On October 29th, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich spoke to an audience in Bovard Auditorium about his new book, Trump vs. China: Facing America’s Greatest Threat. In his speech, the conservative politician and author laid out what he views as the challenges that China poses to the United States and the historical and cultural origins of the fundamentally different way of thinking between the two countries.
Gingrich began his talk by laying out basic Chinese history and the dramatic change that occurred in the 19th century when Western powers technologically and economically surpassed China, which had been dominant for thousands of years before. This “Century of Humiliation” as it is known in China ended in 1949 with the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
According to Gingrich, the historical dominance enjoyed by China prior to this century, and the resurgence since the mid-20th century contributes to what he explained as a “natural underlying sense of legitimacy”, akin to what we in the United States might call American exceptionalism or Make America Great Again.
Gingrich explained his experiences in China as evidence of the fundamental ways that the Chinese way of thinking differs from the American way. An anecdote about bartering with a street vendor over the price of pajamas served to highlight the ways in which Chinese citizens and government officials see bargaining as constructive, even if no agreement is reached. Whereas American trade representatives might leave a failed trade talk ashamed of their failure, he explained, the Chinese leave content with having talked in the first place.
Next, Gingrich explored the way in which the Chinese state has advanced economically since the reform of the late 80s and early 90s. At the beginning of his speech, he acknowledged that ten years ago, he would not have been giving this speech; his view and the common consensus at the time was that as China opened up to the outside world and transitioned to a market economy, the country would democratize.
This hasn’t happened, and instead Gingrich sees the economic reforms under Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping as serving a different purpose, that of, in his words, “modernizing the dictatorship”. According to Gingrich, the economic growth has served to placate the people of China and keep them in line so as to preserve the totalitarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party. This is part of the threat that he sees in the rise of China.
Gingrich highlighted recent events that show the strength of the CCP. The internment of over a million Uighurs in Western China, the crushing of Tibetan Buddhism, the CCP’s hatred of FaLun Gong movement, and the disappearance of a prominent Chinese actress all served to underscore this point.
Moving on from the domestic, Gingrich explained how China has been operating internationally and what that means for the United States. He spoke about Chinese ambitions in the South China Sea, as well as the economic Belt and Road infrastructure initiative. On the topic of extensive Chinese development in Europe and South Asia, Gingrich noted that “if this were the cold war, if this were the Soviets, we would be frantic”. At the root of the Chinese grand strategy, Gingrich believes, is patience; a slow expansion of influence while broadcasting peaceful intentions and cooperation.
Gingrich looked at the way that tech plays into this expansion. A comment about the use of the social media app Tik Tok garnered a laugh from the audience and served to explain how Chinese censorship infiltrates other countries and platforms. He pointed to the recent controversy with the NBA and the Hong Kong protests as an example of US firms bending to China’s will.
Shifting one final time for his conclusion, Gingrich sought to look at the United States and the domestic factors that have allowed China to rise unchecked. He noted with dismay a crumbling infrastructure and lack of political will to confront the threat from past administrations. As he wrapped up his talk, he said “once upon a time we were a practical country” that tackled challenges and obstacles.
With the final time in his presentation, Gingrich fielded questions from audience members about topics from what the US can do in the face of China, how to handle being a conservative student at a liberal institution, and what a successful counter-argument to proponents of socialism would be.
Newt Gingrich was hosted at USC by the student organization Young Americans for Freedom.