False Narratives and Conflict

Feb 2, 2023

The false narrative is central to my saga of escalating conflict between the United States and China. My new book, Accidental Conflict: America, China, and the Clash of False Narratives, argues that both nations are prone to project into the future unrealistic threats they fear that each pose to the other.

In thinking about the confluence of dueling false narratives on both sides of the relationship, I liken that to the image of the high-octane fuel of conflict escalation — suggesting it wouldn’t take much of a spark to ignite this highly flammable mixture. With plenty of sparks in the air — i.e., Taiwan, the South China Sea, China’s unlimited partnership with a war-prone Russia — the possibility of a catastrophic accident between two superpowers should hardly be taken lightly.

Yet as I talk about the book to audiences around the world — I am currently midway through a three-month book tour, with about twenty presentations behind me and an equal number to go over the next several weeks — I have been struck by a general lack of alarm. Many are quick to reject the very notion of the false narrative, arguing that I am being too cavalier in dismissing hard facts that are far from false.

America’s presumption of the Huawei threat is a case in point. As China’s leading technology company, Huawei has, in fact, been involved in several cases of industrial espionage in the past.  Yet this checkered past — not unlike that of other tech companies, including our own — is really beside the point. As I argue in Accidental Conflict, unlike the Big Lie of the stolen 2020 presidential election, all serious false narratives are fact-based.  The problem arises in projecting those facts into a conjectural threat.

In my discussion of narratives in the book, I stressed, “academic psychologists define ‘narrative identity’ as an imagining of the future based on an autobiographical reconstruction of the past.” Yes, in 2013 a Huawei employee stole a robotic cell-phone testing arm (fondly dubbed Tappy) from T-Mobile. But what does that have to do with imagining a backdoor capability that portrays Huawei as a major threat to US national security?

America’s false narratives on Huawei arise from converting uncomfortable facts into the broader issues of intent that cast the Chinese technology company in the role of an instrument of mass destruction. The same distorted logic stems from concerns over the company’s murky ownership structure, and the long ago Chinese military service of its founder, Ren Zhengfei.  While these facts are not in dispute, notwithstanding some important caveats to each of these impressions that I discuss in the book, I argue that the problem arises from politically expedient motives that convert fact into fiction.

I make a similar argument in focusing on the Washington view that has long fixated on China as the major source of America’s record trade deficit, an imbalance that I attribute to more of a shortfall of domestic saving than to allegations of unfair Chinese trading practices.  The same point can be made about Washington’s latest fear du jour, TikTok — a political case for intent that is unconnected to fact.  China, with its State-sponsored censorship regime, is equally guilty of embracing false narratives.  It blames its failed economic rebalancing on America’s China-containment strategy; the facts of this attempted containment are not in dispute — Obama’s original TPP proposal that excluded China, Trump’s tariffs, Biden’s export sanctions on Chinese access to advanced semiconductors.  The false narrative arises in connecting them to a failed rebalancing that China has no one to blame other than itself.

The political agenda of surprisingly vulnerable nations drives a wedge between a fact-based assessment of the past and alleged threats projected into the future.  That is true of both the United States and China and the confluence of their dueling false narratives that has led to an increasingly ominous conflict between them.

You can follow me on Twitter @SRoach_econ

Sign up for Stephen’s Dispatches: