By Yuxuan Chen, Zhang Juan

【Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University. His latest edited book, China’s Influence and American Interests (Hoover Press, 2019), focuses on promoting constructive vigilance of China’s ambitions as a global economic and military superpower.

The Monitor’s Yuxuan Chen recently had a Zoom interview with Professor Diamond. They discussed a range of issues, including his assessment of the report on China’s influence, democracy and Covid-19 and among other issues. 】

Chen: It’s been almost two years since the release of China’s Influence & American Interest, how do you assess the impact of this report? In which areas do you think the report gets it right? And in which area you think this report has caused harm, if there is?  

Diamond: I think the report has had a very constructive impact in raising awareness about the multiple dangers of China’s effort to subvert the integrity of democratic institutions around the world and to inappropriately influence democratic debates and dialogues.

It has contributed to policy change in a largely positive direction: to create more vigilance and more monitoring of what China is doing, to make it more difficult for the People’s Republic of China to inappropriately and illegally transfer or capture America intellectual property and high technology, and to monitor partnerships more closely whether through the talent program, federally funded research (which is something we are working on right now), and in the corporate world, where massive technology thefts have been happening.

We see concerns raised about the Confucius institutes, about the Chinese Student and Scholars Associations and their efforts to suppress free speech on college campuses. I think people are more ready to raise immediate concerns when we have incidents like the one very recently: a Chinese overseas student at the University of Minnesota was arrested in China earlier this year and sentenced to six months in prison for tweets he posted while a student here in the United States. This is the kind of stuff we are looking at: efforts to suppress and intimidate freedom of speech, even on American soil.

A number of initiatives have been launched to try to strengthen oversight of federally funded research to plug the holes in technology transfer, and to monitor more closely the work of Chinese media agencies such as Xinhua News Agency and the efforts of Huawei to impose their technology infrastructure on municipalities and foreign countries, with the dangerous potential that has to comprise the privacy of conversations and ultimately the security of the United States.

Our report has contributed to a policy movement for greater vigilance and legislative action both to strengthen monitoring and to insist on greater vigilance with respect to the potential intentions of the People’s Republic of China’s partnership and collaboration efforts.

Your question had another dimension though, about the negative side. We have raised concerns about this potential negative fallout in our report, in the preface to the book version of our report, and repeatedly in conversations with policy makers and in public commentaries. In brief, we worry about the danger that vigilance could flip over into discrimination and mistreatment of both Chinese overseas students and visiting scholars as well as Americans of Chinese descent. We have to be extremely vigilant against such discrimination and xenophobia.

I have made clear personally that I don’t support broad visa bans. Our view is that Chinese scholars should be carefully vetted before they come here. In particular, we need to vet them for ties to the PRC’s military industrial complex, the major People’s Liberation Army-linked universities and research centers (the so-called “Seven Sons”), and other military- and intelligence-linked research institutes and training centers.

In my view, people should not be coming from military-linked universities in China to get PhDs with leading American institutions, to join in research projects in leading American universities, and to work on high-tech applied research that has direct applicability to the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army .

As an American citizen, I just can’t support or condone research collaboration or graduate student training that has as its undeclared, covert, and repeated purpose the enhancement of China’s military capabilities. However, once people are vetted and they come here, we should welcome them, we should treat them fairly and we should encourage them to stay here after they get their Ph.D.’s or other graduate degrees.  They should be free to work in our industries and become full members of our society. And of courses that should apply to a Chinese overseas student in other fields.

Chen: The report calls on the US avoid overreacting while enhancing constructive vigilance in terms of dealing with China’s influence. Do you think the current administration is at a stage of overreaction or just about right?

