Ah! “Orwellian nonsense.” It is my new favorite epithet in the bemusing lexicon of Washington-Beijing relations. The term was employed by the White House to take the “Chinese Communist Party” itself to task for demanding unquestioning foreign acknowledgment of all manner of fantastical Chinese claims. It was born of a Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) admonition dated April 25, 2018, that foreign airlines not only have transgressed Chinese law but also had violated “the one-China policies of their own honorable governments” (違背貴國政府一個中國政策). How? By referring to “Taiwan” in their various web sites and mobile phone apps as separate from “China.”
When first I learned of the infamous CAAC letter, I shook my head in resignation. “The noose tightens around Taiwan,” thought I, and awaited for Washington to issue some stale recitation about “maintaining the status quo,” at best; at worst, nothing.
Sure enough, two days later, on April 27, the State Department informed the Chinese government that “We object to Beijing dictating how US firms, including airlines, organize their Web sites for ease of consumer use” and if China penalizes US airlines for noncompliance, “we will consider taking appropriate action if necessary in response to unfair Chinese actions.” Alas, the State Department seemed to treat this as a matter of user-friendly web sites to be countered by threatening to “consider taking appropriate action.”
Even so, it was a prompt response given that April 27 was Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s first full day on the job. Certainly, Secretary Pompeo had far more important things on his mind at the time, and the State Department probably felt no further action on Beijing’s aviation missive was necessary.
The White House, however, thought otherwise. In the midst of preparations to receive Chinese Vice Premier Liu He’s (劉鶴) trade delegation in Washington, news of Beijing’s peremptory behavior toward US airlines set off alarms. **Washington Post** foreign policy writer Josh Rogin reported Friday, May 5, that the Trump Administration saw the CAAC letter as a challenge: “Nobody has pushed back on this so far,” Rogin said. “The White House is pledging to start doing that now.” One White House aide told Rogin the episode showed “China is out of control.”
Such pushback was unexpected. It came in one of the strongest-ever public statements of White House impatience with China, from press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who was travelling with President Donald Trump in Cleveland, Ohio, on Friday, May 5. Ms. Sanders clearly spoke with the President’s authority, prefacing her statement by reiterating that “President Donald J. Trump ran against political correctness in the United States. He will stand up for Americans resisting efforts by the Chinese Communist Party to impose Chinese political correctness on American companies and citizens.” Then, rather than parse America’s one-China policy or voice specific support for Taiwan, the statement broadly characterized the CAAC letter as “Orwellian nonsense and part of a growing trend by the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political views on American citizens and private companies.” She pointed to China’s “world-famous” system of “internal Internet repression” and pledged that “China’s efforts to export its censorship and political correctness to Americans and the rest of the free world will be resisted.”
In my 40 years of China watching, I can’t recall the White House ever issuing such a pointed slam directly at the “Chinese Communist Party,” much less the Chinese government; not during Tiananmen when President George H.W. Bush’s sanctions were levied more in sorrow than in anger; not during the March 1996 ballistic missile launches on Taiwan; not during the 2001 Hainan aerial collision; nor during Beijing’s militarization of the artificial islets in the South China Sea of the past five years. All these were more momentous crises than airline web sites. Nonetheless, it, and North Korea’s nuclear threat, and China’s protracted mercantilist war on America’s economy, conflate into a big enough crisis for anyone.
Arguably, these bygone crises might have been resolved more to Washington’s satisfaction had stronger words been forthcoming from the White House before they receded from memory or before Washington became inured to the egregious pace of Beijing’s Orwellian “peaceful rise.”
“Orwellian nonsense” is certainly an apt description of a ukase from a minor Chinese government agency that both demands Taiwan not be listed separately from China on airline web sites and then arrogates to itself the role of educating American companies in the diplomatic policy of the American government.
The worst part is, the CAAC is factually wrong on both counts. This latter characteristic of “counter-fact” qualifies it as “Orwellian” in its connotation of propaganda, disinformation, reversal-of-fact (which the British essayist George Orwell dubbed “doublethink”), as well as the status of “unperson,” or in Taiwan’s case, “un-state,” the existence of which threatens the legitimacy of the Orwellian dictatorship and accordingly must be wiped from history and purged from the international community.
Taiwan approaches an inflection point in its international legal status with the slow, inexorable defection of diplomatic partners to Beijing and with increased Chinese enlistment of international businesses in its campaign to make Taiwan “Chinese.” The time has come for Taiwan’s people to take stock of their constitutional role as the “Republic of China” and lay groundwork for a future when that role is no longer tenable. Taiwan’s security partners in the Asia-Pacific, too, will be obliged to abet strategies for a sustainable Taiwan identity in world affairs or else see a global technology powerhouse swallowed by a ravenous, rising superpower. “Orwellian nonsense” is perhaps an admission that, yes, America, you have a real problem.
I am optimistic that the Trump administration is rebuilding America’s security relationships with its allies and partners in East Asia and that it has a new, fact-based, appreciation for Taiwan’s current role and potential contribution to Asia’s free and democratic future. Standing up for Taiwan against China’s “Orwellian nonsense” is a convincing gesture that Washington has abandoned its illusions of a peaceful management of China’s “rise” and has resigned itself to the reality of China’s Orwellian essence.
There is no one in the national security side of the Trump Administration who argues that acquiescing to China’s ambitions of hegemony in Asia will induce Beijing toward restrained military power, fair trade, peaceful coexistence with North and Southeast Asian neighbors, freedoms of navigation in air and on the sea. Few have any conviction that China will help effect the complete, verifiable, irreversible and permanent denuclearization of North Korea. Quite the opposite: After President Trump voiced suspicions on May 16 that “President Xi could be influencing Kim Jong-un” against denuclearization because, the President noted, “There has been a big difference since they [Xi and Kim] had the second meeting [in Dalian on May 7]” and “perhaps they don’t want to do it. Perhaps they spoke with China.” On May 22, South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, visiting Trump in the Oval Office, heard more. Asked about China’s role, President Trump answered: “I will say I’m a little disappointed because when Kim Jong-un had the meeting with President Xi in China, the second meeting ... I think there was a little change in attitude from Kim Jong-un. So I don’t like that.” And then, as if to stress the point, he added, “I think things changed after that meeting, so I can’t say that I’m happy about it.” Finally, when President Trump announced Thursday, May 24, that he had cancelled plans to meet the North Korean Leader in Singapore, he told reporters “the dialogue was good until recently, and I think I understand why that happened.”
President Trump long has believed that China mouths soothing words but acts duplicitously, the very embodiment of George Orwell’s “doublespeak.”
As the President said through Ms. Sanders in his denunciation of “Orwellian nonsense,” China’s efforts to exert its power and influence and political correctness upon Americans and the rest of the free world will be resisted.
John J. Tkacik, Jr. is a retired US foreign service officer who has served in Taipei and Beijing and is now director of the Future Asia Project at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.
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