Sinocism Podcast #5: 20th Party Congress and US-China Relations with Chris Johnson
A discussion recently concluded 20th Party Congress and what to expect ahead in US China relations. I'm pleased to welcome back Chris Johnson, CEO of Consultancy China Strategies Group, Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute Center for China Analysis and former Senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. This is the 7th Party Congress that Chris has analyzed professionally.
Bill: Welcome back to the very occasional Sinocism podcast. Today we are going to talk about the recently concluded 20th Party Congress and what to expect ahead in US China relations. I'm pleased to welcome back Chris Johnson, CEO of Consultancy China Strategies Group, Senior Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute Center for China Analysis and former Senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. This is the 7th Party Congress that Chris has analyzed professionally. So we have a lot of experience here to help us understand what just happened. Chris, welcome back and thanks for taking the time.
Chris: My pleasure. Always fun to be with you, Bill.
Bill: Great. Well, why don't we jump right in. I'd like to talk about what you see as the most important outcomes from the Congress starting with personnel. What do you make of the leadership team from the central committee to the Politburo to the Standing Committee and what does that say about.
Chris: Yeah, well, I, think clearly Xi Jinping had a massive win, you know, with personnel. I think we see this particularly in the Politburo Standing Committee, right, where on the key portfolios that really matter to him in terms of controlling the key levers of power inside the system. So we're talking propaganda, obviously, Uh, we're talking party bureaucracy, military less so, but security services, you know, these, these sort of areas all up and down the ballot he did very well.
So that's obviously very important. And I think obviously then the dropping of the so-called Communist Youth League faction oriented people in Li Keqiang and Wang Yang and, and Hu Chunhua being kind of unceremoniously kicked off the Politburo, that tells us that. He's not in the mood to compromise with any other interest group.
I prefer to call them rather than factions. Um, so that sort of suggests to us that, you know, models that rely on that kind of an analysis are dead. It has been kind of interesting in my mind to see how quickly though that, you know, analysts who tend to follow that framework already talking about the, uh, factional elements within Xi's faction, right?
So, you know, it's gonna be the Shanghai people versus the Zhijiang Army versus the Fujian people.
Bill: people say there's a Tsinghua faction
Chris: Right. The, the infamous, non infamous Tsinghua clique and, and and so on. But I think as we look more closely, I mean this is all kidding aside, if we look more closely at the individuals, what we see is obviously these people, you know, loyalty to Xi is, is sort of like necessary, but not necessarily sufficient in explaining who these people are. Also, I just always find it interesting, you know, somehow over. Wang Huning has become a Xi Jinping loyalist. I mean, obviously he plays an interesting role for Xj Jinping, but I don't think we should kid ourselves in noting that he's been kind of shunted aside Right by being pushed into the fourth position on the standing committee, which probably tells us that he will be going to oversee the Chinese People's Consultative Congress, which is, you know, kind of a do nothing body, you know, for the most part. And, um, you know, my sense has long been, One of Xi Jinping’s, I think a couple factors there with Wang Huning.
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One is, you know, yes, he is very talented at sort of taking their very, uh, expansive, um, theoretical ideas and coming up with snappy, um, snappy sort of catchphrases, right? This is clearly his, um, his sort of claim to fame. But, you know, we had that article last year from the magazine, Palladium that kind of painted him as some sort of an éminence grise or a Rasputin like figure, you know, in terms of his role.
Uh, you know, my sense has always been, uh, as one contact, put it to me one time. You know, the issue is that such analyses tend to confuse the musician with the conductor. In other words, Xi Jinping. is pretty good at ideology, right? And party history and the other things that I think the others had relied on.
I think the second thing with Wang Huning is, um, in a way XI can't look at him I don't think, without sort of seeing here's a guy who's changed flags, as they would say, right? He served three very different leaders, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and now Xi , um, and, and continued on and I think at some level, uh, and we look at the rest of the appointments where it appears that, uh, loyalty was much more important than merit.
Um, where that's also a question mark. So there's those issues I think on the Politburo. You know, you mentioned the, the Tsinghua clique it was very interesting. You had shared with me, uh, Desmond Shum of Red Roulette fame’s Twitter stream sort of debunking, you know, this, this Tsinghua clique and saying, well, it turns out in fact that the new Shanghai Municipal Party Secretary Chen Jining can't stand Chen Xi, even though, you know, they both went to Tsinghua and were there at the same time and so on.
Um, you know, who knows with Desmond Shum, but I think he knows some things, right? And, and, and it just a reminder to us all, I think, how little we understand right, about these relationships, especially now, uh, with Xi's concentration of power. And also a situation where we've had nearly three years of covid isolation
Bill: Right. And so it's really hard to go talk to people, even the fewer and fewer numbers, people who, who know something and can talk. Back to the standing committee. I, I think certainly just from friends and contacts the biggest surprise you know, I think, uh was Li Keqiang and Wang Yang not sticking around. And as that long explainer said without naming them they were good comrades who steps aside for the good of the party in the country,
Chris: Because that happens so often,
Bill: whatever that means. Um, but really the, the bigger surprise was that, oh, Cai Qi showing up. Who I think when you look at the standing committee, I think the general sense is, okay, the, these people are all, you know, not, they're loyal, but they're also competent, like Li Qiang,
Bill: The likely new premier number two on the standing committee is pretty competent. The Shanghai lockdown, disaster aside, Cai Qi on the other hand, was just, looks more like, it's just straight up loyalty to Xi. I think he was not really on anybody's short list of who was gonna make it on there. And so, it does feel like something happened, right?
Chris: Yeah. Well, um, a couple things there. I think, um, one, let's start with the. The issue you raised about the economic team cuz I think that's actually very important. Um, you know, I, at some level, sometimes I feel like I'm sort of tiring my, of my role as official narrative buster or a windmill tilter.
Uh, whether, whether it's pushback from Li Keqiang or the myth of the savior premier as I was calling it, which, uh, we didn't see, or that these norms actually aren't very enduring and it's really about power politics. I, I think I'm kind of onto a new one now, which is, you know, Xi Jin ping's new team of incompetent sycophants.
Right? That's kind of the label that's, uh, come out in a lot of the takes, uh, since the Congress. But to your point, I mean, you know, Li Qiang has run the three most important economic powerhouses on China's east coast, either as governor or as party chief. Right. He seems to have had a, a good relationship with both.
