Critics charge a senior State Department official with making racist comments at a think tank event in late April, triggering a firestorm in usually staid China policy circles.
The comments, about the nature of the Chinese challenge to America, highlight Washington’s urgent need to agree to a long-term strategy to confront China’s Communist Party.
The growing controversy erupted over words from Director of Policy Planning Kiron Skinner on April 29 in Washington, D.C. at the Future Security Forum 2019, an event sponsored by the New America think tank. “This is a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology, and the United States hasn’t had that before,” she said in a conversation with Anne-Marie Slaughter, one of her predecessors at Policy Planning.
Later in the event, Skinner, trying to put China’s challenge in the context of the Soviet Union’s, said this: “It’s also striking that this is the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian.”
Analysts have abhorred Skinner mentioning race in this context. Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace called her words a “rather appalling, racist-based assessment of the nature of the Chinese threat.”
Racist? Her choice of “Caucasian” appears to be part of the larger narrative that China is far different from other challengers to the American-led international system. She correctly said, for instance, that many Americans, even those in the foreign policy community, do not understand the “historical, ideological, and cultural, as well as strategic factors” relevant to the “long-term fight with China.”
Skinner’s isolated reference to “Caucasian” was, of course, inaccurate as she forgot about Japan during the Second World War, but the use of the word is not inapt as Americans have not come to grips with the Chinese Communist Party’s inherently racist appeals to what is now known as “Han nationalism.”
In short, America needs to have a frank conversation about how Communist Party racism plays into its competition with the United States. As Georgia Tech’s Fei-Ling Wang pointed out in “The China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power,” the Communist Party has tried, since coming to power in 1949, to bring back imperial-era notions of tianxia, the concept that the Chinese emperor is the Son of Heaven and rules all under it.
Chinese President and Communist Party Chair Xi Jinping has been especially aggressive promoting this race-based idea, employing tianxia-era language in official pronouncements for more than a decade. “The Chinese have always held that the world is united and all under heaven are one family,” he declared in his 2017 New Year’s Message.
Skinner has raised critical issues that Washington policymakers have not wanted to discuss.
Benign sentiments? If his own words were not clear enough, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in “Study Times,” the Central Party School newspaper, in September 2017 wrote that Xi’s “thought on diplomacy”—a “thought” in Communist Party lingo signals important ideological concepts—“has made innovations on and transcended the traditional Western theories of international relations for the past 300 years.”
Wang with his time reference is almost certainly pointing to the “Westphalian” system of sovereign states, established by the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648. His use of “transcended,” consequently, hints that Xi wants a world where only China is recognized as sovereign.
All this brings us back to Skinner’s much-maligned “clash of civilizations” narrative. In the comments referring to the thesis of the late Samuel Huntington of Harvard, she was making the perfectly valid point that Chinese leaders do not share fundamental assumptions with their counterparts.
The tianxia concept of sole Chinese sovereignty is ridiculed by many of China’s scholars and would almost certainly be rejected by China’s citizens if they were asked about it. Tianxia views, therefore, are not widely shared across “Chinese civilization,” if that term has any meaning. Nonetheless, the Communist Party’s promotion of the concept is a warning sign that the gulf between China’s and America’s leaders is far wider than assumed here.
Yet the distinction between the civilizational and non-civilizational nature of the challenge is largely academic. The important point for Americans is that the extraordinarily ambitious Xi Jinping, with his continual use of tianxia-like language, is speaking as if he represents a Chinese civilization, and state media, in the form of the Communist Party’s “Global Times,” has been bolstering Xi’s view of civilizational struggle. Xi’s perception suggests we are in an existential fight with him and his ruling group.
Skinner in her comments referenced the first person to hold her position, George Kennan, the famous Mr. “X” of a landmark article in “Foreign Affairs” and the author of the Long Telegram, the foundations of America’s containment strategy of the Soviet Union. “You can’t have a policy without an argument underneath it,” she told Slaughter.
Yes, and you can’t develop a workable policy unless it is supported by a nation-wide consensus as to what your adversary stands for. That consensus does not now exist.
Skinner has raised critical issues that Washington policymakers have not wanted to discuss. How Americans meet China’s challenge depends on the answers to the questions she has now, thankfully, forced us to confront.