The Need to Disarm the Discourse on China

Yves here. As has become more and more evident, what passes for US leadership has completely lost its mind. We are trying to run a two-front war while still insisting China is our #1 enemy and escalating. This post focuses on the propaganda program.

One of the best lines in the must-see movie The Lives of Others, which centers on a senior and once hyper-loyal Stasi officer going rogue to protect a prominent intellectual, is:

To think that men like you once ran a county.

This should become the epitaph for the Biden Administration.

By Cale Holmes. an international relations analyst, writer, and environmentalist who has lived in Beijing and serves as CODEPINK’s China Is Not Our Enemy Campaign Coordinator; and Lawson Adams a college student in Los Angeles California who spent two of his four years in the Navy working at the NSA in Oahu, Hawaii as a Chinese language analyst

From racist tweets to rising hate crimes, the media’s anti-China propaganda has created a climate of aggression. Two weeks ago, a man drove a car into the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, yelling “Where’s the CCP?” Arab Americans have been targeted during the Persian Gulf War, the War on Terror, and U.S.-backed atrocities in Palestine. It’s no surprise that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are in the crosshairs of white supremacy as the U.S. targets China. Back in April, a Columbia University found that three in four Chinese Americans said they’d suffered racial discrimination in the past 12 months.

When the Trump administration launched the China Initiative to prosecute spies, the Department of Justice racially profiled Chinese Americans and Chinese nationals. Between 2018 and 2022, the number of Chinese researchers who dropped their affiliation with U.S. institutions jumped 23 percent. The Biden administration has ended the initiative, but the Department of Justice and the congressional anti-China committee are still targeting political leaders in the Chinese community.

As Biden continues the crackdowns of his predecessor, his administration is also escalating in the Asia-Pacific region. From expanding military bases in the Philippines – including one potential base in the works intended to join contingencies in Taiwan – to building a fleet of AI drones to target China, militarists are creating conditions for a hot war in the Pacific. As the U.S. prepares for war, Forbes published an article on September 25 about an aircraft carrier “kill chain” and its potential use in a war with China. In February, CNN journalists accompanied a U.S. Navy jet approaching Chinese airspace. As a Chinese pilot warned the U.S. to keep a safe distance, an American soldier remarked: “It’s another Friday afternoon in the South China Sea.”

Not only are we normalizing U.S. aggression. We’re also relying on the military-industrial complex as an unbiased source. Pro-war propaganda is derailing China-U.S. ties, increasing anti-Asian hate, and hiding the realities of public opinion across the Pacific.

After launching the AUKUS military pact between Britain and Australia in 2021, as well as stiff export controls designed to limit China’s economy last year, the U.S. began 2023 with what appeared to be an olive branch. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to visit China in February. Then came the “spy balloon.”

A Chinese balloon was blown off course and eventually shot down by the U.S. military. The Wall Street Journal and NBC uncritically printed and broadcasted statements from US Air Force Brigadier General Pat Ryder about the balloon’s surveillance capabilities. On February 8, citing three unnamed officials, The New York Times said “American intelligence agencies have assessed that China’s spy balloon program is part of global surveillance.” The same story mentions the U.S. State Department’s briefings to foreign officials that were “designed to show that the balloons are equipped for intelligence gathering and that the Chinese military has been carrying out this collection for years, targeting, among other sites, the territories of Japan, Taiwan, India, and the Philippines.”

On April 3, the BBC and CNN published conflicting stories on the balloon that cited anonymous officials but contained inconsistencies about its ability to take pictures. It wasn’t until June 29 that Ryder admitted no data had been transmitted. In September, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told CBS the balloon wasn’t even spying. This matched China’s statements about the balloon, as well as that of American meteorologists. But the damage was done. Blinken had postponed his trip to China. He eventually went in June, after a trip to Papua New Guinea, where its student protesters rejected his plans to militarize their country under a security pact.

On May 26, Blinken made a speech, referring to China as a “long-term challenge.” Politico went further, publishing a piece on May 26, called “Blinken calls China ‘most serious long-term’ threat to world order” with a same-day USA Today article also taking the liberty of using challenge and threat interchangeably.

