Transcript of Ambassador Cui Tiankai’s Interview at the 2020 Aspen Security Forum
10 August 2020
On August 4, Ambassador Cui Tiankai was invited to attend the 2020 Aspen Security Forum and had an online interview with Mr. Nicholas Burns, Executive Director of the Aspen Strategy Group, and Andrea Mitchell, Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent of NBC News, on issues related to China-US relations. The Ambassador also answered questions from the audience. The full transcript is as follows:
Nicholas Burns: You’re most welcome here, Ambassador. I’m going to turn this interview over to Andrea Mitchell. But I just make one point that I was beginning to make with Andrea when we were waiting. I think that US-China relations may be at their lowest point, since before President Nixon’s opening to China in 1971, 1972. There is great concern in the United States about the Chinese government abrogating its commitments to the people of Hong Kong, concern about the conflict along the border between India and China at the Himalayas, concern about Chinese activities in the South China Sea. You and I have been part of this relationship from a government perspective for many, many decades. It seems to me that we’re turning away from the cooperation, the large-scale cooperation of the last 40 years, decidedly towards competition, in the military sense, over economic issues, on 5G. And the question I have for Andrea and you and for your interview is, as we compete with each other and we’re certainly competing, can we find a way to cooperate on climate change, on the pandemic and other big global issues?
Andrea Mitchell: Thank you so much. Thank you, Mr. Ambassador. It’s a great privilege and an honor to have you joining us today. And I want to pick up where Ambassador Burns set the table, which is that most people do believe, in both of our countries, that this is the most difficult time, I was going to say, since 1979. But certainly Nick Burns just said, really, since Henry Kissinger’s trip in 1971. So is there a way, first, do you agree that this is a perilous situation? And how would you correct it, or do you think it needs to be corrected?
Ambassador Cui: First of all, thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to have this conversation. We are at a very critical moment for our relations between China and United States. In a way, we can say it’s unprecedented since Dr. Henry Kissinger’s visit almost half a century ago. The choices we’re making today will shape not only relations between our two great countries, but also the future of the world. So we have to make the right choices. We have to base ourselves on the long-term interests of our two peoples and of the world.
Andrea Mitchell: A big source of the current tension, from the US perspective and others around the world, is the pandemic. The President has been blaming China for not alerting the World Health Organization soon enough to the human-to-human transmission of COVID-19, and doing more to contain it. How would you respond to that criticism?
Ambassador Cui: I think we have to base ourselves on real facts. The fact is very clear. The timeline is very clear. China is one of the countries that reported such cases first. But now there are increasing reports and information about possible earlier cases elsewhere in the world.
Scientists all over the world are still working very hard on this particular pandemic, on the virus. But we identified a few cases in Wuhan in late December last year. And even for the doctors, people like to call them “whistleblowers”, they say they have encountered some cases of pneumonia of unknown cause, which means at the time little was known about this new virus. Very few people, I think nobody in the world knew anything about the new virus. But as soon as we had these cases, we reported to the World Health Organization.
The first report was done on January 3, right after the New Year’s Day. So it’s just a couple of days. Then the next day, the CDCs, Chinese CDC and US CDC, had their first communication on this particular virus, even before people could give a name to this COVID-19 virus. People were still calling it pneumonia of unknown cause. Then on January 12, as soon as we identified the genome sequence of this virus, we shared it with the WHO and the international community. So everything was done very quickly.
Of course people are still learning more, still trying to learn more about this virus. I don’t think we already know everything about this virus. This is a fact. But as soon as we discovered something, we shared it with the international community. This is also the fact. And at that time, when we first reported to the WHO, when we first shared all this information with the international community, you still had single-digit number of cases in the United States.
Andrea Mitchell: That is certainly correct. But did you report human-to-human transmission is the question. Because you did share the DNA, the sequencing, but did you share human-to-human transmission in the most timely way that you could have?
