’s look into your history of working in government as well to start.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: We’ll start with how I got to that job. I was retired happily in Hawaii where I currently live and the opportunity to come back to DC to work came up and I said, “Absolutely not. I’m never coming back.” And then 14 months later there I landed. So how I got there, my last job on active duty in the military in 2015 in the Pentagon was I was the advisor to the chairman of the joint chiefs, on the same portfolio. And so I was fairly comfortable with how diplomacy works because we worked a lot with the State Department there. And then how I got there is here I am wearing my Beijing military attaché core tie.
Everybody who was in the attaché group there has this tie. I wear it intentionally for these events. And I spent two years in Beijing as defense attaché. With a name like Stilwell, you can understand that the history goes way back in 1973. I read Tuckman’s book as a kid on Stilwell and the American experience in China. And my career and my life pretty much has pointed… It’s just very nicely merged into these jobs that got me to Beijing, to the Pentagon, and then to the State Department.
Mr. Jekielek: But you were also a fighter pilot. We got to talk about that.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right. So I joined the Air Force in 1980 as a Korean linguist and as an enlisted man. And then I went to the Air Force Academy from there. I didn’t really think about flying at all, but if you go to the academy, you’re expected to fly. So I went to pilot training and I did pretty well. So I came out as a fighter pilot. So I started off in F-4’s, the old Vietnam era aircraft, and then very quickly transitioned to the F-16.
I did two tours in Korea. I did six years total in Japan, in the F-16, and a bunch of assignments in the U.S. That most recent unprofessional intercepts against Australian and Canadian surveillance aircraft near China allowed me a chance to pontificate a little bit on what an intercept is supposed to look like. When I was in the Pentagon, we worked very closely with the PLA, the People’s Liberation Army to get them to stop doing this, explaining to them why you don’t want to see a repeat of the collision we saw on one April 2001, near Hunan Island.
Wearing wings on your chest gives you the credibility to actually tell them, explain to them because none of them had that—tell them why it’s a bad idea. So I flew a lot and I did a lot of diplomacy in uniform and then beyond.
Mr. Jekielek: So why don’t we start there? So tell me about these intercepts because we have been publishing on them, of course in The Epoch Times quite a bit. Deeply problematic, obviously. But you’re looking at this from a bit of a different angle too.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right. There is no reason to get any closer than 500 feet. The intercepts, they serve one purpose. It’s called an air defense identification as a keyword zone is to identify an unidentified aircraft that is getting close to your territorial airspace. And this comes out of the Cold War when Russian bombers would come over the pole into Canadian airspace and we didn’t know if they were going to actually penetrate and try to take… Were they actually attacking us or were they just testing us?
So to check that, you would actually go up and intercept these aircraft and then tell them that, “If you go any further, we are prepared to shoot you down.” That’s what intercepts are supposed to do. U.S. surveillance aircraft do not get anywhere near Chinese territory of aerospace. It’s 12 miles. And they are out there in international airspace where everybody is authorized to fly. And then we have these events, these sporadic events, incidents of Chinese interceptors showing off in some ways trying to annoy those aircraft who have a lot of people on board for making a political statement.
In the past, those intercepts have been, I think for the most part, a breakdown in flight discipline, something we train our pilots on. You will maintain flight discipline. We think these are like Lingshui for sure was a pilot named Wang Wei who is just showing off and because he could. But these last two were problematic because of the timing. They happened back to back. And therefore you have to conclude that they were told to do this from the very top. When that happens, that’s something we need to talk about.
Mr. Jekielek: So what are they doing?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Well, generally just flying two close. Again, 500 feet. That’s five fighter lengths. A fighter is about 50 feet long. That’s five fighter lengths away from the other aircraft. That’s a lot of room. But when you’ve got them so close that if the intercepted aircraft, the surveillance aircraft, they get so close to you that you can’t turn. So when you try to make your left turn to change direction, you’ve got this fighter right there and you don’t know if he’s going to get out of your way.
So flying too close is one. They will do airshow antics over the top and that’s a very difficult maneuver to perform—this barrel roll. We’ve seen that. And the most recent one we saw with Australia was what they call thumping. It’s when here’s the surveillance aircraft, when they’ll pull out in front and then a distance that’s so hard to judge, they will turn the aircraft in front of and create a closure problem, and in doing so disturb the air. And then making the surveillance aircraft fly through the disturbed air can cause structural damage or worse.
If he misjudges the distance, you’ve got collision potential. And then this last case, when they’re putting out expendables, in this case, chaff, you’re putting this junk down the engine of the airplane. Remember, these guys are operating in international airspace, legally. They’re doing nothing wrong and yet we’ve got the PLA doing these things. It’s unprofessional. It’s unnecessary. And as we saw in 2001, it can cause enormous problems in terms of escalation.
Mr. Jekielek: Yes. So what is it that they’re trying to accomplish? You’re in a position to think about this, right?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: It’s messaging. And I think, they think that if they do that enough, then crews won’t want to fly these airplanes because of the risk of being hit and killed. You can’t eject out of any heavy aircraft, out of a surveillance aircraft. There’s no escape option. A fighter, you pull the eject hand on, you go up the rails and you have a parachute.
So if this guy crashes into you… And again, in 2001, the P3 crew did a good job of recovering the aircraft after they knocked the nose off it and busted the engine. If they hit them hard enough, they’re not going to survive that thing. So I think it’s intimidation and I think they think they can make us stand off more by doing that. International airspace is international airspace period. So those are the rules.
Mr. Jekielek: So the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, so there’s a lot. The State Department is rather a large organization. So what is it that you were actually doing over there?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: We were executing national policy and then where there are opportunities suggesting, and in many ways developing national policy on the region, obviously. So we spend a lot of time talking about China. My background in China was helpful in that regard, but again, I’ve got time in Korea. I’ve got time in Japan. My replacement, Dan Kritenbrink, has a lot of time in the region as well. So he’s a very good fit.
He came out of Hanoi as the ambassador, which is really fortuitous, I think, because, I think, we need to put a lot more effort into Southeast Asia. And I think Dan would agree with that, that Southeast state is 650 million people, is the future. Our American business is doing great work in Southeast Asia. When we show up, an American business like Hewlett Packard shows up in Malaysia where we saw them, they train Malaysians to work in the Hewlett Packard area. And then they send them back to the U.S. for further training.
They sponsor them for college degrees, Starbucks. You can do your college with Starbucks in Vietnam, for instance. This is what American business brings. It’s our basic diplomacy [and] is our American businesses. And then of course the diplomats follow. So I really would like to spend a lot more time cultivating our relationship and our connections in Southeast Asia.
Mr. Jekielek: So I can’t help think about a recent headline that we have about Hong Kong and how things have really drastically changed over the last couple of years. I’ll read the headline. China’s ministry of state security issued regulations to reward citizens for reporting so-called, “acts endangering national security to CCP authorities.” So Hong Kong, and this was considered to be one of the freest societies in the world not too long ago, here we are. And this is not that far from Malaysia right now. This is a reality. Things are changing.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: When I got into the job at the State Department in June of 2019 and the protests in Hong Kong were just beginning. And from that time, really from June of 19 to June of 21 year Beijing walked back on its commitment to a joint declaration with the UK that said that they would guarantee Hong Kong autonomy for 50 years through 2047. And after 23 years, they walked that back. And that really bowed ill for the people of Hong Kong.
