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Journalist: As U.S. Retreats From World Stage, China Moves To Fill The Void


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Under the banners of America First and Make America Great Again, President Trump has been reducing commitments abroad and withdrawing from treaties. Meanwhile, China is doing the opposite, trying to fill the gaps, expanding its power and playing a larger role on the global stage. How and why it's doing that and what that means for the U.S. is the subject of an article in The New Yorker called "Making China Great Again: How Beijing Learned To Use Trump To Its Advantage." It's by my guest, Evan Osnos.

President Trump has been leaning on China to pressure North Korea to end its nuclear program. But the fragile relationship between China, the U.S. and North Korea became more complicated yesterday after President Trump sent out a provocative tweet that he has a bigger nuclear button on his desk than Kim Jong Un does. On New Year's Day, North Korea reached out to South Korea, and now they've agreed to begin talks and open a hotline. I'll ask Evan Osnos about that a little later. He reported from North Korea last year. Osnos lived in China from 2005 to 2013 where he first reported for The Chicago Tribune, then for The New Yorker. He went to China at the end of last year to report his new article.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So I want to start the interview the same way your piece does because it's such a great start. Your article starts with a Chinese action film that you think has a message about the direction China is heading in and the image it's trying to create under President Xi. And this is a movie called "Wolf Warrior 2." I guess it's the sequel to "Wolf Warrior."


GROSS: It's an action film released in China in July. It's China's official entry into the Oscars. So tell us about this movie.

OSNOS: Well, I first thought that "Wolf Warrior 2" was going to be a pretty forgettable sort of shoot-'em-up. You know, it had a lonesome hero and a lot of explosions, and I don't think anybody saw "Wolf Warrior 1" as far as I can remember. And then something surprising happened, which is that "Wolf Warrior 2" instantly became a phenomenon. People started standing in the theaters at the end and giving it a standing ovation, and they started singing the national anthem. This is all, of course, happening in Chinese theaters. And it became quite clear that the story had captured something really important about where China was, and the story is very simple.

I mean, the story is about a special forces veteran of the People's Liberation Army who goes overseas and goes into a sort of fictional African country and saves civilians, not just Chinese civilians but also foreigners and helps get them to safety. And there's this one scene where he's saving an American, and the American says, well, the U.S. Marines will come to our rescue, and the Chinese villain says, well, where's the U.S. Marines now? And so there's moments like that that really expressed in a lot of ways the way that Rambo kind of captured the Reagan era for Americans. "Wolf Warrior 2" captured something in China's self-image, a much more muscular iteration of its own self-image. And it wants to be seen now not only as a more vigorous, forceful presence around the world but also as something of a protector, something of a leader, and that was really new and interesting.

GROSS: I like the way America is depicted because in the final battle, the villain, the American villain, tells the Chinese hero people like you will always be inferior to people like me, get used to it. And then the Chinese hero beats the American to death (laughter).

OSNOS: Yeah. Yeah, it's - you know, it was not a subtle piece of work, I have to say, but it does capture exactly what the message is they're trying to give off.

GROSS: And then you write that the film closes with the image of a Chinese passport and the words don't give up. If you run into danger, please remember a strong motherland will always have your back.

You say in your article that there are things in this movie that wouldn't have made sense, that wouldn't have existed as concepts in a Chinese film when you first went to China to report from there in 2005. What are some of those things?

OSNOS: Well, in 2005, there were very few Chinese businesses that were operating around the world, meaning they didn't have large numbers of staff that were in Africa or in Latin America. That was really just beginning. China adopted a policy around that time called the Going Out policy, which meant that they were literally going out into other parts of the world where China hadn't existed. There's always been Chinatowns, of course, but this was something different. This was about Chinese companies and individuals planting the flag.

And the other thing that was new was that for a long time China viewed itself - really for more than a hundred years China has viewed itself as being in a position of weakness. At the end of the 19th century, there was a great Chinese philosopher named Liang Qichao who called China the sick man of Asia because it had been invaded and it had been carved up by foreign powers, and that became the defining image. The sick man of Asia was something that extended all the way through the communist revolution all the way up even into the late 20th century as China began to become more prosperous.

