What is the significance of deputy national security advisor Matthew Pottinger recently giving a speech from the White House in fluent Mandarin?
How does the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus expose the dangers posed by China’s communist regime and its authoritarian system?
And with mounting global criticism of the Chinese regime, will this be a Tiananmen-like moment for China, with countries around the world sanctioning the regime for its massacre of student protestors?
In this episode, we sit down with Steve Yates, CEO of DC International Advisory. Fluent in Mandarin, Chinese, he previously served in the White House as deputy assistant to the Vice President from 2001 to 2005, with a focus on national security affairs.
This is American Thought Leaders 🇺🇸, and I’m Jan Jekielek.
Jan Jekielek: Steven Yates, it’s such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Steven Yates: Thank you for having me.
Mr. Jekielek: Steve, we’re in very interesting times here. We have the so-called “Wolf Warrior” Chinese diplomats around the world, including in the U.S., doing what I would argue are very undiplomatic things, saying very undiplomatic things, to put it lightly. At this time—it’s a curious day, May 4—we have Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger appear on video speaking fluent Chinese with an unprecedented message. You actually alerted me to this just a little while ago before this happened, which I immensely appreciated. Tell me what you’re seeing with this. This is incredible stuff.
Mr. Yates: Well, it was unprecedented, in my experience. I spent five years in the White House, and I’ve tried to watch the administration before and those who’ve come since, and I don’t think we’ve ever had this high ranking of a national security official who was truly fluent in Chinese, and then made good official strategic use of that language ability. I was a deputy national security adviser to the vice president, a very different role. Matt has a unique life experience. I think what we saw on display, given he has some experience as a journalist, he’s a very good communicator. And he did a very good job of putting together what I think is a very powerful narrative—one that I think should connect with Chinese people. And so he did, with regard to communicating to China, what I think President Trump does in communicating with Americans, which is to go around the big media.
And so Matt Pottinger, the Deputy National Security Adviser, gave a remarkable address talking about the May Fourth Movement, which is 101 years ago today, largely focused on citizen-led reform-minded governance in China. And so Matt not only spoke in fluent Chinese linguistically, he’s spoken fluent Chinese history in a way that took a giant leap past the 70-plus years of communist censorship that tried to whitewash the republican era intellectual debate in China–pretending as if it was just the imperial era, and then there was a corrupt Chiang Kai Shek regime, and then Mao and his revolution came to save the day. Matt was, I think in very effective detail, talking about the politics of that time that I think accurately represent the aspirations of Chinese people. And so in our exchange, I noted an irony that probably comes across more clearly in English than in Chinese, but we have a white man in the White House speaking in Chinese about Chinese history in a way that is probably more effective and fluent than most Chinese officials are able to do.
And so I thought it was an amazing example of strategic communication, but it was a very, very important message in terms of content, basically saying that the ideals of democracy and freedom are very well grounded in China’s intellectual tradition. And he cited Hu Shih and Lu Xun, and some other writers that any Chinese educated intellectual would know, and asked what I thought was a provocative but profound and appropriate question: It’s been a century since the May Fourth Movement. Will the Chinese people have to wait another century to be able to reach these aspirations, or will the Chinese Communist Party get out of the way of the information control, disinformation and deception business, and basically respect these traditions? So I thought it was incredibly compelling. I’ve never heard an American official speak this directly in Chinese this effectively.
Mr. Jekielek: I live-tweeted this thing. And in my Twitter feed someone that we communicate often publicly that way, Solomon Yue, he mentioned (that) he felt like this is basically akin to Reagan’s call to Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” What do you think about that?
Mr. Yates: Well, Solomon is a friend and a colleague. I served on the Republican National Committee together with him. And we often do refer to the Chinese Communist Party as an evil empire, and that this is the evil empire of our time that needs to be overcome. And it’s not meant to be put in a combative or negative way that it’s an American operation. It’s really about as Matt was talking about, appealing to the history, culture and sensibilities of the Chinese people, and saying, “We look forward to celebrating your success in meeting those aspirations that includes economic development, but also these other human values.” The fact that there was a role in Chinese leadership defining international global standards for human rights and democracy, this is a profound part of the history that has been lost from the narrative, frankly, from the Henry Kissinger opening until now, where people basically accepted the Communist Party of China as the government of China, instead of basically the ruling party of a time, which is really more consistent with Chinese history.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s very interesting because even there, Matt Pottinger, he references—this is my read, okay—this idea of freedom actually even predates the May Fourth Movement. This is something that comes out of Chinese history, and the desire for a plurality of voices. That was something that was very strong in the speech. We can see today, in the time of coronavirus, what the cost of the lack of that is.
