Jeff Wasserstrom

What China Wants

Air Date: September 5, 2022

UC Irvine historian and "Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink" author Jeff Wasserstrom discusses U.S.-China relations.


HEFFNER: I’m Alexander Hefner, your host on The Open Mind. I’m delighted to welcome our guest today, Jeffrey Wasserstrom. He is a historian and the Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine, a specialist in modern China and East Asian affairs. His latest book is “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink” by Columbia Global Reports. Jeff, a pleasure to meet you today.


WASSERSTROM: It’s great to be on the show.


HEFFNER: Let me ask you for your immediate reaction as we’re recording this, to Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the reaction so far in the East Asian world, of course, China specifically.


WASSERSTROM: So it’s, there have been all kinds of reactions to it. And I think in many ways, the most important and most interesting reactions are within Taiwan itself. And that often gets lost because this tends to be seen as often stories about Taiwan get seen, as being about China versus the United States. So it’s Beijing and Washington’s perspective. But the Taiwanese perspective on this is important as well. And this is varied. But I think while there was enormous consternation and fascination with this as something kind of new and striking going on in other parts of the world, in Taiwan, in some ways, this is something that people have gotten used to. And a lot of the responses from people in Taiwan have been that, you know, there’s a constant sense of potential threat from Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party has never stopped talking about the idea that they want to incorporate Taiwan into this country.


Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China. It’s never been governed by the Chinese Communist Party, but the Chinese Communist Party consistently says that it controls it when in fact Taiwan is a self-governing island, you know. But it wasn’t a completely new thing to people in Taiwan to deal with this. And there was a mix of kind of frustration by once again being seen at times as a kind of pawn in this great power struggle. But also some interest in and kind of excitement in having the president of Taiwan making a high-profile meeting with another powerful woman from a different part of the world. And it was also, there was interest in Pelosi while she was there, doing more than just talking about U.S. policy, but visiting with different people, including making a visit, I thought was interesting, to a commemorative park that is partly about the struggles within Taiwan that led to eventual democratization after a long period of authoritarian rule.


HEFFNER: And just to put this in perspective, Jeff, what Speaker Pelosi did as a Congresswoman and commemorating the fallen in the Tiananmen massacre, years earlier, that would not be feasible to do today, right? So I mean, it just, geopolitically, it appears that this is where the battle for liberal democracy is happening. But to put it in perspective what she did or what former First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State Clinton did in China, that that would not fly today?


WASSERSTROM: Now, the spaces are just really controlled. It was very interesting to see those images of Pelosi in Tiananmen Square. You just realize the level of surveillance and security and control and monitoring is just very different. So yeah, I mean, it, this fits within a trajectory in her own career of, she’s had a continual interest in trying to direct attention at human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party going back to the period of Tiananmen. And I think it was very admirable that in the wake of Tiananmen, she was very active in trying to extend visas for people that left that left the mainland at the time. I guess if I had, since I’ve been so focused on Hong Kong, which was another of the kind of hotspots there, I guess I would’ve liked to see if there’s attention to this kind of issue now, we could think about trying to increase American support for people who have left Hong Kong in the same kind of way that they left the mainland after Tiananmen. And Speaker Pelosi did meet with a person who left Hong Kong for Taiwan for the greater freedom there, one of the booksellers who was nabbed during the lead up to the 2019 protests.


HEFFNER: It’s hard to do this and, and maybe not fair, but, but if we were to exclude these years of the pandemic and say, and ask ourselves the question, Jeff, did it have to be this way in of the further degradation or deterioration of U.S., China relations. And a lot of folks are pointing to the handover of Hong Kong and the agreement and negotiation with Prime Minister Thatcher and counterparts in China and Hong Kong as the moment where this was inevitably going to be a clash of civilizations. But I want to ask you, because I’m always fascinated, as you might be, in these counterfactual questions, because I think they inform the future better than anything else. You, as a historian, I want to ask you, did it have to be this way?