I had one chance to go there in, I think, October of 2019. That’s the only time I’ve ever been to Hong Kong and it’s the only time I’ll ever get to go, where we met with people like Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong. So we met with the pro establishment folks too. And it was clear that this was not going to end well. That was in 2019. We saw what happened in the National People’s Congress in 2020. And then in July, the national security law was enacted, which basically said, really it defines extraterritoriality, which we were accused of as an imperialist country, insisting on exporting our laws to other places.
But the national security law says that if you were to say something derogatory of China, that the law applies to you here, sitting in this studio. Now, the only way they’re going to force it is if you end up in China. But this is a very bad outcome. Anything you say or do, tweet. Daryl Morey, Houston Rockets general manager says, “I stand with the people of Hong Kong,” and they attack the entire National Basketball Association costing millions of dollars.
Hong Kong is a bellwether of what Xi Jinping says is this new type of leadership and governance that we can all expect. And the good thing about it is it put everybody on notice of what they really mean. In the past, they’ve been able to talk around these things. Now, we know what they mean. Any opportunity to speak freely is gone. They will tell you what you can do, where you can live, who you can talk to. Social credit, those things are all being imported. And this is not a system anybody in their right mind would sign up for.
So Hong Kong, as terrible as it is for 7 million people and the people, especially, who are being locked up. It should be a notice to everybody else that when you hear Xi Jinping talk about the new type of governance and global leadership, I don’t think you want that. Nobody would sign up for that.
Mr. Jekielek: And now cash rewards for informing. Basically that’s the ethos.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things I’ve noticed is that we heard a lot about Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong and others, 2019.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: Right? We don’t hear that much about them anymore. It strikes me that part of what happens when this type of repression takes hold and increased censorship, it’s almost like we can start forgetting because that information just isn’t coming out. It’s not in the news.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right. Beijing has mastered the 15-minutes of fame. They understand the news cycle. You can get away with a lot of things because it’s going to be obvious. It’s going to be taken over by something new. Ukraine has got everyone’s attention right now. So it’s really our job to remind you of the two Michaels, Spavor and Kovrig who were taken hostage for over two years, because Canada rightfully executed an extradition treaty requirement with the number two, the heiress in Huawei, Meng Wanzhou.
All Canada did was execute the extradition requirement based on very solid evidence that Huawei and Meng Wanzhou had broken the law sanctions on Iran. And then Beijing turned around and just grabbed two random Canadian citizens and held them in horrible conditions. I mean, limited access from consular visits and those things to let them know that you haven’t been forgotten.
This is not how great powers act. And the terrible thing is we have yet to hear from the Michaels. That story has not… Meng Wanzhou went home as a reigning, conquering hero. She made speeches. She was all over the Chinese media. We haven’t heard a peep out of the two Michaels. And that makes you wonder if there was maybe a non-disclosure agreement, threats made. Who knows what else has been done there? I think we should hear from those two.
And that puts American business on notice. Do you really want to operate in a country where you have no real rights? And as far as Joshua Wong and Jimmy Lai, these people, we need to remind. We hear this phrase, “Say their name.” We need to say their name and remind everybody this is the score sheet of how many of these horrible affronts to human rights we’ve seen over and over. And let’s not even talk about Xinjiang.
Mr. Jekielek: This is really very disturbing, isn’t it? Because as soon as you shut down Jimmy Lai, you shut down Joshua Wong… And this is really interesting, right? The two Michaels ostensibly could tell their story now, right? But they’re not. These things just fall out of, almost out of memory.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Yeah. It’s very much 1984, right? This is the idea of being disappeared is out of sight, out of mind. They are still trying to get by. They’re still surviving in some prison. Probably not in Hong Kong. They’re probably back in the mainland somewhere. I think Beijing’s counting on those two names, never being uttered again. So we should consciously keep asking, where are they? Where’s due process? The crimes they committed were not “crimes” at the time. And I use the word in quotes. What the national security law defines as crimes were actually perfectly legal in Hong Kong before the national security law was invoked in 2020.
So this is retroactive. Basically thought crime. There is no way this would stand up in court, what they did as any sort of a front or an offense, and we need to talk about that.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the Chinese Communist Party strategy, vis-a-vis the U.S. Tell me what is it? What are they doing now?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: One of my jobs in the Air Force way back when was, I was in charge of the aggressor program. I simulated the potential adversaries that the good guys, the blue force would take on. And we did it in the air flying jets, but we also did it in the space realm and in the information space. This is where I got my introduction to what cyber warfare looks like. As I’m watching what they’re doing, and I’m seeing how the PRC has complete access to our systems, our internet, and all those things, and we with the great firewall have none, no ability to influence theirs.
The logical response is to build up our own firewall, to prevent the PRC from entering ours. And so I presented that to the secretary of the Air Force and he just shook his head, and he’s like, “Yeah, as soon as we do that, we’ve lost. Once we stop being ourselves, we’ve lost.” So we have to accept that we will give adversaries full access to our people, our systems. “China Daily” inserts in the “New York Times.”
These are all things that, again, we have to fight with one hand behind our back. We had Ambassador Branstad write an oped, a very benign oped and asked… It was right after the then Ambassador Cui Tiankai here in the U.S. had done this really inflammatory presentation in the American media space. So I go, “Two can play that game.” So we drafted an oped for Ambassador Branstad to place in “People’s Daily.” And knowing full well they wouldn’t.
So not only did they reject it, but they actually gave us a rejection letter that we then published. A very benign oped. The idea there was to contrast what our ambassador can do in the PRC and what Cui Tiankai could do here in the U.S. to get American people to go… Because they all think that everything’s the same there. Without having been there and seen it, you just don’t know.
So I love to contrast the two systems as much as possible to make our fellow citizens understand that it’s a much different place. It looks alike, it’s similar. The words are the same, but living there, you understand it’s a totally different animal and it’s become even more so since the advent of Xi Jinping.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, given your thinking then, it’s not surprising that you’re the one that was working on developing these reciprocity programs, right? Why don’t you tell me about this, the kind of the philosophy behind this and how much you were actually able to accomplish or not.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: I love my time at the State Department for a couple reasons. They let me choose my own team. Everybody who worked for me, I picked. It never happened in DOD. I always inherited the group my predecessor picked and luckily the guy I often followed was a genius. A guy named O’Shaughnessy. But I got to pick my group. I knew those people from my time in the embassy in Beijing. And so they knew who I was and we had a relationship. They were listening to me when I came in.
My number one priority, the only thing I ever talked about was messaging. I wanted to get the American message out there, at least as loud as the Chinese message here in the U.S. That was it. So they’re listening to me talk, and I often complained about how his defense attaché in Beijing had zero access to anybody or anything.
My counterpart here in DC had full access to everything. He had every phone number. He could call anybody, set up meetings, take him out to lunch and all that stuff. I’m thinking, “How is that fair?” When you go to at attaché school at Bolling Air Force base here across the river, they teach you that, “Dave, in the past, your weapons as a military person were bombs and bullets.”
I would force people to do things, do my will. In diplomacy, you don’t have those. Your weapons are whiskey and words. And so you’re there to coax and not coerce, but convince people that you’re on the right side here. As they heard me talk about this non-reciprocal treatment, as much as I tried, I never got real access to the Chinese PLA system.