Private sector businesses and, and foreign, you know, people forget that, you know, he got the Tesla plant built in Shanghai in a year basically. Right. And it's, uh, responsible for a very significant amount of, of Tesla's total input of vehicles. Output of vehicles. Excuse me. Um, likewise, I hear that Ding Xuexiang, even though we don't know a lot about him, uh, was rather instrumental in things.
Breaking the log jam with the US uh, over the de-listing of Chinese ADRs, uh, that he had played an important role in convincing Xi Jinping it would not be a good idea, for example, to, uh, you know, we're already seeing, uh, sort of decoupling on the technology side. It would not be a good idea to encourage the Americans to decouple financially as well. So the point is I think we need to just all kind of calm down, right? And, and see how these people perform in office. He Lifeng, I think is perhaps, you know, maybe more of a question mark, but, But here too, I think it's important for us to think about how their system works
The political report sets the frame, right? It tells us what. Okay, this is the ideological construct we're working off of, or our interpretation, our dialectical interpretation of what's going on. And that, I think the signal there was what I like to call this fortress economy, right? So self-sufficiency and technology and so on.
And so then when we look at the Politburo appointments, you can see that they align pretty closely to that agenda, right? These people who've worked in state firms or scientists and you know, so on and forth.
Bill: Aerospace, defense
Chris: Yeah, Aerospace. Very close alignment with that agenda. I'm not saying this is the right choice for China or that it even will be successful, I'm just saying it makes sense, you know,
Bill: And it is not just sycophants it is actually loyal but some expertise or experience in these key sectors
Chris: Exactly. Yeah, and, and, and, and of interest as well. You know, even people who have overlapped with Xi Jinping. How much overlap did they have? How much exposure did they have? You know, there's a lot of discussion, for example, about the new propaganda boss, Li Shulei being very close to Xi and likewise Shi Taifeng.
Right? Uh, both of whom were vice presidents at the party school when, when Xi also was there. Um, but remember, you know, he was understudy to Hu Jintao at the time, you know, I mean, the party school thing was a very small part of his portfolio and they were ranked lower, you know, amongst the vice presidents of the party school.
So how much actual interaction did he have? So there too, you know, I think, uh, obviously. , yes these people will do what Xi Jinping wants them to do, but that doesn't mean they're not competent. On Cai Qi, I agree with you. I think it's, it's, it's difficult. You know, my speculation would be a couple of things.
One, proximity matters, right? He's been sitting in Beijing the last five years, so he is, had the opportunity to, uh, be close to the boss and, and impact that. I've heard some suggestions from contacts, which I think makes some. He was seen as more strictly enforcing the zero Covid policy. Right. In part because he is sitting in Beijing than say a Chen Min’er, right.
Who arguably was a other stroke better, you know, candidate for that position on the Politburo standing committee. And there, you know, it will be interesting to see, you know, we're not sure the musical chairs have not yet finished. Right. The post party Congress for people getting new jobs. But you know, for example, if Chen Min’er stays out in Chongqing, that seems like a bit of a loss for him.
Bill: Yeah, he needs to go somewhere else if he's got any hope of, um, sort of, But so one thing, sorry. One thing on the Politburo I thought was really interesting, and I know we've talked about offline, um, is that the first time the head of the Ministry State Security was, was. Promoted into the Politburo - Chen Wenqing. And now he is the Secretary of the Central Political Legal Affairs Commission, the party body that oversees the entire security services system and legal system. and what do you think that says about priorities and, and, and where Xi sees things going?
Chris: Well, I think it definitely aligns with this concept of Xi Jiping's of comprehensive national security. Right. We've, we've seen and heard and read a lot about that and it seems that the, uh, number of types of security endlessly proliferate, I think we're up to 13 or 14
Bill: Everything is National Security in Xi’s China.
Chris: Yeah. Everything is, is national security. Uh, that's one thing I think it's interesting perhaps in the, in the frame of, you know, in an era where they are becoming a bigger power and therefore, uh, have more resources and so on. You know, is that role that's played by the Ministry of State Security, which is, you know, they have this unique role, don't they?
They're in a way, they're sort of the US' Central Intelligence Agency and, and FBI, Federal Bureau of Investigation combined, and that they do have that internal security role as well, but, They are the foreign civilian anyway, uh, foreign intelligence collection arm. So perhaps, you know, over time there's been some sense that they realized, yes, cyber was great for certain things, but you still need human intelligence.
Uh, you know, we don't know how well or not Chen Wenqing has performed, but you know, obviously there, this has been a relentless campaign, you know, the search for spies and so on and so forth. Um, I also think it says something about what we seem to be seeing emerging here, which is an effort to take what previously were these, you know, warring, uh, administrative or ministerial factions, right, of the Ministry of Public Security MPS, the MSS, uh, and even the party's, uh, discipline watchdog, the, uh, Central Commission on Discipline inspection, you know, in an effort to sort of knit those guys into one whole.
And you know, it is interesting.Chen wending has experience in all three of those. He started off, I think as a street cop. Um, he did serve on the discipline inspection commission under, uh, Wang Qishan when things were, you know, really going in that department in the early part of, Xi's tenure and then he's headed, uh, the Ministry of State Security.
I think, you know, even more interesting probably is. The, uh, formation of the new secretariat, right? Where we have both Chen Wenqing on there and also Wang Xiaohong as a minister of Public Security, but also as a deputy on the CPLAC, right? And a seat on the secretariat. And if we look at the, um, The gentleman who's number two in the discipline inspection, uh, space, he was a longtime police officer as well.
So that's very unusual. You know, uh, his name's escaping me at the moment. But, um, you know, so in effect you have basically three people on the Secretariat with security backgrounds and, you know, that's important. It means other portfolios that might be on the secretariat that have been dumped, right? So it shows something about the prioritization, uh, of security.
And I think it's interesting, you know, we've, we've often struggled to understand what is the National Security Commission, how does it function, You know, these sort of things. And it's, it's still, you know, absolutely clear as mud. But what was interesting was that, you know, from whatever that early design was that had some aspect at least of looking a bit like the US style, National Security Commission, they took on a much more sort of internal looking flavor.
