00:40 Douglas Blackmon: Welcome back to American Forum. I’m Doug Blackmon. When the Soviet Union dissolved into the Russian Federation at the end of the Cold War, the United States stood alone as the world’s last superpower, a monument to the superiority of democratic capitalism and the apparent standard by which other countries should model their own reformations. The long era of all global relationships fitting somehow into a competition between the U.S. and its one great rival was over. The West had won. At least, that’s what we thought. China—the vast behemoth of Asia—seemed to prove the point. It remained a backward empire of shoddy manufacturing, polluting factories, and ossified Communist recalcitrance. Its gross domestic product as late as the early 1990s was less than $400 billion a year—miniscule in comparison to the $6 trillion in United States production at the time. But just two and a half decades later, China’s economy generates $11 trillion a year. It has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest consumer of luxury goods, automobiles, and e-commerce. China produces more steel, clothing, textiles, and computers than we do. They even make our iPhones, or at least parts of them. Today, China has joined—and, by some reckonings, has surpassed—the United States as a global superpower. Yet, even as the two titans wrestle with whether to cohabitate or compete for supremacy, a shared new threat is forcing cooperation: nuclear-armed North Korea, which has launched almost two dozen test missiles this year, including a nuclear weapon seven times the size of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Tensions between the U.S. and North Korea have devolved steadily into coarse insults between the nation’s two leaders: a “deranged dotard” named Donald Trump, according to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who President Trump ridicules as the “little rocket man.”
So how big is the risk of North Korea? How does the relationship between the U.S. and China affect that risk? And ultimately, what will the new era of a world once again oriented around two competing superpowers really look like? Joining us is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker who in 2014 published: Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China based on eight years he lived and worked as a correspondent in Beijing. That book won the National Book Award. Earlier, in 2008, he was part of a Pulitzer Prize winning team at the Chicago Tribune. A few weeks ago, he spent four days in North Korea, detailing his on-the-ground observations in an expansive piece for The New Yorker titled “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea.” Thank you for being here.
Evan Osnos: Thanks, Doug.
3:30 Blackmon: So you’ve just come back from North Korea a few weeks ago. We want to get to that. We want to hear about the trip that you made and your sense of things, but, first, let’s talk about China and the context of this changing relationship between the U.S. and China and ultimately how that relates to the crisis, really, around North Korea. When you first went there as a young correspondent—you still look like a pretty young correspondent to me—in 2005, where was China at that stage in this tremendous transformation?
Osnos: Well, China in 2005 was just beginning to get used to the idea that anybody was going to regard it as a superpower. I mean, the irony, of course, is that China says about itself that it was a superpower for most of human history. It has just had a bad millennium, and it’s reaching the end of that period. And it was in 2005 that they began to realize that. They were preparing for the Olympics in Beijing. They were beginning to tick off measures of economic growth that put them in the highest tier of economic activity in the world, but they were still getting used to it. In many ways, today, what we’re seeing in China in 2017 is a country that has finally begun to imagine itself as a superpower.
04:32 Blackmon: And the—but in terms of what was—for instance, your book, which came out in 2014, at the end of the book you were talking about the last Communist Party Congress, these once-every-five-year events that chart the path of the nation and designate leadership over these periodic intervals. But if we go back further—so that’s 2013. If we go back to then, in terms of the leadership of the country and how it viewed its path to a kind of position of supremacy that it has now, where was it then? Was it the way we see it now, or was it a different path?
