How China Ate Our Lunch.

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  • 08/21/2022

Casual American observers are puzzled over how the U.S. arrived at its current state of affairs with China.

For a country that has billed itself as the ‘Moral Leader of the Free World’™, how could it be that we’ve relied so heavily on a communist country to keep our stores full and our investors happy? How has it taken nigh-on 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union for U.S. policymakers to do some soul-searching to find out if it’s really worth profiting from communist subjugation?

As it happens, our policymakers found themselves at a critical juncture 30 years ago that has shaped the feckless posture we’ve taken towards China ever since.

A proper reckoning with American values and the importance of asserting them in the fight against global communism never occurred.

A proper reckoning with American values and the importance of asserting them in the fight against global communism never occurred. What follows is a recounting of the abuses we’ve tolerated and indictment of the thinking that has postponed this long-overdue reckoning.


June 4, 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre; but, if you’re a resident of the Communist People’s Republic of China (PRC), you would probably have no idea. Knowledge of the origins and purpose of the protests which precipitated the Massacre have been buried by the government’s propagandist education program.

[caption id="attachment_177454" align="alignnone" width="6016"] xiquinhosilva, Flickr, CC[/caption]

To the Western observer, attributable causes included popular dissatisfaction with the way that domestic economic reforms opened the door for corruption and inequality not seen since the Cultural Revolution, the death of popular reformer and Communist Party of China (CPC) stalwart Hu Yaobang, and years of social reforms which allowed criticism of the CPC in media and in public.

Sentiment boiled over. Three hundred and forty one cities experienced protests and civilians took control of Tiananmen Square. Humiliatingly, the CPC had to move an intended reception for then-Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev from the Square to a Beijing Airport.

On June 4, after weeks of debating the use of force to end the protests and reassert CPC authority, Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping ordered Tiananmen Square cleared. Global media sent to cover the meeting of the communist heavyweights enjoyed a front row seat to a declaration of martial law, the violent crackdown on student and anti-government protestors, and the death of hundreds.

[caption id="attachment_177478" align="aligncenter" width="980"] A Chinese protestor blocks a line of tanks heading east on Beijing's Changan Blvd. (AP Photo/Jeff Widener) Used under historical, fair use terms.[/caption]


The United States watched in horror. Debate swirled as to whether it was finally time to end our ‘Triangular Diplomacy,’ which sought to balance the competing interests of the Soviet Union and PRC to our benefit, and to demand structurally democratic reforms. In the end, our policymakers settled for paltry restrictions on international lines of credit and sales of military security assets.

[caption id="attachment_177479" align="alignnone" width="4100"] After bilateral talks Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping leads President Ford and Chief U.S. Liaison Officer George H.W. Bush through the Great Hall of the People. Courtesy Gerald R. Ford Library[/caption]

Kissinger writes in his seminal book on the détente that “President Bush was in a delicate position after Tiananmen,” as he was wary of damaging our relationship with a country that regards foreigners, and especially Westerners, as “‘barbarians’ and colonialists.”

Bush kowtowed to Deng in a long letter which appealed to their personal relationship, acknowledging the sanctions “could not be avoided,” and sent his National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, on a secret mission to meet with Deng merely three weeks later. Deng repaid Bush I’s contortions by stating that America’s reactions to China’s conduct in its internal affairs was unacceptable, and that the communist “justice” against protestors would be pursued with extreme prejudice.

...rather than America setting the terms of acceptable behavior as the preeminent global superpower of the time, we gave China deference as our eventual replacement.

Kissinger contends that Bush I had to balance the loss of a carefully-crafted and strategically important Sino-U.S. relationship with the eventual need to rebuild that relationship after China’s emergence as a great power. This thinking has profound implications: rather than America setting the terms of acceptable behavior as the preeminent global superpower of the time, we gave China deference as our eventual replacement.

We mistakenly thought that engaging China in international institutions and the international monetary system—fostering interdependence between Communist China and the liberal international order—would eventually lead China to enact democratic structural reforms before they became our rival or better.


America is nearing the breaking point at which we find the end of our ‘need’ for cheap labor, and the beginning of our abhorrence at the abuses of the Chinese government. What hindsight offers us now is the opportunity to dispense with those misguided theories propagated by ivory-tower cosmopolitans. The idea that we could democratize China through economic interdependence with the West has been nothing more than a full-employment plan for the Ivy-Leaguers and revolving-door ‘senior government officials’ that find their job security in anonymous contributions to American periodicals and in lucrative cable news contracts.

The reality of our situation is that blind adherence to a foreign policy of engagement has allowed China to reap the domestic economic development benefits thereof while engaging in a Long March through America’s Institutions of higher learning, through the media, and through the economic calculus of our elite.

Enrollment of Chinese exchange students in American Universities has increased by 400 per cent over 10 years, with a tuition value of $12 billion per year. At least $426 million in donations has been contributed to 77 American universities since 2011. China uses this money to influence how ‘sensitive topics’ are handled domestically and internationally.