A Princeton University study found Americans who perceive China as a threat were more likely to stereotype Chinese people as untrustworthy and immoral. Intelligence leaks about a China threat combined with the age-old Yellow Peril syndrome have allowed for incessant Sinophobia to dominate our politics.

Misinformation, the Other Pandemic

In May 2020, Trump told a scared country with 1 million recorded COVID-19 cases and almost 100,000 dead that the pandemic was China’s fault. Again, our leaders cited undisclosed intelligence. For its part, CNN showed images of wet markets after The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed by Walter Russell Mead called “China Is The Real Sick Man of Asia.” A year later, Politico eventually acknowledged Trump cherry-picked intelligence to support his claims but the Biden administration ended up also seeking to investigate the lab leak theory. And the media went along with it.

For The Wall Street Journal, pro-Iraq War propagandist Michael Gordon co-authored an article claiming that “three researchers from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology became sick enough in November 2019 that they sought hospital care.” An anonymous source said, “The information that we had coming from the various sources was of exquisite quality.” But the source admits it’s not known why researchers were sick.

The article relies on the conservative Hudson Institute’s Senior Fellow David Asher’s testimony and the fact China has not shared the medical records of citizens without potential COVID-19 symptoms. It is even admitted that several other unnamed U.S. officials find the Trump-era intelligence to be exactly what it is – circumstantial.

A year earlier, during the 2020 Democratic presidential primaries moderated by CNN, Dana Bash asked Bernie Sanders: “What consequences should China face for its role in its global crisis?” She asked the question referencing how Wuhan’s authorities silenced Dr. Wenliang but failed to mention China’s People’s Supreme Court condemned the city’s police for doing so. She also didn’t acknowledge how Wuhan Institute of Virology’s Shi Zhengli revealed in July 2020 that all of the staff and students in her lab tested negative for COVID-19. Shi even shared her research with American scientists. Georgetown University COVID-19 origin specialist Daniel Lucey welcomed Shi’s transparency: “There are a lot of new facts I wasn’t aware of. It’s very exciting to hear this directly from her.”

But from the Page Act of 1875, which stereotyped Chinese as disease carriers, to job discrimination during the pandemic, it is Asian Americans who ultimately pay the price for the media’s irresponsibility and participation in medical racism. They are already among the casualties of the new cold war. But that war not only threatens residents of the U.S. but the entire planet too.

Profit, Not Principle

This summer, the U.S. armed Taiwan under the Foreign Military Transfer program, reserved for sovereign states only. This violates the one-China policy which holds that both sides of the Taiwan Strait acknowledge that there is one China. Biden is also trying to include Taiwan weapons funding in a supplemental request to Congress. Weapons sales to Taiwan go back to the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, as well as Reagan administration’s assurances that the U.S. will keep sending weapons but not play any mediation role between Taipei and Beijing. In 1996, a military standoff between the U.S. and China erupted in the Taiwan Strait, followed by an increasing flow of lethal weaponry up to the present.

The New York Times published a story on September 18, mentioning Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, which it says was “a show of support for the island.” Never mind that the majority of Taiwan residents surveyed by the Brookings Institute felt her visit was detrimental to their security. The media also often ignores voices from Taiwan who don’t want war, favor reunification, or reject attempts to delete Chinese history in their textbooks.

Still, Fox News continues to give a platform to lawmakers like Representative Young Kim who wrote a piece on September 20 advocating for more military patrols in the South China Sea. On October 17, The Washington Post published a story about the Pentagon releasing footage of Chinese aircraft intercepting U.S. warplanes over the last two years. The story does not share the context of U.S. expansionism or how multiple secretaries of defense have threatened Beijing over its disputed maritime borders. Microsoft is even getting in on the action, with articles from CNN and Reuters last month uncritically sharing the software company’s claims that China is using AI to interfere in our elections, despite no evidence shared with the voting public.

