What have American leaders gotten wrong about China in recent decades, and how did this contribute to the Chinese regime’s rise? Why does it matter that it’s a communist nation?
Gingrich, who’s also an author and historian, recently spoke with Epoch Times senior editor Jan Jekielek about his new book, “Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat,” for the “American Thought Leaders” series.
Jan Jekielek: Speaker Newt Gingrich, it’s wonderful to have you on “American Thought Leaders.”
Newt Gingrich: Thank you. Glad to be here.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s an auspicious day to be speaking with you. The vice president just gave his big, seminal, second speech about China. … I wanted to speak to something that he mentioned. He actually spoke to many issues that you cover in the book, “Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat.” One of the things that he talked about is how the American establishment was involved in the rise of communist China recently. You, yourself, even say in the book that—as someone that was part of the establishment, obviously … that you were wrong about what China was up to. And the vice president said that the political establishment was basically complicit in the rise of China as a bad actor.
I want to see what you think about that.
Mr. Gingrich: Well, I think that a lot of us took a view that turned out to be inaccurate or false. We thought that as China moved toward open markets, that they would move toward an open political system. We thought that as their general income rose, they’d become more “normal” in the Western meaning of the word. We greatly underestimated the power of the secret police and the power of the Communist Party, and I think in that sense, we had painted a picture of China that made us feel good. It just didn’t resemble China.
Mr. Jekielek: What about this idea that there might have been active participation from some of the political or the economic elite in America?
Mr. Gingrich: I think there’s no question that there are a number of people both in the academic world and in the business world, particularly finance, who were profiting from being nice to the Chinese communists. And I think you see a whole series of business leaders who made billions of dollars in China, and they had a vested interest, both financially and psychologically, in always painting the prettiest possible picture.
Mr. Jekielek: Given what you’re saying—and I think this is something the vice president also mentioned in his speech—this perspective or narrative in America on China was very different three years ago.
Mr. Gingrich: Yeah. … Part of what changed was Trump, but a lot of what changed was Xi Jinping—the leader of China—and the rise of surveillance technologies. It suddenly got people to go, “Whoa.” If this is the future, it really is like George Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty-Four,” whether it’s the social credit system, where they keep track of all of your behavior, or it is their policy of disappearing people, who just get picked up on the street and their families aren’t told. Their lawyers aren’t told. They disappear. Later on, they do a tape saying they were “guilty,” and they suddenly get released.
The more people learn about stuff like that, the more they realize it’s not just the million-plus people in concentration camps in Western China; it’s not just the Tibetan Buddhists, whose culture and civilization are being methodically destroyed by the Chinese; it’s not just the Falun Gong, which is a breathing society, whose sheer numbers apparently scared the Chinese communists—one of the most amazing modern stories. But all of these things come together and all of a sudden, about three or four years ago, people began to realize that there were too many ways in which China was not acceptable. It began to add up to a real rejection of the Chinese communist model.
Mr. Jekielek: You actually spend quite a bit of time in the book talking about the human rights realities in China. I think prior to the Clinton administration, human rights and economic engagement were connected. But there was this decoupling of that.
Mr. Gingrich: Well, part of that started with George H.W. Bush. Bush had been the first … real representative to China. He felt he had a unique understanding of their system. He was deeply opposed to applying sanctions after Tiananmen Square and the massacre, and he valued very highly maintaining good relations with the Chinese government, and valued that much more highly than human rights. I know I personally got into a very strong argument with him at one point, because I was actively in favor of sanctioning them after Tiananmen Square. I thought it was important for the world to send a signal to them that there are certain things that aren’t acceptable, and slaughtering individual citizens is one of them. That was a real fight, and you had a lot of people in the elites working very hard to maintain the financial relationships.
Besides that, you also had examples like Bloomberg, which launched a series on corruption under Xi Jinping and were told all of a sudden that every Bloomberg facility in China would be torn out and they would be expelled. The business side of Bloomberg made a decision to kowtow to the Chinese, and as a result, just last night … with a reporter who was one of the people who resigned because they were so angry that Bloomberg had sold out journalistic independence and human rights.
Mr. Jekielek: In the book, you describe your experience learning the game of Go, which I thought was very interesting because the idea to learn, I suppose, the Chinese mindset better. You kind of connect that with some of the global operations that create this China threat that you described, for example, the South China Sea strategy and, of course, One Belt and One Road. Can you speak to that a little bit?
