Viktor Belenko died on September 24th. Belenko defected from the former Soviet Union in 1976, and brought with him what then CIA director George H.W. Bush described as an “intelligence bonanza.”
You see, Belenko didn’t just exit the Soviet Union, rather he exited it in the country’s most advanced fighter jet. This was the “bonanza’ referenced by Bush. According to Clay Risen’s obituary for Belenko in the New York Times, the MiG-25 “Foxbat” flown by Belenko to Japan and quickly handed over to the U.S. “was the weapon the West had long feared, believing it was capable of taking down supersonic bombers and reconnaissance jets that had, until then, flown through Soviet airspace with impunity.”
Except that per Risen’s report, “The MiG-25 turned out to be a paper eagle.” Worse for the Soviets, "it couldn’t even do its job.” Billed to be fast, it was actually “no match for the American aircraft it was meant to take down.”
Even better than what Belenko revealed to the U.S. about the low quality of Soviet weaponry was what he told authorities about morale within the Soviet military. Belenko indicated that Soviet airmen “were often half-starved and beaten down, forced into cramped living spaces and subject to sadistic punishment at the tiniest infraction.” Such is life where people aren’t personally or economically free.
Belenko’s story is difficult to separate from all the paranoia expressed by Americans about China and TikTok today. Think about it. A recent conservative editorial expressed fearful wonder about how platforms like TikTok “are shaping American education and political discourse.” The bet here is that the referenced editorial won’t age well.
If China is a communist, totalitarian country in the way that conservatives seemingly imagine it to be, the obvious answer is for Americans not to worry. People who lack personal and economic freedom are miserable, their weaponry is subpar, and their lifestyle has very few takers as an “export.” As Cato Institute co-founder Ed Crane once observed after visiting the Soviet Union in 1981, the wrecked, odiferous country full of deeply unhappy, hunched over people had no economy contrary to what U.S. intelligence services were reporting, and without an economy it lacked the means to fight a war with the richest country on earth.
To which some readers will reply that China is not like the thankfully defunct Soviet Union. No, it’s not. Which is the point. Or should be. Quite unlike the Soviet Union’s half-starved people, the Chinese are increasingly eating, so much so that McDonald’s, arguably the greatest symbol of American-style capitalism in the world today, has plans to increase its store count in China from 5,500 to over 10,000. And it’s not just McDonald’s. While Starbucks had roughly 4,100 China-based stores as of 2021, now it can claim over 6,000. Apple, the world’s most valuable company, and a competitor with McDonald’s as a symbol of the staggering potency of the American capitalistic brand the world over, sells a fifth of its iPhones in China.
So yes, China is not like the Soviet Union in that it’s not communist. We know what communism looks like, what it smells like, and how incredibly bare-shelved and inefficient it is. Yet conservatives want us to believe that the CCP is actively operating TikTok with a view on “shaping American education and political discourse,” seemingly for the much worse? Ok, but shape it into what? If we ignore accepted conservative wisdom that what government controls is loathed (150 million Americans use TikTok…), we can’t ignore that contra what the conservative punditry imagines about a “CCP-controlled TikTok” brainwashing Americans, American businesses continue to expand in China. Yet why would they do this if the CCP, seemingly for being Chinese (?), were so skillful at turning opinion against all things American, and toward communism?
After which, increasingly paranoid conservatives can’t have it both ways. If China is in fact communist and bent on destroying us, then why do its people produce so much for us (thus strengthening us) in order to abundantly consume so much of what we produce for them? Of course, if all that rampant consumption of Americana is just fake (or whatever), and it’s fake because the Chinese are who conservatives say they are, then we needn’t worry. Look up Viktor Belenko if you’re confused.