On Sept. 1, 1939, Adolph Hitler invaded Poland in what would become one of the greatest strategic challenges for western democracies. Today, we face the challenges of a global viral pandemic, but we also face strategic attempts to undermine our democracy through calculated disinformation campaigns. These 2020 attacks, without tanks, bombs or missiles, are no less of a threat to our values, institutions and our way of life.
I taught Chinese history for many years, have spent months in the People’s Republic of China (PRC), took the first American high school students into China after the Cultural Revolution in 1976, and even sponsored a wonderful Chinese high school student for a year. It’s been my experience that the vast majority of people in the PRC are beautiful people — genuine, smart, conscientious, modest, and endowed with one of the richest cultural histories in the world. Their political communist leadership, however, has a checkered past.
Today, we know that authoritarian Russian and Chinese leaders are committed to undermining the institutions, values and principles of our democracy on every imaginable level. And now they have 21st century weapons. Their tactical arsenal consists of disinformation, technology theft, divide-and-conquer social media campaigns and political crusades to beat us at what we do best, innovation. Their social media assaults try to divide us, create chaos, and their footsteps are all around our polarized politics and the viral pandemic.
While the Chinese have blocked Google, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Reddit and WhatsApp in China, to seal off the free-flow of information within China, the government uses these very same banned communications platforms as tactical weapons to introduce false information and “alternative facts.” USA Today reported this week that Twitter “removed a vast network of accounts (175,000) linked to the Chinese government pushing false information.” The accounts were associated with the coronavirus and deceptive narratives related to Hong Kong. Russia makes no apologies about trying to influence our national discourse, creating divisive narratives affecting our national elections.
The U.S. Office of National Counterintelligence Executive, under the director of national intelligence, reports that the PRC is “the world’s most active and persistent perpetrator of economic espionage.” It reports that hundreds of billions in American R&D have been stolen by the Chinese government. The D.C. based Center for Strategic and International Studies estimates a $100 billion annual loss to the U.S. economy and as many as 508,000 U.S. jobs lost as a result of “malicious cyber activity.”
According to reports in both the New York Times and Bloomberg News, China is planning to spend $1.4 trillion dollars in the development of artificial intelligence and mobile communications to crush the United States in these cutting-edge technologies. The masterplan is backed by President Xi Jinping himself. That confrontational news floats on top of the current state of Chinese infrastructure. I’ve been through their shiny new airports, ridden on their high-speed rails and highways, and floated on their amazing MagLev trains. So where does that leave us?
It says to me that we need to get our act together, before it’s too late. It says to me that we need to put aside our petty partisan politics, our smug complacency, and become one united nation to meet these global challenges to our national prestige and heritage. I’m a pretty competitive guy, and I’d like to think that we Americans are proud competitive people who don’t like to be beaten by adversarial autocratic dictators who think they can run over us.
I’d like to think that the shock to our system from the pandemic, the resulting economic recession, and these autocratic attempts to weaken America will result in a turning point, a political inflection point for our country, where we see clearly the looming consequences of letting those who would challenge what we stand for — a pre-eminent and free democratic society that the rest of the world can aspire to. In many ways, it’s 1939 all over again, but without the thunder of artillery. Can we live up to the global threats this time?
Bill Sims is a Berrysville resident, an author, and with his wife runs a small farm in Berrysville. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.