My folks came up with the idea of reciprocity. They go, “Well, what we hear you saying is that you want to give them a taste of their own medicine.” And I mentioned Bolling where I went to attaché school. Four months, it was really, really good. There was nothing to happen in Beijing I wasn’t prepared for. And what they said is the basis of diplomacy is reciprocity or transaction. You kick me, I punch you. And then as the relationship improves and you can work your way up that pyramid into something that looks more like cooperation or eventually comity, C-O-M-I-T-Y, comity. Well, we couldn’t get beyond reciprocity, unfortunately. But look-
Mr. Jekielek: Did we even get to reciprocity?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: The name of the program was reciprocity, and the idea was that until you begin to live up to your commitments to cooperate, we are going to treat you the exact same way you treat us. So reciprocity was the means, not the end, right?
Mr. Jekielek: Okay.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: It was how we were going to get to something that was truly reciprocal. From there, then we can now upgrade to the next level, which is agreements and then building trust by following through on agreements, et cetera. I didn’t come up with the program or the name. They heard me and they said, “Okay, boss. We think this is what you want.” And I go, “That’s exactly what I want.” And we just made it more difficult for their diplomats in the U.S. to move around, operate, talk to people. Nowhere near as hard as it was for me to do my job in the PRC. But as a message to say, “We can play this game if you want to, or let’s do the right thing.” I don’t know if we succeeded.
Mr. Jekielek: So you got quite a bit of flack while you were in the administration, I remember your attempting to do some kind of reciprocity with respect to the media. What was the idea and how did it play out?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: I’m a big fan of the media. The fourth estate is a key element to democracy. To have an informed electorate who can make good decisions during elections, you have to have good information. And what we needed is good information of what’s going on at PRC, which we weren’t getting. We were down to about 30 American visas per year that the Chinese government would grant. And even those were being selected. So if you were a good, solid reporter, Jane Perlez or one of those, they just pretty much turned off your access and you were no longer allowed to come to China.
So the only people that were allowed to stay there reporting were the ones that PRC determined more friendly to the regime. In the meantime, if you looked at just comparative numbers, there were at least 160 declared PRC affiliated “journalists” here. And I use the word journalists with quotes. They work for the government, so they’re not really out there to discern the truth.
So 160 to 30, and we were trying to figure out how we let them know that we’re serious about getting to real numbers. And the number was 100. We want to get 100 of our journalists without friction. And of course we’ll let 100 of yours stay. And so we coordinated with the national security council. We canceled 60 visas. I can’t remember exactly when that was with the intent of basically saying, “We’re serious about this. You either bump up the visa numbers, or we’re going to continue to cancel until we get to basically zero. And once you get to zero reciprocity, you give me one, I give you one.”
This is the absolute worst, most basic form of diplomacy. But when the other side is not cooperating, you have to go there. So that was the intent. Meanwhile, we have to deal with our own people who rightly say that we’ve got to have people in China reporting on this stuff. And even if there’s only 30 of them, it’s better than zero. So we have to maintain awareness of the business model and the impact it’s having on American citizens and American business, while at the same time, doing our best to make sure that we get this relationship back on a footing that’s beneficial to both.
A new type of great power relations, “Xinxing Daguo Guanxi,” is what they rolled out when Xi Jinping first came out. I think it was probably 2013 or so, these three things; mutual respect, mutual benefit, and I can’t remember the third one. I believe that one was win-win, win-win. It was a translational problem because there’s no such thing as win-win as a noun. But the mutual respect and mutual benefit aspects, I always remind them of that. This is your policy. And I’m asking 160 to 30, tell me where the mutual respect and mutual benefit is? I mean, to hold them to their own claims and their own terms. It didn’t help. It was not a compelling argument, but we tried.
Mr. Jekielek: How many of these 160 were actually doing any semblance of journalism that you could tell?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Well, because they had visas, the U.S. government then is aware they’re on a journalist visa—I think a J visa. So you knew who the people were here in these journalism positions. And in those positions, they should be acting as journalists. We looked for bylines because we had the names and we looked for something saying, “Hey, reporting to you from Washington DC, this is me.” It was really hard to find any bylines from these people.
And this goes to the dual nature of journalists in the PRC system is to them it’s just as valid to have journalist here who is taking PRC language and broadcasting it to Americans, convincing Americans of how things should be, telling us how bad the administration is, botching the relationship and those things. We don’t agree with that and we think a journalist that’s posted in Beijing is there to report on the situation on the ground in Beijing to do otherwise falls outside the space of what a journalist is authorized to do.
They are not there to pontificate or harangue Americans on how great China is. They’re there to report back to the PRC on what’s going on in the U.S, which they weren’t doing.
Mr. Jekielek: So let’s go big picture back to what I started a little bit earlier. There’s a lot of different explanations for why the Chinese Communist Party is doing things both internally and in terms of foreign policy and action, the way it is. They range all the way from… They’re just looking to have some security in the region for themselves to they’re looking to dominate the world, impose pax…
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Sinica.
Mr. Jekielek: Pax Sinica, thank you, on the world, so to speak. How do you see this?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Unfortunately, I ramble for hours on this. Let me go back to the absolute basics of life in the PRC or in China. How’s that? For last two millennia, at least. By my understanding, PRC and the U.S, total acreage are about the same. Unfortunately, PRC only has about half of the arable land that the U.S. does. They can only farm about half land because it’s a Tibetan plateau and a lot of desert. So they only have half land they can grow food on.
At the same time, China has… Usually, because of the Confucian ideal and the, again, rural population that needs more and more hands to work, typically had about four times the population. 1.4 billion compared to about 350 million for us. That means every acre of land in the PRC has to generate about eight times the food. And that’s a huge demand on the government to make sure that farmers are allowed to farm and feed.
So the type of government that resulted from this, the Confucian ideal focuses and heavily stresses the idea of order, right? Relationships. Father to son, brother to brother and all of those things. And then the worst thing you can have in China is chaos. Chaos is a bad word in Chinese history. So this new type of authoritarianism seeks to reduce the possibility of chaos and allows… It provides an economic and a governmental political space where business can thrive. People can expect better things for their kids. These are all laudable.
Unfortunately, that allergy to chaos lead you to overshoot into this realm of authoritarianism where you tell people who they can marry. You can tell them how many kids they can have, one. Now, you tell them they have to have three. And it becomes a very invasive leadership type political theory.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ll just add, with the injection of the very Western communist ideology into the system.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right. Yeah. So you got Marxism-Leninism on top of already a controlling type government. And you understand why, because chaos has forever been the enemy of the Chinese people. When the government breaks down, food production breaks down, famine breaks out, et cetera. Now, rewind to the first 30 years of the communist party in 1949 to 1979, and we saw the Great Leap Forward; 36 million dead of starvation from famine. You saw just weird applications of Marxism-Leninism through the cultural revolution. Chaos, right? State-sponsored chaos.
So all these assertions that this new type Chinese communism is somehow a model for the world, don’t hold up to scrutiny. When you look at the things, the excesses that we’ve seen over the last 70 years from the communist party. And for those who’ve been there, I can [no] longer go there because I’m sanctioned. But for those who’ve been there, they say it’s really, really feeling like it’s drifting back into the cultural revolution era. Friends of mine who still have the courage to stay in touch, say… One guy said, “How did I anger God so much that I have to suffer through a second cultural revolution?” That’s how it feels right now in the PRC.
