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Transcript: Chris Johnson talks with Michael Morell on "Intelligence Matters"

In this episode of Intelligence Matters, host Michael Morell speaks with Chris Johnson, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former CIA senior China analyst, about the state of play in U.S.-China relations. Johnson offers a portrait of President Xi, who has consolidated power and alliances domestically and throughout the region, and discusses the Chinese Communist Party's efforts to make its own case globally. Johnson and Morell also discuss the latest on the emerging U.S.-China trade deal, Beijing's response to the Hong Kong protests, and the attention paid overseas to the ongoing impeachment inquiry in the U.S.

Listen to this episode on Stitcher

Highlights: 

  • On the impeachment inquiry: They're definitely thinking about it. I think confusion is the watchword. I mean, there's a general sense, I think, that, 'Well, he beat the Russia rap so why is this a big deal?' And to be honest, I think oftentimes the Chinese certainly ask for quid pro quos with foreign governments and so on. So, perhaps it's a little more confusing to them as to why this is a problem.
  • On President XI: It's my opinion from this trip… that President Xi remains, shall we say, large and in charge inside the system… there's just a lotta people who don't like what Xi Jinping is doing. But we forget sometimes that there are a lotta people who do.[…]
  • We see a lot of comparisons now to Mao Zedong or even Stalin. I guess my problem with those comparisons is that those people were whimsical people. Xi Jinping is not whimsical. He's pragmatic. I think he approaches things in a very sort of thoughtful, measured way. And in fact, that might make him harder to deal with. Whimsical people, you can head-fake.
  • On the Chinese Communist Party: [T]hey're trying to make the world safe for the Chinese Communist Party, if you will. In other words, they have a system. They believe it works for them. They look at the track record of recent, both of their own system and some of the struggles, let's face it, that the democratic systems have been having. And their view is they should be allowed to pursue that system. […] They may not necessarily want to overturn the rules-based global order. They just want to mess it up. And in fact, that could be even more troubling, right? In other words, if they don't have a plan to replace the rules-based global order but would rather just see it messy, that's bad for everyone.
  • On Xi-Putin relationship: I think what they see in each other is basically each other. And that's why the relationship is good. So, when they look at each other, they see a strong and confident person like they are; someone who's very committed to the system in their country like they are; and more importantly, will go to the mattresses for that system.
  • On emerging trade deal: My sense is they also feel they should try to accomplish as much with President Trump as they can. They do have some concerns if it was a Democrat administration that they might overturn the deals that are made. But we all know that it's a lot harder to overturn something that's already been signed. So, I think they're eager to try to make as much progress as they can.
  • On Hong Kong: I think Beijing continues to hope that this will burn out. And there's been some evidence of that in the recent series of protests in that clearly the Chinese are embarking on an effort to separate what we might call the day-trippers, people who want to enjoy getting out for a good protest on weekends, and the hard-core, right, who are the people who are Molotov cocktail bombing MRT stations, subway stations, and the like. So, there's some sense that that is kind of working. But there's clearly no plan.
  •  On the NBA: I think the overarching point is it's troubling, right. It's troubling for U.S. companies. It's troubling for U.S. citizens who are here and trying to express themselves freely on social media and so on. And the Chinese government can use its market power to silence people. I mean, if you look at what happened in that episode, the NBA clearly handled it poorly from a PR point of view. But you look at several NBA stars who basically came out very directly and said this is money versus freedom and I'm choosing money. So, that was quite striking.

INTELLIGENCE MATTERS - CHRIS JOHNSON

CORRESPONDENT MICHAEL MORELL

PRODUCER: OLIVIA GAZIS, JAMIE BENSON

MICHAEL MORELL:

Chris, welcome to the show. It is great to have you back on Intelligence Matters. This is your third time on the show.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Third time's the charm.

