Playing Chicken with China
How Propaganda Rationalizes Conflict.
SUMMARY: There were 15 references to China in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. The recent bill passed by the House, which is more than what President Biden requested (because that makes fucking sense) contains 89 references to China. It’s official. We have our new existential bogeyman threat. Battle stations, everyone. We’re going to war with China. Someday. Or are we? Why would we? What the actual fuck is our problem? Today’s episode pulls back the cover on our latest propaganda campaign designed to scare the shit out of us and normalize aggression toward our largest trading partner on the planet.
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The impetus for this episode was twofold. First, the House passed the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) allocating $768 billion for defense spending. Not just another increase over the prior year but more than what President Biden requested. Second, I turned on the television for the first time in a while. Yikes.
Part of the justification for the increase in defense spending is to counteract China’s ambitions, whatever the fuck that means.
(Run on sentence warning ahead) I won’t bore you by continuing to yell about how the military budget is still scheduled to be larger than what it was when we were fighting two wars, or how it’s set to increase every year for the next 10 years until we’re allocating nearly a trillion dollars annually in the budget - which is of course still larger than the next 10 nation’s budgets combined - or how it passed 363 to 70 in the House so there’s consensus among our lawmakers that we need a bigger fucking military despite not being at war for two seconds... Oh and of the 42 references in the bill to “climate change,” every one relates to assessments, considerations, surveys and reports, not one concrete spending item for resiliency just, hey you should study the thing that you’ve been studying since the ‘90s and consider it in your assessments for the reports on newly formed committees to study organic gaps in planning.
Climate change was mentioned on 42 separate occasions in the NDAA. China? 89. Know how many times China was referenced in the 2017 NDAA? 15. Nothing sends a positive message to your largest trading partner than suddenly reorganizing your entire defense budget around your so-called partner.
I mean, when did we become so fucking obsessed with China?
(Inserts compilation clip of Donald Trump saying “jina” 4,000 times.)
Oh, that’s right. Boy genius decided to pick a fight with our largest trading partner by instituting tariffs that had the opposite effect and wound up increasing prices for the American consumer. And firing the appellate board at the WTO so no trade disputes can be settled. And pissing off our European and Latin American allies, which left them no choice but to start negotiating with the People's Republic of China (PRC).
The end game to people like Steve Bannon and the circle around Trump is to go to war with China. And it seems the Biden administration is keen to carry on with the plan. So propagandist forces in the U.S. have been extremely busy creating the preconditions to make that happen. Fuck up trade. Turn public opinion against them. Rattle those sabers over human rights issues that literally meant nothing to us five minutes ago - sorry Uighurs but it’s true. Manufacture a conflict where none exists because it’s easier to prop up an economy on military spending than reimagining it to save the planet.
Cuddly panda or cicious dragon?
We have, in certain periods, been easily indoctrinated into fearing the so-called “Yellow Peril.” We have viewed the people of Vietnam, Korea, Laos and Cambodia as “less than.” Subhuman. When it fits our narrative. We helped overthrow the government in Indonesia, then supported the likes of General Suharto who went forward with a campaign of genocide and oppression. Japan was our mortal enemy in World War II. Then after we aided the regeneration of their economy, saw them again as more of a threat than a partner in the 1980s, until we defanged their currency and beat them into client state submission. But China? China is an entirely different animal. But what kind of animal? A panda or a dragon? (I know a dragon isn’t an animal. Just go with it because it comes into play later.)
“I think China at the heart is a country of pandas. Do you really want to fear panda? Do you think a kangaroo will fear a panda? Probably not. A panda probably will run away in front of a leg kicking kangaroo.” -Victor Gao, China “Relations Expert” on 60 Minutes Australia
Ah, yes. A panda. We’ll get to Victor Gao a bit later. But let’s talk about the news special I caught the other night that twisted my guts in a knot.
I’m linking to a promotional clip for a CNN special that aired the other night from contributor Fareed Zakaria. Right now it can only be viewed on premium services. But it aired this week in primetime and it was nothing short of state propaganda. Now, let me acknowledge that successful propaganda requires elements of truth and authenticity in order to be successful. (Unless you are stupid enough to believe that JFK Jr. was going to appear on the Grassy Knoll in Dallas to announce he’s going to be Donald Trump’s running mate.)
