In a wide-ranging interview with Morning Edition‘s Steve Inskeep, Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the U.S., discusses trade and openness between the two countries, better understanding President Trump, China’s social credit system.
Steve Inskeep: What is preventing an end to the trade war with the United States, if anything?
Ambassador Cui Tiankai: Well, first, we certainly don’t want to have a trade war with the United States or with any other country.
You have one.
Yeah, this is very unfortunate but we want to solve it through negotiation and consultation between the two sides. But in order for the negotiation, the consultation to succeed, we do need goodwill and good faith from both sides.
Are you seeing goodwill or good faith from the United States?
Well, to tell you the truth, not sufficiently.
What is the evidence of that?
Well, for instance, the U.S. position keeps changing all the time so we don’t know exactly what the U.S. would want as priorities. And number two, I think there’s been some attempt on the U.S. side to force something like, the U.S. will get 100 percent and China will get zero. I don’t think this is fair. I don’t think this is possible. We are ready to make a deal. We are ready to make some compromise, but it needs the goodwill from both sides.
Ambassador, you used the word priorities. I’m reminded that a few months ago the U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin went to China for some negotiations and it was said that the United States made a very wide range of demands that were rejected out of hand by China. Is that what you mean by priorities, that you want the United States to pick a few items rather than demanding every complaint be fixed at once?
Well, actually in the last few months there have been contacts between the two governments and from the U.S. side, not only the treasury secretary but the secretary of commerce, USTR and others also went to China and we also have very senior people come here.
And there’s been a lot of discussion in many areas. And we offered to reduce the trade deficit of the United States, for instance. And we also presented a very good proposal to the U.S. side about the further reform and opening up in China, some of the so-called structural issues. We are ready to work on the issues. Then I think more than once we had some tentative agreement between the two working teams. Then just overnight the tentative agreement was rejected and the demand from U.S. changed. So this is very confusing, and this is making things very difficult.
You must try to calculate what happened there. Do you believe that U.S. negotiators went back to the president and he was not satisfied?
Well, we would like to have somebody to tell us the real story.
That perhaps leads to another question. What is your method, and I assume you must have one, for trying to determine what the president of the United States thinks or is thinking at any given moment?
Well, we’ll have to look at the policy statements, we have to look at the way what the U.S. team would tell us on the negotiating table. But I think that we still need more good faith. If people tell you one story one day and another story, a very different story, another day, then you are confused.
Do you follow the president’s Twitter feed?
Well, I think that many people are following … Twitter.
So we are just doing the same.
But do you find meaningful information there? Some of his political allies will, say, disregard that, his actual policies are something else.
Honestly, I think if it’s written by the president, it has to be meaningful. People have to take them seriously.
There was a news story here suggesting that foreign embassies and consulates were buying large numbers of copies of a Bob Woodward book about the inner workings of the White House. Is the Chinese embassy filled with copies of Bob Woodward’s book?
You see there has been such a heated discussion about this book in the American media. Naturally people would like to get a copy and see what happens, what is written in the book. Maybe this is very good for the publisher.
Is that a yes? You have lots of copies of Fear around the Chinese embassy?
I don’t know.
How about you?
It’s really up to the individuals whether they want to buy it or not. I certainly have a copy. Anything that is discussed here in the American media we have to follow, we have to have some understanding of it, what happens. Because maybe people in the United are not fully aware of this, but American policies do have a larger impact on the rest of the world. So I have talked to many other ambassadors here, ambassadors from other countries, large or small. We all share the same concern. We also, we — all of us want to have a better understanding of what is happening here and what it would mean for us.
Do you feel you understand the president at this point?
Well, I hope that we could have a better understanding.
That’s a no I guess, you don’t quite understand him.
I think between any two countries or even between any two individuals, understanding is a process, because the world is changing, countries are changing, people are changing. Today you have a good understanding and tomorrow things have changed. You have to have a good, a better understanding.
Matt Pottinger, a National Security Council aide in the White House came, if I’m not mistaken, to an event for China’s national day, and gave a little talk in which he said that the keyword between the United States and other nations such as China shouldn’t really be cooperation it should be competition. He wants to compete. He didn’t say make an enemy of China but he said competition. Is he right?
I think between any two countries, maybe especially between China and the United States, there is a certain degree of competition. This is only natural. But there’s also a much larger need for cooperation. This is also the reality in today’s world. Our two countries together with other countries are faced with so many common challenges, the so-called global challenges or global issues, and no country can really handle all these things all by itself. We have to cooperate whether we like it or not. This is a growing mutual need and a common interest.
But we may be at a point where the United States and China are not inclined to cooperate on some very high-profile issues. You disagree about the U.S. role in Asia to give an example. You disagree about what to do about Iran and the nuclear deal. You disagree about what to do about trade. Perhaps we’re entering a period of competition.
