Kaiser Kuo: Welcome to the Sinica Podcast, a weekly discussion of current affairs in China, produced in partnership with SupChina. Subscribe to SupChina’s daily Access newsletter to keep on top of all of the latest news from China from hundreds of different news sources, or check out all the original writing on our website at supchina.com. We’ve got reported stories, essays and editorials, great explainers and trackers, regular columns, and of course a growing library of podcasts. We cover everything from China’s fraught foreign relations to its ingenious entrepreneurs. From the ongoing repression of Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in China’s Xinjiang region to the tectonic shifts underway as China rolls out what we call the Red New Deal. It’s a feast of business, political, and cultural news about a nation that is reshaping the world. We cover China with neither fear nor favor.
I’m Kaiser Kuo, coming to you from Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Today on Sinica, I am delighted to welcome William Klein, a veteran diplomat who served as Minister Counselor for Political Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and then as Acting Deputy Chief of Mission there from 2019 until just six months ago. Bill joins me from Berlin, where he’s just moved to begin a new chapter after retiring from the State Department. Bill has had a long and fascinating career in the foreign service. He joined the State Department in 2000 after a career as an investment banker and his first posting was, interestingly enough given what’s dominating the headlines today, to Kyiv, in Ukraine. He was posted to Ukraine indeed not once but twice, and we’ll have to ask him to weigh in on the latest.
He’s also been posted to Tel Aviv, to Mumbai, to the China and Mongolia desk at State in D.C., and then at AIT in Taipei before going to Beijing in 2016, where he spent the next five years. Today, we’ll focus on his time in Beijing, which was eventful enough. After all, I mean if you think about all that transpired in U.S.-China relations between the summer of 2016 and this last summer, it just kind of boggles the mind. Time permitting, we’ll ask about all the major events to which Bill not only had a front-row seat but was also actively involved in shaping events. Bill Klein, welcome to Sinica.
William Klein (Bill): Well, thank you, Kaiser. It’s an honor and a pleasure.
Kaiser: Well, the pleasure is all, all entirely mine, and I’m really excited to talk to you about your storied career. Let’s start. Let’s go all the way back actually to 2009, when you were first assigned to the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs. On this program, I mean I’ve talked to hundreds of individuals and there’s almost no one I’ve ever spoken with who hasn’t identified that period, basically from the financial crisis in 2008, the first couple of years of the Obama presidency, as something of an inflection point or a real change in the way that Beijing viewed the U.S., and the beginning of not only a more assertive Chinese foreign policy but also a more illiberal domestic policy. Did you sense something was happening then, or was this something that maybe only became more clear in hindsight?
Bill: No, absolutely. When the Obama administration came into office, it talked about establishing a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China. I think that was the term that we used. At the same time, it was already very noticeable that the strategic distrust at the heart of the relationship, and the strategic competition that ultimately does drive the relationship, was having a greater and greater influence on Chinese thinking. Clearly, China had emerged from the financial crisis and with somewhat more self-confidence. So although engagement was still at the heart of the bilateral relationship, and the Obama administration did engage on the Chinese leadership across the board, although we continued to look for areas to expand areas of cooperation, and we talked about that. Expanding areas of cooperation, managing areas of competition and distrust, it was already clear that it was a competition, and that strategic distrust was driving the relationship.
Kaiser: Let’s jump forward a little bit in time to the years 2014 through 2016 when you were at AIT, which is the de facto embassy really in Taipei. That must have been a very interesting time indeed, and actually that happens to have been the period where I was spending an awful lot of time in Taipei. My father was in the hospital at that point, and convalescing there. But more to the point, it was the period immediately after the Sunflower Movement, and you were there all the way up through the election in which Tsai Ing-wen defeated Ma Ying-jeou. You must have left Taipei at just about the time that Ma was leaving office in 2016. So when you think back to that period, did you have any inkling, any sense that cross-straits ties and the U.S. difficulties over the Taiwan question with China, would be heading toward what we have right now? Or, did this catch you by surprise?
I mean, Tsai had been elected but she was never … I think the people who really understand the situation … She was never the radical disruptor that some people in Beijing or indeed in the KMT painted her to be, or imagined her to be, right? And you couldn’t have foreseen things like the Hong Kong protests of 2019-2020, or Trump or Pompeo, right? So what did the trajectory of U.S./Taiwan/China relations look like in that period, 2014 to 2016?
Bill: Well I think first of all by 2014, Kaiser, it was already fairly clear that Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of engagement had maxed itself out, that what he had tried to accomplish in the relationship had finite limits. I think after he came into office and established this path of engagement with China, and we saw this dramatic increase in cross-strait ties and cross-strait engagement, I think that he hoped that that would go into political conversations in a manner consistent with Taiwan’s interests, which are to maintain its de fact autonomy, maintain its way of government, and maintain its rule of law and its freedoms, and its unfettered connections with the outside world.
By 2014, it was already clear that that strategy had reached its limits. Not only was it clear that the Chinese were not willing to go any further, or that they would use political conversations to take this dialogue in a direction inconsistent with Taiwan’s interests. But also within Taiwan itself, that the support for Ma Ying-jeou’s approach had reached its limits. I think Ma did a bad job of explaining to Taiwan voters what exactly his intentions were. I think they just trusted him and the KMT, and that coupled with the dissatisfaction over his overall governance gave this opening for Tsai Ing-wen, who very, very astutely understood where Taiwan public opinion was, and then use that to hers and to the TPP’s advantage.
The Sunflower Movement was a specific reaction to this planned Cross-Strait Agreement in services. There too, I think people felt that went … That was just a bridge too far. Ma Ying-jeou ultimately never really understood that, and failed then to pivot or to find an alternative way out that would allow the KMT to maintain control. Obviously, nobody could have foreseen what would have happened with Hong Kong or with the U.S./China relationship. But it was clear that as Tsai Ing-wen came into office that cross-strait relations would get far rockier. I think she truly tried to square the circle on the ’92 consensus and the idea of one China. Obviously, she was unwilling to explicitly embrace the ’92 Consensus and the connotation of one China.