Diamond: I think both are true. I think there have been elements of response by the Trump Administration that have been appropriately vigilant in terms of alerting universities to the vulnerabilities in the talent program and to the behaviors of some professors who have participated in the PRC’s talent recruitment programs without adequate disclosure.  And as I mentioned, there has been increased attention to the need for adequate monitoring of federally funded research grants that support cooperation or collaboration with Chinese scholars, where aspects of the relationship (specifically, Chinese researchers’ ties to China’s military-industrial-scientific complex) have not been adequately disclosed.

I think there are other respects in which the Trump Administration and President Trump personally have not been vigilant or forthright enough, especially with regard to human rights in China and the crackdown on freedom and autonomy on Hong Kong, which has been an incredibly tragic betrayal of China’s obligations under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s 1997 Basic Law. China is violating its international obligations with regard to Hong Kong, and now increasingly blatantly so with the imposition of the new national security law. I wish President Trump would be more outspoken about that.

In addition, there are some respects in which the President, some members of his administration, and some members of Congress have not been careful enough in the way they characterize all of this.  We need to make careful distinctions between the minority of Chinese visitors, businessmen, students and scientific researchers who may be serving an agenda for the Chinese Communist party-state and the much larger number of Chinese students, visitors, and businessmen in the US who are just trying to serve their own purposes and have the potential to do a lot of good in bringing our two countries together.

What most concerns me is when the President descends into racist stereotypes or gross ethnocentric characterizations by mispronouncing the word “China” or talking about the “Kung flu” order to whip up ethnic or nationalistic hostilities towards China. Take for example Trump’s response to CBS White House reporter Weijia Jiang, who is of Chinese descent, when she asked a totally fair and reasonable question about why he was framing virus testing capacity as a “global competition.” Trump blew it off with the inflammatory reply, “Why don’t you ask CHINA that question?” His comment was purely calculated to stir up nationalistic resentment of China, and implicitly to question Jiang’s loyalty to the U.S., as a Chinese-American. This is very dangerous and I denounce it.

So, there been elements of overreaction, irresponsible handling of US-China relations, and discriminatory attitudes towards Chinese and Chinese Americans, which are embedded in a long history American discrimination against Chinese immigrants. Even as we press a necessary campaign to raise vigilance, engage in proper monitoring, and reduce the vulnerability of our supply chains to PRC pressure, we need to keep reminding ourselves of the danger of simulating prejudice. We need to always distinguish between the Chinese Communist party-state that runs China and the 1.4 billion Chinese people on the (along with the 50-60 million overseas Chinese).

Chen: There’s definitely a need to balance between American openness and the efforts to confront potential threats coming from China. But it is really difficult to do that in face of this mutual mistrust and competition between each side.

Diamond: Right. I’d say some of the competition is unavoidable and some of the mistrust has been earned by PRC leaders because of their covert, coercive and corrupt activities to project sharp power. But there is burden on all of us—whether in policy positions or academia or think tanks—to be very careful with our language, to keep making these distinctions, and to keep trying to reach out to the PRC to find common ground where we can cooperate and not just paint it with one common brush.

We can’t afford to have a pervasively competitive and hostile relationship with the government of the People’s Republic of China. The United States and China have too much business to do together, to work to reduce the potential for conflict in the Indo-Pacific region, to try to restrain North Korea’s destabilizing nuclear program, to combat climate change, to combat the COVID-19 virus. We have a lot of work to do together as the world’s two most powerful countries, so I don’t want any more competition or confrontation beyond what is necessary.

I favor undertaking every possible effort to reach out to the PRC to seek cooperation on major international problems such as the pandemic, the global economy, and most important of all, climate change.   

Chen: Speaking of Coronavirus, do you think that the Coronavirus rampancy in the United States has reflected any defects of the democratic system in the United States? Or is it more about the Trump administration’s problematic emergency response to the virus instead of democracy itself?

Diamond: We need to make three distinctions. There is the abstract level of democracy as a general system of government; there is the level of our democratic system and society in the US; and then there is the level of President Trump and his leadership.