Mr. Yates: Right. And that’s a point I think that Matt drove home very, very clearly. Some of us do it more bluntly in talking about it. I thought he was very diplomatic, frankly, and basically making clear and acknowledging that no one has suffered more—in reality, but also an opportunity cost—than the Chinese people have. No matter what anyone wants to say about the Chinese people having grown up out of poverty, well that poverty was imposed upon them by bad government, in many cases based on Chinese Communist Party policies. In fact, in part of the speech today, Matt Pottinger made reference to Mao Zedong’s reaction to some of these May Fourth Movement writers. When [Mao was] asked if they were alive today, meaning during Mao’s time, what would they be doing, he said, basically, “They’d be free to write in jail, or be quiet.” And that was the openness the Communist Party had to these very deeply held Chinese intellectual ideas.
Mr. Jekielek: This comes at a very interesting time. We have all this messaging that’s coming out of China, of course, focused on coronavirus because there’s a preponderance of evidence that at best, it was grossly mismanaged and hidden. In this context, what is the significance of this speech?
Mr. Yates: The way I would frame what’s happened with the virus is that China’s government, either out of incompetence or malice, harmed the lives of many, many, many Chinese people, and then allowed this to spread to the rest of the world, infecting very, very large numbers of people, killing large numbers of people, and killing jobs. And so they’re going to face a degree of blowback from that. And the government of China has been revving up its propaganda organs to try to flip the narrative away from where the virus come from, in what ways did China deceive its people, deceive the World Health Organization, by way of the World Health Organization deceive the world in ways that very measurably cost lives and jobs—significant amounts.
And so they have a significant vested interest in trying to flip this narrative. So they’ve tried to make everything focus more on how President Trump personally responded to this, which in some ways is echoing what American domestic political entities are doing, whether it’s the Democratic Party or the dominant media. But really, there’s a cynical motive for China in trying to do this and just obfuscating the responsibility, because what’s been most remarkable is that China had a good thing going for some time. They were buying influence in international organizations; the One Belt One Road was buying relationships across Central Asia, and Africa, and a few other places; a lot of the European countries were essentially very friendly; the government of Canada had been very, very friendly.
Then things started to change a little bit with the controversy over Huawei, the detention of Canadian aid workers, the controversies over communications and national security networks, and then the Hong Kong demonstrations. But really with this virus, they’ve really jumped the shark, where you end up with the leader of Germany, someone who’s seen as very mainstream and very open to dealing with China in a conciliatory way, saying very clearly [that] China must pay a price to cover the impact that this has had on Germany and Europe.
And certainly, in the United States, it’s not a Trump issue or a White House issue. Republicans and Democrats across the country, if not in Washington itself, really have a broad base of distrust and concern about how we were misled, and the costs that we’re paying now, and they see this hostile diplomacy that China has engaged in. They see the mean Tweets. They see the very cynical videos that are being produced that are trying to blame America for something that every American, but also every Japanese, every Taiwanese, every Singaporean, every Hong Konger, every German, every Brit, every Canadian, every Mexican—we all know who did this. And again, it’s either out of incompetence or malice. There really is no other avenue that this happened by way of China. It’s their failed standards or a hostile intent that drove this pandemic outbreak.