She did, however, attempt through her words and her deeds, before taking power and after she became President, to give the Chinese space to read into what she was saying a tacit acceptance of the connotation of one China or the ’92 Consensus. But Beijing wasn’t going to buy that at all. They did not trust her, and they never did trust her, and so this led them to the impasse and then to the deterioration of that cross-strait relationship that we’re experiencing until today.
Kaiser: You left Taiwan and took up your post in Beijing as Minister Counselor for Political Affairs in the summer of 2016. You mentioned to me when we spoke earlier that you actually worked the G20 meeting in Hangzhou in September of that year. It’s unfortunate that if you ask most people about what they might remember concerning U.S.-China relations coming out of that meeting, they’ll probably, if they remember anything, they’ll recall the whole Obama arrival and the snub that he received having deplaned ignominiously out the rear of the plane. At least that’s how the press reported it. But can you, having been there on the ground, can you set the record straight? What was going on actually with the optics around Hangzhou, and what really did come out of that meeting? What should we remember from the G20?
Bill: Yeah, with the specific example you cite, Kaiser, about the President getting off the plane, I think people forget that choreographing a presidential visit has a thousand moving parts. Even with the most flexible and open-minded and friendly of U.S. partners, choreographing a presidential visit is a heavy lift and all sorts of things can and do go wrong. And then in China, China being China, things happen. That was, in my view from my perspective, was not an intentional snub by the Chinese. I do not believe that the Chinese had an interest in doing that to the President. I think this was a manner of miscommunication on the Chinese side, and the manner of the chain of command either being ignored or forgotten on the Chinese side, and just crappy and poor execution on the Chinese side.
Kaiser: Mm-hmm (affirmative), not a deliberate snub, then. So what should we take away from the G20 conference in Hangzhou?
Bill: Yeah, from my perspective it was quite interesting. I had worked the U.S./China relationship from Washington until 2012, and then I disappeared off into Taipei, as it were, where you have a very, very different type of relationship. So I came straight from Taipei to Beijing in the summer of 2016, to work the visit in Hangzhou. I was there in Hangzhou, and what struck me is just how much the relationship had changed. First of all, the Chinese had become even more self-confident and more assertive, I would say, in their engagement. Secondly, I think the relationship became somewhat more contentious. The conversations I think were not as easy, and also the modes of engagement had also become far more complex. You may recall that we used to do joint statements whenever we had a presidential summit. By that time, that had long gone, right?
Bill: I think that the Obama administration had realized that it’s just not worth it trying to find common ground with the Chinese on these issues. And so what resulted –
Kaiser The last one was probably 2014, when the visa situation was announced and all that? Was that the last kind of very positive one, and then –
Kaiser: That was ahead of Paris, right? So there was the climate announcement as well.
Bill: Yeah, and then so we got these coordinated statements. We worked a long time to basically coordinate statements with the Chinese, and the philosophy being is that whatever we say would not give the other side any grounds to contradict what we had said. So that just showed that the management of the relationship had become more difficult, and I think this is because the competition and the mistrust at the heart of the relationship were driving the relationship more and more. This process certainly accelerated over all of the years that I was in Taipei.
Kaiser: Mm-hmm (affirmative), and over the years that you were in Beijing.
Bill: And then of course then, you can just extrapolate. And then obviously after 2017, this entire process accelerated.
Kaiser: And we will do the blow-by-blow through those years as well, as grim as it is. By the time of course that you arrived, the primaries had already been over for months and we were deep into the presidential race. From your perch in Beijing, it must have been fascinating to watch your Chinese counterparts take in that race. What can you tell us about their expectations, about their preferences and their immediate reactions to the race’s eventual outcome in November?
Bill: Well first of all, it was already apparent in December of 2016 that the new incoming U.S. administration … And let me say that the Clinton administration, because we all knew in the summer of 2016 that Hillary Clinton would be the next President … It was already clear, Kaiser, that the new U.S. administration was going to take a more assertive approach to the bilateral relationship. It was, I think most people had sort of a consensus about who the people would be in the Clinton administration, who would be running the China policy. These were well-known China experts. Most of them had served in the Obama administration. So I think this was clear on our side. The Chinese had also got the message, so the Chinese I think were also expecting a more assertive U.S. policy on behalf of … Coming from the new administration.
Bill: Obviously, they, like everybody else, was deeply surprised by Donald Trump’s victory. I think it took a long time for them to wrap their heads around the fact about, who is he and what are his intentions with respect to China?
Kaiser: Well, let’s talk about some of the early efforts by Beijing’s America-watchers and the Chinese leadership to get their heads around this Trump presidency. I mean, it seemed to me that there were plenty of people in Beijing who believed they had Trump’s number. They knew how to stroke his ego, grant some trademarks to his daughter, give some business to Jared’s family to flatter Trump himself, and then everything would be just sort of peachy. Is that far off the mark? That’s pretty much how they saw things initially?
Bill: I think there were different views, Kaiser, simply because people did not know who Donald Trump was. Nobody had ever, on the Chinese side, had ever actually developed a relationship with him or with many of the people that came into his administration. So there were various views in China, and there was a debate in China about what the proper approach should be. Indeed, the view that you just cited was very widespread in Chinese policy-making circles, that Donald Trump was a deal-maker. According this logic, from the Chinese logic, this would be good for China because you could strike deals with this guy. He himself did not appear to be an ideologue, appeared to be someone who was very, very pragmatic. Indeed, I think there was a Chinese view that the man was also sufficiently vain that you could advance Chinese interests by stroking his ego. All of that absolutely existed.
Bill: At the same time, there were other voices citing the fact that he was bringing into his administration some people who did have a decidedly anti-China approach, at least in the past. These people warned saying, “Be careful, because whatever Donald Trump may be thinking, ideologues, anti-Communist and anti-Chinese ideologues potentially can hijack the U.S./China relationship.” And then there was a third group that said, “Nobody knows what Donald Trump is going to do. Perhaps Donald Trump doesn’t know what Donald Trump is going to do, and this from a Chinese perspective is bad. Because what China needs is a stable and predictable relationship with the United States, and an unpredictable President, an unstable relationship, is bad for China.” So to put it mildly, I think views about Donald Trump were all over the map at the beginning of 2017.
