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Kingdom Come

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Storm Warning
Why is the Chinese government so angry about Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan? James Lee on rhetorical thunder, military build-up, and the potential for armed conflict.
China is conducting live-fire military exercises around Taiwan and has cut off trade and diplomatic relationships with the island and the U.S., in a forceful response to U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taipei this week. For decades, Taiwan has been a major source of tension between Beijing and Washington, and Pelosi’s trip was the first by a House speaker in 25 years. Pelosi met with Taiwan’s president and business leaders during her one-day visit, but she didn’t close any substantial trade or defense deals or express any change in U.S. policy. With Chinese-U.S. relations already frayed, many officials in President Joe Biden’s administration had spoken out publicly against the trip, and the president’s national-security team advised her not to go. After Pelosi’s brief stay, Beijing started naval drills within 10 miles of Taiwan, closer than any previous exercises and an apparent simulation of an invasion. Taiwanese government websites were hacked, and China suspended imports of fruit and fish from the island while banning exports of sand, a key building material. Beijing also fired five missiles into waters claimed by Japan and severed military and cultural cooperation with the United States. Given the clear lack of support from the U.S. administration for Pelosi’s short and uneventful visit, why is China reacting so strongly to it?
James Lee is an assistant research fellow at Academia Sinica in Taiwan and the author of a forthcoming book about the history of U.S. strategy in East Asia. According to Lee, the Chinese leadership was unusually angered by the visit because they see Pelosi as a high-ranking representative of the U.S. government and its positions—they view American politics through the lens of a one-party state, so they don’t see any difference between her words or actions and the president’s. Lee says that Beijing also wants to express its antipathy toward Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-Wen, whose party rejects the Chinese position that the island belongs to the People’s Republic. China’s President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, faces acute domestic political challenges with the economy and ongoing Covid lockdowns, giving him reason to take an especially hard line on Taiwan as a show of strength. Tensions over Taiwan have been rising—and visits by senior U.S. officials more frequent—in recent years, but to Lee, it’s unclear whether the likelihood of a Chinese invasion is increasing with them. Xi’s intensive military build-up might be a sign of an eventual attack, or he might just be using tensions around the island to justify a rapid military expansion.
In a Name
What’s at stake in the U.S. Democratic Party’s new focus on the idea of “freedom”? David Kusnet on the new variations in one of the oldest controversies in American political life.
Militiadis Fragkidis
Militiadis Fragkidis
“We are the party of freedom,” the Democratic U.S. congressman Eric Swalwell posted to Twitter on July 8. “Freedom to make your own health-care choices. Freedom from your fear of gun violence. Freedom to have your vote counted. … Freedom for all.” It was a few days after his country’s Independence Day, when his fellow Democrat and California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, took the unusual step of running a political advertisement in Florida—on the right-leaning Fox News Channel, no less—with a similar message. Floridians’ freedom was being threatened, Newsom said, under the leadership of Governor Ron DeSantis, a Republican who’s previously celebrated his state as “freedom’s vanguard” in America. Meanwhile, according to reporting by The Washington Post, since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June and ended the constitutional right to abortion in America, there appears to have been a “dramatic increase” in the use of the term freedom—a concept more commonly invoked for decades among Republicans—“in social media messaging of Democratic leaders and left-wing influencers and organizations.” Contestation over this term isn’t new, of course; it’s arguably as old in the United States of America as the country itself. But why is it reemerging now?
David Kusnet, an American communications strategist, was President Bill Clinton’s chief speechwriter during his 1992 presidential campaign and first term in office. Kusnet agrees with those who see a new opening for his party to talk about freedom, particularly with Americans generally opposing so many recent Republican restrictions in health care, voting, and education. As this opportunity creates new political debates, Kusnet understands these debates in part as reviving old ones about the kinds of freedom that America should prioritize—for instance, the freedom from government intrusion versus the freedom to live with opportunity and economic security. Yet he also understands today’s disputes about freedom as distinctive in important ways: They’re unfolding in an extraordinary political climate, influenced by populist ideas, and leading in uncertain directions—as Democrats, who are traditionally pro-union, increasingly return to emphasizing freedom for workers, while Republicans, who are traditionally pro-business, increasingly adopt new culture-war rhetoric targeting “woke” corporations dominated by progressive values as enemies of a free society.
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