But it was only really in the last couple of years - just, you know, in the last sort of three or four years - that China began to see itself as a much more powerful player in the world, as something that was beginning to edge towards becoming a competitor or a rival to the United States. But until recently, it still held itself back, and there was a - there was an expression that the Chinese political class used. Deng Xiaoping coined it in 1990. He said we must hide our strength and bide our time, meaning let's just make sure that we keep a step back from the United States because we don't really want to irritate them. We want to let them be the sole superpower in the world, and we'll just steadily build up our strength as we go.

GROSS: And is that changing now under President Xi?

OSNOS: Yeah. That's the big surprise for me, frankly. It's really quite stark. You know, I lived in China until 2013, and now I go back periodically. And when I came back on this most recent set of trips over the course of the last few months, it was quite striking how that period of hiding your strength and biding your time is just emphatically over. China is now embracing in a much more full-throated and explicit way the sense that it is - its moment has arrived. And the leader, Xi Jinping, says this much. He says - in a big speech in October, he said that a new era is here in which China will now move closer to the center stage in the world. He said we now represent what he called the Chinese solution, the (speaking Chinese) which means an alternative to Western democracy. And those are words that they never would have said as recently as three years ago.

GROSS: So at the same time that China is building itself up, America under the Trump administration seems to be withdrawing in some ways from the world stage, withdrawing from certain treaties, withdrawing from U.N. commitments. Is China trying to take advantage of the vacuum that we're leaving as we withdraw from certain areas?

OSNOS: They are. Actually, they'll say as much. If you go and talk to strategists in Beijing, what you find out is that they call this the period of strategic opportunity. And I asked a strategist in Beijing, this very prominent figure, a guy named Yan Xuetong. I said, how long does the period of strategic opportunity last for China? He says, well, it lasts as long as Trump is in office. And if you line up - just on a piece of paper, if you line up the ways in which the United States is withdrawing from the world, you see that there are all of these quite immediate and natural ways in which China is seeking to fill that void.

And it's worth pointing out that President Trump is not withdrawing from the world apologetically. He's doing it with some verve. I mean, he believes this is the right thing to do. So he is, as he said, withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement, withdrawing from UNESCO, he's pulled out of the U.N. negotiations on how to handle the refugee crisis, he's threatening to overturn the Korean Free Trade Agreement. And in each one of these cases, China has found a way to try to move into that space. So at the same time that the United States has said that the U.N. General Assembly needs to cut the peacekeeping budget by $600 million, China has said, well, we will now invest more in peacekeeping at the U.N. They've become one of the largest contributors of troops and money to U.N. peacekeeping.

Another example is foreign aid. You know, the United States, under the budget that the Trump administration has proposed for 2018, would cut foreign aid by about 42 percent. China has said in fact that it's expanding its foreign aid around the world. They've embarked on a project called The Belt and Road Initiative, which is essentially a play on the Silk Road of the old days where they're going to build bridges and railways and things like that. And it's a vast project. It's about seven times the size of what the Marshall Plan was in 1947, which was the U.S. project to rebuild Europe. So there's this very clear sense that into the void created by America's return, America's withdrawal to America First, is the possibility for a Chinese renewal and a new era of Chinese leadership.

GROSS: So that belt and road project, which is basically a huge infrastructure project, that's a project in African and Asian countries. That's not just a China project.

OSNOS: Exactly. You know, ironically, Terry, China is doing many of the things that the United States was doing about 70 years ago. That is to say that they are investing in the kinds of assets that we believed were really important to us at the end of World War II - diplomacy, foreign aid, influence beyond our borders, infrastructure. And that's why we undertook projects like the Marshall Plan, which was explicitly designed to, not only rebuild the physical infrastructure of Europe after the war, but really also to plant our values there so that when we rebuilt Germany or we rebuilt Japan in Asia, that we were also putting down things like freedom of the press, democracy, human rights.

Our view was that it would actually fortify America's position in the world. It would make us stronger because we had seeded our values beyond our own borders. And this president takes a very different view. He really believes that doing those kinds of investments - investing in foreign aid, investing in diplomacy - he believes it's either too costly or irrelevant and, therefore, he is cutting back systematically and quite dramatically from those commitments.

GROSS: So if America is pulling back on planting democratic values - and we should insert here that America has also propped up dictators, historically. It hasn't just been about planting democracy. But if we're withdrawing from countries and China is moving in to implant their values - they're an authoritarian country.