Osnos: It was in a different mode. So 10 years ago, let’s put our minds back to where it was just before the Olympics in Beijing. China conducted itself in the world under a policy that it called “hide your strength and bide your time,” by which it meant try to avoid irritating the world’s sole superpower, the United States, while steadily rejoining the community of nations and building up your economy. They largely succeeded in doing that, but, as they got bigger, they got more aware of the sense that there was a kind of inevitability about their return to greatness from their position, and that’s when you had this important leadership transition. So, in 2012, you had the end of one presidency, Hu Jintao, who had been a really colorless figure. I mean, he was known among his peers as Wooden Face because he was so without affect, without any kind of emotional significance, and that was by design. He had been chosen that way because, you remember, China was scarred by the experience of Chairman Mao, the idea that they had, in a sense, too much personality, too much cult of personality, so they chose somebody who was the opposite, and they succeeded. Hu Jintao, by the end of 2012, was a very weak figure. He didn’t have any kind of ideological coherence about his leadership. Nobody really knew what he stood for. The country was incredibly corrupt. There were divisions among the leaders. There had actually been a murder plot at one point. It was a really dramatic moment, and the person who stepped into that moment was Xi Jinping, who was the son of a revolutionary hero. He was somebody who had come up through the Communist Party system, and what he believed in above all was that China could be, as he said—and it became his kind of catchphrase—the “great rejuvenation” was available to China. The Chinese dream was to return to the position that it had for most of history, and he set out to do that. And the way that he did it was not by saying, “We’re going to become a democracy.” We’re not going to do it by becoming Japan. We’re not going to become South Korea. We’re going to become redder than red. We’re going to become even more of a Communist Party nation than we ever have been before, and that’s what led us to this moment.
07:03 Blackmon: But there also was baked into that this notion that we’re going to have a country that is free of repression in some fashion or at least the most—because we’ve also—by this time, we’ve had Tiananmen Square. There have been these indications of the people of China wanting things that they don’t have. You’ve got a society that in some respects—you talk about it a little differently than this at another point in the book—that is a little bit like the late nineteenth century, early twentieth century United States, this massive rural population that is realizing that the old agricultural system is not going to work for them anymore, and people are moving into the cities in huge numbers. Cities aren’t ready for them, so you have this—on the one hand a boom is happening, on the other hand terrible deprivation for people and a great sense of repression.
So this new approach that says, “Well, actually, let’s eliminate the repression but not eliminate the state control,” and certainly not eliminate the Party, but that balancing act. I think that’s what’s most baffling to Americans because we always assume that there was a kind of immorality that attached to these systems like in the Soviet Union and also Communist China and that that immorality meant that, ultimately, they would always fail, as happened in the Soviet Union. But then, something different happened in China.
Osnos: Yeah, the remarkable thing about China’s modern history is that they basically missed the Industrial Revolution, almost literally. So they find themselves now at the sort of—three-quarters of the way through the twentieth century. They get to the end of the Cultural Revolution, which was this incredibly self-destructive period, 10 years from 1966 to 1976, where you had parents turning on each other. You had children turning their parents in for political disloyalty. The country really ground to a halt. And at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, China was poorer than North Korea. It was poorer than Sub-Saharan Africa, and there was a generation of leaders, some of whom bore the scars of the revolution in 1949, who said, “If we continue down this path, we’re going to be doomed.” And what they said was, “We need to open the window to some degree,” and the great line from Deng Xiaoping was, “If you open the window, some flies will get in, but it will also bring in fresh air.”
And that bargain of, essentially, prosperity for political stability is the underlying dynamic that still governs China today. But in order for it to work, you have these leaders who are constantly sort of tacking back and forth between control and openness.
09:27 Blackmon: And you talk about this “age of ambition,” the actual title of the book. What’s the age of ambition you’re talking about that has sprung up in very recent times?
Osnos: So the age of ambition really presented itself as this very vivid moment, and I happened to be there at the time. What it was describing was that people had begun to see themselves differently. For most of Chinese history—and this goes back to the sort of Confucian origins of the Chinese system—you saw yourself as part of this broader tapestry, whether it was the family first or the village and then the town, ultimately, the province and then the country. So your role in that was always part of these broader networks of forces, and it extended into the law, for instance. If you were accused of a crime, it wasn’t just the defendant who was punished. It was also neighbors, family members, village leaders. There was this sense that you were inextricably bound with people. That began to change when they began to open up the economy, and, all of a sudden, people had the opportunity to define themselves differently. So for a long time, you know, in China the great praise that you could have for somebody under the Communist system was that you said that he was a “rust-less screw in the revolutionary machine.” I mean, there is no more minimizing description of individualism. And then, over the course of the last 40 years, they realized that, in some ways, if they wanted this country to be able to compete in the world, if they wanted to make up for the loss of missing the Industrial Revolution, they had to unleash the individual, so they allowed that to happen. And you began to see—and, really, it happened kind of in real time. I would watch people I know go from one kind of life where they were an employee at a company, and they would set out to start to build a business. And, all of a sudden, they could make a go of it, but we shouldn’t romanticize it. You know, in some ways, I came to see it as the age of ambition because ambition is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it means the sense of possibility, the notion that you can even imagine catapulting yourself from one way of life into another way of life, but it also can be a very disruptive way of living. It’s a very bumptious approach to how you want to live in this country, and even the word “ambition” traditionally in Chinese history had a very negative connotation. I mean, for thousands of years, if you said somebody was ambitious, it was a bad thing. And then, when I was living there, I began to notice that it sort of acquired a more neutral connotation, and by the time that I left I was going into bookstores and finding books on the self-help shelves that were saying things like How to Raise an Ambitious Child. So that idea became, in my mind at least, the central organizing principle of this period in Chinese history.
