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Is China a Threat or Not? - Part 1

China’s Expansion

The American relationship with China is always shifting; it’s an on-again, off-again tango with seemingly no resolution in sight. Over the past decade, China's influence has been growing, causing many to believe it is a threat to national security, politics, and the economy in the United States of America. Yet, others believe there are serious issues within China that prevent it from posing any real threat to the U.S. Here at the RSnake show, we’ve been interested in China ever since RSnake spoke with guest Jennifer Richmond, international relations specialist and founder of Truth in Between, in Season 1 of the show. Now, we take a deep dive into China’s growth and its current policies to find out just how much of an adversary it is.

China’s Growth

The Chinese economy hit a stride in the late 1970s with the end of the cultural revolution. Strong growth continued over the next decades as Deng Xiaoping continued to institute economic reforms. Beginning in 1986, China’s “Open Door” policy paved the way for increased foreign trade and investment. Although still strictly Communist politically, during this time, the Chinese government created Special Economic Zones where both foreign and domestic businesses could operate freely. In the 1990s and early 2000s, many in the U.S. and other Western countries believed China’s economic reforms would also lead to political reforms. Relationships between China and the U.S. warmed. In 2002, President George W. Bush was the first U.S. president to visit China in 30 years. China was welcomed to the world stage when it hosted the Beijing Olympics in 2008. China also became a major lender to other countries. In 2007 it was the largest holder of U.S. debt. When Xi Jinping became President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 2013, the mood shifted. Richmond explained, “When Xi Jinping came into power, there was a lot of expectation that he was going to continue to open up society and perhaps even democratize society. And we saw very early on that was not the case.” In 2013, Xi announced China’s Belt and Road initiative, which seeks to connect China with other countries in the world by rail, pipeline, and maritime routes. To date, 147 countries have signed on to partner with China on a variety of projects, including some in South America. “One of the reasons for this initiative is because of U.S. domination over the sea, and [China’s] reliance on imported energy to fuel their economy,” said Richmond. Belt and Road agreements with China don’t always go as intended. In one case, the Sri Lankan government agreed to pay $1.5 billion to a Chinese company to build a new port. When the government couldn’t keep up with payments, it made a new agreement to lease the same port to the company for 99 years. This gives the company, its workers, and effectively the Chinese government unprecedented access to Sri Lanka.

China Today

Today, China is a strong country with global influence. While the economy has slowed slightly in recent years, China continues to make goods for export all over the world. It is strong militarily, with over 400 nuclear warheads in its arsenal, according to a report released by the U.S. Department of Defense. The report called China “the most consequential and systemic challenge to our national security and to a free and open international system.” The Chinese government has sought to expand, not only through the Belt and Road initiative, but also through technological exports and concerted investment in foreign media outlets. The Chinese government is reported to have spent $6.6 billion since 2009 investing in media companies around the world, including Italy and the Czech Republic. However, China does have its share of problems. Richmond pointed out that while the Chinese economy seems strong, it may not be built on a stable foundation. There are a number of ghost cities in China, for example, that are completely unoccupied. Richmond explained that China continues to build them in order to keep people in the country productive. But she cautioned this couldn’t continue forever. “It's irresponsible from an economic standpoint,” she said. China has also drawn international condemnation for its treatment of the Muslim Uyghur population living in Xinjian province. According to a BBC article, over 100 million people from this ethnic minority have been sent to “re-education camps” in the province. Many say these are more like concentration camps, and accuse the Chinese government of genocide. There is also instability within the country. In 2022, there were bank runs when some people lost access to their savings for months. There were also large protests due to China’s zero Covid policies, which saw some people welded into their apartment buildings. It is perhaps no coincidence that these protests began in Xinjiang. In February of this year, there were also protests regarding cuts to medical benefits. This instability and economic uncertainty lead some to believe that China does not pose a substantial threat to the U.S.

China-U.S. Relations

Relations between China and the U.S. are increasingly strained, especially in the wake of the Chinese balloon that lingered over U.S. airspace for seven days. Chinese officials claimed it was a weather balloon blown off-course, but U.S. officials have said the balloon was capable of collecting intelligence. There are also reports this isn’t the first time similar balloons have entered U.S. airspace. There has also been an escalating trade war between the two countries after President Trump came into power. As reported by NPR, Trump initially imposed tariffs on products made in China in 2018, and China retaliated. In 2020, the two countries signed a trade agreement, which China subsequently broke. President Biden then imposed export restrictions on semiconductor chips and associated tools going to China, and banned Huawei products along with those of four other Chinese companies in late 2022. China even had a couple tussles with the NBA when high-profile players and managers publicly criticized the Chinese government.

The Rise of Socialism in the US

All this has happened against a backdrop of the increasing popularity of Democratic Socialism, and maybe even Marxism in the U.S. Millennials, increasingly disenchanted with economic instability and high student loans have aided the rising popularity of political figures like Senator Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Both call themselves Democratic Socialists, committed to democracy, but also invested in increased state support of the working class and taxes for the rich. This Forbes article states that in some university disciplines, such as sociology, one in four professors self-identify as Marxists. This changing political landscape has raised many eyebrows in a country in which the idea of Socialism has been almost taboo since the McCarthy era. Many believe that a lean towards Socialist policies is a slippery leading to increased state control. Fears of government overreach were stoked by policies instituted during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there isn’t evidence to show there is Chinese involvement behind the popularity of Bernie Sanders, for example, there is some evidence of China interfering in U.S. politics. In addition to encroachment by so-called “spy balloons,” there is real evidence of China trying to influence U.S. politics. The FBI has stated its number of China-related investigations has increased significantly. It warned China is using a number of tactics. In some cases, Chinese businesses or cities build relationships with American ones, then exert pressure to influence policy. Many American universities have ties to Chinese universities – dozens of which carry out defense research.

The Takeaway

Whether or not China is a threat may be debatable, but there is significant evidence that the Chinese government is interested in expanding its influence. In the second part of this series, we’ll examine some of the other ways the Chinese government has promoted technological expansion. In the meantime, tune in to RSnake’s chat with Jennifer Richmond!

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