A problem I’ve been thinking a lot about recently is the threat posed by Chinese political warfare. This is not an idle worry: Concerns about the motives of Chinese citizens and companies is driving many of the Trump administration’s policy decisions. From the recent Huawei ban to the growing rejection rate of Chinese students seeking to study in the United States, it is fairly clear that the United States is deeply worried about the threat of Chinese infiltration and taking drastic action to mitigate it.
On the one hand, I am deeply sympathetic to these fears. Huawei’s executives have done little to inspire confidence, and the PRC’s has repeatedly absconded with American IP and highly sensitive military blueprints. While Chinese actions are certainly not uniformly nefarious and vary in intensity from country to country, Beijing has also been caught on many occasions seeking to manipulate, degrade, and undermine democratic regimes throughout the Asia-Pacific. These efforts have, unsurprisingly, been most intense in Taiwan: China has bribed politicians and military officers, worked with local criminal syndicates to intimidate activists, and insidiously suffused local media. However, they have also been observed in countries such as Australia and New Zealand (for a pop culture example of how fears of Chinese infiltration have crept into Australian public conscience, watch the show Pine Gap). Given the growing animosity between the U.S. and China, it would be incredibly naive to ignore the threat posed by Chinese companies and agents abroad.
But on the other hand, I think an all-encompassing fear campaign risks alienating large numbers of otherwise friendly and peace-loving Chinese. The CCP maintains a fascistic, ethno-nationalist view of the world in which all ethnic Chinese must serve the state. Unfortunately, some of Trump’s advisors seem to share this view, arguing that the U.S. faces a civilizational challenge. I find this rhetoric extremely dangerous and explicitly racist (much like the absurd claim that all Jews are unquestioning devotees of Netanyahu). It also strikes me as utterly and completely fallacious. After all, despite having European ancestry, my loyalty lies with the United States, not Ireland or Poland. I imagine this is true for the vast majority of ethnic Chinese who have sought citizenship abroad, especially if they are generations removed from life in China. But even Chinese tourists and temporary residents deserve to be treated with respect; to do otherwise would be to throw out core American values like equality and the presumption of innocence. Unless we want to return to shameful parts of America’s past – McCarythism and Japanese internment to name but two – we must resist the urge to embrace paranoia and fear.
The reality is that many who come to the United States do so because they find something admirable about the country. Whether it be America’s world-beating institutions of higher education or its avowed support for political liberty, many move here because of a desire to expand their potential and contribute to a dynamic, innovative country. It would be deeply destructive to the vibrancy of American culture and dynamism of the U.S. economy to shut these people out simply because of their ethnic background. This does not mean that American officials should cease monitoring potential foreign agents and resisting Chinese influence operations. It also does not mean America should cave to Beijing’s demands. For example, I strongly support the Trump administration’s push to improve supply-chain security and ensure American technological superiority. I also emphatically agree with Trump’s imposition of tariffs on China, though I just as strongly detest his imbecilic trade wars with American allies in Asia and Europe. But these proactive policies are possible without demonizing people simply based on their race or country of origin.
I worry that certain China hawks, though possessing the noblest of intentions and goals, are peddling a narrative that is largely unsubstantiated and, in most cases, deeply unfair. The CCP is sneaky, clever, and in my view very clearly malevolent. But the CCP is not the Chinese people, and Americans must never conflate the two because that leads down a dark and morally dubious path.