MICHAEL MORELL:

That sets (LAUGH) a record, by the way, for--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Well, thank you.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--for most times on the podcast. So, congratulations.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Glad to be back.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, you just returned from a trip to Beijing?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yup.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And there's a lot going on, so there's plenty to talk about. But let me start by asking you about your trips to China.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

How often do you go? How long do you stay? Do you also get around the region as well as to China? What kinds of people do you talk to? How does all that work?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yeah. Well, I go multiple times per year. No fewer than six or seven and sometimes ten or 11. So, I'm over there a lot. I just find in the current conditions, and especially sort of the ecosystem that Xi Jinping has created, it's much easier to go and talk to people. You know, it's just very difficult to try to gain insight from travelers or from just reading the media or things like that.

I do often travel in the region as well when I'm out there. But mainly, I make a point when I'm in China, of also trying to get out of the major cities, either Beijing or Shanghai, and make sure that I'm going to some more far-flung province. Because you really can't get a good picture of the country if you're only hanging out in the main municipalities.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

And speak to a range of people while I'm there. Long-term contacts of mine. Obviously, with my affiliation with CSIS, oftentimes it's attending conferences and things like that. So, talk to academics, talk to officials, things like that, to try to gain insight.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You set up these things yourself? There isn't--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. There's not somebody in China who sets up all these meetings for you--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

No, and if I get a conference invitation, obviously, they take care of that part. But yeah, I'll set up my own meetings, exactly.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, when you're in China, do you ever feel pressure, direct or subtle, for how you talk about China when you're back here?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

No. I've not had that experience. I think maybe some others have. But I have not, in my experience.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. So, with that in mind, what's your take on the recent issue between the NBA and the Chinese?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yeah, my sense--

MICHAEL MORELL:

How do you think about that?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Well, my sense is that you hear different versions. And it's interesting, I think the overarching point is it's troubling, right. It's troubling for U.S. companies. It's troubling for U.S. citizens who are here and trying to express themselves freely on social media and so on.

And the Chinese government can use its market power to silence people. I mean, if you look at what happened in that episode, the NBA clearly handled it poorly from a PR point of view. But you look at several NBA stars who basically came out very directly and said this is money versus freedom and I'm choosing money. So, that was quite striking.

In terms of how it went down or what happened, you hear different versions. I think what we have seen of recent is that the Chinese propaganda organ's in something of a change. And we'll talk perhaps a little bit about what's going on domestically. Now, increasingly are the voice of how China responds to international concerns, international criticism or just developments, instead of the foreign ministry, right, so the diplomats who one would expect (who have the nuance and so on), they're just kind of reading off a sheet that the propaganda department gives them.

And that's a big change. And obviously, then, there's oftentimes the likelihood that it'll be overplayed. So, for example, my understanding is that the propaganda organs kind of led with their face and got out over their skis and President Xi actually was not very happy with how that went. And you can kind of see that in the arc of the story in China. You know, big spike of fervor and then silent very quickly thereafter.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, is the difference between the foreign ministry commenting on an issue and the propaganda arm essentially telling them what to say is the propaganda arm is thinking about the Chinese domestic audience and the diplomats would be thinking about a foreign audience? Is that--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

That's part of it. I think it's just also propagandas are, by nature, more nationalistic, more conservative, certainly more ideological, right, than your average diplomat who might be more cosmopolitan--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. Okay, Chris, politics in China.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

Several questions. One we talked about the other day when we saw each other, and that's President Xi's political position.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

How would you describe it? Is he in any political difficulty, which is a thing one hears from time to time? How do you think about that?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yeah. It's my opinion from this trip and just really from (UNINTEL) effect that President Xi remains, shall we say, large and in charge inside the system. There is obviously grumbling about some of the things he does. As we've discussed before on the podcast, there are concerns about the removal of term limits on the presidency.

There are concerns about the failure to signal the succession. And in fact, as we saw in the plenum, the fourth plenum that was concluded last week, there was a lotta speculation that maybe the succession may be signaled and that there would be promotions to the Politburo standing committee, one or two people, something like this, that would signal a succession.