Kaiser: And what about within the embassy itself? What was the mood like?
Bill: Well, I think you can … All of us, when we join the Foreign Service — right? — signed a commitment that we would support the policies of the democratically-elected administration in Washington when we executed our jobs, irrespective of our personal and political views.
Bill: Having said that, I don’t think it would be a surprise that probably a majority of foreign service officers around the world, including those that worked in Beijing, were not only surprised by Donald Trump’s victory, like the rest of us, but also saw that victory with a tremendous amount of consternation.
Kaiser: Yeah. You said that the desire was for stability, right? For some predictability, but right away Trump showed himself to be quite unpredictable, if not indeed unstable. One wrench that was immediately thrown in, one spanner into the works immediately, was the phone call with Tsai Ing-wen. We don’t know the specifics of how that was originated just yet. I mean, there’s still some controversy over it, but how big of a wrench was that phone call? What was Beijing’s reaction? What was it like on the ground? Did you get summoned to the Foreign Ministry, or dressed down?
Bill: So that phone call sent a tremendous shock wave through the Chinese system. And yes, the Chinese were not only livid but I think far more importantly, they were deeply, deeply concerned. They saw that potentially here, the new President very, very quickly was going to shake one of the core foundations of the U.S.-China relationship, and they were deeply, deeply worried. They communicated through diplomatic channels as well as, it’s my understanding, directly through the President-elect’s channels as well, not only their concern but also a very, very clear view to the effect that, “This crosses a line.” China does not want to make Taiwan a source of true contention within the U.S.-China relationship, but China does not have any room to maneuver on this issue. And China will, if necessary, incur cost and incur frictions in the bilateral relationship. They said this, I would say figuratively, with some beads of sweat on their forehead, Kaiser.
Bill: Clearly, China was not prepared, did not have an interest to go to the mat with the United States over Taiwan at that point. But I think that there was thinking within the system that they may have to, whatever that going to the mat might be. That wasn’t the only point. And then later the president-elect … I think this was, by this time this was in January of 2017. In an interview, when someone asked him about the One-China policy, and I can’t remember exactly what he said, so I’ll paraphrase him. But he said to the effect, Kaiser, that, “One-China policy? Well, you know I also want things in the relationship, for example the trade deficit. And if I don’t get what I want, why should I embrace something that the Chinese want?” This too sent tremendous, tremendous shock waves through the Chinese system. So when January 20th of 2017 came along, I think there was a tremendous amount of trepidation within the Chinese system.
Kaiser: True to his word on the campaign trail, Trump decided to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office. That actually sent ripples through the embassy itself in China. Dave Rank, who I should say is a friend of mine, he resigned. He came back to the United States. I had actually, just before leaving China in 2016, I had actually had dinner at his home. This was a gigantic surprise to a lot of us, but we interviewed him on Sinica after he came back to the States. I drove up to Falls Church and had a good, long interview with him. But I’d love to hear how that whole episode of his decision to resign from the foreign service, how that looked from within the embassy itself.
Bill: Yeah, obviously Dave — who is also by the way a good personal friend of mine — Dave is an outstanding diplomat. He was an outstanding leader. He was an extremely capable manager of this very, very large embassy in Beijing as well. He managed and led the embassy very astutely and very, very effectively in this transition after Max Baucus left, and before Terry Branstad had arrived. He was also a very, very good and respected interlocutor with the Chinese. Obviously, Dave’s decision to step down sent a tremendous shock wave through the embassy. People were very, very disappointed, very, very concerned. But you know, life goes on and the work goes on, right? And people are so busy. There is so much coming out of Washington at any given time there in Beijing. There is so much on the Chinese side coming into the embassy that needs to be processed and coordinated with Washington that as it were, life goes on.
Kaiser: Yeah. We’ve already used the word shockwave many times. We’ve had shockwaves sent through the Chinese system, shockwaves sent through the embassy. But probably the biggest sort of continuous tremor that was going on was of course the trade relationship after the Section 301 tariffs were threatened. What was it like to experience that, the opening salvos of the trade war, and your Chinese counterparts’ reaction to it from the ground in Beijing? How did that go? I mean, how much of your life did that end up dominating?
Bill: Well, you know I was responsible for the political side of the relationship, so I was not directly involved in the day-to-day and the blow-by-blow of the conversations with the Chinese over the trade deal and the trade deficit, et cetera. But obviously, those conversations reverberated through the political side of the relationship as well. And I think that when all of this started, I think the Chinese still believed that there was an accommodation to be had. I think that they probably underestimated the President’s will and determination on this matter. I think that they thought that by engagement by conversations that they could A, find common ground, but also use that engagement and use those conversations, right? To wear us down, and to dilute the American determination on this issue, to lead to an outcome consistent with what the Chinese consider to be their interests. Obviously that didn’t happen, and so you saw this learning process on the Chinese side. At first they thought, as I said, that accommodation could be found. This extended deep into 2018.
Bill: I think a good example of this was President Trump’s visit. This was in November of 2017. The Chinese called it a “state visit plus,” meaning that they not only rolled out the literal but also figurative red carpet, and did things that they thought were particularly special and particularly unique. They really treated him well in the Forbidden City…
Kaiser: That’s right.
Bill: For example, showed him some places that people don’t normally get access to, and et cetera. They thought that by taking this approach, that they could reach these types of understandings with him. Obviously, that was not the case. Shortly thereafter, I think just a couple of days later, he gave a talk or gave a speech in Vietnam where he articulated the basic tenets of what later became the national security strategy, which was published later at the end of that year. Where we then very, very explicitly characterized China as a strategic competitor, and ascribed to China the intention of trying to supplant the United States as the premiere power in the region and ultimately in the world.
