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Noble and Ignoble Lies in the Era of Post-Truth

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On January 20, 2017, with the inauguration of Donald Trump as 45th President of the US, the era of fact-free information (or misinformation, or fake news, as the case may be), the era of the tweet as policy determinant, the era of Post-Truth will have officially been inaugurated.

For quite a while now, there is around journalistic and even scholarly circles an ominous tendency to ignore facts (empirically, or rationally and logically arrived at) and simply manufacture and propagate outright lies with little if any challenge by the media.

After all, if we are to construe lying in a subjectivistic Machiavellian mode, truth telling and lying is ultimately in the eye of the beholder and the intentions of the liar. The rationalization seems to be this: if the ends are noble and worthy, then a lie said for that end and specifically for the love of one’s country is amply justified. In more modern terms such an ethical approach toward lying for political reasons can also be construed as utilitarian, that is to say, the results are what count, never mind moral codes, the Kantian categorical imperative, intentions and means.

In fact, such an approaches would be rejected as specious by deontological ethics. Kant insisted that categorical imperatives, such as that of never to lie under any circumstances, are universal and are one’s duty to be considered such at all times. But even within that universalistic approach there are disagreements. Some neo-Kantian philosophers distinguish between prima faciae duties in conflict with each other and suggest that we need to establish and observe priorities when such is the case. They point out that the guidance of ethics is needed exactly when duties and values are in conflict. For example, if one is hiding a Jewish family in one’s attic and the Gestapo knocks at the door to inquire, one may weight the value of duty toward life in general against the value of being truthful at all times and favor the former over the latter. The Gestapo has no right to invade one’s privacy and ask questions to begin with. So even as a deontologist one has a loophole available when it comes to lying. Kant would of course counter that to begin down the slippery slope of lying, even that of telling white lies to avoid inconveniences to oneself, something most people engage in, is to contribute to the undermining of the general trust and the very foundations of a civilization or a community.

Be that as it may, to come down to the current concrete examples of American politics, I suppose the crux of the problem lies in the now accepted political demonizing of one’s adversary introduced by the Tea Party and its final product, Donald Trump, some two years ago to be soon inaugurated as official policy. In other words, when the lie is told by oneself or one’s party, it is a noble lie, when it is told by one’s opponent then it is slander or pernicious propaganda. If I go around slandering the legitimacy of a sitting president for a whole five years (the so called birther movement), that’s ok; but it is not ok when representative questions the legitimacy of the same propagandist, now president, due to reprehensible Russian interference. What is good for the goose is not good for the gander.

Hence the past sad spectacle of congressman Wilson from South Carolina yelling “you lie” to President Obama as he delivered a state of the union speech before Congress. It would never have occurred to him to do like-wise to a Republican president; in his mind, a Republican president would ipso facto be a real bona fide patriotic American and he would only be capable of noble lies concocted via tweet for the common good. One may now begin to wonder what ever happened to the old myth about George Washington, that he never told a lie. But wait a minute, isn’t that myth too a falsehood or a lie? It appears that we have a real conundrum on our hands, which, if truth be told, goes back to Plato’s Republic, the first philosophical tract to talk about noble lies.

In fact, in The Republic 414 b-415 d, Plato talks about the noble lie, a phony reality given to the people for their own good. Some have interpreted this function as the very role of Socrates, to corrupt the youth of Athens with a noble lie, thus explaining why he was put to death. So, lo and behold, we find out that Plato precedes Machiavelli in dealing with this conundrum by some 2000 years and a case can be made that Machiavelli is closer to Kant when he unmasks the myth of the noble lie and ideals on paper which are then disregarded in practice, and proceeds to tell things political exoterically and realistically, just as they are, as they have always been; that is to say, from time immemorial might is right and the end justifies the means.