But it didn't happen. (LAUGH) And I think really that's the best indicator of Xi Jinping's strength. I mean, unfortunately, the problem with whispers, right, is that they're hard to do away with. So, my guess is even with positive observable fact, strong facts like that, these rumors will continue, primarily because the economy is slowing, Hong Kong is a problem, which I'm sure we'll discuss, and other factors. And there's just a lotta people who don't like what Xi Jinping is doing. But we forget sometimes that there are a lotta people who do.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM). Can you describe him as a person?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

His mindset, how he thinks about things?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

My general sense is he is someone who is ideological. He's a true Marxist. I think he has a certain sense of himself as a man of history. We see that quite a bit in terms of this equating of his personal rule with China's rise. And in fact, I think really the more subtle domestic gambit that he's been up to in the last several months, and it's playing out over time, is to kind of formalize this inseparable link between his personal rule and the rise of China.

And we see that manifesting itself in several ways, one of which is this occasional references to him probably building towards some sort of formal designation of Xi Jinping as the people's leader. And then of course, equating the people with the party. (LAUGH) So, the people are those who support the party, and those who do not are not the people. And that's a very interesting sort of dance that we're seeing going on. I think--

MICHAEL MORELL:

You tie everything together?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Correct, exactly. And the forge, if you will, on which he's making this chain is this idea of struggle, right. He gave a big speech. He's given two actually this year talking about these struggles and they cover all the areas, very diverse areas, that one might expect. The struggle against environmental degradation, the struggle to become self-sufficient in technology, and of course, the struggle against Western values and the U.S. Cold War attitude is something that we often hear from Xi.

And then I would just emphasize as well one thing that's interesting about him. We see a lot of comparisons now to Mao Zedong or even Stalin. I guess my problem with those comparisons is that those people were whimsical people. Xi Jinping is not whimsical. He's pragmatic. I think he approaches things in a very sort of thoughtful, measured way. And in fact, that might make him harder to deal with. Whimsical people, you can head fake.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, what is his vision of China in the world?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

I think basically the main piece is they're trying to make the world safe for the Chinese Communist Party, if you will. In other words, they have a system. They believe it works for them. They look at the track record of recent, both of their own system and some of the struggles, let's face it, that the democratic systems have been having.

And their view is they should be allowed to pursue that system. And so, it's a helpful way of framing it, I think, because it does show us that there's a challenge from China, no question, in that they're seeking to sort of proselytize a narrative, just like we have our own narratives about freedom and democracy and so on. They have theirs about the effectiveness of their system.

But it also suggests that there are some limits to their ambition. In other words, they may not necessarily want to overturn the rules-based global order. They just want to mess it up. (LAUGH) And in fact, that could be even more troubling, right? In other words, if they don't have a plan to replace the rules-based global order but would rather just see it messy, that's bad for everyone.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. So, is it a way to think about it as follows -- And correct me if I'm wrong. But in terms of their international relationships, if it's all about supporting the party, at the end of the day, and the party's position at home, is it to get out of those relationships as much as you can economically? Because that, at the end of the day, is what supports the party?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

That's a big part of it, for sure. And I think also, though, it is this idea of trying to legitimize China's international role and, again, the validity of their system. So, when we look at what they're doing at the U.N., for example, where they're trying to inject certain of their key phrases, such as the community of shared prosperity for humanity, and things of this nature, that's an effort as well to kind of gain international legitimacy without democratization. They're finding it's a fairly difficult trick, actually.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. So, what's different? What's different with Xi Jinping from his predecessors, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin? Particularly in terms of China's role in the world, how do you think about that?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yeah. I mean, I think certainly in the Jiang era, and also in the Hu era, we saw the remnants, if you will, of Deng Xiaopeng's old adage about hiding your capabilities and biding your time, right. In other words, keep a low profile internationally. Don't stick your head up. Xi Jinping has definitely done away with that.

We see that most clearly in the work report that came from the last party congress, the 19th Party Congress, where really, for the first time since the Cultural Revolution, as I said earlier, they suggested they have a model that might be applicable outside of China. So, I think that's a huge difference. Then, I think another significant difference, obviously, is those guys were sort of struggling within the confines of a highly collectivized leadership system.