11:56 Blackmon: But it does strike me that, while China clearly is going through this period as the United States did when it was transitioning from being a third-world country in the countryside to a first-world country, those early economic rungs, climbing up the ladder at the bottom part of the ladder, is the easiest part. It’s where government investment creates enormous numbers of jobs, and huge transformations occur. The higher the society moves up the ladder, the harder it gets, the more transparency matters, the more ambition matters. Does that suggest, as Paul Krugman has written at times, that the China miracle actually is headed toward an American-style impasse?
Osnos: Well, they had a lot of catch-up growth to do in the beginning, and they were the beneficiaries in a weird way of the fact that they were so far behind. So that was one of the reasons why you were able to get this extraordinary spike of pent-up growth where they were doubling the size of their economy every seven or eight years for exactly the reasons you described. They hadn’t built their roads yet. They hadn’t built their bridges and their railways and so on. So, as they began to do that, you saw this tremendous China story, and that was—it sort of took hold, and I think it was tempting for people abroad to come to the conclusion, “Well, you know what? We have all of this political disorder and chaos in our country. It looks pretty clean and orderly over there, what they’re doing, and they don’t have to worry about government shutdowns. They don’t have to worry about the debt ceiling. They just do it.” And the truth is—I always used to find it very interesting. I work in China. I go back often, and it always makes me—I’m always amused when I encounter somebody coming over, particularly if it happens to be American elected officials who come over for the first time or the second time, and they say, “God, if I could do what China can do or I could build a bridge or an airport as efficiently as the local government can do, that would be terrific.” And I say, “Well, yeah, but that’s because they don’t have things like the ability to sue to stop your house from being knocked down in the course of building the new railway. People don’t have freedom of expression to say, ‘Should we be talking about whether this railway is the right thing for our town and for our society?’” And, yeah, it is more efficient, but is it ultimately the true expression of what people want, and is it a functioning political society? That’s a harder question.
Blackmon: But the idea that China somehow represents a clearly superior model somehow or that it has defeated democratic capitalism, that’s really not a plausible suggestion.
Osnos: No, and I’ll tell you what I think is the risk that we face at the moment. One of the great advantages the United States has always had is that all of the smartest people from all of the countries including China were desperate to get to the United States. And if you go—we’ve all seen this by now. If you look at the number of CEOs in Silicon Valley who originated in China, originated in India, it’s always impressive, and the difference between the United States and China in that regard is that China has never been a destination for immigrants and refugees. It’s not in their philosophy. I mean, quite literally, you can’t become Chinese. You can live there for decades. You can become a friend of China. You can almost—you can get a sort of long-term residency, but you can’t philosophically become part of the Chinese tradition, and that was our defining difference as Americans. I think the risk that we’re running is that, by closing ourselves off tactically and strategically to the rest of the world in terms of being a destination for some of the world’s most talented people, well, then we run the risk that we’re putting ourselves at an unfair disadvantage because that has always been our great skill.
15:15 Blackmon: Just a few weeks ago, we had at the same table Graham Allison, the great Harvard scholar who in recent years has devoted a lot of time to China. He wrote a recent book called Thucydides’s Trap, suggesting, essentially based on the Greek writings of Thucydides, that the U.S. and China are now in a dynamic where the ascendant China and the predominate America—that history suggests there may be some inevitability or inevitable high risk that we will end up in open conflict with one another. Do you buy that? I find in the end—Allison is a brilliant, brilliant man, and it’s a brilliant book. I was unpersuaded by the argument in the end because I think that, in the world that we live in today, one, we understand what mass-casualty events really look like, not just nuclear war, but we actually understand the risk of some of these things, and we are so interconnected. Do you buy that, that there’s some inevitable massive conflict that we will, at best, narrowly avert with China in this transformation?