Many have in fact criticized the dissemination of information from ruling body to constituency as mere propaganda, assertions aimed at convincing the target audience of a specific agenda. The prevailing logic seems to be this: governments should keep their citizens ignorant of sensitive data that could potentially distract them from what is paramount: promoting the stability of the state. Only those in the know, deserve to know; hence classified information. The public, primarily concerned with following its immediate interests, is ill equipped to dictate the fate of a nation; that is reserved to philosopher kings. Of course the emperor may be going around naked but the public has to admire his sartorial splendor. A representative such as John Lewis who calls him “illegitimate” imitating the boy who has the courage to say that he goes around naked, is branded as a racist unpatriotic American, that is to say somebody subverting the theory of White Supremacy.

Curiously enough, Platonic thought follows this line of elitist argumentation, claiming common laborers and ordinary people do not possess the training, nor the constitution required to properly rule, nor would they ever. Administering the government is simply not within their nature. What sort of individual would then be qualified to fulfill the role of legislator? Plato is not comfortable to leave such a decision up to chance or even up to a democratic selection; rulers are not found, they are cultivated. Dividing the population into three distinct groups: producers, auxiliaries, and guardian-rulers, Plato outlines the steps necessary to establish the best city imaginable. Most importantly, the founders of this perfect city must convince the inhabitants that they should not strive for more than they are capable, a daunting task given the covetous envious nature of humanity.

How could such a Herculean feat be accomplished? Plato believed his doctrine of the Noble Lie held the answer, persuading the people of a falsehood, so that a greater good than satisfying their immediate desires could be met. To contemporary society, which espouses the belief that all things are possible for the individual willing to apply themselves, the notion of sanctioning a rigid caste system seems counter-intuitive. They prefer Machiavelli’s transparency. For Plato, on the other hand, for the sake of the common good, individual freedoms must submit to the will of the community. That of course goes against the grain of rugged individualism and self-reliance buttressed by the guns one owns with which to “stand one’s ground” even against what one perceives as a tyrannical state. Enter the Tea Party and its hero Trump, and the rest is history. Vico would describe such a situation as one of decadence, what he dubbed “the barbarism of the intellect.”

There are in Plato identifiable traditional myths, such as the story of Gyges (Republic 359d–360b), the myth of Phaethon (Timaeus 22c7) or that of the Amazons (Laws 804e4). Sometimes he modifies them, to a greater or lesser extent, while other times he combines them. There are also in Plato myths that are his own, such as the myth of Er (Republic 621b8) or the myth of Atlantis (Timaeus 26e4). Many of the myths Plato invented feature characters and motifs taken from traditional mythology The majority of the myths he invents preface or follow a philosophical argument: the Gorgias myth (523a–527a), the myth of the androgyne (Symposium 189d–193d), the Phaedo myth (107c–115a), the myth of Er (Republic 614a–621d), the myth of the winged soul (Phaedrus 246a–249d), the myth of Theuth (Phaedrus 274c–275e), the cosmological myth of the Statesman (268–274e), the Atlantis myth (Timaeus 21e–26d, Critias), the Laws myth (903b–905b).

The question arises in all its urgency: why did Plato who in many instances in his dialogues expressed the desire to replace Homer and his poetry with rational philosophy, as the teacher of Hellas, then resorts to myths or noble lies? The answer seems to be that as a philosopher he did not believe that philosophy should be an esoteric discipline for the few and the chosen, but that he should share his philosophy with others. But since others may sometimes not follow his arguments, Plato is ready and willing to provide whatever it takes—an image, a simile, or a myth—that will help them grasp what the argument failed to tell them. In some way, he becomes a competitor with Homer whom he recognizes as a poet and a teacher. The myth or an image, or analogy becomes a good teaching tool, just as it was for Homer. Myth can indeed embody in its narrative an abstract philosophical doctrine as Vico, the one who truly understood the true nature of the myth, has well taught us in his Scienza Nuova. A whole book in that work is dedicated to Homer and poetic thinking.

