◎ How America approaches the CCP threat now will have profound ramifications for the world.
By Don Tse and Larry Ong
On Jan. 28, the Atlantic Council published an 85-page report titled, “The Longer Telegram: Toward a New American China Strategy,” by an anonymous author who claims to be a “former senior government official with deep expertise and experience dealing with China.” The report’s executive summary was republished by Politico Magazine on the same day with the headline, “To Counter China’s Rise, the U.S. Should Focus on Xi.” As stated explicitly in the Politico headline and the magazine’s China newsletter, the “Longer Telegram” calls on the United States to “put replacing Xi [Jinping] at the center of its China policy by leveraging splits in the CCP elite.”
“Anonymous,” who is channeling the American diplomat George F. Kennan and his “Long Telegram,” argues that U.S. strategy on China must work “along the grain of that complex reality” of how Communist China functions internally. The “Longer Telegram” author then argues that the “political reality” in the Chinese communist regime “is that the CCP is significantly divided on Xi’s leadership and his vast ambitions,” especially where “he threatens the lives, careers, and deeply held policy positions of many within its senior political echelons.” Since many in the Party elite want Xi Jinping gone and the CCP General Secretary’s revisionist ambitions present a “serious challenge to the whole of the democratic world,” U.S. strategy should thus revolve around leadership change, not regime change.
“Anonymous” believes that it is “simply unsophisticated strategy to treat the entire Communist Party as a single monolithic target when such internal fault lines should be clear to the analyst’s eye—and in the intelligent policy maker’s pen.” Rather, U.S. policy makers should understand the “granularity” of “internal political dynamics” in the CCP to “identify the optimal points of leverage to bring about real change” in “individual Chinese policy behaviors.” Successful implementation of the strategy outlined in the “Longer Telegram” should see “China return to its pre-2013 path—i.e., the pre-Xi strategic status quo” and the replacement of Xi Jinping by a “more moderate collective leadership” such as the one in the days of “Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao.”
The identity of “Anonymous” is already a topic of speculation among China watchers and will certainly be known to D.C. insiders. We believe that while the “Longer Telegram” may be written by one person, the arguments presented hint at the involvement of a larger grouping of establishment elites, including China specialists in the foreign affairs and intelligence communities, as well as business executives invested in Communist China. For instance, calls in the “Longer Telegram” to understand the CCP’s “internal political dynamics” and avoid viewing the Party as a monolith can be found in the House Intelligence Committee’s report assessing the U.S. intelligence community’s “capabilities and competencies with respect to the People’s Republic of China” published in September 2020. Also, the idea of a non-monolithic CCP and “moderate” voices in the Party elite was prominently mooted in the “China is not an enemy” open letter signed by over one hundred American scholars, former diplomats and military officials, and business leaders in July 2019. Meanwhile, former Trump administration officials can virtually be ruled out as possible authors of the “Longer Telegram”; establishment think-tanks and media outlets are putting themselves at huge risk in “platforming” the ideas of the previous administration in the current political climate in America.
As a leading authority in the field of CCP factional politics, we concur with the premise in the “Longer Telegram” that U.S. strategy should be “laser focused on Xi, his inner circle, and the Chinese political context in which they rule.” We conclude from our long research into the CCP that virtually all issues in Communist China are downstream of Party elite politics, and at the core of elite politics are intra-Party factional struggles. Ergo, leveraging splits in the CCP elite is arguably the most effective way to bring about real change in China. We believe that the Trump administration, consciously or otherwise, was already pressuring Xi Jinping and provoking escalations in the CCP factional struggle with its strategic approach to the PRC, particularly through the trade war, ideological confrontation, and touching “sensitive” human rights issues—the latter especially having dire implications for the warring Party factions and the political legacy of their figurehead leaders. Based on our analysis, successful implementation of the Trump administration’s strategy, especially if further refined and less hesitant, would ultimately force a showdown in the CCP elite before the 20th Party Congress in 2022. The resulting political crisis would compel Xi to either disintegrate the Party to ensure self-preservation, or go down with the regime; in the latter scenario, there is little chance of fractious CCP elites “uniting” behind Xi to save the Party when he is claiming personal responsibility for the regime’s evils and can easily be scapegoated. Taken to its logical conclusion, the Trump administration’s China strategy has the potential to induce regime collapse, given its implications on the CCP factional struggle. Regime collapse, however, would not necessarily lead to China’s descent into chaos and global economic turmoil, though it would undoubtedly impact the interests of establishment elites on a global scale.
Our study of the CCP naturally leads us to oppose and condemn in the strongest possible terms the goal of effecting leadership change without regime change with the goal of returning Communist China to its “pre-2013 path,” as advocated in the “Longer Telegram.” The notion that there are “moderates” or “reformers” in the CCP elite is a misnomer since Party leaders differ only in their chosen approach to actualizing the Marxist-Leninist regime’s ultimate goal of world domination, as well as in their personal circumstances in the factional struggle. So-called “liberal” and “moderate” Party leaders like Deng and Jiang never untethered themselves from communist ideology and also worked to advance the Party’s domination agenda, albeit through the strategy of “hiding strength, biding time” (韜光養晦). The “moderate collective leadership” of yesteryears created the “Great Firewall of China” that bifurcated the global internet; began the PRC’s military build-up; used the pretext of the 2009 Urumqi riots to start the persecution campaign against Uyghur Muslims; forcibly harvested the organs of Falun Gong practitioners and other prisoners of conscience; perpetuated the persecution of Tibetan Buddhists, House Christians, and other religious believers; and more pertinently for today, covered up the spread of the SARS coronavirus in 2003 and commenced coronavirus research that may have culminated in the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic (assuming the “lab leak” theory is the more probable explanation for the COVID outbreak). More dangerously, the same “moderate collective leadership” has seen marked successes in “elite capture” abroad. After the 2020 U.S. presidential election, PRC scholar Di Dongsheng strongly implied that President Joe Biden’s victory was the result of the CCP “leveraging the core circle of power and influence in the United States,” something that the regime had been engaging in over the past “30 to 40 years.” Wall Street “has had a very strong influence on U.S. domestic and foreign affairs,” Di said, and the “traditional elite, the political elite, the establishment, they’re very close to Wall Street.”
