At COSM 2021, philosopher of technology George Gilder and political analyst Newt Gingrich sparred over U.S.–China relations. Gilder and Gingrich, a former U.S. Congressman, exemplify the two predominant views on China today.
Former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and author Gingrich says the U.S. should decouple from China, while economist and author Gilder sees collaboration with China as our best — and only — option.
Gingrich: Optimism about a more open China is waning
In his opening remarks, Gingrich recalled that he was once an optimist that Chinese reformist leader Deng Xiaoping’s opening up strategy would usher in a more democratic China because Communism was incompatible with a free market economy. But, Gingrich, who has been a history professor, said that — had he been a better student of history — he would have realized that Deng’s background as a student of Stalinism meant that capitalism and democracy were never a long run option for China:
[I]n retrospect, I feel really pretty stupid because I hadn’t really done my homework well enough to realize that Deng Xiaoping was one of the initial founding members of the Chinese communist party…
Deng (1904–1997) is credited with abandoning many orthodox communist doctrines and attempting to “incorporate elements of the free-enterprise system and other reforms into the Chinese economy” ( – Britannica). But Gingrich reflects, apart from that,
…Deng was one of the strongest advocates of crushing the students and the dissidents, at Tiananmen Square. Because what he had actually been saying, which we, I think almost all of us, totally misunderstood, what he was actually saying was in order to sustain the dictatorship, life has to be good enough that people will tolerate us. And the purpose of opening markets is to create enough wealth that they will put up with the dictatorship.
Gingrich cites Jack Ma s success with Alibaba as an example of the brief time of entrepreneurship in China, which was followed by Xi Jinping’s commitment to the Chinese “egalitarian system” and the reining in of Ma’s power. Significantly, Ma actually went missing for a while.
Gingrich sees private U.S. companies, such as Nike’s and the NBA’s acquiescence to Beijing as exemplifying the “perfect Chinese model” of the world paying tribute to China — which is exactly what Xi Jinping wants. To Gingrich, however, Xi’s techno-centric totalitarian China is the preeminent threat to freedom to the West:
I regard [China] as the preeminent threat to freedom on the planet, not just the United States, but the whole concept of freedom. [E]verything I see about what Xi Jinping is doing is both establishing a very, very technologically advanced domestic totalitarian society and expanding Chinese power across the planet in a very intelligent and calm and methodical way.
He went on to critique the U.S. system, in which he includes the media, politicians, business elites, the educational system, and the intelligence community, as shortsighted and corrupt. Because of this corruption, he thinks, there is at least 50-50 odds that America will “lose to China” in the next 30-to-50 years.
The one upside, in Gingrich’s view, is that the Chinese have done an enormous amount of damage to their own country through industrial pollution, water supply issues, and energy. Additionally, he notes that China still has many people living in poverty, which would add to domestic tensions.
Gilder: The U.S. Should Continue to Collaborate with China
Countering Gingrich’s views, Gilder believes that treating China as the leading threat to the United States is self-defeating and stupid. He sees China as an important collaborative partner and believes the combative policies the U.S. government has been following, as well as those outlined in Gingrich’s 2019 book Trump Vs. China, are self-defeating. To Gilder, the idea that China stole $700 billion in intellectual property, an amount quoted by Gingrich, is a “nonsense figure.”
Rather, Gilder sees China’s tech sector having gone through a learning process and adopting what was successful in the U.S. tech sector. He told the gathering that every large tech company accuses its rivals of stealing its intellectual property, particularly when those rivals are more nimble, creative, and successful. While he acknowledges that Xi Jinping is a “control freak,” he sees the current China as successfully copying U.S. technology and business models, which has led to the country turning out seven of the most valuable companies in market capital in the world.
Gilder, though, thinks ultimately this is good for the United States, as well. U.S.-China cooperation has allowed the U.S. economy to maintain its dominance, despite an “incredibly anti-industrial psychology and culture that pervades and cripples our universities across the country.”
And they did it working with China that had adopted our essential industrial standards and operating systems and design rules…As far as I can see, [China] bailed out the U.S. economy when we adopted rules that made it impossible to really build stuff in the United States…”
He noted that this was also despite the policies Gingrich advocated in his book.
As Gilder sees it, there are two ways people can respond to those who excel us: we can emulate them, or we can envy them. He views U.S. hostilities toward China as stemming from a sense of failure. He cited obsessions with climate change and government bureaucracies as examples of such failures. To Gilder, China succeeded where the U.S. failed because it has a smaller government as a proportion of GDP than the U.S. does. It has more business start-ups, more engineers, and even a higher average IQ than the United States.
Going forward, Gilder argued that the U.S. should “make it irresistible to trade with us and to continue the incredibly favorable relationship with China that we had.” (30:47)
Hot-button issues: Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Xi Jinping
Gilder and Gingrich have opposing views on Taiwan’s status, whether the Chinese government is guilty of genocide of the Uyghurs and other minorities in Xinjiang, and if Xi Jinping is a threat to democracy.
Both Gilder and Gingrich agree that a war with China over Taiwan would cripple the U.S.; however, they disagree on what to do about Taiwan. Gilder sees the U.S.’s change in how we treat Taiwan — from being regarded as part of China to being regarded as a separate region from mainland China — as response to the supremacy of and the U.S.’s reliance on Taiwan’s semiconductor industry. He reminded the audience that in the 1970s when China was a poor country, the U.S. recognized Taiwan as another province of China. He believes the U.S. should make Taiwan a free-trade zone where goods from China, and possibly other countries, can pass through without being subject to tariffs.
Gingrich offered no solutions to the Taiwan issue, perhaps because he sees conflict over Taiwan as inevitable insofar as the unification of China is a core component of the Chinese Communist Party’s identity. He sees the Chinese dictatorship as a center of power and a threat to freedom globally because of the Communist Party of China’s goal of exporting the authoritarian model.
Gingrich sees the internment and genocide in Xinjiang province as evidence of the dangers of the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping. Gilder, on the other hand, finds the accusations of genocide baseless.
Finally, Gingrich sees Xi Jinping as “a monster” and the “closest thing to Mao Zedong that we’ve seen.” He warned the audience that Xi is determined to create a totalitarian system that will crush the human spirit and make every subservient to his central dictatorship.
To Gilder this is exactly why Xi will fail. He argued that Xi will ultimately lose because if he extinguishes freedom, then he cannot beat America’s entrepreneurial system.
You may also wish to read:
Xi Jinping’s ruthless march toward “Common Prosperity” Part II: The roots of Xi Jinping’s “common prosperity” vision and why he’s making changes to China’s technology sector now. Reining in China’s biggest businesses is necessary if Xi is seen as to protect the Chinese Communist Party from a fall like the fall of the Soviet Union.