In the Phaedo, Plato develops the so-called theory of recollection (72e–78b). The theory is there expounded in rather abstract terms. The eschatological myth of the Phaedo depicts the fate of souls in the other world, but it does not “dramatize” the theory of recollection. The Phaedrus myth of the winged soul, however, does. In it we are told how the soul travels in the heavens before reincarnation, attempts to gaze on true reality, forgets what it saw in the heavens once reincarnated, and then recalls the eternal forms it saw in the heavens when looking at their perceptible embodiments. Among other things, the fantastical narrative of the myth helps the less philosophically inclined grasp the main point of Plato’s theory of recollection, namely that “knowledge is recollection”.

In conclusion to this cursory examination of the Noble Lie it can perhaps be stated that it will yield various truths concerning American politics. Amongst them, how seemingly “noble falsehoods” are used as a means of meeting dubious ends. It also has implications on how one conceives philosophy, as an esoteric or as an exoteric discipline. The choice one makes in that regard will in turn lead to different implications concerning the future of American and, more generally, Western politics; for indeed both the US and the EU, for better or for worse, are in the same boat called Western Civilization. When truth is prostituted, so is civilization. As per Vico, so is the return to barbarism.

N.B. This article, in a slightly modified form, appeared in Ovi magazine on April 23, 2012. It was relevant four years ago, it is even more relevant today.

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

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Roads and Rails for the U.S.

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For those who expect the newly announced $2 trillion Biden infrastructure program to be a goodbye to potholes and hello to smooth-as-glass expressways, a disappointment is in store.  The largest expenditure by far ($400 billion) is on home/community care, impacting the elderly or disabled.  The $115 billion apportioned to roads and bridges is #4 on the list. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) keeps tabs on our infrastructure and their latest report (2020) gave it an overall grade of C-.  Although bridges worsened, this is a modest improvement on the previous report (2017) when the overall grade was D+.  If $115 billion in spending sounds adequate, one has to remember it costs $27 billion annually for upkeep.

Astounding it might be the backlog in spending for roads and bridges runs at $12 billion annually.  Go back 20 years and we have a quarter trillion shortfall.  Add all the other areas of infrastructure and the ASCE comes up with a $5 trillion total.  It is the gap between what we have been spending and what we need to.  Also one has to bear in mind that neglect worsens condition and increases repair costs. 

One notable example of maintenance is the Forth rail bridge in Scotland.  A crisscross of beams forming three superstructures linked together, it was a sensation when opened in 1890 and now is a UN World Heritage Site.  Spanning 1.5 miles, its upkeep requires a regular coat of paint.  And that it gets.  Rumor has it that when the unobtrusive painters reach the end of their task, it is time to start painting again the end where they began — a permanent job to be sure though new paints might have diminished such prospects.

Biden also proposes $80 billion for railways.  Anyone who has travelled or lived in Europe knows the stark contrast between railroads there and in the U.S.  European high-speed rail networks are growing from the established TGV in France to the new Spanish trains.  Run by RENFE, the national railway, Alta Velocidad Española (AVE) trains run at speeds up to 310 km/h (193 mph)  — a speed that amounts to a convenient overnight trip between Los Angeles and Chicago.

The hugely expensive new tracks needed can be considered a long-term investment in our children’s future.  But it will take courage to contest the well-heeled lobbies of the airplane manufacturers, the airlines and big oil.

If Spain can have high-speed rail and if China already has some 24,000 miles of such track, surely the US too can opt for a system that is convenient for its lack of airport hassle and the hour wasted each way in the journey to or from the city center.  Rail travel not only avoids both but is significantly less polluting.  

Particularly bad, airplane pollution high above (26 to 43 thousand feet) results in greater ozone formation in the troposphere.  In fact airplanes are the principal human cause of ozone formation.

Imagine a comfortable train with space to walk around, a dining car serving freshly cooked food, a lounge car and other conveniences, including a bed for overnight travel; all for a significantly less environmental cost.  When we begin to ask why we in the US do not have the public services taken for granted in other developed countries, perhaps then the politicians might take note.

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Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas

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Image source: U.S. Embassy in Uzbekistan

The FBI notably has an extended international presence running 63 offices in select countries overseas. The offices are called “legats” and are situated at the US Embassy in the host country. One of the major reasons for FBI’s international presence is fighting international terrorism.