Ambassador Cui: Yes, indeed, I think this is extremely important for our response to the virus. That’s why we sent our national experts to Wuhan, to determine whether this is transmitted among human beings. And once they determined that this is transmitted among human beings, we had Wuhan locked down. Within a couple of days, we locked down the whole city of about 12 million people. So everybody knew that this is transmittable among human beings. And within two or three days, the United States evacuated its consulate from Wuhan. So everyone knew this is very dangerous.
Andrea Mitchell: Just a few months ago when this all started, President Trump was praising President Xi’s response. Now it’s very different. Are they communicating at all?
Ambassador Cui: They have had two phone calls in the last few months, and people at the lower level, lower than the President’s level, have also had their communication. Of course, the two economic teams have been in touch more frequently. And what is even more important is that the scientists of our two countries are working together. Some of the American experts, very well-known professors of public health specialists went to China in very early days. And they also joined the team sent by the WHO to China in February. I think it’s very fortunate our scientists are still working together.
Andrea Mitchell: Now, more recently, the US has filed charges against a number of researchers and academics, for it says trying to steal COVID vaccine information from US technology companies or universities. And they say it’s part of a broader pattern of intellectual theft. Can you respond to that?
Ambassador Cui: The problem nowadays is that very often allegations are made without giving any hard evidence. The international community should really cooperate with each other to develop as soon as possible an effective vaccine, which should be shared by the entire world. That’s why President Xi Jinping declared at a special conference of the WHO that if China could develop this vaccine first, we’ll make it global public goods.
Andrea Mitchell: Now although Moderna, one of the leading research companies, that is testing vaccines in phase three, has said that the Chinese government-linked hackers have targeted them to steal data.
Ambassador Cui: The fact is, as early as in March, some of the American companies even came to see me. They asked for cooperation with their Chinese counterpart to develop drugs or vaccines. I think we should encourage scientists of our two countries and other countries to cooperate. If people want to make allegations, they have to show the evidence. It’s quite possible that hackers from other countries are trying to infiltrate or attack China’s research institutions. This is also possible.
Andrea Mitchell: Let’s talk about the Houston consulate, where, as you know, it was the first consulate opened back in 1979 by China in our country. So it’s a very important foundational consulate. And China has responded by closing the US consulate in Chengdu. Do you think that this will escalate?
Ambassador Cui: We did not start the whole thing. This is very clear. We certainly want to maintain both consulates. As you said, our consulate in Houston was the first Chinese one in America. It was the outcome of Mr. Deng Xiaoping’s visit in early 1979. People just like Texas, like Houston, they like the basketball Rockets, Yao Ming, Texas steak and everything. The consulate has been doing a lot to facilitate exchanges between the two countries, people-to-people contacts, and cultural, sport, educational exchanges, a lot of good things for both countries. So it’s really unfortunate. It’s so bad for the US side to decide to close our consulate in Houston. Based on the principle of reciprocity in diplomacy, we have to respond. But we certainly don’t want to have all this from the very beginning. We certainly don’t want to see any escalation.
Andrea Mitchell: I do have to ask you, though, about the allegation that on a broader scale, if US officials claim that the Houston consulate was a haven for spying, for intellectual property theft. They say that 80% of espionage cases end in China and 60% of trade secret cases end in China, of all the countries in the world. So they are saying that China is more responsible than any other country by far for trade and intellectual property theft.
Ambassador Cui: These allegations against our consulate or any of our diplomatic missions here are totally groundless. People cannot assume other people are doing all these things just because they are exactly doing the same thing in other countries. This is the problem. Some people are doing all these things in other countries. But now they are blaming other countries doing such things. We never do these.
Andrea Mitchell: Let me ask you about our top diplomat, the Secretary of State, whom you know well, because he gave a speech at the Nixon Library which is highly symbolic, since President Nixon opened the door to our opening with the People’s Republic of China. He said some very harsh things, he said if we bend the knees now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party, whose actions are the primary challenge today in the free world. How do you view this? Is it a direct challenge to the government of China?
