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China’s Hold on American Elites

And how it endangers the future.
March 18, 2022
China’s Hold on American Elites
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Former United States Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (L) at the Great Hall of the People on March 17, 2015 in Beijing, China. (Photo by Feng Li - Pool/Getty Images)

America Second
How America’s Elites Are Making China Stronger
by Isaac Stone Fish
Knopf, 276 pp., $29

Helping the other team is never good in sports. It’s even worse in geopolitics, where the stakes are as high as they get. Yet that’s precisely what America’s ruling class has been doing, argues Isaac Stone Fish in his new book, America Second.

The “elites” he mentions are of varied ilk. They are the diplomat consultants, the cadre of ex-government officials who’ve raked in gobs of money thanks to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). They are the Hollywood executives who bend over backward to placate Beijing. They are the businesspeople who sing nothing but praises of China. They are the academics who self-censor. All this paints a most unflattering picture. The point of America Second is to tell the story of how this situation arose and how it works.

According to Stone Fish, these Americans are all complicit in Beijing’s agenda to make the United States “a reliable and pliant Second to China’s First.” The CCP uses them to advance its grand designs. The result is that these elites strengthen China while weakening the United States.

America Second is reminiscent of Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon, which made waves discussing China’s drive to supplant the United States. In roughly a half-century of U.S.-China relations, the CCP has carried out influence operations so pervasive it’s hard to find an unsullied corner of American society. Anyone hesitant about viewing Beijing as our country’s foremost adversary ought to read this book.

The real value of America Second is not in its overarching argument. Stone Fish’s observation that American elites’ “accommodation—or ‘friendship,’ as the Party and its allies call it—is widespread across America” isn’t particularly novel or noteworthy. Rather, the book’s main contribution is in substantiating a known pathology. Stone Fish rattles off example after example of bigshots who have wittingly or unwittingly done the CCP’s bidding, from Bob Iger to Bob Zoellick.

Stone Fish does not dwell much on the question of why our elites have cast their lot with the CCP in the first place, because the answer seems too obvious: money, of course. The possibility of profit is too lucrative to forgo, so no one is surprised when NBA bosses and film producers dare not offend Xi Jinping lest he and his thin-skinned comrades cut off their massive revenue stream.

But does profit alone explain why Americans are putting their country second? According to Stone Fish, some people, such as Jimmy Carter, may even believe that they’re promoting constructive Sino-American relations in partnering with the CCP. Yet this is not convincing. Only the most naïve could look at an increasingly authoritarian and aggressive CCP and think as much.

A possibility not covered in America Second is what we might call (to borrow a term from the late Roger Scruton) oikophobia—a kind of American self-loathing. An American corporate officer might look at the apparent stability of China under the Communist regime and favor it over the messy, chaotic, constantly unsettled democratic politics of the United States. (Think of New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman’s 2009 assessment: “One-party autocracy certainly has its drawbacks. But when it is led by a reasonably enlightened group of people, as China is today, it can also have great advantages,” while American politics is stuck in stalemate and stupidity.) Out with American exceptionalism, in with moral equivalency, or American inferiority.

Whatever the reason, we’re left with elites who are abetting a Communist state bent on sapping American power.

Among Stone Fish’s prime targets is Henry Kissinger. The author pens nary a kind word about America’s most famous diplomat consultant. “By helping to normalize corruption among our former diplomats and warping American perception of China over the last four decades,” reads one damning passage, “Kissinger has done more harm to American interests than every ethnically Chinese businessman, hacker, spy, whether they hold American or Chinese citizenship.”

That’s a ringing charge that isn’t borne out sufficiently by the facts in this book. Should we hold Kissinger in greater contempt than the CCP agents who have stolen hundreds of billions of dollars in American intellectual property each year? Does he deserve more blame than the American business executives who make apologies for the worst Chinese abuses? Although Kissinger may have done much to burnish the CCP’s image in the United States, Stone Fish is far harder on him than other Americans.

For all his criticism of our elites, Stone Fish makes it clear the greatest danger comes from the CCP itself. He calls it “an existential threat to the American-managed world order” and even advocates a strategy of regime change. This passing suggestion feels misplaced in a book about the CCP’s influence in America.

What certainly belong are his policy recommendations about taking on the CCP at home. The thought-provoking last section of the book deals with the question of combating the CCP’s malign influence in a non-McCarthyite, non-racist way.

Here Stone Fish is speaking mostly to the American left. The Biden Department of Justice has already put some of his advice into practice by terminating the China Initiative, a Trump administration program to protect American intellectual property. While it might seem like this is just the sort of program Stone Fish would support, the China Initiative has been accused of racial profiling, and Stone Fish reasonably argues that we can’t let the campaign against CCP influence be “tarnished or distracted by accusations of racism.”

He also argues we should keep allowing Chinese nationals to study, travel, and immigrate here. Fair enough.

But he goes further, suggesting that we should keep allowing Confucius Institutes—those CCP satellites that have sparked justifiable outrage—in our colleges and universities. Why? We’ve got to know our enemy, Stone Fish reasons. “An imperfect and politically tinged understanding of Chinese is better than no understanding at all.” According to his logic, we shouldn’t do much, if anything, about CCP influence operations on campus. But it’s clear something has to change. Beijing has exploited the openness of U.S. higher education while denying us reciprocity. Wouldn’t it be prudent to ban Confucius Institutes, limit the number of Chinese students (many of whom are the children of CCP officials), and make more of our sensitive high-tech fields off-limits to Chinese researchers? To accept business as usual is to surrender to the America Second agenda.

There are some bright spots in an otherwise dispiriting picture. The decision last December of the Women’s Tennis Association to suspend tournaments in China following the silencing of Peng Shuai shows that conciliating the CCP is not the only option. And, as Stone Fish notes, the TV industry has not yet caved to China in the way that the film industry has.

Still, those examples are the few sunny exceptions in an otherwise dark story. It may be too much to hope that America Second will contribute in any noticeable way toward weaning ourselves off Chinese influence. But by comprehensively documenting how coordinated the CCP’s influence campaign has been, and how compromised our elites have become, Stone Fish’s book at least makes much clearer the case for that weaning.

Daniel J. Samet

Daniel J. Samet is a Ph.D. student at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is a graduate fellow at the Clements Center for National Security.