Bill: And so I think there was a learning curve, and it was only deep into 2018 and subsequent events that the Chinese ultimately came to a majority view, if I can call it that, that is moving more and more now to a consensus view that the United States is trying to contain China, that the United States is trying to thwart China’s modernization path, and that the United States is trying to challenge Communist Party legitimacy. I think the Chinese truly believe all of these things, more and more by now. A lot of people believed that even before 2017, but the entire process from 2017 until today then made that a mainstream majority, if not near consensus, opinion in China.
Kaiser: Yeah, I mean it would be pretty hard to challenge. I frankly am completely unsurprised that that view prevails. All the evidence seems to support it. What was it like for Ambassador Branstad when he arrived in the summer of 2017? His personal relationship with Xi Jinping back from his time in Iowa, when Xi as a vice premier had gone to Iowa, it was marketed as kind of an asset, right? What was it like for him to be there on the ground as the trade war deepened and as tensions mounted?
Bill: Yeah, that relationship that Ambassador Branstad had was certainly an asset at the very beginning, indeed. I mean, it didn’t necessarily give him direct access to Xi Jinping. Obviously, they had a very good conversation when the ambassador handed over his credentials. And then subsequently, Xi Jinping invited the ambassador and his family to a private dinner with Xi Jinping’s wife and daughter, there in Diaoyutai. So there was a certain relationship there. I mean having said that, he normally conducted the day-to-day business with much lower-level officials. However, the fact that within the Chinese perception, the Chinese system, there was the perception that Ambassador Branstad had a particularly good and personal relationship with Xi Jinping, opened all sorts of doors for him. So he got actually pretty good access at the beginning of his tenure in Beijing, and we used that for a variety of issues including making progress on some issues that had been pretty difficult to advance before that.
Kaiser: What were some examples of those?
Bill: I think the best example of that is the class scheduling of fentanyl. I think a lot of people who don’t work the U.S.-China relationship on a regular basis don’t understand or don’t know why this was such a big deal. But you know before this happened, pure fentanyl was coming into the United States through various channels and driving or fueling the opiates crisis here. By scheduling fentanyl — and we worked under Ambassador Branstad’s leadership for over a year and a half on this issue — what happened is that these imports of fentanyl into the United States, they plummeted to basically nothing thereafter.
It was a lot of engagement. Ambassador Branstad was very, very focused and the result spoke for itself. Obviously, precursor chemicals now go through third markets, are processed there to come into the United States. So ultimately, Chinese chemicals are still fueling the opioids crisis in the United States, but a direct and very, very specific threat to public health in the United States was eliminated through this engagement. So that’s one of, I admit very, very few examples.
Kaiser: But it’s an excellent example.
Bill: But I just wanted to point out that Ambassador Branstad was able to leverage the relationship he had with Xi Jinping, not to meet with Xi Jinping all the time, but then to get access to other officials. So he had pretty good access. I would say that as the relationship deteriorated more and more, and as this consensus view within China of what U.S. intentions were took hold, then his access also suffered.
Kaiser: So another major problem of course in the U.S.-China relationship was over technology. After the ZTE reprieve in July of 2018, I mean as humiliating as that might have been for Beijing and of course for the company itself, it looked like things might not get so bad on the tech front, briefly. But then the Trump White House really started going after China, and especially its leading technology companies like Huawei, of course. In December of 2018 of course, Huawei’s CFO, daughter of Ren Zhengfei, Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver. How did Beijing react to that arrest in December of 2018?
Bill: Yeah, that arrest really hit a raw nerve within Chinese society, and of course within the Chinese body politic as well. Again, this turbocharged the view that the United States was trying to contain China. The fact that, again from a Chinese perspective, the United States went after the daughter of the founder of Huawei particularly incensed the Chinese public. There is a symbiotic relationship between the propaganda and public opinions that just fed on itself over this issue. It was virtually impossible to get anybody in China to believe that the United States did this on the basis of rule of law, that this was an independent legal system having sufficiently compelling evidence to assist to hold a high-level official of a company like Huawei accountable. Nobody in China believed that. Everybody saw it through the political prism, through the state of the bilateral relationship. Everybody believed that it was a political move by the United States.
Kaiser: It’s hard for anyone … I mean, it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone wouldn’t have believed that was so, if they had suspicions that it had political hair on it from the beginning. They seem to have been really confirmed when Trump, in the interview with Reuters, basically came right out and said so, just basically talked about it as a chip that he could trade.
Bill: Well, you know the President said that subsequently, but we all know that China has a very, very aggressive record of trying to acquire the knowledge and the technology it needs for its own modernization purposes —
Bill: — by any means necessary. Players across the Chinese system are heavily incentivized to go out there. So people have their marching orders. People see benefits by going out there and being very, very aggressive. We’ve seen this over the years in the United States, including by companies like Huawei. So there is a compelling U.S. national interest concern about China’s approach to technology acquisition. It poses a tremendous conundrum for all of us about how on the one hand, to maintain the openness that ultimately is the source of our strength in the area of high technology, while at the same time protecting ourselves from the very, very specific threats that China can pose through the illegal acquisition of technology.
With respect to Huawei, I don’t want to re-litigate that case but I think prosecutors in their view had a compelling view, right? That she intentionally deceived banks with respect to issues and brought them into conflict with U.S. law. So yes, but having said that, in terms of the bilateral relationship China viewed this very much through a political prism. Also, I think that there is a deep concern on the Chinese side, irrespective of the merits of the U.S. case against her. I think there is a deep fear that the United States or other Western countries could use these types of tools to go after Chinese corporate executives or Chinese political leaders. I think that there is deep concern on the Chinese side, and for that reason they also made a calculation to take action to, as it were, dis-incentivize countries, right? From trying to follow the U.S. lead.
So taking the two Canadians as diplomatic hostages, and that’s what they were, I think reflected this. That was done not only to express outrage about what they saw happen in Canada, not only to put pressure on Canada directly, but also to send a broader signal, yeah, that the world should be very, very circumspect about how it deals with Chinese traveling, and particularly influential Chinese traveling abroad.