So, therefore, lowest common denominator international policies tended to come out the other end. Xi Jinping has a lot more freedom of action. Sometimes that can be good in terms of moving certain things forward. Sometimes it can be bad in that there's sort of a hastiness on occasion--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, right.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

--to his actions.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, right. So, he set himself up to stay in power for a long time?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How long do you expect?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Well, there's a lot of controversy over that. Obviously, by removing the term limits, technically he can be president for life. My own sense is that the third term, so the next round, is pretty likely. He'll be able to make a case, I think, that there's a lot of unfinished business, that this is a critical period for China's modernization and this new long march that he's talked about, for example.

But once you get past that, I suspect there will start to be a lot more agitation from various groupings within the party. I mean, he has effectively suppressed factionalism within the system. But that doesn't mean it's not still there, and that folks have attitudes and so on. So, we've got at least five more years. Let's put it that way.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And as you said earlier, there is no indication that he's grooming a successor?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

If he is, he's not indicating it. One presumes he has this in the back of his mind and is certainly thinking about it. That's another domestic significant difference. Previously, you know, a new party secretary would be chosen. They would serve a first term. Then they would get a second term. And in that second term, the successor would be pretty clearly identified. That did not happen at the last party congress.

MICHAEL MORELL:

You said something earlier that was interesting, right, that people compare him to Mao or Stalin, and those aren't great comparisons. Is there a current leader in the world or a leader from history that you think he is comparable to?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

That's a tough one.

MICHAEL MORELL:

That's a tough question, I know.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Not off the top of my head. I mean, I think actually, in a way, you can argue he's a fusion, maybe of a bunch of different people. I mean, obviously, he has certain tendencies that remind us a bit of Putin. They get along very well. They celebrate birthdays together (LAUGH) and so--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Kinda weird.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

That is kinda weird but they do. And I think what they see in each other is basically each other. And that's why the relationship is good. So, when they look at each other, they see a strong and confident person like they are; someone who's very committed to the system in their country like they are; and more importantly, will go to the mattresses for that system.

And then also the issue of color revolutions, of course, which is something that really binds them together. And then I think also sometimes, in terms of his pragmatism or at least his political skill, maybe a Richard Nixon or even an Angela Merkel who has managed to survive very long in German politics and stay in power a long time. That's his sort of more pragmatic side, from my point of view--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, interesting. Interesting. Okay, the trade dispute--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM).

MICHAEL MORELL:

--between the United States and China. There's an announced agreement on the outlines of some sort of phase one?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Correct.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Although, nobody's quite sure exactly (LAUGH) what's in that.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yeah.

MICHAEL MORELL:

What's your sense of how the Chinese think about where we are at this moment in the trade dispute?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

My sense is they would like to see some progress on a phase one deal. They would like, I think, to see the issue of tariffs addressed. We have sort of three batches really of the tariffs. There's a threatened set of tariffs that will come into place on December 15th. There's some existing batch from September 1st that we're in. And then, of course, there's the original $250 billion in tariffs.

I think the Chinese desire is to-- definitely the December 15th is out. They think Trump won't do that because it's so close to Christmas. Eliminate that September tariff and see what they can do on that original 250. And of course, Ambassador Lighthizer is kind of dead set against that last bit. So, it will be interesting to see. In terms of the broader picture, I think one thing that's striking is that if you look at the basic content of a phase one deal, while it doesn't hurt China much, they're just buying things they need to buy anyway and arguably would've bought two years ago, in theory.

So, you kind of asked the question, well, what do they get out of it, and I think the fundamental answer is time. Time in the near term to keep tariffs either where they are or lowered. Time to stockpile critical things like chips and so on under these temporary general licenses from the Commerce Department. And then I think time in the sort of mid- or more strategic sense of giving themselves more time to execute this transition that they're trying to execute toward greater self-sufficiency in these critical areas, especially in high tech.

