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Journalist Details 'Dangerously Unstable' Relationship Between The U.S. And China


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we're going to talk about the big story most of us haven't been focused on, the dangerously unstable relationship between the U.S. and China. It's the subject of an article in The New Yorker by my guest Evan Osnos, who covers politics and international affairs for the magazine. He lived in and reported from China for eight years and before that worked in the Middle East, reporting mostly from Iraq.

In his new article, The Future of America's Contest with China, he writes about how the U.S. and China are wrestling to determine who will dominate the 21st century. He describes how China's president has redoubled political repression. He also writes about concerns in China and the U.S. about the impact of the trade war launched by President Trump and how some people in the Trump administration are preparing for the possibility of a real war. Osnos says China has recently been building up its military, acquiring new missiles, air defenses, submarines and cyber weapons that can scramble the electric grids of opponents. They've strengthened their military to the point that Pentagon analysts believe China could defeat U.S. forces in a confrontation along China's borders.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's start with Iran. Is this a conflict China would likely take sides in?

EVAN OSNOS: China would prefer not to take sides. That's been its traditional posture. But it has greeted this moment, frankly, with a kind of quiet relief. The possibility that the United States will be drawn once again into the Middle East into a long-grinding conflict is an advantage for China diplomatically and strategically.

I mean, to give you one statistic, Terry, when the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, America's GDP was eight times the size of China's. And today, of course, they're roughly comparable. The United States is number one, and China's number two economically. So the years in which the United States has been bogged down in the Middle East and Afghanistan has been, from China's perspective, a tremendous opportunity, and they regard this possibility of a new confrontation as something similar.

GROSS: You say it would also be a diplomatic victory for China. How so?

OSNOS: China's been on this long effort to try to win over new friends in the Middle East, you know, beginning in Saudi Arabia and Iraq and elsewhere. And if this is a chance for China to draw new friendships, to draw people closer, then that's what it will take advantage of. But it is also mindful of not looking like it's exploiting the opportunity. So what you hear officially in their diplomatic statements is we discourage any escalation of hostilities and so on.

But Xi Jinping, the president, has been very clear that he regards the whole set of international conditions right now in which the United States is in a diminished position from where it was 10 or 20 years ago as what he calls a once-in-a-century opportunity or a once-in-a-century set of conditions. And it's one that is uniquely suited to allow China to build out its position in the world. And that's how they would do it. They would try to show that they are the more sedate, responsible party - this would be their argument. We can, you know, assess it objectively, but that would be their argument. They would say you can count on us in a way you can't count on the United States. Its politics change every four years. Its leadership has shown itself to be erratic. And we are the new alternative. That's how they put it. They call themselves a new alternative to Western governance.

GROSS: Is it also that while the U.S. has been spending a lot of money on wars in the Middle East, China has been investing in other countries, investing in its own research and development, building its infrastructure?

OSNOS: It has. It has used this period, this really 19-year period in which the United States has spent so much blood and treasure abroad, to try to invest on the homefront, beginning with infrastructure - building out roads and highways and bridges and so on - and then also research and development and then embarking on a foreign infrastructure push it calls the Belt and Road Initiative, which is sort of like a Marshall Plan. And it's not a smooth ride. I think sometimes we imagine that China is just kind of gliding into that space that we've left behind, that void of leadership. But actually, China's learning on the fly. Its diplomacy is often ham-fisted. They've had a hard time making it - making other countries feel that they're not there for self-serving purposes, that they're not they're just building infrastructure in order to have projects and have revenue and control territory abroad.

So I think what's worth mentioning is that though this is an opportunity for China to expand its leadership around the world when the United States does get drawn into a conflict, it is also not clear that China's able to exploit that opportunity as much as it might like. And there's a real debate within the Chinese leadership about how far forward to lean on these kinds of things because they feel like if they go too far, then they end up alienating people. So they're trying to hit that balance, and it's not very easy to do.

GROSS: Does China have interests in the Middle East?

