Three Questions with…Winston Lord
The UC San Diego School of Global Policy and Strategy and the 21st Century China Center are host to some of the world’s leading China watchers. In this column, we sit down with Ambassador Winston Lord and ask him three questions related to his field of expertise.
Winston Lord was U.S. Ambassador to China from 1985 to 1989 and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in 1993 to 1997. He has had a distinguished career in public service and played a pivotal role in the opening of China, most notably as Special Assistant to National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger from 1970 and 1973. Ambassador Lord is a member of the Asia Society, the American Academy of Diplomacy, the Aspen Institute of Distinguished Fellows, and served as president of the Council on Foreign Relations. He graduated magna cum laude from Yale University and obtained an M.A. at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Q1a. As someone who has served in multiple administrations since the re-opening of U.S.-China relations in the 1970s, could you comment on how the Chinese leadership has changed over these past decades and, specifically, whether this idea that the collective leadership is under challenge in the Xi Jinping era is valid?
Well clearly the leadership has changed. I was there at the beginning with Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger in the 70s. I was fortunate to have sat in every single meeting that President Nixon, President Ford, and Henry Kissinger had with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping. So I had a lot of exposure to those leaders and I’ve met subsequent leaders when I was serving as ambassador. I knew Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao I’ve only met briefly, and I have not met Mr. Xi.
But moving from my personal connections to my analysis: there’s no question that you started out, beginning with the Cultural Revolution with a dominant leader, namely Mao with Zhou Enlai as his lieutenant. Zhou was a little bit more pragmatic, a little bit more balanced, but it was one person rule and he had to be very careful in terms of staying in power and following Mao’s rule. So that’s the clearest example of a single leader. Deng Xiaoping was beginning to move away from that but he still had credentials as a Long Marcher and had been in and out of power since the 1950s. He of course opened China to the outside world although he was very tough on political issues.
But after that, you had more collective leadership for a couple of reasons. First of all, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao didn’t have the revolutionary or military credentials so it was much harder to assert themselves as single leaders. But secondly, China was beginning to implement reforms and they needed a more decentralized policy. I don’t want to exaggerate this, but leaders like Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao came up basically on economic performance and bureaucratic skill and they had to take into account the Standing Committee and Politburo colleagues. They couldn’t just move ahead. So this had the advantages of getting away from one person rule but people became frustrated that this system meant incremental progress at best on certain things. By the time, we got to Hu Jintao, there was a feeling that more decisive leadership was needed.
Collective leadership may have some advantages but it slows things down, so there was a sort of yearning for a strong man and that’s what you got in Xi. He has of course been consolidating power, even running the economy, which is normally the Prime Minister’s charge. And so you’ve gone back to much more of a one person rule, he has to take into account certain factions but he’s become a very strong leader. So the pattern is starting out with one person rule, moving into a trend of collective leadership, and then when that started running into trouble, heading back toward one person rule again.
Q1b. So you would agree then that Mr. Xi is the most powerful leader since Deng Xiaoping in terms of his influence and ability to unilaterally shape policy?
Absolutely. Now that doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a lot of concerns he has to worry about. But he’s trying to assert himself into every key group that’s directing policy as well as the military. And of course, his anti-corruption campaign is designed to do two things: one of them is that there’s a real problem with corruption with China and this was sapping China’s economic vitality and promoting political instability. The Chinese people are sick and tired of corruption at every level and in order for the Communist Party to maintain its reputation, you needed economic performance but it had to be a purer party. So there was the avowed aim which I think is sincere, that they had to clean up the party to save its reputation and get things done. But secondly, it so happens that most of the big targets are potential contenders to Mr. Xi whether it’s Bo Xilai or Zhou Yongkang. These people represented power centers that he thought might become a problem, so he’s killing two birds with one stone. But that’s also creating a lot of enemies for him, it’s creating bureaucratic inertia as people don’t dare make decisions because they are worried about retribution. So it’s a two-edged sword as well.
Q2a. Turning to the U.S. side, we hear a lot about top level leaders steering the U.S.-China relationship one way or another, but there’s usually a team of experts working underneath the President on China policy. I wanted to ask you, which China team was the most successful at managing the China relationship over the past 30 years and which were the least effective?
Well of course the most effective were the ones I was one, so that’s an easy answer. First of all, teams are important, but the President is the most important. So let’s go through them very quickly. Obviously, Nixon was the single most important, he got the whole thing going. But his team included Henry Kissinger, so that was a remarkable combination and they had the hardest assignment, namely to get over 25 years of isolation and start moving towards opening. I like to think those of us who were there were fairly effective as well. But clearly that succeeded.
But then the Carter administration also did very well. And here Mr. Brzezinski was the key leader of that team but it had other people like Mike Oksenberg and so on. So that was a strong team and they moved from the opening to actual normalization and got a good deal that protected Taiwan, even though it was painful for Taiwan, it let us go ahead with China.
Subsequent presidents followed the same line. There’s a recognition that this relationship is inevitably a mix of cooperation and competition that will go up and down. But there’s a ceiling and a floor. I think most have recognized that, even though some presidents come came in looking like they were going to be ‘tougher’ on China and criticized their predecessors as being too soft on China. But once they got in office, they began to shift his views and adopted a global perspective and got back on the normal track. I can give you many examples: Carter thought that Nixon and Kissinger were seduced by the Chinese but then he normalized and had to make his own concessions. Reagan was talking about independent Taiwan when he was campaigning but with the help of George Schultz, he got back on track. President Clinton during his campaign talked about the ‘butchers of Beijing’ and tried to condition trade, but then he got back on track.
