China’s Domestic Challenges, With Ian Johnson

Ian Johnson, CFR’s Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss economic, political, and demographic developments within China.

February 8, 2022 — 33:14 min
Play Button Pause Button
0:00 0:00

Host

James M. Lindsay

Senior Vice President, Director of Studies, and Maurice R. Greenberg Chair Full Bio

Episode Guests

Ian Johnson

Stephen A. Schwarzman Senior Fellow for China Studies

Show Notes

Ian Johnson, CFR’s Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss economic, political, and demographic developments within China.

 

Articles Mentioned on the Podcast

 

Li Yuan, “A coronavirus infection illuminates a migrant worker’s tale of inequality in China.” New York Times, January 31, 2022.

 

Books Mentioned

 

Elizabeth Economy, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future (2004)

 

Ian Johnson, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao (2017)

Close

Transcript

Jim Lindsay:

Welcome to The President's Inbox, a CFR podcast about the foreign policy challenges facing the United States. I'm Jim Lindsay, Director of Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. This week's topic is China's domestic challenges.

Jim Lindsay:

With me to discuss internal developments in China is Ian Johnson. Ian is the Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the council. He lived in China for more than 20 years, much of it as a journalist. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his coverage of China for The Wall Street Journal. Ian is the author of three books, most recently, The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao. Ian, thanks for joining me.

Ian Johnson:

It's my pleasure.

Jim Lindsay:

Ian, I've had a lot of guests on The President's Inbox talking about China's foreign policy or about how other countries should respond to Chinese foreign policy. I wanted to talk to you about what's happening inside China these days. The stories I read about China range from those that depict it as a country on an unstoppable rise to global power. To those at the other end of the spectrum, they're portrayed as a country of deep divisions and big challenges that are getting worse and not better.

Jim Lindsay:

I was hoping that you could help us make sense of those competing narratives, and perhaps the best place to start, since we are talking just before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, is what you see as the mood in China today.

Ian Johnson:

I was in Beijing for the 2008 Olympics. And although obviously I'm not in Beijing today, being in close contact with friends and following discussions and debates in China, I feel the mood is quite different. In 2008, there was still this unbridled optimism inside China and even abroad that China was a rising power. It was maybe moving toward a more open society in some way. Obviously it was still an authoritarian state that jailed dissidents, et cetera, but that things were moving forward. And I think now we have a much harder edge China.

Ian Johnson:

We see that abroad, but also at home in the treatment of minority groups, in the treatment of human rights lawyers, of religious figures, you name it. Anybody who might be an independent source of power, some sort of civil society actor has been basically brought to their knees over the past decade. And so the Olympics now, the contrast I see, almost as a burden, as a challenge, something that people have to get through, especially because of COVID-19. It's another ask that the government is asking of its people.

Ian Johnson:

It's not going to be fun. There's not going to be any parties or anything like that. It's another challenge that has to, to be met in order for the party to put forth a good face.

Jim Lindsay:

Ian, in your view, was this turn toward authoritarianism or re-embrace of greater central control something that was inevitable, or has this been the product of particular factors or particular people's choices.

Ian Johnson:

To some degree, it was inevitable because I don't think there was really anybody in the party leadership that wanted China to liberalize. There was no Gorbachev in China. Deng Xiaoping was certainly not that and his handpicked successors Jiang Zemin, who ruled into until 2002, and then his successor for the following decade, Hu Jintao, were not liberals. They were not facing a country in crisis. They were facing a country that was on their way up.

Ian Johnson:

And so there was no existential threat that forced them to rethink the system and to open it radically, such as Gorbachev sort of was forced to do in the 1980s. So, the country was never going to really open up, but I think there was still a sense that there were forces in society, such as a more open media environment in the 2000s. There was more tolerance. The government under Hu Jintao ruled with a lighter hand than subsequently became the case, obviously, under Xi Jinping. But I don't think the party won wanted to open up too much.

Ian Johnson:

We can see this even after the '08 Olympics. Soon after the future Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo was arrested in 2010, all the major social media influencers, these so-called big Vs, because they had a huge number, sometimes millions of verified followers, they were arrested or kneecapped and silenced. And so all of these things began to be closed down bit by bit, but it certainly did pick up under Xi Jinping. And there I do think that personality matters.