OSNOS: It has huge interests in the Middle East. I mean, China right now is tremendously reliant on Middle Eastern oil. Its economy is very sensitive to the possibility of an oil shock. So China does not want to see oil prices rise substantially. That's one reason why they don't welcome a new conflict in the Middle East. They have a lot of oil that goes through the Straits of Hormuz, through the Straits of Malacca. And that also is a reason now why they are beginning to expand their military presence abroad. And they opened their first overseas military base in Djibouti, which is a staging ground to be able to monitor that kind of ship traffic and oil traffic.

GROSS: So many of us have been focused on the impeachment and Ukraine and Russia and haven't been thinking so much about Iran, and now this. Might it be a similar situation with China - while we're not watching, things are escalating?

OSNOS: Very much so. I think that's a great way to put it. In a way, we are focused these days - necessarily - on these incredibly dramatic, tactical developments in our politics, really huge changes. And yet, there is this undertow, this large, seismic shift in global leadership and in global competition that is happening all the time, day and night. And that is the growth of China and the challenge that it poses to American leadership, American values. And it's forcing us to be very clear and deliberate about what we believe in and what we care about.

But it's not on the front page very often. And we tend to focus on - for the right reasons, we focus on what's before us. But over the last 25 years, China's economy has grown 24 times over. It is just simply a different country in many ways than it was a quarter century ago. And if you think about what we've been doing for the last quarter century, a lot of that has been litigating our domestic battles politically and then also fighting in the Middle East. So this is the big - in some ways, China is the big story we don't talk about every day. It's the giant story over the horizon, and in many ways, it's the fact of American political and diplomatic life we'll be contending with for most of the rest of this century.

GROSS: A retired Army officer who was also an Asia adviser to Bush and Obama said to you if you talk to folks in the Pentagon, they say they're no longer debating whether or not China is an enemy. They're planning for war. War?

OSNOS: I think that is - exactly. That's the kind of thing that surprised me, frankly. And I do this for a living. I focus on China and report on it. But it would be a shock to many Americans. We just - I think the idea of the United States and China drifting towards a real conflict seems far-fetched right now because we have so much else to think about. But it's a serious issue, and it's one worth understanding and, to the degree we can, shaping it. What he's talking about is the idea that over the last few years, the American military especially has become aware of how exhausted it is, how worn down and depleted it feels as a result of the last 19 years of war.

And that's a period in which China has been investing very heavily in its own military, things like anti-ship missiles and submarines and cyberweapons, to the point that now when the Pentagon sponsors war games about a possible war with China - they've sponsored at least 17 of them - and in those war games, China has won all of them. And that is a source of great alarm within the Pentagon because they feel as if this is not a theoretical, it's not a remote prospect. We need to be prepared for that. But then we also have to do it in a way that does not put us onto a war footing unnecessarily.

This is about being aware, being alert, but also not being alarmist. And that's hard. That's a very, very difficult balance to strike, particularly when our politics are as polarized as they are.

GROSS: What could push us to war with China?

OSNOS: Well it sounds obscure, but the Western Pacific, which is this vast stretch of land that encompasses Taiwan and the South China Sea and a whole set of islands and atolls and reefs that most Americans have never even heard of, is a highly contested piece of territory. It matters because, to put a fine point on it, one-third of the world's shipping traffic moves through the South China Sea. If you control the South China Sea, you have a huge hand on the global economy.

So from China's perspective, they want to have a much greater control over that region because they don't want to be vulnerable to American pressure in the event of some kind of standoff. The United States controls where - or historically has, for most of the last hundred years, has controlled the South China Sea and has controlled large stretches of the Western Pacific, and that is changing. China has systematically built up its presence. It has built artificial islands, seven of them, in the South China Sea in order to try to stage its military further and further from its borders.

And so you have - every day now, in ways that, really, never make the front page of the newspaper, you have American ships and Chinese ships coming in very close proximity to each other. You have American planes and Chinese planes getting in to closer and closer encounters. And that's risky because what can happen in a situation is you get something that might be a small-scale collision - you know, two ships bump into each other - but if you don't have wise, sage and calm leadership, that can escalate.

And that combination of the leadership dynamics and this very contested terrain is a combination that military analysts in both countries, the U.S. and China, will tell you is the most dangerous flashpoint in the world today, perhaps.