And so the significance of a Deputy National Security Adviser talking about this now is trying to take away, I think, one of the cynical tools the Communist Party has had, which is to hide its own incompetence, malice, and destruction inside of China by blaming the foreigner; blaming the outsider. And so, why would they want to do that? Well, because we know that the number of cases and fatalities, and job losses, in China are far greater than they have publicly acknowledged. And we saw in the 1980s leading up to the Tiananmen Square movement that when you have inflation and mass unemployment, the Communist Party government can be brought to the brink. And so I think they must have real concerns. They saw this political movement in Hong Kong that opened Pandora’s box, now there’s a massive economic downturn that I’m sure we don’t have accurate figures about, and they must blame the demon on the outside in order to try to hold on to their people. And so Matt, hopefully finding a way to communicate in common sense, appeal to the better angels of Chinese culture and history, maybe, just maybe, can make a crack in that Great Firewall of China and let that conversation grow just a bit.
Mr. Jekielek: That’s fascinating. There’s kind of two vantage points I want to go with from this one. First of all, there’s this Reuters report we’re looking into [to] verify the document, that they say they talked to someone who saw [the document] which is basically saying that the Chinese regime itself is seeing that there is a Tiananmen style backlash happening internationally and that they need to guard against or deal with, which presumably all this “diplomacy” is about—so that’s one vantage point. The second one, so I don’t forget, is simply, it’s almost like Mr. Pottinger is communicating directly with the Chinese people here. That’s what struck me with this, right? And that’s also something that I don’t think I’ve seen a lot of from high-level U.S. officials.
Mr. Yates: I think they had wanted to. I don’t think that we have had, as I mentioned before, someone of his rank with that level of fluency in Chinese, but as I would double emphasize also with that level of fluency in modern Chinese history. Not the fortune cookie version of Chinese history that far too many American leaders and business leaders draw upon, but a real reading of real intellectual and political history over the last century-plus. And so he’s a uniquely qualified person to engage in this kind of conversation.
Essentially, if the Reuters report is correct, that the Chinese government fears that they’re at a Tiananmen-like moment, and their definition of a Tiananmen-like moment is the world imposing sanctions on them for something bad that they did. And really all of the Jiang Zemin era of Chinese government was first and foremost meant to climb out from under the cloud of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. And so it went from that heavy sanctioned China in a recession, probably depression, to a robust growing Chinese economy about to be embraced into the World Trade Organization. That was the Jiang legacy. So that’s how they look at it. I think they might be right, just in a way they don’t intend. I think they might be looking more at a Tiananmen-like scenario from their own people. In that, there’s got to be exceedingly high unreported unemployment, and the families that have been affected by this are going to feel the pain of that impact for a long time. And I just believe [that] in the current era, it’s going to be harder even though China maintains amazingly effective controls over information, it’s going to be harder for them to conceal the realities of this, than it has been for them to whitewash the realities and legacy of Tiananmen.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s interesting. When I think of Jiang Zemin, it’s curious just how you described his legacy, because I think of two things. I think of putting down Tiananmen Square—democracy dying. My heritage is Polish. Same day, first post-communist elections in Poland; same day, Tiananmen Square Massacre commences. Dramatically different directions, 1989. That is astounding. The second thing is the billion dollar murder-for-organs industry that the Chinese state runs. To me, that’s Jiang Zemin’s legacy.
Mr. Yates: Certainly the reporting that has been out there on that has been enduring. It’s tragic in a sense that there have been massive, deep moral problems inside of the Chinese structure for a long time. And as bad as things were in the 1990s, things arguably were never worse than they were when Nixon and Kissinger decided to normalize relations. It was the middle of the great proletariat Cultural Revolution, and there was mass murder of people going on in many different ways, there was economic depression going on, and it was probably among the worst of times in Chinese history.
And yet we chose for strategic reasons in the Cold War to lean to a side for the larger battle against the Soviets. And most of my career from the ’80s until now, has been at a time when people basically acknowledge that China has come from a position of tragedy, … in my view, certainly evil, to one where we aim to try to help lift them out of that state by offering engagement and development. And I think for most of us, and you’ve interviewed some of my fellow travelers in this regard, we would describe our journey as having been mugged by reality. And that is a saying that was used by Irving Kristol when he wrote the defining book on neoconservatism. He was a Democrat who, based on Cold War national security strategy, became a Republican, became a conservative, and he said he was basically an idealist and a liberal, but he was “mugged by the reality” of what the Soviet Union was and the brutality of the regime, and that’s what made him a hawk. And so for a lot of us who’ve worked in government and various forms, have seen the realities of China through our government work, through other kinds of activities, we have been somewhat mugged by reality.
