Decoding the Middle Kingdom....
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Well, I just spent seven hours transcribing Chinese-language newscasts and shortwave radio transmissions in the original Mandarin and then cutting and pasting it all until Google Translate, then looking for patterns and clues.
In the end, there remains at this writing a lot we don’t know.
Using the language from the Wall Street Journal’s lead editorial, we can say there is elite bipartisan consensus that the Chinese are lying:
[T]he balloon heads over the Aleutians, strays over Canada, but China acknowledges the balloon only after the U.S. announces it has been discovered over Montana? This isn’t believable, and the patent dishonesty will add to the U.S. public’s growing mistrust of China.
From the same piece, here are some ideas that don’t have full consensus at all, but can’t be ruled out:
Beijing may also be testing what it can get away with, as it often does. Someone thought the intrusion was worth the effort and risk of discovery. Did war hawks in Beijing want to blow up Mr. Blinken’s visit? It’s also possible the balloon has some surveillance or probing benefit that hasn’t been disclosed.
Here are five of my thoughts on the geopolitics of this fast-moving story (faster moving than the balloon itself):
1. Parallel with years and reams of polling data showing Americans across the political spectrum are very negative about China, Team Biden has acted from the very start of the administration to make certain they are not outflanked on the hawkishness scale by Republicans. That has included on the following fronts: economics, trade, military, diplomatic, geopolitics – pretty much everything. So as you watch how the administration conducts itself, rest assured that the USG will always put a high premium on not sounding any less tough than, say, Tom Cotton.
2. One of the metrics of tough will be what ultimately happens to the balloon. The Journal editorial also says, “Now the Biden Administration will have to demonstrate to Chinese President Xi Jinping that he can’t violate U.S. sovereign territory without consequences.” For many, that means there is a binary choice here: either the Chinese get their balloon back or the U.S. gets it (“gets” could mean it is destroyed or captured).
The Pentagon is trying to figure out how to give the president as many options as possible. Either capturing or destroying the balloon presents operational challenges. But, under the circumstances (with many critics and analysts asking why and how the balloon was able to travel unmolested over the center of the United States), you can bet that Team Biden is not inclined to deal with the perception of multidimensional weakness that would come if the Chinese bring the balloon home.
3. The Chinese will, sadly, not pay any price for either lying or spying, in part because of the way the international order works – but also because the United States spies on China (and lies about it) 365 days a year.
4. It is not equating the moral authority of the Chinese and the United States to point out that it is important to understand the mindset of both the leaders in Beijing and the people of the Middle Kingdom when it comes to the current crisis and long-running faceoff with the U.S. This task is as vital here as it is with Putin. The Chinese feel like the United States is constantly engaged in hostile and aggressive actions (again, military, economic, trade, diplomatic, etc) that is an existential threat to them.
See, for instance, this quote in the Associated Press’ latest write up:
“The U.S. is hyping this as a national security threat posed by China to the U.S. This type of military threat, in actuality, we haven’t done this. And compared with the U.S. military threat normally aimed at us, can you say it’s just little? Their surveillance planes, their submarines, their naval ships are all coming near our borders,” Chinese military expert Chen Haoyang of the Taihe Institute said on Phoenix TV, one of the major national TV outlets.
You might think that the Chinese are always the aggressor party, that all of the U.S. actions are simply a reaction to the expansionist, hegemonic goals of a communist regime, and you might think that the Chinese elites know this to be true and deny it to whip up nationalist support. But in my experience, a lot of Chinese believe they are the aggrieved not the aggressors.
American policymakers need to factor that in, as do Wide World of News readers.
5. President Biden believes his longstanding and unprecedented relationship with Xi gives him some special powers and insight. He talked about their ties during his remarks in Philadelphia on Friday:
When I was with Xi Jinping — I spent more time with him than any other world leader has. Now it’s over — they keep very close — they just keep a record — and it’s now over 89 hours, 68 of which were in person. It’s over a 10-year period. Because back when Barack was president, he knew — we knew Xi Jinping was going to be president. It wasn’t appropriate for a president to get to know and spend time with a vice president, so I did.
I traveled over 17,000 miles with him. And we were in — in the — on the Tibetan Plateau. And he asked me — we always had an interpreter — a simultaneous interpreter, each of us. So that’s all we’d have. And he asked me — he said, “Can you define America for me?” And I said, “Yeah, I can, in one word: possibilities.” Possibilities.
The China story certainly has dominated the current flowing news cycle (I haven’t gotten this many emails with the word “balloon” in them since Dick Cheney’s heart surgery….), but on at least two fronts it was one of the most politically delightful days for team Biden in a long time.
First, the jobs report was so boffo that even the aforementioned Wall Street Journal ed board was metaphorically doing the Snoopy Dance side by side with Susan Rice, although Gigot & Co. churlishly withheld all credit from the administration.
Yes, one month of data does not necessarily tell the full tale, but the Gang of 500 now sees the real possibility of a soft landing, with inflation tamed and no recession before the presidential election, which is what we call a game changer.
* As always, read Politico’s Ben White to understand the intersection of the real economy and political reality.
