Chinese Strategy and Identity Politics

The decision of Olympic gold medalist Eileen Gu to join the Chinese national team, though born and raised in the U.S., had drawn criticism even before Nikki Haley called her out. The former governor of South Carolina declared, “You’ve got to pick a side because you're either American or you're Chinese, and they are two very different countries.” Gu is reportedly worth $15 million from lucrative deals with capitalist enterprises like Tiffany, Louis Vuitton, and Victoria’s Secret, as well as Chinese firms that are celebrating her shift of allegiance from the U.S. to the PRC. Gu, however, still prefers to live in America, where she attended an expensive private school in San Francisco and is set to start college at Stanford. Her mother immigrated from China for the benefits of American life but did not transfer her loyalty. She is thought to be the driving force behind her daughter’s choices, though Eileen Gu has also dabbled in radical left-wing politics by embracing Black Lives Matter, another vehicle for asserting the primacy of race over national identity.

In noble contrast is Nathan Chen, a gold medal U.S. skater who was proud to receive his awards under the American flag. His criticism came from Chinese fans and social media posts who proclaimed him a “traitor” to China who insulted his heritage by being “too white” and Americanized. He played for the country in which he lives, which makes him a nationalist, not a racist.

Part of Beijing’s strategy is calling home the Chinese diaspora that fled harsh communist rule. Haley pointed out that the choice is still about freedom and that Beijing is still a dictatorship, although a wealthy despotism that can back its racist propaganda with money. President Xi Jinping combines his campaign of “common prosperity” with the glorification of China’s imperial past when it dominated East Asia as the world’s most advanced civilization before the spectacular rise of the West half a millennium ago. Xi’s “Make China Great Again” appeal to Chinese pride can resonate globally.

China has not just recruited athletes by stressing racial identity over national loyalty, but also men of science and business. These "talent plans" may be legal, yet at the same time undoubtedly subversive. According to the FBI, “China’s talent plans have successfully recruited participants around the world to work on key programs like military technologies, nuclear energy, wind tunnel design, and advanced lasers” and “Talent plan participants are offered multiple financial, personal, and professional benefits in exchange for their efforts.” Though recruitment is not limited to those of Chinese heritage, it is a factor that can add to the appeal. It does not feel like treason if you think you are working within your chosen identity to further a “higher cause.”

We have run into this kind of problem before. We interned a great many Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Yet, this was an overreaction that exaggerated the racialist threat. We were able to enlist Japanese-American combat troops and intelligence officers who fought with valor for the country they lived in.

Before both world wars, Berlin tried to appeal to the German-American community, then the second largest in the U.S. behind the Anglo-Americans. But the man who led our forces against the Third Reich was named Eisenhower (German for “iron worker”). We are an "empire" of people from all over the world who have formed a nation because our "melting pot" philosophy used identity politics in a positive way.

The problem is that process has been weakened and a divisive form of identity politics has arisen. On the Left, nationalism is anathema to their core theme of class warfare which thinks of society as being in constant strife of all against all, a truly dystopian vision. There is no national interest in growth and opportunity, only special interests grabbing and exploiting each other to redistribute wealth. Unfortunately, some Establishment Republicans think in the same terms, accepting the left-wing vision, only choosing different groups to champion. Haley assailed this in regard to those business firms that have become global in outlook and are eager to follow Gu to Beijing for a fast buck. For too long, the GOP listened to such voices in Corporate America and turned their backs on the U.S. as an integrated society that needed to protect its economic base as well as its traditional values and security.

The Left’s inherently divisive program has initiated a dangerous revival of racism in its pursuit of power. It has been fifty years since the Left’s last reign of ruin which inflicted defeat overseas and chaos as home. The reaction that brought in President Ronald Reagan to put things right gave the country a long run of economic growth, innovation, and victory in the Cold War. From 1980 to 2019, the country’s real GDP nearly tripled, and technology exploded. All sectors of American society benefitted from this stellar performance, which posed a grave problem for the Left. The continued rise of black and Hispanic middle classes in a prosperous capitalist economy made a hash of the Left’s claim that socialism was the way forward. The Left had to find a way to dismiss the nation’s actual progress. Appeals to race took precedence over class. The argument has become: even if you benefit from Republican-conservative-capitalist policies, you can’t vote for them because they are racists.

This demagoguery hit its peak regarding Donald Trump, whose avowed nationalism posed an existential threat to the entire leftist program. His economic reforms on taxes and regulation pumped prosperity into minority communities which have since been decimated by the crime-ridden lockdowns imposed by Democrat mayors and governors. The only counter is to charge racism to discredit both President Trump and his record. Yet, there is no basis for this charge against a leader who in his Inaugural Address proclaimed an explicitly anti-racist definition of America. "A new national pride will stir our souls, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. It is time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget: that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots, we all enjoy the same glorious freedoms, and we all salute the same great American Flag. And whether a child is born in the urban sprawl of Detroit or the windswept plains of Nebraska, they look up at the same night sky, they fill their heart with the same dreams, and they are infused with the breath of life by the same almighty Creator." This last recalls the Declaration of Independence's principle that "all men are created equal."

No wonder the Left went insane with a hatred that is poisoning the land. Identity politics based on race or any other subdivision of society that tears us apart rather than provides building blocks upward does more than just open the door for foreign subversion. It cripples us at home as well. In the world of Great Power competition, the battle of ideas over what constitutes identity and engenders loyalty will determine who holds the high ground. Beijing may be able to use race to build unity, but it is a deadly notion in a United States whose motto is “from many, one.” Martin Luther King said it best. “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” This is the key to the fusion of individualism and nationalism at the core of conservatism. The former is developed and rewarded for serving the higher and wider advancement of the latter. And we will all be better for it.

William R. Hawkins is President of the Hamilton Center for National Strategy. A former economics professor, he has written widely on defense and foreign policy issues for a variety of scholarly and popular publications. He has also served on the staff on the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Image: Anna Frodesiak

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