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China's ambassador to the U.S. warns of 'military conflict' over Taiwan

In his first one-on-one interview since assuming his post in Washington, D.C., last July, Ambassador Qin Gang has an unusually blunt message for the U.S.

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Veteran Chinese diplomat Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the U.S., speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep at Qin's official residence in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
Veteran Chinese diplomat Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the U.S., speaks with NPR's Steve Inskeep at Qin's official residence in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Shuran Huang for NPR

China's ambassador to the United States issued a warning Thursday: The U.S. could face "military conflict" with China over the future status of Taiwan.

In his first one-on-one interview since assuming his post in Washington, D.C., last July, Qin Gang accused Taiwan of "walking down the road toward independence," and added, "If the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in a military conflict."

It was an unusually direct statement about the U.S. and Taiwan. Observers say China usually speaks in more general terms, such as saying that the U.S. is "playing with fire."

Though American eyes may be focused thousands of miles away toward a threatened war in Ukraine, U.S. officials and analysts have voiced increasing concern about Taiwan's ability to defend itself. This week, 39 Chinese military aircraft flew near Taiwan, the latest of several such demonstrations. It's widely believed that the U.S. would defend Taiwan in the event of war, though no formal treaty requires it to do so.

Ambassador Qin spoke of Taiwan at his official residence Thursday, where he welcomed NPR's team to discuss U.S. relations with China and the upcoming Winter Olympics in Beijing. He is a veteran diplomat who previously served as the chief of foreign affairs protocol for China's President Xi Jinping.

Qin arrived in Washington last year at a time of bipartisan disappointment with China. It's widely conceded in Washington that a decades-long policy of engagement with China produced great wealth for many companies but failed to spark democratic reform. Qin told us that any ideas of "changing China" were always "an illusion."

Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the U.S., sits for a portrait at his official residence in Washington, D.C., on Thursday.
Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the U.S., sits for a portrait at his official residence in Washington, D.C., on Thursday. Shuran Huang for NPR

He spoke of the upcoming Olympics with pride: "Beijing is ready." These are the second Olympic Games hosted by Beijing, with athletes and others largely living inside a secure "bubble" to protect against coronavirus infection.

A "diplomatic boycott" of the Games by U.S. officials has added tension, though only a few U.S. allies have followed suit, and U.S. athletes will compete. The U.S. announced the boycott in protest of what it terms the "ongoing genocide" of Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim minority in western China. Qin rejected such accusations as "fabrications, lies and disinformation."

He nonetheless asserted that some Uyghurs were terrorists.

"The destination for them is prisons," he said, while asserting that others had inappropriate thoughts that they were being taught to change in "vocational schools."

NPR correspondents have documented widespread imprisonment of Uyghurs, as well as efforts to turn them away from their language and culture. NPR has also reported a security architecture in the western province of Xinjiang that is even more intense than in other regions of China, with cameras and police stations that are nearly ubiquitous.

The U.S. has become more vocal in defense of Uyghurs as overall relations have soured. If either side hoped for a reset in relations after the departure of President Donald Trump, it hasn't quite happened. President Biden has yet to remove Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods, and U.S. diplomats have traded contentious statements with their Chinese counterparts.

China's Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang called Taiwan
China's Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang called Taiwan "the biggest tinderbox" among irritants in the relationship between his country and the U.S. Shuran Huang for NPR

Of the many irritants in the relationship, the ambassador described Taiwan as "the biggest tinderbox." The region has governed itself separately for generations. Unlike the rest of China, Taiwan was not conquered by Communist forces in the civil war that led to the declaration of the People's Republic of China in 1949. The former government took refuge there and, with U.S. support, eventually developed a democratic system.

Beijing has long sought unification with Taiwan and has not renounced the use of force to meet that goal. The U.S. has said it expects the matter to be settled peacefully.

"People on both sides of the Taiwan Straits are Chinese," Qin said, arguing that his government has no desire for war. However, in a sharp rebuff of any effort by Taiwan's government to formally declare independence, he said, "China will not commit to giving up the un-peaceful means for reunification because this is a deterrent."

Even so, Qin said China's "most important relationship" is with the United States, and he gave a straightforward description of his mission in Washington: "Don't mess it up."


Interview highlights

On whether Americans should be concerned about a Chinese attack on Taiwan:

"The Taiwan issue is the biggest tinderbox between China and the United States. If, you know the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, you know, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely will involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in the military conflict."

On the prospect of military conflict:

"People on both sides of Taiwan Straits are Chinese, so we are compatriots. So the last thing we should do is to fight with compatriots. And we will do our utmost in the greatest sincerity to achieve a peaceful reunification. ... But ... that Taiwanese authority is working down the road towards independence, emboldened by the United States. So China will not commit to giving up the un-peaceful means for reunification because this is a deterrence."