* I also recommend you check out the New York Times story about Joe Biden’s near-total hold over the DNC, Democratic elected officials, and his party’s 2024 presidential nomination. This story is that lovely rarity – it is perfectly reported and executed, reflecting the reality of the situation with color and facts. The reporters explain with precision the stark change from just a few months ago, as the president has gone from imperiled to all-powerful with Democrats (even as they concede and know that many voters don’t want to see four more years). In the Biden household, competing with the legacies of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama is serious business, and between his legislative achievements and the DNC lovefest, the Delawareans are feeling pretty good about where things stand in Blueland.
* If you are looking for a Biden speech to put in your time capsule, I recommend the one he gave at a finance event in Philly Friday, which you can read here. I’ve been listening to Joe Biden speeches for many decades. A real turning point came after his 2008 run for president; since then, because of the attention his misspeaking got, he is a bit more self-conscious and careful about editing himself both internally and externally. Otherwise, when he is well rested now, the differences between a Joe Biden speech in 1993 and 2023 are de minimis, and this one has all the greatest hits: the Delaware jokes; the Philly jokes; the frequent reminders that he isn’t joking; the invocation of what his mother would say; the aspirational rhetoric about the middle class; the reminiscences about his time as chairman of Foreign Relations; the apologies for going on too long; going on too long; “literally”; the admixture of optimism and dark Irish; and so so so much more.
* Could it really be that the Bidens recently took out a $250,000 loan on their beach house and only Fox News and the New York Post are covering it?
* The Washington Post has a deep dive on Kathy Chung, the longtime Biden aide who packed up his vice presidential office, from which the documents with classified markings that ended up at the Penn Biden office came. Interesting in this piece: the Post’s declaration that they continue to report on only those documents from the Hunter laptop that they have authenticated; the anonymous sniping at Chung for her alleged work habits and 2020 campaign salary; her ties to Hunter; and the claim that she has no connection to the documents that went to the Biden home, which, if true, raises some operational questions about whether there is a common denominator here on these different cases.
* Ross Douthat’s umpteenth column on “How Trump ends” is worth reading, but it is also an opportunity for me to point out (for neither the first nor last time) that all this talk about Trump running as an independent or third-party candidate in the 2024 general election needs to take into account the question of ballot access, which is neither easy nor cheap to obtain.
* The New York Times looks at all the state and national polling comparing Trump’s standing to that of Ron DeSantis. Despite all the piece’s hedging and caveats, it leans into the “Trump is weak” argument.
Real political junkies would be advised to listen to today’s Commentary podcast. It features Mark Halperin as a guest. And he rates Donald Trump’s chances of winning the nomination and the presidency again rather highly compared to most analysts.
Halperin seems to share a view I’ve heard in some Republican circles, that Ron DeSantis just doesn’t have the charisma to command a national political stage. And so he advances a theory that DeSantis is, from one angle, doing the most to help Trump at this point. DeSantis’s position as the top non-Trump choice is freezing donors and candidates, who are waiting for him to make his move. Meanwhile, DeSantis is hanging back and giving Trump a monthslong head start. In this time, Trump is assembling his most professional campaign team yet and is busy collecting endorsements.
* The New York Times profile and Q&A with Sarah Cooper (she of the pandemic-era Trump lip synching) is a hilarious romp through recent history.
Here, from a sage WWoN reader, is a darn interesting take on Tuesday’s speech:
I have not heard a peep about the SOTU, and I am a little disappointed, but not surprised. It seems like the SOTU has been less and less of a thing every year.
I can remember back in the Obama administration, when it may have reached its high point. There were briefings and hints and preview stories that showed up a week before the SOTU. The Obama comms team had elaborate graphics that people could share on Facebook while watching the SOTU. They did something on Medium, which was a new online publication founded by former Obama staffers or campaign people.
I was once a very junior staffer in the Reagan White House on a six-month gig to do a special project. I did have a blue pass, but I was as close to nobody as you could possibly be. I got a memo in AUGUST soliciting my input for the next SOTU in January.
Reagan had guests at the SOTU, which seemed like a huge innovation at the time. Now, it seems that the only part of the SOTU that you remember the next day is who the guests were -- such as Rush Limbaugh for Trump and probably the Tyre Nichols family for Biden.
Another thought: When Reagan did SOTU, he was trying to move votes from conservative Dems. Clinton triangulated between his liberals and moderates as well as his Democrats in Congress vs Republicans. W Bush wanted to sell Democrats on school choice lite and his "ownership society." He was also a "war president" dealing with 9/11 and GWOT. Obama in the first year or two announced the coming of decisive change. But lately, SOTU is bloated, unfocused, pointless, not significant in a saturated media environment. Presidents do a party convention speech…talking only to one half the people in the room.
In short, the SOTU seems to be another, formerly great Washington event that has turned into a nothingburger after a few decades of overexposure on what used to be prime time television.
Speaking of which, a reminder that you can sign up to attend my State of the Union preview (featuring John Ellis) here.
EXCUSE THE TYPOS!!! All that Chinese language TV boggled and scrambled my mind.