GROSS: Well, it's especially dangerous if there are people in China or the U.S. and the administrations there who are looking for an opportunity to go to war. So who are the most hawkish people in the Trump administration now when it comes to China, and how hawkish are they?

OSNOS: Well, if we take one of the very prominent voices in the administration - that's Mike Pompeo, secretary of state. And Pompeo has been very out front in terms of talking about China in very stark terms. He says that China is seeking to dominate the world politically, militarily, strategically, seeking to extend its values, as he puts it, including corruption around the world. And he has said also that it's incumbent on the United States to - and its allies, to as he put it, keep China in its proper place.

Those two ideas - one that China is seeking to dominate the world, and two, that the West needs to keep China in its proper place - are very dramatic ideas because for a long time, the basic consensus has been in the sort of expert community on China in the West that China doesn't really seek to dominate the world; what it seeks to do is to dominate Asia. And that's a big difference. Dominate the world implies ejecting America from its supreme position and undermining its basic claim to power. And if that's true, then that represents the kind of existential threat that is - was posed by the Soviets.

And what you have today is this major debate going on about whether he and allies of Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump are right or whether that basic point of analysis is wrong. And he is - I name him because he's the most prominent member who is saying that, but there is a collection of other officials at the top of the Trump administration who have taken on these kinds of positions about China that have been much stronger, much sharper than previous administrations.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He writes about politics and international affairs for The New Yorker. His new article is called "The Future Of America's Contest With China." We'll take a short break here, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker who covers politics and international affairs. His new article is called "The Future Of America's Contest With China." He's covered China for years. He lived in China for eight years.

One of the people in the Trump administration is Peter Navarro, who is the author of a book you describe as very hawkish called "Death By China." And Navarro is now assistant to the president and director of trade and manufacturing policy. So what does he have to say about China?

OSNOS: Yeah, Peter Navarro is an important example of the kind of ideas that are circulating around President Trump. Peter Navarro was a business school professor who wrote a book called "Death By China," as you said. It was a documentary as well. And it really wasn't a mainstream book; it was sort of treated as a fringe position. He imagined unraveling America's interactions with China economically - pulling factories out, reducing the flow of technology and students. And he became an adviser to the Trump campaign. And I remember interviewing him a couple of years ago during the campaign, and he said to me at the time that the threat of tariffs, which was the centerpiece of his advice to the president, was - as he said, explicitly - it's a threat; we're really never going to have to impose these tariffs because China will capitulate. When it sees that Trump is the kind of person who's actually willing to do this, he said it's like having a strong military - you don't need to use it.

Now, you fast-forward to today, and of course, we have had tariffs. China did not capitulate to the threat of tariffs. We have had a two-year trade war that has cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. The average American household is estimated to have spent about $1,300 on tariffs that we have essentially imposed on Chinese goods.

And so the reason why I found that moment very informative was because it was a demonstration of how Peter Navarro and others have fundamentally miscalculated how China would respond to pressure. And those kinds of miscalculations have been costly when it comes to the trade war, but when it - if we made the same sorts of mistakes on national security - for instance, on a fight in the South China Sea - it could be even costlier. And that is the source of great instability in the moment, I think, in this relationship.

GROSS: Did Peter Navarro ever say, guess I was wrong?

OSNOS: He has not said that. No, he has said that they were right to pursue tariffs and that they would win a trade war. Look - the president tweeted in the beginning of this process that trade wars are good and easy to win, is how he put it. And I think that that kind of casual optimism about confronting China is one of the themes that run through the Trump administration's approach and has been hard to - frankly, hard to back up. This has turned into a grinding conflict. At the moment, we have a Phase 1 trade deal, meaning a pause. But this is not going away, and the Chinese certainly don't think it's going away. This is the beginning; it's not the end of this conflict.

GROSS: So when Pompeo says that China wants to dominate the globe, does he mean economically, does he mean militarily, in terms of just having a very strong military, or is he envisioning, like, invasions where China invades a lot of countries and dominates it?

OSNOS: He's not envisioning invasions. Fundamentally, what he's imagining is something that is - evokes the history the Cold War. It evokes that memory of the struggle with the Soviets in which you had these two giant powers dueling it out for supremacy in the world.