Kaiser: Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were obviously both Canadian citizens, as you said, and therefore not under the charge of the U.S. Embassy. But their detention and their eventual arrest, in what was as you say clearly a response to Meng Wanzhou’s arrest, that must have provoked a very strong reaction within the American diplomatic community and within the embassy. Can you talk about what the U.S. diplomatic corps was able to do on that issue, if anything? And whether that sparked fear in a lot of American business people who were in China, and how you handled that?
Bill: Well yeah, first of all I think there was a lot of concern among Americans in China that did not enjoy diplomatic protection, like I enjoy it and my fellow diplomats. And so we had many, many conversations with the American community about this issue, about what are the specific risks that Americans face in China? And then over time, we also modified some of our travel advisories to try to get a better handle on what exactly those risks are. Within the embassy itself, we were very, very engaged with our Canadian colleagues from day one on this issue. We had many, many behind-the-scenes conversations with the Chinese government about the two Canadians. We made it very, very clear that the United States would stand by its Canadian ally.
When the two Canadians went to court and had court appearances, we stood side by side with our Canadian colleagues very, very publicly, and made public statements. So from day one until the day that they got on that airplane, behind the scenes and publicly as much as that was possible, we to the best of our ability supported our Canadian colleagues. We also spent a lot of time talking about this issue with Chinese contacts as well, explaining the background to it, explaining the rationale for the actions, explaining the process of extradition and what that would mean specifically in this case, and overall what this would mean, in the hope to foster a more sophisticated understanding of what actually transpired. I think given the Chinese perspective, and given the mood and given the state of the relationship, we were not very successful in persuading people.
Kaiser: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Were your Chinese counterparts forthright in behind-the-scenes meetings with them about the actual purpose of the detention and later arrest of the two Michaels? Did they call it what it really was, a diplomatic hostage-taking?
Bill: Well first of all, nobody on the Chinese side would ever use that issue. But I think overall with this issue, because it was so sensitive, Kaiser, because clearly this type of decision was made at sufficiently senior levels, whatever that might mean, the people were very, very cautious to have honest conversations about this. So no, I had very few forthright, behind-the-scenes conversations about this specific topic. It was possible to have forthright conversations about a variety of topics, I would say, but this was certainly not one of them.
Kaiser: So even as all of this was progressing, as the situation with ZTE and then with Huawei and other technology companies, even as the trade war was getting started at the end of 2017, the first reports of large-scale construction of internment camps — what Beijing was terming re-education camps — Started to come in. In the next few months, more evidence seemed to confirm that large-scale, extralegal detentions of Uyghurs and Kazakhs were happening throughout Xinjiang. At what point did the U.S. Embassy start raising concerns about this in Beijing? I mean, we’ve all read and I’ve heard many insider accounts about how President Trump himself signaled at best indifference, at worst maybe even support on this issue.
That is to say he said, “Those people should be put in camps,” as Nancy Pelosi said — “Those Muslims should be put in camps,” as she is quoted as having said. Late into his presidency, eventually of course Mike Pompeo elevated the Xinjiang camps, but it was never something that Trump talked about even as he went after China on just a host of other things. What was the embassy doing on the issue of camps in Xinjiang during that time?
Bill: Yeah, as these reports started to come in about what was happening out there, I think at first there was a bit of … I wouldn’t say not surprise. This was fully consistent with what the Chinese had been doing in Tibet, for example. The Party Secretary had just at this time transferred from Tibet to Xinjiang.
Kaiser: Chen Quanguo.
Bill: We sent a lot of people out there. At that time, it was pretty easy just to go onto Ctrip and book a flight and a hotel in Xinjiang, and then you’d just walk around. Sometimes our colleagues would be visited in their hotel by cheerful people, just looking after them. Sometimes they would be followed. But overall, in the beginning at least, it was possible to go out there and to observe the creation of the system, right?
Bill: Right, particularly everything that was present on the streets, the police checkpoints, the massive public security presence that was everywhere, et cetera. The mosques, for example, closing down, people being far more cautious and our diplomats trying to chat them up, et cetera, et cetera. So everything that guys like Adrian Zenz and others were reporting about Xinjiang, it was very, very consistent with the observations that we made in our trips out there. Many other representatives of the diplomatic community went out there, and we would compare notes about these things. And so I think that by early 2018, we were all getting a pretty, pretty clear picture of the scope of what the Chinese were doing out there, and it was pretty, pretty horrific.
Kaiser: Was it frustrating to you though, that this wasn’t reaching the desk of the President, or if it was, it was going completely ignored?
Bill: Well, let me put it this way, Kaiser. You know, we report about what is going on, and there were a series of steps taken against individuals; sanctions, visa issue —
Kaiser: Much later, though; much later.
Bill: In the course of 2018 onwards, and then to the point where we did see later a whole variety of steps being taken in response to this.
Kaiser: Right. At which point though, those looked like just sort of the weaponization of an issue that we’ve known about for a long time, to serve other purposes, but it was very unfortunate. In any case, let’s move on from that.
There is so much more that we could talk about with respect to the unfolding of the trade war. I understand that you were on the political desk, and this wasn’t directly your bailiwick. But I think that many of us were at least a little hopeful that when the phase one deal was struck in January of 2020, things would calm down a bit but no such luck. What was it like? Obviously you know another major issue came up, one that we’re still dealing with today. What was it like being at the embassy in the early days after this novel coronavirus was reported? What role did the embassy play in providing information to our government, and how did your own sense of the danger develop over time in these early months of 2020?
Bill: Yeah, so the first reports we got about some sort of SARS-like virus circulating in Wuhan, we got those at the end of December in 2019. And then subsequently, day by day, we got more and more reports. It was very, very difficult to get any sort of information from the Chinese government. We saw that channels of communication that we had between our public health officials became … Basically, they dried up the more this crisis began to unfold. I think it came as a surprise when we all woke up, I believe it was on the 23rd of January, to read that they’d actually shut down Wuhan. But by that time, we were already having conversations with our staff there. You know we have a small consulate there in Wuhan, and whether we should keep our people there or not.
