From Mao's China to Foggy Bottom: Miles Yu a key player in new approach to Beijing
15 June 2020
Miles Yu began life in rural China amid the madness of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, when Red Guard zealots roamed the country trashing and killing all vestiges of tradition and capitalism in the country.
Today, he is the principal China policy and planning adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a key part of the storied Policy Planning Staff on the seventh floor of the State Department, the apex of American foreign policy located just a few steps from Mr. Pompeo’s office.
It’s an unlikely journey that has affected him deeply.
“Having grown up in communist China and now living my American dream, I think the world should be incalculably grateful to America because, as [President] Reagan said, America represents ‘the last best hope of man on Earth,’” Mr. Yu said in an exclusive interview with The Washington Times. “And I truly believe that.”
Mr. Pompeo praises Mr. Yu as “a central part of my team advising me with respect on how to ensure that we protect Americans and secure our freedoms in the face of challenges from the [Chinese Communist Party].”
The planning office was once headed by George Kennan, author of the “Mr. X” article in 1947 that set the stage for U.S. Cold War containment policies that ultimately dispatched the Soviet Union to the ash heap of history.
Mr. Yu, who for several years wrote the “Inside China” column for The Washington Times, made the journey from China to the United States in 1985. As a student, he became an active advocate of freedom and democracy after the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown four years later.
After earning a doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, he took a position as a professor of modern China and military history at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
In the past three years, Mr. Yu has been a powerful behind-the-scenes force within the Trump administration reshaping U.S. policies toward China, which has been redefined as America’s most significant strategic adversary. Mr. Yu calls the new China approach “principled realism.”
“Miles Yu is a national treasure,” said retired Air Force Brig. Gen. David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs. “He understands the difference between democratic and authoritarian governance and can explain it better than anyone I know.”
At the White House, Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, also a low-key but influential power player on China policy, calls Mr. Yu “an invaluable resource” for the Trump administration’s foreign policy team.
“His experience growing up under totalitarianism made him one of its most potent foes,” Mr. Pottinger said.
Mr. Stilwell said he is most impressed by Mr. Yu’s encyclopedic knowledge of U.S. and Chinese doctrine, not only from an academic perspective but also as a policy practitioner.
“He is a clear-eyed student of the Cold War and the U.S.-China-USSR dynamic. He understands the importance of culture and ideology in strategy-making,” Mr. Stilwell said.
Others on the team include Science and Technology Adviser Mung Chiang, a Hong Kong-born engineering professor, and Ambassador Kelley E. Currie, until recently deputy of the U.S. mission to the United Nations.
Mr. Yu, 57, as the key official for China on the policy planning staff, has been the driving intellectual force in helping Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Stilwell develop and implement President Trump’s “America First” policies toward China.
As a native Chinese language speaker and a trained analyst, Mr. Yu is one of the few high-ranking officials capable of decoding Chinese Communist Party-speak. Better than most other China experts in the U.S. government and on the outside, Mr. Yu has been able to identify hidden vulnerabilities and weaknesses in the Chinese leadership.
For instance, Beijing uses terms such as “win-win,” “mutual respect” and other Chinese proverbs that Mr. Yu says are “really hackneyed Chinese expressions with no substance if you really know the Chinese language and culture.”
By exploiting democracy’s open and often messy political exchanges, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership “has been able to capture a significant portion of our China policy elite class and let them do China’s bidding in the corridors of Western capitals and think tanks, where the U.S. is under constant criticism for our alleged ‘China bashing’ and other American sins by ‘fringe lunatics’ who have impure and incorrect thoughts about the CCP regime,” Mr. Yu said.
He said the Trump administration is the first in decades to recognize that Beijing played the “U.S. card” far better than the United States played the “China card.” He also argues that the Chinese system is in fact run by a communist party unwilling to be influenced by the outside world and is determined to create a world order of its own.
That system has become a worthy and serious strategic competitor bolstered by a Marxist-Leninist ideology and China-centered nationalism. The combination, Mr. Yu said, has allowed China to try to place itself as the moral and political center of the world — at the expense of the Western liberal order and democracy.
The new State Department approach has been outlined in several recent speeches by Mr. Pompeo that notably identified the CCP and not the Chinese people as the problem for bilateral relations.
The secretary of state has bluntly criticized what he sees as Beijing’s misbehavior, including cyberattacks, intellectual property theft, territorial aggression in the South China Sea and the repression of more than 1 million ethnic Uighurs in western China.
Mr. Stilwell said Mr. Yu is a key player in regular strategy sessions that help paint a complete picture of situations and how those situations have been created.
A Chinese boyhood
Mr. Yu was born in eastern Anhui province and grew up in Chongqing, now one of China’s megacities. Starting in 1966, China under Mao suffered the latest decadelong calamity known as the Cultural Revolution.
