Mike Pompeo has taken a tough line against China. Photo: AFP / Andrew Harnik

Mike Pompeo, otherwise known as the international man of catastrophe, by wide acclaim, has earned a label as the worst secretary of state in the history of the United States, while appropriately enough serving under its worst president.

That president, Donald Trump, has torn the US constitution to shreds, and he has an absolutely corrupt chief law-enforcement officer, Attorney General Bill Barr, to provide him a temporary Get out of Jail Free card. Until and unless regime change takes place after the November election, Pompeo is safe under the same protective custody.

As the US top diplomat, Pompeo’s mission is to persuade nations to take positions aligned with the US and in opposition to China. If a nation fails to be persuaded, especially when it’s against that nation’s self-interest, Pompeo’s technique is to compel it to comply with the threat of sanctions.

Levying sanctions hasn’t been limited to the usual wide-angle shotgun blasts at Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Venezuela, but the US has also targeted the chief prosecutor and other officials of the International Criminal Court for investigating Pompeo for possible war crimes while he was head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Just as his boss, Trump, sees himself as above the laws of the United States, Pompeo, who sees the United Nations, World Health Organization and other international bodies as subordinates to the US, certainly would not allow the possibility of being subject to international laws. The sanction is his way of saying we’re not going to allow you to travel freely to continue your investigation and we’re not going to take you seriously.

He lied, cheated and stole

In a moment of braggadocio and indiscretion – and poor judgment – he chortled before a group of students and boasted how as head of the CIA, he lied, cheated and stole. All in the CIA training manual, he said. The students were not amused. Neither was the public. Since becoming the head of the State Department, his actions confirm that his modus operandi has not changed.

Pompeo has remained true to his character in his campaign against China. With no sense of irony, a typical preamble to his speeches on China goes: “Communists always lie, but the biggest lie is that the Chinese Communist Party speaks for 1.4 billion people who are surveilled, oppressed, and scared to speak out.” 

He failed to note that annually, 170 million of these deceived Chinese people travel as tourists abroad, and then choose voluntarily to return to this “open-air prison” of surveillance, oppression and terror.

It probably did not occur to him that this allegation may be more projection than anything resembling truth, given the fact that the US has the largest prison population of any country – five times as great on a per capita basis as China’s – and the surveillance and harassment of whistleblowers and dissidents is routine.

On October 6, Pompeo lashed out against China and exhorted the Quad – the US-Japan-Australia-India military-strategic formation that the US is trying to consolidate against China – to stand against China and its evil, corrupt actions:  “I also look forward to … renewing our resolve to protect our precious freedoms and the sovereignty of the diverse nations of the region.

“As partners … it is more critical now than ever that we collaborate to protect our people and partners from the CCP’s exploitation, corruption, and coercion.”

The silence from the Quad members was deafening – no agreement or statement was issued after their ministerial meeting in Tokyo. The Japanese government, in particular, in a mind-bending act of diplomatic insouciance, insisted flat out, “This Quad meeting is not being held with any particular country in mind.”

Sorry, His Holiness is not in

On September 30, the Vatican rebuffed a request from Mike Pompeo for an audience with Pope Francis, and accused the secretary of state of trying to drag the Catholic Church into the US presidential election by denouncing its relations with China.

On September 9, in a speech to member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations encouraging them to gang up against China, he stated, “Don’t let the Chinese Communist Party walk over us and our people. You should have confidence and the American will be here in friendship to help you.”

The good secretary seemed to have forgotten that if anyone has posed a historical threat to Southeast Asian countries, it is the United States. Unsurprisingly, there were no takers. 

On July 23, at the Nixon Library, Secretary Pompeo in a warmed-over version of Ronald Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech declared the end of US-China détente, and announced a new cold war: “Washington is seeking to change Beijing’s behavior, [against] a generational threat, a totalitarian and hegemonic regime.… Free nations … can successfully force a change of China.” 

To make this argument, Pompeo listed a litany of imagined, projected, and concocted wrongs committed by the Chinese: spreading Covid-19, stealing jobs and intellectual property, trade abuses, violations of international law, and of course, the catchall, being “Marxist-Leninist.”

