Making the click-through worthwhile: The United States has completely fumbled the ball regarding China in the 30 years since Tiananmen Square, to the point where your pension fund may be helping finance China’s Orwellian surveillance state; a couple of ideas on how to fight scam PACs; and the universal madness of authoritarian regimes.
Your Pension Fund Might Be Helping Expand the Chinese Surveillance State
On June 4, 1989 — 30 years ago today — the Chinese government decided it had been patient enough with the 50,000 to 100,000 demonstrators occupying Tiananmen Square. The protesters had called for democracy and liberty, but also denounced corruption and cronyism. What began as the Tiananmen Square protests became remembered as the Tiananmen Square massacre. Anywhere from hundreds to 2,600 Chinese protesters were killed, thousands more were wounded, and while many nations condemned the crackdown at the time, China and the world quickly moved on. The iconic “tank man” was never identified and his fate will probably forever remain unknown.
This morning Jonah shared a Twitter thread from a Chinese scholar, detailing how many of the protesters of that era adapted after the crackdown. The short version is that many who participated in the protest came to accept the rule of the Chinese Communist Party. The fight was unwinnable, those who went into exile were forgotten, and state-managed prosperity was arriving. He contends that most Chinese know exactly what happened at Tiananmen Square, but they see even acknowledging it to a foreign journalist as extraordinarily risky.
While outside of China the world will commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre that took place on June 4th, 1989, inside the country President Xi Jinping’s regime will continue its campaign of silence: not acknowledging the massacre ever took place; not apologizing to victims and their families; strongly condemning any commemorative activities outside China; and deploying its massive cyber-security force to vigorously scrub any mention of the incident from the domestic Internet.
The censorship will be so thorough that Chinese people won’t even be able to send a text message that contains any one of the numbers eight, nine, six, and four.
How overwhelming is Chinese censorship? They just banned 40 percent of numerals. If you lived in China, you wouldn’t be able to text the sentence preceding this one because of the “4.”
The American government’s reaction to the Chinese government since the Tiananmen Square massacre was pretty underwhelming; some would call it a betrayal of our values. Until very recently, there was a bipartisan tradition of the party out of power calling the party in power soft on China and calling for a tougher stance, followed by that party getting into power and deciding that they didn’t want to disrupt America’s trade relationship with China too much. In the 1990s and 2000, both Bill Clinton and some prominent GOP Congressional leaders assured us that greater trade with China would bring them closer to democracy, freedom of expression, and respect for human rights. That argument was either wildly naïve, willful blindness, or ruthlessly cynical in its dishonesty.
There are a lot of times when arguments about “the elite” and “the common people” get oversimplified and overwrought. But the issue of how to handle China, and whether an ever-growing trade relationship really serves our interests, is one where the divide is real. Year by year, American attitudes shift around about China, at least according to Pew Research, but Americans worry about debt to China, cyberattacks, China’s impact on the environment, loss of jobs to China, the trade deficit, China’s policies on human rights, and aggression to its neighbors. It’s likely most Americans found the “one child policy” morally unacceptable. When there’s a dispute between a dictator and free people somewhere in the globe, China’s usually stepping in to help out the dictator.
Oh, and the regime has put 2 million Uyghurs into concentration camps, complete with torture, squalid living conditions, and constant indoctrination. Modern minds look back at the genocidal regimes of the 20th Century and wonder how anyone could stand by as such brutality reigned. Then they shrug as every major country and government on the planet continues to do business with a government running concentration camps.
Status as one of our biggest trading partners turned into a get-out-of-consequences-free card for the regime.
Now the Chinese government is establishing some of the most explicitly Orwellian policies imaginable — massive facial-recognition databases that allow the government to monitor anyone walking down the street, connecting them with the extensive government file kept on their activities. Who’s financing these enormous projects to expand the Chinese government’s control over their citizens? In some cases, Americans, as BuzzFeed found.
Chinese authorities have detained more than a million Uyghur Muslims and other ethnic minorities in political-reeducation camps in the country’s northwest region of Xinjiang, identifying them, in part, with facial recognition software created by two companies: SenseTime, based in Hong Kong, and Beijing’s Megvii. A BuzzFeed investigation has found that U.S. universities, private foundations, and retirement funds entrusted their money to investors that, in turn, plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into these two startups over the last three years. Using that capital, SenseTime and Megvii have grown into billion-dollar industry leaders, partnering with government agencies and other private companies to develop tools for the Communist Party’s social control of its citizens.
Also among the diverse group of institutions helping to finance China’s surveillance state: the Alaska Retirement Management Board, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Rockefeller Foundation all of which are “limited partners” in private equity funds that invested in SenseTime or Megvii. And even as congressional leaders, such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, have championed a bill to condemn human rights abuses in Xinjiang, their own states’ public employee pension funds are invested in companies building out the Chinese government’s system for tracking Uyghurs.
