The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Chinese ambassador’s charm offensive is falling flat in Washington

China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, speaks at the 50th anniversary celebration of the National Zoo’s Giant Panda program in April. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades for The Washington Post)

The Chinese government is trying to stage a charm offensive in Washington. But the effort is falling flat because Beijing’s diplomats are pushing talking points based on claims that simply don’t match reality. China’s reliance on alternative facts is undermining its credibility in the United States and making an already tense relationship even more difficult to manage.

China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, met with reporters Tuesday to convey Beijing’s policies on several issues, especially Taiwan. He claimed (falsely) that most Taiwanese people want to unify with the mainland (except for a few “separatists” egged on by foreign forces). He said that Beijing’s military is showing restraint after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan — even as Chinese ships and planes continue to menace the island.

Qin maintained that Hong Kong’s democracy is thriving under the rubric of “one country, two systems,” despite all evidence to the contrary. He also claimed China doesn’t spy inside the United States, that Beijing’s “zero covid” policy has been a success, and that the Chinese economy is doing well.

Mainly, the ambassador’s message was that all problems in the U.S.-China relationship are the United States’ fault and all accusations against China are malicious lies. His government just wants to correct the narrative, he said.

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For example, on Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Qin claimed that the United States “has seriously violated the one-China principle.” Either he was being deceitful or he was unaware that the United States has never agreed to the one-China principle. The United States has for decades maintained a one-China policy, which acknowledges but does not agree with China’s claims over Taiwan. Beijing is now pretending that this crucial distinction doesn’t exist.

“Facts have proved that this is an out-and-out political provocation,” Qin went on, ignoring that the Biden administration tried to stop the Pelosi visit before eventually (and reluctantly) supporting it.

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Qin also rejected Biden officials’ claims that Beijing is using the visit as a pretext to increase its menacing of Taiwan. Since Pelosi left, China has conducted military exercises all around the island, fired ballistic missiles over Taiwanese cities, banned more than 100 Taiwanese exports from entering the mainland, and cut off several lines of cooperation with Washington.

The “basic fact is the U.S. side took the first step to provoke China on the Taiwan question,” he said — even though House Speaker Newt Gingrich visited Taiwan in 1997 and congressional delegations have visited regularly ever since.

He also asserted that Congress is not an independent branch of the U.S. government. “According to international law, the Congress is obliged to abide by the foreign policy of the United States,” he claimed — although that is not the case.

To be sure, Chinese diplomats take their top-line talking points from Beijing. But even Qin’s improvised responses to questions included blatantly false statements. For example, when I asked Qin why the Taiwanese people overwhelmingly do not want to be ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, according to all the polls, Qin said it simply wasn’t true.

“As a matter of fact, over the past two years, the mainland has done many things to promote the peaceful developments across the Taiwan Straits,” he said. “We have shown our goodwill.”

Shooting missiles over Taiwanese cities and threatening to “reeducate” the Taiwanese people are odd ways of showing goodwill. Asked about whether China was prepared for the international punishment and isolation that would likely follow a Chinese attack on Taiwan, the ambassador said China need not prepare because no international response was warranted.

“There’s no such presumption that whatever China does, attacking Taiwan, is illegal,” he said.

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Qin said that after China reunifies with Taiwan, the terms of “one country, two systems” would be negotiated with the Taiwanese people, who would be able to keep their democracy. He touted the success of that model in Hong Kong. When it was pointed out to him that in Hong Kong, even the pro-Beijing authorities had zero say in the national security law that crushed that city’s democracy and civil society, he didn’t acknowledge it.

Beijing’s “don’t believe your eyes” propaganda approach works well for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s domestic audience, which lives in a highly censored internet and media environment. But for the U.S. government and the American public, it presents a vexing challenge.

“Chinese officials continue to promulgate alternative facts regardless of their validity, thus making it impossible for reasonable people to engage them in a serious fashion,” said Joshua Eisenman, associate professor of politics at the University of Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. “They think if they say it enough, they can create an alternative narrative. Unfortunately for Beijing, their approach is no longer fooling anyone.”

There’s a real yearning in Washington for an easy solution to managing rising tensions with China, but it takes two to tango. The Chinese government’s gaslighting approach leaves little room for the real work of diplomacy, which is to identify each other’s interests and find ways to work together to advance common objectives.

So long as China’s officials say that black is white and up is down, openings for making genuine progress on Taiwan or any other issue will be few and far between. But that’s no excuse to accept China’s alternative facts as just another valid narrative. Even if they are drunk on their own Kool-Aid, we ought not drink it.

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