On policies and human rights abuses against mostly Muslim Uyghur populations in western China that prompted the U.S. diplomatic boycott of the Olympics in Beijing:

"The actual condition is that Uyghur people as other ethnic groups of people, they enjoy happy life. They enjoy the rights and the freedom guaranteed by the constitution of China. They are a member of the big family of Chinese nation. This co-called genocide or forced labor — these are big lies of the century. There's no genocide at all."

On whether Chinese President Xi Jinping believes America's global status is in decline:

"Nobody in China bet(s) against the United States. Everybody in China, including the Chinese leadership, believe(s) that the United States is one of the most important countries. And the relationship between China and United States is the most important relationship. We must work well at 'don't mess it up.' "

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

: January 28, 2022, 11:00 PM
In this interview, we incorrectly say the U.S. agrees that Taiwan is part of China. In fact, U.S. policy is to simply acknowledge the Chinese government's assertion that it has sovereignty over Taiwan.

Transcript :

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The Winter Olympics begin one week from today in Beijing. It's a stage for the athletes and a showcase for China.

QIN GANG: Beijing is ready. All the venues, you know, stadiums, facilities, are in perfect condition.

INSKEEP: Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the United States, says his government is ready to stage the spectacle amid the pandemic.

QIN: Two thousand athletes from around 90 countries are arriving. A big, closed loop is well in place to protect, you know, all the stakeholders in the bubble.

INSKEEP: We met at Qin's residence here in Washington, D.C. He took questions in his first one-on-one interview since arriving last summer. Ambassador Qin is in his 50s, a former aide to China's president, who was around for the last Beijing Olympics in 2008.

How is China's place in the world different, if at all, than it was in 2008?

QIN: Well, China is undergoing a great transformation, you know, economically and socially.

INSKEEP: Poverty has dropped, he says. And China's role in the world has grown. This is also a time of tension. President Biden's administration has so far left in place former President Trump's tariffs on Chinese goods. U.S. diplomats are boycotting the games. And since the 2008 games, the U.S. rivalry with China has intensified. I asked about surveys showing global opinions of China changing.

A pew survey of these 17 countries found - there's a headline that I wrote down here, "Large Majorities Say China Does Not Respect The Personal Freedoms Of Its People." And more and more people around the world believe that. Why do you think that opinion has changed?

QIN: Well, it's a one-sided observation. If you ask if people have freedom, human rights, you need to ask the people of the country itself. According to Harvard University Kennedy School, support rate of Chinese people towards the Chinese government...

INSKEEP: This is a survey done by Harvard that you refer to.

QIN: Yeah, Harvard - independently...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

QIN: ...You know - it's 91%.

INSKEEP: If there's such overwhelming support for the government, some people who are concerned about China would ask, why is there a need for such widespread facial recognition software, internet censorship and other means to limit speech and effectively control the people?

QIN: Well, that's a misunderstanding. Actually, Chinese people can have wide access to information on the internet. Social media...

INSKEEP: Oh, enormous amounts of information.

QIN: Yeah. Yeah.

INSKEEP: But if there's a controversial topic, it disappears from the internet.

QIN: Well, I think that we regulate internet.

INSKEEP: In a notable example, the Chinese tennis star on social media accused a high official of sexual assault. The accusation vanished. The ambassador maintains the government does hear complaints through other channels. The U.S. diplomatic boycott of the games is grounded in another issue, what the U.S. calls the ongoing genocide of Uyghur, a mostly Muslim group in western China. We discussed that with Ambassador Qin.

I want to mention that our correspondents have tried to approach this fairly. NPR correspondents have visited western China. We've also interviewed people outside of China. We understand that it's cast as an anti-terrorism policy and that that's a real concern. What we have found, though, is that people are imprisoned, that they also have been pressed to abandon their language, abandon their culture, abandon their religion. Can you explain why the policy needs to have gone so far?

QIN: That's not a true representation of what has been happening.

INSKEEP: Well, it is what our correspondents have observed.

QIN: This is - yeah. This is, you know, fabrications, you know, lies and disinformation. The actual condition is that Uyghur people, as other ethnic groups of people, they enjoy happy life. They enjoy the rights and the freedom guaranteed by the constitution of China. They are a member of the big family of Chinese nation. This so-called genocide or forced labor, these are big lies of the century. There's no genocide at all.

INSKEEP: Let's set aside the word genocide, though, and focus on the things that our correspondents have found - large numbers of people imprisoned, people encouraged to give up their language and culture. You acknowledge those things have happened?

QIN: Well, you have to make a distinction between people breaking the law and some other people, those people violating the law are terrorists. Of course, the destination for them is prisons with barbed wire, with high walls, you know, to keep the society safe.

INSKEEP: The ambassador affirms that other Uyghur accused of no crimes are sent to what are called vocational schools. That's China's term for facilities like one that was visited by NPR. Back in 2019, our own Rob Schmitz got a guided tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROB SCHMITZ: Judging from the outside, it's got an enormous, 15-foot fence around it. When you get inside, there are seven rather large beige buildings. All of the windows have wrought iron bars or fencing around it so that you can't easily get out.