A prominent case is its retaliation against the University of California, San Diego’s invitation to the Dalai Lama to be its 2017 commencement speaker by freezing funding to Chinese scholars visiting the university. Spontaneous student protests by the local Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA) simultaneously accused the Dalai Lama of being a separatist bent on ‘destroy[ing] national unity.’

[caption id="attachment_177482" align="alignnone" width="2400"] webted, Flickr, CC[/caption]

The organic quality of this activism is automatically suspect. The approximately 150 chapters of the CSSA have been connected to Chinese consulates across America, and the Chinese government has paid students to organize and attend events in America supporting the CCP, going so far as to bus students in from other cities. Last year marked the first appearance of a bill in Congress that requires Confucius institutes, which give substantial financial contributions to their host universities, to register as agents of the Chinese government.

Concern over offending Chinese sensibilities has led to the censorship of movies and television within the United States so that they may more easily pass Chinese domestic censors.

The 2012 remake of ‘Red Dawn’ was altered so that the invading army appeared more North Korean than Chinese, while ‘Mission Impossible III’ and the James Bond movie ‘Skyfall’ cut scenes that portrayed China in a negative light. The Tibetan ‘Ancient One’ in Doctor Strange was altered to avoid the ire of Chinese ultra-nationalists, and two minutes of LGBTQ content were removed from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ before it was allowed into Chinese theaters.

In a most confounding manner, CBS political drama ‘The Good Fight,’ famous for its ‘Some speech is not equal’ monologue encouraging political violence and a scene featuring ‘Assassinate President Trump’ in a columned sequence of words could apparently not find bombast to spare for an animated short mocking Chinese censorship and current President Xi Jinping. It was cut, and in its place played a placard for eight and a half seconds reading ‘CBS HAS CENSORED THIS CONTENT.’

“Banned in China” translates to “Banned in America” when your third mansion is financed with Communist bank notes.

If deferential censorship of American primetime television isn’t enough to boil blood, recall that Chinese propaganda has made its way into American print newspapers.

The Government-run China Daily paid for a four page supplement in the Iowan Sunday Des Moines Register. The supplement highlighted President Xi Jinping’s close relationship with Iowa and the benefits of cooperation with China, and described the dispute over trade imbalances, forced technology transfers, and investment and ownership restrictions as the ‘Fruit of a president’s folly.’


The only ‘folly’ in the managing of Sino-U.S. relations was our own when we failed even an adequate response to the illiberal indiscretion of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.

Paramount Leader Deng was indignant at the notion that expressions of popular discontent against the CCP should go unpunished in exchange for a bit of international leniency. Yet, our foreign policy leaders pushed for a less restrictive response in the hopes that maybe when China’s rise is complete, they will be on the side of liberal internationalism.

The messianic belief that China could be changed has engendered a half-century fool’s errand precisely because serious scholars know the PRC’s modus operadi is to do whatever is expedient for the party, all the while balking at the suggestion that it would ever need to cooperate with the ‘barbarian’ West.

“China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man... they’re not competition for us.” – Joe Biden.

While we held to our theories, China stayed true to its empirical historical successes and ‘appeased the barbarians’: it has taken American capital to build American factories that American companies can’t own, forcibly appropriated American technology as ‘dues’ owed for the ‘courtesy’ of doing business in China, and required those businesses to adopt PRC-sanctioned policies or face the loss of their Chinese stakes. We’ve been fleeced of domestic opportunity to the detriment of our convictions that anchored our canon against global communism in the first place.

America’s foreign policy elite has been more concerned with the particulars of power than the existential questions of a liberal international order. We declared a national emergency to restrict the economic freedoms of sectarian warlords in the Congo, but had cold feet when it came to the prospect of confronting China.

Former Vice President and current presidential candidate ‘Sleepy’ Joe Biden, who under any other circumstances loves to take a hands-on approach to politics, offers profane ignorance on the existential world-order question of the coming decade.

“China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man... they’re not competition for us.”

We should do well to question the judgement behind such a blithe statement. When you’re thinking in terms of election cycles and your opponent is thinking in terms of generations, don’t be surprised when you look down at your plate and find it empty.

Here’s the takeaway: the writing should have been on the wall for everyone on June 5, 1989 as to what the outcome of engagement would look like. Engagement postponed the inevitable, and has eroded our civic fortitude in the process. Tiananmen Square is coming to a theater near you, and you’ll never even know about it. China is engaged in a Long March through our institutions of higher learning, our media, and the economic calculus of our elite, and we’ve been asleep at the wheel.

The recent developments in the trade war show us we are better off that President Trump doesn’t sleep. Our feckless China policy is cancelled.

Logan Farr holds a graduate degree in Public Policy and Administration from the University of Tennessee, where he studied security policy and statistical methods for policy analysis. He has published policy briefs addressing opioid abuse in Appalachia. He continues to engage in security issues through research and writing.


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