Jim Lindsay:

Obviously one of the places we are seeing the authoritarian turn in Chinese politics manifest itself is with the pandemic. China is, I think, the only country left trying to pursue a zero tolerance policy. We have seen lockdowns, real lockdowns, not just in neighborhoods where one or two cases have shown up, but in whole cities. How has COVID sort of changed its trajectory of Chinese society, Ian?

Ian Johnson:

The COVID crackdown super charged trends that were already underway, the ability of foreign journalists to work inside China, the ability of people to discuss certain topics was already being circumscribed. But the COVID crackdown allowed the government to implement more and tighter controls than had previously been seen. And I don't think they want to go back to the way things were before. I really think that the government in some way in the future will keep some of these controls in place.

Ian Johnson:

Certainly it will continue to use health warning apps to monitor people's movements and things like that, and it probably does not want foreign journalists back in the same number that they were there before. It's probably willing to accept that there will be fewer foreign students. There used to be hundreds of thousands of foreign students in China. Now there are basically zero. And I think they don't really care whether that number rises again in the future.

Ian Johnson:

So that era of openness, where there were all kinds of things that were allowed, I don't see that coming back anytime soon, if at all.

Jim Lindsay:

My sense also, Ian, is that in China there's been less emphasis on learning English. There was a period of time in which people were encouraged to learn English, but that seems to have dipped. Is that the case?

Ian Johnson:

English is always going to be the first choice for almost any non-English speaking country as a foreign language. So, you'll still find a lot of Chinese people who will speak English. But the trajectory that a lot of people had where you would want to go abroad to study, maybe even for high school and certainly for college, I think that's going to diminish. About 30, 40 years ago, people would go abroad to study maybe just for a graduate degree. But through the '90s and 2000s, people would go abroad for their undergraduate, their high school. That probably will become less.

Ian Johnson:

As people say, they see more opportunities staying inside China and more problems if they go abroad, especially , if they have ties to the Communist Party.

Jim Lindsay:

So you don't make much of the fact that the Beijing municipal government recently took down subway signs that were in English and replaced them with signs in Pinyin?

Ian Johnson:

Well, that is probably a bit of cultural nationalism coming to the fore, but I don't know how much to make of that. I think overall you'll still find Chinese people learning English in high school and things like that.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, let's talk a little bit about the economy. There have been a spade of stories for those who follow the financial press about a Chinese real estate firm known as Evergrande, and it apparently got very, very big, fueled a big housing boom, and that housing boom looks to have turned into a bust. We, in the United States, have some memory in the not too distant past of the bad things that can happen when the real estate market bursts. Can you sort of walk us through what the consequences are and what we're seeing in China in terms of the economic impact?

Ian Johnson:

The first thing we have to remember is that people have been predicting a financial crisis in China for almost the past 20 years. This goes back even earlier to the 1990s when the big state banks were burdened by bad debt, and then the government went around and tried to clean them up again. And that didn't work. There were also housing bubbles before. There were housing bubbles in the '90s and 2000s.

Ian Johnson:

Clearly, this is of a higher degree, a greater scale than we've seen before, but I do think that we are probably looking in the wrong place for a crisis if we're thinking of a US style 2008 financial meltdown that results in mass unemployment and meltdown of financial institutions and things like that. And that's because the government controls all of the major banks in China, and it can control the bad debts so that it can allow for a more of a slower controlled crash, let's say, over years. But the longer term impact is still bad.

Ian Johnson:

And I think that the longer term impact, and we've seen this in the 2000s as well with the bad banks and the bad debts that the banks had, that the use of capital is less efficient than it ought to be. Now, this was sort of masked in the 2000s when China had a booming demographic situation. More and more people were coming into the workplace. It had a young workforce, and it masked a lot of these problems. But as China moves forward, it needs to use capital more efficiently. It needs to set up higher value companies.

Ian Johnson:

It needs to channel savings to higher tech companies, et cetera. It can't be wasting its capital on these kind of real estate firms. And this is the problem, that basically the huge savings rate in China is being fretted away on these kinds of bailouts.

Jim Lindsay:

What aspect of the Chinese economy would worry you going forward?

Ian Johnson:

I think that would be really it. It would be the long-term secular decline of the economy rather than a cyclical bubble that will result in some sort of a crisis. It's not that China is not going to grow faster than our economies grow, because it's still a relatively poor country, but getting even to 8% or 7% is going to be harder and harder for the government. It's going to have to keep priming the pump, putting more money into projects that are not economically efficient, and it's not going to allow for a longer term healthy growth, which it knows it needs.