And it had always been my sort of thought that one of the reasons Xi Jinping created this thing was to break down, you know, those institutional rivalries and barriers and force, you know, coordination on these, on these institutions. So, you know, bottom line, I think what we're seeing is a real effort by Xi Jinping to You know, knit together a comprehensive, unified, and very effective, you know, stifling, really security apparatus. And, uh, I don't expect to see that change anytime soon. And then, you know, as you and I have been discussing recently, we also have, uh, another Xi loyalist Chen Yixin showing up as Chen Wenqing's successor right at the Ministry of State Security
Bill: And he remains Secretary General of the Political and Legal Affairs Commission too.
Chris: Exactly. So, you know, from, from a, a sheet home where Xi Jinping five years ago arguably had very loose control, if at all, we now have a situation where he's totally dominant.
Bill: I think the, the official on the Secretariat, I think it's Liu Jinguo.
Chris: That's the one. Yes. Thank you. I'm getting old…
Bill: He also has, has a long history of the Ministry of Public Security system. Um, but yeah, it does, it does seem like it's a, it's a real, I mean it, I I, I don't wanna use the word securitization, but it does like this is the indication of a, of a real, sort of, it just sort of fits with the, the general trend towards much more focus on national security. I mean, what about on the, the Central Military Commission? Right? Because one of the surprises was, um, again, and this is where the norms were broken, where you have Zhang Youxia, who should have retired based on his age, but he's 72, he’s on the Politburo he stays as a vice chair of the CMC
Chris: Yep. Yeah, no, at, at, at the rip old age of 72. It's a little hard, uh, to think of him, you know, mounting a tank or something to go invade Taiwan or whatever the, you know, whatever the case may be. But, you know, I, I think here again, the narratives might be off base a little bit, you know, it's this issue of, you know, well he's just picked, you know, these sycophantic loyalists, He's a guy who has combat experience, right?
And that's increasingly rare. Um, I don't think it's any surprise that. That himself. And, uh, the, uh, uh, gentleman on the CMC, uh, Li, who is now heading the, um, Joint Chiefs of Staff, he also has Vietnam combat experience, not from 79, but from the, uh, the border incursions that went on into the80s. Um, so it's not that surprising really.
But, but obviously, you know, Zhang Youxia is very close to Xi Jinping, their father's fought together, right? Um, and they have that sort of, uh, blood tie and Xi is signaling, I want, uh, I. Political control and also technologically or, or, um, you know, operationally competent people. I think the other fascinating piece is we see once again no vice chairman from the political commissar iatside of the PLA.
I think that's very interesting. You know, a lot of people, including myself, were betting that Miao HuaWould, would, would get the promotion. He didn't, you know, we can't know. But my sense is in a way, Xi Jiping is still punishing that side of the PLA for Xu Caihou’s misdoings. Right. You know, and that's very interesting in and of itself.
Also, it may be a signal that I don't need a political commissar vice chairman because I handle the politics
Bill: And, and, and he, yeah. And in this, this new era that the, the next phase of the Xi era, it, it is, uh, everybody knows, right? It's, it's all about loyalty to Xi.
Chris: we just saw right, uh, today, you know, uh, yet, yet more instructions about the CMC responsibilities, Chairman, responsibility systems.
Bill: Unfortunately they didn’t release the full text but it would be fascinating to see what’s in there.
Chris: And they never do on these things, which is, uh, which is tough. But, um, you know, I think we have a general sense of what would be in it, . But, but even that itself, right, you know, is a very major thing that people, you know, didn't really pick up. Certain scholars, certainly like James Mulvenon and other people who are really good on this stuff noticed it. But this shift under Hu Jintao was a CMC vice chairman responsibility system. In other words, he was subletting the operational matters certainly to his uniformed officers, Xi Jinping doesn’t do that
Bill: Well, this, and here we are, right where he can indeed I mean, I, I had written in the newsletter, um, you know, that she had, I thought, I think he ran the table in terms of personnel.
Chris: Oh, completely. Yeah.
Bill: And this is why it is interesting he kept around folks like Wang Huning, but we'll move on. The next question I had really was about Xi's report to the party Congress and we had talked, I think you'd also, um, you've talked about on our previous podcasts, I mean there, there seems to be a pretty significant shift in the way Xi is talking about the geopolitical environment and their assessment and how they see the world. Can you talk about a little bit?
Chris: Yeah, I mean, I think definitely we saw some shifts there and, uh, you know, you and I have talked a lot about it. You know, there are problems with word counting, right? You know, and when you look at the thing and you just do a machine search, and it's like, okay, well security was mentioned 350 times or whatever, but, but the, you know, in what context?
Right. Um, and, uh, our, uh, mutual admiration society, the, uh, the China Media project, uh, I thought they did an excellent piece on that sort of saying, Remember, it's the words that go around the buzzword that matter, you know, just as much. But what we can say unequivocally is that two very important touchstones that kind of explain their thinking on their perception of not only their external environment, but really kind of their internal environment, which had been in the last several political reports, now are gone. And those are this idea of China's enjoying a period of strategic opportunity and this idea that peace and development are the underlying trend of the times. And, you know, on the period of strategic opportunity, I think it's important for a couple reasons. One, just to kind of break that down for our listeners in a way that's not, you know, sort of, uh, CCP speak, , uh, the, the basic idea was that China judged that it's external security environment was sufficiently benign, that they could focus their energies on economic development.
Right? So obviously that's very important. I also think it was an important governor, and I don't think I've seen anything out there talking about its absence in this, uh, political report on this topic, It was a, it was an important governor on sort of breakneck Chinese military development, sort of like the Soviet Union, right?
In other words, as long as you were, you know, sort of judging that your external environment was largely benign, you. Didn't really have a justification to have a massive defense budget or to be pushy, you know, in the neighborhood, these sort of things. And people might poo poo that and sort of say, Well, you know, this is all just rhetoric and so on. No, they actually tend to
Bill: Oh, that's interesting. Well, then that fits a little bit, right, Cuz they added the, the wording around strategic deterrence in the report as well which is seen as a, you know, modernizing, expanding their nuclear forces, right?
Chris: Exactly, right. So, you know, that's, uh, an important absence and the fact that, you know, the word, again, word searching, right. Um, strategic and opportunity are both in there, but they're separated and balanced by this risks and challenges, languages and, and so on.
Bill: Right the language is very starkly different.