GROSS: But meanwhile, a Cold War-era anti-Soviet group, the Committee on the Present Danger, has reformed. Who has reformed it? What is it trying to do?

OSNOS: Yeah, I found that to be a telling indicator. The Committee on the Present Danger was originally formed in the 1950s to advocate against Soviet aggression, and it was revived in 2019 by Steve Bannon, the former Trump advisor. And it's had at its events people like Ted Cruz, Republican senator from Texas, and also, interestingly, Newt Gingrich, the former speaker, who is a permanent Washington presence.

I paid attention when Newt Gingrich started associating with the Committee on the Present Danger because he's written a lot of books over the years. He's written 30 books, in fact, since leaving politics in 1998. His latest book is called "Trump Vs. China." And so I went to a book event out of curiosity, to see what he was saying about it. And what he was telling the crowd was, as he said, that if you don't want your children and your grandchildren speaking Chinese and obeying Beijing, then this is a subject you need to be talking about. And he compared China - he said it's a bigger threat to the United States than the Soviets or the Nazis ever were.

Now, look - I've been critical of China in a whole variety of ways for years, but those descriptions are overheated; they just are - they're not based on fact. And what we're doing is by amping up this threat, this sense of peril, then we're creating a predicate. We're sort of laying a foundation for a self-fulfilling fight with the Chinese that may not be to our interests. And there are ways to do this that don't undermine our values and that still stand up for American interests, but don't casually compare the Chinese to the Nazis and the Soviets without a pretty rigorous analysis.

GROSS: Do you think Mike Pompeo, our secretary of state, or President Trump would ditto what Newt Gingrich said?

OSNOS: Yes, in various versions. Mike Pompeo is more decorous in the way he describes it. He's not quite as casual. But he is very clear that he regards this as a zero-sum competition. He - when he says that China wants to dominate the globe, that is a telling bit of language because it implies that their gain is our loss. And there is a way that one can look at the U.S.-China relationship and imagine coexistence, fierce coexistence.

Let's be clear - this is about us standing up for ourselves and making sure that we defend our allies and that we fortify the values we care about. But that's very different from looking at China and saying that, as they grow, we will diminish because that leads you down a set of foreign policy solutions that may not be the right fit and, in fact, may be the kind of costly choices that have led us into other mistakes over the last 20 years.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "The Future Of America's Contest With China." After we take a short break, we'll talk more about the possibility of a military encounter between the U.S. and China, and we'll hear how China's authoritarian government is reflected in how it deals with Hollywood and the NBA. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos, who writes about politics and international affairs for The New Yorker. His new article, The Future of America's Contest with China, is about the increasingly unstable relationship between China and the U.S, the impact of the trade war launched by President Trump and how some people in the Trump administration are planning for the possibility of a real war with China. Osnos lived in and reported from China for eight years.

So what you've described is a very combustible situation. We already have a trade war with China. China is militarizing the South China Sea by building these artificial islands and making them basically into military bases. And you have people in the Trump administration, including the secretary of state, who see China as a threat to us and as a global threat. Do you see the possibility of a military encounter with China like we just have had with Iran? And who knows what happens next?

OSNOS: Yeah, I do. And more importantly, there are people across the political spectrum who have come to worry about that risk, the risk that you have an incidental encounter, some kind of collision, some flashpoint, let's say in the South China Sea. And then you get into the kind of posturing and escalation ladder that we're seeing potentially with Iran. And with China, it would be very dangerous. China historically is very sensitive to any attack on its national image. It's very sensitive to the idea of being humiliated. And they've been very nationalistic in their language over the last few years, amping up the public to be very sensitive to any kind of slight. So there is a - there's a lot of dry kindling around.