Ian Johnson:

There are many people in China, economists who've written about the need for a more efficient economy, a more efficient use of capital, but I don't think we're going to see that. I think this is really the challenge for China going forward, that the economy begins to slow down. Again, not in some sort of spectacular pyrotechnic blaze out, but just in the inability to keep up.

Ian Johnson:

And if that happens, it's quite possible that China then falls into what's known as the middle income trap, where countries are not able to make that next step into say OECD levels of development, but are stuck in the sort of Latin American level of development of 10, 20, 30,000 per capita.

Jim Lindsay:

How much of the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy, Ian, is tied up in maintaining robust economic growth rates of six, seven, 8%? Because the math is pretty challenging on it's core. Eventually, as you get bigger, it's hard to keep growing at those numbers.

Ian Johnson:

Yes. Well, it has to be somewhat cautious about this. Because even in the 1990s, people were saying that if growth goes below a certain amount, like 10% or 8% or something like that, there 'll be riots in the street and the party will lose legitimacy. I think the main thing is for people that tomorrow has to be better than today. That just like in any society, you want your children to have a better future. You want your children to be able to buy a piece of property, an apartment, to have a job.

Ian Johnson:

You want your pension to be secure. You want that kind of thing. And as long as the party can provide that, I think, yeah, that's going to be okay. It can all also bolster this. As that maybe goes down a little bit, it can bolster that through more nationalistic elements to rally people around the flag. And maybe that's where it gets worrisome from a foreign policy point of view.

Jim Lindsay:

I want to get back to this nationalism issue, but first, I want to talk a little bit more about economics and particularly the issue of inequality. There was a story late last month in The New York Times that spoke about two Chinese citizens who've become the talk of China. One is an itinerant worker, Yu A. I may be mispronouncing the name. I apologize if it did. He contracted COVID. The state released information about where he had been in the first 18 days of 2022. He'd been in 28 different localities, and he was doing all kinds of work apparently in the wee hours of the morning.

Jim Lindsay:

The other person was an employee of one of the state banks. She also contracted COVID. And in the first part of January, she had gone to four shopping malls, made a purchase at a French luxury store, saw a talk show, and went skiing. Now, number one, it's frightening how much detail gets released on these activities, again, getting back to what you said earlier about the nature of the authoritarian state in China, but clearly this started a conversation going in China about the substantial inequality that exists there.

Ian Johnson:

No this has been a problem in China and a topic of discussion for a long time. And the fact that this could be discussed in China, for example, in social media shows that it's something the government feels comfortable allowing to be discussed within certain parameters. Last year, for example, was the hundredth anniversary of the Communist Party, and one of their accomplishments that year was the official ending of absolute poverty, which they defined as I think $2 a day, which in some places that might be absolute poverty, but in many parts of China, you're still poor if you're earning more than $2 a day.

Ian Johnson:

And so their benchmark was low, but they do take pride in that and in building roads to poor areas, in moving people out of economically unviable parts of the country, and that sort of thing. This is part of their legitimacy. They are after all, and Xi Jinping has reemphasized this, they are a Communist Party and they're supposed to stand for social justice. And so if you see people who have absolutely nothing, who are very, very poor, who are working in hours just to make ends meet, then that is a problem for the government.

Ian Johnson:

However, I think like all things, it matters if there's progress being made, at least for those people. You see a lot of poor people in China able to make the distinction between their situation and the rich people say in Shanghai. They'll say, "Well, those are rich people. I'm moving forward. Maybe one day I can become rich too, or maybe my children or grandchildren can become rich." It's sort of like the American Dream. You may not be that wealthy, but if you think you're moving in the right direction, if things are getting better, then you're happy.

Ian Johnson:

As long as they can make that relative improvement, then the issue of social unrest can be kept at bay. But if there is no place for these people to go in the future, that's the problem.

Jim Lindsay:

Well, it is interesting that China is a Communist country. It also happens to have one of the most unequal economies in the world. One of the more arresting statistics I saw recently is that China has more billionaires than the United States, India, and Germany combined, and that the top 10% of people in China control 68% of the country's wealth. What steps is Xi taking to address this? He's certainly talked about trying to minimize or reduce economic inequality. Is that just rhetoric, or are there actual steps being taken?