Chris: Yeah. And then likewise on, on peace and development. This one, as you know, is, is even older, right? It goes back to the early eighties, I believe, uh, that it's been in, in these political reports. And, uh, you know, there again, the idea was sort of not only was this notion that peace and economic development were the dominant, you know, sort of trend internationally, globally, they would be an enduring one. You know, this idea of the trend of the times, right? Um, now that's missing. So what has replaced it in both these cases is this spirit of struggle, right? Um, and so that's a pretty stark departure and that in my mind just sort of is a real throwback to what you could call the period of maximum danger for the regime in the sixties, right? When they had just split off with the Soviets and they were still facing unremitting hostility from the west after the Korean War experience and, and so on. So, you know, there's definitely a, a decided effort there. I think also we should view the removal of these concepts as a culmination of a campaign that Xi Jinping has been on for a while.
You know, as you and I have discussed many times before, from the minute he arrived, he began, I think, to paint this darker picture of the exterior environment. And he seems to have always wanted to create a sort of sense of urgency, certainly maybe even crisis. And I think a big part of that is to justifying the power grab, right? If the world outside is hostile, you need, you know, a strongman.
Bill: Well that was a lot of the propaganda going into the Party of Congress about the need for sort of a navigator helmsman because know, we we're, we're closest we have ever been to the great rejuvenation, but it's gonna be really hard and we need sort of strong leadership right. It was, it was all building to that. This is why Ci needs to stay for as long as he wants to stay.
Chris: and I think we saw that reflected again just the other day in this Long People's Daily piece by Ding Xuexing, right, Where he's talking again about the need for unity, the throwback, as you mentioned in your newsletter to Mao’s commentary, there is not to be lost on any of us you know, the fact that the Politburo standing committee's. Uh, first field trip is out to Yan’an, right? I mean, you know, these are messages, right? The aren't coincidental.
Bill: No, it, it is. The thing that's also about the report that's interesting is that while there was, speaking of word counts, there was no mention of the United States, but it certainly feels like that was the primary backdrop for this entire discussion around. So the, the shifting geopolitical, uh, assessments and this broader, you know, and I think one of the things that I, and I want to talk to as we get into this, a little bit about US China relations, but is it she has come to the conclusion that the US is implacably effectively hostile, and there is no way that they're gonna get through this without some sort of a broader struggle?
Chris: I don't know if they, you know, feel that conflict is inevitable. In fact, I kind of assume they don't think that because that's pretty grim picture for them, you know? Um, but I, I do think there's this notion that. They've now had two years to observe the Biden administration. Right? And to some degree, I think it's fair to say that by certain parties in the US, Xi Jinping, maybe not Xi Jinping, but a Wang Qishan or some of these characters were sold a bit of a bag of goods, right?
Oh, don't worry, he's not Trump, he's gonna, things will be calmer. We're gonna get back to dialogue and you know, so on and so forth. And that really hasn't happened. And when we look at. Um, when we look at measures like the recent, chip restrictions, which I'm sure we'll discuss at some point, you know, that would've been, you know, the, the wildest dream, right of certain members of the Trump administration to do something that, uh, that's that firm, right? So, um, I think the conclusion of the Politburo then must be, this is baked into the cake, right? It's bipartisan. Um, the earliest we'll see any kind of a turn here is 2024. I think they probably feel. Um, and therefore suddenly things like a no limits partnership with Russia, right, start to make more sense. Um, but would really makes sense in that if that is your framing, and I think it is, and you therefore see the Europeans as like a swing, right, in this equation. This should be a great visit, right, for Chancellor Scholz, uh, and uh, I can't remember if it was you I was reading or someone else here in the last day or so, but this idea that if the Chinese are smart, they would get rid of these sanctions on
Bill: That was me. Well, that was in my newsletter
Chris: Yeah. Parliamentary leaders and you know, Absolutely. Right. You know, that's a no brainer, but. I don't think they're gonna do it , but, but you know, this idea definitely that, and, and when they talk in the political report, you know, it, it's, it's like, sir, not appearing in this film, right, from Money Python, but we know who the people who are doing the bullying, you know, uh, is and the long armed jurisdiction and , so on and so forth and all, I mean, all kidding aside, I think, you know, they will see something like the chip restrictions effectively as a declaration of economic war. I don't think that's going too far to say that.
Bill: It goes to the heart of their sort of technological project around rejuvenation. I mean, it is, it is a significant. sort of set of really kind of a, I would think, from the Chinese perspective aggressive policies against them,
Chris: Yeah, and I mean, enforcement will be key and we'll see if, you know, licenses are granted and how it's done. And we saw, you know, already some, some backing off there with regard to this US person, uh, restriction and so on. But, but you know, it's still pretty tough stuff. There's no two ways about
Bill: No, and I, I wonder, and I worry that here in DC. You know, where the mood is very hawkish. If, if people here really fully appreciate sort of the shift that's taking, that seems to be taking place in Beijing and how these actions are viewed.
Chris: Well, I, I think that's a really, you put your hand on it really, really interesting way, Bill, because, you know, let's face it really since the Trump trade war started, right? We've all analysts, you know, pundits, uh, even businesses and government people have been sort of saying, you know, when are the Chinese gonna punch back? You know, when are they going to retaliate? Right? And we talk about rare earths and we talk about Apple and Tesla
Bill: They slapped some sanctions on people but they kind of a joke
Chris: And I guess what I'm saying is I kind of worry we're missing the forest from the trees. Right. You know, the, the, the work report tells us, the political report tells us how they're reacting. Right. And it is hardening the system, moving toward this fortress economy, you know, so on and so forth. And I wanna be real clear here, you know, they're not doing this just because they're reacting to the United States. Xi Jinping presumably wanted to do this all along, but I don't think we can say that the actions they perceive as hostile from the US aren't playing a pretty major role in allowing him to accelerate.
Bill: Well, they called me. Great. You justifying great Accelerationist, right? Trump was called that as well, and, and that, that's what worries me too, is we're in. Kind of toxic spiral where, where they see us doing something and then they react. We see them do something and we react and, and it doesn't feel like sort of there's any sort of a governor or a break and I don't see how we figure that out.
Chris: Well, I think, you know, and I'm sure we'll come to this later in our discussion, but you know, uh, yes, that's true, but you know, I'm always deeply skeptical of these inevitability memes, whether it's, you know, Thucydides trap or, you know, these other things. Last time I checked, there is something called political agency, right?
In other words, leaders can make choices and they can lead if they want to, right? They have an opportunity to do so at in Bali, and you know, we'll have to see some of the, you know, early indications are perhaps they're looking at sort of a longer meeting. So that would suggest maybe there will be some discussion of some of these longstanding issues.