It demonstrates how war profiteers are edging us closer to a conflict. From sending the Patriot weapons system to Taiwan to practicing attacks with F-22 Raptors in the occupied Northern Marianas Islands, Lockheed Martin is raking in lucrative contracts while residents of the region fear an outbreak of war. RTX supplies Israel’s Iron Dome and is now designing engineering systems for gunboats in the Pacific. When arms dealers make money, victims of imperialism die. With strong links to the military, it’s hard to imagine that Microsoft, News Corp, and Warner Bros. Discovery would care as long as their stocks go up too. Intelligence spooks and media moguls don’t know what’s best for people or the planet. And it’s time for a balanced and nuanced understanding of China. That begins with disarming the discourse and keeping the Pacific peaceful.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. vao

    Let me put forth an argument against the widespread view that the USA is on an inevitable path to military confrontation with China.

    Such a conflict would evidently be the affair of the Navy (including the Marines). But consider:

    1) At the level of admirals and headquarters, people are quite aware of the rapid development of the Chinese navy and anti-ship defenses. I read somewhere that the Chinese navy is already larger than the navy of the USA. China can now rely upon a whole menagerie of anti-ship missiles of every size, type and speed.

    They have observed what has been happening on the battlefield of Ukraine, and have therefore become acutely aware of how indispensable a large-scale, integrated industrial basis is for war; China has it, the USA arguably no longer.

    They have repeatedly carried out war games (most of the kind “war because of Taiwan”), and from what leaked about them, the conclusions were always “it won’t go well”.

    There was a time, as tension with Iran reached its highest point, when an admiral publicly stated that war with Iran would not happen on his watch. I expect a lot of similar push-back in the case of war against China.

    2) Those responsible for planning the operations will very quickly diagnose a short- to medium-term practical infeasibility of any major endeavour.

    Many aircraft carriers with their escort would be required — but several are undergoing maintenance at any time.

    Mine-sweepers are required to clear a path for the fleet — but the USA is short of mine-sweepers.

    Submarines are required to protect the outer perimeter of the fleet — but 37% of the submarine fleet is simply stored in dry docks because of a lack of qualified maintenance personnel.

    The fleet would require substantial supply capacity — but there is a dire shortage of them.

    Mothballed ships are a possibility — but would require years to put them back into shape, as there is a lack of capacity in naval shipyards.

    And then there is the whole business of supplying vessels, aircrafts (helicopters, airplanes, drones), and personnel (Marines) with sufficient shells and missiles. It is now well-known that the industrial capacity for ramping up the production of ammunition to the levels required for a modern war is unavailable.

    It is doubtful that the European allies could provide substantial reinforcements (the French aircraft carrier is aging and spends half its time in maintenance, one British carrier is unusable, the other does not have enough F-35, other countries do not have the fleet composition to support long-lasting operations at the other side of the world). The Japanese would focus on defending their country. That leaves the Australians…

    I expect, in good bureaucratic fashion, that the Navy will present a variety of plans that require years, if not decades of preparation — with attendant build-up of industrial infrastructure — thus frustrating every wish of the administration for an intervention in a foreseeable deadline.

    3) A number of former US soldiers, including Marines (and probably current members of special forces), went to Ukraine in order to fight the Russkies — only to decamp and come back aghast at the sheer firepower that the Russian military could deploy. Their impression of fighting against a 1st class military is “the worst day in Afghanistan is a good day in Ukraine”.

    Those people are well networked — via informal and social networks (is “Soldier of Fortune” still published?) — and I expect their experience and personal stories to have spread amongst grunts, with the moral being “You do not want to take part in a war against a modern military”. I therefore expect quite some rumblings and reports of “poor morale and lack of motivation” amongst the troops tasked to go against China.

    In summary, from the top to the bottom of the US Navy hierarchy, the message regarding an action against China will be “Don’t. Don’t, don’t, don’t”.

    So what are the neo-cons in the US government to do? Something must be done to re-assert the pre-eminent role of the USA as a world power — especially after the fiascos in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine.

    Historically, after the defeat in Vietnam, the USA tried to recover its poise by confronting a small adversary: Lebanon; there were just “militias” there, and the intervention in the late 1950s went well. After even that morsel proved to be too big to bite, the USA went after the smallest possible enemy imaginable: Grenada.

    I expect the USA to do the same — in the Pacific or in the Indian Ocean.

    Remember all the ruckus about the Maldives electing a pro-China president? About the Solomons signing a security agreement with China? About the Fiji entering a police cooperation agreement with China? About China sending a military-run hospital ship to help Pacific islands?

