What can the US, Canada, and the rest of the world learn from Taiwan in dealing with communist China, especially during the COVID 19 pandemic?
And how has the Chinese regime subverted the WHO, the UN, and other international organizations? What can democratic countries do to counter this threat?
In this episode, we sit down with J. Michael Cole, a senior fellow with the Global Taiwan Institute in Washington, D.C., the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Canada, and the Taiwan Studies Programme at the University of Nottingham in the UK. He is also a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) in Ottawa.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: J. Michael Cole, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
J. Michael Cole: Thanks for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s so many things I’d like to speak with you about. You are a Canadian as I am, and we have this very interesting vantage point to look at the world. Let’s start by talking about the controversy right now around the WHO, and I know you have some very concrete thoughts about this. On one side, we have President Trump temporarily defunding the WHO from the US side pending a review of its efficacy in the face of the Chinese Communist Party. On the other hand, you have Bill Gates, the biggest donor, I think, after the US to the World Health Organization, saying this is dangerous at this time during the pandemic. What are your thoughts?
Mr. Cole: It’s been weeks in the making. We’ve had mounting discontent with the manner in which the WHO has responded to the pandemic and with revelations that it had information very early in the outbreak in Wuhan, that if it had been acted upon, would very likely have had a mitigating impact on the spread of the virus. Organizations like the WHO are filled with human beings. They’re fallible, they can commit mistakes. That’s understandable. What has made that whole issue a bit more controversial now is the fact that, on several instances, top WHO officials seem to be collaborating with the Chinese regime in failing to reveal some information that if made public, although it would have been beneficial to the international community in combating the outbreak, probably would have made the regime in China look bad. So now we’re starting to see more and more calls for scrutiny, and President Trump’s threat of withholding funding is part of that initiative, until we’ve had a thorough investigation into what went wrong at the WHO and reasons why that occurred.
Mr. Jekielek: So is this a good idea, given the balance of things? And you’re looking at this from also another unique vantage point, having been in Taiwan for over a decade.
Mr. Cole: Well… I’m a bit worried. I mean, it’s not a final defunding of WHO by the United States. I think I would have serious issues if that were the case. It is really contingent on the proper investigation being carried out. What I would argue needs to be avoided, however, is any initiative or anything that would give the Chinese regime an opportunity to increase its influence on WHO. It has sufficient funds, for example, that if it chose to compensate for the money that the WHO is not getting from the United States, with that inevitably would come increased influence and possibly more problems of the type that we’re currently asking for. Now, you mentioned Taiwan where I’m based. It’s a very interesting case because it is pretty much the only country on the face of the planet that is not a member of WHO, has not been able to have the kind of interactions with WHO that other countries have enjoyed, and yet, bar none, it has had the most successful response to and controls since day one of the outbreak. So once again, that raises a bunch of questions about the utility of WHO and the hundreds of millions of dollars that are poured into that institution, if the country that has fared best in dealing with COVID-19 is a country that is not a member.
Mr. Jekielek: Absolutely. And there’s been a lot of discussion about this exact issue. I mean, you’ve written extensively actually about the success of Taiwan. You have a deeper perspective than a lot of people on how that played out, why Taiwan has been so effective. Taiwan realized there was this issue in late December. Maybe you could outline that story about how Taiwan has responded.
Mr. Cole: Sure, well, it started around December 31st, when a female scientist at Taiwan Centers for Disease Control came upon a message on an online bulletin board called PTT, in which the anonymous poster has said that there were signs of some epidemic that was similar to SARS from 2003, and that people were already being isolated and quarantined and whatnot. That scientist at Taiwan CDC then was able to get in touch with that individual who made the post, who to this day has remained anonymous, but she wanted to make sure that it was a credible post, it wasn’t disinformation, which we all have suffered from in recent years. After ascertaining the veracity of that claim, she turned to counterparts and medical systems in Taiwan and in China, and when they were able to establish that indeed groups of individuals were being quarantined, which certainly suggested human-to-human transmissibility, the Taiwan CDC decided on December 31st to send an email to the WHO, alerting them to the fact that there was a high likelihood that there was human-to-human transmission in Wuhan.
As we now know, [it] has been really revealed recently, that letter went unanswered or certainly not acted upon, and it took several days before, if not weeks, before WHO would adopt the measures that immediately the Taiwanese government decided to adopt to make sure that it would not be unduly affected by the outbreak, not knowing what it was, knowing full well that China is not always transparent when it comes to these things. So Taiwan has decades of experience having to deal with a problematic CCP across the Taiwan Strait. So rather than depend on information that was given them by the Chinese side, they immediately decided to ban flights from Wuhan and related provinces. And that is one of the key reasons why Taiwan was able, from the outset, to adopt the kind of measures that have prevented the spread of the virus in Taiwan.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. And it’s not just the initial response, which of course, probably was the most critical, but it’s also the subsequent measures which have been remarkable.