Already before the shutdown, it was clear that the medical system there was being overrun. That health providers were being very, very explicit to us and telling us that, “Don’t come to me with this or that, because I don’t have the capacity to support you on any of these things.” So it became very, very clear to us very, very soon that we had to get … That it was in our interest to get our people out of there, and then to work to offer American citizens an opportunity to leave if they wanted to. So we had a whole of government effort. We first of all evacuated our entire staff from Wuhan, and then at the same time and then subsequently, we evacuated over 800 American citizens and dependents over the course of about a 10-day period. It was a fascinating example, to see the Chinese system in action at this time.
Bill: I think that this initially overwhelmed the Chinese system. I sensed a confusion and a vulnerability on the Chinese side, that I personally in my engagement with the Chinese up to that point had not experienced, Kaiser.
Bill: And they were clearly very, very worried about what was happening and what was going on. The fact that they accommodated our desire and that of other countries to get their nationals out of Wuhan as quickly as possible shows that they wanted foreigners out because they didn’t want to have to deal with them, and they didn’t want to have to deal with the consequences of foreigners getting sick while the entire public health system was completely overrun.
Kaiser: Right, yeah. But of course in the ensuing months after Beijing’s initial mishandling, its lack of transparency and all, things very much changed, right? And the view from China was of a relatively competent Chinese handling of the crisis. If you look today, official numbers are still under 6,000 deaths and we’re at over 870,000 deaths in the United States right now. So watching that switch, what did that feel like on the ground there in Beijing?
Bill: Well first of all, I think an inflection point came with the death of Dr. Li Wenliang. There was a tremendous, tremendous outrage in China, a tremendous, tremendous response to that. I think that caught the leadership and the party state system by surprise, and that led to two things politically. The first thing is, they focused responsibility domestically on the leadership there in Hubei Province, so they basically had to take a dive for that. And then secondly, very, very astutely, they channeled responsibility from China to the outside world. These outrageous claims that U.S. soldiers brought the virus into Wuhan, for example, was part of a very broader campaign to diffuse responsibility for this virus and most importantly, to remove in the eyes of the Chinese public responsibility for the virus from the central leadership, away from it and to the outside world. To the point —
Kaiser: The United States seems to have picked up that exact same playbook, or taken a page from that, with its efforts to sort of deflect responsibility. I’m wondering what it was like then for you in Beijing to watch as we entered the summer of 2020 and as Trump, it seemed at least to me, seemed to pull out all the stops and pursue this full-court press against China. What was morale like inside the U.S. embassy when he started using gratuitous, insulting language directly from the presidential bully pulpit, talking about the Wuhan flu or the Wuhan virus or the China virus? I mean, that must have crippled your own efforts to some extent, I imagine. It must have been hard to square.
Bill: Well, a couple of things. First of all, the Chinese response deflecting responsibility to the outside world, that obviously was facilitated by the rapid spread of the virus outside of China. That was also facilitated by the U.S. response, the initial U.S. response to the virus, the consequences of which we all experienced. To the point where I think a majority of people in China, and certainly a majority of people in Wuhan, to this day probably believe that the virus indeed originated outside of the United States.
Kaiser: Fort Detrick.
Bill: For example. Also from a broader perspective, what is particularly worrying and particularly damaging about this Chinese approach is that by directing any sort of responsibility away from China for political reasons, that China has no interest in allowing its experts to have an honest conversation with the experts from the outside world, about the origins of the virus. So we’re in a very, very frustrating situation, that trying to reach an understanding about ultimately where this virus came from is going to be next to impossible, given the Chinese priorities and decisions to let’s say direct any sort of conversation within China about the origins of the virus.
Kaiser: But you don’t think that the American sort of a priori assumption that this is entirely China’s fault, and that this clear kind of deliberate intent to place the blame squarely on China, that certainly didn’t encourage Chinese cooperation now, did it? I mean, in what kind of world do you imagine that China is going to say, “Yeah, so after all of that, after all the efforts to blame China, we’re going to just throw open our doors and let your inspectors come to the Wuhan Institute of Virology”? I mean, I don’t think that … You’re a diplomat. That’s not how things work, right?
Bill: Yeah, of course. That approach that the Trump administration took obviously added fuel to the fire, and only reinforced pre-existing views within China about the origin of the virus, and about U.S. intentions towards China, absolutely.
Kaiser: Exactly. Give us a sense though for what it felt like. I mean, I think that when you talk about this idea that the United States is hell-bent on keeping China down, on kneecapping its tech companies, on preventing it from … Just driving China onto its belly in every way possible. That if there were a moment in which that view solidified and became consensus in China, that must have been the summer of 2020, during that period of sort of pulling out all the stops. How was that experienced for people in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing during that summer?
Bill: Yeah, I think within the Chinese Party-state system, that what really solidified this I would call it near-consensus view about U.S. intentions was the decision to close the Chinese consulate in Houston. Multiple people in the Chinese system told me that any sort of doubters within the Chinese system about U.S. intentions, ultimately changed their minds after that decision. With respect to how Chinese people view the United States, and the intentions they ascribe to the United States with respect to China, we had just ongoing conversations with people across Chinese society about this. It was quite interesting, Chinese perspective on this, Kaiser.
Basically there was one of three views about why the United States was doing what it was. The first is, A, the United States is afraid of China’s growing power. The United States is afraid of a peer competitor emerging. The second one was that the Trump administration, for domestic political reasons, was trying to just divert responsibility for its own governance failures and for all of the chaos in the United States. This is not me speaking. This is me trying to paraphrase Chinese thought.
Kaiser: Sure, sure.
Bill: And the third view is that ideologues from the anti-Communist tradition, anti-Chinese tradition in the United States, had hijacked the bilateral relationship. So one or three of these views or combinations thereof I think informed most peoples’ views about U.S. intentions towards China. We would try to have conversations and try to point out that, “Listen. Very, very specific decisions that China made for its own interests were having a growing impact on U.S. interests, a growing impact on U.S. security, and that of our friends and allies. And that we have articulated through engagement over the years our concerns about these issues.