WASSERSTROM: Yeah, I’m fascinated by counterfactuals too. And I think the challenge with them is that we have to take so many different variables into account. So in that initially when Hong Kong was becoming, when Hong Kong, a consumerist capitalist, anything goes kind of city, in many ways, was being incorporated into a Communist Party-run state. There was a lot of, in 1997, there was a lot of sense, like, you know, this can’t hold. That right after the handover, the Chinese communist party would move aggressively to make it much more like a mainland city. And things like the press that covered stories in radically different ways would disappear. Free universities that were much freer would stop being much freer than mainland ones and so forth. So there was actually a lot of surprise and there were a lot of, there were a lot of predictions that were proved wrong early on, when the late 1990s and early two-thousands, you could go to Hong Kong and there would continually be reminders that you weren’t in a mainland city. And I’ll give you one, what might seem a kind of trivial example, but I think Americans can relate to. There was a television show called Headliner, which was a satirical show a bit like Saturday Night Live, that in the lead up to ‘97 would make fun of colonial authorities of the British government. And after 1997, it kept, it stayed on the air and it made fun of the new government. And it could make fun of Chinese Communist Party policies. And this was something that was unthinkable on the airwaves on the mainland, but it continued in China. And there were differences in the press, differences in bookstores, differences in what was taught, differences in the legal system. People would be arrested, and they’d be soon out on bail. All these things. So in many ways this defied a lot of the predictions of kind of instant doom.


And then there was a period when it seemed like, well, maybe this was just going to work. And maybe there wouldn’t be this impossibility of having a one country, two-systems framework, which was what was promised, where Hong Kong would be part of the country in terms of you know, it wouldn’t have its own diplomacy. It wouldn’t have its own military. So it would be part of the country. And maybe people there could take some pride in what was happening in the country, but people would be able to live very different kinds of lives. And I’d say that worked pretty well. The last moment when that worked well was 2008 with the Olympics. And I think this is really interesting. There are young Hong Kong activists I’ve met who say now with a bit of surprise that, you know, when they were kids, they were very excited when China got the Olympic games. And the Chinese Communist Party was quite smart. They downplayed kind of revolutionary themes in the opening ceremony. And in fact, they allowed the equestrian events to be held in Hong Kong. So Hong Kong got a kind of piece of the action. So that was a way where, so Hong Kong newspapers could cover corruption, scandals, and human rights issues associated with the games and Hong Kong people could cheer the opening ceremonies in the games. So that was kind of a moment when against all expectations, it seemed that the one country, two-systems might even be able to work. But after that, there was a kind of steady slide. And I think it was partly grasping by the center and by people working, trying to ingratiate themselves in with Beijing, that tried to erode or chip away at what was left of Hong Kong’s difference. And then protestors pushed back. And that was the dynamic really from 2012 to 2019 straight through, were a series of encroachments.


The first was a move to try to bring mainland-style patriotic education into the, into the territory in 2012, 2011, 2012. And then there were protests led largely by teenagers like Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow. And the government backed up. Then in 2014, there was an effort to get real voting rights. Hong Kong had never had open elections for its chief executive. So after there had been these encroachments, people started to think, well to protect ourselves, we really need to be able to elect our chief executive. There were big protests in 2014 to try to get that added, right? They failed in 2015, 16, 17, 18. There were moves by Beijing and its, its, puppets would be kind of a harsh word for it, but people trying to work with Beijing and ingratiate themselves, Beijing, in the Hong Kong government, they were chipping away at the things that made Hong Kong different, including opening up a highspeed rail station within Hong Kong in 2018 that had security covered, controlled by the mainland. And that’s where Xi Jinping actually arrived when he visited in July. But anyway, these were moves by the center to try to reign Hong Kong’s difference in, push back in protests. And 2019 was the biggest of those. Things really came to a head.


HEFFNER: So it sounds, it sounds like, Jeff, that there was nothing inevitable. There was nothing inherent in the Thatcher-led negotiation, as it relates to Hong Kong and the spheres of influence that were changing, you know, in terms of ownership, political ownership of those spheres. There was nothing about that negotiation that led us to this point. However that negotiation was absolutely imperative, because if history or at least the recording of history I’ve read is correct, the Chinese militaristic tone started to rear its head. And at that point it was clear that Hong Kong could no longer be in the state that it had been. And that it is not new to be hearing bellicose rhetoric in the negotiations, or, you know, behind closed doors as it relates to what inspired that change. It was Thatcher’s awareness that in fact, you know, a military option was at least spoken about as if it was on the table, if it wasn’t in fact on the table.