Mr. Cole: Banning flights was, as I said, an essential element of that strategy, but also the kind of monitoring and surveillance that was immediately implemented. They also activated their central command center—or lack thereof—had been identified as a foible in Taiwan’s response to SARS in 2003. They have a number of top officials who had played a key role in combating SARS in 2003. So they built upon a lot of experience.
They also benefited from a society that is probably a little bit more willing to allow the government to intrude upon their civil liberties when the situation calls for it, and they realized that that was one of those situations. But again, using AI cell phones, connecting different databases in Taiwan to quickly track individuals who had already visited problematic areas. There are about 1.5 million Taiwanese who work in China, so that meant that there was a very high risk of these individuals bringing the virus back to Taiwan. So immediately they implemented isolation measures, quarantine measures, and again, using AI and cell phone tracking to make sure that those individuals were respecting the 14 day quarantine, and those who had been identified were immediately brought to hospitals and given proper treatment. So but the early response, as I said earlier was definitely, I would say, the one area where Taiwan was well ahead of other countries in its response, and now we’re seeing, we’re certainly seeing the benefits of that decision.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that just strikes me, given the incredible amount of political influence that the Chinese Communist Party can exert on global institutions, does it make sense for the US to be deeply connected with the Taiwanese health system going forward? Assuming status quo, assuming things don’t change politically.
Mr. Cole: What we’re seeing now is that COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for Taiwan to, yet again, demonstrate to the international community that it is a modern, advanced, high tech society and that has good intentions and wants to contribute to the international community for political reasons. And given the structure of the United Nations, it’s impossible for Taiwan to do that, in that particular forum. What we have seen in recent years, however, and that accompanies a reassessment, if you will, of perceptions of China in major democracies, particularly the United States, with that has come a reevaluation of Taiwan’s value as well and a growing recognition that keeping Taiwan out in the cold is preposterous. It is self-defeating, not to mention that it’s unfair to the 23.8 million people in Taiwan. So now you had countries like the United States, Japan, Czech Republic, now Italy, France—a constellation of countries that are currently struggling with their response to COVID-19—working outside United Nations, more at the bilateral level, and collaborating with Taiwan on research for test kits, for medication that could address the disease.
Also, Taiwan has very quickly ramped up its industry to produce facial masks. So as we speak, they are producing approximately 15 million NT masks daily, which allows Taiwan not only to provide its own citizens with sufficient masks, but also to export millions of masks to countries in need, including the United States. And they’re not selling the masks to those countries like China has been doing. They are giving those masks. So it is humanitarian. There is no doubt publicity for Taiwan, and the Taiwanese government is aware of this. But it’s an unprecedented opportunity for Taiwan to demonstrate its abilities, and its strengths, and to prove to the world that in the 21st century, it makes absolutely no sense to keep Taiwan outside of international institutions. If the UN does not work, they will have to find alternatives and cite mechanisms that would allow Taiwan to play the role that it should be playing.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, it’s almost like Taiwan is showing the world what a free and open China might actually look like, right?
Mr. Cole: Well, it’s certainly showcasing the benefits of democracy of an open society with freedom of expression, with people’s ability to scrutinize their government to criticize their government and not be disappeared when they do that. Now, that being said, Taiwan has its own idiosyncratic history. It is a much smaller, less complex place than China. So I don’t think there is a direct … we cannot directly apply all of Taiwan’s experiences and say, we put that model in China and this is what China would look like. The Chinese themselves will have, if this is the role that they choose for themselves, they will have to come up with their own means and mechanisms to implement a democracy. It would be a lot more complicated than it is in Taiwan and, trust you me, politics in Taiwan are very, very polarized and complicated. But in China, it would be different by orders of magnitude. But certainly, as I said, it demonstrates the good things that come from having a government that respects the right of their people to share information and to criticize when criticism is necessary, and now we’re seeing the opposite of that in China. It is costing lives, because people who needed to release information, who had crucial information, were prevented from sharing that information or were outright disappeared, and the entire world is paying for that.
Mr. Jekielek: One of your specialties is how the Chinese Communist Party influences operations. You looked at this firsthand recently during the Taiwan election. And now we’re kind of seeing all of this on steroids. Can you speak to what lessons can we take? What should people be looking for here?