So this idea of control is really spun out of control. It’s making its neighbors more difficult to work with. Border war with India. There’s a lot of talk about China and Russia being friends. That’s absolutely not the case. I could talk for long time on that, if you want to, border wars and all those things.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, maybe friends like Germany and Russia were not too long ago.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: Right?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: But Germany’s come around. NATO’s come around. The EU has come around and says, “You can’t have that there and expect it not to affect you here.” Simple things like supply chains, the ability to sell Volkswagens in China. All those things are at risk now and Europe is finally standing up for what it says it believes. And that’s really encouraging. I can’t say enough about what Japan has done over the last 10 years. Fantastic.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’re saying that this incredible focus on order, and I mean that’s… And I suppose manifest in these extreme lockdowns, recent extreme lockdowns. I just want to talk a little bit more about that. But you’re saying that in itself is creating… Your friend is saying, this feels like another cultural revolution. When you think cultural revolution, you think the red guard going from home to home killing people that aren’t ideologically correct, are identity correct. Square that for me.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Well, you make a good point. It’s sort of a mix between the Anti-Rightist Campaign or the Hundred Flowers Movement in the ’50s. It’s a mix of that and the cultural revolution. But I think he’s talking about the cult personality, the Maoism that came out of the cultural revolution. My PLA counterparts are required to study Xi Jinping thought for hours each day, which means they’re not studying their craft of defending their country.
For a guy like me, that actually is an advantage by overly politicizing the military and pretty much every… I mean, look at what happened to Jack Ma who’s simply trying to run a very productive Alibaba business. But because he was either seen as a threat because he was getting too powerful and rich, or because he didn’t listen to what they wanted him to do as far as IPO, putting shares out there a little bit. Whatever it was he did wrong and I don’t know what that is.
We didn’t hear from him for, what, two or three months? And then when he did come back, like Peng Shuai, the tennis player, he was very abashed, very quiet and clearly had been threatened that if he continues down this path, good things weren’t going to happen. So this is that, again, very strict ideological lockdown that we remember from the bad old days.
I was there in 1988. This has nothing to do with the Chinese people. All they want is to be able to live their life, raise good kids and expect something better for them. So never take any of this to be a criticism of the people. This is about the government, the party.
Mr. Jekielek: Before I go back to the big picture again, what about these lockdowns? Again, many different theories about why, but unquestionably, it’s incredibly destructive to the social fabric [and] to the economy. At least in China, of course, it’s disrupting this… Some of these theories have to do… They’re disrupting all sorts of supply chains.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right.
Mr. Jekielek: How do you see this?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Two things. One control. This is an authoritarian government that needs to control everything that goes on in the country. Because if you let things go on their own, if you let business do its own thing, if you allow a liberal market, a liberal economy, you quickly lose control. It was 2012 when the Japanese had nationalized Senkakus and Beijing lockdown on Japanese. They actually rousted people from their offices and forced them to come out and protest in front of the Japanese embassy, which is right next to the American embassy.
We would talk to them and their heart wasn’t in it. They had to do this. And oftentimes when they were done with the protest and they said, “Now, can we protest against government corruption?” And you the handler was like, “Oh, no, no, no, no. Not today. Let’s not do that.” So they have to control these things. They have to control who they protest against or quickly goes right back to the government. Corruption is endemic, it’s visible, and as Xi Jinping has recognized, it’s a significant threat to the existence of the communist party.
As far as COVID, Beijing put itself out there as having handled through the brilliance of the party and Xi Jinping at the core has mastered COVID by lockdowns. And then it became… Remember it was zero COVID, then it became dynamic zero COVID and they having to modify it. The problem is they can’t be seen as wrong. They have to be infallible. And the reason is there’s no election cycle.
In our system, if the government proves itself flawed, makes bad decisions, well, come election time, we’ll vote in another government that maybe has a better view or whatever. There is no such pressure relief in that system. And so the government has to be seen as maintaining the mandate of heaven. If you think about Chinese history, when all of a sudden the weather will go bad and famine would break out, and all those things, the emperor was no longer seen as having the mandate and therefore was no longer good enough to lead, and we would see a change in government.
So all those things I think contribute to Xi Jinping want to be seen as infallible. And you can see it’s having… We knew that lockdowns for COVID was really sad as we follow them down that path in many ways. I wish we hadn’t done that. And this speaks to the effectiveness of the PRC propaganda machine to affect policy in the U.S. And we need to grow sensitivity to that.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. So that we definitely need to talk about before we finish. I want to go back to the bigger picture. Again, let’s go to that spectrum of China trying to maintain its own regional control and security kind of what we started talking about all the way to Pax Sinica sort of manifest destiny. China needs to rule the world. What’s the reality?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: The summary, at least, in my mind is authoritarian regimes require buffers. Think about it. The Russians had Eastern Europe and the Central Asian republics. China has North Korea. You can’t have a burgeoning democratic market, South Korea… Let’s say there was unification on the peninsula and then you had that democratic system sitting up on the Yalu River right next to Liaoning and the northeast.
They can’t tolerate that. They have to keep those things away because the people… And that’s why you have the great firewall is you can’t have your people understanding how other places live because they’ll demand the same thing for themselves. It failed in 1991, right? Gorbachev is the great… I mean, he’s the devil in the PRC. Richard Nixon is a God. Richard Nixon is up here on a pedestal because he’s the one that brought them.
The rumor in China, the common wisdom is that Nixon was brought down because he was seen as too close to China. That was the reason he was impeached. I mean, this is how you create a narrative inside the country, by controlling the textbooks, by controlling what people can read. You can get people to act differently if they don’t have the entire data set.
But information is like water. You can’t hold it in your hands. You can’t control it. This information is getting into China, no matter what you do. We trust that. The people I talk to know this. But the pressure to conform is so great that they don’t stand up and react. And I know you keep trying to get me back up to this level. So the U.S. has allies and partners. We could take credit for the Quad, but we can’t. China gets credit for the Quad for its mistreatment of India.
India, for the longest time, tried to maintain a good trade relationship. This is nothing but opportunity for India. But when China builds the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor pipeline through contested territory in Kashmir, or when they fight multiple border wars with India, eventually India has to say, “You know what, we’re going to need some help on this thing.” And the Quad began in 2004 after the great tsunami. And it sort of lost movement. It lost momentum. And then it came back basically with the border wars going.
Obviously, we’re very happy about that. And India will do what it does as much as is in its own interest. But these are things that Beijing sees and they see the U.S. containing them. They see us as the ringmaster in this to bring Japan, Australia, India, and all of us together to what they say is contain China.
I say they’re containing themselves. Their abuse of the Japanese in the Senkakus. Their abuse of Philippines in the Scarborough Reef, the South China Sea, overfishing and claims, these are things that are all making it very difficult for Laos and Southeast Asian elsewhere to continue this relationship with the PRC.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, what about One Belt One Road? I mean, that’s a massive, massive financial operation, logistics operation for the PRC. Seems like they’re building Navy capable ports in all sorts of places that aren’t too close to home. What’s going on?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: My fellow China watchers don’t like when I say this, but guess what? It’s the U.S., you can have many opinions. Let 100 flowers bloom. We did this, right? We built calling stations all over the world. As China’s interests become more global, it makes sense that they were going to want to maintain the ability to control access to African markets and African commodities. All the things that that economy needs. But I have a map that shows the belt road to me is really about energy.
When it first came out, I distilled it down to it’s about access and influence. Access breaking out of the East, South China Sea, straits of Malacca choke points, right? Because the U.S. pretty much with our friends, controls those things. And building a pipeline into a place called Kyaukpyu Burma, Gwadar Port in Pakistan, and then building a line that goes over land to Europe, right? A rail line that now you can move European goods back and forth overland.
