Home inFocus China: Inside and Out (Winter 2022) Facing China

Facing China

An inFOCUS interview with Claudia Rosett

Claudia Rosett Winter 2022

Claudia Rosett is a former staff writer and editor for The Wall Street Journal and a Foreign Policy Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum. She has contributed to The New York Times, The Weekly Standard, and other publications, and has testified before the U.S. Senate and House. Her work has focused China and Hong Kong, North Korea, Iran, and the UN. She received an Overseas Press Club Citation for Excellence in recognition of her on-the-scene reporting of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. In 1994, she broke the full story of North Korean labor camps in the Russian Far East, reporting from the camps. inFOCUS Quarterly Editor Shoshana Bryen had the privilege of speaking with her recently.

inFOCUS: Let’s start with Hong Kong. No one even mentions it much anymore, but what can you tell us about what’s happened there? Was the Apple Daily raid a turning point?

Claudia Rosett: The raid was one more in a long line of abuses. China has effectively stripped away the rule of law and the rights and freedoms that it promised to Hong Kong under treaty with Britain in 1984. That’s all gone. Even before the protests of 2019 there were problems, including the kidnapping of Hong Kong book sellers who were offering books the Chinese Communist Party cadres wanted banned. China had been grinding Hong Kong down for some time, but it was the threat of a legal amendment that would have allowed extradition of Hong Kong citizens to China that sparked the huge protests of 2019, which then turned into protests more broadly about the deprivation of liberties.

In mid-2020, while the world was preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, China struck back, dealing a mortal blow to Hong Kong’s freedoms by imposing a “National Security Law” that, in effect, empowers the administration to criminalize any form of dissent or pretty much any behavior, they dislike. This includes activities that in Hong Kong previously qualified as normal, such as free assembly and free speech. Elections to the legislature were postponed for a year, while pro-democracy lawmakers were run out of office, some arrested, and a system already tilted toward Beijing’s flunkies was tipped to the point of no return. Pro-democracy books have been pulled from schools and library shelves, Hong Kongers have been arrested for peacefully holding up blank placards, Apple Daily – a clarion voice for freedom – has been shut down, and its founder and publisher, democracy advocate Jimmy Lai, has been locked up in prison for activities such as attending a Tiananman anniversary vigil and “inciting” others to do so. 

The so-called National Security Law was concocted in Beijing, passed in Beijing, and imposed on Hong Kong as an addition to the mini-constitution, or Basic Law, that governs Hong Kong. It starts out promising good things – respect for human rights. But then it lays down conditions both vague and draconian, supplanting Hong Kong’s long-established system of justice with conditions under which these rights are stripped away, annihilated, blurred into meaninglessness. Authorities in Hong Kong now wield vast discretionary powers, basically accountable to Beijing, not to the people of Hong Kong. They have been using these powers to sweep up a lot of the most prominent democracy advocates. There were thousands of arrests during the 2019 demonstrations for democracy, and it just keeps rolling on, silencing major voices for freedom and basic rights; jailing, threatening and driving some into exile.

It’s a very bad sign that China is joining the executive body for Interpol. China claims people living abroad can offend the National Security law without ever setting foot in Hong Kong, and has issued arrest warrants for a number of people in places as far afield as Washington and London. That isn’t about “national security,” but about the Communist Party trying to ensure that nobody, anywhere, does anything Party doesn’t want them to do.

For many years, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists would come to Washington and ask Congress, the State Department and the White House to support them in their requests and demands for the freedoms and democratic representation that China had promised as terms of the 1997 British handover. Under the National Security Law that is now treated as criminal. In fact, one of the first arrest warrants they issued was for someone originally from Hong Kong, but now an American citizen working and living in Washington. What if someone who might have done something the Communist Party of China didn’t like in relation to Hong Kong travels to, say, Russia, to the Middle East, or to any place that might be inclined to help China’s communist regime?

One more very important thing about this law is that it established that China’s internal security services would operate in Hong Kong. That had been going on, covertly, for a long time, but it became an open part of the procedure. You now have the People’s Republic of China, the Communist Party, directly involved in running security services in Hong Kong.

iF: We in the United States saw all of this. If you wanted to see it, you could see it. What has the U.S. done to help?

CR: The U.S. has said a number of things. Laws were passed and penalties levied to try and hold China accountable for Hong Kong. The U.S. stripped Hong Kong of its special trade status and did various other things to express unhappiness.

But there was very little backup. For President Biden, the first big moment should have been the first big meeting that Secretary of State Tony Blinken, and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, had in March, in Alaska, with China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, and a high ranking member of the communist party. Blinken and Sullivan began by raising perfectly valid concerns about China – the genocide in Xinjiang, the abuse of Hong Kong, and so on. China bit back ferociously with a torrent of propaganda, accusing the U.S. of being an old, washed up, used up, defunct relic whose time was past, and a dreadful place to be.