Mr. Cole: In some weird way the whole COVID-19 outbreak has been a blessing for academics and journalists who in recent years, have sought to tell that story to the international community and to alert people in democracies and not even [just] democracies, that there is a gigantic powerful authoritarian regime that has the means and the intent to interfere in their democratic processes whenever doing so was to Beijing’s advantage. My response to that when people express surprise nowadays is “welcome to Taiwan’s reality that has been its experience for decades.” And particularly since 2016, when the Taiwan-centric Democratic Progressive Party under Tsai Ing-Wen came back to power after eight years, during which the government in Taiwan had sought closer ties with Beijing. China retaliated immediately by resuming its efforts to poach official diplomatic allies of Taiwan. Seven since 2016, have chosen to recognize the PRC and also to intensify its political warfare efforts.
So that’s a mix of disinformation, co-optation, influence, blackmail, you name it, every technique in the book that incorporates the United Front Work Department, People’s Liberation Army, but also business people, civil society, civic organizations, cultural organizations, organized crime. The CCP for many, many years has been very good at providing an overarching strategy and then enabling different players in targeted societies to play a role in these. No doubt in the past decades, a good number of individuals and organizations that were able to start businesses in Taiwan have been called upon by the CCP on occasion to play a role. The fact that there is a deep interdependence between Taiwan and China on the economy, that means that there are millions of people every year are transiting from China to Taiwan and back and forth. So the opportunities for espionage, for influence, co-optation and whatnot are rife, and they’re daunting.
The Taiwanese government has struggled over the years to respond to that challenge. But under Tsai Ing-Wen’s guidance, they have started implementing laws that made it possible to legally respond to these efforts by the Chinese. So we’ve certainly seen, Taiwan being a democracy, efforts by the Chinese to influence the outcome of elections. And what we have seen so far is that the Taiwanese are resilient enough, and quite possibly aware enough of what the Chinese are up to, that thus far, Chinese interference does not appear to have been able to sway elections, except in elections where the results were very close. But they were unsuccessful in 2016, so Tsai Ing-Wen was elected, and she was seeking reelection after four years of contention in the Taiwan Strait in January this year, and she was reelected, with the highest number of votes in the history of presidential elections in Taiwan. No doubt the fact that those elections have occurred in the context of serious trouble in Hong Kong, in the context of Xi Jinping promising the same formula for Taiwan that is failing miserably in Hong Kong, that is a “one country, two systems” formula, and simply the more belligerent, less patient tone that has been adopted under Xi Jinping over the past eight years or so, also has awakened and sensitized the Taiwanese to the fact that whatever it is that the Chinese have to offer is simply unacceptable to Taiwanese society.
So in terms of lessons that Taiwan can share with the international community, there’s a few areas. For example, Buddhist temples that it’s difficult to see a similar application or uses in other places around the world, although there are Buddhist temples in other countries with large ethnic Chinese communities, but the mechanisms through which the Chinese co-opt government officials, business leaders, media conglomerates, civic society, education system and all that, certainly those are lessons that are applicable to countries worldwide. And as a response to this in recent years, we’ve seen the United States taking the lead in organizing conferences, bringing together Taiwan and other countries, where people are sharing notes on combating disinformation, for example, and Taiwan has been called upon on several occasions in recent years to share its experiences with other countries, and the reception has been quite positive so far.
Mr. Jekielek: You know, I just saw a Global Times piece which is essentially egging on the Democratic Party to attack the administration, President Trump. It is a mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party. To me, it strikes me as blatant, in-your-face, overt election interference. Are there any lessons that the US can learn from how Taiwan dealt with that?
Mr. Cole: In the elections this January, Tsai Ing-Wen’s opponent from the Kuomintang, Mr. Han Kuo-yu, was seen as the Beijing favorite. Beijing made no secret of the fact that it hoped that he would be elected. Meanwhile, he was saying all the right things from Beijing’s perspective. So basically saying that Taiwan would embrace the preconditions that the Chinese have set for the resumption of dialogue and negotiations in the Taiwan Strait, which have been frozen since 2016. And immediately a politically savvy civil society in Taiwan and the media started looking into Mr. Han’s background, and problematic pronouncements and visits to China where he met with individuals from Taiwan Affairs Office, and from certain organizations that were suspected of having ties to the United Front Work Department. A number of those meetings were held behind closed doors and Mr. Han did not even reveal the nature of those meetings with the central government in Taipei. So by force of things, people became a little bit more skeptical, that compelled supporters of Tsai Ing-Wen, people who want to defend Taiwan’s democracy, to mobilize and come out to vote in January. So in that particular instance, we saw a blowback to Chinese efforts to manipulate the elections. Now, there’s other ways that they can try to sway elections, using underground gambling, or co-opting politicians and local elections who happen to have interest in business connections and ties back in China for themselves and their families, including one candidate at the local level, who said late last year that nobody loves Taiwan more than Xi Jinping. Comments like that immediately led to journalists and academics to dig up his connections, and we realized very quickly that every single member of his family had business operations in [an] experimental free trade zone, where Taiwanese businesses have been encouraged in recent years to make investments.