And I was struck, Terry, over the last few months as I talked to people with very different politics, people like Henry Kissinger and then a Yale historian named Arne Westad, who both envision something similar, which is they worry that the United States and China are separating into two rival blocs, like the old Eastern Bloc and the Western bloc. And they're defined partly by ideology around democracy or around authoritarianism, and they're also defined partly by technology. China has its own technology companies, its own standards. And that when you have that sort of building of blocs and this separating of the world, that is the precursor to a serious conflict. That's the kind of thing we had before World War I. And that can sound like an exotic comparison. It sounds dramatic and maybe overdramatic, but that's not my comparison. That's what serious historians and strategists are saying in a lot of places, that we need to be alert to that risk because that is the underlying threat here.

GROSS: My understanding of World War I is part of the reason why we went to war is that all the countries were basically playing a game of chicken, assuming, well, nobody's really going to go to war. And then something kind of lit the fuse, and suddenly there was a World War.

OSNOS: Exactly. And Henry Kissinger said to me that if you had asked the leaders of all those countries after the war was over whether they would have ever imagined that this could happen and whether they would have made the choices they made, they said obviously not. We did not imagine that we were on this pathway that we were on towards war. It was a - we slept - you know, the term is we were sleepwalking into it.

And this is where leadership is so essential. There's a great term that the historian Richard Rosenkranz uses to describe the origins of World War I, and he says, you know, it was not for abstract historical reasons that this happened. It happened because of what he calls the tyranny of small things, this mountain of daily decisions that are made every hour inside the White House, inside Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound. These are the kinds of things that keep you safe or puts you on a trajectory to conflict. So the decision about whether to - to use the Iran example, whether to take out Qassem Soleimani, if you transpose that into a Chinese context, that constant measuring of risk and execution is very dangerous. And the tyranny of small things is the thing that we should be focused on and the thing we should be trying to buttress.

GROSS: Well, what did President Trump's leadership when it came to taking out Soleimani and handling Iran, what has that told you about how Trump might behave in dealing with China? Say there's even an accidental military incident in the South China Sea.

OSNOS: I think the risk that we face with Donald Trump's form of leadership is that even though he ran for office saying that he wanted to pull American troops out of the Middle East and bring people home, he has also shown that he is very temperamental. There's a kind of reflexive way in which this is partly about him looking strong and him wanting to represent his own image in the world. And those split-second decisions are crucial. The second and third-order effects, the kinds of hard things you have to consider before you take action, those are the results of serious policymaking. And what we know so far about this decision to kill Qassem Soleimani is that there was not the kind of analysis of the second and third-order effects, what happens on days four, five and six, not just what happens immediately.

And if you put that into a context like the U.S.-China relationship, it could be very volatile. I'll give you a real-world example. In 2001, a lot of us forget that there was a collision between a Chinese jet and an American plane over the South China Sea. And the Chinese jet crashed into the ocean, and the American plane landed on Hainan Island. It was a very tense diplomatic standoff. The American crew was essentially held hostage by the Chinese. And it took weeks of very careful and subtle and patient diplomacy to get the Americans home without inflaming this Nationalistic Chinese population. And both sides ended up going home - they came up with a kind of fairly massaged diplomatic agreement in which neither side apologized. They both got to go home and declare themselves winners. It was some pretty deft diplomacy, and it worked. And the fear - and you hear this constantly when you talk to people in the Pentagon and elsewhere these days - is that if we were faced with a similar moment today, do we have the diplomatic skill and subtlety to be able to do that again when the stakes are much, much higher?

GROSS: Do we even have the staff? There are so many vacant positions in the State Department.

OSNOS: That's true. And those positions are vacant. And then also, those lines of communication between us and the Chinese are dormant. A lot of those dialogues, a lot of those literal - sometimes literal forms of communication, hotlines between the two countries, those have atrophied, or they've been abandoned in some cases. And we don't have as much - we don't even have the kinds of protocols about managing small-scale incidents at sea that we had with the Soviets. Those little agreements, which seem so banal most of the time, become hugely important in a moment of crisis. And we have not built that kind of architecture, that peacekeeping architecture which you need for moments that inevitably come up.

GROSS: One of Trump's positions on China is what he's described, or what others have described as uncoupling. What does that mean?

OSNOS: One remarkable measure of the level of integration between these two economies is that even during this tense period, Starbucks has been opening a new store in China every 15 hours. So you have this incredible level of economic integration. And when Donald Trump came into politics, one of the first things he said, one of the consistent things he said, was we need to unwind that, uncouple it, decouple it. And so you've seen gestures in that direction. He has said a couple of times that he wants American companies to pull out of China.