Ian Johnson:

So far, it's largely rhetoric. And you can see this because the most effective way to reduce income inequality in China would be to implement a serious income tax. But there is no real serious income tax in China. It accounts for a very, very small percent of government revenues. Income taxes is negligible. So this is a sort of thing that the government could do, but it is not willing to do right now. They were pushing this idea in the past of something called common prosperity.

Ian Johnson:

But this has been something that they've sort of been backpedaling on a little bit now, because I think they realize that it makes rich people nervous.

Jim Lindsay:

Again, I will note the irony of a Communist country not having an income tax. And yet not even having a flat tax, let alone a progressive income tax, but I will let that by. I take your point that for Chinese citizens, they evaluate things in terms of whether tomorrow looks like it's going to be better than today. And particularly, it's going to be a better place for their children. But this raises an interesting question about Chinese demography. China is a country that is getting old before it gets rich. You noted that while it may have a large overall economy on a per capita basis.

Jim Lindsay:

We're still talking about lower middle income category. And one of the notable things in China is that the birth rate has been falling. 2021 saw the fewest number of births in China since at least 1950. This is despite the government ending its one child policy and actually go in the opposite direction, trying to encourage families to have children. So why is it if China's growing, many Chinese don't seem to want to have children?

Ian Johnson:

Well, this is a problem that many countries face. But in China, perhaps it's exacerbated by the fact that housing is so expensive in China. If you try to buy an apartment in Beijing, you're looking at an astronomical price for an apartment in the city center core, which if you know Beijing, it's a series of ring roads and it's sort of inside the fourth ring road, which is a pretty big area. You're still looking at something at least 10 to $15,000 a square meter. I'm not sure exactly how that would contrast, but...

Jim Lindsay:

That's expensive.

Ian Johnson:

It's expensive. You could easily pay a million dollars for an apartment. In fact, I was living in a million dollar apartment in Beijing, and it was not my own apartment, unfortunately, but it wasn't even that big of an apartment. It was shocking. And I think for many people, they don't really know what to do. You see, many people in China got their apartments about 40 years ago when they privatized the housing stock. And as in many Communist countries, people got an apartment from the company or the unit where they worked.

Ian Johnson:

So if they worked for the Academy of Sciences or if they worked for the steel company, they were given an apartment to live in. When they privatized it, they just essentially gave those apartments to everybody. And many people ended up with a couple of apartments. So for that generation, it's okay. It's for their children that's the problem. And you begin to realize your kid can probably never live inside Beijing. They'll have to live far on the outskirts and have a very long commute in or something like that. And I think that's really one of the challenges.

Ian Johnson:

People just feel that if they're a young couple, they can't afford a place to live. Maybe they're having to live with their parents in a cramped apartment, and that's not really conducive to raising a family, so many people are opting against them. Then there's the pressure of schools. Schooling is expensive. The government has really recently tried to reduce that by trying to end private tutoring, which was ruinously expensive for families to hire private tutors so their kids could get into college.

Jim Lindsay:

China has a system which entrance exams or examinations of some sort are critical and determining where you can go to school, correct?

Ian Johnson:

Yes, exactly. There's one nationwide exam. And you had to basically send your kid to a cram school afterwards for hours a day, and then spend a huge amount of your income on that sort of thing just for your kid to get into a normal university.

Jim Lindsay:

These are like, in the American case, SAT prep classes or LSAT prep classes, but perhaps on steroids.

Ian Johnson:

Exactly. And in the US, there are other mitigating circumstances that people take into account, your social economic background, et cetera, but there's nothing like that in China. So parents really had huge costs and that along with housing and other issues makes it very unattractive to have more than one kid.

Jim Lindsay:

My sense also is that China's housing stock may not be well dispersed in the sense that there's a lot of houses that have been built as part of this building boom that aren't necessarily near where people work.

Ian Johnson:

Yes. The government has tried to build mini cities on the outskirts of big metropolitan areas as almost catchment areas for migrant laborers. So maybe a county seat would become a place where they would all go and live, which sounds great in theory. But in reality, if there's no work there, why are you going to go live there? So it's not enough just to have an apartment a thousand miles away from Beijing in your hometown. You need a place in Beijing, but they haven't been willing to expand the housing stock there or allow these migrant laborers to go to local schools.

Ian Johnson:

And so you have this crisis of housing and of migrant laborers, like that fellow you mentioned earlier, who has to work endless hours in order to support himself.