Bill: As China’s power grew, the impact of these decisions on our interest and security grew as well. That we had failed through the traditional methods of engagement to reach an accommodation or an understanding with China, and for that reason we took this far more assertive approach. So this is the type of conversation that we tried to have about the U.S. intentions. Very, very difficult to get people to understand that. Some people, getting back to that point we just mentioned or earlier mentioned, Kaiser, some people it was possible to have a forthright conversation about these things. They would say, “Listen, Bill. We get it. We know it, but we can’t admit it. We can’t admit that anything that we do could be responsible for any problems that China encounters out there —”
Bill: “— for domestic political purposes.” I think far more broadly in China, however, there was a view that, “What? We Chinese doing what we’re going to do is impacting America? America is much bigger. America is still much stronger, much more powerful than China. How can the decisions that we make influence and impact the United States to such an extent that the U.S. would resort to these measures against China?” So many people thought that that type of argument that I had been trying to make was disingenuous. And so that was a big challenge, trying to have those conversations and to facilitate the understanding about the intentions of the United States, and frankly other countries as well, about how the decisions that China is making are impacting our security and our interests.
Kaiser: Bill, you were still acting DCM in Beijing during the transition, and for the first six months of the Biden presidency. Give our listeners a sense for Beijing’s emotional trajectory as it were during that time. I mean, conventional wisdom says there were pretty high hopes that Biden would be looking to lower the temperature, if not indeed just offer an olive branch, and that things would get back on track. There was a lot of disappointment when things did not appear to at all. We’re seeing now, as Jeff Bader wrote a piece calling it sort of “Trump lite”. Other people described it as “Trump, with allies.”
Bill: There are a number of different views within the Chinese system, after President Biden won the election. It took a while, by the way, for the Chinese to wrap their heads around the fact that Joe Biden actually won. Obviously, President Trump’s refusal to concede really, really confused a lot of Chinese policymakers.
Kaiser: Yeah, it seems to have confused a lot of Americans, too.
Bill: What exactly was happening? But I think when the contours of President Biden’s China team started to emerge, in some circles in China there was indeed hope that this could mean the two sides could return to the status quo ante 2017. Why? Because so many of these people had worked the U.S./China relationship in the Obama administration. So within the Chinese system, there was some hope, right, for a return to the status quo ante. I think that a more sober view, right? That there was going to be no return, and that overall views in the United States towards China had evolved, I think that view was the majority view. So I think yes, there was hope. But at the same time, I think that China by this time was extremely guarded in its expectations for the relationship.
Kaiser: I suppose that’s good, yeah, I mean a more realistic appraisal of how things had actually evolved. They weren’t going to be able to put Humpty Dumpty together again.
Bill, before we wrap up here, what do you see as the biggest fundamental questions confronting the American foreign policy community when it comes to China, and where do you fall on those? I mean, I would suggest for instance that some of the really big ones include, well, can the United States accept a diminished role for itself in the world, where it is no longer the sole superpower in a monopolar order? And when it comes to policy toward China more specifically, the question seems to be all about just right-sizing Beijing’s actual ambitions. I mean, does it intend to supplant or replace the United States as a global hegemon? Or, are its ambitions more sort of regionally constrained? I mean, is it just looking for regional dominance? Because I feel like the basic contest within American foreign policy right now seems very much to reflect the different answers to those basic questions. What are they for you, and where do you fall?
Bill: Yeah, with respect to China’s intentions in the world and with respect to the United States, I understand the logic of people who try to make very compelling intellectual arguments that China does intend to supplant the United States on the world stage. I understand how they connect dots and come to those conclusions. I would also make the point that you can take those same data points, perhaps use other data points, and come to somewhat different conclusions, right? So I am far less self-confident in my view of what ultimately Chinese intentions in the world are. I think, however, that as China’s national power grows, that China will continue to project its power around the world to advance its interests so that U.S. and Chinese interests will continue to bump up against each other, and that we will continue to have deep friction in the bilateral relationship.
Kaiser: Yeah, that’s not really in question though, right? We know that.
Bill: But yeah, but what I do want to say is that when U.S. and Chinese interests meet in the world, whether in the bilateral relationship or on third countries, they don’t necessarily have to be adversarial. It’s not necessarily a zero sum. This is a very, very specific and a very, very new challenge that we as Americans are facing. And so I think that we need a very, very differentiated view about what China does in the world, what we can live with, what we have to live with, for the simple reason that neither we nor others have the ability to change Chinese behavior in certain areas. And then, in what areas do we have to very, very forcefully and self-confidently defend our interests and push back against the Chinese? I think that for me the core problem, Kaiser, is that ultimately the United States and China have to be very, very honest about the deep strategic mistrust at the heart of the relationship.
Kaiser: Yes, yes.
Bill: And then find ways to acknowledge the sources of those mistrusts, to make it very, very clear where our red lines are on any number of interests with respect to strategic mistrust. And then find ways to ensure that space exists between our red lines, and then also to develop mechanisms to manage that competition when those red lines start to get very, very close, or when they touch each other or overlap. This is not only going to take a lot of very serious and labor-intensive diplomacy, but it’s also going to take a lot of national determination and a lot of leadership as well. In order to compete successfully with China, we are going to have to play to our strengths. Our strengths are our openness. Our strengths are our rule of law. Our strengths are our freedom and our innovative capacity, our dynamicism, and the flexibility and openness of our system.
We need to play to those strengths. We need to make those strengths core principles of what we want in the world, and then we have to continue to fight to advance those strengths and protect those strengths. When we do that, others will follow us. Not always in lockstep, not always completely, but I am convinced in a manner such that taken together, that where necessary the United States can counterbalance the growth of Chinese power, and counterbalance them where it has an adverse impact on our security and our interests. That’s a long-winded way of saying that this is a very, very unique challenge that does not only require us to deploy the forces of American power as necessary, but also through very, very intense and astute diplomacy with China.