MICHAEL MORELL:

How do you think they're thinking about how the president's going to play the trade issue between now and the election?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Well, I think that's a serious concern of theirs. So, one concern I hear frequently expressed from them is if we sign on to phase one and we purchase a lot of agriculture products and we make some concessions on intellectual property and so on, but that original $250 billion in tariffs stays on, what motivation do we have to get into phase two if we're not being given any sense of progress.

And how do we know that it won't then just stay in place through the election? And who knows whether President Trump will still be president after that election. So, I think that's a real concern of theirs. That said, I think there's a duality to it. My sense is they also feel they should try to accomplish as much with President Trump as they can. They do have some concerns if it was a Democrat administration that they might overturn the deals that are made. But we all know that it's a lot harder to overturn something that's already been signed. So, I think they're eager to try to make as much progress as they can.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, Chris, in that same light, right, did you hear much talk about impeachment and how the Chinese think impeachment might impact them?

MICHAEL MORELL:

They're definitely thinking about it. I think confusion is the watchword. I mean, there's a general sense, I think, that, 'Well, he beat the Russia rap so why is this a big deal?' And to be honest, I think oftentimes the Chinese certainly ask for quid pro quos with foreign governments and so on.

So, perhaps it's a little more confusing to them as to why this is a problem. I think certain their sense of our political system has improved over the years. They've spent a lot of effort trying to become smarter about it. But day to day, I think they still largely are confused by it. I think their sense is, again, he's the one we're dealing with now. We have to just sort of concentrate on that. Yes, maybe it makes him a little weaker. I think there's certainly a sense it makes him more inclined to try to achieve something with the Chinese and our behavior shows that.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do you think they have a preference on what comes next?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

It's hard to say. But I find it very telling, for example, that Speaker Pelosi the other day made a big point on China. Really, the only thing she said of recent on China policy, in noting that, in effect, Democrats would be just as tough in terms of how we deal with these IP theft issues and so on.

But we would be tougher and smarter in that we would be working with the allies, and President Trump does not. And I think there's certainly a sense in China that another four years of Trump equals another four years internationally of some chaos, I guess is the way to put it, in terms of the U.S. ability to forge coalitions with the allies that then could effectively push back.

I mean, one of the key challenges that we're facing is that if there's a flaw in our strategy, whether it's Ambassador Lighthizer on the trade side or previously, John Bolton on the security side, it's that we still think we can do this unilaterally. And I have serious doubts that's the case--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, right, right, right. I mean, I believe that withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership or not going forward with the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a huge strategic mistake.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

I agree.

MICHAEL MORELL:

If the president were to change his mind on that, do you think that's still possible from a regional perspective? Or--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yes, I--

MICHAEL MORELL:

--has that time passed?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

No, I don't think the time's passed. I mean, they would always welcome the U.S. because we're a massive market. I think what's different is don't think you're going to come in and try to renegotiate it. I mean, that's really the issue. I think the notion, even from close allies, has been we're moving ahead. This thing is done and dusted, from our perspective. If you want to sign on to how it looks now, we welcome you. But don't think you're going to come in and try to make a bunch of changes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah. And then kind of the last question in the U.S./China realm. How would you describe Beijing's strategy for dealing with us, not on the trade issue or specific issues, but more broadly? What's their strategy for dealing with the United States, both in the short-term and the long-term?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yeah. I think in both the short-term and the long-term, but particularly the short-term, the idea is simply to get some stability in the relationship; some stability and some predictability to bind us into sort of what we had before in several previous administrations. A series of high-level dialogues that explore critical issues between the two sides.

Right now, we have no strategic dialogue with China. None. And we have the trade talks, of course. But we don't have anything in terms of South China Sea issues or other issues. There's no high-level dialogue happening on the security side. And I think they view that as problematic. Some analysts would say that's because they just want to tie us up in a talk shop that never really does anything, and there's some truth in that, given how they've behaved in previous dialogues.

Some others would just say, actually, no, they want that for that sense of stability. I mean, longer-term, of course, their view is that they would like to see themselves basically be the dominant power in east Asia. That's very clear. Do they have ambitions to float aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean?