Osnos: Well, what Graham Allison did that was very important was he identified a pattern of history that really hadn’t been described quite as clearly as he had. Thucydides’s trap is essentially the idea that there have been these 14 occasions over the course of history where you’ve had a rising power that challenges an incumbent power, and he said that in 11 of 14 cases it did end in war. People have pointed out since then that the difference is, now, that we’re in the Atomic Age where the idea that two powers could casually sleepwalk into conflict as they did in World War I no longer applies because we’re aware of the possibility of the risks. But I think, you know, the misreading that some people have had of Graham’s thesis is that he is somehow saying, because he describes it as “destined for war,” that that means that it is fated, that we can’t change the dynamic. In fact, what he’s doing is ringing the alarm bell, and I find that to be a very productive exercise because we were, over the course of the last 10 years, finding ourselves in increasingly tense relations with China over some pretty serious issues, things like control of the South China Sea.
From China’s perspective, that’s, as they put it, a core interest. That’s not something they’re going to casually give up. But, from America’s perspective, we want to manage that transition as much as possible because we don’t want to have a radical shift in the power balance in the Asia-Pacific region. We’re a Pacific country, legitimately so. The United States has a claim and has been able to provide peace and security in Asia since 1945, and I don’t think we want to let that happen overnight. So what I think Graham has done very well is that he has alerted us to the risks, and now it’s up to us to be able to take the steps to avert it. And I will say I don’t sit up nights worrying that the United States and China are going to stumble into a war simply because we are so aware of how interdependent we are right now. You know, the U.S. and Chinese, obviously, together constitute the world’s majority of economic activity. We are—our trade activity is deeply intertwined. This is about figuring out how these two powers are going to coexist and then managing the process as carefully as possible.
18:14 Blackmon: So then, curiously enough, develops this system that in some respects gives those two parties a reason to cooperate, at least in some measure, and that being North Korea. Is there somehow that North Korea becomes a kind of lever that compels the United States and China to work together in a way that they’re not accustomed to?
Osnos: At the moment, I would say no, and the reason is that, as much as China is infuriated and frustrated by North Korea—and it is—it doesn’t trust Donald Trump. This is a serious issue. At the moment, we know Donald Trump came into office saying, “China is going to be the skeleton key that will solve the North Korean problem. If we can get China to really close off trade with North Korea,” they are, after all, responsible for 90 percent of cross-border, “they would be able to help bring North Korea to heel.” And the truth is that China says, “We want to help you make sure there is peace on the Korean Peninsula, but we don’t know ultimately what your game plan is.” For a long time, he had Steve Bannon at his side, who was saying openly that he thinks the next great conflict in the world is between the United States and China. He rode into office threatening a trade war with China, talking about the possibility that we needed to fundamentally reshape our economic relationship, and for that reason China is wary. So they’re going to do as little as possible to try to keep these two erratic leaders, from their perspective, in check. They are hemmed in by the fact that on one side they’ve got Kim Jong-un, who they don’t trust, and on the other side they’ve got Donald Trump, who represents a major strategic—a sort of unresolved strategic issue for them. They are not sure what their future is with the United States, and they’re not comfortable putting it in the hands of a deal that Donald Trump is promoting. So what I would say is that, at the moment, you’ve seen that China has taken a few steps, important steps, in the direction of what Trump wants. They have—you know, for instance, they have cut off some oil exports, petroleum exports, particularly finished products. They have also clamped down on banks and businesses in China that were allowing North Korea to continue to develop its economy, but they haven’t taken the ultimate step, which is turning off the tap, the oil tap, and that’s what the United States wants. That’s what the White House wants, and I think it’s going to be a while yet before they do that.
The Chinese have said to us—they’ve said this pers—Xi Jinping has said it to Barack Obama, and he has now said it to Donald Trump, that his goal in the Korean Peninsula is no war, no chaos, no nukes.” And when the Americans hear that, they hear, “No nukes, that’s what we want. Great, we’re in agreement.” And that’s not what the Chinese mean. They mean that in priority. They say, “No war, no chaos, no nukes.” Xi Jinping grew up during the Cultural Revolution. He’s acutely aware of the risks that chaos posed to China’s stability and economic future, and his primary objective is that China can continue this great rejuvenation, as we talked about earlier, that it can continue sort of marching back into a position of global leadership. So what he’s going to try to do is do everything he can to try to prevent war in Korea, and sometimes that means pushing back Kim Jong-un, and sometimes it means pushing back Donald Trump, because if he gets the impression that Donald Trump is truly going to go to war in North Korea his focus shifts, and he’s going to try to defuse that.