    At some point one of those islands will be deemed under the nefarious influence, nay, control, of China, led by corrupt, authoritarian politicians acting at the behest of China, with Chinese policemen or soldiers on the ground, Chinese businesses exploiting the hapless country, and the rules-based world order outrageously trampled in view of all.

    An intervention to re-establish democracy — stridently implored by liberal forces in exile — will be deemed necessary. Such an intervention would exhibit only favourable characteristics:

    a) The adversary is too weak to strike back dangerously.
    b) The country is too far for China to interfere.
    c) This is exactly what the Navy and Marines need to refresh and practice their far-shore capabilities.
    d) Whether it is the Pacific or Indian Ocean, the French and Australian are present and may help with logistics or keeping onlookers away.

    So just as there was a famous war with Grenada, there may be one with Fiji, or Tonga, or Kiribati, or Tuvalu, or Vanuatu, or Maldives… But against China? I cannot fathom this.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      Most sensible people say there is no way we would be so stupid as to enter into a hot war with China. But we are sure trying hard to provoke an invasion of Taiwan, which I am also sure is not in the cards. But China could blockade Taiwan if things got really stupid.

      And we do not have sensible people in charge, so I would not underestimate our ability to dig in on a self-destructive course of action.

    2. digi_owl

      So much of that reads like a summary of the Russian fleet during the Yeltsin years.

      Oh and:

      “They have observed what has been happening on the battlefield of Ukraine, and have therefore become acutely aware of how indispensable a large-scale, integrated industrial basis is for war; China has it, the USA arguably no longer.”

      If the top brass needed the Ukraine war to notice that, they are not worthy of their stars. Logistics have been the make or break of war since the age of steam. Long gone are the days when one could aim an army at a point on the map, and expect them to supply themselves on the way (or the detriment of the local population). These days batteries make up as much of a soldiers carry as do food and ammo.

      Little over 100 years in, as they seem to be back to WW1 style “glorious adventure” thinking.

      1. Pat

        Our top brass have spent the last four decades in a world where their best strategies were spent mapping their post military service. Where real military expertise and winning a war were never actually necessary. The decades long Afghanistan and Iraq wars of attrition in areas were there was no major military were the epitome of their ability. They didn’t even need to think about supply lines, it was outsourced. Hell, they even outsourced personal military equipment to the families of their volunteer army.

        Nobody in Washington cared and the MIC didn’t want to really produce anything that wasn’t a credit card to steal thirty or forty percent off the top.

        The only reason there is pushback now is that clear undeniable defeat doesn’t pay. And it will stop the gravy train at all levels, not just the board slots but speaking tours and books even West Point and Annapolis positions won’t be available to the brass that lost.

    3. SocalJimObjects

      What I’ve read from right wing military websites is that the US will simply seal off all ocean cargo routes going to China, in other words cut off oil supply, etc and China will collapse. I remember NC once posting an article quite some time ago on how China has built land routes to counter that possibility, but we’ll never know whether those will work until a hot war really breaks out.

      I live in Taiwan, so I hope a war will not break out soon, although a significant number of Western expats here seem to be drinking from the punch bowl when it comes to propaganda about China. Those with family are often the ones that are most level headed, but there are just too many fans of the “rule based order” here.

      1. lyman alpha blob

        I would suggest that the nutters who think blocking sea routes to China will cut off their oil supply might want to look at an actual map.

    4. Ignacio

      All you say makes a lot of sense.., until you meet the Neocons who are out of their senses. They, reading your post would think what else can we do? What if for instance we just deploy a couple of submarines and start sinking China’s warships? Would that work? They could possibly think of many other instances in which they could claim: victory! Very much like they do when Ukrainians destroy a few helicopters with ATACAM missiles.

      1. vao

        That is where those Navy planners battle-hardened in bureaucratic positional warfare enter the game.

        Navy headquarters:

        “Two submarines can be arranged, but we must make sure they can escape — because (1) we do not have enough submarines at hand (37% are down in dry docks) and (2) if the Chinese manage to sink or capture any of them, a full war will break out. So we must also have a task force close by — but not too close — with enough reconnaissance assets (AWACS, spy-ships, etc) to detect the precise location of Chinese anti-submarine assets and warn our subs.