Well, as far as China is concerned that we are always ready to cooperate with the United States even if we have differences and maybe just because we have differences the need for cooperation is even bigger.
What have you thought about as there have been news reports that the administration has considered proposals to ban Chinese students from studying in American universities?
I think if this is true, I think that this is a very dangerous situation because so many Chinese students are studying here and a growing number of American students are studying in China. Such people-to-people contact would be the real foundation of friendship and the cooperation between the two great countries. And I could give you a very specific example. You see in the state of Indiana…
Indiana, Indianapolis, where I’m from. OK.
Yeah, there’s a children’s museum.
Sure, it’s a great one.
It’s a great one. And a few years ago the museum hosted a big, big event on Chinese culture. It was a very, it was a great success. And I was invited to address the opening ceremony and I had a meeting with then-Gov. Mike Pence. Gov. Pence was a great supporter to such people-to-people intercultural exchanges. It’s certainly a benefit to both, people of both countries. And the local people, they were so enthusiastic about such cultural events. So why should we cut off all these ties, all these natural ties between the two peoples?
Would you encourage greater openness going the other way? If American scholars who may have controversial opinions want to visit China, if American journalists want to go to sensitive areas like Tibet. Would you encourage greater openness on China’s part?
You see, we are open to American students, professors, journalists or scholars. Of course, for some other places like Tibet because it’s very high altitude and the climate could be very tough there.
Very high altitude?
I think American journalists and scholars can handle the altitude. I mean, we have high altitudes in the United States.
Well, not everybody could quickly get used to such climate and natural conditions. Even for Chinese. Many of them would not feel very well once they are there. And also the local, we have to protect the local environment. We should have some limit on the number of people outside visitors every year. Otherwise the burden on the environment will be too heavy. So we have to take care of all these things. If we can take good care of all these things we certainly welcome American visitors to go there. I understand for the last few American ambassadors, all of them visited Tibet. We are now working for the visit by Ambassador Branstad.
Terry Branstad, President Trump’s ambassador. You want him to go to Tibet. What about Uighur areas?
He wanted to go to Tibet, and we would welcome him.
What about Uighur areas in far northwest China?
Well, this is part of China. So the whole country is open to the rest of the world, certainly this part is also open. But honestly, in this part of China we have a particular problem or challenge that that is terrorism. There are violent extremist groups. I’m sure some people are there, some attempt to create a situation like the ISIS in that part of China. This is very dangerous. This is a main challenge, the main threat to stability to the well-being of the people there and the government has to do something about that.
There seemed to be very widespread actions against the populace with the concern about terrorism given as the reason. What have you thought about as the United Nations has said that hundreds of thousands of people in Uighur areas have been put into camps?
You see very often widespread stories may not be the true stories. They will be very far away from the truth. I think whatever we are doing in that part of China is for the well-being and safety and security of the people there, is to protect large interests of the people there.
Are you putting people in camps to do that?
It’s not, you see, first of all, we have to take a measure to make sure that groups like ISIS … will not be spreading in that part of China. Secondly, we have to make sure that people have means to build a better life. First, they have to learn more skills. They have to learn techniques to develop themselves. And also we have to maintain local stability. So what is happening is that we are doing whatever we can to make sure that these terrorist threats will be removed. Secondly, the whole society will be stable, people will feel safe and secure. And last but not least, people have the skills to catch up with the technological advance today and they would be able to build a better life.
People will be listening carefully to your words because you can speak so well and you’re so diplomatic. They may hear you saying that, yes, there are camps, and it’s a place where people are educated.
No, I’m not saying there are camps.
Are you saying there are not?
I’m not saying there are camps. I think of their efforts to help people to learn skills, techniques to build up their economic capability and so on. And of course we have to take measures to prevent terrorism from spreading all over the place.
Let me ask about another measure that could be seen as a security measure across the country. Americans have read something in some cases about what’s called the social credit system. What is it?
I think we now have maybe unfortunately growing crimes in terms of finance and there’s been cases of cheating and fraud, all these things. So if you look at Chinese media, there are reports of senior citizens being cheated. They’ve been ripped off of their lifelong savings. So we have to do something to protect such a vulnerable people. And that’s why I think that is part of the reason why people want to have a better social credit system.
I think that you’re referring to the fact that the social credit system seems to have begun as a kind of blacklist for people who have conducted inappropriate financial activities.
And it’s become something that follows you around, right? The government knows who you are and you might be banned from travel. You might be banned from getting on a train or a plane.
Well, I think if people here in the United States, if you don’t pay your debt to the bank, if you don’t pay for a credit card, then the banks will have a record.
That makes it very difficult for any individual with such a record to have loans from banks. We are just doing the same lesson. Maybe we’re just learning it from you.
But you might also ban someone from travel. I don’t think a bank would do that here in the United States.