And we want that moral story to connect with Americans and move them. But whether it was the Tibetan movement and Richard Gere’s passionate speech at one of the big Hollywood Awards, or the Taiwan elections and the DPP coming out of relative obscurity to becoming a ruling party, a tremendous development and democratization, you can go down the list of the things that you would have thought would grabbed the heartstrings. And most recently, the protests in Hong Kong—2 out of 7 million people hitting the streets in Hong Kong is just an unthought of proportion of a population in any culture, and certainly the way people think of Confucian culture or the Asian values conundrum that we had a debate over in the past.
But even with all of that, I think it has taken until this virus outbreak for people to internalize, “Oh, I can’t really afford to just coast in my life and pretend like this problem isn’t going to come to my household. It’s affecting my household, it’s affecting my community, it’s affecting my country.” And I think that visceral awareness has done things that the organ harvesting story, the oppression against Uyghurs in mass internment camps, the Tibetan experience, the house church movement, the disgraceful efforts to control the Catholic Church in China, all these things should have gotten to the people’s heartstrings, but we haven’t really been able to pull that together in a way that moved, I think, a critical mass of Americans until, really, now—I hope and I believe.
And I think that Matt Pottinger’s speech today, it might not have happened in a previous time because we have this confluence of presidential priorities. The President has spent every day for the last month and a half to two months having to publicly address the response to this problem. And so there’s a feeling at a visceral level of the work that has been created by this and the cost of it in human terms and economic terms. And I think they see the malice of the Chinese government in ways that can’t be brushed aside as theoretical or hypothetical the way our academics and diplomats had in the past.
So I respect the organ harvesting, the suffering of Falun Gong, the suffering of the Uyghurs, the suffering of the Tibetans, the sufferings of the millions of my friends in Taiwan and Hong Kong, but unfortunately, it’s taken this global tragedy to really get us focused and get this conversation going now. Again, 101 years after the May 4 Movement should have opened this conversation more broadly to the Chinese people.
Mr. Jekielek: My father-in-law is a Holocaust survivor. And my wife, she had a very interesting post that she wrote, she actually was very thoughtful, she sent it over to me, “Look at this. Do you think I can say this?” But basically, she describes this whole situation with coronavirus as the “and then they came for me” moment. This is the point where everyone, at least should realize, “Oh, these are the consequences of this system. And they affect me too.”
Mr. Yates: Yes. Well, it should get everyone’s attention when you’re talking about 30 million filers for unemployment, when you’re talking about tens of thousands of deaths, in a very, very short period of time. And then you have on top of that, the sense of panic that both of those figures create in terms of worries about the future, economically and health wise. It’s a more effective form of terrorism than the terrorism we’ve dealt with since 9/11, and I think people feel violated in a fundamental way when they’re dealing with this kind of a situation. And then when they see the government that was responsible for it turn around and very cynically try to blame us for the problem, then I think you’ve really finally gone that final 10 yards on the field and convinced America, “Okay, you now want to be our enemy. We wanted to be friends; we wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt; we wanted to believe in engagement. Now you’ve made clear that we don’t get what we want. You want this conflict with us; you want us to suffer.”
Mr. Jekielek: You mentioned it’s either gross incompetence or it’s malfeasance, or somewhere in that range. Secretary of State Pompeo has been describing what intelligence has been gathered; what they figured out. Can you speak to how you understand the current level of knowledge of what actually happened? What your take on how you assemble all this information that’s out there because it’s plentiful and sometimes moving in different directions.
Mr. Yates: Right. Well, I certainly don’t have more or higher quality information than the Secretary of State has. … Some of this are basically stories that are hiding in plain sight. We can look back on media coverage, and courtesy of things like Twitter, we know what the Chinese government was saying in December, January and February. We know what the World Health Organization was saying in December, January and February. We know that in China, when this was a significant outbreak, it was actually covered by the Chinese media, and it was called the Wuhan virus, and it’s very, very clear where it was coming from. It wasn’t coming from Guangdong; it wasn’t coming from Shanghai; it wasn’t coming from Tokyo; it sure wasn’t coming from America—it was the Wuhan virus.
