U.S.-China consulate wars

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: It’s Thursday the 20th of August, 2020. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Megan Basham.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up: consulate wars.

Tension between the United States and China is rising at an alarming rate. We seem to be jumping from crisis to crisis, and some analysts warn we’re at a dangerous juncture. In July, Washington closed the Chinese Consulate in Houston, and Beijing responded by shutting down an American consulate in China.

BASHAM: More recently, the United States Treasury Department issued sanctions against Hong Kong’s chief executive and 10 other officials for stifling freedoms in the city. Beijing struck back by sanctioning 11 American NGO leaders and lawmakers, including Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. All have spoken out against China’s brutal repression of Hong Kong.

BROWN: The growing list of tit for tats has dominated headlines since March when Beijing expelled journalists working for three American news outlets. But the conflict goes far deeper than those headlines. WORLD correspondent Jill Nelson explains.

JILL NELSON. REPORTER: Five months ago, Ian Johnson found out he was no longer welcome in China.

JOHNSON: I was one of about a dozen people, who were expelled from China as part of a tit for tat. So it started when the Trump administration expelled about 60, 59 I think, Chinese journalists arguing that they weren’t real journalists, that they were just agents of the Chinese state.

Johnson is an author and scholar who writes primarily about religion and society. He lived in China for more than two decades, but writing freelance for The New York Times was enough to earn him a spot on the list of banned journalists.

JOHNSON: For me, I sort of based my career on interpreting China for the outside world, especially for Americans. And now, obviously, I never thought I’d spend my whole life in China, but I thought I’d spend more of my professional career there. And I think this is something a lot of people are finding.

Including those working at the American Consulate in Chengdu. 

In July, Washington closed the Chinese Consulate in Houston, citing accusations of espionage. Ian Johnson understands the reason for the closure. But he isn’t sure it was worth the cost of losing a U.S. site in retaliation.

Getting information on the United States is easy, but it’s different in China.

JOHNSON: It’s hard. That consulate in Chengdu for example, that was a vital, window on western China, including Tibet. And the people who worked in that consulate, some of them went on to do really interesting work. They helped independent underground writers in China get published, you know, all kinds of stuff like that.

The Hudson Institute’s Arthur Herman disagrees and says we benefit more by closing a consulate he calls a “nest of spies.” But he says these tit for tats are minor in the long run compared to the bigger threats posed by China.

HERMAN: It’s the substantive stuff in the area of economies and technologies and of military force postures. That’s where the real action is.

He says Beijing has two primary goals: To rise as a dominant superpower and to undermine its chief competitor, the United States. Herman analyzes defense and technology issues and lists three ways to counter China’s growing ambitions.

AUDIO: [Audio of TikTok]

The first relates directly to the popular video-sharing app TikTok, something Washington also has its eye on.

TRUMP: We’re looking at TikTok, we may be banning TikTok.

President Trump is concerned that China could gain access to massive amounts of American data through TikTok, Zoom, and other platforms with Chinese parent companies. Herman says we need to counter this threat.

HERMAN: The more data you control in our world the more you are able to know about what others are doing. Data is the new strategic commodity. It’ll be the decisive resource in military and intelligence conflicts and economic conflicts probably for the next century.

Herman lists the ability to track GPS locations, browsing histories, how often photos are shared, and who they were shared with. Advances in artificial intelligence will only increase the ways data can be used.

HERMAN: It’s patterns that artificial intelligence is magnificent at identifying and finding and that’s the new strategic resource that every country, including China and including ourselves, is going to be devoting their energies to because it gives them a decisive advantage in their competition. Now I think we’re going to see data as even more important in dominating the world today.

Second, Herman says we should promote international participation in U.S. military exercises in the South China Sea. In July, Washington formally rejected China’s claims to sovereignty in the contested waters and sent two aircraft carriers and four warships to the region.

China constructed seven artificial islands in the region between 2013 and 2015 and has beefed up its military presence there. It’s also stirring up trouble in the East China Sea, crossing territorial waters into the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands.

Finally, Herman says we need to be on top of the quest to lead in the high-tech sector.

HERMAN: China is looking beyond just the military confrontations and is looking for ways in which to dominate the high-tech future, whether you’re talking about 5G Wireless technology, the roll a company like Huawei is engaged in now.

But Ian Johnson says if we want to dominate in these areas, we’ll need to think more strategically about our limited access to information about China.

JOHNSON: The Chinese have hundreds of journalists in the United States. But the U.S. has so few. Relatively speaking, just a few dozen journalists. If you lose a dozen, it’s losing a lot. So I feel like it’s one thing to say we need to have a strong policy towards China and when China is doing things we need to stand up and take a position. I agree with all that. I think just do you do it in a way that ends up cutting off your nose to spite your face?

Reporting for WORLD, I’m Jill Nelson.


WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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One comment on “U.S.-China consulate wars

  1. Kathy Kuhl says:

    On 8/20/2020, in your piece on US-China Consulate Wars, your reporter said, “ President Trump is concerned that China could gain access to massive amounts of American data through TikTok, Zoom, and other platforms with Chinese parent companies.“ Please explain about what this Chinese parent company of Zoom is. According to Wikipedia, it’s an American company. The Times of India reports Zoom is denying these rumors there, but it seems complicated. The Washington Post reported a lawsuit against Zoom for overstating their Encryption security https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/08/11/cybersecurity-202-zoom-sued-by-consumer-group-misrepresenting-its-encryption-protections/

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