The reinstalling of a “more moderate collective leadership” in place of Xi Jinping means the perpetuation of the techno-totalitarian regime in China, and all that it entails for domestic human rights violations and overseas aggression. Establishment elites in China, the U.S., and elsewhere will be less immediately troubled by the CCP’s ambitions because they stand to profit from a “China without Xi,” but this China would remain firmly in the grasp of the tyrannical communist regime. The Chinese people would continue to suffer under brutal communist oppression and globalist exploitation. Additionally, a surviving CCP regime will continue to endanger Americans and other people in the free world. In short, the “Longer Telegram,” with its “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” agenda, is anti-China at its core, as well as anti-American in that it calls upon the U.S. to preserve an evil regime instead of working to take it down. It is a strategy that ultimately serves only the interests of establishment elites, be they those of China or America.
At this juncture, a “buyer beware” warning is due. “Anonymous” and those behind the “Longer Telegram” see “no reason to believe it impossible” if their strategy is “successfully followed” to see Xi Jinping “in time be replaced by the more traditional form of Communist Party leadership.” As longtime observers of CCP elite politics, we understand that the highly volatile and vicious nature of intra-Party factional struggle makes it nigh impossible to guarantee a “successful” outcome for schemers behind leadership change (regime change is another matter entirely). For the people behind the “Longer Telegram” to talk up the odds of implementing successful leadership change suggests that they either do not fully comprehend the complexities of CCP factional struggle, or are themselves partisan participants in the current struggle and have sufficient intelligence to publicly discuss successfully removing Xi, a powerful Party boss who is widely equated with Mao and Stalin.
The implications of the second scenario are massive: There is a very real possibility that establishment elites and Xi Jinping’s factional rivals have for years been running a psyop campaign overseas against him to pave his eventual ouster, and Xi’s grip on power is nowhere near as absolute as publicly advertised. It is easy to demonize a dictator without arousing his suspicions while steadily working towards his removal. Regardless, the complicated and combustible nature of CCP elite politics means any attempt at overturning the Party leadership without changing the regime itself is an extremely risky and reckless undertaking.
By hearkening to Kennan and his “Long Telegram” in the context of U.S. strategic approaches to China, those behind the “Longer Telegram” are certainly hoping to catch the Biden administration’s attention—releasing the report barely a week after Joe Biden’s inauguration and two days after the swearing-in of his pick for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. We do not rule out the possibility that the “Longer Telegram” is the Biden administration’s China blueprint released by proxy, or was intended to be a “trial balloon” and prepared in conjunction with persons associated with the Biden administration. Both hypotheses would require the report to be released under pseudonymity for the sake of plausible deniability. Time will reveal the actual relationship between the Biden administration and the “Longer Telegram.”
Thus far, the Biden administration has been frustratingly vague on how it plans to approach China. On the one hand, there appear to be signs of continuity between the two administrations. During his confirmation hearing, Secretary Blinken concurred with his predecessor’s finding that the PRC had committed genocide in Xinjiang and that “President Trump was right in taking a tougher approach to China.” Meanwhile, the Biden administration condemned recent PRC military pressure against Taiwan and dispatched an aircraft carrier group to the South China Sea shortly after an incursion of PLA fighters into Taiwan’s airspace.
On the other hand, the Biden administration has also deployed rhetoric that could just as well be tailored for the strategy outlined in the “Longer Telegram.” Secretary Blinken said he disagreed with the Trump administration’s approach in a “number of areas,” but did not elaborate. Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said during her confirmation hearing that she supports an “aggressive stance” against the PRC to meet the “reality of the particularly assertive and aggressive China that we see today,” a statement that did not offer clarity on how she really viewed Xi Jinping and the CCP. And in a press briefing on Jan. 25, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said that the Biden administration is looking to approach China with “some strategic patience,” a statement that does not inspire confidence that Team Biden will be genuinely tough on China, seeing how the Obama administration’s “strategic patience” with North Korea resulted in the regime developing nuclear capability. Tellingly, no Biden administration officials have specifically called out the CCP for its malign activity, instead either referring to the regime as “China” or the “PRC.”
How America approaches the CCP threat now will have profound ramifications for the world. The Biden administration has the option of sticking with the Trump administration’s anti-CCP approach and, in doing so, arrive at a fundamental resolution to the “China challenge.” Alternatively, the Biden administration could adopt the anti-China, “anti-Xi, not anti-CCP” strategy outlined in the “Longer Telegram,” or other weak approaches, leave the Chinese people and citizens of the free world to the mercies of the Party, and open the door to victory for global communism.