It wasn’t until it really went international and became a reputational problem for the government of China that they began to play the most cynical of games, and trying to say it was “racist” to call it “Chinese.” And so we have the record of truth on the one hand in some of these saved social media, traditional media posts, about where the outbreak was, and what the nature of the outbreak was. It was quite scary. And then we also have the revisionism that has been unprecedentedly really aggressive in terms of trying to whitewash and flip the narrative.
So, what I try to do, and what I think a lot of other people try to do, that want to advise our friends that are in government or be helpful to them, we try to track what’s happening in the Chinese media just to know what they’re saying. We also keep track of what our own government agencies are saying publicly. In this case, there’s a lot of international coverage that’s out there, and guess what: it’s very consistent with what Secretary Pompeo has been saying. The leadership in Japan has been more forthright and direct at talking about Chinese responsibility for this.
And also the Chinese manipulation of the World Health Organization. The Deputy Prime Minister of Japan said that it shouldn’t be called the World Health Organization anymore; it should be called the Chinese Health Organization because of their manipulation of information in process. That’s unprecedented. If we’re going to talk about the deputy national security advisor’s unprecedented speech, that was an unprecedented statement. The government of Australia—but also Australia’s major news networks have done deep dives into the background of what’s going on with this virus, but also the very ugly, racist nationalism that the government of China has engaged in, in trying to flip this narrative.
So it’s very, very clear, I think, to the world and to those of us from America trying to watch what’s happening to the world, that this is a China problem, a Chinese government problem. If we want to be optimistic, we side with Mr. Pottinger and say, “We’re hopeful that the Chinese people will hear this reminder of the ideals of May Fourth, and that they will rise to the occasion and citizen-led government can be in the future, and that’s all consistent with Chinese culture and civilization.” But if we’re in the now, and we’re more cynical about it … everyone in the world is seeing very, very clearly where this came from, and they felt the pain in their own economies and among their people, and they’ve seen the breakdown of these international organizations. … These institutions themselves have completely failed, and there’s no better measure of that than jobs and lives lost in this outbreak, courtesy of a specialized agency of the United Nations that allowed the government of China, that isn’t even in the top ten funders of the organization, to completely control the narrative, dialogue and substance of that organization, to the detriment of humanity, and even to the detriment of the Chinese people’s well being. It’s just a remarkable series of developments to see.
But when you’re looking at it, Secretary Pompeo hears from his counterparts. And you’ve got to believe that they’re more blunt and candid in person than they are with what we see through the media. And I just have never seen as blunt a review of what’s happening with China, and the negative feedback they’re getting in their bilateral relations with China than I’ve heard recently from European counterparts, Asian counterparts, generally the Australians, and others. It’s been decidedly negative. And so Secretary Pompeo is in many ways just speaking in ways that sum up what a lot of these observations and sentiments are, and put the burden where it belongs. If China doesn’t like the narrative, open up and be transparent. To this day, we still don’t have independent experts being able to go in unfettered and do the forensic analysis of where this actually came from, how it has been spreading, and that’s after months of destruction of that forensic trail by the Chinese government.
Mr. Jekielek: To your point about this situation with all these different governments taking stands when they really weren’t ready to do that until very recently. This whole idea that the Chinese government is going out and accusing all these Western countries of being “racist” for calling it the “China virus” or the “Wuhan virus,” and at the same time facilitating the targeting of Africans, … as being the people who are bringing the virus in from outside. I can hardly imagine something more racist than that. And now you even have African leaders to some extent, probably the most difficult for them to take stands like this, actually saying something here. That’s remarkable to me.