The FBI legat personnel at the US embassies are fully accredited diplomats enjoying full diplomatic immunity but that poses several questions that are worth asking, such as: how is it possible for law enforcement to be diplomats and is that a good idea, legally speaking?

Police work should not enjoy diplomatic immunity because that opens the door to abuse. Does the FBI’s immunity overseas mean that the FBI attaches can do no wrong in the host country? How do we tackle potential rights infringements and instances of abuse of power by the FBI towards locals in the host country? The DOJ Inspector General and the State Department Inspector General would not accept complaints by foreigners directed at the FBI, so what recourse then could a local citizen have vis-a-vis the FBI legat if local courts are not an option and the Inspector Generals would not look into those cases?

This presents a real legal lacuna and a glitch in US diplomatic immunity that should not exist and should be addressed by Congress and the new Biden administration.

While FBI offices overseas conduct some far from controversial activities, such as training and educational exchanges with local law enforcement, which generally no one would object to, the real question as usual is about surveillance: who calls the shots and who assumes responsibility for potentially abusive surveillance of locals that may infringe upon their rights. It’s an issue that most people in countries with FBI presence around the world are not aware of. The FBI could be running “counter-terrorism” surveillance on you in your own country instead of the local police. And that’s not nothing.

When we hear “cooperation in the area of counter-terrorism”, as recent decades show, there is a great likelihood that the US government is abusing powers and rights, without batting an eyelash. That exposes local citizens around the world to unlawful surveillance without legal recourse. Most people are not even aware that the FBI holds local offices. Why would the FBI be operating instead of the local law enforcement on another country’s territory? That’s not a good look on the whole for the US government.

The legal lacuna is by design. This brings us to the nuts and bolts of the FBI legats’ diplomatic immunity.

Diplomatic immunity is governed by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, under Chapter III on privileges and immunities. The US is also a state party to the Convention, along with most states around the world. While there could be some variations and disagreements on bilateral basis (including on weather for example one state could be hosted and represented through the embassy of another state in a third state), on the whole there is a universal consensus that the Vienna Convention sets the rules establishing diplomatic immunities and privileges.

Under the Vienna Convention, only top diplomats are given the highest degree of immunity from the law. This means they cannot be handcuffed, arrested, detained, or prosecuted by law enforcement officials of the country in which they’re stationed. Diplomatic immunities and privileges also include things like diplomatic “bags” (with very peculiar cases of what that could entail) and notably, protection and diplomatic immunity for the family of diplomats.

It is a universal consensus that not everyone who works at an Embassy has or should have diplomatic immunity.  Immunity is saved for diplomats whose role has to be protected from the local jurisdiction of the country for a reason. Not all embassy staff should enjoy diplomatic immunity. Granting law enforcement such as the FBI full legal immunity for their actions is bad news.

Only the top officials at an embassy are diplomats with an actual full immunity — and that’s for a reason.

It makes sense why a diplomat negotiating an agreement should not be subjected to local courts’ jurisdiction. But the same doesn’t go for a law enforcement official who acts as a law enforcement official by, for example, requesting unlawful surveillance on a local citizen, in his law enforcement capacity, while thinking of himself as a diplomat and being recognized as such by the law.

Law enforcement personnel are not diplomats. Dealing with extraterritorial jurisdiction cases or international cases is not the same thing as the need for diplomatic immunity. If that was the case, everyone at the export division at the Department if Commerce would have diplomatic immunity for protection from foreign courts, just in case. Some inherent risk in dealing with international cases does not merit diplomatic immunity – otherwise, this would lead to absurdities such as any government official of any country being granted diplomatic immunity for anything internationally related.