OSNOS: They are. They represent something almost sort of idiosyncratic in the world. I mean, let's - you know, China is a very odd political and economic picture after all. It's grown very fast over the course of the last three decades. And yet, at the same time, it's maintained this very rigid and repressive political environment - an authoritarian structure. And in some ways, I think it's going to have a much harder time projecting those political values around the world than they might imagine at the moment.

That's - it's sort of an interesting puzzle because they see this sense of opportunity. They grasp this moment of opening that the United States has presented. And yet, at the same time, you don't see a lot of people in countries in Latin America or in Africa or in Southeast Asia that say, yeah, we really want to adopt the Chinese political model. They're not ready to do that, but they are certainly interested in the kinds of economic inducements and the sort of foreign aid that China is willing to provide and that the United States is not as willing to provide anymore.

GROSS: Why don't we take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more? If you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. We're talking about his new article "Making China Great Again: How Beijing Learned To Use Trump To Its Advantage." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. We're talking about his new article "Making China Great Again: How Beijing Learned To Use Trump To Its Advantage." And the article is about how America under the Trump administration is withdrawing from treaties and withdrawing from parts of the world stage. China is trying to move in and fill that vacuum to its advantage.

Well, let's look at just like business and trade. Those are things that are really important to President Trump. Trump withdrew America from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And you say that opened up big opportunities for China. What kind of trade deals is China working out as we've pulled out of the TPP?

OSNOS: Well, China came up with a trade deal in 2012 that really nobody took very seriously at the time. It was called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the RCEP. It's a terrible acronym, but it encompasses more than a dozen countries. It will be, by population, the largest trade bloc in the world. It excludes the United States. It was designed explicitly by China as an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP. China really looked at the TPP as a threat to its future. And so when the United States pulled out of the TPP, at the time, there was a Chinese military general who gave a speech - internal speech to party officials in which he said, look, publicly, we're going to be very quiet about this. We're not going to talk much about it. We're going to continue to say that Trump is a threat to China. But the truth is Trump has given us a great gift. By pulling out of TPP, he has cleared the way for us. And the words he used was that as the United States retreats, China shows up. And if the RCEP, the Chinese trade pact, is approved later this year as it's projected to be, it will be a new era in trade in Asia because the largest trade bloc in the region will be one that is governed, in effect, by China and does not include the United States.

GROSS: So what do you think China wants? If we look at China expanding its reach into African and Asian countries and expanding its power at the U.N. and expanding its power in trade deals, what are its goals?

OSNOS: A lot of the ways in which China is staking out a larger role in the world is really sort of hidden from view, not because anybody is trying to hide it, but just because it's the sort of boring back-office drama of global governance. And here's an example. So last fall, there was a meeting of the World Trade Organization in Marrakesh in Morocco. And at that meeting, the United States, which has been very critical of the World Trade Organization, showed up, gave a speech and then left. And China was then left at the meeting and really sort of took over the meeting. They governed the meeting in ways that would allow them to shape the rules on trade, on agriculture - all of these really routine day-to-day facts of how countries interact with each other.

The United States just simply wasn't present anymore. The Trump administration had made a choice that it didn't want to participate beyond the most rudimentary level. And as a result, China was in a position to start altering the ways in which countries interact with each other that are more advantageous to China. That means removing or scaling back or deemphasizing commitments to environmental protection or to human rights protections in the workplace - things that have been traditionally important parts of American trade and diplomacy, which are really no longer as important as they were before the start of this administration. China is in the position to shape those.

GROSS: Well, let's talk about President Trump's relationship with President Xi. Let me quote a couple of things that Trump said. He said if he was elected president he'd label China a currency manipulator. In 2015, talking about China, he said, there are people who wish I would not refer to China as our enemy, but that's exactly what they are. They have destroyed entire industries by utilizing low-wage workers, cost us tens of thousands of jobs, spied on our businesses, stolen our technology, and have manipulated and devalued their currency, which makes importing our goods more expensive and sometimes impossible.

Also in 2015, at a campaign event, he says, I beat the people from China. I win against China. You can win against China if you're smart. But our people don't have a clue. We give state dinners to the heads of China. I said, why are you doing state dinners for them? They're ripping us left and right. Just take them to McDonald's and go back to the negotiating table.

But then in November, after visiting China as president, he said, it was red carpet like nobody I think has probably ever seen. And talking about his visit to China in last week's interview with The New York Times' Michael Schmidt, he said that the Chinese president treated me better than anybody's ever been treated in the history of China. And he added, they have to help much more. We have a nuclear menace out there, which is not good for China. So a lot has changed in President Trump's rhetoric about China. What would you like to say about how his rhetoric has changed?