Mr. Yates: I’m an American conservative, and we’re usually pretty critical of what we would call “establishment thinking” and the “globalist ideas”, but globalist in the establishment thought leaders, so to speak, have argued basically for the last generation, that America is ceding leadership in the world, others are rising and those that believe in the values of our Constitution, ideas of federalism in the United States, institutions like religion and other kinds of socializing forces—that those are a bygone era, and this new post-modern existence is going to be the way of the world and we’re going to have a rise of Chinese power and influence. We just have to accept that and make accommodations. China is just so much better at soft power than we are, and some of this soft power is spreading money and infrastructure development around the continent of Africa, Latin America, some parts of the broader Asian continent, Eastern Europe included as well. China is buying so much goodwill with this, that they’re just better at all of this public relations, and the United States is just caught up in its own internal politics and disorder, and so we’re ceding this leadership vacuum.
That has never fully been true anyway, but it’s decidedly now being proven untrue both in terms of the American decline narrative, but also in terms of this automatic and generally accepted notion that China is ascending and that it’s some master at this soft power. There is no worse example of the Chinese government having tragically terrible unforced errors on so-called “soft power,” than this example of the McDonald’s having an official policy in southern China not to serve black people. In Chinese, it was “hei ren.” It wasn’t people from Africa, it was the color of skin and there were consular officers from the American consulate in that area that were affected by this as African Americans. You did end up on video, people hitting the streets in China verbally assaulting borderline physically accosting African diplomats in southern China over this threat of “you’re dirty and you brought this virus to us” part of the sort of mental reprogramming that CCP was trying to do. It gets caught on video, but now you end up with images of African diplomats demanding apologies from government officials in China and the Chinese government officials having to go and bow in apology.
This was all created by this supposedly infallible, soft power juggernaut of the CCP. I just think it’s somewhat useful to recognize they’re not in fact, 10 feet tall. They’re selling a very, very flawed product. An evil product. And they’re not even doing it very well right now. I hope that African countries, European countries, Americans, and our counterparts around the world recognize. These institutions like the United Nations, the Human Rights Commission, the World Health Organization, all these organizations that essentially have failed their fundamental missions on security and human rights. Now we need to do basically as President Trump asserted, we’re going to need to cooperate among sovereign states to build a balance against the failed agenda of these organizations that have been hijacked by primarily the CCP.
So it can be a constructive lesson that we’re learning, not to worry so much about who’s funding these groups and how much money, but certainly don’t waste our taxpayer money to insult ourselves and put our own people at risk. If our allies and partners around the world are wising up that this Chinese offer of a quick project and capital comes with strings, they’ll demand that you behave like a puppet like the director-general of the World Health Organization has had to do. He has basically had to parrot the words the CCP told him to parrot. Like trying to say that person-to-person transmission of this is not possible. A known falsehood at the time. It should be something that would require someone’s resignation or firing under normal circumstances, but we’re not in normal circumstances. So to me, the ripple effects of this are profound. The Chinese efforts at soft power, One Belt One Road, trying to build up this coalition of influence—I think they have really lost that momentum, and it is rolling back the other way. They can’t blame the world for it. They did this to themselves.
Mr. Jekielek: They’re definitely not 10 feet tall, as you had said. That’s a bit of a mirage. Yet they do still exert influence, and they’re trying to especially in some of the smaller countries like we’re hearing reports from Sweden. Sweden is pushing back but is getting diplomats saying completely outrageous things. In Taiwan, which of course is an area that’s part of your specialty, I’ve heard people from Taiwan saying, “now you’re feeling the kind of pressure that we’ve been feeling all along. Now you kind of understand what it’s like to be in Taiwan, right?” And then of course, the place where the Chinese Communist Party has the greatest influence, which is Hong Kong, where we have 15 strong pro-democracy leaders being arrested, and the basic law being undermined at a level that I hadn’t really seen before. So there is still some strength there. What are your thoughts here?
Mr. Yates: No question. There is some strength there. Also no question that the Chinese Communist Party with just a little bit of juice in its tank or money in its bank account, is definitely willing to multiply it, spend it, deploy it. So even under siege, frankly, from the outbreak of the virus and the economic impact of it inside of China, they have not held back in trying to push political pressure on the democracy movement in Hong Kong. It would appear to be a cynical move of the world being distracted with its own coronavirus response, and perhaps not focusing on the Hong Kong situation, plus the Hong Kong authorities enforcing social distancing and things like that. It’s a very convenient way to eliminate the mass protest movement that had gotten so much international media attention. There is no question that the government of China still has leverage and is very, very willing to use that leverage in ways that most others would be bashful about or feel a little bit of shame about. They don’t feel that, and so there’s no question they push very, very hard to “not let a good crisis go to waste,” as we say in American politics.
