CLINICAL PROFESSOR TOM PLATE WRITES — Maybe the lady intel officer who sought to recruit me for a CIA operation involving PRC espionage on the U.S. West Coast didn’t look the part – though, then again, perhaps she did. Modest in dress, controlled in comportment, she sat with me in the back of the large steak restaurant in Los Angeles without once raising her voice or too warily surveilling other tables with those seasoned eyes. She told me she was proud to be ‘working for the President of the United States, that’s what we do,” and I believed in her sincerity. She paid for everything (as for two prior dinners) with cash, not credit card, leaving no written record behind. But I left her visibly disappointed, even annoyed – mission unaccomplished: I just couldn’t go CIA-ing while remaining a proper American journalist and that’s what I wound up telling her.
The recruitment rendezvous took place a half dozen years ago but popped into my mind while drinking in every one of the 300-plus pages of ‘Agents of Subversion” an urgently needed, invaluable and deftly written book by Yonsei University Professor John DeLury, via Cornell University Press. Just as it unintentionally reminded me of how I could have added the CIA to my career resume, the book also added to my annoyance with those fellow Americans who hold we never do dirty to China, as sometimes the Chinese (not to mention the Russians) do to us. DeLury will have none of that. His book is about the CIA’s covert war in China. Did American undercover agents and forces try to influence the Chinese civil war in the direction of the fascistic as opposed to the communistic? Yes. Did the U.S. have assets working within Hong Kong after the 1997 handover that helped stir the anti-China hotpot? You bet. Today as well? Please, let us not be naïve.
The security services of the People’s Republic of China are scarcely covert-shy, to be sure. Their assets and agents are, here and there, all over the place. In fact, in the late nineties a congressional commission report by the Select Committee on U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the Peoples Republic of China made extraordinary claims about Chinese espionage, especially systemic technology theft, that the American news media re-played to American people with box-office abandon. Lost in the unthinking anti-Communist frenzy and paranoia was the balanced common sense that almost all nations execute deep dives into dirty pools of espionage – and sometimes much worse. Contextualization rather than demonization is what even our enemies deserve if we are to understand them properly. Over time, demonization leads to fragmentation of the possibility of a global community — corrosive of the potential for a better global order to cope with global challenges.
Professor DeLury offers another key dimension that echoes the spirit of Plato’s emphasis on the unity of ethics, an enduring part of Plato’s philosophical legacy: that a city or – by extension any integrated entity — cannot be half virtuous. A contemporary example of this notion can be found in the legal theory of America’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (1977), for example. It holds that a U.S. corporation operating overseas that’s bribing foreign officials must be brought to account by the home headquarters in the States. It cannot just look the other way, ignoring the illegality, simply because it’s an ocean away. To its credit, over the decade the U.S. Department of Justice has enforced it against American companies abroad.
DeLury takes this unity principle further and shows how a nation’s civic norms can be corroded domestically when it practices clandestine and illicit – and illegal – intervention in the internal affairs of others. “The pathologies of secrecy, like the violence of war, could not be contained overseas forever,” he concludes in the book. In America, the blowback into the backyard of domestic politics can come with hurricane force. Clandestine anti-China crusades lead to poisonous politics such as McCarthyism. Legendary Hans Morgenthau (1904-1980), academic proponent of a hard-nosed realism in foreign policy, famously characterized the infection of domestic norms from lawless foreign malfeasance as a kind of “surreptitious totalitarianism.”
Despite the continuing cascade of clandestine interventions abroad, America remains convinced of its comparative ethical exceptionalism in international relations, especially compared to the PRC. Such self-deception is a narcotic. It prevents one from feeling others’ pain and blinds us to how others see us. It is a mind-numbing and conscience-relieving, aided and abetted by U.S. media easing the American public from the pain of recognition. Foolishly self-regarding western commentary on General Secretary Xi Jinping’s spectacular climb up to a third term makes the point. In America, term limits are relatively recent – and limited — efforts to bracket power. In 1945 Franklin Delano Roosevelt entered his fourth four-year term (which led, of course, to the 22nd Amendment to limit presidents to two terms).
In reality, America’s politicians could be seen to make Xi look like a freshman newbie. Obscured in the fog of spotty term-limit law is the fact that Congress itself is term limitless (and US Supreme Court justice get lifetime appointments). Near-eternal U.S. incumbent legislators include Vermont’s Patrick J. Leahy, first elected in 1975, more than 47 years in the Senate; Iowa’s Chuck Grassley, from 1981; Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell, since 1985. Also note that in 1987, back in the heyday of China’s Deng Xiaoping, California’s Nancy Pelosi was first elected to the House. Today she is House Speaker, at 82. By contrast, the comparatively sprightly Mr Xi, at 69, faces a long march before matching the McConnell and the Pelosi run. Perhaps America might offer the world a long overdue diminishment of preventions.
Author and journalist Tom Plate, distinguished scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies at LMU, is vice president of the Pacific Century Institute and the author of ‘In the Middle of China’s Future’ (Marshall Cavendish Asia).