So, awareness is key to combating these types of efforts. You need a rigorous media. And of course, polarization, as we’re seeing in the United States right now, but as we saw in Taiwan as well, can be detrimental, because then it gets sucked into the discourse and polarization in the lead-up to elections and all that. So you need people to basically agree on certain fundamentals, and I think one fundamental is the defense of democratic institutions. And it is the role of media, civil society, and academics to shed light on these things. And so Taiwan has learned lessons, and I’m more than confident that it is willing to sit down with partners, not just the United States but in Europe as well, to share its experiences. They have developed a lot of knowledge in tracking IP addresses, discovering where they are in China or where outside China, places like Malaysia, where the Chinese have also tapped to have people generate disinformation on social media and co-optation of traditional media. The role of traditional media in recycling pro-Beijing disinformation has been the reality in Taiwan. And as we saw with the Russian interference in elections in the US in 2016, we need to find ways to firewall traditional media from this type of blatant disinformation as well, to make sure that it does not contribute to polarization and confusion within society.
Mr. Jekielek: The Chinese Communist Party has been incredibly successful at putting into the American media and consciousness the number of deaths and the number of cases in China: “Look how small they are compared to the giant amount in the US.”
Mr. Cole: Yes, that’s the narrative that the Chinese regime has cultivated and encouraged in recent weeks. I mean, for the sake of the Chinese people, I hope that those numbers are true. But the problem again is that a bit like economics in China, we simply cannot trust their numbers. And the fact that the charts that we’re seeing coincide with very clear efforts by Beijing to rewrite the whole history of COVID-19, including claims at some point that it did not even originate in China, makes those numbers all the more suspicious. And a problem again, that brings us back to the lack of transparency in China when it comes to anything that the CCP deems to be related to national security, the fact that it’s accompanied by China kicking out a number of American journalists at the height of the epidemic, the fact that increasingly it silences not only its own journalists, but also human rights activists, even medical experts, to me makes it very difficult to believe that the numbers that were being given reflect the reality of the case.
Now, like any government, the Chinese government has to strike a balance between public safety and economy. My sense is that the situation had reached a point in China that if it did not reopen, manufacturers did not restart business, the cost to the economy in China could have been catastrophic. And as we know, the CCP has built up its whole reputation as the one party that can continue that miraculous economic growth for the Chinese. So, I suspect that we have reached a point in that particular story where China is giving more weight to the economy than it is to public safety, but it simply cannot admit that having made that decision, it has contributed to a second wave of COVID-19 in China, hence, in my opinion, the cover up. Now if we had a WHO that…has not been co-opted, if I dare use the term, by the Chinese, if it were able to conduct independent research in China, perhaps the WHO would be providing different numbers, but the price of access for the WHO it seems, is to regurgitate and to replicate whatever statistic that the Chinese regime gives it.
Mr. Jekielek: So, and that’s the question and I’m sure this is what the administration people were saying to each other, advising the President. So what’s the utility of the WHO if they do that?
Mr. Cole: It’s global coordination. I’m not one to state that there is no role for WHO. It has expertise. It has networks that should be able to bring experts worldwide together and prompt best responses. But I think the politicization of WHO, given the nature of the man who heads the organization right now and how he arrived at that position, and his seeming willingness to focus a little bit too much on pleasing China, as opposed to doing what is right by the international community raises questions as well. So it’s not so much that we do not need the WHO, but like other UN institutions, we need to make sure that the WHO fulfills its mandate and does not focus its attention on any particular country, no matter how small or large a donor it is to its funding.
Mr. Jekielek: What are your concerns about how Dr. Tedros reached his position?
Mr. Cole: In 2017, when the elections were held to replace Margaret Chan from Hong Kong, who was his predecessor, there were already—well, he’s from Ethiopia and there already was a movement in Ethiopia that opposed his becoming WHO Director-General. His affiliation with a Marxist-Leninist political party was already troublesome. It is my understanding that the political party that he belongs to was at one point designated as a terrorist entity by the US State Department. There is the fact that he would have become the very first DG at the WHO who does not have a medical background. But also very obvious was the fact that he was Beijing’s preferred candidate, from the outset he had made it clear that he would respect Beijing’s One-China, so-called One-China principle, that he would not be open to ways by which Taiwan could play a role within the organization, if only as an observer. One of his main opponents in that election in 2017 had suggested that he was more amenable to Taiwan being involved in some fashion at the WHO. That was a red line that wasn’t acceptable to Beijing, so they seem to have used their large influence at the General Assembly, United Nations and particularly African votes to make sure that its preferred candidate, Mr. Tedros, was finally elected, and he was. And immediately upon being elected, he restated his commitment to the One-China principle, and now his behavior, as I said, suggests that he is now paying Beijing back. So he owes them.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. Well, the obvious thing we should talk about now is the Chinese Communist Party’s encroachment into influence in international institutions, especially the UN, which is something that is a big topic for you. How deep is it?