Ambassador Cui: I have been to the Nixon Library more than once. A few years ago when they had the renovation, they invited me for the reopening. I was there together with Dr. Henry Kissinger and a number of other people. I was very impressed by the Nixon Library. By the way, I have been to a number of presidential libraries here. They are, all of them, are very unique. But I think if we have a close look at the history of our relations since President Nixon’s visit to China, or since Dr. Kissinger visit to China, several things are quite clear:
First, the normalization of relations between our two countries and the growth of this relationship over the decades has served the interests of both countries and the world very well. It’s quite clear that all of us are still enjoying the positive outcome, the benefits of the growth of this relationship. Nobody can really deny this.
Number two, our two countries, of course, are very different in terms of historical heritage, culture, economic development, and political system, and so on and so forth. These differences will be there, maybe for quite a long time to come. But they should not be seen as barriers for closer relations between us, they should be seen as opportunities, possibilities for mutual learning, for cooperation.
To be fair, over the last few decades, we have learned many things from the United States. There are still things we have not learned from the US, and things I think we should never learn from the United States, such as obsession with global dominance. We are two different countries, but we have to work together. We have to understand we are living in the same world. We are living in this small global village. There are so many global challenges we share. Neither of our countries can really handle all these things all by itself. Nick just mentioned climate change and terrorism, and so many natural disasters. Both peoples have aspirations for a better life. If our two countries can cooperate with each other, it will enable us to meet our people’s needs even better. So this is the choice we have to make, cooperation rather than confrontation.
Andrea Mitchell: A Chinese foreign policy expert in Beijing called Pompeo speech “a new cold war declaration of the United States”. Is that your view that this is a declaration of a new cold war by the Secretary of State?
Ambassador Cui: I don’t know why people like the term “Cold War” so much. The correct lesson we should learn from past history is that such a cold war serves nobody’s real interest. Today we are in the 21st century. Why should we allow history to repeat? Why should we repeat what happened in the last century when we are faced with so many new challenges, global challenges? I don’t think a new cold war would serve anybody’s interests or will give us any solution to the problem.
Andrea Mitchell: Is there a way to dial down the rhetoric as long as you speak of global dominance, the President speaks of the “China Flu”? Those are harsh words.
Ambassador Cui: It’s certainly wrong to have such stigma. And the virus, as defined by the World Health Organization, is COVID19. The WHO has a rule that the name of any such viruses should not be linked with any particular place, people or ethnic group, or even a particular animal. This is an international rule I think all of us should follow. As for global dominance, China certainly has no intention to seek global dominance, but some people here in this country talk about it so often. It seems to me that there is an obsession with it.
Andrea Mitchell: How do you interpret global dominance? Is it the phrase “America first”, or what’s your sense of what global dominance means, as you see the United States?
Ambassador Cui: This is a very good question. Those who are seeking global dominance should give us an interpretation. I don’t think anybody should try to do that.
Andrea Mitchell: I want to ask you about the new law in Hong Kong, which the United States and British officials have criticized as well as others. China is now delaying Hong Kong’s election that was to be held on September 6 for a year. Couldn’t the election be held safely despite the pandemic? Why delay the election for a year? And can you assure residents of Hong Kong and the world that there will be elections, democratic elections in Hong Kong?
Ambassador Cui: The decision to delay election in Hong Kong was made by the Hong Kong government, and the reason is the pandemic. Because in recent days, people see a significant resurgence of the confirmed cases. This is very alarming. The Hong Kong SAR government decided that if the election goes as planned, the risk, the danger of the pandemic spreading even wider will be very serious. Actually in other parts of the world, maybe dozens of countries or regions have decided to somehow postpone their elections or events like this.
As for the new law, the National Security Law in Hong Kong, by definition, it is about national security. Actually, Hong Kong should have enacted its own law for national security as provided for by the Basic Law of Hong Kong. But 23 years have passed since Hong Kong returned to China, and the Law of National Security is still not there. Its absence has led to a lot of serious consequences. People see rising violence in Hong Kong. The city is quite destabilized. People feel it’s no longer a very safe place to live or do business. And of course, the absence of this law has hurt China’s national security interests, and also hurt the safety and security of the people both in the mainland and in Hong Kong of China. It is also hurting the interests of Hong Kong’s international economic partners.