Jim Lindsay:

One of the other challenges the government in Beijing faces is the environmental degradation caused by China's rapid rise. Our former colleague Liz Economy wrote a book in that called The River Runs Black, and it was horrific to read how badly the Chinese countryside was polluted in the course of industrialization. Now, of course, the Chinese Communist Party has sought to address a number of those issues, also the issues arising around the low quality of the air in the major cities like Beijing and Shanghai. But one of the big challenges appears to be the lack of water.

Jim Lindsay:

As I understand it, China accounts about 20% of the world's population, but only about 7% of its fresh water, particularly in the Northern part of China, water scarcity is a very real thing. I've heard stories that the number of rivers in China that have disappeared number in the thousands. So, what is your sense of how the Chinese government is dealing with this sort of problem?

Ian Johnson:

Well, one of the advantages of having an authoritarian technocratic state is that they can grapple with problems when they see them in a much faster way than say messy democracies can. As they saw this water crisis brewing in the north, they built a huge water diversion project to move some of the water north through an enormous series of aqueducts and canals up to Beijing and other places around it, which, of course, helps Beijing, but hurts the ecological situation back down south, because those areas were used to having a lot of water and the lakes were full.

Ian Johnson:

And so now they're facing ecological problems themselves. So a bit there's a bit of sort of taking for one pocket and putting it in the other, but they do face a lot of problems. And this can be seen in the Olympics, for example. Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics. It's a completely ecologically insane idea. There is no snow in Beijing. It's cold. The rivers and lakes freeze over and you can go skating on them in Beijing, but there is no snow at all. Everything is through artificial snow.

Jim Lindsay:

This is, by the way, is the first Olympics in which virtually all of the snow has been manufactured.

Ian Johnson:

Yes, that's right. I went to the Vancouver Olympics, which normally Vancouver normally has a lot of snow, but they had a dry patch to that point and they had problems and had to use a lot of artificial snow. But basically this area has no snow at all period. And when you look at it from a helicopter, you'll see the sort of white hill and everything around it as far as you can see is brown. And I went up to that area into 2015 after they won the bid, and I went to local reservoirs where they're siphoning off the water for the snow making machines.

Ian Johnson:

It's not a little bit of water. This is a huge amount of water that's used. It's a very inefficient way of using water. It's completely wasteful. It's worse than a golf course in the middle of the desert. And the farmers there, of course, are the ones that suffer because they don't get the water for their irrigation. And that means that they have shorter growing seasons. So it's a problem that you find across the board in China, the overuse of the environment by the population.

Ian Johnson:

And so this, of course, goes back in a way to the demographic issue. On the one hand, yes, it's a challenge, but it's also a challenge for China to have an ever expanding population. And so, in some ways, it's not necessarily a bad thing if they can manage this balancing act for the next say 40, 50 years of having a shrinking population. Overall, it will help the country.

Jim Lindsay:

So, what do all of these challenges when they add up mean for Xi Jinping? Obviously 2022 is a big year for President Xi. There's a lot of speculation that come next October at a big party congress, he is going to be given a third term, breaking the sort of informal, I guess, is formal limit on the number of times you can serve as president. I know that the financier George Soros caused a lot of news recently when he said that actually all these problems are going to bubble up and keep or potentially keep President Xi from being named to a third term. How do you assess all of this?

Ian Johnson:

I don't see China facing an immediate crisis in that sense, but I think of it as a longer term secular decline. I don't want to say that we've seen peak China, which is what some people provocatively say, that the demographic situation in the past, et cetera , et cetera, led to a peak of Chinese power a few years ago, and that it's going to necessarily decline. China is still a very well run country by many measures. It has an effective government that can handle a lot of challenges. It will have a growing, stronger, more technologically advanced military in the future.

Ian Johnson:

It will manage to overcome some of these problems, I think. But in the long run, you have a country that is trying to continually batten down the hatches to get through one crisis after another. And I think this speaks to Xi Jinping's leadership. He is probably the least cosmopolitan and worst educated leader that China has had since Mao. Every leader after that... Deng Xiaoping, even as a young man, worked in France in a for an auto factory, but he had some experience overseas.

Ian Johnson:

Jiang Zemin studied in the Soviet Union and had studied in missionary schools in Shanghai, and so to Hu Jintao. Xi Jinping is a product of this system. He was kicked out of school because of the cultural revolution, not his own fault, but left primary school or middle school. Never really had a college education. I'm not blaming him for this. This was the product of those years of turmoil, but he is somebody who's never essentially lived overseas.