Now, look - realistically, that's not going to happen. American companies want more access to China; they don't want less. But what you are seeing - there has begun this process of a kind of political decoupling, almost a psychological decoupling, in which these two countries that were becoming more integrated in institutions and in commerce have begun to separate themselves out, culturally and temperamentally, into separate worlds.

GROSS: So Trump is a bit of a wild card. I think he's very impulsive, as we've seen. In the meantime, President Xi is more authoritarian than Chinese presidents from the recent past and is more communist, more seriously communist. So can you elaborate on that for us?

OSNOS: Yeah, it's really striking. I mean, anybody who's been involved in China or lived there in the last decade or two is struck by how repressive it feels in Beijing these days. Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, and over the last eight years, he has removed term limits on himself. So he can stay in office pretty much as long as he chooses. He's 66 years old, and there is no obvious sunset on his tenure.

And as he has been in office, he really believes, and this goes to the core of who he is - he was raised in a Communist Party household in Beijing; his father was one of the founding revolutionaries of the country - that the way to defend China's interests, its honor, is to be more communist than it's ever been. He really believes fundamentally in strengthening the Communist Party. As he says, it should control everything north, south, east, west within China.

And that's just a big change from the direction it was on even 10 years ago, when you sort of sensed this growing openness towards the West. There were more movies and television and Internet things coming in from the West, and China has really rolled that back. You know, just to go down the list of websites that are inaccessible in China, it's everything from Google, Facebook, The New York Times, The Washington Post. It's become secluded in ways that it simply wasn't a decade ago.

And as it has become more secluded, more wary, more afraid of Western influence and Western politics, that has sharpened this confrontation with the West because China now very explicitly, Xi Jinping, especially talks about the risks of what the Communist Party's always called peaceful evolution, the idea that Western influence would undermine the Communist Party's hold on power. And that makes this confrontation - that's really been one of the drivers that has pushed this contest into a tougher period.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, who writes about politics and foreign affairs for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "The Future Of America's Contest With China." We'll talk more after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "The Future Of America's Contest With China."

You were mentioning how China, under President Xi, has been trying to close down some Western influence. China has been censoring American movies. And for example - you quote this in your New Yorker piece - the version of the movie about Queen deleted all references to Freddie Mercury being gay. So as you point out, like, there's an alternate universe in China...

OSNOS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Where Freddie Mercury was never gay.

OSNOS: Yeah.

GROSS: And that's happening with other movies, too. And as Judd Apatow points out in your piece, if you want to make a movie and you expect to have, like, major studio backing forward for it, you can't have anything negative about China. They won't do it. The studio won't...

OSNOS: Yeah.

GROSS: The studio knows it will lose a huge market, and it won't back you.

OSNOS: Yeah. Yeah. That gets to such an interesting question, which is, you know, what can we do, essentially, to try to shape this conflict or this contest? And over the last 10 years, 10 or 15 years, Hollywood really became just kind of blandly consenting in censoring movies in order to get them into the Chinese market. So, for instance, cutting out the fact that Freddie Mercury was gay. And - or on a - really on a - much more often, it's things like, there can't be movies that would talk about the internment of Muslims in Xinjiang or treatment of Tibetans. Those kinds of subjects are off-limits for Western filmmakers.

I mean, to this day, Richard Gere, who made a movie about the treatment of Tibetans, is essentially persona non grata in China because he put that subject on film. And it's become - not just in China, but it's also made it harder for him to work in Hollywood, believe it or not. And what you're seeing now is, I think, a sense of - a sudden awareness of what the impact of that has been because we thought for a long time - and Judd Apatow, I thought, put this quite well - we thought what we were doing was introducing Western ideas and sort of liberty to Chinese markets by censoring movies and sending them, you know, what we thought was at least 90% of it.