OSNOS: Yeah, it's quite dramatic. I mean, actually, when Donald Trump was elected the Chinese government was really worried. They were shocked, and for exactly the reasons that you just described. They had listened to all of the rhetoric from the campaign trail about how China was taking advantage of the United States and how he was going to really finally impose harsh punishments on China. So they didn't exactly know what to make of him. But they worried that he was, as one former U.S. official put it, their mortal enemy. And so their response was that they sent out a bunch of Chinese researchers, think tanks, who came to Washington. I remember meeting with some of them, in fact.

They would call up reporters. They'd call up analysts. And they'd say, you know, what do we make of this? What should we make of Trump? And what they concluded was that actually he could be managed. He could be handled. They concluded that Donald Trump's rhetoric on the campaign trail was exactly that - it was rhetoric on the campaign trail. And they discovered something important, which was that he was highly responsive to gracious treatment, to flattery.

And this is actually an old Chinese playbook. If you go back to the 19th century, the imperial government at the time laid down in writing some of its techniques, really, for dealing with foreigners. And one of them was, as they put it, barbarians like receptions and entertainment. That's the term they used - barbarians. They said that foreigners respond to that kind of treatment with great appreciation. Before Donald Trump went to China this fall, Chinese officials had said to some Americans, people with high-placed sources in the Chinese government, that they intended to wow him with thousands of years of Chinese imperial history. They thought that he was, as one person put it to me, uniquely susceptible to that.

And they laid it on. They laid it on thick, frankly. I mean, they gave him a personal tour of the Forbidden City by Xi Jinping. They gave him military bands. There were kids with pompoms who were shouting uncle Trump in Chinese. And he responded to it gloriously. The first thing he said when he got to the podium standing next to Xi Jinping was how grateful he was for that magnificent military band. He was willing to not allow questions from the press, which of course is something that China would want. But traditionally, an American president insists on questions from the press. So from China's perspective, that summit could not have gone better.

GROSS: So do you think that this means that President Xi sees President Trump as weak and easy to manipulate?

OSNOS: He sees him as very manageable. He sees him as somebody who is responsive to the techniques that China uses to handle foreigners. What he sees him as - well, to use the Chinese term, the one that they have used, is that they see him as a paper tiger, which is to say that he's somebody who makes larger threats than he's willing to back up, that he promises things that he can't deliver.

As they say, look; he has not been able to build a wall on the border with Mexico. He has not succeeded in doing some of the things that he said he was going to do. But even more important than that is that they see him as somebody who is unaware of the details of foreign affairs. He frankly just doesn't know enough about complicated issues like Tibet, Taiwan, North Korea.

And so as a result, what they've found in their interactions with him - and they said as much in private conversations to former U.S. officials - is that they expected him to push back when the Chinese would lay out their positions on things, and instead he wouldn't push back. He just simply didn't know enough to be able to challenge some of their assertions. And from China's perspective, that's a tremendous blessing because it makes it much easier for them to get their way in negotiations.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article in the current issue is called "Making China Great Again." After we take a short break, we'll bring North Korea into this story, including the tweet Trump sent yesterday saying that like Kim Jong Un, Trump has a nuclear button on his desk, but it's bigger and more powerful than Kim's. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Evan Osnos. We're talking about his article in the current edition of The New Yorker called "Making China Great Again: How Beijing Learned To Use Trump To Its Advantage." It's about how President Trump, under the banners of make America great again and America First, is reducing commitments abroad and withdrawing from treaties while China is using that to its advantage, trying to fill the gaps by expanding its power and playing a larger role on the global stage. The article is also about how the Trump presidency is changing the relationship between China and the U.S.

So President Trump has been leaning on China to get tough on North Korea and help stop North Korea's nuclear program. But that's been complicated by the fact that the Trump administration has accused China of continuing to provide oil to North Korea in violation of U.N. sanctions. So...

OSNOS: (Laughter) Sorry.

GROSS: ...How does this complicate the story?