Probably not anytime soon. But I think what's striking is that if you look at what Xi Jinping has done, and a lot of the sort of official commentary and so on, their vision for the timeline for when they might hit this status as a great power, superpower, however you want to put it, keeps coming closer, right. So, we used to talk a lot about 2050 or even beyond that. Now, we talk about 2035, maybe even 2025. You see a lot more of that type of discussion.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, Chris, their views of us in general, right, on where we're going as a country, on where our policy is headed toward them, how do they think about that?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Well, I think one of the challenges we're facing with regard to how they see us is as good dialectical thinkers, right. Of course, they made an assessment actually some time ago, I would say certainly around the time of the global financial crisis (maybe even before), that-- two things, basically.

One, that this conflict of some sort was inevitable. That's one point. And two, that the U.S. is in decline. And one of the things I think that has been unhelpful, as it was put to me recently by a Chinese person, was that we keep affirming their dialectical and teleological (LAUGH) thinking with what's happening here, right.

So, the global financial crisis, of course, the rise of Donald Trump, the withdrawal from alliance and these sorts of things, you know, they see that all as self-affirmatory of the judgment that they've already made. And so, I think that's a very important thing to take into consideration.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, this world that they grew into, right, they clearly benefited from the stability that--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Definitely.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--was provided by the United States.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yes.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Do they understand that?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

They do. They do.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Who do they think is gonna provide that if not the United States?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Well, I think actually they're worried about that. I mean, it's another one of these dualities that they face. Thankfully, again, as Marxists, they're very comfortable with contradictions. (LAUGH) But I think their concern is we never liked the U.S. world policeman thing. That's too much, right. But we don't want to have to try to fill that role. And in fact, I don't see any ambition on their part to wanna fill that role. Why would you do so when you've done so well freeriding, effectively--

(OVERTALK)

MICHAEL MORELL:

And when you do that, you have to choose sides, right--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

That's right, exactly.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--and when you choose sides, you lose one as a market.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

It starts getting messy, exactly. And I think that's really the issue is that if we try to play this as some kind of a new Cold War, an ideological death struggle between our two countries, I think that's going to be a big mistake because of its size, influence, economy and so on, China's just a different beast than the Soviet Union. I mean, a key example, one thing that worked well for the U.S. in the Cold War was Soviet international isolation. China's not isolated internationally.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. And you're not gonna contain them economically?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Definitely not.

MICHAEL MORELL:

They're gonna break through those chains?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Correct.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And I think I know the answer to this question but I want to ask it anyway. The president's decision in northern Syria, right, how would they look at that?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

I think it's problematic. I think they certainly would take from it perhaps here's a guy who basically doesn't like wars. I was never a fan of the notion that President Obama-- Syria red lined and emboldened the Chinese in the South China Sea. I think that's wrong. What did embolden them in the South China Sea was our failure to respond to the Scarborough Shoal situation at the time that that occurred.

But they're certainly looking at it. And I think actually it's a good point because it might be one of these areas where they're actually concerned. Is the U.S. kind of pulling out of the Middle East? President Trump talks a lot about that we don't need them anymore. We have domestic energy security and so on. And how strange is it that on something like Syria, President Putin and Turkey's Erdogan are discussing the settlement? That's crazy. There's no U.S. role. So, I'm sure it's perplexing to them. And I don't think they necessarily love that idea.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right. I mean, stability in the Middle East is pretty important to them?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Very much so. They are now the chief customer, not us.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, Chris, Hong Kong.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yeah?

MICHAEL MORELL:

Walk us through where we are in Hong Kong and how we got there.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Yeah. Well, where we are I think is a bit of a mess. The situation remains pretty unstable. I think a lot of folks didn't think perhaps that this would be as persistent as it has been. We had the Umbrella movement, obviously, in 2014 that went for a decent amount of time but then petered out.