So I’m qualifying “successful” propaganda as information that becomes so widely accepted it receives little to no critical attention. Information that gains acceptance, becomes the official narrative and is then acted upon. (Think Colin Powell selling WMDs.)
What I found remarkable in Zakaria’s piece was the confidence of the narrative. It featured serious voices like Ian Bremmer of the Eurasia Group and writer/author Evan Osnos who are experts in foreign affairs and U.S.-China relations and give it some gravitas. But it was entirely one-sided.
Here’s the upshot on the claims made in the piece:
China is militarizing. President Xi is consolidating power and becoming more authoritarian. The communist party is cracking down on dissidents. Committing atrocities against the Uighurs in the Xinjiang Province. It’s preparing missile defense systems on manmade islands in the South China Sea. The surveillance state has gone beyond Orwellian. Their technology has surpassed that of the U.S. and every other nation. Xi has granted himself extraordinary powers and dissolved critical parts of the Chinese constitution.
All of these are true, mind you. And Zakaria has done credible reporting on China for a few years. So I wasn’t surprised by the assertions or reporting in the show, but I was still unsettled.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that the whole thing just felt so heavy handed and manufactured. The framing of the piece contained this air of inevitability. That armed conflict with China was the logical extension of their actions. It just felt wholly unbalanced. So when I woke up the next morning, I went online to try and find it again and that’s when I saw that it was only available for viewing on premium services. But I did find a link to the promotional video:
There are other links to the trailer but this is the one that I found first.
This is fucked on so many levels. If it is sponsored content, who’s the sponsor? Who wrote the check for the production? Zakaria? An outside production company with ties to a think tank? Dunno. But let’s be generous and say it’s something as innocuous as CNN paying a contributor and an outside production company with no agenda to create a package for air that is balanced and as objective as possible. That’s certainly how the 24/7 news business works, but that’s not how it was presented live on the air when I saw it. And there’s no disclaimers or links that would clarify this either.
But that’s part of the issue here. Even the most generous view that this is a purchased package of content with no agenda shows you a bit about how the news business works these days. There’s no editorial oversight here. It’s posted under “Opinion” on the website, but comes across on air as direct reporting and investigation by CNN. Most of the assertions maintained by the experts were ascribed to President Xi. How Xi feels about the collapse of the Soviet Union. How Xi’s upbringing colored his views. How Xi interpreted the events of January 6, 2021 in the United States. We learned a whole bunch about how President Xi felt about shit despite the notoriously closed communication channels of the Chinese government.
The imagery was stark as well. It showed the humble rise of Xi and how his family was fucked over by the communist government, which somehow emboldened Xi to become even more dedicated to the communist party agenda. Then the special shows him being welcomed around the world with open arms and talks about how disarming he is in conversation. Xi charmed the world until one day….
(Scary Echo) His true intentions were revealed and Xi’s inner dictator was released. Tens of thousands of Chinese military members marching through the streets alongside missiles and giant banners of Xi’s likeness. He’s bigger than the party. It’s all gone to his head. From Panda to Dragon in under three minutes of the special. Everyone run for your lives!
Like I said, the fact is that claims made in the special about China’s actions have all been independently verified. But there’s a reason that we’re acting like it’s all brand new information and wrapping it in fresh packaging.
Careful What You Wish For
China was viewed cautiously when Nixon opened up talks in the 1970s with many in foreign policy positions eyeing them with more than caution. As we covered in the Global Order of Power episode, even David Rockefeller warned the members of his Trilateral Commission that China possessed the numbers, the patience and the determination to someday grow into the world’s largest superpower.
If you can do math, it’s only a matter of time before China overtakes the United States in purely economic terms. We might still be a decade or two away, all things being equal, from China’s GDP outpacing the U.S., but it seems fairly certain. They have the population. Now they have the infrastructure. They have a booming middle class moving into the consumer economy and China maintains trade relations with every major country in the world. And they’ve quietly stepped into the void left by the United States in places like Africa, the Middle East and parts of Latin America. While we dither, China moves forward, and it’s causing fractures in tried and true relationships since the Bretton Woods era like our European allies.
The powers that be know that we’re losing our economic edge to China and foreign policy observers are rightly acknowledging a change in tone and posture from the Chinese government. It’s bold and more assertive. A little cocksure compared to quiet, conciliatory rhetoric of the past, at least where western relations have been concerned. But now, in the wake of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, the U.S. media has turned its attention elsewhere and is in a bit of a lather over the China question.