INSKEEP: People inside told Rob they did not know when they would be released. They said they'd been sent to reform their thoughts. Here in Washington, Ambassador Qin described this as an opportunity for Uyghurs to change.

QIN: We give them a chance. We use a measure to correct them. It's a preventive measure.

INSKEEP: A preventive measure?

QIN: Preventive measure because...

INSKEEP: Preventing them from having terrorist thoughts before they have them?

QIN: Before they have them, you know? Those people - not every Uyghur was sent to the school, but when we found some people more or less influenced by extremist ideas. So before they are getting worse, we send them to the school, giving them educations of language, of law and vocational training so that when they finish, they can get a decent job.

INSKEEP: Is part of the goal assimilation?

QIN: The goal of this policy is to make the society stable and safe.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about Taiwan, which is something that your foreign minister this week has brought up with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. If people don't know, I want to remind them. The United States has agreed with China that there is one China, that Taiwan is part of China.

QIN: Yes.

INSKEEP: At the moment, of course, there are two governments. And the United States has argued that Taiwan's future should be determined by the Taiwanese people. Do you agree with that?

QIN: No. I don't agree with that. One China policy is the most important foundation of China-U.S. relations. The government of the People's Republic of China is the sole legal government representing China. But recently, we have seen the escalation of tension in the situation across Taiwan streets. This is because the Taiwanese authority is trying to seek its independence agenda by borrowing the support and the encouragement of the United States. And the United States is playing a Taiwan card...

INSKEEP: Playing the Taiwan card, what does that mean?

QIN: ...To contain China.

INSKEEP: To contain China?

QIN: To contain China. What that mean? The United States has been walking away, bit by bit, from its commitment by increasing its official links, even upgrading them by selling more advanced weaponry to Taiwan, by even sending soldiers landing on Taiwan.

INSKEEP: There is much fear in the United States of an eventual effort by China to resolve this matter militarily, to attack Taiwan. Should Americans be concerned about a Chinese attack on Taiwan?

QIN: Look; let me say this. People on both sides of Taiwan streets are Chinese. So we are compatriots. So the last thing we'll do is to fight with our compatriots. And we will do our utmost, in the greatest sincerity, to achieve a peaceful reunification. But as I said, Taiwanese authority is walking down the road towards independence, emboldened by the United States. So China will not commit to giving up the all-peaceful means for reunification because this is deterrence. Let me emphasize this. The Taiwan issue is the biggest tinderbox between China and the United States. If, you know, the Taiwanese authorities, emboldened by the United States, you know, keep going down the road for independence, it most likely involve China and the United States, the two big countries, in a military conflict.

INSKEEP: We've been listening to Qin Gang, China's ambassador to the United States, who made some news right there when he warned of the danger of military conflict. We called NPR's John Ruwitch, who covers China. And, John, what do you hear there?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Yeah. Qin was very explicit, you know? Chinese officials have for years warned in vague terms that by taking steps that Beijing sees as encouraging Taiwan independence, the U.S. is playing with fire, is going to face consequences, these kinds of things. But he connected the dots and said, basically, if you keep doing this, there will be military conflict.

INSKEEP: The ambassador also says Taiwan is walking down the road toward independence. Is that really true?

RUWITCH: Well, Taiwan's been self-governed for years. I mean, the people on Taiwan increasingly see themselves as separate from China. The current president, Tsai Ing-wen, is from a political party that's historically espoused declaring independence. That's why China is wary of her. But she's been very cautious with her words and has avoided taking steps in that direction.

INSKEEP: One other thing. Is it accurate for the ambassador to say the U.S. is upgrading its ties with Taiwan?

RUWITCH: In short, yes. They are not formal ties. That's what the U.S. will say. Also, this is taking place in the face of what the U.S. and others say are increased threats from China to Taiwan economically, as well as militarily.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch, thanks so much. We want to tell you two more things that we heard in our wide-ranging talk with China's ambassador. We asked Qin Gang about a bipartisan view that has developed in the United States. Many Americans expressed disappointment that U.S. trade over the years did not make China more democratic. The ambassador said in response, the idea of changing China is, quote, "an illusion." We also asked Qin how his president, Xi Jinping, views the United States.

QIN: Nobody in China bet against the United States. Everybody in China, including the Chinese leadership, believe that the United States is one of the most important country. And the relationship between China and United States is the most important relationship. We must work well and don't mess it up.

INSKEEP: Ambassador, it's been a pleasure talking with you. Thank you so much.

QIN: Thank you for having me.

INSKEEP: He gave his first interview yesterday here in Washington.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this interview, we incorrectly say the U.S. agrees that Taiwan is part of China. In fact, U.S. policy is to simply acknowledge the Chinese government's assertion that it has sovereignty over Taiwan.]

(SOUNDBITE OF FABIANO DO NASCIMENTO SONG, "CURUMIM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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