WASSERSTROM: So, yeah, I mean, actually I kind of like this, I was thinking initially that Taiwan would be this great diversion from talking about Hong Kong, which I wanted to talk about, but I think it’s worth thinking about what I thought about as imperfect analogies, things that aren’t quite the same, but seem similar enough to learn from. In 1950 Tibet was incorporated into the People’s Republic of China. And there was a deal made that said that Tibet would able, it wasn’t called one country, two-systems, but it was a lot like it. Ho-Fung Hung, a scholar at Johns Hopkins, now is calling it one country, two-systems before one country, two-systems. And basically the Tibetans were said, look, you’ll become part of the country, but you’ll be able to follow your own way of life. And in the early fifties, it seemed that this was working. And even the Dalai Lama thought he could work with Mao and that as long as Beijing kind of left them alone enough, it would be okay. But then, over time, exactly what we’ve seen with differences happening in the Hong Kong case began to happen. In the 1950s, Beijing tried to pull Tibet more tightly in, Tibetans pushed back, and eventually things exploded in 1959. And the Dalai Lama went into exile. And this became, Tibet went from being a place that was promised to be able to have a high degree of freedom to being one of the most tightly controlled and policed parts of the country. So there were some people in Hong Kong who said, wait, you know, we’ve, we’ve seen this, we’ve seen this play before. Watch what could happen. And there were people who wished there were, there were sharper control, there were harder controls to protect against that. So there were both ways in which I agree, you know, it’s not inevitable. Things can go in these different directions. But Xi Jinping has made a kind of an increased emphasis on nationalism and increased emphasis on under my watch, China, which became smaller before 1949 and grew bigger under Mao and then bigger under the other great leader of the CCP Deng Xiaoping, if anything, it’s going to get bigger. And that explains his kind of moves to the South China Seas, his move to really, fully gain control of Hong Kong, and the bellicose rhetoric about Taiwan being ramped up under him. So there is a pattern here.


HEFFNER: Where do we go from here? Really? You know, and how if at all can history help inform that approach?


WASSERSTROM: Yeah, it’s, that’s, that’s the incredibly tough question. And of course it’s where the historian wants to say, you know, just ask me about the past and not about the future. I mean, I think we can tell there are things that there are things to guard against going forward. I think we’ve already seen one of the real things that I worry about, or dangers is that this is a time to be incredibly concerned about the Chinese Communist Party. It’s also a time when the Chinese Communist Party is increasingly saying all people of Chinese descent around the world are in step with us. It’s really important to realize that’s just not true. That that’s a claim that, that we need to push back against, and not give kind of reinforcement to, by making any, by rhetoric. And this was something that happened a lot with Trump, by talking about the Chinese wanting X, Y, and Z, when, what we mean is the Chinese Communist Party in particular its leader, Xi Jinping wants X, Y, and Z. So I think what we need to do or worry about is make sure we’ve seen cases where there’s going to be tension between the Chinese Communist Party and the United States government and European governments, all of these things. And we need to make sure to manage that as best we can so that it doesn’t spill over into general xenophobia and anti-Chinese racism. So that’s the thing going…


HEFFNER: Or, you know, likewise anti-American sentiment. But what, where, what is the role in the negotiation of identifying the Chinese aspirations? And, you know, basically having an understanding of the genuine Chinese outlook? And the same thing has been true in my questions to Russia experts over the years, because it, in our perception is an autocratic system. The question of can we ever genuinely know, you know, what they fundamentally want? And we are led to believe with the invasion of Ukraine and with the recent militaristic actions of China, that it is expansion. It is territory. I mean, they want to enact what America enacted in many ways for two centuries, or at least a century, expansion. But I don’t know that we genuinely know in the case of China or Russia, if that is what the autocratic imperative is. It’s certainly not what I would think is the peoples’ imperative. But where do you come out on the role of trying to understand the genuine desire of the autocratic leaders of the Chinese regime?


WASSERSTROM: Yeah. This is so hard because, you know, Xi Jinping is, it’s, he’s …


HEFFNER: Tight-lipped!