I want to quickly cover the three doctrines that have largely governed our entire approach to foreign policy over our brief history. Each borrows from its predecessor and builds upon it.
The first is the Monroe Doctrine. History buffs or Unf*ckers who listened to our Caribbean episode will recall that this was a policy written by James Monroe when he was Secretary of State to James Madison. It essentially warns western European nations against intervention in our hemisphere. It was under this doctrine that we swallowed up Florida, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Haiti and the Dominican Republic and the rationale behind our support of coups in Central and South America.
Later Teddy Roosevelt would add some expansionist rhetoric to the Monroe Doctrine that became known as the Roosevelt Corollary, but the principle ostensibly remained the same. The Great Wars were seen as anomalies, engagements that we were drawn into, rather than challenges to our doctrine. But that would change at the conclusion of the Second World War with the Truman Doctrine.
The Truman Doctrine came from a speech by Truman regarding the civil war in Greece in 1947. The British pulled out of the conflict leaving open the possibility that the Greek Communist Party could prevail in the war so Truman asked Congress to back the government against the communist insurgency. It was the first step toward the Cold War containment theory that would take hold during the Eisenhower years and remain intact through the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s important to understand how big this shift was for the United States. We were out of the war. We helped the Allied Forces prevail. We could have turned inward again and gone quiet but the thought of a strengthening alliance of Communist states throughout Europe was an impossible notion so we devised a policy of intervention without provocation for the first time in our little empire’s history and the Cold War was born.
The third version of our foreign policy doctrine was the hardest turn and that’s the Bush Doctrine. Essentially the Bush Doctrine says that if we suspect any nation or even unaffiliated actor harbors ill will toward the United States and might someday pose a threat to our national security, which is left purposefully vague and undefined, we’ll just fucking kill you.
So that’s how our doctrine’s evolved over the years.
How does one go about creating and selling a conflict abroad where it doesn’t exist or have anything to do with us? The first part is the most important.
Step one. Determine that your proposed foe presents a threat to our national security.
“China will back off if they believe that the United States will use force. Now this is exceedingly dangerous but some really bad Taiwan policy over the past three decades has put us in a position where there are no safe options.” -Gordon Chang, Senior Fellow of the Gatestone Institute
That’s a quote from a recent interview with Gordon Chang, a senior fellow of the Gatestone Institute and frequent contributor to Fox News, Newsmax, CNBC, Wall Street Journal and networks abroad like India Today. Chang is perhaps the leading conservative analyst most responsible for selling the anti-China narrative.
According to the Militarist Monitor, The Gatestone Institute is tied to neoconservative and other right-wing networks in the United States and Europe. It was chaired by John Bolton until 2018 and is a “clearinghouse for hawkish right-wing commentaries on national security, the Middle East, and Islam, as well as a convener of high-dollar events on security and energy issues.” The board also boasts conservative luminaries like Alan Douchowitz and Rebekkah Mercer. In fact, it was Mercer’s addition to the board that prompted Gatestone to remove board member names from their website.
Chang’s singular role in the universe appears to be to foment discord between the United States and China. There are scores of clips of him appearing on shows across multiple networks warning of impending conflict with China and recommending the U.S. break all ties with China. His working argument, at the moment, is all about protecting trade in the South China Sea, a part of the world that carries as much oil as the Strait of Hormuz and the greatest amount of global goods.
China’s buildup of manmade military islands, increase in the number of carriers and flight exercises and increasingly hostile stance toward Taiwan equate, in Chang’s mind, to national security threats to the United States. We’ll talk about Taiwan in a minute, but let’s just objectively think about this as a threat to our national security because they can shut down the flow of goods in the South China Sea. I’m not diminishing the Taiwanese issue, just looking at Chang’s thesis here because it has essentially become the official narrative.
We are the largest consumer of Chinese goods in the world. Thousands of U.S. companies maintain a manufacturing presence in China and Taiwan and we’re responsible for a massive chunk of employment in urban Chinese areas. If China’s number one stated goal is to become the largest economy in the world, why the fuck would they shut down trade in the South China Sea? They wouldn’t. But as long as we can tie their military buildup to point number two, neocons can make the case that this is a matter of national security.
Step Two. Sell the public on some vague notion of protecting democracy.