And then there’s a pipeline, the power of Siberia pipeline from Russia where they can desperately… Energy. All of those deliver energy. Gwadar has yet to actually accomplish anything because it’s impossible to actually make that work. But it terminates in the Arabian Gulf. And it’s right there at the heart of global energy production. So that’s what Belt Road is about.
But unfortunately, they can’t help themselves. And from there, then they can… Hambantota Port. $8 billion project that wasn’t worth anywhere near that. They use this idea of elite capture, where you put money in the pockets of government leaders who are more than happy to take it because in these countries there’s no transparency to hold these people accountable. And you buy off leaders to make deals that benefit… Mostly China benefit the individuals, but actually bankrupt the people themselves.
The examples in Africa are just stunning. And you’re seeing it elsewhere. Pakistan. There’s 15,000 Pakistani soldiers dedicated to prevent attacks on these Chinese workers and the rest, right? Because this is a very unpopular program. It did not deliver what it said it was going to. It’s clearly entirely in interest of the PRC. Why wouldn’t you hire Pakistani workers to do this? I gave you the example of Malaysia with Hewlett Packard.
We hire locals. We train them and we make them… Teach man to fish, they’ll eat forever. That’s the motto. But that’s not how the PRC system works. They take their own people out there and they build these things and it creates antibodies. We just have to be smart about how we message these things and offer alternatives to these.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, there’s lots of examples. I think Malawi is one example, right? Where there’s pretty significant pushback happening around what the Chinese Communist Party, how it’s sort of set up in these countries, right?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: With elite capture, you get big four-lane roads to a presidential palace. And these things all benefit the leaders. But as far as developing like water resources or railroads that take you to places where you can actually benefit, those roads that you bought their job is to actually move commodities to ports, to sell, to keep your economy going. That’s how they’re going to pay these loans off that they’ve taken. These ridiculous loans.
Hambantota in Sri Lanka is a good example. In exchange for $1 billion, I think of eight total, in exchange for $1 billion in debt relief, because the Sri Lankans couldn’t service their debt, they gave up a 99-year lease to the port of Hambantota where the PLA is getting ready to start operating. That’s the model. You’d think they would’ve negotiated 8 billion complete debt relief in exchange, but they only got 1 billion. There’s still seven. I think it’s $7 billion in debt. Talk about debt trap.
I mean, this is how… And then once that happens, you can control these governments. You don’t no longer have to keep paying off the Sogavare and the folks in Islamabad. You don’t have to do that. Now, you’ve got them over a barrel in terms of defaults and the rest of those things. So it started off as really a good idea. Infrastructure is just an unvarnished good. It helps everybody. It’s the unfortunate debt and the rest of those things that go with it—the influence that goes with it that makes it a bad deal.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, it’s interesting that you mentioned that port in Sri Lanka, because I think that is exactly a case in point that some of our mutual friend China watchers would point to and say, “Aha, no, this is Chinese imperial ambition.” Right? So how do you respond to them?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: It depends on what that port eventually is going to be used for. As I said being able to… They were calling stations in the 1800s. After the year of, at the age of sailing before we had long range freighters. You had to stop every so often and put more coal on the boat. And so we created a bunch of these ports. Tripoli, Libya was one where we could refuel and provision and keep going.
The business of America’s business. The only service that actually is in the constitution is the Navy. Maintain a navy, build armies when you need them otherwise… Or well-ordered militia. I mean, we, as a nation are all about commerce and trade. This is what we do best. The PRC also benefits from commerce and trade. When it’s done right, everybody benefits equally from that.
So I don’t deny them. There’s nothing nefarious about actually accessing these ports to protect your movement and all this stuff. It’s what you do with them afterward. So then when you deny the CCP lore, we will never have overseas bases like those horrible imperialists. Well, Djibouti just negated that, right? And they now openly admit Djibouti is a PLA Navy base.
So they’ve obviated their main foreign policy guideline, which is non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. We see that everywhere and they’ve obviated their claims that we’ll never do what the imperialists did. And we should hold them to that. We should ask them in public to answer to that. One Belt One Road gives you lots and lots of opportunities. You’re going to see that in Cambodia now with the ream port. Pretty sure they’re going to do that in Solomon Islands, any chance they get.
Again, you talk about thinking larger about this though. I’m not entirely bothered by that in putting my uniform back on. It’s because that’s the last military equipment in South China Sea and East China Sea. The farther field they go, that just means more stuff they’re going to have to maintain and more military presence. They have to maintain [it] in all these other places. And believe me, it is not easy to maintain an overseas base. It takes a lot of work. We make it look easy, which is why they fell into that trap. But what that does is it dilutes those folks.
We’ll talk philosophy on this again some other time about targeting, but in the past, America was so big and strong that we could be basically a Nebraska lineman. In any problem in front of us, we outweighed the other defensive back by 50 pounds and we would just knock them over.
It’s not that way anymore. PRC is not the Soviet Union. So we have to think more in terms of judo. We have to allow the adversary to do what they’re doing and then capitalize on the mistakes, right? Judo, you use your adversaries’ strength against them. And we need to think about that. We need to be smarter in how we do it. And we can do it. There’s been examples of a good use of judo that… But we do need to do more of it.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to go back to something that you mentioned earlier and that was how China believes that the U.S. is trying to contain it. Right? And I can’t help but think that recently our State Department has been saying, “Well, actually, no, we’re not looking to contain China.” And actually responding to various assertions of the Chinese regime. Tell me your thoughts here. Who’s right here, actually, is kind of the question?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: I don’t want to get too controversial, but there is a line of thought in journalism where a question is not a question, right? How long has it been since you quit beating your wife is the example they use, right? When PRC says, “Stop containing us,” they’re waiting for us to fall into that trap and then deny it because now you’ve gotten that message out twice. They’ve said it and we’ve repeated the accusation and then nobody hears the following and says, “But we’re not doing that.”
And the fact is we are not trying to contain them, but we keep falling into this trap of negating it. I mentioned the attaché school at Bolling. We covered all this stuff, right? How do you make public statements? And what are the things you say?And you don’t say as you do your media training? You never repeat the accusation.
You get your message out. You don’t repeat theirs. You’re only helping them when you do that. And the fact that we clearly are not trying to contain them, as I said earlier, it’s their actions in India and the South China Sea and elsewhere, and Japan with the Senkaku that’s doing it for us. I mean, I wish I was that good when I was the assistant secretary. They’re doing it.
So I don’t even want to entertain that idea. But to keep saying that… Again, diplomacy 101, you don’t repeat the accusation, especially if it’s not true.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and then there’s of course the recent sort of differing statements about Taiwan independence, which have drawn a lot of… Well, a lot of criticism and then these questions about strategic ambiguity whereas what’s happened to that? Your thoughts.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: So in 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and President Bush one at that time was giving a speech. It was August 2nd, 1990 and somewhere within a couple days that he was giving a speech and he ad-libbed at the end of the speech. Somebody asked him about the invasion and he says, “This will not stand.” And they asked him again, he said, “This will not stand.” That became American policy. Right? At the time we were trying to figure out what we were going to do about the invasion.
President makes policy and what the president says becomes policy and Desert Storm ensued and we removed Iraq from Kuwait. When President Joe Biden three times says, “If they invade, we will not sit idly by, we will come to their assistance.” That’s a pretty clear message the PRC knows what our policy is. Frankly, I love that.