I think there have been cases of very few individuals who made secret threats to other passengers on trains on airplanes.
If they’re seen as a threat. OK.
I think I have read media reports here.
Oh, there are no-fly lists in the United States of people who are suspected of some terrorist connection.
Not suspected, I have seen media reports here about people making secrets threats to other passengers on the airplane and they are taken away by the police.
If people speak in the wrong way on the airplane, sure.
If they shout for instance.
If they make a threat to other, they get taken away by the police here.
Yeah, but I’m asking about something else where someone is on a black list because of a financial issue. And so they can’t travel. That happens right.
Well, if people do have a bad record whether in terms of finance or making secret threat to other people, they have to be punished. But there’s a time limit, maybe for six months or maybe longer. It’s not lifelong.
Could this system be extended to cover also speech? Someone’s social media postings are monitored and they might find any number of consequences in every part of their lives if they say the wrong thing.
I don’t think people can do all these at random. They have to follow, they have to do everything in accordance with China’s constitution and Chinese laws. If there is a clear provision in the laws, then they have to enforce it. If it’s prohibited by the laws, nobody can do it.
There is a lot of speech that would be off limits in China more so than in the United States.
Well, if you get on the Chinese social media you could see how what kind of freedom we have. All kinds of talks on social media.
There is a robust debate without a doubt. But there’s also certain terms that get banned on social media that disappear from social media.
You see, I think we’re both our countries — maybe also other countries — are faced with a problem of like child pornography and spread of terrorist ideas, all these things, very bad things. Criminal things on social media. And this is challenging for all the governments to make sure that it will not hurt the well-being of the people, of our ordinary citizens.
One more question along these lines and then I want to move on. Some analysts will presume that China’s government, strong and organized though it is, is somewhat afraid of its people and what it will do. Is the government afraid of the people in China?
I think the first thing for our government, the most important thing for the government is accountability to its people. We always believe that our first, our most important task is to make sure that our people will be able to have a better life. So … the government got its authority from the people and it is accountable to the people. So the people is the most important thing for us.
You said a better life. In the United States we could argue about this but one might argue that the fundamental value in the United States is equality and that another fundamental value is freedom or liberty. You’re saying that providing a better life, the government providing a better life for its people, is a more fundamental value in China. Is that correct?
Well, the task of the government to be more exact is to enable the people to pursue a better life. It’s not given by the government to the people, the people have the right to pursue a better life. And the government’s responsibility is to make sure people will have the capability, will be able to enjoy such a right.
Let me ask also ambassador, about the United States direct relations with China beyond trade. What in your view is an appropriate role and appropriate position for the United States in East Asia, in your region in the waters around there and in nations around in that area?
You see, both China and United States, we are Pacific countries. We’re on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean.
And we believe that the Pacific Ocean is not something that will separate us but something rather that will link us, will connect us. And we certainly recognize the interest of the United States and the role the U.S. has played historically in our region. We welcome that. We look at the United States as a major partner in our region, but at the same time we hope that the United States would also recognize that the regional countries including China have our own legitimate interests. Maybe the U.S. should learn to have a better understanding of our history, our culture, our needs and would pay more respect to that.
Is the South China Sea, which I will remind people is an area where China claims bits of land and China fundamentally claims the waters, and an area where the United States has been sending naval vessels, is the South China Sea China’s?
We have sovereignty over many of the islands in the South China Sea. And this has been a longstanding position of China despite a change of government. You see, in 1949 and actually at the end of the Second World War, the then-Chinese government took back these islands from occupation of Japan with the help of American naval ships. It was American naval ships that sent Chinese troops to take back these islands from Japan. So we have a longstanding sovereignty over these islands, but we are also aware there are some territorial disputes. And now we’re ready to work with other countries to have negotiations to have a final solution to such disputes. We understand this will take a long time, but in the meantime it is our intention to maintain stability there. That’s why we are working on a code of conduct with the ASEAN countries.
The other Southeast Asian nations, right.
Yeah, we’re making good progress in this regard.
A code of conduct meaning means of living a means of operating in and around the South China?
It means before we are able to solve the territorial disputes, we should work together to maintain stability, to try to engage in some joint development of resources there, to keep a good order in the region. So I just hope that the United States will join our efforts, will be helpful, not try to disrupt the process towards peaceful negotiations.
Is the negotiation you describe something like this: China claims the waters, China claims the natural resources under the waters and might undertake joint development with the Philippines if the Philippines recognizes China’s claim. Is that where you’re going with this?
I think that we cannot make comments of a very general nature like this.
We have to look at the specific islands, specific reefs and decide which country has the sovereignty in accordance with the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, what territorial water you could have, what kind of exclusive economic zone you could have. It’s very specific.
Of course you cannot predict the future any better than I can, but you must make assumptions I presume and your government must make assumptions about the next few years and in that light I want to ask about North Korea. Do you believe that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear arsenal?