So I think there’s something to what the people of Taiwan are saying of “now, you know,” because no geography on the planet per capita has been attacked more frequently than the people of Taiwan have, those 23 million people on an island offshore, just in terms of cyber attacks, political warfare, economic warfare, and actual military materiel that’s deployed against them. And all of this craziness and international organizations trying to force companies and groups to not even utter the word Taiwan. That absolute joke of a World Health Organization official who refused to answer the Hong Kong journalist’s question about Taiwan’s handling of the coronavirus. What a dereliction of duty. Even if you’re a full-on communist and you believe the unreality that Taiwan belongs to the People’s Republic of China, you should still be able to answer the question about how Taiwan handled the coronavirus, a subject the World Health Organization should find exceedingly relevant. But he played around with turning off his connection, said “I’d already addressed the Chinese issue,” but basically made it very clear how corrupted it had become. And so Taiwan faces a unique challenge in this, but now the rest of the world sees with the manufactured narratives that are going out on social media, videos, the mean tweets by diplomats from China trying to mobilize Chinese nationals in foreign territory to militantly attack other Chinese people who might think differently. It’s a different phenomenon than has been apparent in recent times. But it’s very, very aggressive. I think there’s a lot of truth to what some of our friends in Taiwan and Hong Kong have said.
Don’t forget, these guys (the CCP) still have some malice left in what they’re trying to do. The only antidote to it is if smaller countries are feeling this bullying, then the larger countries have a responsibility to stand by the side of those that are willing to speak up about what’s right. When the government of Poland or the Czech Republic is willing to take the right stand on these things, the government of the United States needs to do that. We should be shaming other European countries that won’t do the same thing, if we’re willing to stand up for what’s obviously true and generally good for the values we hold in common. So don’t wait for the UN, don’t wait for the next meeting. Our diplomats basically need to do more of what we saw Deputy National Security Pottinger do, and get out and speak directly to the Chinese people, but also speak in solidarity with the others around the world that are taking the right tack.
Mr. Jekielek: Something that struck me about Matt Pottinger’s address was how disarming and genuine it was. I wonder if this will culturally appear this way to the Chinese; it certainly appeared this way to me: He did not come off as a politician to me. He came off as someone who was speaking genuinely to the Chinese people, which I thought was remarkable.
Mr. Yates: It came across that way to me. I trust it came across that way to Chinese listeners around the world that were tuning into it. And anyone who knows Matt Pottinger knows that he isn’t a politician. He’s an intelligent man. I’m sure that he has some familiarity with the realities of politics, especially in the last few years of his job experience, but first and foremost, he’s someone who has clear life experience, clear views, and a clear ability to articulate them in a way that is, frankly, more consistent with what he’s done in the past than what he’s doing right now. And I didn’t detect an ounce of disingenuousness about what he was saying. This wasn’t propaganda. This wasn’t a political or polemic message. This was an appeal to people that he clearly celebrates and likes. He has people that are deeply close to him that he loves, that are Chinese. So he is, I think, fairly safe from the accusation of racism, which gets trotted out all the time, and he’s not anti-China. I thought that the way he articulated his views probably would come across better than someone like me trying to articulate my views, and that he could speak from this vantage point of really earnestly identifying with that freedom movement from that earlier period in China, and close friends and collaborators that he had known during his time living in China really fed the growth of that thought and identity inside of him. So I think that’s just a genuine part of who he is. And frankly, that’s a big net positive for American policy right now in terms of dealing with the Chinese government.
Mr. Jekielek: Steve, something just struck me as we’re talking right now. One of the very common lines that we hear from Chinese Communist Party spokespeople and diplomats is that “you’ve hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” as if they can speak for everyone. I feel like Matt Pottinger’s speech almost disarms that favorite piece of messaging or something.
