Friends to foes: Matthew Pottinger's Mandarin speech to China and US-China relations

US Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger’s speech on the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement touched on China’s political system, the spirit of the May Fourth Movement, and hopes for the Chinese people. Zaobao’s associate editor Han Yong Hong sheds light on Pottinger, a hawkish China hand, and looks at how China-US relations have deteriorated since China's reform and opening up.
Flower installations to mark the Labour Day holiday are seen on Tiananmen Square in front of the Great Hall of the People, Beijing 1 May 2020. (Tingshu Wang/REUTERS)
Flower installations to mark the Labour Day holiday are seen on Tiananmen Square in front of the Great Hall of the People, Beijing 1 May 2020. (Tingshu Wang/REUTERS)

On the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement, US Deputy National Security Advisor Matthew Pottinger made a 20-minute speech  at a virtual symposium in Mandarin, and then fielded questions on China-US relations in English. His speech is available online. Pottinger’s remarks were clearly directed at the Chinese people, tens of thousands of miles away.

He ended by saying that the heart of the May Fourth Movement lay in fighting against the traditional power structure, and that “the world will wait for the Chinese people to furnish the answers.”

This is probably the first time a US official has directly addressed the Chinese people. Pottinger expressed himself fluently and well in Mandarin, while his subtly sharp criticism of the political power wielded by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was startling. He praised the courage of those who have resisted oppression, including Drs Li Wenliang and Ai Fen who first raised the alarm about the coronavirus in Wuhan, as well as critics of the CCP such as Professor Xu Zhangrun, tycoon Ren Zhiqiang, civil rights activist Xu Zhiyong, Uyghur economist Ilham Tohti, writer Fang Fang, a group of Catholic priests who have stood up against the CCP, and the Hong Kong protestors.

Pottinger asked if China would do well with “a little less nationalism and a little more populism”, because “[w]hen a privileged few grow too remote and self-interested, populism is what pulls them back or pitches them overboard. ” He ended by saying that the heart of the May Fourth Movement lay in fighting against the traditional power structure, and that “the world will wait for the Chinese people to furnish the answers.”

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A screen shot from the video of Matthew Pottinger's speech on the anniversary of the May Fourth Movement.

So who is Pottinger? He is a former China-based US journalist, and now a China expert for US President Donald Trump. When Pottinger was appointed as a special assistant to the President and Asia director of the National Security Council in 2017 at the age of 43, he caught the attention of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and international media, who immediately identified their former colleague as a “hawk”, with some reports describing him as a fearsome adversary for Beijing.

Pottinger has told friends that he thinks China is moving towards totalitarianism, and it was his idea for Trump to refer to the “Wuhan virus”...

After taking office, Pottinger has kept a very low profile. In 2017, he led a delegation to China to participate in a summit on international cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), when he fielded a rare interview with Caixin. Later that same year, he was back in China with Trump. In the past three years, Trump has gone through four national security advisors, but Pottinger has kept his position, and has risen to become Trump’s second in command on national security. Word is, as a former Marine, he knows how to follow instructions without stealing the limelight from his superiors.

However, in the past four years, the US has taken an increasingly tough stance towards China. It has started the technology and trade wars, and the current war of words over the origin of the coronavirus and its accountability. The Washington Post cited a source who said Pottinger has played a key role in the Trump administration’s adjustment of its China strategy. In 2017, the national security strategy document that Pottinger helped to draft, formally defined China as a strategic competitor of the US, and labelled Beijing a “revisionist power”. Apparently, Pottinger has told friends that he thinks China is moving towards totalitarianism, and it was his idea for Trump to refer to the “Wuhan virus”, while Trump — being anxious to push responsibility — went a step further and called it the “Chinese virus”.

Pottinger’s deep distrust of China stems from his experience working there from the late 1990s to 2005. In an article for his former employer The Wall Street Journal, he revealed numerous instances of harassment, including being videotaped by security agents, being forced to flush his notes down a toilet to keep the police from getting them, and being punched in a Beijing Starbucks by "a government goon".

He felt that allowing China to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2011 ended up killing China’s motivation to reform, because China no longer needs reform as a means to achieve economic growth.

After seven years of being a reporter in China, Pottinger put away his pen and overcame age and weight issues to become an intelligence officer for the US Marine Corps. He was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq, and was decorated for his efforts. His career path shows a steely determination: he ended up in the emergency room after training on the Great Wall to get into the Marines. Besides, choosing to read an unusual subject like Chinese Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst reveals an idealistic young man who was passionate about Chinese culture. Of course, his family background helped. (NB: His father J. Stanley Pottinger is an American novelist, lawyer and civil rights advocate.)

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Students of Beijing Normal University after being detained by government during the May Fourth Movement. (Wikipedia)

During his online session, Pottinger recalled that in the late 1990s, foreigners in China were warmly supportive of China and wanted it to succeed, but he added drily that for him, China’s reform and opening-up is completely over. He felt that allowing China to join the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2011 ended up killing China’s motivation to reform, because China no longer needs reform as a means to achieve economic growth.

His speech referred to history and the classics, showing a deep understanding of China’s messaging style; however, it has failed to create much impact in China. First, the speech had a very limited reach due to online monitoring. Second, the Chinese today ⁠— especially the young people ⁠—  no longer look up to Western culture and democracy like they did 20 or 30 years ago, and are definitely not as fired up as the youths of the May Fourth Movement. Young people in China today are more interested in discussing issues with regards to “rear waves” (后浪, younger generation), as well as pressing and complex everyday needs, such as housing loans, career development, and raising kids.

...the US elites are mostly suspicious about China’s rise, or individuals who had their China dream dashed. Pottinger is but one of them.

Besides, as the coronavirus outbreak spins out of control in the US, and strategic interests between China and the US becomes increasingly antagonistic and extreme, it is no longer easy for senior White House officials to convince the Chinese people from the angle of beliefs.

But Pottinger’s story also highlights the reality that today’s US elites who are familiar with China are not like the Americans before reform and opening up, who were sympathetic about China’s poverty and backwardness. Nor are they like the academics and reporters who were passionate, admiring, and hopeful about the transformation of this ancient civilisation during the era of reform. On the contrary, the US elites are mostly suspicious about China’s rise, or individuals who had their China dream dashed. Pottinger is but one of them.

Perhaps China is unlike what they have imagined, and they have misled themselves. China would not follow the path of Western democratic freedom. At the same time, China’s transformation and changes over the past few years, and its treatment of Western journalists and academics have turned friends into foes. China is also shoving the West onto the path of hostility on the political front, which is a true pity.

Note:

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Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying at a regular press conference on 6 May 2020. (Internet)

Responding to a question at a regular press conference on 6 May, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said Pottinger’s remarks show that he does not really understand China or the May Fourth spirit, and that he is strongly biased against China.

She said Pottinger was wrong in calling the May Fourth Movement a populist movement, because patriotism was at its core, as a revolution against imperialism and feudalism. Hua said the May Fourth Movement was triggered by foreign powers trading privileges in Chinese territory after World War I, and “the Chinese people would never accept such loss of rights and national humiliation.”

She said the Chinese people would not allow people in Washington to “act like bullies and pin the blame on China to get away with their poor handling of Covid-19.”

She ended: “We advise US officials to learn more about Chinese history and mind their own business.”

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