Mr. Gingrich: I was partly attracted to it by a section in Henry Kissinger’s book on China, and he had been attracted to it by an Army lieutenant colonel who’d written a paper at the War College, saying that there are real parallels. Go is a Japanese-invented game adopted by the Chinese a long, long time ago—thousands of years ago. It is very profoundly different from chess. In chess, you ultimately want to capture the king and you swap pieces, and, in a sense, chess is kind of a bloody game. Go is a game in which your real goal is not your opponent; your real goal is to acquire territory. Very often, if you can find ways to acquire territory without fighting your opponent, you’ll take that route.
We actually had the National Go Institute … come in one night, and we got some beer and pizza, and spent hours having them walk us through the basics. What it teaches you is, first of all, always on every move, look at the whole board. Never get sucked into looking only at one thing. And it teaches you, secondly, to always consciously think about whether or not you’re improving your position in terms of territory. So I would argue, you could take the South China Sea campaign and really see almost exactly the influence of Go on Chinese leadership, where, in a very calm, methodical way, they’ve gradually extended their influence and gradually built up their forces. It’s really a very interesting, very powerful campaign.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s this element of more traditional Chinese thinking in everything that’s being done, but you go out of your way in the book to actually talk about how China remains a Leninist state run by a communist party, which actually is not the government. Again, you go to some pains to explain that. I think that’s incredibly important. I’d love it if you could speak to why.
Mr. Gingrich: Let me start by saying though, you have to draw a distinction between Chinese culture, which has a 5,000-year history, and the Chinese political system, which is based essentially on Lenin and Stalin. The Chinese communists in the early 1920s were looking for a model of success, and the most successful revolution they could find was the Russian Revolution, so they actively studied it. Deng Xiaoping, one of the founders of the Party, actually goes to Moscow and spends a year at Lenin University learning how to run a totalitarian system. And they build a model which is very powerful, and it’s very much a Stalinist model. The original core group really admired Stalin. They saw him as the model for them. Most of them read Stalin’s short history of the Bolshevik Revolution, which is 700 pages, and they treasured it and they would reread it. It’s very interesting. It’s very hard to read, but it’s very interesting stuff in terms of how you have a continuous revolution, and you constantly are changing things.
One of the ways you can really, really clarify this in a very simple way: I’m trying to get the administration and the news media to start referring to Xi Jinping first as … the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, which has 90 million members. By comparison, Trump got 63 million votes. So they actually have more members than his total vote. Second, he is the chair of the [Central] Military Commission, which supervises the People’s Liberation Army. And it’s very important to remember that the People’s Liberation Army is a branch of the party, not the government. Third, in his least important job, he’s the president of the People’s Republic of China.
When you understand that, you begin to realize, this is really a communist system that owns a government; it’s not a government which has a communist system. So every time you’re negotiating or talking with them, you’re talking with people who, at the top, are hardcore Leninists and who absolutely, totally, deeply believe in a centralized dictatorship.
Mr. Jekielek: The party is paramount over everything—
Mr. Gingrich: The party is the reason for being, the raison d’etre. They are never going to make a decision which helps the government at the expense of the party, because the party is the center of gravity in China, just as it would have been under Stalin and under Lenin. It’s only when you get to Khrushchev that you begin to get somebody who is deviating and forgetting the real purpose of the Russian Revolution.
Mr. Jekielek: So in the book, you describe a number of prescriptions for how America can deal with the communist China threat. You mentioned that you don’t see it stopping being communist anytime soon necessarily, but let’s say the Communist Party did fall, let’s say it did go away, would that change how we would engage China?
Mr. Gingrich: First of all, if it just fell, you’d have chaos. China has these cycles where they occasionally will go into remarkably violent periods. The Taiping Rebellion in the mid-19th century probably killed 75 million people. In some ways, the Cultural Revolution was a reversion to that kind of Chinese chaos and is one of the reasons the leadership is so careful not to let her break down because they’ve seen it. They know what it’s like. In that sense, if you waved a magic wand and tomorrow morning you had a non-communist China, I think we would not have any great arguments with them. I think you’d negotiate over trade, you’d negotiate over foreign policy, but they wouldn’t be a threat to us. They would be a fascinating country with a great history. And people would see them differently.
But what you have is an organizing system of 90 million people—the Communist Party—who are then organizing 1.4 billion people, and who have a pretty clear sense coming out of 5,000 years of Chinese history that they really want to recreate the Middle Kingdom. So they are at the center of the world and the rest of the world is paying tribute to them, not particularly because they’re aggressive in the sense of Wilhelmine Germany, or even in the sense of the Soviets, but rather because, in their historic memory, it’s their natural due. It’s how it was. It’s how it should be.