Ian Johnson:

I think his vision of China's future is kind of his father's Communist Party, the 1950s Communist Party, where the leadership was run by upstanding clean cadres who worked for the common good, at least this is the myth that people have of the 1950s, where the people were united behind the party and they did all these great things. And that if you just sort of pull yourself up by your bootstraps a little bit and tighten up and stiffen your back a little bit, that you can get through anything. And this is sort of his view.

Ian Johnson:

We've got to just reassert control over things and try to smarten up a little bit more, and that's going to be good enough to master the problems facing China. But in fact, what China needs is a loosening up a little bit of things, so that smart people in China can continue to create and come up with creative solutions, which is what China needs.

Jim Lindsay:

But if Xi's tightening doesn't work, where will we see the problems manifest themselves first?

Ian Johnson:

I think we'll see China enter a longer term phase of mediocre economic growth. I don't want to say recessions and depressions and things like that. But instead of having the 6% growth that it needs, it gets 4 or 5% growth, and that you have this long-term Brezhnev-ization of China.

Ian Johnson:

I mean, not leading to the same kind of crisis that you had in the Soviet Union, like bread lines and things like that, but a period of stasis and relative stagnation where the really the smartest people of China don't want to stay in China, where creativity is not fostered, and where you don't have the kind of ilan that you had in the '90s and 2000s when people were excited in China and they wanted to push their country forward and they were given an opportunity to do that. I don't see that in China right now.

Jim Lindsay:

How do you see that trend manifesting itself or translating into foreign policy? Talked a bit before about a potential surge in nationalism. Obviously there's a lot of talk about China having undergone the century of humiliation. Lying offshore from China is the thriving Democracy of Taiwan, which the Chinese consider to be a renegade province. Do you see the sort of secular Brezhnev-ization, if we can use that term, as increasing the likelihood we're going to see a more nationalist and potentially more aggressive China going forward?

Ian Johnson:

Yes, I think that's already apparent in Chinese foreign policy over the past decade. I think foreign policy in many ways reflects the domestic situation of a country. And in China, we've seen a harder edged authoritarian state take shape. And likewise, we've seen a harder edged Chinese foreign policy. We saw that out with that wolf warrior diplomacy phase, which has sort of come to an end, but this was a period for a few years where Chinese diplomats acted very undiplomatically and basically yelled at their host countries all the time.

Ian Johnson:

And we see the way it's made these grabs in the South China Sea, challenged Japan in the north over the Senkaku Islands. I don't foresee an imminent invasion of Taiwan, but I could see an increased probability of mistakes being made, the kind of mistakes that can lead to war and conflict.

Jim Lindsay:

Is the reunification with Taiwan something that is important to average Chinese?

Ian Johnson:

Average Chinese have been fed a steady diet of this nationalist narrative, where you have to have Taiwan in order for China to be whole again. And so, if Taiwan were in some way to declare independence, then I think it would be impossible for a Chinese leader not to attack. The smartest thing would be a continuation of the wishy-washy status quo, I think, where Taiwan doesn't declare independence, but functions essentially as an independent country, and China allows its economic mite to draw Taiwan ever closer into its orbit.

Ian Johnson:

But I'm not sure that the leadership has this patience or wisdom to allow this to happen. Again, I'm not predicting there'll be an invasion of Taiwan next year or something like that, but I think what happens in wars often are that mistakes are made, miscalculations, misjudgements, where one side thinks something is never going to happen and actually it happens.

Ian Johnson:

And so they think, well, no one's going to push back if we grab some islands from Taiwan, but actually Taiwan does push back where they decide maybe not for a full scale invasion, but to try some asymmetrical warfare against Taiwan, and that causes an international reaction. I could see this kind of thing happening, the same way that Putin tries to push the envelope against his neighbors. China could do the same thing with increased bellicosity Taiwan.

Jim Lindsay:

Speaking of getting a steady diet of a particular view of the world, do you have a sense of whether the way average Chinese in the streets think about the United States has changed over the last couple of decades?

Ian Johnson:

Absolutely. I think the United States used to be seen as the ultimate greatest destination. You could go to the place you definitely wanted your kid to go to study as the sort of model country for many people. And obviously the US has taken a hit, not just in China, but around the world due to various issues, such as the 20 years of war the United States has been engaged in, the domestic crises, et cetera, problems with the pandemic in more recent years, that goes without saying.