With respect to democracy in general, one cannot claim, as PRC leaders are trying to do, that there is something intrinsically wrong with democracy, that authoritarianism provides a superior means of confronting the virus. China’s communist leaders conveniently avoid the fact that there is another Chinese society that has done an even better job than the People’s Republic of China has done at managing the virus, and that has the lowest infection rate and the lowest death rate of any economically developed society, and that of course is Taiwan. Korea, Japan and most European countries after their tough initial encounter with the virus, have managed to contain it pretty well for now. Some European countries, like Greece and Norway, did a very strong initial job of containing the virus. And many of the democracies of the world are among the countries with the lowest rates of infections and deaths, so it can’t be that there is an intrinsic flaw in democracy as a system of government that makes it impossible to control a pandemic.

Hence, we need to look more into specific features of governance that determine whether a country or a society is successful at managing the virus. These include whether there is a strong public health bureaucracy that has the authority to lead the national response and to coordinate and speak for the government, and whether the government is effective in persuading or compelling people to wear masks, to shelter place, and to engage in testing and contact tracing.

Secondly, whether the country has been efficient, vigilant and far-sighted enough to order or manufacture the necessary equipment, both the personal protective equipment for hospital workers and the masks and tests and medicines and treatment machines for the population.

Some countries very early required their people to wear masks when they go out in public and launched very comprehensive testing of the public and contact tracing of anybody who was found to test positive so they could have alert people who had been in contact to quarantine for two weeks. These countries have had success in controlling the virus.  It is not coincidental that many of them are in East Asia because they experienced the SARS epidemic around 2003 and that gave them experience in managing a pandemic and so left them better prepared to deal with COVID-19.

China was slow to address COVID-19, and the authorities in Wuhan initially tried to suppress the evidence of it.  It was precisely the fear, lack of transparency, and highly rigid top-down information flows of an extremely authoritarian state that led to the virus getting out of control initially and escape to Europe and the US. If the People’s Republic of China had been a democracy with rapid transmissions of information in a decentralized way and rewards rather than penalties for delivering news of danger in a timely fashion, then this horrible disease might never have become a global pandemic.

In the case of the United States and Brazil, what you have is very bad, incompetent leadership that has not paid attention to the lessons of other countries, that has persistently denied the seriousness of the virus, that has failed to organize the public to wear masks, that has not put the necessary testing infrastructure in place, and that has not implemented systematic contact tracing.  So the virus is out of control in these two democracies, because of the utterly incompetent presidents, Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro.

Chen: Do you think this inefficient way of combating COVID 19 will impact President Trump’s election later this year?

Diamond: He is going to be punished severely in this election for causing the unnecessary deaths of over a hundred thousand Americans and catastrophic damage to the American economy, through his failure to manage the virus.  

Chen: You recently gave a speech at Hoover Virtual Policy Briefing, in which you talked about Covid-19 and democracy around the world. What is the relationship between Covid-19’s response and the level of democracy?

Diamond: To repeat: there is no clear relationship between regime type and effective management of the virus. It really comes down to governance: Do you have a good public health system in place and are you listening to your public health leadership? Are you spreading the news rapidly in educating your citizens? Are you requiring your people to wear masks? Are you engaging in comprehensive testing and contact tracing and so on.

It is the case that autocrats around the world have been using the virus as an excuse to clamp down on freedom and transparency and political oppositions to try to punish critics and roll back freedom. And you just see a number of autocrats seizing on the opportunity of the COVID-19 pandemic to adopt emergency rule that further contracts freedom and elevates and enlarges the power of the ruler and ruling party.

This is just an excuse that they are seizing upon to try and get more power. We have seen from the examples of democracies I cited earlier that there is a different and better way to manage the virus while preserving civil liberties and accountability.

Chen: Many China experts tend to explain the current state of US-China relations from the perspective of failed engagement policy, e.g. China has not lived up with its promises and that it has not headed to a more open direction. Have you thought about whether the two different political systems are the ultimate contributor to the difficult bilateral relations? 

