Bill Barr’s July 17 speech to the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, MI, will be seen as both prescient and influential about U.S.-China relations in the years to come—no matter who’s president.
Barr got right to the point:
The People’s Republic of China is now engaged in an economic blitzkrieg—an aggressive, orchestrated, whole-of-government (indeed, whole-of-society) campaign to seize the commanding heights of the global economy and to surpass the United States as the world’s preeminent technological superpower.
We can pause over some of the strong phraseology here: “economic blitzkrieg,” “aggressive,” “surpass the United States.” As we can see, Barr’s word-choices remind us just how much thinking of Washington, D.C., officialdom has changed in recent years. In the words of conservative foreign policy scholar Rebecca Heinrichs, “Today’s AG Barr speech on China is just amazing. Try to imagine anything like this 4 years ago.”
In that address, Barr added a nuance that has often escaped American policy makers: He distinguished between the rulers of China and the ruled: “The CCP rules with an iron fist over one of the great ancient civilizations of the world.” “CCP,” of course, refers to the Chinese Communist Party, which has controlled China since Mao Zedong seized power in 1949. So in making this distinction, between Mao’s totalitarian communists and the people of China—the latter having created “one of the great civilizations of the world”—Barr was providing the proper framework for thinking about China.
That is, we should be appropriately concerned about the governing regime in Beijing, and yet mindful that the Chinese people—the 1.3 billion or so citizens of China who are not communists, plus another 50 million or so Chinese who live elsewhere around the world—are not one and the same. Bottom line: the CCP is the threat, not the Chinese person one might see on the street.
Having established that important distinction, Barr focused on the communist ruling class and the yoke it imposes on its own people—and would seek to impose on the world:
It seeks to leverage the immense power, productivity, and ingenuity of the Chinese people to overthrow the rule-based international system and to make the world safe for dictatorship.
Barr then described the CCP’s master plan, zeroing in on its “Made in China 2025” program, which is, by the way, the sort of make-it-at-home initiative that Trump voters, in 2016, thought they were voting for here in the United States. To be sure, as president these past three-and-a-half years, Trump has had some success at replacing “offshoring” with “onshoring”—and yet it hasn’t been enough to make America fully secure, as the debacle over the need to import personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 epidemic has demonstrated.
Indeed, we have learned that a genuine revival of American industry requires more than just a tariff here or there; true re-industrialization requires a concerted effort across governments—federal, state, and local—as well as across the entire private sector. Only with such larger mobilization can expect to build up, to take an example, a still-struggling young company such as Chill-Can in Youngstown, OH.
In the meantime, China, having mastered such a comprehensive industrial approach, is proceeding forward. As Barr explained, China “plans to dominate the world’s digital infrastructure through its ‘Digital Silk Road’ initiative.” At the heart of this international initiative, of course, is 5G telecommunications technology. 5G will be the force that shapes the next generation of the Internet, including Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. The economic and military implications of 5G are, in a word, profound.
There was more. As Barr put it:
The PRC’s drive for technological supremacy is complemented by its plan to monopolize rare earth materials, which play a vital role in industries such as consumer electronics, electric vehicles, medical devices, and military hardware. According to the Congressional Research Service, from the 1960s to the 1980s, the United States led the world in rare earth production. “Since then, production has shifted almost entirely to China,” in large part due to lower labor costs and lighter economic and environmental regulation.
Once again, Barr had it exactly right: Rare earth production vanished in the U.S. over the last few decades, squeezed by environmentalists here at home and by predatory price-cutting from China. To its great credit, the Trump administration has attempted to restart rare earth production here in the U.S., but it’s only a start. (This author has written about rare earths, here, here, and here.)
Barr wasn’t done yet:
If what happened in China stayed in China, that would be bad enough. But instead of America changing China, China is leveraging its economic power to change America. As this Administration’s China Strategy recognizes, “the CCP’s campaign to compel ideological conformity does not stop at China’s borders.” Rather, “the CCP seeks to extend its influence around the world, including on American soil.”
Yes, the People’s Republic of China most definitely seeks to influence America—and it’s been succeeding. As Barr explained,
The Chinese Communist Party also seeks to infiltrate, censor, or co-opt American academic and research institutions. For example, dozens of American universities host Chinese government-funded “Confucius Institutes,” which have been accused of pressuring host universities to silence discussion or cancel events on topics considered controversial by Beijing.
Interestingly, perhaps the CCP’s greatest success has been in Hollywood:
Every year at the Academy Awards, Americans are lectured about how this country falls short of Hollywood’s ideals of social justice. But Hollywood now regularly censors its own movies to appease the Chinese Communist Party—the world’s most powerful violator of human rights. This censorship infects not only versions of movies that are released in China, but also many that are shown in American theaters to American audiences.
Wow. That’s quite a list of threats from the CCP. So what can America do to defend itself? As our attorney general, Barr has considerable powers—but only in areas pertaining to law and to law enforcement. As he detailed, pointing to the work of the FBI and other enforcement entities under his jurisdiction, “About 80 percent of all federal economic espionage prosecutions have alleged conduct that would benefit the Chinese state, and about 60 percent of all trade secret theft cases have been connected to China.”
Moreover, Barr added, to counter subtler forms of influence—which aren’t quite espionage but do indeed advance the interests of a hostile power—Uncle Sam has the hammer of the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) of 1938. FARA was enacted more than eight decades ago, mostly to combat Nazi influence, and yet it works just as well against foreign communist influence. (This author has been writing about the importance of FARA as far back as 2016.)
In closing his remarkable speech, Barr declared himself to be optimistic. “I am confident that we—the American people, the American government, and American business together—can do it again. Our freedom depends on it.”
Barr is surely correct when he says that our freedom depends on our ability to counter the CCP threat, but we have to wonder: What if Barr isn’t the attorney general for much longer? And what if the man who hired him isn’t president for much longer?
Still, an optimist will say that even if Biden wins, America’s understanding of the threat from China has evolved. Indeed, even since Barr’s speech, shocking video footage has emerged, via drone, of the CCP’s treatment of mass-incarcerated Uighur prisoners. (Paradoxically, the Red Chinese have all the tools of surveillance and suppression that they can think of, and yet the tools of transparency and exposure, too, are strong, which means that whoever’s president in 2021 will likely have to deal with more evidence of CCP menace–and that’s sure to create public-opinion pressure.)
On the other hand, a pessimist will say that a Biden administration will simply resume the friendly-patsy attitude of the three presidential administrations prior to Trump, including, of course, the Obama-Biden administration.
Yet the case against the CCP is so strong—and made all the stronger by Barr last week in Michigan—that one suspects that America will be forced to wake up and see the threat.
Yes, Cold War Two is here, and it’s going to be very cold, no matter who’s in power.