Maybe we will see some of the usual, you know, deliverable type stuff. So there's an opportunity. I, I think one question is, can the domestic politics on either side allow for seizing that opportunity? You know, that's an open.
Bill: Interesting. There's a couple things in the party constitution, which I think going into the Congress, you know, they told us they were gonna amend the Constitution. There were expectations that it, the amendments were gonna reflect an increase in Xi’s power, uh, things like this, this idea of the two establishments, uh, which for listeners are
"To establish the status of Comrade Xi Jinping as the core of the Party’s Central Committee and of the whole Party"
"To establish the guiding role of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era"
The thinking, and I, I certainly believe that, I thought that they would write that in. There was some talk that, uh, Xi Jinping Thought the longer version would be truncated to just Xi Jinping thought. that possibly he might get, a, a sort of another title like People's Leader. None of those happened.
One thing that did happen, What’s officially translated by the Chinese side in English as the two upholds- “Uphold the 'core' status of General Secretary Xi Jinping within the CC and “Uphold the centralized authority of the Party” those were written in. And so the question is, was there some kind of pushback or are we misreading we what mattered? And actually the two upholds are more important than the two of establishes.
Chris: Well, I, and I think it, this may be a multiple choice answer, right? There might be elements of all the above in there. Uh, you know, I think it is important that he didn't get the truncation to Xi Jinping thought. You have to think that that was something he was keen on. In retrospect, it may be that it was something akin. I've always felt, you know, another thing that was on the table that didn't happen was reestablishing the party chairmanship. My view had always been he was using that largely as a bargaining chip. That, you know, in some ways it creates more trouble than it's worth you. If you're gonna have a chairman, you probably have to have vice chairman and what does that say about the succession? I mean, of course he could have, you know, a couple of geezers on there. as vice chairman too. , But I, my view was always is he was holding that out there to trade away. Right. You know, at, at the last minute. Um, maybe that's what happened with Xi Jinping thought. I don't know.
You know, uh, there have been some media articles, one of which, You and I were discussing yesterday from, uh, the Japanese, uh, publication Nikkei, you know, that suggested that, you know, the elders had, this was their last gasp, right? So the Jiang Zemins and the Zeng Qinghongs and Hu Jinataos, so on. Um, I'm a little skeptical of that. It is possible. Uh, but, um, I, I'd be a little skeptical of that. You know, it's, it's not at all clear that they had any kind of a role, you know, even at Beidaihe this year and so on, Jiang Zemin didn't even attend the Party Congress so clearly, you know, he must be pretty frail or he thought it was not with his time.
You know, a little hard to say, but, you know, I kind of struggle with the notion that, you know, the 105 year old Song Ping gets up on a chair or something and starts, starts making trouble. Right. You know, uh, the poor man's probably lucky if he stays awake during the meeting.
Bill: One question, and again, because of the, just, you know, how much more opaque Chinese politics are than the really I think they've ever been. Um, but just one question. It mean, is it possible, for example, that you know, it's more important to get the personnel done. It's more, and then once you get your, you stack the central committee, you get the politburo, you get the standing committee, that these things are sort of a next phase.
Chris: yeah, it's entirely possible and, and I think it, it, it does dovetail with this idea that, you know, another reflection from both the political report and the lineup in my mind, is Xi Jinping is a man in a hurry. Right? And he's kind of projected that, as you said, the great accelerator since he arrived.
But I think he sees this next five years is really fundamental, right in terms of breaking through on these chokepoint technologies as they call them. You know, these sort of things. And so maybe therefore having the right people in place to handle, you know, uh, speedier policy, execution, you know, was more important.
Likewise, I mean, he's sort of telegraphing, He's gonna be around for a while, right? No successor, no visible successor anywhere.
Bill: A successor would need likely need five years on the standing committee. So we're looking at ten more years.
Chris: Yes, exactly. And so there will be time. The other thing is, um, Xi Jinping is a, is a sort of determined fellow, right? You know, so of interest, even before the 19th Party Congress, I'd been hearing very strong rumors that the notion of lingxiu was out there, that he was contemplating it, right? And so then we see the buildup with, uh, Renmin lingxiu and so on and so forth.
And, you know, it didn't happen clearly at the 19th. It didn't happen. But it doesn't mean it won't, you know, at some point. And I think it's really important also to think about, you know, We just saw a pretty serious, um, enterprise of the, you know, quote unquote norm busting, right? So what's to say that mid-course in this five years, he doesn't, uh, hold another sort of extraordinary conference of party delegates like them, Deng Xiaoping did in 1985, right, to push through some of these. You never know, right? In other words, these things don't necessarily have to happen. Just at Party Congresses. So my guess is, you know, this isn't over yet. Uh, but you know, at some level, given how the system was ramping up with those articles about Navigator and the people's leader stuff and so on, you know, that's usually a tell, and yet it didn't happen. And, and so something interesting there.
Bill: now they're in the mode of, they're out with these sort of publicity, propaganda education teams where they go out throughout the country and talk about the spirit of the party Congress and push all the key messaging. Um, you know, so far none of those People's leader truncation have happened in that, which is I think an area where some people thought, Well, maybe that could sort of come after the Congress.
Chris: What is interesting is it's all two establishments all the time in those discussions, so that's been very interesting since it didn't make it into the, uh, into the document. I guess the other thing is, At some level, is it sort of a distinction without a difference? You know, I, I haven't done the work on this to see, but my guess is short of, you know, the many times they've just junked the entire constitution and rewritten it, this is probably the most amendments there have been, you know, in the to at one time. You know, to the 1982 constitution, and most of them are his various buzzwords. Right. Um, and you know, I think you've been talking about this in the newsletter, there may very well be, uh, something to this issue of, you know, which is the superior thought two establishments or to upholds/safeguards?
Bill: and even if the two establishes were superior and then it didn't go in, then somehow it will be theoretically flipped to what got in the Constitution
Chris: I mean, I guess the, the, the thing though where we, it's fair to say that maybe this wasn't his ideal outcome. To me, there's been a very clear and you know, structured stepwise approach on the ideology from the word go. Right? And the first was to create right out of the shoot, this notion of, you know, three eras, right?