The bar for diplomatic immunity is very high and that’s by design based on an international consensus resting upon international law. Simply dealing with international cases does not make a policeman at a foreign embassy a diplomat. If that was the case every policeman investigating an international case would have to become a diplomat, just in case, for protection from the jurisdiction of the involved country in order to avoid legal push-back. That’s clearly unnecessary and legally illogical. Being a staff member at an embassy in a foreign country does not in and of itself necessitate diplomatic immunity, as many embassy staff do not enjoy diplomatic protection. It is neither legally justified nor necessary for the FBI abroad to enjoy diplomatic immunity; this could only open up the function to potential abuse. The FBI’s arbitrary surveillance on locals can have a very real potential for violating the rights of local people.  This is a difference in comparison to actual diplomats. Diplomats do not investigate or run surveillance on locals; they can’t threaten or abuse the rights of local citizens directly, the way that law enforcement can. Lack of legal recourse is a really bad look for the Biden administration and for the US government.

The rationale for diplomatic immunity is that it should not be permitted to arrest top diplomats, who by definition have to be good at representing their own country’s interests in relation to the host state, for being too good at their job once the host state is unhappy with a push back, for example. The Ambassador should not be exposed to or threatened by the risk of an arrest and trial for being in contradiction with the interests of the host state under some local law on treason, for example, because Ambassadors could be running against the interests of the host state, by definition. And that’s contained within the rules of diplomatic relations. It’s contained in the nature of diplomatic work that such contradictions may arise, as each side represents their own country’s interests. Diplomats should not be punished for doing their job. The same doesn’t apply to the FBI legats. Issuing surveillance on local citizens is not the same as representing the US in negotiations. The FBI legats’ functions don’t merit diplomatic immunity and their actions have to be open to challenge in the host country’s jurisdiction.

The FBI immunity legal lacunae is in some ways reminiscent of similar historic parallels, such as the George W. Bush executive order  that US military contractors in Iraq would enjoy full legal immunity from Iraqi courts’ jurisdiction, when they shouldn’t have. At the time, Iraq was a war-torn country without a functioning government, legal system or police forces. But the same principle of unreasonable legal immunity that runs counter international laws is seen even today, across European Union countries hosting legally immune FBI attaches.

Congress and the Biden administration should end FBI immunity overseas. It can be argued that for any local rights infringements, it is the local law enforcement cooperating with the US Embassy that should be held accountable – but that would ignore that the actual request for unlawful surveillance on locals could be coming from the FBI at the Embassy. The crime has to be tackled at the source of request. 

When I reached out to the US Embassy in Bulgaria they did not respond to a request to clarify the justification for the FBI diplomatic immunity in EU countries.

To prevent abuse, Congress and the Biden Administration should remove the diplomatic immunity of the FBI serving overseas.

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Competition and cooperation between China and the United States and the eighth priority

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In mid-March U.S. President Biden held his first press conference since taking office. Speaking about Sino-U.S. relations, Biden said: “I will prevent China from surpassing the United States of America during my term of office”. At the same time, he also stressed that he would not seek to confront China, but to keep up fierce competition between the two countries.

Focusing on competition between major powers is one of the important changes in U.S. foreign policy in recent years. As the strengths of China and the United States draw closer together, the United States increasingly feels that its own ‘hegemony’ is threatened. During Trump’s tenure, the United States has caused a trade war, a technology war, and even a complete disagreement with China in an attempt to curb China’s development momentum and erode Chinese positions.

The expansion of the competitive field and the escalation of the competitive situation have become the hallmarks of Sino-U.S. relations during this period. Although Biden’s policy line has made substantial changes to ‘Trumpism’, it still has much of its predecessor’s legacy with regard to its policy towards China.

The first foreign policy speech made by U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken listed China Challenge as the eighth priority, preceded by:

1) ending the COVID-19 pandemic;

2) overcoming the economic crisis, reviving the economy at home and abroad, as well as and building a more stable and inclusive global economy;

3) renewing democracy;

4) reforming immigration and creating a humane and effective immigration system;

5) rebuilding alliances, revitalising U.S. ties with allies and partners with the system that the military calls force multiplier;

6) tackling climate change and leading a green energy revolution;

7) securing U.S. leadership in technology; and

8) confronting China and managing the greatest geopolitical test of the 21st century, i.e. relations with China, which is the only country with economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to seriously challenge the international system and equilibria.