Taiwan has been a pawn in an Asian military chess game for centuries. Thousands of years ago it was actually part of the Chinese mainland but sea level rise separated it and the inhabitants of the island lived apart from its neighbors for centuries. From the 1500s through the 1800s several European nations from the Netherlands and France to Spain and Portugal all took a run at colonizing parts of the island or the whole, but they were largely rebuffed. But Taiwan would become a desirable trading partner for nearly everyone.
The Japanese occupied Taiwan for about 50 years until the end of World War II when it came under the protection of China. This is where it gets a little dicey. The Taiwanese see themselves as mostly independent and they have an independent governing structure though they maintain strong ties to the Chinese government. The Chinese government sees it differently and issues strong rebukes to anyone who dares refer to Taiwan as a nation and not part of China. Some of you might even recall John Cena’s public apology for doing just that, which was for a brief moment the most meta thing on the Internet. (I guess they could see him.)
Anyhoo, China has indeed indicated a desire to crack down on Taiwan’s quasi independence as it attempts to consolidate its governance. The same applies to the Uighurs, who we’ll get to next. In order to establish a completely homogenous society and have everyone under control of the party, areas like Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong present an ideological and systematic problem for the PRC. So it’s gradually working toward putting every territory under the thumb of the communist party in the way that it operates in the mainland.
And I have to say, this really is fucking bullshit. I mean how dare they demand that a defenseless island bend to its will and not allow it the freedom of self determination?
MANNY: Yo, Max. You got a phone call.
Tell them I’m recording. Just take a message. Where was I? Right. I mean bullying an island and forcing it to operate under your system without giving the people there the right to make their own decisions? Demand they give up their resources and labor and culture, I mean that is…
MANNY: Sorry. She insisted on speaking with you.
Jesus. Who is it?
MANNY: It’s Puerto Rico.
Step three. Speak unironically about human rights violations
In the episode we play part of a seven year old clip from Al Jazeera that highlights the struggles of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang Province. The crackdown on the way of life of the Uighurs is nothing new but it’s become somewhat of an overnight sensation in the U.S. media now that we’re building the case against China.
We’ve long criticized China on its human rights violations but done little to encourage them to do better outside of rhetoric. Just as we used women in Afghanistan in our shifting rationale during our longest war, or talked about liberating the people of Cuba through 60 years of brutal sanctions, aiding the good people of Nicaragua, Chile, Guatemala and others to rid them of democratically elected socialists, the Uighurs are the new policy fascination of the United States. Nothing about Palestine, Yemen, Sudan, Myanmar or any other people who are suffering under brutal rule, just the Uighurs and Ukrainians because it suits our current prevailing narrative.
I’m in no way suggesting that we ignore the plight of the Uighur Muslims in China. Multiple outlets have done credible reporting on this issue and it’s clearly a violation of human rights and should take center stage at the United Nations. Moreover, if we had any determined policy in the United States to use economic leverage to prevent atrocities we would have already done so considering this isn’t an old story and we would be using this leverage in other parts of the world where rights are trampled on like Saudi Arabia. Instead, just days ago the Biden administration approved a new deal for $650 million in arms to the Saudis, marking a complete reversal from his campaign position.
Putting our Allies Between a Rock and a Hard Place
One note before we close, I want to return to the guy we mentioned in an earlier clip. The one that said China is just a giant cuddly Panda. Victor Gao is one of the most visible mouthpieces of the Chinese government when it comes to international matters. This one is a nod to our Down Under F*ckers because Gao was most recently featured in that Sixty Minutes Australia feature on China’s rampant militarization. Here’s Gao:
“Use all your imagination. Think about all the nightmares you can think of and what will happen will be ten times more than your worst nightmare. You are talking about the possibility of armageddon.”
Whoa. That’s right, the posture toward Australia is, let’s say, a little different, which is why so many down under are even more concerned about being caught in the middle of the U.S. and China. Australia is far more dependent upon China economically but has the U.S. support in all ways, particularly given the newly formed AUKUS alliance where we forced Australia to fuck over Macron and purchase nuclear submarines from the United States. This did not go over well in China.
So as usual, our little tiffs have pretty wide ripples. I would encourage anyone interested in this issue to view the entire 60 Minutes piece that we’ve linked because as nuts as our government is, Down Under F*ckers aren’t far behind with their leadership. So it’s important to recognize that it’s never just us when we enter into these kinds of conflicts even though we always act like we’re alone.