        Plus a few missile cruisers to shoot down the Chinese anti-sub helicopters and airplanes in case things go sour.

        This is a delicate mission where everything must run smoothly, so rigorous preliminary training of the units to be involved is in order. It is all the more necessary, as the boys in the 7th fleet have exhibited some, hum, marked deficiencies these past years.

        We also have to re-direct satellites to cover that area continuously and with the highest resolution possible.

        Of course, this kind of naval presence might make the Chinese suspicious, so we have to distract them, and mightily at that. For this, let us organize naval manoeuvers with the Philippines. A fleet with aircraft carrier & co. This may come handy if things go really pear-shaped and reinforcements to the task force are needed.

        We also have to prevent the Chinese submarines to go around and either thwart, threaten, or tinker with our subs and task force, so we shall also need further forces on the outer perimeter to keep them at bay. Discreetly, of course.

        All in all, given the refit schedule for our naval assets, the negotiations with the Philippinos, crew training and task force rehearsal, we shall be able to launch operation “Slippery Eel” in two years.”

        Neo-con assistant sub-secretary of whatever:

        “Two years from now? After the elections? Are you joking?”

        Navy headquarters:

        “It is impossible to do otherwise. This plan is already pared-down to the minimum. If we cut anything, then we steam ahead to a complete failure.

        Ah, the stocks of torpedos currently in arsenals are reaching their expiry date, so we also have to produce and qualify some additional ones. Our subcontractor has given us a tentative lead time of 18 months.”

        Neo-con assistant sub-secretary leaves the room, banging the door and uttering expletives.

        1. Ignacio

          All right. I am pretty certain there are lot’s of people in US’s army with a working brain and able to argue about best decisions to be made. But it is also clear that the Neocons are now in full control of an important institution: the POTUS.

          Ahem, are you saying you will disobey a Presidential order? Are you a traitor to the US?

          There may be ways for bureaucrats to try to avoid implementing some presidential orders but not unlimited. Democratic controls eroded…

          1. vao

            Ahem, are you saying you will disobey a Presidential order?

            I seem to remember that the US military ignored what president Trump told them to do regarding Afghanistan (or was it Syria?)

            Yes, that was Trump — who tends not to follow through. But this constitutes a form of precedent…

          2. Piotr Berman

            “Democratic controls eroded…” Vox populi vox dei. The people have spoken, the first (second?) vegetable-American in history was elected. Predictably, the executive power is in the hands of gardeners tending the vegetable-in-chief. That said, when the brass knows an attack would be disastrous, they can refuse without consequences (at least, it was alleged).

  2. Aurelien

    The problem with this kind of approach is that for blanket condemnation. of China, it substitutes blanket denial. Neither is realistic or wise.

    China is a a large, powerful state with a whole range of economic, security and defence interests, and some of those interests are going to bring it into conflict with the United States and other western powers. This kind of thing has happened throughout history, and much depends on how it’s handled. There’s no reason why it should lead to open conflict, and many reasons why it shouldn’t, but there will inevitably be strategic differences and political clashes from time to time. One of the most important tasks for the next few decades will be to rein in the idiots who want a war with China: a war that the US could not win, for any definition of “win” that would be politically acceptable.

    On the other hand, China will behave exactly as you would expect a great power to behave. We can take it for granted that its large and powerful foreign intelligence department is not sitting around playing Go all day: they are doing their job, which is gathering intelligence on major targets, and the most important will be the United States. So they will be making use of students, businessmen and researchers to gather information and spot and recruit potential sympathisers, because that’s what they are paid to do, and because this is a game that everybody plays with everybody else anyway. We are doing the same to them, after all. So there’s no point in denying this, but there’s no point in getting hysterical about it either. Sensible things need to be done with personal contacts, there is need for discretion about buying Chinese equipment and so forth, but this really just fits into the standard, if unacknowledged, rules by which countries with different and sometimes opposing interests deal with each other.

  3. Lefty Godot

    I’m constantly seeing articles on “Chinese hackers” (or “Russian hackers”) attacking US companies and government computers, posting Bad Things on Twitter to cause “election interference”, and using TikTok to steal our personal information (when only US corporations and the NSA should be allowed to do that).