The eighth medium-term guideline for the national security strategy sees China as an important competitor. These guidelines clearly show that competition still sets the tone in the way President Biden’s Administration’s manages relations with China, as was the case in the previous four-year period.

At a press conference on March 26, 2021, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said the above statements were not surprising. It is clear that China and the United States are competing on different interest levels.

The key factor, however, is to compete fairly and justly and to improve oneself. The appeal to the other side is moderation and restraint, not life or death, or a zero-sum game. These words are along the same lines as Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s statement when he spoke about Sino-U.S. relations at a session of the National Congress of People’s Representatives of the People’s Republic of China (the Chinese Parliament). It is not only a response to the U.S. strategy of competition with China, but it also provides a model for the future way in which superpowers should proceed together.

The reality of Sino-U.S. competition is unavoidable, but competition can be divided into benign and vicious. The former is a winning model for “improving oneself and understanding the needs of the other side”.

Since Deng Xiaping’s reforms and opening up to international trade, China has begun its own reconstruction. It has continuously widened the scope for benign competition and has changed its mindset by actively embracing the world’s different political parties and participating in international competition. It has also inspired enthusiasm for innovation and creativity and made progress in various fields.

At the same time, development has also provided ample opportunities for countries around the world and injected growth momentum into the global economy: this is a typical example of China’s good interaction and common development with all countries around the globe.

Conversely, fierce competition means breaking rules and systems and even breaking the demarcation line to prevent or contain the opponent, and this is usually followed by fierce conflicts.

The two World Wars of the last century were extreme examples of violent competition between great powers: the first as a clash between capitalist imperialisms in search of new markets; the second as a result of mistakes made in the peace treaties that ended the Great War, plundering the losers and causing misery, resentment and chauvinistic desires.

In today’s world, competition without respect for the other side has not disappeared from the scene of history. Trump Administration’s frantic anti-China activity over the last four years has not only failed to make the United States ‘great again’, but has caused a linear decline in its national competitiveness, at least according to the World Competitiveness Yearbook 2020 published by the Lausanne-based International Institute for Management Development, which sees the United States dropping from third to tenth place. Besides the fact that its international image has seriously plummeted and Sino-U.S. relations have hit the lowest ebb since the establishment of diplomatic relations. It can clearly be seen that fierce competition will only restrain its promoters and ultimately harm the others, themselves and the international community.

In December 2020 General Mark Alexander Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a body that brings together the Chiefs of Staff of each branch of the U.S. military and the Head of the National Guard Bureau), said in an interview that ‘great powers must compete. This is the essence of the world’.

There is no problem with this statement: it is not wrong, but it is important to maintain a state of competition and contact between major powers, precisely to ensure that it does not turn into conflicts or wars that are fatal to mankind and the planet as a whole.

The gist of the speech shows that some U.S. elites also believe that China and the United States should adhere to the principle of ‘fighting without breaking each other’. The importance and the overall and strategic nature of Sino-U.S. relations determine that no one can afford the zero-sum game, which is a lose-lose as opposed to a win-win game – hence we need to ensure that competition between the two countries stays on the right track.

Competition between China and the United States can only be fair and based on rules and laws. This is the basic rule of international relations, in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations as its point of reference.

Regardless of the common interests of China, the United States or peoples in the world, both countries should make this system promote healthy and fair competition, thus turning it into the greatest value of sharing and cooperation.

China’s goal has never been to surpass the United States, but to advance steadily and become better and no longer a prey to imperialism and colonialism as it has been the case since the 19th century, when Great Britain waged the two Opium Wars (1839-1842 – 1856-1860) to have not only the opportunity, but also the right to export drugs to the Middle Empire – hence Great Britain was the first pusher empowered and authorized by the force of its weapons.

Although – by its own good fortune -the United States has never been England, it should not always be thinking of surpassing the others or fearing being overtaken by the others, but should particularly focus on Secretary of State Blinken’s first seven priorities and raise its expectations.

China should show its traditional political wisdom and manage Sino-U.S. relations in accordance with the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, so that Sino-U.S. relations can develop in a healthy and stable way for the good of the whole planet.

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