Undiplomatic discourse and petty tit-for-tat actions between China and the US threaten to unravel a long-nurtured, carefully constructed relationship. Wounded by a ruinous trade war, angered by viral mysteries with no easy answers, the two sides could be said to be badly out of tune.
On the US side, with many career diplomats side-lined or retired by the Trump administration in the “draining” of the State Department, traditional bureaucracy has been eviscerated and eclipsed by the influence of Trumpian maverick advisors, such as Peter Navarro and Steve Bannon. Filling in the policy gaps, and there are many, are diplomacy “freelancers,” such as Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio, both of whom have axes to grind with China. Even the titular Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, behaves more as a partisan provocateur than seasoned diplomat.
The result is a foreign policy line so ideologically hostile to China that it falls on the intemperate President Trump to be the diplomatic one. He leaves it to Secretary of Treasury, Steve Mnuchin, and deep-pocketed political allies such as Sheldon Adelson of Macao casino fame and Stephen Schwarzman of Blackstone to do the panda-hugging.
The pragmatic, protocol-driven diplomatic tone that characterized US-China exchanges during the high-tide of economic linking is at risk of being replaced by trash talk and deliberate delinking.
One can see this dynamic in action on the China side as the wisdom of old school diplomats such as Cui Tiankai, currently China’s ambassador to the US, is being challenged by brash new voices, such as Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
Zhao Lijian, as Deputy Director of the Foreign Ministry Information Department, recently adopted a page from Donald Trump’s crazy playbook by using Twitter to whip up a virulent misinformation storm.
In a series of five tweets, Zhao slyly insinuated that the US might be responsible for the deadly coronavirus outbreak that first appeared in Wuhan.
“It might be the US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan…Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!”
This is an earth-shaking insinuation, if not quite a full-throated accusation, but should even the slightest iota of it prove to be true, it would amount to a casus belli between two countries. Even without an iota of evidence, Zhao’s words have done considerable damage. Even if the belligerent tweets are whimsical propaganda, it does not make the sting go away, not as long as there are people who believe the insinuation or suspect it to be true. And it will get more dangerous yet if credulous Chinese leaders are duped by their own scheming diplomats.
There is some solace in the fact that there is some pushback. The clearest counter-message to date has come from China’s Ambassador to Washington, Cui Tiankai.
Cui Tiankai, who is twenty years Zhao Lijian’s senior, has at least twice made a point of disputing his younger colleague’s contentious, controversial suggestion, saying it was “crazy” to suggest that the coronavirus might have been deliberately weaponized by the US.
In a rare interview with US media, Cui shot down Zhao’s unsubstantiated, politicized claims, prudently suggesting that the still-debated origins of the killer virus should be left for science to uncover.
Yet, Zhao continues to carry out his duties as spokesman.
So, who really speaks for the party? Who speaks for Xi?
Is China’s Foreign Ministry at war with itself? Are there dueling factions in Beijing’s battle for influence?
China analysts in the West have a long history of seeing factions in the Chinese leadership where none exist, meanwhile, China’s protests that there are no factions likewise have to be taken with a grain of salt.
No one doubts that there are differences of view, rank opportunism, and sharp personality clashes within China’s ruling party, but the organizational discipline of the party generally requires all major players to be on the same page on key issues, or at least keep up appearances as such.
The contrasting tone of Cui Tiankai and Zhao Lijian probably speaks more to a generation gap than dueling factions.
Cui Tiankai, at age 67, is old enough to remember a time when the US and China had no ties at all. He grew up in the school of hard knocks known as the Cultural Revolution, and he is of the Red Guard generation, though he eventually went into diplomacy, influenced by the likes of Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping. Cui, who has served in the UN and as Ambassador to Japan, is no pushover. He is tough and has a track record of arguing vociferously for China’s interests, but he also is part of a diplomatic tradition that values protocol, realism, and pragmatism.
Zhao, on the other hand, came of age in the murky aftermath of the 1989 events in Beijing, at which point young people faced a stark choice: join the program or forever remain on the periphery. Zhao opted to join the then-disgraced party and eventually landed a job with the Foreign Ministry. He served in both the US and Pakistan, where he gained a profile for his anti-US commentary on social media.
In 2019, he had a much-publicized spat with Susan Rice, former National Security Advisor under Obama, who described Zhao as “shockingly ignorant” and declared that he was a “racist disgrace.”
The heated exchange, mostly focused on the issue of Xinjiang, concluded with an imperious demand from Rice that he be recalled from his post.
Not only did this contretemps not threaten Zhao’s job as a diplomat, but, it bolstered his apparent popularity in China where standing up to the US is a proven way of burnishing one’s nationalist credentials.
Zhao Lijian’s antipathy to the US is entirely in tune with the ugly tone of discourse provoked by the deadly US bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade on May 7, 1999. The US claimed it was an accident, China claimed otherwise, and to this day it has never been satisfactorily resolved.
In the tense aftermath, Chinese diplomatic officials looked the other way, as “patriotic” Beijing students were encouraged to conduct a controlled attack the US Embassy with bottles, paint, and brickbats. The photo of beleaguered US Ambassador James Sasser looking out a broken embassy window summed up the sour tenor of the times. This was diplomacy circa 1999, just as Zhao’s nascent Foreign Ministry career was taking off.
In contrast, at the same impressionable age, future ambassador Cui Tiankai saw the US and China establish official relations under President Jimmy Carter under the diplomatic guidance of Zbignew Brezinski and Michel Oksenberg.
To Zhao, born the same year as Nixon’s visit to China, all that was ancient history. The US-China partnership was so solid by the time Zhao got his foot in the diplomatic door that he could focus on its defects and challenge his elders who saw the bilateral relationship as worthy of consolidation and nurturing.
As for who speaks for the party, probably both diplomats do, each in their own way. It all could be a deliberate mixed message strategy, part of a good cop, bad cop routine. It all could also be a difference in style; shared goals, different pathways. There are hints of regional differences as well, suave Shanghai versus blunt Beijing.
But more than anything else, it sounds like adult versus child, and given the stakes, it’s time for the adults in the room to stand up.