But actually, what we were doing was creating a strange acculturation to the idea that the world saw things the way that the Chinese government sees things, that it doesn't want to have representation of gay life on screen, and it doesn't want to have discussion of Chinese Muslims on screen. And the reality, of course, is very different. And so it has built this pent-up energy in China that, in a strange way, by censoring our work and sending it there, we contributed to China's seclusion from the commerce of real, ordinary, uncensored ideas in the world. And I think that's a subject that deserves real discussion. Should we be doing that? In fact, are we hurting our own interests by doing it?

GROSS: Then you have the whole collision of commerce versus human rights, a collision that became very visible with the NBA. Would you tell that story?

OSNOS: Yeah, that was a fascinating one. I mean, NBA has had this charmed existence in China going back now 20 years. When I moved there in 2005, I remember watching kids play basketball on the local basketball court. They were there every day, you know, rain or shine. They just loved it, and they loved all of the soft power, for lack of a better word, that comes with basketball. They - you know, they were wearing Kobe Bryant jerseys. And it just sort of spoke to something there.

And the NBA took off, and I interviewed NBA officials over the years, as they were building this larger and larger market. And then this last fall, we all remember, there was this moment when the general manager of the Houston Rockets - not somebody who has much of a public profile, really - Daryl Morey wrote a tweet in favor of the protests in Hong Kong. And he deleted it, but it caused a firestorm in China, where people erupted and said that he'd insulted the Chinese people, that it was totally inappropriate for him to express his support for the Hong Kong protests.

And overnight, the NBA found itself under attack. They, you know, removed the products associated with the Houston Rockets for - that were for sale in China. They stopped broadcasting games. They demanded that Daryl Morey be fired. And the NBA did not, I should say, immediately stand up for free speech. Actually, first, what it did was offer this very obsequious apology in Chinese in which it said that it was wrong for Daryl Morey to have said what he said. And that caused an uproar in the United States. I mean, it was - really, it was, like, one of the few things that has unified Democrats and Republicans in Washington, was revulsion at the way that the Chinese statement from the NBA had endorsed that crackdown on those views.

And the NBA ultimately came to a more sustainable position. They said, look - this is going to cost us money if we speak our mind in China, but we have to stand up for our values. Adam Silver, the commissioner, said we are an American company, and our values travel with us. And they are still, to this day, being punished by the Chinese government. Their games are not being broadcast as much as before. It's hard to - it's harder to buy NBA merchandise than it was.

But that is the kind of confrontation that is happening all the time, and it never gets attention. And I think there's a growing recognition that that's just not a way to conduct yourself as an American company or, really, as a global company, that you have to stand up for something, even if it might cost you a bit of access to a market because, frankly, at home, American citizens, American buyers will look upon that as, really, sort of a shameful concession. And they should think twice about it.

GROSS: So the tweet from the general manager of the Houston Rockets about standing with the protesters in Hong Kong, that ended up costing the NBA a lot of money. Like, what do you - what do they estimate it's cost them?

OSNOS: We haven't seen a number, but hundreds of millions would be a reasonable guess. I mean, it's a vast market for them. Their NBA China operation is estimated to be worth $4 billion or more. So the idea that it would be closed down would be fundamentally costly to them.

But I think one of the things that gets lost in this - and it's really interesting - is that, actually, the NBA has more leverage than they might have thought. Sure, they will lose some business, but it's a very profitable business, anyway. And on top of it, the Chinese government can't really afford to kick the NBA out because the NBA is tremendously popular in China. I mean, we joke about this sometimes, that the greatest risk to political stability in China would be to ban the NBA because you'd have all of the young men, military-age young men, suddenly very angry. But there's some truth to that, that the Chinese government can't kick out the NBA.

And so sometimes American companies are going too far too fast to curb their own values in order to meet what they imagine are the expectations of the Chinese government, when in fact, it's - there are strength in numbers. And if more American companies stood up for what they believed to be the values that they represent, then they might not find it as - they might find that they have more latitude than they expected.

GROSS: My guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "The Future Of America's Contest With China." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos, who writes about politics and international affairs for The New Yorker. His new article is titled "The Future Of America's Contest With China."

President Xi has been cracking down on protesters and on human rights. He's rounded up and imprisoned Chinese Muslims. How many people would you estimate?