So there’s a certain pattern here and I think you’ll see it with Mr. Trump. He has railed against Chinese trade practices, I must say with some justification, and even challenged the ‘One China’ policy. But we’ve seen in recent days, that’s been changed. So even he is beginning to move away from campaign positions. So the general pattern has been that U.S.-China relations are more stable towards an end of an administration than towards the beginning. The exception is Mr. Obama where that’s not necessarily the case, but I don’t think that’s Obama’s fault but because of Mr. Xi’s aggressiveness. So, to make a long story short, I think U.S.-China policy has had an amazing degree of continuity when you consider the complexity of it. I think it’s been remarkably successful because we have not only been able to move ahead with China despite all the problems but also secured the security of Taiwan, which has become a vibrant economy and flourishing democracy. This shows the Chinese people or Chinese/Taiwanese people want freedom just like anybody else.
Q2b. If I could push you a little, there’s this idea that centralized China teams run a bit better and lets you manage the inter-agency competition more effectively. But there’s an alternative theory that teams of rivals work well; the Carter administration is emblematic of this with Vance and Brezinski advocating different approaches to China. In your experience with the operations of these China teams, which system works better?
Well the ideal one is with intelligent people with internal debate. But disciplined so that whatever the internal debates, they still do what the president decides has to be done. And you don’t have competing agencies, leaks, and disarray. The president always needs to be involved on China policy because it’s too important. For example, I tried very hard to get Mr. Clinton to give speeches on China alone, just one China, to set up our strategic structure and help people understand why there are tensions as well as opportunities. He never did so. And when we tried to carry out human rights conditions with respect to trade, particularly the economic agencies, he let his cabinet undercut that. And the Chinese saw a lot of disarray on our policy that they didn’t move on human rights. Now they may not have moved anyways, but you can’t have public disarray. I do think you need a single person. I think Mr. Paulson under the Bush administration, his role has been exaggerated, but at least it was a single person short of the president in charge of China. I think that person could very easily be the National Security Adviser, depending on personalities and what administration. But there were so many competing interests involved in China policy, it’s not just the State Department and diplomatic interests, there’s the military and Pentagon, all the economic agencies and so on, that the NSC, on behalf of the President can combine and present all the various perspectives and interests to have a coherent policy.
Q3a. Picking up on what you were saying about the Clinton administration, my research looks into the influence of business in foreign policy making. Particularly how economic interests constrain various types of policy instruments like sanctions or military action. I would really like to hear your perspective as a policymaker, what influence has American business played in the U.S.-China relationship? How do they exert their influence – is it through the office of the ambassador or Commerce or Treasury? And how has their influence changed in recent years?
There is good news and bad news about the business in U.S.-China policy. The good news is that our economic interdependence is one of the great benefits of this policy and is a driving engine of this relationship. American businesses are obviously at the forefront of that and as a result, they have been strong supporters on the whole. The bad news is, leaving aside how difficult it is to do business in China, is that these business people don’t want to rattle the Chinese in any way. So they are very evasive on human rights and they’ll let China get away with things that I don’t think they should. For example, when Clinton was trying to carry out very modest human rights advancement in order to justify most-favored-nation trade status, the business people were undercutting it. But on the whole, they have been a positive force and will continue to be.
But right now with the business climate worsening, as we point out in this new report and which I hope you will promote on your blog (link to our story on the task force report), the business community is souring. It’s not monolithic, so some businesses like in the consumer industry are still doing well and they are supportive. But not others like in the high-tech areas and others in areas of competition where the Chinese have really been discriminatory. So if you look at surveys of American Chambers of Commerce, they feel that their situation is getting worse and their prospects look less good. The result is that a key positive constituent for U.S.-China relations is joining with many other constituencies like human rights groups, NGOs, etc are beginning to question the relationship. This is bad in and of itself in terms of being able to do business but also bad for the stability of the U.S.-China relationship.
Q3b. I’m still curious about the mechanism. As someone who’s been in many of these meetings in Beijing, what kinds of foreign issues do American businesses generally care about and through what channels do they exert their influence?
First of all, various businesses have different interest. Whether they are exporters or importers, what sectors they are in, and how competitive they are with China and so on. So you are not going to get a monolithic position. But there are certain areas like equal treatment, fairness, transparency, and reciprocity that they can all pretty much agree. This is a crucial part of our foreign policy. As ambassador, and this was in the 80s and not just yesterday, I spent more time promoting American business and investments than I did anything else while I was in China. I thought that was important. And starting in the 80s, that was the directive from the White House and the State Department that the ambassador’s role was to promote American economic interests. Traditionally in our diplomacy that hasn’t been such a high priority, but the role of economics now in diplomacy is much greater than it used to be and geo-economic power is in many ways more important than military power. So whether I was sitting in Washington as Assistant Secretary or overseas as Ambassador, I spent a great deal of time consulting with business. We would push systemic efforts about fairness but we would also take up the interests of specific industries as well and try to promote a deal for American investment or greater trade opening. So this is an important constituency. Whether you are ambassador, secretary, or the president, you are juggling other constituencies as well. But, I think it’s fair to say that business has become more and more important in political as well as economic terms with China.