Kaiser: Here’s to that. I mean, I really hope that we will continue to see seasoned diplomats like yourself really attending to this vital, vital question.
So Bill, I mentioned at the outset that you had been posted to Kyiv twice actually, and though that was much earlier in your diplomatic career, I wonder whether you might have some thoughts on the current situation, and how Beijing might be looking at this looming security dilemma.
Bill: Yeah, indeed I served twice in Kyiv. I do have to say however that my knowledge of what’s going on in Kyiv is fairly dated. I left Kyiv for the second time in the summer of 2009, so I missed the whole Maidan Revolution in 2014, the Russian occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk and Crimea. So like I say, my views are somewhat dated. Having said that, I think the challenge we face is, can Russia ultimately accept the existence of a stable, prosperous and democratic Ukraine on its direct orders? That I think is ultimately the big question. The question is of course can Ukraine, out of its own strength and with the support of the West, become stable, prosperous and democratic and open? But the bottom line is, can Russia or can Vladimir Putin and his regime ultimately accept that? That’s a big, big question. With respect…
Kaiser: You don’t think it’s ultimately about NATO membership at all, then? You think that it’s just simply that right now, Putin would not accept the existence of a genuinely independent Ukraine that was all those things, prosperous and stable?
Bill: You know, that’s a big question. I think yes, he’s been very explicit about what he wants with respect to NATO and security guarantees. But beyond that, I think one can make the case that from a Russian perspective, that type of Ukraine could pose for a regime like Vladimir Putin’s, an unacceptable threat. I don’t know. I may be wrong there. That was my perception.
Kaiser: I admire the way that you’re always looking for that cognitive empathy. You’re always trying to put yourself into the shoes of Beijing, or in the shoes of Moscow, or whatever kind of party we’re talking about. I think that’s the most basic, fundamental skill that any diplomat should have.
Bill: Yeah, thank you. I just want to emphasize that as I try to characterize what I experienced with respect to the perspectives of others, I just want to emphasize that doesn’t mean that I’m necessarily sympathetic to those views, or that I agree with them.
Kaiser: No, of course not. No, no. I think that we need to know the difference, and that’s the great thing about exercising cognitive empathy. Although people do sometimes get confused, and we shouldn’t have to be explicit when we do this, but we can sort of hang our own values up at the coat check, and put them back on again once we step out from behind those other set of eyes, right? It’s a useful skill.
Bill Klein, thank you so much for taking the time. Let’s move on now to recommendations. But first let me remind everybody that if you like the work that we’re doing with the Sinica Podcast or with other shows on the network, the best thing that you could do to support us is to subscribe to SupChina Access, our daily email newsletter. It’s a fantastic mother lode of stories on China that are curated from all over the web, from hundreds of different news sources. So check it out, and really that is the way that you can keep the lights on for us. All right, let’s move on to recommendations. Bill, what do you have for us?
Bill: Yeah, you know I’ve noticed over the years that you have a lot of science fiction fans on your show, Kaiser.
Kaiser: Oh yeah, we do for sure.
Bill: So I just wanted to recommend the last science fiction book that I read. That is Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir. He’s best known for the book The Martian, and the film that starred Matt Damon. Project Hail Mary came out last year. It’s fantastic, hard science fiction. Basically, something horrific is going to happen to earth, and mankind determines that the solution to this may be in a nearby star. Mankind has the technology and the know-how to get to that star, and then to communicate back to earth why that one star has a solution to the problems that mankind is encountering. But it doesn’t have the technology to bring the crew back, so it’s a hail Mary. They send a crew of three to this star to find out.
So first of all, I love the book because lots of really, really good hard, hard science, astrophysics, Newtonian physics, relativity, biology, chemistry. All of that’s great, and executed in a manner that amateurs like myself can understand. Secondly, there’s a very, very interesting encounter with a being from another planet. I don’t want to spoil the plot, but it’s just fascinating how he characterizes the engagement between the protagonist and this creature.
Kaiser: Alpha Centauri is only 4.3 light years away, right?
Bill: Exactly, yeah. And then finally, it’s very well written. There’s lots of plot twists. It’s written with a certain amount of humor and sarcasm and self-deprecation. It reminds me a lot of the science fiction stuff I used to read from Robert Heinlein and others when I was a kid. So that’s my recommendations, Kaiser.
Kaiser: The old stuff, the good stuff, fantastic. Yeah, I’m always looking for another good sci-fi book to plunge into. It’s been a while. Now that season six of The Expanse is over, I need some kind of a sci-fi fix. I love that show immoderately. All right, good book to recommend.
So for my recommendation, and this does touch on science fiction as well, I want to recommend an online course that’s been put together by Christopher Rea, who has been on the show before. He’s a fantastic literary scholar, a scholar of Chinese literature, ancient and modern. He’s done “The Modern Chinese Novel,” an online course. It’s 20 videos, and it’s brand new. It just went up a couple of days ago. These are short, 10 to 15 minute long videos on YouTube and they cover a huge range of literature in modern China.
They start off with Liu Cixin Chinese science fiction, three, four parts on that, and then writers from Taiwan, from the mainland, writers like Mo Yan, Yu Hua, people like that. I imagine it’s going to continue. It’s a fantastic course. I highly … Chris has a great presentation style. He makes it super accessible, and of course you come away with a pretty good knowledge of what’s happening in literature. I think this is a recommendation that pairs very nicely with last week’s show, with Megan Walsh.
Thanks, Bill. That was fantastic. I really enjoyed talking to you about all this. I’ve been walking down memory lane, and I’m sure we’ll have you back on again and get into even more detail about some of these episodes. But this was a great overview, a good table of contents. Really enjoyed it.
The Sinica Podcast is powered by SupChina, and is a proud part of the Sinica Network. Our show is produced and edited by me, Kaiser Kuo. We would be delighted if you would drop us an email at [email protected], or just as good, give us a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, as this really does help people discover the show. Meanwhile, follow us on Twitter or on Facebook at @supchinanews, and make sure to check out all the shows on Sinica Network. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week. Take care.