It’s very clear to those listening, ambiguity has its purposes, but there are some things you want to be clear on. So when the president says that we will absolutely come to their aid, and oh, by the way, Japan said the same thing and Australia says, it’s inconceivable that they would not be involved in some incident like that. That’s a very clear message to Beijing. I think that’s great. I’m very happy with the way that’s worked out.
On the other hand, and this is why ambiguity is good, the PRC is very good at testing. When you make a commitment, they’ll put a… You draw a line, they’ll put a toe over it to see how you react. And in general democracies tend to be very forgiving. And that toe becomes a foot and it becomes a whole body and all that. So we don’t often do well when tested.
So this is where ambiguity comes in. You don’t make that a bright, solid red line. You make it kind of a fuzzy line where they’re not quite sure where that line is. That ambiguity actually helps prevent what you don’t want. It’s a deterrent because they don’t know when you’re going to react. And that endless testing will begin once you draw that line. So I’m of both minds. I think the way they’ve played it actually has worked out pretty well.
Mr. Jekielek: Except that it’s not really clear what the policy is at this point. Right?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Well, I don’t want to speak to whatever internal deliberations are happening in the White House and its State Department. There was a very good statement here where they repackaged the Taiwan relations fact sheet. And that word, that sentence that says we do not support independence was removed. Now, to the average reader the absence of a line doesn’t matter, but that message was pretty clear in Beijing. Again, that was a very good outcome. And just to let PRC know… What happened is in 1979, we made an agreement that says Taiwan reverts… Our recognition moves to Beijing and Taiwan now is an open question.
And if your knee is the line of 1979… Over the years, we have traded away Taiwan space in the hope that Beijing would see that as a positive sign and they too would meet us halfway. They’ve never met us halfway. We have just given away space and never gotten anything in return. All we’re doing now is acknowledging 40 years of trying hasn’t worked and we’re pushing the line back to where it was in the initial agreements to let them know that if we’re going to make an agreement, you’re going to have to hold up your end. They haven’t held up their end.
Mr. Jekielek: So what about this line about that we do not support Taiwan independence? How does this… Does that mean that the State Department ostensibly is taking that position?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right. Again, diplomacy is a very interesting… Henry Kissinger wrote a book like this on it. I can say I haven’t read it, but having been involved in this process for 10 years, there’s just some basics that don’t come to you and me on the average citizen. For any issue, there are three courses you can take, not two. There are three courses you can take. One, affirm it. Two, you can deny it. Or three, you can say nothing about it. And the saying nothing about your stand on Taiwan independence is a very valid tactic.
You don’t volunteer whether you support or you don’t support, leave it into question. That’s a very good and a very diplomatic approach. It’s ambiguous. You can’t be held to account, but it’s still a question in the mind of the other side is where do they stand? Which is a deterrent. They don’t know. So if they don’t know what the outcome is going to be, especially in the PRC sense, they probably aren’t going to risk it.
Mr. Jekielek: This would be your advice, presumably on how to play things.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Just pick your words carefully, come out where you have to. President Biden, “We will support Taiwan.” That’s fantastic. And then areas where you don’t have to be so definitive. You can afford to leave some doubt in the mind of the other side because doubt is a deterrent, right? If they don’t know that they can dominate and if they can prevail, pretty good idea that they won’t try it.
Mr. Jekielek: Another statement that we noted was that America doesn’t want a cold war.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: We don’t get a choice. This is high school 101. I’m the pimply faced skinny kid. Right? But I’m just enamored with the cheerleader. And I really want her to appreciate me the way I appreciate her. Who defines that relationship? I would like to see the relationship here, but the person who defines the relationship is the one who values it least. And if this person is not going to have anything to do with me, then the relationship is down here. It’s not up here.
It’s the same with international relations. We want this to be a cooperative relationship like we have with other countries. We’ve tried for 40 years to get it to that point. It’s a very biblical number. But after 40 years, you have to assume that this plan isn’t working and we’re going to have to change direction. And so the relationship is defined by the lowest common denominator. And that’s the PRC approach, which, guess what, is a cold war.
It’s not a shooting war, right? They aren’t sorting their ships to go sink our ships yet. It’s not a hot war. It’s a cold war. It’s ideological and in fact is existential. One of the two coming out of this is going to lose like the Soviets did at the end of the first Cold War. So my point is that it is a cold war and it’s being defined by Chinese actions, not ours. So to deny that we want a cold war, doesn’t matter, they do. They’re executing a cold war. We should acknowledge that.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: I could be wrong.
Mr. Jekielek: No. It seems pretty obvious to me. Given this reality, how can we even be talking about cooperating with the Chinese regime on climate, for example, right? How does…
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: The military and I think the rest of the U.S. government now uses this construct of the instruments of national power and they call it the DIME: diplomacy information, military, economic. They’ve had a few more: finance, intelligence, law and tech.
But if you think of this in terms of the DIME, it’s a little easier to understand. When we say war, the first thing Dave Stilwell thinks of is my F-16 with bombs, kinetics, killing people and breaking their things, right? That’s not how the PRC thinks of war. They think of trade war. They think of information warfare, right? Political warfare and all these things. This is an area where we need to actually rise to their level because to date, we still think of the relationship as a peaceful one.
Well, if your enemy is fighting you, if the other side is fighting you… And they cause the enemy, by the way. Since 1950, the Korean war, internal PRC government talks about the U.S. as the enemy. It was a big step when the Trump administration named China’s strategic competitor. People lost their minds over that.
Competitor is a soft word compared to what’s going on here. But when we say war, we need to get out of this mindset of people wearing uniforms and killing other people and blood being shed and think more in terms of biological warfare with COVID, economic warfare with COVID, information warfare with what’s going on inside our own media. The fact that the PRC can influence what American readers are seeing, and we have no ability to do that.
So in those terms, they are competing across the board. Your question is, “Can we cooperate in any of those?” We can, but as Secretary Pompeo said at a speech at the Nixon library, “Distrust and verify.” We sign this agreement, you need to keep coming back to that agreement and saying, are they upholding their side of that agreement? And if they’re not, then we don’t have an agreement.
So how about climate cooperation? How did that work out the first time for the Paris agreement? I asked people, “What did China actually sign up for in Paris?” Because they hit us on the head for leaving. Well, the PRC signed up for continuing to not just pollute at this level, they agreed to continue to increase polluting as their economy grows. The amount of carbon output is going to increase until 2030, they say, at which point we begin to taper and then achieve carbon neutrality in 2060.
How many people know that? We assume that they shut down all their coal plants and that they’re all gone solar and all that stuff and nothing… That is not true. This is an information warfare tactic where now you go to the U.S. And even our allies and friends are pointing to us going, “You guys backed out of Paris. You’re not serious about climate.”
Well, of course we are. But the restrictions that we signed up for in the Paris Accord were far more economically damaging than anybody else and economy is extremely important as we see now with inflation and all that’s going on. So you can conduct Cold War and still cooperate, but you have to make sure the other side is actually doing what they said they would in terms of cooperation. And from what I’ve seen, there are very few examples of that.
Mr. Jekielek: I can’t help, but be reminded of the name stealth war I guess coined by your protege, Robert Spalding who’s been on the show many times since. It’s a completely different approach to warfare that the CCP is using. And so you might ask yourself right now… The U.S. is kind of almost in every area experiencing a really difficult time and people will say, “Well, it’s because of our own policy during COVID, but where did that come from?” Right?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Where the election problems come from, came from big changes made in the summer of 2020, going into elections when we could no longer vote in person because of COVID. Let’s always point back to the reason for these things happening. And I think it’ll make the divisions in our country far less visible or important.