Apparently, our envoys hadn’t anticipated this. They really didn’t do much to rebut it, let alone turn the tables on China’s regime and its atrocious treatment of its own people. 

Then, under President Biden, there was America’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan in August. That sent a signal to China that they really don’t need to pay a lot of attention to what we say, threaten, or promise to defend. For all the valor of our military, they saw us, under Washington’s orders, turn and run. 

iF: Do the Chinese take their cues from where we leave, they come?

CR: That’s a good way to put it. But it’s not only where we actually leave. They also look for where we are weak, where they can push or gain ground. We’re seeing this playing out all over Africa right now. They want the resources, they want the votes at the UN, they want influence where it’s easy to get. They’re an immensely corrupting influence in places where corruption is already a big problem. And they have no scruples about buying up a despot who can give them quick access to influence.

The Timetable

CR: China is looking for anything anywhere: diplomatically, territory, anything. And, while there is debate over exactly what triggered the timing in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping clearly has a timetable and he’s proceeding at speed.  With Hong Kong, he didn’t want this uppity, free enclave of people who understood how democracy works and demanded it. He dealt with that.

The protests were brought on in 2019 by threat of an extradition law, but then came the National Security Law – that process was already in the works. Everything is framed as helping provide safety and stability for people. We just heard that same phrase from U.S. Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin – I cringe because when China says that, it means conquest. When we say it, what are we talking about? We don’t have right now a real vision and plan. 

The Uyghurs

iF: One place China doesn’t have to rely on somebody else’s forbearance to make inroads is in Xinjiang. Why did the government choose genocide for these people?

CR: China, since the communists took over, has a horrible history of camps, of places where they just “disappear” people. They call it the Laogai, and when they send somebody there, it’s just as horrendous as you might think. Think Gulag Archipelago; China has that, and they have for a long time. With the Uyghurs, in particular, there are two things. 

One is, Xinjiang occupies what China’s Communist Party regards as an important node in building the Belt and Road project – the big trade (and debt-trap) network that Xi Jinping initiated in 2013, a year after he became General Secretary of the Communist Party, the year he took the title of President. While it might seem fanciful right now, China is building ports in places like Pakistan, in Cambodia. They want to bring trade up and in and out of Western China. 

Xinjiang is potentially a hub. It’s rich in resources. It connects to Central Asia. We think of it as way out there somewhere, but China sees it as a place it wants to hook up with other footholds abroad. For that, Beijing doesn’t want a population that’s going to make trouble. 

The other main reason is that the Communist Party does not want any challenges to power, and that means no latitude for other ideologies, religions, anything that might challenge one-party rule. They’ve been persecuting Falun Gong for decades now.

Officially, they pay lip service to things like the Catholic church, but it’s a front. And Uyghurs don’t worship the communist party, they worship a Muslim God. That’s not permissible.

There was the pretext in the beginning about terrorism emanating from the Islamic world. It is, of course, a real problem. But China translated that into, “We’re going to just destroy this whole ethnic and religious culture.”  That’s what’s going on in Xinjiang. Because it’s within their borders, they can easily do it and it’s very hard for people to document exactly what’s happening.

That’s the bottom line. China’s Communist Party is neutering anything that might challenge its power, and in Xinjiang, that means genocide. They’re rubbing out the Uyghur culture, and killing and imprisoning Uyghurs as they do it, to do it. In Hong Kong, they are destroying a great culture of freedom.

And look at the rest of China, the part that would seem to be the privileged part of China, Han Chinese. Remember what we saw last year when the virus broke out in Wuhan. They were welding people into their homes. They had a lockdown of a kind we have not even begun to imagine.

Liu Xiaobo, China’s Nobel Laureate died in 2017. He spent the last years of his life in prison, paroled only because he was dying of cancer. For what did he win the Nobel prize? For saying there should be pluralism in China.

It goes back to Mao, but Tiananmen in 1989 is what Americans remember. Protesters were asking for a greater say in their government, for more accountability. They built a Statue of Liberty – Lady Liberty. The Chinese Communist Party brought in the army to kill them. 

iF: What should the United States do? 

CR: First we have to recover faith in ourselves. We’re a great country. We’ve done amazing things. The post-WWII Pax Americana was extraordinary, but it is fading away. The withdrawal from Afghanistan was a devastatingly dangerous event. The message was, we would not stand up for people we’d backed – for our allies, for our principles. That we’ll just cut and run.

We need to reverse that. The question is how do you build on one thing to get to the next?

