In A Grand Strategy: Countering China, Taming Technology and Restoring the Media (Brick Tower Press, 267 pages), William J Holstein weaves together three great themes that have emerged from his long career as a journalist.
These are the threat that China poses to the American advantage; big tech’s complicity in its own eclipse by China; and the degradation of the media, which has made it more difficult for us to comprehend what’s going on.
In a follow-up to his 2019 book The New Art of War: China’s Deep Strategy Inside the United States, he lays out the first problem right up front by “spitting out the truths that few want to hear,” starting with:
We Americans are losing ground to a centrally orchestrated strategy by the Chinese government to strip us of our technological, economic – and therefore strategic – advantage.
No war will ever be necessary. The Chinese government will have developed such technological, economic – and therefore military – power that we will not be able to even contemplate the possibility.
Our institutions have been unable to formulate a response not only because of our own intellectual confusion about China’s rise under President Xi Jinping, but also because our computer systems have been thoroughly hacked, and spies have been implanted in our companies and governmental institutions.
The simpletons who have led our response to China have been completely out of their depth.
Five years ago, this would have been a radical call to arms, but today it is consensus American thinking. It is the one issue that unites Democrats and Republicans.
Nevertheless, it is worth going back to the beginning to understand how a veteran correspondent with nearly half a century of experience in East Asia and around the world reached his conclusions and what he thinks must be done.
On assignment in China, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Russia, Afghanistan, several other foreign countries and back in the United States, Holstein’s on-site reporting of such developments as the rise of East Asia, the decline of American manufacturing, the rapid advance of technology gave him an extensive and practically-informed background against which to view current issues.
The new book is divided into three parts: Setting the Stage, which describes his personal development as a journalist; The Big Stories that have defined our age; and The Grand Strategy, or What Must Be Done.
It is enlivened by tales of CIA and KGB agents in China, kidnappers in the Philippines, adventures in Afghanistan, an eye-opening experience in South Africa, anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, and even the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. He’s had quite a ride.
By the late 1980s, the impact of the Asian economic miracle was beginning to be felt. Having seen Asia, and seeing the writing on the wall in America, Holstein “in a book proposal that never sold” wrote:
The upper tier of well-educated, well-traveled and multicultural Americans are going to enjoy many years of prosperity. For them, the opportunities are enormous. My fear is that broad cross sections of other Americans do not fully understand the new rules of this global game. As a result, they are going to lose and keep losing.
Back then, he was well ahead of his time.
From the student newspaper at Michigan State through stints at local and regional newspapers, many years at United Press International, a brief diversion into corporate PR and a return to journalism at Business Week and US News & World Report, Holstein takes the reader on a tour of classic news reporting. The book is worth reading for this alone.
Along the way, he developed a keen interest in the role and responsibility of the free press – and a growing sense of alarm as it was eroded by the finance-driven consolidation of newspapers and magazines, the rise of politically motivated fake news, and the power of social media.
He warns that the news media have abdicated their “critical role of playing arbiter or gatekeeper – to help sort out truth from fiction, to help interpret the flood of information that exists in the world.”
Holstein has covered many Big Stories, but his main argument proceeds from chapters entitled “Stumbling into China’s Modernization” to “The Great Japan Debate” and “The South Korean Miracle” to “General Motors, Industrial Policy, and Globalization” and, finally, to “How America’s China Dream Turned Sour.”
In this context, he discusses the largely unchecked power of big technology companies and the need for them “to help us compete against China” rather than profit from sales to a dictatorship intent on stealing their IP and eating their lunch.
Government, he says, “has to establish a framework of acceptable behavior and be able to decide when Big Tech has crossed a line in the sand.”
This would be the leading edge of a responsible industrial policy aimed at revitalizing the American economy and closing the gap between the haves and have-nots.
There is more – including discussions of semiconductors, rare earths, telecom networks and computing systems – all in the context of “a complete and coherent strategy toward China.”
Holstein’s final points are that America needs to get its act together, organize itself for competition, stop fighting itself and create “a society that all participants believe in.”
“This ‘game’ will never be over. This is a multigenerational challenge we will hand down to our children and grandchildren.”
William Holstein is living testimony to the fact that the flow of information and commentary has not been and is not likely to be stifled, by the Chinese Communist Party or anyone else, as long as we take his warnings seriously.
Scott Foster is an analyst with Lightstream Research, Tokyo.