A recent Brookings report provides what I consider an objectively mundane analysis of Chinese intentions and posture that’s worth hearing because it’s absent of rhetoric and hyperbole:
“China’s leaders present their country as acting defensively, seeking to preserve political stability, protect national sovereignty, and maintain economic security. They ascribe rising tensions in the U.S.-China relationship to an insecure America seeking to slow the pace of its relative decline by working to subvert China’s rise. They see a shifting relative balance of power as a central driver of rising U.S.-China tensions. They dismiss American objections to Chinese repression in Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and elsewhere as attempts by the United States to weaponize human rights to challenge the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party and undermine China’s international image. In the face of perceived American hostility, their prescription is to pursue security through strengthening control of society, reducing vulnerabilities to American pressure, increasing the rest of the world’s dependence on access to China’s domestic market for their own economic expansion, rapidly improving China’s military capabilities, and entrenching China’s statist economic model.”
The report talks about the risks of attempting to blunt China’s economic rise versus the progressive approach of what they call “engage, cooperate and compete.” The latter essentially suggests a return to pre-Trump policies that allow both nations to grow, and encourages China to do better in human rights through economic incentives. It also acknowledges the inevitability of China’s GDP surpassing the United States, a notion they recognize as wholly distasteful.
Brookings lands on several frameworks that must be simultaneously pursued from peer competition, separating Beijing from Moscow, statecraft and diplomacy and that’s all well and good from an academic and policy perspective.
Most of the reporting, from the propagandist to straightforward analysis centers around one theme: The American Empire is sunsetting and China is ascendent. And like we said in a few episodes and will continue to hammer going forward, we will not go quietly into second place.
And I get it. No one likes to lose. But other than mass incarceration figures, military spending and GDP, there’s not a whole lot of first place finishes going on over here lately. Education. Healthcare. Happiness. Longevity. Infant mortality. We’re a long way from winning on the measure that truly matters and GDP is great if you have a system that encourages and allows for participation in economic gains and stability. But that’s not us either. We’re holding onto a phantom measure of success instead of focusing on improving the lives of our own citizens. Yell about Taiwan, I give you Puerto Rico and Hawaii. Shout humanitarian crisis and I give you 1 in 5 Black Americans living in the carceral system. Scream about missiles on manmade islands and marching up and down Tiananmen Square in a show of force and I give you a link to the Monty Python sketch about marching up and down the square because fuck it.
Bottom line. Who gives a fuck?
That’s right. I suggest we start flying the who-gives-a-fuck banner and stop looking outside of ourselves to pick a fight and stop worrying about falling into second place by a measure that matters to literally no one on a day-to-day basis. China should be bigger. There are 1.3 billion Chinese. Our goal shouldn’t be bigger but better. We’re putting Australia in China’s crosshairs. Encouraging more cooperation between Russia and China. Leaving our European allies in a precarious position like a child between bickering parents. We just keep adding to the military industrial complex, which is of course looking to generate conflict to justify its existence rather than - as we covered in our Climate Industrial Complex episode - deliberately targeting our military spending on climate resilience and beating global net zero emissions goals - probably the most important national defense policy we can pursue.
Do I bleed for the Uighurs? Am I concerned for the freedoms of the Taiwanese people? Am I afraid of the Orwellian state controlled by the PRC? Yes to all of it. But I’m also afraid of the right-wing zealots that pose an immediate danger to everyone in my country. I’m afraid of getting so sick that I’ll go broke. My heart breaks every time I pass a cardboard tent city in the wealthiest country in the world. My soul is crushed witnessing the hardships of indigenous people living in 4th world conditions in North America. Every time a heartless fuck on Fox News blames our welfare policy for the number of people seeking asylum in this country rather than examining our role in destroying their native lands.
So, no. I don’t want to divide the left. I’m here to unite it. With clarity of thinking. Understanding our history. And revealing propaganda campaigns that would have us look away from the things that put us well behind second place a long, long time ago.
No war with China. Fuck Donald Trump. And fuck every single staff member, contributor, host, expert and executive at Fox News.
Here endeth the lesson.
Richard Nixon Presidential Library: Nixon in China: Film
Militarist Monitor: Gatestone Institute
60 Minutes Australia: Prepare for Armageddon: China's warning to the world