The immediate issue is the Iranian nuclear program. It’s imbecilic to think that this is going to be resolved diplomatically at a negotiating table in Vienna or anywhere else. It won’t be. What the Iranians have experienced for decades at this point is that we don’t really hurt them except with sanctions and they’re good at getting around sanctions and China is very good at helping them. It boils down to Iranian oil for Chinese money and wares, including weapons.

There is a desperation with the Biden administration to get back into what was always a terrible nuclear deal. And it wasn’t ever going to stop Iran from getting the bomb. At most, it was going to defer the problem until President Obama left office in 2017. 

The Olympics Games and the NBA 

iF: The administration has announced a diplomatic boycott of the Olympic games. , what happens when you get to the Opening ceremony and the U.S. flag isn’t there? Will Xi see that as an affront to himself and to China?

CR: To go to the Olympics, to do anything that helps China’s celebration of itself as hosting the Olympics, is a bad idea. They should never have been awarded the Olympics in the first place and these winter games should have been taken away when evidence came out of genocide in Xinjiang. They should have been taken away with what happened in Hong Kong, with China’s disappearance of its outspoken star tennis player Peng Shuai, with any of the tell-tale horrors that provide a window on Xi’s communist rule.

China’s propaganda endlessly proclaims that China is ascendant, the rising power, the model of development, the way of the future, and then denounces America. They’re doing it in spades right now. The idea is to have a milestone and say, “China has now hosted both the summer Olympics (in 2008) and now the winter Olympics. China is the power at the center of the 21st century universe.” 

And the US Olympic Committee is still planning that our athletes will go and compete. We should be out of there entirely. Everything and anyone we send to underwrite or compete in those Olympics dignifies them. These are not the Olympics that you grew up with, unless you lived through the 1930s and saw the Nazi Olympics in Berlin. 

iF: In 1936, we didn’t know the full extent of what was coming next. In this case, we know much more much earlier.

CR: These will be a very strange Olympics in any case. China is not allowing foreign spectators, only Chinese mainlanders. So, this is Xi Jinping’s party, he controls the scene. We shouldn’t be there. 

Of course, it is the decision of the US Olympic Committee, but President Biden and his team have a lot of clout. They have the bully pulpit. Even at this late date, I’d like to see the Biden administration pressuring the International Olympic Committee to move the Olympics from Beijing. 

They delayed them a year in Japan over the virus. There’s a far stronger case for the IOC to say, “We find brutal repression at least as repugnant and dangerous as the virus that came out of Wuhan. We’re going to move these Olympics, or at least delay them till the day China has a government worthy of hosting them.” 

That would require the fall of the Communist Party, but okay. Wait until then and THEN have the Olympics in China.

The Disappeared

iF: Peng Shuai disappeared – so have other people.

CR: Anyone who becomes in some way a rival or a threat or a problem for China’s ruling communist party tends to disappear. We saw this happen with In 2017, with a Chinese tycoon staying at the Four Seasons hotel in Hong Kong. He was simply picked up in the middle of the night by Chinese security and disappeared. They rolled him out of the Four Seasons hotel. 

Jack Ma, a Chinese tycoon who ran the immensely famous, successful Alibaba was taken down after he gave a speech critical of China’s financial regulators.

Anytime someone creates or runs something that gets so big that it’s a threat to the central control of the communist party, they choke it off. The Chinese ride hailing service, Didi, was just brought to heel. It’s like a mob boss, only with nuclear weapons, running a country of 1.4 billion people. 

Remember there was a Chinese official running Interpol in 2018. China abruptly “disappeared” him. They summoned him back China, and sent Interpol a message that he would not return.

The Military Requirement

iF: Would an economic alliance – something like the TPP that includes the United States and our Asian allies – make the Chinese nervous and thereby be good for us?

CR: Yes. Something, anything, that basically gathers up friends of the United States and says, “We’re going to have a framework for cooperating, and China is not part of it.” But behind it you need military muscle to enforce anything you set up diplomatically. The rise of a totalitarian, malign China has gone beyond the point where diplomatic deals and trade deals alone are likely to make the changes we seek.

We need deterrence, which means a military well beyond what the Biden administration is funding and building. In addition, the “woke” drumbeat in the military is alarming. It is not the job of the military to be “woke.” Their job is to deter and, if necessary, win wars. Not fussing about eco-fuels and uniforms.

China is building hypersonic missiles, which it tested this summer. These are missiles designed to defeat U.S. air defenses. We need to be looking at what we do to ensure that they know we have a defense and a response. We need to rebuild our military so that China understands it is unlikely to outgun us. We need to be able to fight a two front war if we need to. Then trade deals would have a much greater chance of success.