OSNOS: North Korea is the big puzzle for China when it comes to dealing with the United States because that's the issue on which they think that Trump is going to continue hammering them over because they know that he's staked some of his political image to being able to find some sort of resolution in the North Korea crisis. But the simple fact is that China is not prepared to do what Trump wants them to do. What Trump has asked China to do is to cut off or significantly reduce oil exports to North Korea because the U.S. administration believes that that's really the - that's the key, that if they can do that, that would put enough pressure on the North Korean government to bring it into some sort of - bring it to the negotiating table.

But the truth is that China has indicated in a variety of ways that they are trying to manage Trump, meaning that they're trying to do as little as possible for as long as possible while continuing to hold him at bay. They don't want him to attack North Korea because that could have negative implications for China, but they are also - they are simply unwilling to put the kind of pressure on North Korea that he wants because they worry that that would lead to the end of the North Korean government and then that would also be bad for China.

So just recently - and this really didn't get much attention in the news but it's an important fact - China sent an envoy to Washington at the end of December. And that envoy was there to talk with senior administration officials about North Korea and oil. And the administration said to the Chinese official, look, you need to cut off oil or we're going to do - we're going to take these very drastic steps where we're going to try to punish you in a variety of ways. And China called their bluff. And the Chinese envoy said, we are simply not going to do it. And the United States backed away and said, well, in that case, let's continue to work this problem together and so on and so on.

And those kinds of little minor interactions which really never make the press, or at least never get very much attention, that's the marrow of the relationship. That's the center of it. And bit by bit, China is coming to the conclusion that the Trump administration is both inexperienced and simply just doesn't have the staff or the know-how to be able to make the kinds of actions and - that support what the president's language sometimes promises.

GROSS: You wrote that China doesn't trust Kim Jong Un but China trusts Trump even less. Why are you saying that?

OSNOS: The Chinese government really doesn't trust Kim Jong Un. He's not - he's not simply like his father or his grandfather, who had a much stronger relationship between Communist parties and, you know, had some longstanding sense of Beijing. Kim Jong Un's never been to Beijing, as far as we know. He has no relationship with the Chinese leadership, but he is also right next door. And his system, in a way, is - borrows a lot from - fundamentally, it borrows from Confucian philosophy. And then also, it borrows from the communist movement of the 20th century. And as a result, the Chinese feel some sense of awareness of where he's going and what he's trying to do. They know what it means to be a poor country that's trying to acquire nuclear weapons because they were one at a certain point.

Donald Trump is something that has really scrambled the circuits in Chinese decision-making. They don't know what he actually believes because it's never clear exactly what he's saying for dramatic or political or domestic effect and what he's saying, in fact, as a declaration of American diplomatic and strategic intentions. And so as a result, they are very conservative about what they will give Trump because they're not sure whether he's capable of using those things in a way that they would think is responsible.

GROSS: So the relationship between China, the U.S. and North Korea has become even more complicated in the past couple of days. In Kim Jong Un's New Year's statement, he said he wanted to move toward mass production of nuclear weapons and intercontinental missiles. And he mentioned the nuclear button sits on his desk. Yesterday, in the late afternoon, in response to that, Donald Trump tweeted - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the nuclear button is on his desk at all times. Will someone from his depleted and food-starved regime please inform him that I too have a nuclear button? But it is a much bigger and more powerful one than his, and my button works - exclamation point.

So how does this further complicate the relationship between these three countries?

OSNOS: So what's striking about the events of the last couple of days is how it has quite clearly demonstrated that the United States and South Korea, which are really the core allies here, are now moving in slightly different directions. South Korea has really tried to take as an opening with North Korea. They are - they've now opened up a hotline for the first time in a long time, where the two can be able to talk about military tensions. They're starting talks that might allow North Korea to participate in the Winter Olympics in South Korea in February.

But now, the United States, through Donald Trump's Twitter feed, has taken this really radical step towards confrontation. I mean, just to state the obvious here, that this is nothing that we've ever seen in 44 previous presidencies. This is not how presidents of the United States conduct themselves. And so it's - it forces a country like China, which is stuck in the middle, to try to hedge and really to hedge against unpredictable behavior, which means that they have to be more conservative. They can't put their trust in a Donald Trump figure.

And, you know, Terry, I think that there are sort of - those are the short-term consequences. But the long-term consequences are quite distinct. And that is that this contributes to an erosion of American credibility in a way that is really hard for people to see at the time but becomes very obvious in retrospect, that other countries just look at us differently when the words of our president don't carry the full faith and credit of the United States, when he says something that is inspired by - who knows what? - if it's inspired by a headline on television or it's inspired by his mood. In effect, it forces other countries to treat his words as if they don't matter quite the same way. And that's a very strange new way of people looking at the United States.