    Apparently all “hackers” are foreign government employees, even reporting directly to the dangerous Oriental Mastermind Xi, who knows the details of every campaign they pursue. Similar to how Putin personally approves each Bad Election Interfering Tweet when it’s Russia’s turn to be pilloried. And US governent agencies never engage in hacking against our “enemies” or try to interfere in their elections (or overthrow their governments, heavens No!).

    Judging by the comments on blogs, a lot of tech bros are convinced by this stuff. And maybe they are the main audience for it. Most comments on these topics that get upvoted on SlashDot, for instance, are solidly anti-Chinese and anti-Russian and generally wave the flag for our “team” (to use Bden-speak). Clearly nations are never friends, only temporary allies of convenience at best, and government leaders are never “good guys” but tend toward the megalomaniacal and sociopathic as a rule. But there is still a strong desire on many people’s part to have a Manichaean worldview where our team are the good guys and we’re fighting against those bad guys, and it seems like the workers in high tech are as prone to that as your Joe Sixpack types.

    1. Piotr Berman

      You forgot about our enemies using troll farms “sawing distrust and discord”, and a Communist-African organization with Russian (alas, not Chinese) ties on trial for doing exactly that: sawing distrust and discord.

      As we all know, the natural state of Americans is full of trust toward authorities and among those in authority, cordial agreement and conviviality. Exceptions that you may have noticed indicate malign foreign interference that HAS TO BE STAMPED OUT.

      On a lighter note: while I was checking my spelling, I noticed that STUMPING OUT may be an alternative metaphor for the correct approach: “Stump out (cricket, transitive): To put (a player) out by knocking down the stump or wicket.”

      1. JohnA

        Re stumping, the actual term is to be stumped. Once you have been, you are then out. Rather than knocking down a stump or the wicket, the key point in time is to dislodge a bail that sits in the groove between two of the stumps that form part of the wicket, and to do so, when the batter has no part of their foot behind the line in front of the wicket.

  4. Piotr Berman

    In my opinion, USA has a genuine problem with China, but it is not military, and it is not cause by Chinese malign misuse of American benevolence. As Trump put it, China stole our industry. Of course, it started from American company downsizing and outright eliminating production at home by moving factories to China where workers were paid less and were disciplined. Over few decades, China got quite a bit larger manufacturing base than USA, and between wages, infrastructure and education of the workforce, it is damn hard to compete with them with free trade rules. After loosing labor intensive industries like apparel, it surprised me that highly automated production like batteries and LEDs moved to China too. Thus the necessary (but not sufficient!!!) condition to arrest the atrophy of American manufacturing is some “trade war” with China.

    That said, the first effects were that we were importing apparel etc. from Vietnam instead, a Communist countries with lower wages, but the production of a huge variety of products with more complicated supply chains or production methods remains in China. I read that investments in American manufacturing started to increase briskly, but from a very low level. IMHO, we need a very good brain trust to design a trade policy that would revive industry. However, war mongering diverts the attention of our politicians into a totally different direction. In part, it is because our policy making is dominated by lobbies, and people coming to position of power from those lobbies have very narrow perspective. Their skills are not in problem solving but in “championing causes”. People like Blinken have no idea nor interest in economy, and least of all, generating widely spread “good jobs”.

    Of course, it is also the case since early 18th century that advances in military power are related to advances in manufacturing. Now, US military dreams about mega-scale drone warfare, which in itself is not stupid, but who has manufacturing and design base to implement such ideas fastest?

  5. fringe element

    It sounds like even here, but more so in the nation at large, we have an outdated sense of our own military capacity. Why are we still talking about what our navy will do when Russia has enough kinzals to take out all our carrier groups? Or how about the way we could not even ramp up our long gone industrial capacity enough to provide more weapons for Ukraine. Then there is the fact that Asia now controls the global supply of oil. Finally, just to make all of these shortcomings even more acute, I am hearing something something about a looming collapse in derivatives that will tank our economy.

  6. HH

    The key problem is that the neocons do not grasp that the global instability they spread to sustain the war machine and preserve their grip on power is unsustainable. Sooner or later it will result in military and/or economic disaster. The people of the U.S. have themselves to blame for empowering a pack of arrogant and belligerent fools.

Comments are closed.