After all this hyperventilating about China’s menace “to our economy and way of life,” he called for all nations to come together to fight China, to “triumph over this new tyranny.” 

“We, the freedom-loving nations of the world, must induce China to change … because Beijing’s actions threaten our people and our prosperity…. It’s time for a new grouping of like-minded nations, a new alliance of democracies.” 

Pompeo acted as if he was the visionary to lead the 1.4 billion Chinese out of the wilderness and overthrow the Beijing regime.

Lies about China can be very profitable

To make his case for demonizing China, Pompeo will use any source of questionable legitimacy. One example was a paper written by Li-Meng Yan, a virologist and at the time of publication a postdoctoral student at Hong Kong University. Her paper claimed that the Covid-19 virus was created in a Wuhan lab.

Her finding was sensational as it seemed to authenticate Trump’s and Pompeo’s accusation that China should be held accountable for the pandemic. The popular media went wild with the story, even though those in scientific circles criticized the non-peer-reviewed paper as weak on science.

Rapid Reviews: COVID-19, a collaboration between the University of California at Berkeley and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, quickly solicited reviews of the Yan paper by four renowned scientists in the field and their conclusion was: “This manuscript does not demonstrate sufficient scientific evidence to support its claims. Claims are at times baseless and are not supported by the data and methods used. Decision-makers should consider the author’s claims in this study misleading.”

Those reviews followed the publication of the Yan paper by about two weeks. It’s a safe bet that the refutation is unlikely to attract the attention of the mainstream media. An added side note in the comment section was the observation that the co-authors listed in Yan’s paper did not exist but were fictitious – in other words, a blatant lie.

So what could have motivated Yan? By now, it has become quite clear that providing material for China-bashing can be very lucrative business. Gordon Chang showed that he could publish a book on China that totally missed the mark – instead of economic collapse, China is about to become the largest economy in the world – and instead of striking out, he became an anti-China media star for the last 20 years.

Peter Navarro did even better. He wrote a book and a documentary titled Death by China, a complete work of fiction, with imaginary “expert” “Ron Varra,” who turned out to be the anagrammatic alter ego of Navarro himself. This China-bashing turned him from being a failed politician and outcast academic into the holder of a seat in the inner circle at the Trump White House.

The latest to follow this career trajectory is Adrian Zenz. In just two years, out of nowhere, he became known as an expert on Uighurs in Xinjiang by claiming that between a million and 1.8 million Uighurs were being held in concentration camps. 

No one really questioned the accuracy of the report nor the veracity of this so-called expert, a millenarian Christian theologian who claims that Jews will be exterminated in the Rapture, that women should not pursue careers outside the home, that children should be physically abused “according to scripture,” and that homosexuality is the work of the Antichrist. 

With those impeccable credentials, Zenz was instantly embraced by the media, the Trump administration and the US Congress.

Zenz visited Xinjiang 13 years ago, but it is not likely that he was drawing any substance from that visit. One million people is a lot to be held and would be difficult to hide: The US has more than 6,000 such facilities to house its inmate population. 

Satellite photos offered as evidence of such camps turned out to be schools and office buildings. These compounds all have fences and walls on their perimeter. Apparently, that is all it takes to qualify as evidence for prison camps.          

Foreign visitors to Xinjiang of more recent vintage have found no evidence of large numbers of locals incarcerated. If the numbers claimed by Zenz are correct, it would imply that a very large percentage of working Uighur adults are incarcerated. However, life on the streets and markets appears relaxed and normal.

Indeed, most people living in Xinjiang, of any ethnicity, seem to be beneficiaries of China’s campaign to lift everyone out of poverty.             

About 9% of China’s population belong to an ethnic minority, of which 55 are recognized. Where any given ethnic group dominates a geographical region, an autonomous government is established to allow some degree of local governance. 

Ethnic minorities are encouraged to preserve their own culture and attend bilingual schools where Mandarin is taught alongside their own native tongue. During the draconian era of one child per family throughout China, ethnic minorities were permitted to have two or three children.

Remote, hard-to-reach areas of China were understandably the last to feel the benefits of Beijing’s poverty-alleviation program, regardless of the ethnicity of the people living there. Local governments’ mandate is to strive to improve the welfare of the people under their care.

