Fighting China Stupid

By David Marshall Published on October 23, 2021

I sat at an outdoor table in Xiaguan, Yunnan Province, to get a little breakfast while waiting for the bus to the provincial capital of Kunming. A German woman who spoke English joined me at the same stall, then two men speaking Chinese.

The German woman poured out the tale of woe that her romantic trip through China had become. People spitting. Fighting. Shoving and pushing to get on trains and buses. She sounded frantic, as if suffering a touch of post-traumatic stress disorder. I knew that feeling, having spent much time on the road in China during the rough-and-tumble 1980s.

The two Chinese, meanwhile, told me about growing up on fishing boats in Guangdong Province. After a while they got up, smiled, paid for breakfast for the four of us, and left. The German woman barely looked up, and continued griping about the Chinese, not realizing that the two of them had just paid her bill.

China — The Universal Bogeyman

The world has changed dramatically since then, and now China is on everyone’s lips, often in the same tone as that of the woman at the breakfast table. People gripe about China all around me. I keep reliving it: two sides chattering, and two fishing boats or buses, passing in the night.

China has become a highly credible universal bogeyman for western conservatives: Uyghur people thrown into internment camps, hypersonic missiles, newspapers in Hong Kong squelched. And the “I call it the China flu — because it’s FROM CHINA” pandemic messing up everyone’s life.

China has become a highly credible universal bogeyman for western conservatives.

I understand the complaints. I first started making them myself at the age of 15, when an Alaskan newspaper published my letter complaining that the Media was “singing the praises” of the recently-deceased “mass-murderer,” Mao Zedong.

I grew up on tales from the Gulag, too. No one needs to teach me to loathe communism. And while Chinese are now far more polite in public (and less naïve), with the country’s growing prosperity, the same pushiness that woman recognized at train stations and on buses is now troubling government councils bordering the South China Sea, the Himalayas, and the Straights of Taiwan.

Fighting China Stupid

I despise the Chinese Communist Party, yet remain deeply fond of China. Over the past 37 years, I came to know the country intimately: its poetry and prose, its ancient capitals and sacred peaks, its foods, philosophers, and amusing literary fantasies. My first and maybe best book was on How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. My doctoral dissertation dug deeper still into connections between Christianity and Chinese Culture. I helped found an international school in China and programs at top state schools, and loved my students.

And I think we are fighting China stupid. The West is setting itself up to fail with respect to this immense and complex country. We don’t understand what is being said across the table. We overlook potential friends. Many of our concerns are of course well-founded, but too often we get facts wrong, engage in wishful thinking, or rely on sloppy analogies to past history to propose answers to the “Problem of China” that just won’t work. (And overlook solutions that might.)

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“What should we do about China?” Is one of the most important public-policy questions of our time. I find myself, again, wishing the two sides could see into one another’s lives. Because those fishing boats have now acquired missiles with nuclear warheads, and soon, no bus will take you beyond their range.

“East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet,” wrote Rudyard Kipling. But East and West may meet on the battlefield. We should try to understand our opponent better. We can count on the present administration to do the worst possible thing in the stupidest possible way. Republicans are likely to take back the House and Senate next year, and need to think more deeply about China.

Let me illustrate with a glaring example of Americans doing China stupid.

It Cost WHAT to fix the Wuhan Institute’s AC?

In early August, House Republicans released a report on the origins of COVID-19. In it they plausibly argued that the disease had been accidentally released from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

But Jim Geraghty, at America’s most storied conservative publication, the National Review, noticed an odd detail. It seemed that late in the summer of 2019, the Institute had requested bids to repair the building’s air-conditioning at a cost of more than $600 million. House Republicans reported it as follows:

“Central Air Conditioning Renovation Project September 16, 2019 … $606,382,986.11.”

The Institute’s main building appears to rise some eight floors. Amazon was building an 850-foot skyscraper in downtown Seattle for the same price at that time. How could fixing the AC in so small a building cost most of a billion bucks? Geraghty wondered:

The sheer size of the sum of money in that contract raises the question of just what the contractor was really being asked to do. Beyond that — even by the standards of a secretive and ruthless authoritarian government — who posts and then subsequently takes down the air-conditioning-repair bill, unless there’s something significant about it?

Geraghty provided a link to the original document in Chinese, inviting readers to Google translate it. That evening, Tucker Carlson cited the same mind-boggling sum on his influential populist-right show.

Scanning the original document, I found two references to the price tag: both said $600 thousand, not $600 million. House Republicans, National Review, and Tucker Carlson had foisted a mistake on millions of Americans that the waiter bringing my breakfast noodles in Xiaguan could have corrected in half a minute.

East and West Need Not Go “Boom!”

Why did so many high-end “BS detectors” fail to sniff out such an absurdity? There are reasons, which I’ll explore in a series of coming articles. Because we can’t afford to be this careless, this naïve, this China stupid.

For the real problems are not about air conditioning bills: They are about The Coming Collapse of China, as Gordon Chang foolishly put it 20 years ago. They are about turning potential friends into enemies. They are about fundamental misunderstandings leading to bad strategy, as I will explain. They are about losing when we may (with friends in China!) still be able to pull out a W.

When they meet, East and West need not go “boom!” If they do, that will mostly be the fault of the ruthless tyrant Xi Jinping, and his power-hungry minions. And no doubt the corruption and foolishness of Joe Biden and his party will also play an outsized role. But conservatives need to understand China better. And Chinese need to understand America, and what both Christians, and even Republicans, have done for China in the past.

The stakes are much higher now! So let me try, in this series, to help those sitting on opposite sides of the breakfast table understand one another a little better.


David Marshall holds an undergraduate degree in the Russian and Chinese languages and Marxism, a masters degree in Chinese religions, and a doctoral degree in Christian thought and Chinese tradition. His most recent book is Jesus is No Myth: The Fingerprints of God on the Gospels.

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