Mr. Cole: Given recent incidents, not only the WHO but there was a bit of a controversy during Lunar New Year when another UN agency, ICAO, the Montreal-based ICAO, that deals with civil aviation, was approached online by a number of American academics and basically simply asked the question, given the snowballing outbreak, why is it, how can we explain that Taiwan is excluded and has no ability to obtain flight records that it needs to be able to track individuals who may have visited contaminated areas?
The reaction of ICAO, which is also headed by a Chinese national, Liu Fang, was to suspend or to block all those accounts, and dozens upon dozens of accounts on Twitter were blocked and subsequent efforts by government officials reaching out to ICAO or reaching out to United Nations in New York City, and basically being told they stood by the decision of ICAO in Montreal to block those accounts. They never provided the kind of logical answer that people were looking for, and they themselves started accusing Taiwan of launching, of using its internet army to launch an attack to discredit ICAO, which was very much a forerunner to the accusations last week by Mr. Tedros that Taiwan had orchestrated a racist campaign against him and black individuals worldwide. Subsequent investigation demonstrated that those accounts that had attacked him were in fact based in China, and users pretended to be Taiwanese, but they were in fact Chinese.
So ICAO and WHO were two clear examples of organizations that seem to be toeing Beijing’s line, even at a time when the international community should be transcending those politics, if only momentarily, to respond to that crisis. Up until recently, until he was disappeared in China, Interpol was headed by a Chinese national who was a senior official at the Ministry of State Security. So that certainly raised all sorts of flags for individuals who are critics of the Chinese regime, whether they be Tibetans or Uyghurs or Falun Gong practitioners or Taiwanese, now they fear that they could be arrested in any country and then sent to China to face its horrible criminal justice system, so that certainly focused minds.
There are a number of specialized UN agencies that are currently either headed by Chinese nationals, oftentimes who were elected due to pressure behind closed doors by the Chinese, or individuals who are not Chinese nationals, but for some reason, possibly co-optation, are also acting at the behest of the Chinese Communist Party. Now the issue is more fundamental than simply specialized UN agencies. The UN General Assembly has become a main battleground where China again is using its influence with smaller countries that are in dire need of infrastructure investment. So China is offering the promise of investment in return for those countries voting in block, to allow Beijing to reshape the United Nations, if you will, or to pass amendments or bills that are favorable to the Chinese. Through these initiatives, the Chinese have started rewriting the very definition of human rights, of freedom of expression, has gotten some of its individuals appointed to Human Rights Council, and now they get to appoint the special rapporteurs, who will be looking at forced disappearance, freedom of expression and whatnot. It’s difficult to imagine that those individuals would be willing or even able to criticize anything that the Chinese regime is doing in China or within its neighborhood. And one last point, influenced by Chinese at ECOSOC cultural organizations at the United Nations and as we saw in recent years, very serious bribery controversies involving Secretaries-General of the UN General Assembly. So the China Energy Fund committee, Patrick Ho was arrested in New York City in 2017, [inaudible] currently sits in prison in the United States for bribing UN officials…John Ashe.
Now, the American legal system and the FBI and Justice Department took action against these individuals, but the problem is that to this day, the UN Secretary-General, it is said, has blocked any attempt to conduct a thorough investigation into these controversies within the United Nations. So if the individual at the very top of the organization is not willing to shed light on possible nefarious influence by the Chinese regime, by an authoritarian regime at the UN, no wonder it will have a trickle-down effect on every single UN organization, and this is what we’re seeing right now. So the WHO is a focus right now, but it simply symbolizes the more fundamental and certainly more troubling situation at the United Nations right now and which brings us back to the question: Should we defund? Should we pull out of those organizations? The problem if we do that, we know for a fact that the Chinese will fill that void. And so then we will exacerbate its influence within the system. So what I would say this calls upon instead is for a group of, a concert of democracies to once again work together, be very serious about reshaping the United Nations and bringing it back to its original mandate, as it was formulated following World War II, with necessary adjustments to reflect current realities, but certainly not yield to revisionist or authoritarian regimes, whose value system is completely contrary to what we believe in.
Mr. Jekielek: There’s this huge irony because the ideologies of these regimes are counter to the UN Charter and yet they’re gaining control. A lot of people are kind of giving up. They don’t think this can be reformed. What would you say to those people?
