The current lights of public education in the United States are too dim, making it difficult to see the path forward in strategic competition with China. Until recently, the problem was an American China policy that minimized the looming threat and encouraged complacency where vigilance was warranted. That has started to change. But the shadows of ignorance and uncertainty linger. If the United States and its allies like Taiwan are to keep the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) techno-Orwellian order from sweeping the globe, Washington must build a first-rate Chinese language collection and analysis capability, and create strategic knowledge that can shine across society.
The US and China are already at war with each other ideologically, and economic and geopolitical tensions between the two are rising. Fortunately, this conflict has not spilled over into the military sphere, although there is a growing risk of that too. China’s aggressive rhetoric and actions are destabilizing its periphery.
For America, the overarching goals of competition are fairly simple: to protect and encourage the forward march of democracy, freedom, rule of law, individual rights, and open markets. Jonathan Ward’s excellent new book, China’s Vision of Victory, demonstrates that the CCP has very different goals for the future. It covets unlimited power, including the power to control and destroy human thought. It fears and despises anyone anywhere who rejects its dominance. An indication of this can be seen in the concentration camps that have been built in the deserts of western China. Today millions of innocent people are suffering inside those black sites, with all the horror that implies.
A Chinese mass surveillance regime is under construction that is intended for worldwide operations. The next time you go to your local electronics store, take a moment to browse the shelves and notice how many products are made by CCP-controlled industrial giants such as Lenovo, Huawei, ZTE, Haier, and Tencent. More are coming. What will it be like when China’s authoritarian devices of control are in homes, offices, hospitals, churches, and vehicles all over the world?
China is the strongest and smartest strategic rival the US has ever faced. By comparison, the Nazis, Imperial Japanese, and Soviets were poor, simple, crude, and unsophisticated. They were little able to infiltrate the US and its allies on this scale. Nor were they allowed to gain leverage over our companies, universities, and media. In contrast, China has recruited many of our most talented thought leaders, lobbied our government representatives, and stolen our most sensitive secrets.
No nation has the ability to predict, let alone control, the future. But the US can and will strive to shape it, to bend the arch of history in our desired direction. Even under the best of conditions, the struggle will be grueling and costly. It will be far worse without considerable improvements in public education. In a democracy, public support is essential to the successful execution of long term strategy.
For American analysts and scholars, gaining and retaining Mandarin skills sufficient for the task will entail a herculean effort. China’s government documents and propaganda broadcasts make things challenging. They are remarkably difficult to decode. Written in the CCP’s version of double speak, they will often say one thing when they mean another, cite unfamiliar historical events, adopt indirect manners of description, and contort logic using Leninist euphemisms and contradictions.
It takes a painfully long time to train a language-capable subject matter expert. The US will have to invest heavily for at least a decade to cultivate the needed talent. The nation has plenty of young people ready to hone their skills in this regard. But the incentives have not been there to make it happen, handicapping the US in gathering intelligence and developing a deep understanding of the Chinese government, CCP, and People’s Liberation Army.
For decades, Americans have relied heavily on a handful of elite “China hands,” many of whom are entirely unable to read the writings of Chinese officials, listen to their words, and debate with them in their own tongue. Others have the language skills, but also a personal stake in keeping US-CCP relations smooth so their business or academic interests can flourish. The result has been self-censorship.
Giant blank spaces now exist, gaps of knowledge where there otherwise might have been hundreds of books, thousands of articles, millions of classroom lectures, and endless critical examinations of our authoritarian rival. We will never know the full extent of the opportunity costs — the knowledge that we lost because no one ever tried to create it in the first place.
It will be difficult to achieve our national goals if we cannot figure out the way Beijing actually thinks and hammer out a consensus on that basis. For this reason, the US government needs a crash program to recruit and train a new generation of China experts.
Obviously, there is much that Taiwan can do to help. This democratic island nation is the ideal place for Americans to study and acquire the necessary intellectual toolkit. The US State Department should consider launching a new program to double the number of people-to-people exchanges with Taiwan, especially in the areas of education and cultural exchanges.
Whenever possible, the US Open Source Enterprise should be unfettered, so that its unclassified translation products can be made available to Congress and the American people. Government agencies should also reform the way they outsource research on China. Far too much open source intelligence is wasted because contractors are materially and professionally incentivized not to share the knowledge they create.
While necessary, reforms are never easy. The pay-off in this case will be a better educated public and, ultimately, an enduring strategic advantage.
Ian Easton is a research fellow at the Project 2049 Institute and author of The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in Asia (中共攻台大解密).
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