But all lives matter in China

In China, voting occurs at the local level for representatives to the local people’s congresses. Members of the local congress then elect from within that body those who will become members of the provincial congress, who then elect those to represent their province at the National People’s Congress. Thus each tier of representation becomes more selective, rigorous, and professional.  

While this differs from the direct suffrage practiced in the West, it promotes competence and dedication, and a government where all lives truly matter, and none are kept in ghettoes by design.

Poverty alleviation follows a general pattern. The local governments with the support of the central government build roads to connect the remote village to the economically upscale towns and cities to facilitate the sale of their produce and local goods. This policy accords with studies that show the single most important factor in alleviating and escaping the cycle of poverty is good transportation access.  

Where transportation infrastructure was too difficult to build, the local government would provide the option of heavily subsidized housing with electricity and water to encourage poor villagers living in remote places to relocate to nearby urban centers with easier access to schools and health care. Vocational training along with relocation provides the farmers with new skills and chance to raise their income. One example was presented here

Technical experts would visit the poor village and appraise the potential to raise incomes and provide guidance. Sometimes the recommendation is to switch to higher-valued crops, other times just introduce ways to improve yield. 

With the popularity of streaming over the Internet to promote sales and with greatly improved roads and rail, and rapid payment and delivery systems, it is now possible to sell exotic fruits, local goods, and medicinal herbs available in one remote region to consumers all over China. 

Attractive handicrafts unique to a particular ethnic group can be introduced and popularized via streaming. As a consequence of being a huge and fast-growing economy, China has a burgeoning middle class. Relatively new to consumption, the appetite of the middle-class Chinese for goods is a huge market not remotely near saturation.

By dedicated and determined efforts, Beijing can proudly proclaim that hundreds of millions have been lifted out of subsistence living. Yet the West with its comfortable standard of living continues to accuse China of human-rights abuses. 

Third World countries make no such accusations, just express admiration for China and hope that China will help them to attain higher standards of living through its experience and expertise and via the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Pompeo has been busy telling African countries that China’s BRI is nothing more than a debt trap. Of course, drawing from his own personal background, it’s easy for him to project what he would do and imagine that China is pulling off a con.

By and large, African nations welcome the opportunity to collaborate with China and take advantage of its infrastructure expertise and willing investment. These nations react to Pompeo with disdain and affront. Privately, they say to themselves, “Do you think we’re so dumb and easily swindled, or what?”

A port and airport project in Sri Lanka has been frequently cited by Pompeo and others as the “see, I told you so” example. The truth of the matter was that the Sri Lankan government was too ambitious and overestimated the expected revenue stream to be derived upon completion of the port and airport. 

When Sri Lanka could not meet the repayment schedule, China took over the management of the port and airport. In experienced hands, the Chinese operator has raised efficiency and increased utilization so that profitability is now within reach. Once revenue is sufficient to service the loan, the projects will revert to Sri Lanka.

Just this month, Pompeo went to Croatia to tell the country to stay away from China’s BRI. In a press conference in front of the Dubrovnik harbor, Pompeo and Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković stood side by side, and Plenković was asked by the media his thoughts about the BRI.

The reporter prefaced her question by saying that Pompeo had denounced the BRI as a predatory scheme to buy a Chinese empire. In response, Plenković said China was very smart to use the BRI to build its relationship with Central and Eastern European countries.

He said he had met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang five of six times since coming into office, is fully aware of all aspects of China’s deal, and believes Beijing will be fair and behave in accordance with international norms.

Plenković looked over at Pompeo as he praised Croatia’s relationship with China. Apparently, he did not feel the need to be diplomatic before the emissary from the US.

This is the first article in a two-part report. Part 2 will look at what to expect from US diplomacy under a Joe Biden presidency.

George Koo is a retired international business adviser and frequent contributor to Asia Times. K J Noh is a journalist, political analyst, writer, and teacher specializing in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region.

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K J Noh

K J Noh is a journalist, political analyst, writer, and teacher specializing in the geopolitics of the Asia-Pacific region.