We have been working very hard towards that goal. We want to have a clear denuclearization of the whole Korean peninsula. We want to maintain peace and stability there. This has been China’s goal all along. And fortunately for the last few months there’s been some progress between us and the DPRK toward that goal and we would support and encourage further progress towards that.
You just said denuclearization of the entire Korean peninsula, North and South Korea. What does that mean for the United States? We’ve heard that term many times but what is it that the United States is supposed to do or give up on the southern side?
Well, my recommendation would be the United States should continue its talks with the North Koreans and try to take steps to encourage the DPRK to take further steps towards denuclearization.
I just mean I don’t understand what on a basic level, as a layman, what that term means for the United States. The United States has a nuclear arsenal and is allied with South Korea and isn’t likely to give up its thousands of nuclear weapons. So what does denuclearization mean? Just no American nuclear weapons in South Korea which there aren’t at the moment anyway?
Not only no American nuclear weapons but the DPRK should not have nuclear weapons either. That’s very clear. But as for the definition of the idea denuclearization, I hope for the United States and the North Koreans could reach some agreement on this. And you see Secretary Pompeo is going to North Korea again. I hope he has some clear idea to present to the North Koreans.
Do you presume that the North Koreans are sincere about being willing to give up their nuclear weapons as part of some larger agreement?
I think they are serious in the change of policy. They are telling everybody that they want to focus on their economic development. I think the need is clearly there. They have to do a better job with regard to the economy and the North Korean people certainly want a better life and it’s in the interest of all the countries concerned that we should have peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.
You said serious. You think they’re serious. Meaning you don’t agree with those who think that Kim Jong Un is simply playing the Trump administration, trying to get some benefits out of this and string them along.
I think that they are serious about this policy change. Besides, it seems to me that President Trump believes that.
One final thing ambassador and I’ll let you go. You’ve been very, very generous with your time and I’m very grateful that you’ve put up with all the questions. Thank you. We as a network have been reporting on China’s involvement around the world, economic and otherwise, in Africa. There was a story on [Wednesday] about an effort to build a city with Chinese money and Morocco. What is China’s goal beyond its own borders — 10 years from now, 20 or 30 years from now?
Well, for China, maybe for a long, long time to come, our priority, our most important task is still to run our own country well, make sure people continue to live in peace, they will enjoy social stability, they will have a better life, and they have a better future to look forward to. This is the most important task for China, for the government and for the people. But we also understand China cannot develop and modernize in isolation. We have to build strong ties with the rest of the world. We have to further integrate into the global economy and the global governance, and we are ready to take up more responsibilities and make greater contribution in this regard.
Let’s talk about the form that that would take and I’m thinking about history. There was a time when Britain spread its influence around the world and the way that it commonly did that was by taking over countries, establishing colonies, dominating places. There has been a time when the United States has spread its interest around the world and the United States consciously concluded that for the most part the United States would not try to take over territory but would try to get other parts of the world to play by the same rules in an international system. That is one way to summarize the U.S. approach. What is the Chinese approach?
If you look at the Chinese culture, Chinese history, I think you would understand it has never been the intention of China to acquire other peoples’ territory. You see, 2,000 years ago we build the Great War just to protect ourselves, not to invade, although such walls may not work but now it’s a tourist spot anyway.
Very attractive, yes.
And a few hundred years ago in the Ming dynasty we did have the largest and the strongest fleet in the world at the time. The fleet visited many countries on more than one occasion but they never set up colonies, they were just promoting trade.
Meaning that you do not see any historic parallel for China taking over territory but how much influence would Chinese planners or national security officials aspire to have in Africa? How much influence would you aspire to have in Europe as you build trade ties with Europe for example.
I think as countries develop trade and other ties between them naturally there will be a mutual influence. For instance, American influence in China has been growing for the last few decades. That’s why so many Chinese students are coming here because they know that you have some of the best universities in the world. They want to study there. And their parents are paying for their tuition and living costs. So I think such people-to-people ties will naturally have hopefully a very positive influence on all everybody involved. This is a very good thing. Such a broad understanding and the strong ties between people will be the real foundation, not only for relations between China and United States but also for world peace.
Has President Trump’s unsettling of relations with traditional U.S. allies created an opportunity for China to make new friends or to build influence?
Whatever Washington D.C. is doing we will continue to develop friendly relations with the rest of the world. Maybe you see European countries, other Asian countries, countries in Africa, Latin America — but hopefully we’ll make more mutual friends. It’s not a zero-sum game. Chinese friends could be American friends and I think our two countries have to make sure that we have more and more mutual friends. We don’t ask other people to take sides. Why should we do that?
Ambassador, thank you for coming by.
Thank you, thank you for your time.
I really enjoyed this conversation.