Mr. Yates: I think there was style and substance that did that. His style was as you described. He has a very disarming style because he is not a caustic or confrontational person by nature. He’s focused on substance, not necessarily on trying to take shots. He doesn’t hold back from things that are sensitive and important. I think that should be very clear from anyone who reviews the text. I would strongly encourage people to get their own first-hand impression from the text from the video, not just my impressions or interpretation of it. His style, I think, was very professional and genuine, but then the substance, by speaking in the voice of Chinese intellectuals from 100 years ago—it’s true—these intellectuals said these words, it has a context in the Chinese intellectual tradition. It is relevant to discussions between citizens and their government in Chinese history and political development. It’s not a message from American politics to Chinese politics. It’s not a message from the Republican Party or Democratic Party to the Chinese Communist Party. It was, I think, a very genuine, historically based message from someone who knows and is inspired by that movement, to the Chinese people to hopefully awaken and endorse that kind of revival and intellectual conversation inside China about their own government and its accountability.
Mr. Jekielek: We talked about this a little bit offline as well about how Chinese people aren’t all that fragile, as this messaging would suggest, right?
Mr. Yates: Right. There is a video and probably more than one that are circulating widely on YouTube that asked somewhat, the curious question of “are the Chinese people really all that sensitive?” And, of course, Chinese people are human beings like the rest of us, I’m sure there are sensitivities that all of us carry, but a lot of people who lived for many years in China, know that there are a lot of Chinese people that have an incredible toughness about them. A matter-of-factness about the realities of their life, partly what allowed them to work very, very hard under not that great of conditions over the last generation to develop the economic juggernaut that the world recognizes, speaks to the lack of focus on feelings and more of pragmatism, hard work, somewhat of a toughness. That comes out of living through the depression and starvation on the physical body, but also politics.
And so, yes, I think this is one of those false notions that the Chinese people aren’t tough and focused on the realities of their lives. It has been the Communist Party of China that has used this mostly to manipulate outsiders, somewhat to try to manipulate their own domestic audience, but it’s been most effective in manipulating outsiders. Fact of the matter is the people who are dying of this virus in Wuhan and other parts of China, didn’t spend a moment of any day worrying about whether the people of Taiwan want to consider themselves to be a part of China or not, or whether the people of Hong Kong want to directly elect all of their legislative council, not just some of their legislative council, and one day their chief executive. They don’t spend a moment of any day worrying about what the conditions are of Tibetans or Uyghurs or others, they have all of these pressing things that they’re dealing with in their own life. It’s really, I think, a manipulative tool of their government to try to fan these things and pretend as if the Chinese people are so sensitive that they can’t handle a mention of one of these words, or they just sort of curl up into a fetal ball and cry at the mention of these different topics.
I think those of us that have studied Chinese history and those of us that have real interaction with real Chinese people know that they’re fully capable of these ideas that Deputy National Security Adviser Pottinger mentioned. But also, they are willing and able to stand up from time to time. It has just been unfortunate that in recent decades, the government has very effectively kind of disaggregated all of these movements from being able to reach a critical mass to push for a different path forward for the Chinese people.
Mr. Jekielek: I, for one. am a huge fan of a plurality of voices and plurality of thoughts for the Chinese people to get access. I’m wondering to myself, “will this video go viral behind the Great Firewall of China?” Any final thoughts before we finish up?
Mr. Yates: Well, I certainly hope it does go viral. In keeping with what I think is Matt Pottinger’s intention. Not so that it’s some kind of a declaration from him, but that it provokes a movement of thought, discourse, and debate inside of China. He made very clear that the aspirational and respectful interpretation of his remarks was that this future is for the Chinese people to decide, and that this tradition of the May 4 movement and these powerful Chinese intellectual ideas are for the Chinese people to discuss and interpret. When you end up with a small minority that gets too much power concentrated for too long, it does risk a popular uprising. In fact, it’s what the Communist Party of China tried to do to come to power. Now they have been doing things so long their way, that it does appear that if these kinds of ideas go viral, they are now at risk of a popular movement that would push the Communist Party of China off to the side in pursuit of a different, better way of governing themselves.
Mr. Jekielek: Steve Yates, such a pleasure to have you on.
Mr. Yates: Thank you so much.