Mr. Cole: Well, it remains to be seen. I think now we’re facing… it feels like we’re back in 1946, 1947 right now. Democracies are exhausted, they’ve lost their footing. They don’t want a big fight again, and they see this seemingly impeccable, unstoppable regime that is gaining ground by the day. Back then it was the Soviets, now it’s China. So there’s a conjunction of variables right now that seems to make it very difficult for democracies to work together, and there’s no hiding the fact that European countries have difficulty dealing with the United States right now. I think many people have forgotten who their real friends are. And, as I said, this atmosphere of pessimism that has descended upon a number of countries, China is exploiting that moment. The economic crisis in the late 1990s was a first step in that ladder, if you will. 9/11, Afghanistan War, Iraq War, so the distraction that came with that and the huge expenses that came with that moment for the United States—China sees all these opportunities … It thinks in the long term, and it will exploit any opportunity, including crises, to its advantage to get one up on its adversaries, and that’s what we’re seeing right now.
Is that battle winnable at the United Nations? I don’t know. I can’t predict the future. But I think we don’t want to give up until we have seen this concert of democracies, influential democracies, with global weight, with a lot of money, to really truly work together as one and not allow themselves to be divided by the Chinese. And give the Chinese and other revisionist regimes like Russia and Iran, for example, give them a good fight at the UN. We don’t want to abandon that institution, flawed though it is, simply by giving up and ceding it to the Chinese, because I don’t think any of us would want to live in a world where UN institutions are reflecting the kind of value system that exists in China today.
Mr. Jekielek: You recently signed a response to this Asia Society sponsored letter, which is calling for cooperation with China. What does the letter say? This is the first time we’re talking about it on this show, and it’s quite a remarkable group of another hundred intellectuals that focus on China talking about this.
Mr. Cole: I don’t think anyone who’s signed that letter opposes collaboration with China. Given the stakes, we cannot not collaborate with China or at least hope to collaborate with China. The problem is that we cannot approach China naively or without the expectation that China is going to try to use that opportunity to advance its own interests. And I think by this point it has gotten quite clear that under the CCP, purely altruistic collaboration simply does not exist. Now no country is entirely altruistic in what it does, but there are limits to the crass exploitation that we have experienced in recent days or recent weeks.
The letter was in response to alert people to the fact that… for all intents and purposes, the Chinese government is the CCP. It remains a Marxist-Leninist regime, and it has a very, very clear ideology which does not coincide with ours… The kind of individuals that we would like to collaborate with are the people who are being silenced, who are being disappeared by the Chinese regime, and those are the people that international society would count upon to formulate a proper response to COVID-19. It’s not a disagreement, at least the way I see it, and when I signed that letter, it is not a call for isolating China or not reaching out to China, but simply an attempt again, to encourage people to approach China very carefully, with open eyes and with consciousness that the Chinese may try a few tricks in the process as well, and to call for the release of the individuals that we would like to work within China. But given the Global Times has a response to our letter today, it does not appear that our efforts will be well resolved in China changing its ways.
One thing as well, some headlines have said, “Chernobyl moment for China.” I think it’s a bit of a false analogy because the Chernobyl moment in the USSR in 1986, occurred in the context of Mikhail Gorbachev having launched glasnost and perestroika, so he was already in the process of opening up society and civil liberties in the USSR, certainly freedom of expression. And Chernobyl for him became the one incident where it became impossible to continue with the old ways of lying to the international community. Back then it was Hans Blix of IAEA atomic agency who visited the site and was completely blindsided by Soviet officials. And Gorbachev eventually realized that that could no longer function and the key to survival was to open up, to allow the media to scrutinize what was going on, but also to criticize Soviet officials in Ukraine, in Russia, who had contributed to initial hiding of what was going on at Chernobyl.
So the context is very different. COVID-19 occurs at a time when Xi Jinping was tightening controls around China, well before COVID-19, in response partly to developments in Hong Kong, and possibly to economic slowdown in China. We don’t know what the numbers are, but there are signs certainly that the economy was slowing down. The fact that he feels compelled to have concentration camps in Xinjiang, to me does not signal a leader who feels that he has things under control. The fact that they would block foreign media, that they would expel foreign reporters, make the lives of activists and academics increasingly difficult in China… It’s the exact opposite of what Gorbachev was trying to do in 1986. So it is a moment for China, but I don’t think it is a Chernobyl moment for China.
Mr. Jekielek: Off the top of your head—and I wonder how much you’ve thought about this—what scenario would guide China to that kind of a reality that we saw under Mikhail Gorbachev?
Mr. Cole: While Gorbachev made that decision, not necessarily because he was a democrat at heart. He certainly had the inclinations, but it simply was a matter of survival. He wanted the Soviet Union to prosper. But all the internal contradictions, the economy, war in Afghanistan and the fact that they were holding together an empire that was slowly breaking apart at the edges, all these things came together to compel him to embark upon glasnost and perestroika, so basically loosening restrictions on freedom of expression and political activity in the Soviet Union.