GROSS: OK. So even if what Donald Trump has done has lost credibility for the presidency and for the U.S., is the fact that North Korea and South Korea are beginning to communicate and perhaps open up relations more - North Korea might even participate in the Olympics in South Korea - with that - with communications between the North and South moving in that direction, is that ultimately good for the larger peace in that part of the world? Does that cool things off in terms of nuclear confrontation?

OSNOS: It's encouraging because it's certainly better than North Korea and South Korea being at greater hostility. But the truth is that there can be no solution to the real crisis in the Korean Peninsula without the United States. We are a key ingredient. And because of the president's tweet, we've now thrown a lot of volatility into the mix, rather than moving in the same direction that China and South Korea are moving, which is to try to find some sort of negotiated solution here. I was reminded of something interesting, Terry, about sort of how this looks against the backdrop of American history. If you want to understand how the damage to American credibility is felt, it's useful to remember this - there was a moment during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 when John F. Kennedy sent an envoy to Paris to meet the French president, Charles de Gaulle. And what he said was, look; we the United States - we've found Soviet missiles in Cuba, and we're going to impose a blockade on Cuba. And we have CIA photos that show that and demonstrate why it is that we're justified in doing so.

And de Gaulle famously said, I don't need to see the photos. The word of the American president is good enough for me. And among diplomats that's sort of considered this - really a sort of foundational concept, that the word of the American president is good enough for our allies to depend on. But today that's not the case. And it's not just our allies who are unsure. It's also these other countries like China, which occupy a space between being an ally and an opponent. But it makes them even less likely to trust us than before.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. And his new piece in The New Yorker is called "Making China Great Again." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. His new article is called "Making China Great Again: How Beijing Learned To Use Trump To Its Advantage." And he reported from China from 2005 to 2013, first for the Chicago Tribune and then for The New Yorker.

Because Donald Trump and his family have so many business interests in other countries, there's always the question - is our trade policy, is our relations with other countries being determined at all by what's in the best business interests of President Trump and his family? And as you point out, while President Trump was entertaining China's president at Mar-a-Lago, China was approving three trademarks for Ivanka Trump's businesses. So what are the interconnections there?

OSNOS: Well, the Kushner and Trump families have had a lot of business dealings with China recently where during the transition, when Jared Kushner was still associated with the Kushner Companies, still representing them - which is the real estate company that his family owns - he met with Chinese executives about the possibility of Chinese investment coming in to a real estate project that the Kushners have in Manhattan. And this was right at the moment when he was about to take on a role as a senior adviser in the White House with responsibility over the portfolio of China and other countries. And when this news became public - it was first reported by The New York Times - it caused a sensation. And the Chinese side and the Kushner Companies side both agreed that they would no longer have those negotiations.

But since then there have been other cases in which it appears that these business ties are complicating things. So the Kushner company, when it was in China recently promoting real estate investment in projects in the U.S., Jared Kushner's sister mentioned his role in the White House to potential investors as a way of trying to increase interest. And the Kushner Companies later had to apologize for that - said it was inappropriate. And there's now a - there's said to be a federal investigation into the company's way of recruiting investors overseas. So at the same time that Jared Kushner was designing the architecture of the U.S.-China relationship in the White House, he and his family were negotiating some very complicated business relationships overseas.

And that has continued to be a source of some concern. I can tell you it's a source of some concern to others inside the government, that there are people who worry that it's just been too difficult for him to manage these two roles. One is providing strategic diplomatic advice while at the same time he remains a major shareholder of businesses that stand to benefit from trade with China in one form or another. That's a very unusual arrangement.

GROSS: So are his business interests at odds with American diplomatic interests?

OSNOS: Well, you know, he has said and his spokesperson has said that they believe he can keep all this separate. The fact is that it is very much in his personal and financial interest for the United States to have a - you know, a very productive and close and nonconfrontational relationship with China. He wants investment from China. His - obviously his wife Ivanka Trump's businesses are seeking to expand their market there. That's why they got these trademarks approved.