WASSERSTROM: (Laugh). Yeah. It’s such a black box, you know. He’s got all these speeches. He’s got all of these things, but we still, you know, there when I was, when I was talking with one of my favorite China specialists to read and to talk with, Evan Osnos of the New Yorker, and I was talking about how hard it was to, you know, really profile Xi Jinping. And he said, “My kingdom for a defector,” you know, we just don’t have anybody who’s been part of his circle who’s now said, this is what’s really going on. But I think we can have a sense that it seems that Xi Jinping would, you know, clearly would like to be seen as one of China’s one, one of the PRC’s great leaders. That relates to this kind of thing that the Chinese Communist Party tells a variety of stories… has told a variety of stories about why it deserves to lead. And autocratic governments need to legitimate themselves. They need to have stories they tell that have some kind of purchase about why they deserve to rule. They can’t say, look, we won the last election, because they didn’t win an election. But they can say things. And the Chinese Communist Party has said a variety of things at different times. Mao said under my watch China is standing up to itself and standing up for itself in the world the way under weaker governments before us it couldn’t. But he also said, I’m going to make China a place more equal where, you know, people of different, where class differences disappear. That’s not a story that works very well anymore. He said we’d do away with corruption. Well, you know that the, they would be less corrupt than their predecessor. Well that over time stopped seeming so clear. Dung Xiaoping changed the story a bit though he kept that thing of China becoming strong in the world. He said, the country will get rich and gradually everybody will get rich. There’ll be an economic boom. And that helped legitimate the Chinese Communist Party. Now, the economic boom has tapered off and is stopping. And this is where something like COVID comes in as well. And the idea of a place that’s completely equal lost some of its purchase. The idea of an end to corruption lost its purchase, though Xi Jinping is trying to restart those stories, big anti-corruption campaign, call for common prosperity. But the story that really kind of still works is if you look at the sweep of Chinese history from the 1830s to the 1940s, China kept getting chipping chipped away at. The territory got smaller, its ability to hold its own in the global arena was diminished. But since 1949, that role has gotten bigger, and the country has gotten bigger. So the imperative in a sense for Xi Jinping is to really be able to make that story still work.


HEFFNER: Right –


WASSERSTROM: Works when he goes to, you know, when he goes to Davos and gets feted. That shows he’s, you know, he’s got that international clout. But it also means, you know, if anything, bringing Hong Kong were fully in under his control building up the South China seas, these are the imperatives. I don’t think it’s, it’s not about world domination, but it’s about kind of reclaiming this idea of heft in the region and centrality in the region, which it largely has done, but it wants to do even more.


HEFFNER: How much of a conciliatory approach can the U.S. muster or foster when it is perceived that capitulation in one or both of those instances will lead to a further abuses of human rights, and further, a further disequilibrium and make negotiations even more challenging in eventual geopolitical conflict.


WASSERSTROM: Yeah. So we’re in a really difficult period and we’re going to stay in it, I think. There needs to be increase, an increase in some kind of, increased conversations again, between people in China and people in the United States at various different levels. We need to rebuild some of that. We need to realize it’s not just two countries in the world, but different countries, allies are incredibly important. There’s, it’s been important to rebuild the kind of connections between allies. We saw this incredibly with Russia, how important the European as well as American responses were. So we need to begin that. We need to be, we need to understand these, these challenges. I like the fact at one point you talked about how the United States was at an earlier period and in our history we need to realize there are some parallels between the United States about a hundred years ago, and China, now, this kind of combination, the PRC of claiming to not, to be anti-imperialist and yet acting like a Imperial power. And that’s something Americans should recognize. We should be frank about the ways that we did things badly in those periods when we were trying to kind of lay claim to more and more of, of the…


HEFFNER: Jeff. In, in the seconds we have left. Is it fair to say though, that should that full capitulation occur, or should basically Hong Kong and Taiwan be handed over in their entirety to the Communist Party in China, that it is safe to say that there will not be human rights or democratic values embraced in mainland in the lifetimes?


WASSERSTROM: Ah, it’s hard to know the lifetimes, but I do. I think the situation in Hong Kong has already happened. Hong Kong now is a place in which people are not enjoying the kind of greater liberties that they did very recently. So for me, Hong Kong is absolutely chilling. And I do wish we could roll the clock back and there would be more, there had been more of a concerted sustained attention to just how big a deal that that was.


HEFFNER: Right, in essence, you’re saying that the surveillance state that is now mirrored there, that has been occurring in mainland for many years, that is not going to be reversed. That that may be a permanent architecture of the Hong Kong state. You know, assuming that only military conflict, which we don’t want, without military conflict, it’s fair to say that that surveillance state is there to stay in Hong Kong.


WASSERSTROM: It’s, it’s there to stay. What they’re (laugh) it is there to stay, but, you know, we thought the Soviet Union was there to stay at a certain point. There, there, we need to make room in our minds for the unexpected. I think again with analogies, I think of Hong Kong a lot, like Czechoslovakia was after Prague Spring was crushed by tanks coming in. It wasn’t crushed by tanks and the uprising in 2019 in Hong Kong. But it is that, that things will have to change at a larger global level or at least in Beijing. And I don’t think we should assume that the status quo now in Beijing will be the status quo forever going forward. I like to say that the Chinese Communist Party will fall. I just don’t know which year or even which decade or even which century it will, but systems do not endure forever.


HEFFNER: Jeff Wasserstrom thank you for that closing thought. A historian of modern China at UC Irvine, author “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.” Thank you for your time, Sir.


WASSERSTROM: Thank you very much. A very stimulating discussion.


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