Mr. Jekielek: Why don’t you tell me what you think about how does COVID fit into this whole picture? Actually, I should ask you this because you mentioned casually COVID and biological warfare in the same sentence and some people might want to know, what do you mean by that, Dave?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: So obviously, this is probably the thing that defined my time at the State Department was COVID, right? In December of 2019, the U.S. consulate in Wuhan that we supervised began noticing there was something that looked like SARS was going on, but the PRC kept reassuring us, “This is okay. We learn from SARS. We got this.” And then in early January we realized they didn’t have it and off we go. I don’t have any evidence to this. No, I do. We have evidence. Let’s look at this.
My guess is that when the PRC saw what was going to happen, what COVID was going to do to the PRC, Xi Jinping has not left China since COVID. Have you seen that? He has yet to leave the Zhongnanhai compound. He’s heading to Hong Kong here soon. It’ll be interesting to see if he actually shows up or not. The people who are going to see him in Hong Kong have to go through what was a week of isolation before they could actually see the boss.
He seems very much a germaphobe and he does not want to die of this thing. He seems very concerned about COVID. Clearly, they weren’t that concerned in January of 2020 when Wuhan had this annual spring festival event where 40,000 people participated in a potluck, in a city that was burning up with COVID at the time. We think it escaped sometime in late November. And by that time, a lot of people had it. Those people were allowed to continue to leave Wuhan for international travel, yet they bottled up Wuhan on 23rd of January.
So you couldn’t leave Wuhan to go anywhere else in PRC, but you could go international. That needs to be looked at. And then somewhere around the 20th of January, the “People’s Daily” and others, very proudly proclaimed that Major General Chen Wei, the head of the PRC biowarfare section in the People’s Liberation Army was being deployed to Wuhan to get control of the Wuhan Institute Virology and to get things under control.
Most people read that and said, “Oh good, they’re doing it. I read that, but you’re sending a PLA general to what we thought is the civilian Wuhan Institute of Virology to get it under control?” There’s a connection I don’t think they wanted to make. I think that’s true because those announcements have been pulled down off of… You can’t find those anymore. Type in Chin Wei Wuhan January 2020 and you’ll find nothing.
So at the time, I don’t think they made the connection that there was a bio warfare aspect to this. I am not saying this is genetically engineered. I’m not saying any of that. But do you think the PLA had interest in taking advantage of what was going on there in terms of engineering bugs? I think they did.
Mr. Jekielek: So I can’t help, but think of the arguments made by Rob Spalding and others like Michael Sanger [who] wrote a book about it. Well, there’s two things. One is that never let a crisis go to waste, especially if you’re going to go down. The argument as well by demanding that those flights happen, while you’re locking down your own flights that shows clear-
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Intent.
Mr. Jekielek: … intent, right, to create mayhem. And this is asymmetrical warfare that we’ve been talking about. The other part is a massive propaganda effort to show how terrible it was in China. And then that these lockdown measures actually were successful. Now world, this is what you need to adopt and destroy your economies in the process.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: The narrative, the propaganda narrative, it doesn’t hold water. Bari Weiss, former “New York Times” reporter now independent. She makes a really good point that in today’s world, we are so inundated by information. I mean, how many people just sit there staring at their phone constantly? The problem with that is your world becomes nothing but headlines and you don’t actually understand all the nuance in any particular situation.
So the propaganda message comes across. It’s a nice tasty morsel and it digests so easily even though it’s not true. The narrative that zero COVID lockdowns work doesn’t tell you the story of the couple in Wuhan, in probably February of 2020, with a special needs child, they went around with temperature testers and the parents both had fevers, the child did not. The parents were taken back to their apartment and locked into their apartment where they couldn’t leave. The child was left to die. And this happened everywhere, right?
And there’s lots of stories about people being bolted into their homes with no provisions for food and water or anything else, basically left there to either die of COVID or of starvation. Those stories all died in the spring of 2020. They came back to Shanghai with this massive lockdown and now it’s expats. It’s foreigners that are being locked down. And now they’ve got a much louder voice outside of PRC saying the narrative of zero COVID managing this problem real well misses an important point: there’s a massive humanitarian aspect to it that’s not being talked about.
The people of China are afraid enough of their government that they will be quiet. They won’t share information if they’re told not to. But expats don’t care. That’s why the Shanghai story resonated so much is because it wasn’t just the Chinese people saying it, it was people that lived there from overseas. And then we begin to see exactly how inhumane this process was.
And as others have noted, COVID is still a relatively… You’re not going to die 100 percent of the time if you get COVID. 90 percent of the time you’ll survive just fine. It’s probably higher like 98 percent. So there’s really no need to overreact like that. And so the zero COVID policy is in fact, probably the exact wrong thing to do and yet the PRC can’t say that because to say so would then to say the communist party leadership is wrong or flawed and that’s a problem.
Mr. Jekielek: COVID changed even as the Trump administration took a very new tact on the Chinese regime in China than any past administration. COVID actually changed things even further. I want to get you to pinpoint for me when that happened. Because I saw it happen, and what was it that made that change?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: I mentioned messaging was an important aspect. It was my priority. Anytime I talk to my people, I said, “Think about messaging.” So we had this Twitter war going on with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spoke people: Zhao Lijian, Hua Chunying the lead and one other. Zhao Lijian we knew. He came out of Pakistan. He was the DCM in Pakistan. And we knew this guy was basically kind of a loose canon. He would pretty much say anything. And the fact that he got hits. PRC didn’t assess whether there were positive or negative hits. He was just getting hits, which they then translated, I think, as a good thing.
So as the doors began to close down that maybe the PRC is making the world sick with this pandemic, the accusations were going, “Hey Beijing, explain yourself.” The Ministry of Foreign Affairs job was to deflect. So Zhao Lijian tweeted this thing one day. I think it was the 20th of March of 2020. He basically says, “Redfield, tell us what’s going on. Tell us the secrets. We know you did it.” And then it said, “It’s very likely that COVID began when the U.S. Army showed up in Wuhan in October of 2019.” Which is true for the International Military Games, basically accusing the U.S. of bringing COVID to China.
And if you saw President Trump’s response to that, he basically says, “That is not going to happen. Not when I’m president.” I think that’s when the, not just the president, but the whole U.S. government just said, “This fights on. Here we go. We’re now in a firm competition.” And there are a few of these dates that you can look at.
Let me offer another one on tweets. On January 31st, we closed the borders. We stopped allowing 22,000 PRC or people on planes coming to the PRC to come to the U.S. On the 3rd of February, Zhao Lijian tweeted, “The American racist policy hates Chinese people and won’t allow us in the country anymore.” Then he is going back to the Exclusion Act of the 1860s and all that stuff, trying to make this a racist thing and saying we overreacted.
On the 4th of March, the same guy with the same Twitter account says, “The U.S. has badly botched the handling of COVID.” A month prior he’s going, “And we overreacted and shouldn’t have done that.” A month later, “We badly botched it.” Right? This is the power that the propaganda ministry has in the U.S. People are picking up those narratives and carrying them on. We need to be conscious of not just the message, but where it’s coming from.
Mr. Jekielek: Why is it that the U.S. media and frankly, I’ll give you an example. You would see these curves of COVID numbers and you saw the Chinese curve on this map. And I forget what it was. It sort of stops at 5,000 and then that’s it, right, forever for the next two years. By any standard, it’s a preposterous statistic. But that curve, powerful messaging, powerful propaganda for the Chinese regime, isn’t it?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: It’s two aspects.