The, Mao period, Deng and those other guys we don't talk about it anymore, period. and Xi Jinping's new era, right? And then that was. You know, sort of crystallized right at the 19th Party Congress when you know, Xi Jinping thought for horribly long name went into the Constitution. And so, you know, the next step kind of seemed like that should be it.
And as we've discussed before, you know, if he's able to get just Thought, it certainly enhances his ability to stay around for a very long time and it makes his diktats and so on even more unquestionable. But you know, you can say again, matter of prioritization. With a team where there's really no visible or other opposition, does it really matter? You know, in other words, no one's gonna be questioning his policy ideas anyway.
Bill: Just an aside, but on his inspection, the new standing committee will go on group trip right after the Party Congress and the first trip sends key messages. And group went to Yan’an, you know, they went, they went to the caves. Um, and you know, in the long readout or long CCTV report of the meeting, the visit, there was a section where the tour guide or the person introducing some of the exhibits talked about how the, the famous song, the East Is Red was, by a person, written by the people sort of spontaneously, and it w it definitely caused some tittering about, well, what are they trying to signal for?
You know, are we gonna be seeing some Xi songs? there's some kind of really interesting signaling going on that I don't think we quite have figured out how to parse
Chris: My takeaway on all this has been, I, I need to go back and do a little more book work on, you know, what was, what was the content of the seventh party Congress? What were the outcomes? I mean, I have the general sense, right? Like you, I immediately, you know, started brushing up on it. But, you know, Xi delivered a, an abridged work report. Right, A political report, which is exactly what Mao did then. I mean, in other words, they're not kidding around with the parallelism here. The question is what's the message?
Bill: Just for background, at the visit last week to Yan’an, and the first spot that was in the propaganda was the, the, site of the seventh party Congress which is where…to be very simplistic, the seventh party was really moment, you know, as at the end of the Yan’am rectification came in, it was the moment where sort of Mao fully asserted his dominance throughout the system. Mao Thought etc. Right? The signaling, you could certainly, could certainly take a view that, you know, he doesn't do these things by coincidence, and this is. This is signaling both of, you know, can through anything because they, livedin caves and ended up beating the Japanese and then won the Civil War. You know this, and we can, and by the way, we have a dominant leader. I mean, there are ways, again, I'm being simplistic, but the symbolism was not, I think one that would, for example, give a lot of confidence to investors, which I think is, you know, one, one of the many reasons we've seen until the rumors earlier this week, a, pretty big selloff in the, in the Hong Kong and manland stock markets right
Chris: most definitely. And I think, you know, this is the other thing about, about what I was trying to get at earlier with, uh, forest and trees, right? You know, in other words, . Um, he's been at this for a while too. You know, there's a reason why he declared a new long march right in depths of the trade war with Trump.
Bill: And a new historical resolution, only the third in history
Chris: Yeah. And they have been stepwise building since then. And this is the next building block.
Bill: The last thought, I mean, he is 69. He's. 10 years younger than President Joe Biden. He could go, he could be around for a long time
Bill: well just quickly, cause I know, uh, we don't have that much more time, but I, you say anything about your thoughts on Hu Jintao and what happened?
My first take having had a father and a stepfather had dementia was, um, you know, maybe too sympathetic to the idea that, okay, he's having some sort of a senior cognitive moment. You know, you can get. easily agitated, and you can start a scene. And so therefore, was humiliating and symbolic at the end of the Communist Youth League faction, but maybe it was, it was benign as opposed to some of the other stuff going around. But I think might be wrong so I’d love your take on that.
Chris: Well, I, I think, you know, I, I kind of shared your view initially when I watched the, uh, I guess it was an AFP had the first, you know, sort of video that was out there and, you know, he appeared to be stumbling around a bit. He definitely looked confused and, you know, like, uh, what we were discussing earlier on another subject, this could be a multiple choice, you know, A and B or whatever type scenario as well.
We don't know, I mean, it seems pretty well established that he has Parkinson's, I think the lead pipe pincher for me though, was that second longer one Singapore's channel, Channel News Asia put out. I mean, he is clearly tussling with Li Zhanshu about something, right. You know that that's. Yes, very clear. And you know, if he was having a moment, you know, when they finally get him up out of the chair and he seems to be kind of pulling back and so on, you know, he moves with some alacrity there, for an 80 year old guy. Uh, I don't know if he was being helped to move quickly or he, you know, realized it was time to exit stage.
Right. But I think, you know, as you said in your newsletter, I, we probably will never know. Um, but to me it looked an awful lot like an effort by Xi Jinping to humiliate him. You know, I mean, there was a reason why they brought the cameras back in at that moment, you know? Unless we believe that that just happened spontaneously in terms of Hu Jintao has his freak out just as those cameras were coming back in the stone faces of the other members of the senior leadership there on the rostrum and you know, Wand Hunting, pulling Li Zhanshu back down kind of saying basically, look buddy, this is politics, don't you don't wanna, that's not a good look for you trying to care for Hu Jintao. You know, I mean obviously something was going on, you know? No, no question.
Bill: Right. And feeds into the idea that Hu Chunhua, we all expected that he at least be on the Politburo again, and he's, he's off, so maybe something, something was going
Chris: Well, I, I think what we know from observing Xi Jinping, right? We know that this is a guy who likes to keep people off balance, right? Who likes to keep the plate spinning. He, this is definitely the Maoist element of his personality, you know, whether it's strategic disappearances or this kind of stuff. And I think it's entirely plausible that he might have made some last minute switches right, to, uh, the various lists that were under consideration that caused alarm, you know, among those who thought they were on a certain list and and no longer were.
Bill: and then, and others who were smart enough to realize that if he made those switches, they better just go with it.
Chris: Yeah, go along with it. Exactly. I mean, you know, in some ways the most, aside from what happened to Hu Jintao, the, the most, um, disturbing or compelling, depending on how you wanna look at it, part of that video is when Hu Jintao, you know, sort of very, um, delicately taps Li Keqiang on the shoulder. He doesn't even look at it, just keeps looking straight ahead. Uh, and that's tough. And as you pointed out in the newsletter and elsewhere, you know, how difficult must have that have been for Hu Jintao's son Hu Haifeng, who's in the audience watching this all go on? You know, it's, uh, it's tough.
Bill: And then two two days later attends a meeting where he praises Xi to high heaven.