In a sense, we were forced to enact this law, so that as there’s better guarantee for Hong Kong’s stability. So the rising violence in Hong Kong could be stopped. Everybody could have a safer environment, a safer place to live. Hong Kong could continue to be an international financial, trading and transportation center. And the system, the policy of “One Country Two Systems” will continue.
Andrea Mitchell: Of course, the Hong Kong government that delayed the election is hardly independent from Beijing. The people who are invested in democracy in Hong Kong want the election and the people who want a stable economic base in Hong Kong around the world want elections and a stable democracy. Today China has issued arrest warrants for six pro-democracy activists, including one who was an American citizen. And of course the well-known Nathan Law, who is already in the UK. What actions were they taking that threatened the stability in Hong Kong?
Ambassador Cui: I don’t think that people should make the distinction between what they call “democracy” and “anti-democracy”. Actually all these law enforcement actions are taken according to the law. If anyone violates the law, they should be punished. That’s it. It doesn’t matter what kind of political views they might have. Nobody should violate the law.
Andrea Mitchell: I want to ask you about TikTok. The President was talking about banning it. Now it is apparently possibly going to be purchased by Microsoft, the American entity of TikTok. Given China’s law and China’s ability, Beijing’s ability to demand that Chinese corporations can retrieve data from any of these companies, can you understand why President Trump and the US government want to make sure that if TikTok operates here in the US, Beijing will not be able to retrieve and get any data from US citizens?
Ambassador Cui: I don’t think there’s an evidence that any company is giving such information to the Chinese government. People make these allegations, but they never show any evidence. Very often we hear complaints here that we don’t give a level playing field to American companies. But more and more, I believe we should complain Chinese companies are not having a level playing field here. There is such a degree of political intervention, government intervention into the market. There’s such a discrimination against Chinese company. These companies are just private companies.
It’s not fair to make such allegations without giving any evidence and to accuse China of not giving American companies a level playing field while at the same time they themselves are denying Chinese companies such a level playing field. This is extremely unfair.
Andrea Mitchell: Despite all these tensions, you alluded to the fact that there are still conversations at lower levels on economic issues. Is the trade deal going to go forward? Do you still see that as in China’s interests and obviously, we have to see whether it is still in the US interest. Would you think that is now also in peril?
Ambassador Cui: We signed the phase one trade deal in January. As far as I know, the two economic teams have been in contact with each other at various levels. And we are making good progress. For instance, what China committed to do in the first four months for the implementation of this trade agreement. We agreed to do 50 items. We have done all of them in the last four months. And we are still purchasing American products, including agricultural products. The pandemic is hindering the normal trade flows. This is also the reality. But we are doing our best to overcome the current difficulties to keep the trade flow, and to implement this trade agreement as effectively as possible.
Andrea Mitchell: And I want to ask you about military tensions. The US says, China is being aggressive by claiming areas in the South China Sea that are international waters, or do you see the US and China moving more closely to some kind of a military confrontation?
Ambassador Cui: There’s a long history behind the situation in the South China Sea. Before the 1970s or 1960s, actually there was no territorial dispute in the region. And some of the claimant countries put forward that claim starting from the 1960s or 1970s. We have our historical claim and we have strong historical and legal support for our claims, but still we are ready to negotiate with other countries concerned for a peaceful solution to the disputes.
That’s why we are working with the ASEAN countries over the years. I myself worked for quite a few years with the ASEAN countries on drawing up the Declaration of Conduct for the parties concerned. Now we are working on the code of conduct between China and ASEAN countries, and we are making good progress. We always believe that any territorial disputes shall be resolved through negotiations by the parties directly concerned. And we certainly aim to have a diplomatic solution, a negotiated solution. This is our commitment. It’s not changing.
In the meantime, we should really work together to maintain stability of the region, and all of these sea lanes are extremely important for the Chinese economy. A large portion of our imports and exports have to go through these sea lanes. So we really have high stakes in the safety and security of navigation. So if these things are left to the countries concerned to work out, the situation would be much better. The problem is the intensifying US military activities in the region. The US is sending more and more warships, military airplanes more frequently to the region. This is really raising the risks of any conflicts or confrontation.