The trade dispute between the US and China continues to escalate. Illustration: iStock
Illustration: iStock

Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat, by Newt Gingrich with Claire Christensen (Center Street: New York, 2019). Hardbound, 405 pages with index. US$16.25

China remains what it has been for millennia, and most of America’s problems are not China’s fault but its own, former House speaker Newt Gingrich argues in his new book. Some rhetorical flourishes aside, the Republican elder statesman and Trump adviser rejects the ubiquitous American view that China is about to collapse under its own weight, or that China inevitably must become a Western-style democracy, or that the Chinese people are waiting for a wave of America’s hand to overthrow their evil communist overlords, and so forth.

He contrasts “the Western tradition of freedom under law dating back at least 3,000 years with roots in Athens, Rome and Jerusalem” to “the Chinese tradition of order imposed by a centralized system, a pattern that goes back at least 3,500 years.” Implicitly, he acknowledges that China’s political system today reflects thousands of years of its history.

Rather than blame China for America’s problems, Gingrich offers a harsh critique of America’s failings and argues that “there are a lot of steps America must take that are a reflection of America’s failures. Some of the greatest failures and weaknesses in American can’t be blamed on China. Rather, we have to look at ourselves and our own mistakes and failures. The burden on us to modernize and reform our own system is enormous.”

For example, Gingrich declares:

“It is not China’s fault that in 2017, 89% of Baltimore eighth graders couldn’t pass their math exam…

“It is not China’s fault that too few Americans in K-12 and in college study math and science to fill the graduate schools with future American scientists…

“It is not China’s fault that, faced with a dramatic increase in Chinese graduate students in science, the government has not been able to revive programs like the 1958 National Defense Education Act…

“It is not China’s fault the way our defense bureaucracy functions serves to create exactly the ‘military-industrial complex’ that President Dwight Eisenhower warned about…

“It is not China’s fault that NASA has been so bureaucratic and its funding so erratic that… there is every reason to believe that China is catching up rapidly and may outpace us. This is because of us not because of them

“It is not China’s fault that the old, bureaucratic, entrenched American telecommunications companies failed to develop a global strategy for 5G over the 11 years that the Chinese company Huawei has been working to become a world leader…”

The points above are a fair sampling of Gingrich’s lengthy and incisive bill of indictment of American short-sightedness, complacency, and corruption.

The former House speaker is a member of the Trump inner circle, and has nothing but good things to say about the president. But he devotes just two pro forma paragraphs to praising Trump’s tariffs against China, compared to 30 fact-filled pages condemning America’s inaction on fifth-generation (5G) mobile broadband.

China’s Huawei, Gingrich reports with a portmanteau of quotations, is a “future-defining geostrategic contest,” in which Huawei leads by “offering far better prices… while providing better service and fielding more advanced equipment… China is best positioned to win the emerging global race to roll out 5G mobile infrastructure… China is outpacing the US wireless infrastructure spend by $8 to $10 billion since 2015… this race, and its outcome, rises to the level of such projects as the Manhattan Project and the ‘man on the moon’ efforts of the 20th century.”

He concludes: “Huawei as a threat can only be understood within this totalitarian context of an all-of-society and all-of-government effort to re-establish China as the Middle Kingdom at the center of human affairs.” This sounds overwrought, but it is in some ways worse than Gingrich’s hyperboles convey. The digital world produces binary outcomes. Either you are Facebook or Myspace, Google or Altavista, Excel or Lotus 1-2-3, VHS or Betamax – a comparison that Gingrich mentions elsewhere. Google, Facebook and Amazon became insuperable monopolies through the so-called network effect. The bigger they became, the better they became, and the higher the threshold rose for prospective competitors until there were no prospective competitors.

“If American companies are at the forefront of developing this infrastructure,” Gingrich adds, “then American companies will be the ones developing the future technologies that interact with this new network.” That isn’t happening. Gingrich gives lip service, to be sure, to the Administration’s fruitless efforts to talk its trading partners out of working with Huawei. But his real passion is reserved for his proposals to turn America around.

Don’t hope for change in China, he warns: “It is possible that at some point in the distant future, China will repudiate its dictatorship and establish a freer system compatible with the values of Western civilization,” he explains, “But there is a grave danger that the United States and Western civilization will simply be overwhelmed and dominated by China’s communist totalitarian system long before that country ceases to be a dictatorship.” This seems overwrought. China always has been and remains incurious about how the rest of the world governs itself. Western civilization won’t fall because China imposes a different system but because its denizens have lost interest in it.

He hopes rather that China’s challenge will wake America from its complacency and spur a national renewal. “Any gradual, incremental American response will simply fail,” he concludes. The Chinese Communist Party’s system is so big and has so much momentum that only a dramatic, deep resetting of American policy and the development of new American institutions will enable us to turn back the totalitarian challenge. America needs new energy, resources, rules and decisiveness to make technological investments and achievements, acquire new markets, and build broader alliances.”

Immigration policy does not figure in Gingrich’s argument. As Texas A&M Prof. Edward Dougherty wrote last year in Asia Times, reviving American R&D will require an enormous pool of foreign talent – Chinese, Indian, Iranian or Russian – because American universities produce too few engineers, and have too few teachers to train up a new generation of engineers. If we undertake a crash program to keep America’s technological edge, Dougherty argued, it “will have to be staffed by Chinese, Indians and Iranians. Given the effort by Asian governments to lure their best citizens back home, this is an unstable situation… If we are going to depend on Asian talent, then we must keep the best here in the US, whatever the cost.”

Also read: Busting the myth of China’s New Silk Roads

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