Trump adviser Matthew Pottinger takes soft approach to promoting democracy in China on May Fourth Movement anniversary

Mark Magnier
·6-min read

A key architect of the Trump administration’s hardline policies toward China took a relatively soft approach to promoting democracy in a speech Monday, unusual for an administration not known for its subtlety.

Deputy National Security Adviser Matthew Pottinger, a Beijing correspondent for seven years during the 1990s and early 2000s with the The Wall Street Journal and Reuters, delivered his speech to the University of Virginia in Mandarin, itself a rarity.

Drawing on Monday’s 101st anniversary of iconic student protests on May 4, 1919, Pottinger argued that China does best when it listens to the diverse opinions of its laobaixing, or average citizens. The speech was not meant to be prescriptive, he said, added that the nation’s future is ultimately up to the Chinese people.

“A healthy society should have more than one voice. And so this is a bit of an effort to just have a conversation with friends in China,” he said in a virtual presentation from the White House, adding that China would benefit from “a little more populism, a little less nationalism”.

US President Donald Trump with Matthew Pottinger on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders’ summit in Da Nang, Vietnam on November 10, 2017. Photo: AFP
US President Donald Trump with Matthew Pottinger on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) leaders’ summit in Da Nang, Vietnam on November 10, 2017. Photo: AFP

Pottinger’s remarks echo an approach sometimes followed by Chinese when criticising their leaders: use Chinese history, anniversaries and the actions of past heroes to make your point rather than hitting your audience over the head.

The May Fourth Movement is seen by many as the birth of resistance to feudal China as students poured into Tiananmen Square to protest foreign domination, sparking a massive political awakening.

But no amount of deft footwork can blunt the administration’s overall tone or approach, analysts said.

“I think any subtlety of this messaging is going to be more than drowned out by the less subtle messaging from the rest of the administration towards China,” said Michael Hirson, who leads Eurasia Group’s China coverage, “especially as the campaign rhetoric heats up.”

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In his speech Monday, Pottinger drew on the example of modern-day Taiwan and historical figures to counter Beijing’s argument that the Chinese are ill suited to democracy. His remarks included references to Hu Shih, a leading thinker of the May Fourth Movement who advocated liberalism and P.C. Chang, a diplomat who helped draft the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The legacy of Chinese espousing free expression and liberal thought, often in the face of official crackdowns, is seen most recently in the example of Li Wenliang, a Wuhan doctor whose WeChat warnings about an unknown illness went viral, Pottinger said.

“We’ve seen big acts of moral and physical courage lately,” added Pottinger, whose virologist brother alerted him early on to the spread of the disease.

Pottinger, 46, did not answer the question posed in the speech’s title, “US-China Relations in a Turbulent Time: Can Rivals Cooperate?” and sidestepped questions about China’s hardening approach to Hong Kong and the future of US-China trade talks.

But in a profile last week, The Washington Post identified Pottinger, a former Iraq combat veteran, as the impetus for many of Trump’s hardline policies toward China, citing administration sources.

The newspaper noted Pottinger’s “quiet but potent” influence, which it said has fuelled the widespread use of “Wuhan virus” language by senior administration officials, the decision to shut down all flights from China in late January, the belief that China is engaged in a massive cover up to obscure the virus’ origins and the decision to sharply reduce the number of Chinese journalists allowed in the US.

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In 2017, Pottinger helped craft the administration’s national security strategy document that formally named China as a strategic competitor and labelled Beijing a “revisionist power”.

Pottinger’s speech on Monday echoes an approach sometimes used by Chinese dissidents and critics to disparage or show up the leadership. Thus Beijing tends to maintain tight security during anniversaries of the June 4 Tiananmen crackdown, the deaths of liberal Premier Zhao Ziyang and Communist Party head Hu Yaobang and key World War II battles against the Japanese.

The tone of Pottinger’s speech contrasted with the often blunt approach of his boss. Trump has accused China of perpetrating one of the “greatest thefts in the history of the world” and cheating at the Olympics, part of a pattern to “Lie, Cheat & Steal in all international dealings”.

But analysts said Pottinger’s effort to bypass top Chinese officials and appeal directly to the Chinese people is part of a broader administration approach. In recent weeks, the US State Department has issued a stream of translated press releases in simplified Mandarin language, although it’s not clear how effective these are in bypassing Beijing’s internet controls.

“What struck me was how different an approach this is from prior US administrations which have focused on connecting with the highest levels in China,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Matt’s messaging is of a piece with senior Trump administration officials’ differentiation between the CCP and the Chinese people.”

John Holden, head of the China practice with consultancy McLarty Associates, added that Pottinger’s bid to communicate directly with Chinese people and its tone of respect, stood out.

But any effort by the administration to hold US democracy up as a model for China faces a tough audience these days, said Hirson, a former senior US Treasury official in Beijing.

“That is a result of the fumbling response here to the pandemic, as well as what has been a somewhat effective effort by Beijing to reshape the narrative at home and highlight those stumbles by the US and the West,” he added.

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