The AUKUS [Australia, United Kingdom, U.S.] alliance is the best thing the Biden administration has done, though just a start. The U.S. and Britain will work with Australia to develop and build an Australian nuclear submarine fleet, to coordinate with our military forces.  This is a very good idea, though the announcement was badly handled by the administration, which offended the French by failing to mention to them that they’d lost their deal to supply Australia with diesel-powered submarines. 

We already have submarines patrolling the Pacific – American submarines – but China looks at Australia, a resource-rich sparsely inhabited continent, and licks its chops. They don’t necessarily need to conduct a full scale land invasion. They can focus on corrupting the major institutions, and taking over critical nodes, which is what they’re doing in Africa right now. 

Trade deals can be useful. Diplomatic deals can be useful. All of this is good, but it’s got to be backed by real military muscle. Without that, in an increasingly dangerous world, you don’t have much.

Japan and Taiwan

iF: What if the United States, Japan, and Taiwan create a coordinated command structure in the Western Pacific. AUKUS in the south and Japan, Taiwan, and the U.S. in the north. That could make China pay attention.

CR: Yes. If we are not a strong presence in the Western Pacific, Japan doesn’t have much backup. Japan sits on the front line, sometimes called our unsinkable aircraft carrier. And Japan is a democracy. That was one of the great outcomes of victory in World War II. Japan is looking with great alarm as China has been jockeying over Japanese islands that China claims. 

The Japanese are an important, powerful, major ally, and we should be coordinating with them, and with Taiwan. Japan has a very strong interest in the defense of Taiwan, which is part of the island chain that China is just trying to overrun. And anything we can do to coordinate with Taiwan, Japan, Australia, countries that really have something to bring to the defense of a free world order, the better. It’s immensely important.


iF: If our goal was to make China feel brittle and feel insecure about its future – we know about their food problems and debt issues – what could we do to encourage the Chinese to feel that life for them is not going to be the yellow brick road?

CR: Many Chinese know how bad things are. China’s overall economy is a big mess, if you take a close look. We read, depending on how you measure it, that they are outstripping the United States. In fact, among the 1.4 billion people, just under a hundred million are members of the Communist Party, and they do pretty well. For most of the rest, life is not so good. 

Per capita income in China is nothing remotely close to our own. If you really want to see income inequality, look to China. They have miserable poverty there. Not as miserable as it was after Mao beggared the country with communist collectives, that’s clear. But most mainland Chinese have neither wealth nor  freedom.

Important point: one of the most vital riches for human beings is freedom. Some economic freedom was developing in China under Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, but under Xi, even that is being drained away. They now have a social credit system in which the government uses technology to monitor and measure everything that they do. There is surveillance everywhere. Everything gets tracked. 

What can be done is something that the Trump administration, to its credit, was doing quite well, especially during its last two years. There was a series of speeches from Trump officials exposing China’s failings and deceptions in real detail. Spectacularly good speeches about China’s pilfering, looting, spying – that led to shutting down the Chinese Consulate in Houston – subverting world trade systems, coopting universities, corroding legal systems. They all pointed out how dangerous China was becoming.

One of the most obnoxious statements to come out of the Biden administration was White House Press Secretary, Jen Psaki saying in response to a question about China’s testing of a hypersonic missile, “We welcome stiff competition.” That is treating a very serious threat as if they were making better sneakers. 

It is one of the reasons no one from America should be going to the Olympics. We should be saying, “Here’s how bad it is.” People in China will get to hear about that. There are ways. People around the world will hear about it. 

iF: Could there be a revolution against the Chinese government?

CR: I would not bank on it, nor would I write it off.

There’s tremendous unhappiness inside China. You see protests every so often. For instance, there was a big protest in Wuhan, in the summer of 2019 just few months before the virus emerged. They were protesting the installation of huge waste incinerators. But China’s authorities have brutal ways of shutting these down. The Tiananmen slaughter of 1989 is the standout example, but the repression carries on, in so many ways, off camera. China’s communist rulers do not scruple to kill, imprison, brutalize, and silence people in order to block  any hint of dissent. Will there be a rebellion deposing communist party? Don’t bank on that.. There are people writing thrillers these days that posit a coup in China. I’m not so hopeful.

China’s communist regime is preparing for war, and pursuing a course ever more likely to ignite it. Terrible to consider, but that looks a lot more likely right now than a revolution inside China that could succeed in overthrowing 72 years of communist tyranny — though I do believe many of China’s people privately desire greater freedom. 

iF: The world looked equally threatening in the late ‘70s. And then Reagan was elected. We never thought Soviet communism was going to collapse. But it did, without a shot.

CR: If we get leadership in America that approaches China the way that Reagan approached the Soviet Union, there is a chance that you could bring down the communist party of China. But it would take determination, backbone, and perseverance by the United States. 

iF: Claudia Rosett, Thank you.