Google refuses to work with the U.S. Department of Defense, but it worked with the Chinese government to develop a censored version of its web search. There are a lot of elites who seem to see the U.S. government, and in particular our military and intelligence agencies, as untrustworthy, dangerous, abusive, and a malevolent force in the world. But they’re completely cool with working with the Chinese government.
In foreign-policy circles, you’ll often hear the cliché that “China represents a challenge to the United States of America, our role in the world, and our values.” Thirty years after Tiananmen Square, it’s clear we flunked that challenge. China’s rulers offered the world’s corporations a billion new customers, and the world’s companies, including almost all of the biggest American businesses, were willing to accept all kinds of moral compromises to make that money. The Chinese state is expanding their leverage on every continent, building up their army, expanding their territory through artificial islands, and hacked just about all of the records in the U.S. Office of Personnel Management. By and large, our policymakers under-responded to every provocation, averted our eyes from countless crimes, and explained away almost every act of aggression.
Amazingly, we still have lawmakers and potential presidents who don’t see any of this, and cling to some wildly outdated and naïve perspective that China is a still-emerging technologically challenged rising power that will play nice with just a little more trade and U.S. concessions.
Joe Biden’s full quote, about a month ago:
China is going to eat our lunch? Come on, man. They can’t even figure out how to deal with the fact that they have this great division between the China Sea and the mountains in the east, I mean in the west. They can’t figure out how they are going to deal with the corruption that exists within the system. I mean, you know, they’re not bad folks, folks. But guess what, they’re not competition for us.”
If Biden gets the Democratic nomination, let’s put China policy front and center in the 2020 election. Donald Trump is a man of copious sins and flaws and problems. But his reflexive protectionism has led him to see the leadership of China more clearly than a generation of elites going back to Tiananmen Square.
What to Do About Scam PACs
In case you missed it yesterday, I listed a couple ideas of what can be done about scam political action committees that promise to help candidates and then keep the overwhelming majority of the funds for themselves.
The New York Post op-ed page excerpted and linked to yesterday’s Morning Jolt laying out the scam PACs — a column that included an ardent defense of David French. The New York Post op-ed page is run by . . . Sohrab Ahmari. Whether or not you agree with Ahmari, he’s fair-minded and wants to showcase a wide range of views on the Post’s op-ed page. Or maybe I’m just that awesome.
The Universal Insanity of Authoritarian Regimes
Loving the Jolt lately? Buy a book! Think of it as a $3.99 thank you note — or if you have Kindle Unlimited, it doesn’t cost you a thing! (I think I get a half penny for every page read.)
In discussing authoritarian regimes lately — whether it’s discussing China above, or the recent discussions of the Soviet Union in the context of HBO’s Chernobyl — it is depressingly clear that the leadership almost always loses touch with reality and bends an entire nation to a will that grows increasingly deranged. A section of Between Two Scorpions takes place in Turkmenistan, and I came across details of life under dictatorship that are simultaneously fascinating, horrifying, and revolting:
A half-generation ago, Turkmenistan’s president, Saparmurat Niyazov, aspired to turn his country, a largely ignored, mostly poor but oil and gas-rich Central Asian landmass, into “the new Kuwait.” A key part of his vision was building a new airport, one he insisted upon designing himself. Leaving basic aeronautic engineering decisions to a man with no experience led to predictable problems, such as the control tower being built on the wrong side of the runway, and the new terminal blocking the view of air-traffic controllers when they were trying to guide pilots. The president hand-waved away the warnings, declaring simply, “It looks better this way.”
In a country such as Turkmenistan, nothing was required to make sense; the arbitrary will of the state claimed supremacy over all other forces, including logic and physics. Authoritarian, paranoid, unpredictable states like this were dangerous from the moment you booked the ticket, as Katrina knew from experience and family history. Katrina wondered if they were a giant involuntary experiment attempting to induce mass psychosis. Like the story of the emperor’s new clothes, everyone knew that telling the truth was dangerous and quickly punished, so daily life required insisting outwardly, at all times, that the authorities were correct, and your eyes were lying. And if you did it enough outwardly, did you begin to do it inside as well? At some point did it become easier to believe the lie, even when you knew it was a lie?
Absolute power corrupts absolutely; it also makes the consequences of mistakes or madness that much more severe.
ADDENDUM: K. J. Howe, author of the thrillers The Freedom Broker and Skyjack, kindly offers some praise for Between Two Scorpions: “Moral quandaries, believable characters, and a premise that rivets in its real-life possibilities. Between Two Scorpions offers a double-barreled reading experience akin to Le Carré on Red Bull, both entertaining and educational. Geraghty’s keen wit and ferocious pacing makes him an author to watch. Brilliant!”