This Thomas Friedman column on China made me feel hopeful and then made me lose hope

Okay, I admit the headline is a bit dramatic but it is true as I’ll explain in a moment. First, let’s start with the fact that it was not so long ago that Thomas Friedman was seemingly in awe of communist China. Here’s the opening of a column he wrote in 2008:

Beijing

After attending the spectacular closing ceremony at the Beijing Olympics and feeling the vibrations from hundreds of Chinese drummers pulsating in my own chest, I was tempted to conclude two things: “Holy mackerel, the energy coming out of this country is unrivaled.” And, two: “We are so cooked. Start teaching your kids Mandarin.”…

Just compare arriving at La Guardia’s dumpy terminal in New York City and driving through the crumbling infrastructure into Manhattan with arriving at Shanghai’s sleek airport and taking the 220-mile-per-hour magnetic levitation train, which uses electromagnetic propulsion instead of steel wheels and tracks, to get to town in a blink.

Then ask yourself: Who is living in the third world country?

Friedman’s focus on China was so intense that at one point in 2013 there was strong suspicion that China was adopting its own PR strategy from his columns. I’m not kidding:

It looks like the new leader of China may have borrowed a propaganda slogan from mustachioed New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. Communist Party leader Xi Jinping, who repeats “Chinese dream” like a mantra, ushered in a wave of “Chinese dream” contests, projects and hit pop songs in the country this year. The slogan bears a striking resemblance to an edition of Friedman’s ongoing advice column to the world, titled “China Needs Its Own Dream,”  which ran in the Times on October 2 and was subsequently translated for Reference News, the Xinhua News Agency’s translation of articles collected from global news outlets. Update: And Friedman himself tells Foreign Policy’s Isaac Stone Fish, ” I only deserve part credit. The concept of ‘China Dream’ was created by my friend Peggy Liu, as the motto for her NGO about how to introduce Chinese to the concept of sustainability.”

Jump forward to his column today which is actually framed as a plea for cooperation between China and the US rather than hostility, but in the midst of that column he isn’t shy about pointing to China’s own aggressiveness under Xi Jinping as or the need for the US to stand up to it:

For the past five years…the United States and China have been stumbling down a path of de-integration and maybe toward outright confrontation. In my view, it is China’s increasingly bullying leadership style at home and abroad, its heads-we-win-tails-you-lose trade policies and the changing makeup of its economy that are largely responsible for this reversal…

Then there is the leadership strategy of President Xi Jinping, which has been to extend the control of the Communist Party into every pore of Chinese society, culture and commerce. This has reversed a trajectory of gradually opening China to the world since 1979. Couple that with Xi’s determination that China must never again be dependent on America for advanced technologies, and Beijing’s willingness to do whatever it takes — buy, steal, copy, invent or intimidate — to guarantee that, and you have a much more aggressive China.

But Xi has overplayed his hand. The level of technology theft and penetration of U.S. institutions has become intolerable — not to mention China’s decision to snuff out democracy in Hong Kong, to wipe out Uygur Muslim culture in western China and to use its economic power and wolf warrior diplomats to intimidate neighbors like Australia from even asking for a proper investigation into the origins of the novel coronavirus in Wuhan.

Xi is turning the whole Western world against China…

Many U.S. businesses are pushing now to get the Phase 1 Trump tariffs on China repealed — without asking China to repeal the subsidies that led to these tariffs in the first place. Bad idea. When dealing with China, speak softly but always carry a big tariff (and an aircraft carrier).

Maybe that’s not good enough for you but for me I found myself thinking Friedman is finally making some sense. Yes, it would be great if we could get along with China but definitely not on their imposed terms. Because ultimately it’s weakness and isolation that invites more bullying. So I even agree with Friedman that some kind of strong and united front made up of the world’s free and democratic nations is what’s needed.

And just as I was feeling a bit upbeat (maybe if Friedman can get this others can also…), I made the mistake of reading the comments. Actually, I’ve often been surprised by the tone of the comments at the Times, which are often more reasonable than you might expect, but not this time. To paraphrase a great movie I see dumb people.

  • “China will be used as an excuse, to dredge up a new Cold War. The Military Industrial Complex MUST have an enemy, someone to fear and open up the Taxpayers wallets. It’s a total waste, as the USA is done as the once and future world leader and ruler of the planet. The days of wine and roses are over, the glory days are forever past.”
  • “Complete nonsense and offensive. China does not bully, but the United States has repeatedly bullied China and other countries and that needs to stop for all our sakes. The US has been the country continually at war, continually trying to bully other countries to act entirely in our interest. Simply remember what President Trump was all about, and that was bullying from beginning to end.”
  • “China is not inherently good or bad. The CCP leadership of China has been looking out for themselves, just like the economic elite in our country has and both are bad in the long run for their countries.”
  • “Friedman is continuing the smear China campaign, exploiting the Goebbels Effect that underpins American media’s all out propaganda to create a phantom evil in China. “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth”: that’s what stories about Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong are about.”

Sure they took over Hong Kong and suppressed democracy with a draconian speech law but China isn’t bad. Sure they have put at least a million ethnic minorities in re-education camps in just a few years with no due process, but let’s not smear them. Sure they have vowed to dominate Taiwan by any means necessary but there’s no need to call them bullies. Sure they were the source of a deadly global pandemic and won’t share important data on how it got started…I could go on and on but I’m sure you get the idea.

China is not being unfairly smeared. If anything we are underestimating the global threat they represent to democracy. The fact that cranks on the far left can’t see the obvious and growing problem really is worrisome and a bit dispiriting.