And yet that is happening at a moment when China specialists in the United States of all political stripes, across the spectrum believe that it's time for the United States to take a harder line on some really substantive issues, things like Chinese intellectual property theft of American trade secrets or access to journalists and scholars who are trying to go to China to do their work - these kinds of things which have been really clamped down upon by China over the last few years. If the United States is going to have a free hand in order to push American interests on those, it's hard when you have people in the White House who have financial interests of one kind or another that are competing with those interests.

GROSS: Now, you point out that China bars 11 of the world's 25 most powerful websites, including Google, YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia. If it takes those values to other countries that it's becoming powerful in, what will that mean in terms of both freedom of expression and American business interests?

OSNOS: Well, that's the real - that's the big question here. I think you've identified really the core of this, which is that China and the United States right now are in a kind of competition about which country is going to cast a shadow over the 21st century in somewhat of the same way that the United States cast a shadow over the 20th century, meaning that its values became important - not always perfectly adhered to. We were hypocritical in a variety of ways.

But the commitments that we made to a free and open Internet, for instance, were really important in establishing what the Internet would be around the world. China today believes that the Internet is a political threat to its own future. It believes that every country should be allowed to censor the Internet and contain it within its own borders in the way that it wants.

And as the United States withdraws from the global governance organizations - things like the U.N. and the World Trade Organization - that opens up the opportunity for China to press its case and to say, look, our values about the Internet are better than American values, and at least, at the minimum, we're showing up. We're here, and we're making a case that the United States is not as willing to make anymore.

GROSS: There's another comparison I want you to make between China and America, and that has to do with science and research and development and technology.

OSNOS: Yeah. This is one of the really interesting frontiers of the race for global leadership, in a sense, because if you go back to the 20th century, the U.S. believed really emphatically that one of the ways we were going to be a global leader was we were going to invest heavily in science and technology. You saw this all the way through the '40s, '50s, '60s. That's really what gave birth to Silicon Valley - was that the partnership between government and the private sector. And Donald Trump is pretty emphatic about his belief that the United States does not need to be spending as much on science and research as it has. Under his budget that he's proposed for 2018, it cuts the spending on basic science research by 15 percent across the board. And that includes, I should say, a 10 percent cut in what is, in effect, artificial intelligence, the - really, the sort of frontier, the leading edge of technology development in the world.

China's going in the opposite direction. They believe, as the United States once believed, that one of the ways that they will become more powerful is by leading the development of the most powerful technologies of the next century. And so they are doubling down. They're actually expanding their investment in artificial intelligence. They're expanding their investment in facial recognition - the kinds of things that we're all going to be using day-to-day over the course of the next few years. And this is not an abstract issue that scholars and wonks are talking about. This is something, actually, that technology leaders in Silicon Valley will tell you about if you ask them about the pace of Chinese technology development.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here. If you're just joining us my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, who used to be based in China, reporting from there. And he has a new piece in The New Yorker called "Making China Great Again: How Beijing Learned To Use Trump To Its Advantage." Back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos. And he reported from China from 2005 to 2013, first, for the Chicago Tribune then for The New Yorker. He's now a New Yorker staff writer. And his new article is called "Making China Great Again: How Beijing Learned To Use Trump To Its Advantage."

You went to a facial recognition company in China to see what they're up to. Are they doing things that Americans haven't yet done? Like, what did you see there?

OSNOS: They're doing stuff that's pretty intriguing and a little bit unsettling. You know, it's - I walked into a company called SenseTime. They allowed me to come in and see what they were doing. And they're doing really cutting-edge work on facial recognition. And one of the things that they're doing, for instance, is that they work very closely, very proudly with the local police bureaus. And they provide the algorithms that allow cameras on the street to record cars and pedestrians and then put that information into a database and then analyze it in real time so that if they see a face on the street of somebody who has an outstanding arrest warrant, for instance, well, then the police can move in right away and arrest that person.

Look, in the United States, we have some of that technology. But we also have this really vigorous debate about whether or not and how we can use it because it obviously collides with some pretty deeply held notions about American commitment to privacy and about the right to search and seizure and so on. China really doesn't have those kinds of debates. It's just not part of their politics. And so what they're offering, both within their own borders and then also beyond their borders, is they're saying, look, we can offer you, today, a ready-made technology solution that allows you, governments of small countries everywhere, the chance to be able to use this really powerful technology to strengthen your control, to be able to do policing more efficiently.