Barring a similar conjunction of internal contradictions in China, I find it extremely difficult to imagine that in a foreseeable future, we’re going to have a Secretary-General of the Chinese Communist Party who would willingly embark upon a program similar to what Gorbachev did. In fact, the Chinese regime closely studied the demise of the Soviet Union and does not think highly of Mikhail Gorbachev and basically looks at him as one of the key reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed. Now, CCP does not want that or a similar outcome for itself, so that creates all the incentives to move in the opposite direction and embrace of a market economy to rejuvenate the economy and make sure that China does not face the kind of economic catastrophe in the making, [as] in the Soviet Union.
But my sense is that eventually contradictions will catch up with the Chinese Communist Party. At some point, the strict censorship measures and controls that it has implemented upon society will constrain the imagination and creativity that China will need to constantly meet these challenges and reinvent itself. Demographics, a rapidly aging society, environmental catastrophes in the making, all these things will catch up eventually, and I think we may reach the point within the next 15, 20 years when the CCP will have no choice but to liberalize China so that people get really, really engage in the kind of free exchange of information and creativity that is needed to meet those challenges. Once you do that, it becomes very difficult to maintain the kind of control in society that the [CCP is] currently enjoying. So I think it’s a ticking bomb. It might be ugly when it happens. And we also depend on the choices that the Chinese people themselves make for their country. But I do not believe that the kind of system that they have right now is sustainable in the long term.
Mr. Jekielek: Your 15, 20 years sounds like a very long time.
Mr. Cole: Well, different analyses point to the next decade being where China will be at the apex of its power. And after that, the contradictions that I’m listing and aging society and all that will start undermining that ability for China to really exert its influence. So it’s going to be a gradual slope as well. It’s not going to end immediately after 10 years. But demographics again, are key, but of course, the international context will play a large role. China does not operate in a vacuum. If it starts facing more challenges, external challenges, push back, if that has an impact on its ability to invest overseas and continue to generate rapid economic growth, all these things could also accelerate economic slowdown in China and could certainly encourage more rapid economic, political liberalization, but this is all speculation. I don’t think we want to forget that the CCP has survived several challenges in the past. So it has the ability to adjust, and it is very quick on its feet as well. So predictions of a collapse, of a rapid demise, I think are certainly premature. But certainly, history demonstrates that even the seemingly undefeatable authoritarian regimes of the past eventually collapsed of their own doing and I don’t see in the long term why China would be any different, but we can all argue on as to the timeline.
Mr. Jekielek: My mother escaped from Communist Poland in the ’70s, and just talking with her even recently, she herself didn’t believe in a million years that the Soviet Union would ever collapse. She imagined that it was permanent. I imagine a lot of Chinese believe that, simply because of the conditioning. This is a big internal information battle that the CCP has been waging for decades—that it’s good, great, glorious.
So let’s talk a little bit about the Canadian context. I don’t get a chance to talk about this very much. What I’ve been very concerned about is it seems like the Canadian authorities have taken an overly credulous approach to Communist China. My first question is, what can Canada learn from Taiwan? I was just looking at this quote from Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer. She was talking about that she didn’t … the idea behind the policy that was that they didn’t want to do anything that would very negatively impact China, which is trying very hard to do its best, and that imposing tough measures can impede whether the country in the future will ever share anything transparently with others. This sounds like the kind of mantra that the WHO might say, and I’m very concerned for the Canadian government, for Canadian society, with the approach. Can you give us some insight?
Mr. Cole: The Trudeau administration has faced a fair amount of criticism over its seemingly pro-Beijing signaling throughout the crisis. They have been very, very careful to not alienate Beijing and that policy proceeds COVID-19 as well. It’s been like that on several issues. The problem with Canada is that—and I do travel to Ottawa quite often and interact with the government and all that—policymaking when it comes to China has been hijacked by big business. Those individuals who made fortunes in China, oftentimes, are advisors to the Prime Minister’s office. They sponsor and fund most of the think tanks across Canada and with no exception, have adopted a very pro-Beijing position when it comes to trade, which I know, when it comes to Huawei, when it comes to not criticizing China over human rights, even when it comes to the issue of having our two Canadian nationals currently held hostage in China released.
That includes former Prime Ministers, people like Jean Chrétien, and a constellation of other individuals who have served in government, federal or local, oftentimes have been offered lucrative positions as consultants for Chinese companies, or simply continue to represent the interests of large corporations that oftentimes may even have played a role in getting them elected or re-elected in Canadian politics. So again, there is, as we’ve seen in Taiwan with the business sector, there’s this unhealthy relationship between policymaking and unaccountable big businesses that are making billions of dollars in China. So all of this appears to have had an influence on the messaging of the current government in Ottawa when it comes to working with China.