Chris: Yeah, exactly. So, so if the darker narrative is accurate, I guess one thing that concerns me a bit is, as you know, well, I have never been a fan of these, uh, memes about comparing Xi Jinping to either Stalin or Mao in part because I don't see him as a whimsical guy. They were whimsical people. I think because of his tumultuous upbringing, he understands the problems with that kind of an approach to life, but this was a very ruthless act. If that more malign, you know, sort of definition is true and that I think that says something about his mentality that perhaps should concern us if that's the case.
Bill: It has real implications, not just for domestic also potentially for its foreign policy.
Chris: Absolutely. I mean, what it shows, right to some degree, again, man in a hurry, this is a tenacious individual, right? if he's willing to do that. And so if you're gonna, you know, kick them in the face on chips and, you know, things like that, um, you should be taking that into consideration.
Bill: And I think preparing for a more substantive response that is more thought out and it's also, it happened, it wasn't very Confucian for all this talk Confucian definitely not. and values.
One last question, and it is related is what do you make of this recent upsurge or talk in DC from various officials that PRC has accelerated its timeline to absorb Taiwan, because nothing in the public documents indicates any shift in that timeline.
Chris: No. Uh, and well, first of all, do they, do they have a timeline? Right? You know, I mean, the whole idea of a timeline is kind of stupid, right? You don't, if you're gonna invade somewhere, you say, Hey, we're gonna do it on on this date. I mean, 2049. Okay.
Bill: The only timeline that I think you can point to is is it the second centenary goal and, and Taiwan getting quote unquote, you know, returning Taiwan to the motherland’s key to the great rejuvenation,
Chris: Yeah, you can't have rejuvenation without it.
Bill: So then it has to be done by 2049. 27 years, but they've never come out and specifically said 27 years or 2049. But that's what No. that's I think, is where the timeline idea comes from.
Chris: Oh yes, definitely. And, and I think some confusion of. What Xi Jinping has clearly set out and reaffirmed in the political report as these important, um, operational benchmarks for the PLA, the People's Liberation Army to achieve by its hundredth anniversary in 2027. But that does not a go plan for Taiwan make, you know, And so it's been confusing to me trying to understand this. And of course, you know, I, I'm joking, but I'm not, you know, if we, if we listen now to the chief of naval operations of the US Navy, you know, like they're invading tomorrow, basically.
My former colleague from the CIA, John Culver's, done some very, you know, useful public work on this for the Carnegie, where he sort his endowment, where he sort of said, you know, look, there's certain things we would have to see, forget about, you know, a D-day style invasion, any type of military action that, that you don't need intelligence methods to find out. Right. You know, uh, canceling, uh, conscription, demobilization cycles, you know, those, those sort of things. Um, we don't see that happening. So I've been trying to come to grips with why the administration seems fairly seized with this and and their public commentary and so on. What I'm confident of is there's no smoking gun you know, unlike, say the Russia piece where it appears, we had some pretty compelling intelligence. There doesn't seem to be anything that says Xi Jinping has ordered invasion plans for 2024, you know, or, or, or even 2027. Um, so I'm pretty confident that's not the case. And so then it becomes more about an analytic framework. And I, from what I can tell, it's seems to be largely based on what, uh, in, you know, the intelligence community we would call calendar-int.. calendar intelligence. In other words, you know, over the next 18 months, a lot of stuff's going to happen. We're gonna have our midterm elections next week. It's pretty likely the Republicans get at least one chamber of Congress, maybe both.
That would suggest that things like the Taiwan Policy Act and, you know, really, uh, things that have, uh, Beijing's undies in a bunch, uh, you know, could really come back on, uh, the radar pretty forcibly and pretty quickly. Obviously Taiwan, nobody talks about it, but Taiwan's having municipal elections around the same time, and normally that would be a very inside Taiwan baseball affair, nobody would care. But the way that KMT ooks like they will not perform, I should say, in those municipal elections. They could be effectively wiped out, you know, as a, as a sort of electable party in Taiwan. That's not a good news story for Beijing.And then of course we have our own presidential in 2024 and Taiwan has a presidential election in 24 in the US case.
I mean, look, we could end up with a President Pompeo, right? Or a President DeSantis or others who. Been out there sort of talking openly about Taiwan independence and recognizing Taiwan. And similarly, I think whoever succeeds, uh, President Tsai in Taiwan, if we assume it will likely be a a, a Democratic Progressive party president, will almost by definition be more independence oriented.
So I think the administration is saying there's a lot of stuff that's gonna get the Chinese pretty itchy, you know, over this next 18 month period. So therefore we need to be really loud in our signaling to deter. Right. And okay. But I think there's a risk with that as well, which they don't seem to be acknowledging, which is you might create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I mean, frankly, that's what really troubles me about the rhetoric. And so, for example, when Secretary Blinken last week or the before came out and said Yeah, you know, the, the, the Chinese have given up on the status quo. I, I, I've seen nothing, you know, that would suggest that the political report doesn't suggest.
Bill: They have called it a couple of times so-called status quo.
Chris: Well, Fair enough. Yeah. Okay. That's, that's fine. Um, but I think if we look at the reason why they're calling it the so-called status quo, it's because it's so called now because the US has been moving the goalposts on the status quo.
Yeah. In terms of erosion of the commitment to the one China policy. And the administration can say all at once, they're not moving the goal post, but they are, I mean, let's just be honest.
Bill: Now, and they have moved it more than the Trump administration did, don't you think?
Chris: Absolutely. Yeah. Um, you know, no president has said previously we will defend Taiwan multiple times. Right. You know, um, and things like, uh, you know, Democracy, someone, I mean, this comes back also to the, the framing, right, of one of the risks I think of framing the relationship as democracy versus autocracy is that it puts a very, uh, heavy incentive then for the Biden administration or any future US administration to, you know, quote unquote play the Taiwan card, right, as part of said competition.
Whereas if you don't have that framing, I don't think that's necessarily as automatic. Right? In other words, if that's the framing, well Taiwan's a democracy, so we have to lean in. Right? You know? Whereas if it's a more say, you know, straight realist or national interest driven foreign policy, you might not feel that in every instance you've gotta do that,
Bill: No, and and I it, that's an interesting point. And I also think too that, um, I really do wonder how much Americans care, right? And, and whether or not we're running the risk of setting something up or setting something in motion that, you know, again, it's easy to be rhetorical about it, but that we're frankly not ready to deal with
Chris: Well, and another thing that's interesting, right, is that, um, to that point, Some of the administration's actions, you know, that are clearly designed to show toughness, who are they out toughing? You know, in some cases it feels like they're out toughing themselves, right? I mean, obviously the Republicans are watching them and so on and all of that.