History was expunged to conform to communist revolutionary dogma, while thousands of Red Guards took to the streets to identify millions of people as “enemies of the state.”
“Although I was too young to fully experience the political madness,” Mr. Yu recalled in the interview, “my childhood innocence was brutally upended by the radical revolution’s violence, absurdity, ideological shriek, destruction of life, social trust and public mores, and utter hatred for anything Western or ‘bourgeois.’”
Millions of lives were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, scholars say.
The Cultural Revolution ended with Mao’s demise in 1976, and reform-style communism was instituted under Deng Xiaoping and other Mao successors. Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is also secretary-general of the CCP, many of the Cultural Revolution’s hallmark excesses — including intensifying ideological indoctrination and personality cult around Mr. Xi — are returning to China, critics say.
Inspired by Reagan
After graduating from high school, Mr. Yu enrolled in Nankai University in Tianjian in 1979. Among his professors were several Americans teaching as part of the Fulbright Scholar exchange program.
“I soon realized I was wasting my time studying the mandatory dialectical materialism and dogmatic historical narratives,” he said.
It was Reagan who inspired him to seek out America. Mr. Yu secretly listened to some of Reagan’s 1980 speeches via the Chinese service of Voice of America. The presidential candidate seemed to the young Chinese scholar to be the most eloquent Western leader who understood the ideologically driven totalitarian system and why it had been such a massive failure wherever it was tried.
In 1985, he arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to attend Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. During postgraduate study at the University of California, Berkeley, Mr. Yu supported the massive pro-democracy protests that broke out in China in 1989 and resulted in the massacre at Tiananmen Square.
At Berkeley, Mr. Yu became actively involved in organizing like-minded graduate students and helped settle Chinese refugees from Tiananmen in the San Francisco Bay Area.
He also hosted the China Forum, a lecture series that gave voice to key Chinese dissidents, including Harry Wu and Fang Lizhi. Other speakers included former Ambassador to China James Lilley, scholar Orville Schell and author Bette Bao Lord.
After earning his doctorate from Berkeley in 1994, Mr. Yu became a professor at the Naval Academy, where he has taught hundreds of future naval officers on China and military history. Some of his former students are in China-related positions of responsibility at the Departments of Defense and State and still call him “Professor Yu.”
“It’s been both an honor and a privilege to teach the defenders of American liberty and democracy,” he said. “It completely fulfills my intellectual aspiration inspired by Ronald Reagan back in the early 1980s.”
Ever since the U.S. government opened relations with Beijing in the 1970s, he said, Washington was overconfident about its ability to influence the direction of the relationship.
Cold War policymakers praised the gambit of playing “the China card” — moving closer to Beijing in a bid to undermine the Soviet Union. In reality, Mr. Yu said, it was China playing the U.S. card for its benefits and against American interests.
Next was the U.S. government’s frequent failure to distinguish or sufficiently articulate the differences between the Chinese people and the ruling CCP elites, Mr. Yu said.
“The enthusiastic pursuit of the capitalist, bourgeois lifestyle by the Chinese people in today’s China who are increasingly politically apathetic to communist ideology is routinely confused by our policy and cultural elites with the rigid and dogmatic Marxist-Leninist CCP inner core, whose people exercise total monopoly of political power and who are among the most ideologically intoxicated communists in recent memory,” Mr. Yu said.
Senior U.S. statements often refer to “the Chinese,” failing to make the distinction between the Chinese people and the party-dominated regime.
Another major shortfall, Mr. Yu said, has been the failure of political and policy elites to properly measure Beijing’s weaknesses and vulnerabilities and adopt sound policies accordingly.
“We have unwillingly succumbed to the CCP’s often blistering bluffs,” Mr. Yu said. “For decades, our Chinapolicy was carried out based upon an ‘anger management’ mode — that is, we formulated our Chinapolicy by calculating how mad the CCP might be at us, not what suits the best to American national interest.”
That approach, he said, resulted from a fundamental misunderstanding of China’s tactics: First raise the anger and rage level to a maximum level to see how the U.S. reacts.
“Unfortunately, too often we fell for this CCP sophistry and made our China policies to appease CCP sensitivities and fake outrage to avoid an often imagined and exaggerated direct confrontation with the seemingly enraged CCP. By doing so, we also failed to realize the enormous reputational and realistic advantages and leverage the U.S. has over a dictatorship,” Mr. Yu said.
In reality, the Chinese regime at its core is fragile and weak, fearful of its own people and utterly paranoid about confrontation from the West, especially the United States, he said.
“Miles Yu was a voice in the wilderness who for years warned about Chinese imperial agendas, Chinese systematic mercantile theft and cheating, and Chinese communist thuggery,” said the Hoover Institution’s Victor Davis Hanson.
“The nation is finally listening to him and a few others who share his prescience — and his rise in stature is one of the most important developments in U.S. policy toward China in the last 20 years,” he said.