Canada used to have a medical expert based in China, who probably would have been able to alert Canadian authorities very early as to what was going on. That position has been vacant for a number of years, so Canada has to rely on what the WHO is giving it and, through its own channels, what the Chinese are providing as well. But we have seen a reluctance on the part of the Trudeau administration to criticize, Chinese inaction in the early stages, and avoidance on most occasions of even mentioning possible collaboration with Taiwan, or even using the name Taiwan, within the government. Now we have an ambassador—Canada has an ambassador in Beijing, who also comes from the business world. And I’m pretty sure that the kind of recommendations that he’s making right now to the Canadian government are things that the Chinese regime would be most happy with.
Mr. Jekielek: So what would your recommendations be given the reality you’re describing? And certainly, I can corroborate some of that. I’m aware of some of these realities. What would your recommendation be to the Canadian government today?
Mr. Cole: I would certainly recommend the Canadian government to treat this problem not as a bilateral issue between Canada and China, but something that really is global, which it is when we talk about COVID-19. But again for Ottawa to really think seriously about who its real friends are, which countries truly reflect the values and morals that define us as Canadians, or what we like to think of ourselves, as a liberal democratic country that is progressive and whatnot. And in so doing, while remaining pragmatic, working in concert again with other countries—and I hate the term decouple. I don’t think any country can completely decouple from China—but certainly find alternatives so that our entire policies are not held hostage, either by large businesses or by a country that provides us with facial masks. There are alternatives out there. But again, we’re so deflated as democracies right now that the easiest way is just to give into China, remain silent on a few issues, and then we’re going to get the masks and then we’re gonna get this and get that.
But I maintain that for all its faults, the United States remains Canada’s truest and closest ally, and we need to transcend whatever differences we may have with whoever’s in the White House right now, and at the government level, and the two societies really work together. There’s no way that the United States and Canada…we have plenty of trees in Canada. Don’t tell me we can’t create manufacturers and then have our own facial masks. Why do we have to buy them from China? But you need gumption, you need leadership, and this is what has been lacking not just in Canada, but in a good number of countries right now, and that’s why we’re in the current situation, where China gets away with doing all these things because the leadership is lacking.
So I hope that the whole COVID-19 outbreak serves as a moment of reckoning among democracies that we need real leadership. We need real candidates with real ideas, and maybe people who are a bit more willing to challenge the status quo that the Chinese has imposed on us in recent years. That probably signifies a bit more confrontation. There’s going to be costs, but the problem is that, especially countries like Canada, we never tested the waters. The moment Beijing threatens something or expresses displeasure, we back away, we back off, and Beijing gets what it wants. But leaders often forget, especially countries like Canada, China needs our natural resources. China wants access to certain technologies that its own people still cannot produce. So it needs us at least as much as we need it. So that should give us the ability to push back on fundamentals and values that are dear to us, but for that you need the leadership in Ottawa, and in provinces that are willing to accept that there might be a cost initially. But in that kind of response, ultimately, I think we’re going to be stronger as a society.
Mr. Jekielek: I think we are seeing rumblings of this among some European nations. I think the UK, for example, Boris Johnson has had a bit of a rude awakening through this whole coronavirus thing. We’re going to finish up in a moment any final words?
Mr. Cole: Well, I think you just mentioned the important point of a bit of awakening or reckoning in the UK. But right now China seems to regard COVID-19 as an opportunity for it to expand its influence. But that whole enterprise could very well backfire as well, because one thing that the Chinese Communist Party is not proficient at is soft power. And in many countries, its offers of help or of assistance during the crisis have been overtly transactional. They’ve been crass. They’re seen as opportunistic, oftentimes accompanied by lecturing by Chinese embassies in those countries and expressions of displeasure by Beijing for any country that does anything with Taiwan. We saw that recently in the Czech Republic.
The awareness that we spoke about earlier among Taiwanese when it comes to what it feels like or what the reality is of dealing with the CCP is now something that is part of everybody’s daily lives and it affects their health and the health of their loved ones. And countries like France are told, yes, you will be given masks or we will sell you masks, but as a quid pro quo, we want you to allow Huawei into your telecom systems. In times of crises, these kinds of transactional transactions are not looked well upon by countries and citizens of those countries. And China, as I said, is not adept at extending soft power and winning hearts and minds. That’s one of the reasons why it has failed miserably over the years in Taiwan. And I think now that if it oversteps, it may end up, once this crisis is over, and I hope it ends eventually, China could, rather than be in a stronger position, could find itself in a position where people are increasingly skeptical of its intentions and less willing to give it what it normally would have gotten away with. And again, that all stems from Xi Jinping’s impatience and his way of governing. And that could bounce back and costs his regime quite a bit in terms of reputation internationally.
Mr. Jekielek: J. Michael Cole, such a pleasure to speak with you today.
Mr. Cole: Thank you very much.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.