Diamond: Yes, I have. I think the fact that China is ruled by a communist party that reigns supreme over everything, not only the government but also universities, businesses, research institutions, media, civil society, plays a big role.

Looking into communist state, the first thing to understand about the People’s Republic of China is that the word “People” is in there for a reason. It is not because they value democracy in the true sense of the word. They are communist party-state that is still run by principles in which the party is supreme over everything and has the right to command anything.  Inevitably, if China doesn’t move in the direction of reform and transparency and openness and greater accountability, then periodically, elements of Chinese society are going to rise up to demand these things, as happened during the great poster campaigns, the Tiananmen Square protests, and in the work and advocacy of Liu Xiaobo and the more recent courageous work of human rights lawyers in China.

If crisis arise and reforms are not instituted, then you go back in the reverse direction, as is happening now under President Xi Jinping, with his expansion of repression and centralized control and a situation where we still don’t know the full facts about the virus, and where a Nobel Prize winner dies in prison, decades before his time. And two million and more Muslims are put in concentration camps and now you have the internationally codified legal autonomy of Hong Kong being sacrificed to the whims and paranoia of President Xi and the ruling Chinese Communist Party elite.

How would you expect that the world’s most powerful democracy, which is dedicated along with its democratic allies to defense of human rights and the rule of law, to a transparent international order and an open Pacific Ocean, including the South China Sea, would not respond to these problems? How would you expect that there would not be conflict between the two systems? Yet, we’ve learned during the competition during the Cold War that even when there is competition, even when there is ideological division, even when there are massive human rights violations on the part of the communist super power, we live in one world and we still have to do business.

Some degree of conflict is inevitable. China has not lived up to its obligations and has now backed away from the potential to move in a more open, transparent, pluralistic direction, and to become what our former Deputy Secretary of State, Robert Zoellick, called “a responsible stakeholder” in the world. But we, the United States, have to keep trying and reaching out and engaging the People’s Republic of China, even with its repression and bad behavior, to nudge it in the direction of becoming a responsible stakeholder.

We need to negotiate. We don’t want armed conflict. We don’t want the world to fail to meet the challenge of climate change. We certainly don’t want nuclear proliferation, or—God forbid—a nuclear war, or another explosion of another nuclear device, or any of the other possible disasters, including another pandemic getting out of control. However, my view is that the deepening tension between China and the U.S. is largely due to the semi-totalitarian nature of the Chinese communist party-state and the much more ambitious and aggressive way the PRC has been behaving on the international stage under President Xi.

Chen: Speaking of the Hong Kong and South China Sea problems, many experts have claimed that these are China’s domestic affairs and that the United States shouldn’t interfere with them. How do you respond to this statement?

Diamond: Hong Kong is part of China, and that was part of the agreement that was codified with the Joint Declaration and then the handover in 1997. I made clear to my friends and people I engage in Hong Kong that I do not support independence for Hong Kong. We need to acknowledge that Hong Kong is part of China and that it is a special autonomous region within China. But to repeat, China has not just a domestic but an international obligation, under the terms of the Joint Declaration, which clearly has the character of an international treaty, to respect the autonomy of Hong Kong at least until 2047.

China has badly broken its obligations in that regard. So in contrast to Xinjiang, Hong Kong is not purely an internal matter of the People’s Republic of China. Even with regard to Xinjiang, and Tibet, China does not have the absolute right under international law to do whatever it wants, either with individual people that it claims to have violated its laws by speaking their consciences or with whole groups of people. It has obligations to all its citizens under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights. And any other country has a right to offer its opinions and express its concerns about the violations of these rights within China.