OSNOS: At least a million at this point.

GROSS: OK. And in Hong Kong, there's been street clashes between protesters who resent China's control over Hong Kong and want - the new assertion of control over Hong Kong. And they've been clashing with police. Then they - some of those clashes have been - become pretty violent. So what has President Trump's response to these violations been, both with the Uighur Muslims that Xi has rounded up and imprisoned and the crackdown against protesters in Hong Kong?

OSNOS: Well, one area in which the Trump administration has attracted praise, really, from Democrats and Republicans is that it has been clear about its condemnation of China's treatment of Muslims. It has said that rounding them up and interning them is something that the international community will not accept. And its imposed visa restrictions and also sanctions on Chinese companies that are involved in that process. That's a big step, and I think it's one that has been generally welcomed.

And in Hong Kong, the president has been a little bit unsure about how he wants to respond. He has tried very much to maintain a personal relationship with Xi Jinping. This is really mostly theoretical. They don't have much of a meaningful personal relationship, but he's tried to sort of say look; my government will do one thing, and I'll do another thing. But eventually, the Hong Kong protesters were so clear in their appeals to American support, moral support, really, that finally, the president and his administration have supported efforts to punish the Chinese government for its treatment of people and protests in Hong Kong. Congress has passed a bill which will penalize Chinese institutions for those steps.

And so there has been an effort to try to stake out an issue in terms of values, but the Xinjiang issue and the Hong Kong issue are related because they are both representations of how China imagines that it is going to govern the country in the years ahead, and that means more control, more digital authoritarianism, more use of technology like facial recognition and so on. And that represents in its own way a kind of clear standoff with the United States, which is offering a different version of governance. And so underneath those two issues is this - is a real conflict about what kind of governance will prevail in the 21st century.

GROSS: You know, when it comes to conflicts with China in terms of, you know, trade, business, technology, it's not like a military conflict where one side says OK, we've been defeated. You win. And there's a victor and a loser. I mean...

OSNOS: Right.

GROSS: ...China is going to continue to develop technology, and so is the United States, and so are other countries. So you look at President Trump, who likes to win...

OSNOS: Yeah.

GROSS: ...What would winning mean here? And is winning even a reasonable way of looking at it?

OSNOS: The temptation is to imagine this as having a simple victor and a loser. And partly that's because of the end of the Soviet struggle. There really was a winner and a loser. And in some ways, we are called back to that moment. It can feel to us as if this is a revival of that Cold War. And I - in researching this project, I spent a lot of time looking at the nature of the Cold War. And George Orwell had a great line for how he described it. He said the Cold War is a peace that is no peace. It is this - and John F. Kennedy called it the long twilight struggle. It's this constant back-and-forth. There - it is not usually - until the end, there's not a moment in which you have some clear winner and some clear loser.

This is not going to be the same as the Cold War because China is not the Soviet Union. Look; its economy today is many times larger and stronger than the Soviet Union's ever was. The two countries are integrated in ways that the U.S. and the Soviet Union never were. But there are elements to this which call upon from us a commitment to values. I mean, there is, at the core of this, a dispute over ideology. China really does look at American political values and think that they are unacceptable and that they're hostile to China's way of life. And America looks at Chinese authoritarianism and says much the same thing.

So to some degree, this is about defining who will shape global values and technology and politics. But it's not going to have one victor standing in the middle of the ring at the end of it. And most likely, it will have a country that establishes dominance, cultural dominance, prestige in the way that the United States did in the 20th century. And if the United States wants to do it in the 21st century, it needs to build up that claim, that reputation, that sense of values that other countries want to aspire to. This is - as much as anything, it's a competition for influence. That's really where we are.

GROSS: Evan Osnos, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you so much. Thank you for your reporting.

OSNOS: Thanks for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer for The New Yorker. His new article is titled The Future of America's Contest with China.

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Todd Phillips, co-writer and director of the film "Joker," with journalist Peggy Orenstein, whose new book "Boys And Sex" is a follow-up to her book "Girls And Sex," or with Andrea Bernstein, author of the new book "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps And The Marriage Of Money And Power," check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Mooj Zadie and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

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