Remember, the Chinese are the most prosperous, most complex society in the world until 1800. So, from their perspective, they’ve had this hundred years of humiliation, and now they’re ready to be Chinese again. They see it more as a reassertion of the natural order of things, not as an act of aggression.
Mr. Jekielek: Unfortunately, with this Marxist-Leninist party overtop of everything.
Mr. Gingrich: Yeah, I would say, remarkably little Marx. Marx gradually disappeared, but Leninism as a model for organizing power is a remarkably effective system.
Mr. Jekielek: Going back to the reality where the Communist Party very much is in charge, and going back to the human rights question, would you advocate for a recoupling of the economics and the human rights?
Mr. Gingrich: Sure. I think we need a grand strategy for China that has as its long-term goals: one, containing their ability to reach out around the world; and two, helping the Chinese people migrate toward freedom. In the long run, we have a very deep interest in a non-communist China.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. This is a very broad question because actually, I think the book does an incredible job at exploring what the actual China threat is to America—and not just America, but to the world. Broadly speaking, how would you describe this threat?
Mr. Gingrich: There are two core threats in the development of the Chinese dictatorship. The first is the rise of technologies that enable them to go to dictators and say, “We’ll be happy to make sure you can stay in power because we’ll give you all sorts of cameras and artificial intelligence and tracking, so that you can really control your people.” … Think of it as a capitalist dictatorship, and they’re offering people a chance to have a new model that’s an alternative to the Western model of freedom and openness.
The second thing is, I think that they have a real interest—a real desire—to reach out around the world and to have the world basically be obedient to the Communist Party. If you watch the recent fight with the National Basketball Association, here’s a great country coercing a basketball association over a single tweet, and they brought enormous power to bear. My favorite example is Winnie the Pooh. Somebody made fun of Xi Jinping and said that he was the Winnie the Pooh of China; they banned Winnie the Pooh. What kind of a dictatorship bans Winnie the Pooh? That tells you the level of paranoia which is at the heart of the Chinese system.
Mr. Jekielek: One of the things the vice president mentioned was that America stands … for freedom with Taiwan and actually with the people of Hong Kong. Can you talk about the significance of that?
Mr. Gingrich: I think it’s actually a very important speech. First of all, it’s sending the signal to the Chinese communists that we would oppose actively any effort to cross the Taiwan Strait and conquer the people of Taiwan, who are an independent people, who are free, who have been prosperous, who’ve worked hard, as long as they don’t attempt to be an independent sovereign. It’s very clear starting with the Nixon-Kissinger talks with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong in 1972, we have accepted the proposition that Taiwan is a province of China, part of the country of China, but cannot be coerced into becoming part of the dictatorship.
So it fits almost a “one country, two systems” model, which is what they supposedly have in Hong Kong. I think the fact that we are reminding them that we will not tolerate an attack on Taiwan is very, very important.
I think second, standing with the people of Hong Kong … to me, this has been very fascinating because, in a Tiananmen Square model, they would have already moved in and killed people. For a variety of reasons, many of which I frankly don’t understand, they have been very careful and very cautious. So it’s evolving in ways you can’t quite understand right now, and you certainly can’t predict.
Mr. Jekielek: You describe this need for a national discussion and a national strategy for the U.S. to have for China. It seems like, based on what President Trump has been doing lately, the U.S. is reducing its role in the world as—I don’t know if you’d call it a global policeman—but demanding that other countries contribute to their own defense more and more. But the reality of China through “One Belt, One Road,” through Huawei’s encroachment in all these places around the world, that it’s actually kind of a global issue, right?
Mr. Gingrich: Sure. But if you actually watch the president, he doesn’t talk about isolationism. He says this activity of putting young men or women at risk, in policing in places where we have no strategy for victory, is just costing us lives and costing us money with no achievement. He’s actually built up the military—the biggest buildup since Reagan—and his purpose is to focus first on China, second on Russia, third on Iran, and fourth on North Korea. So these other things in his mind are secondary issues that he does not want to waste American military force on. In addition, maybe because he’s a businessman, he has a much more acute sense of how you can use sanctions and the economy to signal things rather than use military force. His argument in part is when possible, it’s a lot better to use a bank account than the life of a young American.
Mr. Jekielek: Speaker Gingrich, such a pleasure to have you.
Mr. Gingrich: Thank you. Enjoyed being with you.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.