I think Beijing continues to hope that this will burn out. And there's been some evidence of that in the recent series of protests in that clearly the Chinese are embarking on an effort to separate what we might call the day-trippers, people who want to enjoy getting out for a good protest on weekends, and the hard-core, right, who are the people who are Molotov cocktail bombing MRT stations, subway stations, and the like.

So, there's some sense that that is kind of working. But there's clearly no plan. As to how we got here, a lot of people blame China's increasing sort of stranglehold on the territory, or at least not necessarily living up to its commitments about Hong Kong autonomy and rule of law and this sort of thing.

That's definitely true. That's a big issue. I think the bigger issue, though, actually is the greed of the Hong Kong tycoons; the property developers Hong Kong. This has caused a lot of the concern about housing prices and the lack of availability for young, middle-class people to be able to get housing and so on. That's a serious issue. And I think that has to play out domestically. And we're now seeing--

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, this isn't only about the relationship with Beijing? This is about how--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

No, no, a lot of these factors are Hong Kong-centric and have been going on for a long time. And definitely in the past, there were Hong Kong governments that were talking to these property barons and saying, 

Give us some land. How about we do a Singapore-style social housing experiment? Something like that?' And that just didn't happen. Now, obviously the mainland is not helping the process here. But some of these societal conflicts and tensions are unique to the place.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And have the protesters become more radical over time?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

I think so, in general. Although, it's hard to say. One thing that's very fascinating is that at least the sort of more mainstream people-- there's a fellow named Jimmy Lai, who's a Hong Kong publisher. He recently was in the U.S. and spoke to Congress. One thing they are picking up on is the violence is tough for U.S. support. You know, they heard this on the Hill. Vice-president Pence mentioned it in his recent speech. So, it's hard for us to give full throated support to the demonstrators when they're embarking on violence--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, yeah, so if you're in Beijing, how do you look at this?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Well, I think you see it as very problematic. I mean, one thing that was striking, and again, I think it speaks to Xi Jinping's pragmatism-- I certainly was of the opinion, with this going on and the October 1, 70th anniversary of the PRC, which was very important to them, approaching-- I thought, well, they're going to want to try to stop this thing.

The last thing they want is a counter parade, effectively happening in Hong Kong. But they allowed it, which was very interesting. I think there's a number of reasons for that, one of which was perhaps to some degree, their paranoia. If they had moved security forces from the mainland in to take care of business, shall we say, they could've gotten stuck down there and would not have been present on the mainland for those celebrations; things like this.

But they made a decision. And I think there's a general sense amongst the leadership that-- or at least it's a line I think that's used internally occasionally, which is if we were to engage in a violent crackdown, this is playing into a U.S. plot. The U.S. trap to isolate us again, like after Tiananmen, just as our rise is hitting its stride. And I think that has a lot of resiliency inside their--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Is there a Taiwan connection here, too?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Well, certainly. I mean, there's a Taiwan connection from the point of view of-- with my Chinese Communist Party goggles on, I can basically understand most of their policy toward Hong Kong. The one area where it doesn't make sense is the demonstration effect for Taiwan.

I mean, if you're President Tsai or you're the independence leaning party, the DPP, and you're looking at this, you're saying, 'That's one country, two systems, no thank you.' And in fact, I think they basically concede that the mess in Hong Kong will hand reelection to President Tsai. Obviously, something they would prefer not to see.

MICHAEL MORELL:

So, what would have to happen for Beijing to crack down in Hong Kong?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

I think we would have to see perhaps some even stronger efforts at some sort of sense of separation or that there's a real independence moving, going-- you know. I think it was interesting as well that the demonstrators several-- it was probably more than a month ago now. At one point, they had a parade where they wound up at the U.S. Consulate.

They were carrying U.S. flags. They were singing the U.S. anthem; things like this. That kind of stuff obviously very much sets off that color revolution alarm in China's head. But I think we would have to see really serious domestic disorder there before they would move in. I mean, one of the challenges is what can-- there is a PLA (People's Liberation Army) garrison in Hong Kong, of course.