And that used to be something that the United States was more actively competing on. But I've talked to a number of technology leaders recently, people who run companies in California, who say that China's gains on artificial intelligence have been much faster than most Americans realize. China is - it's easy to overhype China's gains on science. There are a lot of ways in which they still trail the United States. But on artificial intelligence, they are making rapid progress.

GROSS: And might be using it for authoritarian reasons to keep track of dissidents and anybody who is disobeying any rules that China wants to enforce.

OSNOS: Yeah. There's this interesting intersection...

GROSS: Or that the authoritarian governments it's selling this technology to want to enforce.

OSNOS: Exactly. What they're doing is they're offering a basket of, you know, what corporate America would call solutions which is a combination of political values and then literal technology. So they're saying, look, we'll sell you the facial recognition technology that allows you to monitor who's walking down what street, who's meeting with each other, who's sitting on a park bench together. And then we'll marry that up with a set of political values about controls on the press, about political control over the judiciary, about loosening protections on human rights.

And that combination is really quite extraordinary because we haven't had a case in the last hundred years in which the world's dominant economic power was not a democracy. But we're moving into a phase where the country that has the largest technological and economic footprint, you know, bit by bit still the United States. But eventually it will be China. And then it'll be a question about which values prevail. Will they be American values or will they be increasingly Chinese values?

GROSS: So in the past few years, Evan, you've been writing about a lot of different subjects related to American politics, world affairs, diplomacy, the Trump administration. Looking ahead to what we have in store in this new year, what are you most worried about?

OSNOS: I think the big question, the thing that I worry about, is whether or not our political process is still capable of resolving these really hard problems that we have before us because it's not as if we don't all agree on what the problems are. In some ways, they're sort of obvious. You know, we need to figure out a way to restore economic vitality and opportunity to parts of the country where it's become really desiccated. But then when it comes time to sit down and make some - what should be conceivable political choices, that we're not able to do it. You know, we're just so far divided.

So what we have coming up this year is this really important mid-term election. And in the past, midterm elections are the kind of thing people really don't pay that much attention to. This is the most important midterm election in decades because it will determine not only control of the House of Representatives and the Senate. But ultimately, if the Democrats take control of the House, they will gain the ability to impeach President Trump, which some of them have said they would do.

And one of the things that we don't know at this point is, A, will Americans come out and really participate in politics at a higher level? You know, we need people to vote, frankly, it's just the most important thing they can do as citizens. But also, will the United States protect the sanctity of this election? Will we take steps to prevent Russian interference in the mid-term elections of the kind that there were just two years ago? So I think if I had to name the one thing that I worry about, it's that we are, at the moment, so politically paralyzed that we have not even summoned the ability to take steps to prevent interference in our elections of the kind that was so dramatic in 2016. That's a real risk for us this year.

GROSS: Well, you know, you said we in America agree on what the problems are. We disagree on the solutions. And we're so divided on the solutions that it's hard to get things done. But my understanding is the Trump administration does not agree that Russia hacked - that Russia interfered in our election. The Trump administration has not acknowledged that, so that's something we don't yet all agree on.

OSNOS: It's true, and even more specifically, I should say, it's really the president that doesn't endorse that. I mean, the intelligence community has said many times that it believes that Russia interfered with the election. But Donald Trump has said personally, and then his aides have really driven this home, that he considers the subject of Russian interference in the election as a personal insult. He thinks it undermines the legitimacy of his presidency. And as a result, he hasn't taken steps to try to prevent interference in the election.

I mean, Attorney General Jeff Sessions was asked by the Senate not long ago whether or not the United States had taken steps to prevent Russian interference in the next election, and he said, no, we're not actually prepared to prevent that at this point. So the president's unwillingness to take those steps means that we are vulnerable. And that's an astonishing fact, considering how dramatic that interference was in our politics, that we haven't really closed those loopholes yet.

GROSS: Well, Evan Osnos, thank you so much for your reporting. Thank you so much for talking with us.

OSNOS: Oh, thanks, Terry. Well, it's always - it's a real treat to come on. I really enjoyed it.

GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His article in the current issue is called "Making China Great Again." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll ask, does President Trump have the power to fire special counsel Robert Mueller or stymie his investigation? My guest will be Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general of the U.S. He wrote the 1999 special counsel regulations under which Mueller was appointed. Katyal says those regulations eerily anticipate the Russia investigation. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: Fresh AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.