With respect to the South China Sea, there is a territorial dispute about who has exclusive sovereign rights to navigation, fishing, and minerals. If you look at a map, it is just an absurdity for China to claim that it has exclusive rights to control the mineral resources and navigation of virtually the entire South China Sea (that is, the portion within China’s so called nine-dash line). The PRC is claiming parts of the South China Sea that are obviously better recognized as within the territorial sovereignty of Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia and so on. So virtually nobody but China’s leadership recognizes the South China Sea as its exclusive domain. And for China to insist on this, and create military bases on dredged-up artificial islands in the region, amounts to territorial aggression.

The US, with its allies, has a moral and geopolitical obligation to ensure open navigation and peaceful commerce within the South China Sea.    

Chen: Your colleague Professor Fukuyama in his essay US against the world said: “Today, the greatest challenge to liberal democracy comes not so much from overtly authoritarian powers such as China, as from within”. What is your opinion on this?

Diamond: I think my dear friend Frank Fukuyama is half right. We face really serious challenges to liberal democracy from the kind of illiberal and authoritarian populism that has been gaining momentum in Europe, in Brazil, in the US and in the Philippines and India. In part, this is a response to the fact that liberal democracy has its internal challenges now with very serious issues of how to manage racial, ethnic, and other forms of diversity, how to manage the ill effects of globalization, how to reduce rising inequality, and how to reform and reinvent itself economically and politically for a highly globalized world.

I say it is only half right because I think that there is also the great challenge to liberal democracy posed by its enemies, principally the People’s Republic of China and The Russian Federation, but also Iran, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and others. These enemies are articulating their own normative and ideological claims for why authoritarian rule is a superior form of government.

You can find not very intellectually impressive arguments in this vein in the collected works of President Xi. But you see various agents of the Chinese communist party-state, some who represent it officially, others who are supposedly independent scholars and intellectuals, making these claims that authoritarianism now is a superior way of doing business. And you have Russian and Chinese state propaganda—through organs like the Voice of China, China Global Television, and China Radio International, making these claims, and sometimes spreading disinformation to advance them. The Chinese global propaganda system is placing stories and other content in African and Latin American newspapers, etc, all with the purpose of trying to shape the global narrative in a way that will elevate the PRC, trash liberal democracy, and make the world safe for autocracy.

There is a global contest of information and argument underway between two systems of values, one that affirms freedom, individual rights, democracy, accountability, transparency, the rule of law and the other that believes in top-down state control, and the right to suppress individuals and minorities for the good of the collective, as judged by and narrow and unrepresentative semi-totalitarian leaders.

That’s a real challenge to liberal democracy that is not coming from within, but from without. The point of our report and the point of my book, Ill Winds: Saving Democracy from Russian rage, Chinese Ambition and American Complacency is that liberal democracy is now facing a dual challenge. One challenge is to improve our own democracies to make them fairer, more efficient, more governable, and more inclusive, and so to inoculate them against the periodic reversion to racism, ethnocentrism, and injustice. But we can’t ignore the real challenges we are facing from highly authoritarian competitors that would like to tear down the entire normative architecture of the liberal international order.

Chen: So do you think that the US will keep the containment on China until China becomes more open, transparent and more towards democracy according to the US’s standard and expectation?

Diamond: I prefer not to use the word “containment” because it evokes images of the Cold War, which I do not recommend that we return to. It has a lot of negative aspects to it. First of all, it almost ended with a nuclear war. Second of all, it led to our abandoning a lot of our values in international relations in terms of human rights and democracy. But I do think that “vigilance” is the right word. As long as China remains a communist party-state using United Front tactics to penetrate, subvert, and sway other societies around the world; and as long as the PRC is expanding its power in bullying fashion to try to claim dominance over a large portion of the Pacific Ocean and to intimidate other Asian countries into following its policy lead, I do think we will need to be vigilant and to work with other countries to assure a proper regional balance of power.  

Yuxuan Chen is a student journalist at US-China Perception Monitor. She is a college student at New York University majoring in international relations. Juan Zhang is the managing editor at US-China Perception Monitor.