Mr. Jekielek: Why are they so incredulous? Yeah.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Well, you can answer that question. You’re the American Thought Leader, not me. This is a hard question. Why is it we’re so much harder on ourselves than we are on the other guys? I had three by five cards on my desk at the State Department. I’m a military guy. I set objectives, right? And I build a plan to get to those objectives. And if I achieve them good, if not, ask why not. One of those objectives was American media treats Chinese information with the same skepticism that they treat American information.
So when I talked to Ed Wong in “New York Times” on the closure of the Houston consulate, I would hope that he would treat the Chinese explanation of what they were doing in Houston with the same skepticism. He clearly showed with my explanation of why we had to close it. So that’s the first thing. I don’t know why. And again, that’s for sociologists to understand is why we’re so much more rough on ourselves and why we prefer these messages from elsewhere.
Maybe they’re easily digested because it is propaganda. It just goes down smoother. There are some who say there’s this innate self-hatred in this system. I don’t know where that comes from. I don’t know. But the point I think I’d like to make here is that 200 some companies from China list on the New York Stock Exchange without any audit requirements.
There is no American company that doesn’t have to meet those audit requirements and yet we allow 200 some Chinese companies. We don’t audit them and there’s these examples of luck in coffee and a whole bunch of others that in fact were Ponzi schemes. There was nothing to them. Had they done an audit they would’ve seen that this thing should not be on the New York Stock Exchange. It doesn’t belong there. It’s not a real legitimate audit, but we allowed that.
We have to look at PRC statistics, 5,226. That’s the total number of people who’ve died in China of COVID, right? That is a very manufactured and deliberately misleading number. But the PRC has complete control ]over] information in China, therefore they can put out whatever they want. All I’m saying is when American readers read those numbers, they should be skeptical and ask what evidence do we have to support this?
John Garnaut in Australia talks about sunlight. The solution to this is sunlight. You need to expose these things. You need to insist on access transparency and we can understand better what’s going on.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Dave, as we finish up, what is the advice that you would give to your successor and others in the State Department and beyond to try to build a… Let’s call it a constructive relationship with the Chinese regime, one which will actually work for America’s interests more so—even more so for American interests.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Right. There’s so many things. Let me start with this. DOD does a few things well. It does a lot of things not so great, but one thing it does, it is absolutely death on partisanship. As a military officer, I absolutely avoid any conversation about whether I like that president or that but it’s just something… It’s taboo. You do not talk about that at work. You’re allowed your own opinions, but you don’t talk about them.
So if I seem more critical of one administration over the other, that’s not by… Again, I still consider myself very centrist. I don’t favor one over the other. But in my last few jobs at the State Department and defense… When I was defense attache and then when it went on to the Pentagon, I was involved in this endless slew of meetings. The defense consultative talks, the defense planning consultative talks, I mean, SNED, DNSD, DPCT, DCT. I could name 20 of these things that we dealt with, just defense and others we were part of. And that was this proliferation of meetings that were a substitute for real action. Right?
So if there was ever a problem, we would just create a new acronym meaning the defense DPC or the diplomatic and security dialogue. Anyway, there was a lot of these things. Well, they stopped during the Trump administration and everybody says, “Oh, we’ve mishandled the relationship because we’re not having these talks.” Those talks were counterproductive. And the reason is we didn’t own the outcomes, the agenda on these talks.
We allowed the other side to drive those talks, to talking about what the relationship… All we focused on was a relationship. The relationship is the product of the interaction. We sign up that says, “You’re going to do this, and we’re going to do this.” If both sides do that, trust is built, the relationship elevates. Well, on the other side, they bypass all of that and they go straight to the relationship. And without the backing of actions and trust to support the relationship, that dialogue is meaningless. And that was the intent I believe was to get us talking endlessly about something that really didn’t matter.
Always the onus was on the U.S. side to improve the relationship. I don’t remember ever putting it back in their court saying, “You need to stop doing that or you’re damaging the relationship.” We need to stop talking about the relationship. The relationship is not something we control. It’s a product of the interactions that we do. The agreements that we come to. Both sides living up to those agreements. And when they don’t, of course, then we need to take other steps.
So I’m glad that we’re not doing 150 of these meetings every single year. It’s just endless spinning, but nothing productive came from them, I don’t think.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ll just then mention, I think this is always important when the elephant in the room, which is this is a regime that’s committing genocide, crimes against humanity, against multiple groups and waging a cold war. We’ve talked about that aspect. It’s hard to imagine how you can have a constructive relationship in this type of a context, right? Is it just come down to working on these reciprocities like you described? Or is there some other, better way of thinking that’s required?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: There is no basis for the relationship that I can see right now. Remember, any relationship has to have benefit for both sides, or it’s not going to last. Still hard to say where the benefit is. We’re talking about bringing tariffs down right now. The tariffs are there because the PRC did not live up to its end of the bargain to buy this much American agriculture to buy this much American products, to create access for other American things that they get access to here in the U.S. It’s not mutually beneficial.
So the basis of cooperation isn’t there. So what we need to do is start working on small steps and it’s incremental. You do this and the Americans always want to go first. We’re impatient and say, “Let’s agree to this.” And Americans will always go first and put something on the table and then hope that the other side will follow suit.
Stop doing that. Be patient. You go first. As soon as you get… Because we know that they want things and you can get that as soon as you take a step, a verified step, and then we will give you what we’re talking about. In the relationship, the PRC is still very much dependent on the U.S. We have to understand that.
So until we can show some patience, force the other side to actually live up to what it’s signed up to, we’re going to have to coexist as we are right now and we have to be patient enough to allow that knowing that the other side has to come meet us, meet our demands too, instead of us always giving. In the end, that’s what it has come down to. And they will, by the way. They have to.
Mr. Jekielek: And very briefly, as we finish, how are they dependent on the U.S.? Because that’s not something that everyone necessarily understands or agrees on.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: American business. If there was no American business in PRC, where did they get their intellectual property? Obviously, their research capabilities and all those things have significantly improved over the years. But if you think about what made the Chinese economic miracle, it was American business going in there with some very unfriendly terms. You have to do a joint venture, meaning you have to join with a Chinese company and share profits with them. You have to share your intellectual property.
Increasingly on a Tesla, any information that car gathers has to go into a Chinese repository, et cetera, et cetera. These are very one sided agreements. An American business needs to drive harder bargains that benefit both themselves and the PRC side equally. That’s eventually it’s going to have… It’s going to have to be our American businesses because the PRC benefits inordinately from that.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so what do you say to these, for example hedge funds driving billions into China even as we speak right with no strings attached?
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: This is why we have laws, right? The basis of our country is minimum government allowing the people to do what they do, letting the businesses do what they do. But there are times when they’re doing wrong things and we have to manage that. This is what CFIUS is for, FIRRMA. And this is what you’re talking about, a reverse CFIUS that prevents exports, or pushing money into PRC to nefarious causes.
And the fact that you don’t understand what those causes are, you’d have to assume they’re all nefarious, which is going to make hedge funds really swallow hard and think about what they actually can put money into in the PRC, because you can’t… Again, until they can prove what this money is going to, they shouldn’t be allowed to push it there. They should force the PRC to become more transparent. If that flow of cash were to go away, again, PRC is very dependent on that. It would be devastating.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, General Dave Stilwell, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Brig. Gen. Stilwell: Thank you. Enjoyed it.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining General Dave Stilwell and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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