21:28 Blackmon: And it’s often thrown around—I mean, it’s not just that they would never do it. It’s also that—whatever the number is that they’ve got, 70 or 80 nukes now, and they can build more of them, and now they’ve got missiles that supposedly can transport a warhead of that sort, but there is no possible way that North Korea—even if they fired a missile, even if they fired everything they’ve got, there’s no possibility that one would actually make it, not because it doesn’t have the capacity, but the defense systems of the United States, some of which are not things that anyone will talk about in detail—but we have a system that is set up to imagine thousands of intercontinental ballistic missiles being fired at once and how we would defend ourselves against that. There’s no way that a circa-1952-technology missile from North Korea is going to make it to California and not be shot down.
Osnos: Well, I will add that I think we don’t want to overstate what we know, and the truth is that our missile defenses are not as good as we’d like them to be. Depending on which program you’re talking about—and there are several systems that we have—they have success rates that are encouraging but unperfected. And one of the reasons that we don’t use them is that we don’t want to telegraph to our adversaries whether or not these systems are as good as we say they are. And then, there are technical impediments on the North Korean side to whether or not they have the reentry technology, whether they’re able to actually miniaturize a warhead, but the broader point is that they are moving down a track in that direction. They clearly want to have that capability, and they’ve already surprised American intelligence several times over the last few years in the pace of their progress. So we don’t want to underplay what they’re capable of. In a way, though, what I think is the crucial takeaway is that we’re now into a situation where it’s no longer notional about whether they will acquire nuclear technology, whether they will eventually be prevented from doing so. This is not where Iran was when we signed a deal in 2015. North Korea has these weapons. They have between 20 and 60 warheads, and we have to begin to deal with them as a country as it exists, not as a country as we want it to be. I’m not saying we need to bring them into the fold and declare them to be friends, but we lived with the Soviet Union during the Cold War when they had 55,000 nuclear warheads, and we came—we erected a system, a combination of arms control, diplomacy, and military threat that kept these two countries at peace. And that toolbox is available to us when it comes to North Korea, particularly when the alternative, as we’ve talked about before, is war, and it’s so wildly unattractive both for Americans and also, of course, for South Koreans and Japanese who would be caught in that conflict.
23:59 Blackmon: Yeah, I was trying to reassure the American people. Now, you’ve—
Osnos: [laughter] Did I not help in that regard?
Blackmon: No,you didn’t help. You didn’t help.
Osnos: Well, I will say one thing, which I do think is reassuring. Even when we’ve gotten ourselves into this moment of acute crisis, some of it, frankly, by our own provocations, the way that we talk about North Korea on Twitter is not advancing anybody’s national interests, but we have dealt with this problem before. In the mid-1960s, the United States looked at China, and what did they see? They saw, from their perspective, a madman at the helm driven by a kind of political mania, developing a nuclear weapon, testing it with greater and greater aggression, and we thought about the possibility that we might have to take out the Chinese weapons system. In the end, we decided, “China is not suicidal. They’re not going to attack the United States,” and we were right. And I think we need to be very prudent in deciding how it is that we engage North Korea and how it is that we pursue options that are not ultimately options of force.
24:53 Blackmon: Evan Osnos, thanks for being here.
Osnos: My pleasure. Thanks, Doug.
Blackmon: If you have any comments or questions about this episode of American Forum, please reach out to me via the email address on the screen or on Twitter @douglasblackmon.
To read expert insights into any manner of domestic and foreign policy issues facing the United States, visit us at MillerCenter.org. There, you can also watch previous episodes of American Forum. To see a live taping—like this one—go to the Miller Center Facebook page. One last thing, let your local PBS station know that you appreciate programming like this one. We’re serious about the challenges facing Americans and our leaders. They’re hopefully not boring, and, for certain, we’re not fake news. Tell them that, and maybe tell your congressman how much you appreciate PBS too. See you next week.