Ian Johnson:

But I think also, of course, as China has increased its economic development, it's a more attractive place for Chinese people, and they travel around and see that, yeah, the United States is a great place, but that China is still pretty good and not on a par perhaps with the United States in some levels, but it's a safer place and it's home. And so there isn't this blind sort of lure of the United States that you saw in the past.

Jim Lindsay:

I have to ask you in closing, Ian, you spent nearly two decades living in China. What do you miss most about it?

Ian Johnson:

I miss the friendships that I had with a particular group of people with whom I used to practice the kind of martial arts, the kind of stick fighting. And those were a great group of people. They were working class Beijingers or Beijing dialect, bus drivers and cooks and various people from all different walks of life. And they were the kind of people who, even when things were getting tense between the United States and China, they never wanted to talk about politics, because they never wanted to personalize it.

Ian Johnson:

They never wanted to make you feel uncomfortable. They just wanted to be your friend and to go out afterwards for dinner. And they were really good, solid people, and I really do miss them.

Jim Lindsay:

On that optimistic note about our common humanity, I'll close up The President's Inbox for this week. My guest has been Ian Johnson, the Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Ian, thanks for joining me.

Ian Johnson:

It's been my pleasure.

Jim Lindsay:

Please subscribe to The President's Inbox on Apple Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you listen, and leave us a review. They help us get noticed and improve the show. The books and articles mentioned in this episode are listed on the podcast page for The President's Inbox on cfr.org. As always, opinions expressed in The President's Inbox are solely those are the hosts or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

Jim Lindsay:

Today's episode was produced by Zoe Collis, with senior producer, Jeremy Sherlick. Zoe did double duty as recording engineer. Thank you, Zoe. Special thanks. Going to Margaret Gach for her assistance. This is Jim Lindsay. Thanks for listening.

More Episodes

Liana Fix, a CFR fellow for Europe, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how German foreign policy has changed in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ...

Liana Fix, a CFR fellow for Europe, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss how German foreign policy has changed in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and ...

Read More

Suzanne Nossel, the Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss growing threats around the world to free expression and how th...

Suzanne Nossel, the Chief Executive Officer of PEN America, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss growing threats around the world to free expression and how th...

Read More

Leslie Vinjamuri, the Director of the US and the Americas programme and Dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs at Chatham Hou...

Leslie Vinjamuri, the Director of the US and the Americas programme and Dean of the Queen Elizabeth II Academy for Leadership in International Affairs at Chatham Hou...

Read More

Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Washington Post columnist, sits down with Jam...

Max Boot, the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a Washington Post columnist, sits down with Jam...

Read More

Evan Greenberg, chairman and CEO of Chubb, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss growing tensions in U.S.-China economic relations, the importance of trade to t...

Evan Greenberg, chairman and CEO of Chubb, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss growing tensions in U.S.-China economic relations, the importance of trade to t...

Read More

Gernot Wagner, climate economist at Columbia Business School, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss progress in the green energy transition and the risks and be...

Gernot Wagner, climate economist at Columbia Business School, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss progress in the green energy transition and the risks and be...

Read More

Ian Johnson, CFR’s Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss economic, political, and demographic development...

Ian Johnson, CFR’s Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss economic, political, and demographic development...

Read More

Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR and Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy ...

Stephen Sestanovich, George F. Kennan senior fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at CFR and Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis professor of international diplomacy ...

Read More

James M. Lindsay sits down with Ali Wyne, senior analyst of Global Macro-Geopolitics at Eurasia Group, to discuss great power competition and the growing rivalry bet...

James M. Lindsay sits down with Ali Wyne, senior analyst of Global Macro-Geopolitics at Eurasia Group, to discuss great power competition and the growing rivalry bet...

Read More

James M. Lindsay sits down with Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, to discuss House Speaker Nancy Pelos...

James M. Lindsay sits down with Bonnie S. Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, to discuss House Speaker Nancy Pelos...

Read More

Top Stories on CFR

Energy and Environment

Billion-dollar disasters such as Hurricane Ian are on the rise in the United States. Officials should take swift action to reduce the damage and protect Americans.

Monetary Policy

Many central banks are navigating turbulent waters as they battle inflation, a strengthening dollar, and an energy crunch. Should they coordinate policy?

United States

Violence during the election season undermines the United States’ democracy, its relationship with allies, and its strength against adversaries.