Operant Conditioning as a Means of Inducing Rational Behavior from an Irrational State Actor
18 January 2021

It’s been reported by SCMP that “the US Chamber of Commerce sees every indication that a high-ranking delegation of Chinese officials will visit Washington early in the administration of president-elect Joe Biden."

I’ve been thinking about this. Biden has chosen Katherine Tai as USTR, and really there probably couldn’t be a better choice in terms of technical competence, as she’s a House Ways and Means trade lawyer with a history of litigating WTO disputes vs. China from 2007-2014… never mind the identity politics of her family being from Taiwan.

But should she be so quick to meet them? Let’s slow down here and do what Trump would not do: let’s consider this rationally.

Inherently insecure due to its lack of democratic legitimacy (like all authoritarian regimes) the Chinese regime thirsts for every semblance of legitimacy-by-association it can capture.

Most people don’t recognize this, but the Chinese regime requires diplomatic photo ops for foreign — but more importantly, for domestic — propaganda purposes.

As such, we should consider all engagement in public fora as a kind of “reward” for Xi Jinping. Every time we share a photo op, we're signaling our approval of China’s genocide of Uyghurs, its coverup of the pandemic, its trade cheating and IP theft, etc. to the Chinese people.

This isn’t hyperbole. China’s regime doesn’t garner legitimacy in the same way democratic regimes do. Even when diplomatic encounters are adversarial on the public stage, by virtue of having these encounters take place on the public stage, we’re conveying a signal that there is an “equality of legitimacy” between our two systems. There is not. Ergo, we should resist all efforts for Xi-Biden, et al. summits.

In the study of behavior modification, B. F. Skinner’s model of operant conditioning is considered foundational, and is perhaps the most useful cross-disciplinary concept that we could throw into the China debate.

The model defined by Skinner outlines four methods for changing behavior:

1. Positive reinforcement: a desirable stimulus is introduced to encourage certain behavior.

EXAMPLES: giving attention to attention-seeking tyrants, giving photo ops to those leaders who want to seem like they’re in the “world leaders” club, giving compliments to authoritarians.

2. Positive punishment: an undesirable stimulus is introduced to discourage the behavior.

EXAMPLES: sanctions, tariffs, boycotts, divestments, investigations, etc., but with the Chinese regime — obsessive about planning, stability, growth, perception management, maintaining the illusion of control — perhaps the most effective punishments are imposed with TIME and UNCERTAINTY.

3. Negative reinforcement: an undesirable stimulus is removed to encourage the behavior.

EXAMPLES: lifting tariffs, sanctions, etc… or by removing aforementioned DELAYS or clarifying UNCERTAINTIES.

4. Negative punishment (also called extinction): a desirable stimulus is removed to discourage the behavior.

EXAMPLE: Chinese diplomats and students presently enjoy unreciprocated levels of access to our democracies in terms of visas, and we’re paying for that through massive espionage, S&T theft, etc. To reset relations to a healthy level, we should collectively remove this desirable stimulus by insisting on one-for-one reciprocity (a key feature of the Vienna Convention and diplomatic norms), only rewarding a deviation from that contingent on positive changes in the CCP’s behavior.

In terms of positive punishments or negative reinforcements, we mention time and uncertainty. Options traders will immediately recognize the significance of these elements, which we, as rational actors, can and should thoughtfully use as tools in dealing with this regime.

The Chinese economy is characterized by high-level central planning in the energy, commodities, and construction sectors. Indeed, many observers hold that the Chinese GDP is a “fake GDP” because it is a *production-driven* rather than *demand-driven* GDP. This understanding holds that central planners can take whatever GDP number they think they need to target to give China a strategic economic advantage over the Free World’s economy’s in order to attract return-seeking investments (“dumb money”), and then summarily order the requisite amount of input materials to build the roads/tunnels/bridges necessary to meet that target figure.

This is a simplification, but the larger point is that time and uncertainty are the two elements that we can manipulate to make life easier or harder for the regime.

In 1974, Barry Schrantz (who just passed away) wrote “Waiting, Exchange and Power: The Distribution of Time in Social Systems.” It explored the phenomenon of waiting… essentially, how those with power are those who can keep others waiting.

We, as an Alliance of Democracies, have all the time in the world to keep China’s regime waiting, and we should. President Biden should.

The proper signal to send is that China’s economic heft — a product of economic predations and parasitism, trade abuses and slave labor, machinations and manipulations — no longer allows it to cut to the front of the line. Rational actors first… namely, friendly democracies.

Indeed, this delay in time and added uncertainty is sure to infuriate petulant Beijing, but so be it. Perhaps they’ll modify their behavior. It’s worth a shot. Indeed, we may be surprised how quickly they change when they realize that we’re now signaling to global capital markets that good behavior will be rewarded, bad behavior will be punished, and attention-seeking behavior will be ignored.

And from a strategic perspective, the Biden administration is far better off solidifying its position with allies before so much as talking to the Chinese (and I’m not sure there’s so much to discuss).

If we do calmly pursue this route — resisting the urge to rush into negotiations as the Chamber of Commerce might demand — when we do go tête-à-tête, we can do so with the confidence that we’re part of alliance that has a workable plan and all the tools necessary to chain the dragon pending its inevitable decline.


• SCMP. “US Chamber expects high-level Chinese visit early in Joe Biden’s administration.” https://www.scmp.com/news/world/united-states-canada/article/3117644/us-chamber-expects-high-level-chinese-visit-early

• Schwartz, Barry. Waiting, Exchange and Power: The Distribution of Time in Social Systems. American Journal of Sociology, 79 (January, 1974), 841-871. http://www.barryschwartzonline.com/Waiting.pdf