But there aren't a ton of troops there. What can they do that 40,000 Hong Kong police can't? And I think that's another piece that's often underestimated. Hong Kong actually has many more things within their domestic emergency powers that they can use, and would use, before there would be a violent crackdown.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Is there knowledge in China of what's happening in Hong Kong?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Certainly among the elites, there's knowledge. The average person has some sense. I would say Chinese who live right across the border in Shenzhen or Guangdong, they have a pretty good idea, probably, of what's happening down there. But if you're in Beijing or certainly you're in some far-flung western province, you probably have little idea of what's happening other than what the official media tells you is happening.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And if you're an average Chinese person, how would you look at this? How would you look at Hong Kong--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Well, it's quite striking. I mean, we often poo-poo China's official propaganda but it can be quite compelling. I mean, it's striking. Of recent, when I'm in China and I'm doing my usual sort of taxi driver intelligence gathering on the matter, the lines that you hear are things like spoiled children. They don't understand the beneficence of China and all the good that China has done; these sort of things.

It's kinda funny, right. Vice President Pence, in his recent speech, said we rebuilt China over the last 40 years. Chinese very much rankle at that. But they don't mind talking about how much they've done for Hong Kong when, of course, Hong Kong has done a lot for the mainland's development--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, yeah. Chris, one last question. If you think about U.S. interests in the world, and Chinese interests in the world, where are they in conflict with each other? And where is there some consistency? Where is there some overlap?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Uh-huh (AFFIRM). I think on the overlap side, we have a perennial set of issues that we've been trying to work on together for some time. North Korea's nuclear problem, obviously, there's no real solution there without Chinese help and assistance. Although, they are a very difficult partner to work with on that subject.

Climate change, we're seeing the alarm bells being rung louder and louder by scientists and by international participants. There was a big feature at the U.N. General Assembly meeting this year. Other sort of non-traditional threats, I think there are areas where we can work together. In terms of areas where we're in conflict, I think a lot of it depends on, first, both sides (in my mind) need to conduct something of a more zero-based review of the other side's ambitions, globally, right, and make an assessment which of those ambitions can we accept and which ones can we not accept.

And those that we can accept, you communicate that at a very high level. We can accept these things and let's try to work together on them. And those that we cannot accept, I think we have to telegraph that as well at a very high level. Probably set them out as red lines for us. And then operationalize the red lines by actually having our actions meet what we say is a red line so the other leadership can see they mean it when they say it's a red line.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And they get to do the same thing?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Absolutely, they need to do the same thing--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right, because of their clout in the world now--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Absolutely. They need to do the same thing. And I would say they have had some efforts at that, I think, over recent years. But they could do more. And again, what this highlights is the absence of meaningful strategic dialogue. We're not having those conversations--

MICHAEL MORELL:

Right.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

--and I think that's problematic.

MICHAEL MORELL:

And absent the strategic dialogue you're talking about, where are we going to be in ten years, do you think? And I know that's an unfair question but--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

It's a tough question. But I think what we're seeing now looks a lot like I think what we might be seeing, unless there's some sort of a decided effort by both governments to try to say, okay, this is tilting toward conflict or downward spiral, or however you want to put it. What can we do to try to arrest that? I think if we don't do that, we're going to find ourselves in big trouble with each other because assumptions are being made, right, and there's no opportunity to be able to adjudicate that by talking to each other.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Yeah, and I just want to make a point and get your reaction to it. I think sometimes when people hear China experts say what you just said, they assume you want to give in to China, right. That they get a voice and we're going to talk to them about what's important to us and they get to talk about what's important to them--

CHRIS JOHNSON:

Right.

MICHAEL MORELL:

--and that's not what you're saying at all?

CHRIS JOHNSON:

No, not at all. In fact, I think it's the opposite. I mean, having a meaningful dialogue can be done from strength. And my own sense, in fact, is that giving into them in a way would be doing nothing like we're doing now, because in effect, we're ceding the field to their narrative, which is increasingly powerful.

MICHAEL MORELL:

Chris, thanks very much for joining us.

CHRIS JOHNSON:

My pleasure, Michael. Thank you.

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