Never in our history have Americans so openly and brazenly celebrated a dictator. By happenstance, the 400 business leaders who attended the dinner with Chinese dictator Xi Jinping last week in San Francisco after his meeting with President Biden provided Americans with a teachable moment.
There are four major reflections from that event. First, it was obscene—as evidenced by the video of them giving Xi a standing ovation. It was appalling enough that the gathering even occurred, but to see leaders of major firms, including Apple and Boeing, sitting with their $2,000-a-plate dinners listening with rapt attention to the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) dictator explain, in oblique terms, why he was a direct threat to American and allied interests is proof of the anti-Americanism of this crowd. Xi explained this vision of tyranny, on American soil. If his objectives are realized, they would be the end of American power and of American society. The depth of this depraved anti-Americanism needs to be acknowledged and accountability demanded from the 400.
There was a time when Americans, including American business leaders, would have thrown a Communist dictator out on his ear. During his 1959 visit to America, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev could not get a meeting with Walt Disney when he toured Disneyland because Disney would not meet America’s enemy. Not so for these 400, who place their own personal well-being above that of the United States.
Second, the Roman emperor Vespasian said pecunia non olet, money does not smell, when he imposed his famous tax on public toilets. It does not matter how you got your money, because it has the same value if obtained through virtuous or evil means.
But Vespasian was wrong. Money can stink. The 400 are a perfect example. The search for profits in the PRC caused the loss of American industry and damaged the health, prosperity, and future of working- and middle-class Americans. Their business decisions were the economic and financial equivalent of a neutron bomb. The harm to the American economy, the civil society and social fabric of America has weakened American power. Their profits are stained with the lifeblood of America.
It was American power foraged by the sacrifices of generations of American men and women that built the society and economy that the 400 enjoy. Their labors created the country and so allowed the leaders present at that shameful meeting to make their profits. Their painful losses build the society that provides health, education, and security for the 400, and for their children and grandchildren. In essence, generations of Americans built the house in which the 400 reside, and yet they think nothing of weakening it. Perhaps they believe that if the roof collapses, it would not fall on their heads too.
The world they are helping Xi to build will be one of tyranny, from which they are not immune. They may engage in self-deception, and part of this deceit may be the belief that Xi’s tyranny leads to their profits. They may admire and respect him. But they are only useful idiots, selling out American power while feeding the crocodile. A bolt-hold in New Zealand will not save them from the world they are creating. Neither will EU citizenship obtained through Portugal’s “cash-for-citizenship” scam. If the U.S. is weaker, the EU will fail. People vote with their feet usually, and this crowd does as well with its money. So given the love for Xi in the room, it is curious that none seek to become citizens of the PRC or have a bolt-hold there.
The brutality of Xi is clear to all, from gross human rights abuses to the genocide against Muslims, to violation of international law in the South China Sea and of treaties, for example, breaking the treaty with the UK over Hong Kong. Yet this reality is ignored, and probably will be so until it reaches out and touches the 400 personally.
Third, this will not age well. The dinner and the standing ovation will soon be juxtaposed with American and allied forces standing guard to protect their interests against an expansionistic PRC. It is certain there will be crises as the U.S., its allies, and partners, work to stop the PRC’s aggression. Heaven forbid there is a war in which Americans are killed. If so, these images will fuel an incandescent and just anger at these participants. They will never be free of this stain, and no number of vacation homes and yachts will save them. The “my dinner with Xi” crowd will be radioactive, and it is no comfort for the rest of us that in the event of war this might be literally true.
And war very probably is coming. It might commence over Taiwan, as a result of escalation over the Philippines, the PRC’s aggression against India, or due to a premeditated clash with U.S. or allied forces in the South or East China Sea or Taiwan Strait.
Fourth, Xi’s rule is precarious. There is possibility that if pushed, the Communist regime in China will fall. Xi’s increasing paranoia and purging of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has not only warped the Party and government. When coupled with the collapse of the PRC’s economy and other major social, demographic problems has placed Xi in a uniquely vulnerable position. But the reverse happened and not just with the dinner with the dictator. As a result of the Xi-Biden summit, the Biden administration has demonstrated its lamentable commitment to economic engagement with the CCP. This warm embrace by Biden administration officials has provided the CCP with vital, life-giving, investment and trade that was erroneously sold at the dinner with the dictator as being the only path forward for global security. In other words, American elites saved the CCP—once again.
In a world where American business leaders put national survival above personal or ideological gain, these 400 might have advocated for the immediate termination of investment in the PRC. At a minimum, American business leaders should have acknowledged that Xi and the CCP were the supplicants in dire need of continued U.S. investment and trade. As such, any lifeline from them contributes to the continuation of his dictatorship and the brutal rule of his illegitimate Party. It is self-evidently anathema to American national security, and consequently to their own, survival. Unfortunately, these 400 will be remembered for selling out American ideals and principles for the opportunity to have dinner with the dictator. The American people, and the rest of the world, deserve better. They should demand it. One of the first demands should be that each of the 400 are required to journey to one of the PRC’s concentration camps for Muslims to witness for themselves what Xi is doing while they dine with him.
James Fanell is a government fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy, a retired captain in the U.S. Navy and a former director of intelligence and information operations for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Bradley A. Thayer is Director of China Policy at the Center for Security Policy. He is the coauthor with Lianchao Han of Understanding the China Threat.