Um, but you know, interesting, uh, something that came across my thought wave the other day that I hadn't really considered. We’re seeing pretty clear indications that a Republican dominated Congress after the midterms may be less enthusiastic about support to Ukraine, we're all assuming that they're gonna be all Taiwan support all the time.
Is that a wrong assumption? You know, I mean, in other words, Ukraine's a democracy, right? And yet there's this weird strain in the Trumpist Wing of the Republican party that doesn't wanna spend the money. Right. And would that be the case for Taiwan as well? I don't know, but you know, the point is, I wonder if the boogieman of looking soft is, is sort of in their own heads to some degree.
And, and even if it isn't, you know, sometimes you have to lead.
Bill: it’s not clear the allies are listening. It doesn't sound like the Europeans would be on board with
Chris: I think very clearly they're not. I mean, you know, we're about to see a very uncomfortable bit of Kabuki theater here, aren't we? In the next couple of days with German Chancellor Sholz going over and, um, you know, if you, uh, read the op-ed he wrote in Politico, you know, it's, it's painful, right? You can see him trying to, uh, Trying to, uh, you know, straddle the fence and, and walk that line.
And, and obviously there are deep, deep divisions in his own cabinet, right? You know, over this visit, the foreign minister is publicly criticizing him, you know, and so on. So I think this is another aspect that might be worrisome, which is the approach. You know, my line is always sort of a stool, if it's gonna be stable, needs three legs, right.
And on US-China relations, I think that is, you know, making sure our own house is in order. Domestic strengthening, these guys call it, coordinating with allies and partners, certainly. But then there's this sort of talking to the Chinese aspect and through a policy, what I tend to call strategic avoidance, we don't.
Talk to them that much. So that leg is missing. So then those other two legs need to be really strong. Right. Um, and on domestic strengthening, Okay. Chips act and so on, that's good stuff. On allies and partners, there seems to be a bit of an approach and I think the chip restrictions highlight this of, look, you're either for us or against us.
Right? Whereas I think in, you know, the good old Cold War I, we seem to be able to understand that a West Germany could do certain things for us vis-a-vis the Soviets and certain things they couldn't and we didn't like it and we complained, but we kind of lived with it, right? If we look at these chip restrictions, it appears the administration sort of said, Look, we've been doing this multilateral diplomacy on this thing for a year now, it’s not really delivering the goods. The chips for framework is a mess, so let's just get it over with and drag the allies with us, you know? Um, and we'll see what ramifications that will have.
Bill: Well on that uplifting note, I, I think I'm outta questions. Is there anything else you'd like to add?
Chris: Well, I think, you know, something just to consider is this idea, you know, and maybe this will help us close on a more optimistic note. Xi Jinping is telling us, you know, he's hardening the system, he's, he's doing this fortress economy thing and so on. But he also is telling us, I have a really difficult set of things I'm trying to accomplish in this five years.
Right? And that may mean a desire to signal to the us let's stabilize things a bit, not because he's having a change of heart or wants a fundamental rapprochement, so on and so forth. I don't think that's the case, but might he want a bit of room, right? A breathing room.
Bill: Buy some time, buy some space
Chris: Yeah, Might he want that? He might. You know, and so I think then a critical question is how does that get sorted out in the context of the negotiations over the meeting in Bali, if it is a longer meeting, I think, you know, so that's encouraging for that. Right. To some degree. I, I, I would say, you know, if we look at what's just happened with the 20th party Congress and we look at what's about to happen, it seems with our midterms here in the United States, Who's the guy who's gonna be more domestically, politically challenged going into this meeting, and therefore have less room to be able to seize that opportunity if it does exist.
Exactly. Because I, I think, you know, the, the issue is, The way I've been framing it lately, you know, supposedly our position is the US position is strategic competition and China says, look, that's inappropriate, and we're not gonna sign onto it and forget it.
You know, my own view is we kind of have blown past strategic competition where now in what I would call strategic rivalry, I think the chip restrictions, you know, are, are a giant exclamation point, uh, under that, you know, and so on. And my concern is we're kind of rapidly headed toward what I would call strategic enmity.
And you know, that all sounds a bit pedantic, but I think that represents three distinct phases of the difficulty and the relationship. You know, strategic enmity is the cold, the old Cold War, what we had with the Soviets, right? So we are competing against them in a brass tax manner across all dimensions. And if it's a policy that, you know, hurts us, but it hurts them, you know, 2% more we do it, you know, kind of thing. I don't think we're there yet. And the meeting offers an opportunity to, you know, arrest the travel from strategic rivalry to strategic enmity. Let's see if there's something there/
Bill: And if, and if we don't, if it doesn't arrest it, then I think the US government at least has to do a much better job of explaining to the American people why we're headed in this direction and needs to do a much better job with the allies cuz because again, what I worry about is we're sort of heading down this path and it doesn't feel like we've really thought it through.
You know, there are lots of reasons be on this path, but there's also needs to be a much more of a comprehensive understanding of the, of the costs and the ramifications and the solutions and have have an actual sort of theory of the case about how we get out the other side of this in a, in a better way.
Chris: Yeah, I think that's important. I want to be real, um, fair to the administration. You know, they're certainly more thoughtful and deliberative than their predecessor. Of course, the bar was low, but, um, you know, they, they seem to approach these things in a pretty. Dedicated and careful manner. And I think they really, you know, take, take things like, uh, looking at outbound investment restrictions, you know, my understanding is they have been, you know, seeking a lot of input about unintended consequences and so on. But then you look at something like the chips piece and it just seems to me that those in the administration who had been pushing for, you know, more there for some time, had a quick moment where they basically said, look, this thing's not working with multilaterally, Let’s just do it, you know? And then, oh, now we're seeing the second and third and other order consequences of it. And the risk is that we wind up, our goal is to telegraph unity to Beijing and shaping their environment around them as the administration calls it. We might be signaling our disunity, I don't know, with the allies, and obviously that would not be a good thing
Bill: That’s definitely a risk. Well, thanks Chris. It's always great to talk to you and Thank you for listening to the occasional Sinocism podcast. Thank you, Chris.
Chris: My pleasure.
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