JULIAN GEWIRTZ is an overachiever, as most 32-year-old Rhodes scholars and Harvard graduates tend to be.
The China director at the White House’s National Security Council has not one but two books coming out next month — a history of 1980’s China and a collection of poetry with a political flavor. Both were completed before he joined the White House in January 2021.
In “Never Turn Back: China and the Forbidden History of the 1980s,” Gewirtz portrays contemporary China as a totalitarian state full of propagandists at the top censoring the country’s history. He cites GEORGE ORWELL’s oft-quoted line: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
But unlike some foreign policy thinkers on the left and the right — including some in the Biden administration — Gewirtz also sees a China that could very well pivot in a more liberal direction. The book does not offer policy prescriptions, but Gewirtz argues such reforms were actively considered in the 1980s before the country ultimately pivoted toward its current regime.
“Revisiting that history should also serve as a reminder that China’s future is uncertain, despite the aura of inevitability and certain the CCP seeks to project,” he writes. “Xi’s China is not China forever… what comes after him is profoundly uncertain as of this writing.”
For China scholars, Gewirtz’s work is notable not just for its research but for what it possibly says about the Biden administration’s China policy.
ALI WYNE , a senior analyst for Global Macro-Geopolitics at the Eurasia Group, told West Wing Playbook that “Julian demonstrates that China’s political evolution to date could have taken alternative paths, and there is no reason to assume that Xi Jinping’s decisions will define its domestic governance in perpetuity.” He added that “we should question both deterministic accounts of China’s past and confident hypotheses about its future.”
Other China experts, however, have laid out darker views. That includes Gerwitz’s fellow NSC China director RUSH DOSHI.
In his recent book “The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order,” Doshi details a decades-long plan by China to disrupt American power and become the leading superpower for the rest of the 21st century. He ends his book with several policy prescriptions to both confront China and reverse what he sees as a wave of American “declinism.”
The contrasting portrayals capture part of the larger debate in Washington on China policy. The bipartisan consensus on engagement and cooperation in the 1990s and 2000s has shifted rapidly — and some argue belatedly — to a bipartisan consensus of confrontation. The politics have changed, too, with politicians often attacking rivals with any connections to China, prompting questions about whether and how the pendulum could swing back.
As we reported previously, many other members of the NSC are also on the more hawkish side of the China debate. After we published that story, one administration official reached out and said, “Julian often holds down the other end of the debate. I wouldn’t say single-handedly, there are others. But I, for one, appreciate that Julian has a nuanced approach.”
Those nuances about China are also found in Gewirtz’s other book, the poetry collection, “Your Face My Flag.” One piece, “To X (Written on This Device You Made),” is a poem written about a Chinese migrant worker who committed suicide in 2014 when he worked at Foxconn when the company was the largest manufacturer of iPhones in the world. The worker, XU LIZHI, was also a poet.
We decided to re-print part of that here. So here it is, West Wing Playbook’s debut poem (read it in full here).
Pick it up.
Black glass our mirror when it’s
off but it is never
off. Press home button
now. Flex. Press.
My fingerprint my hot oils is that
your finger pressing the button into place now on
assembly line in Shenzhen
before it’s wiped clean
I see you I think I
see you load your
poem onto it, into me, into me now Did you, just like that, standing,
fall asleep Did you fall farther than you meant Did you
mean me to be reading this I want
to touch the sky / feel that blueness so light
but I can’t do
any of this / so I’m
world / I was fine
when I came / and fine when I
left In this blue touchlight
fine rain starts