How Hackers Stole Half of Americans’ Private Information – and Why

The wild story of the ‘worst corporate data breach ever,’ the man who got blamed for it, and the sleuths who figured out who actually did it.

1-on-1 with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.

RFK, Jr.’s views on vaccines and penchant for questioning official narratives have kept him on the fringes of American politics for years. His blistering critiques of the Biden Administration on everything from the pandemic to the war in Ukraine have earned him praise from Republicans. Now, he’s running to beat President Biden in the Democratic primaries. In this lengthy sit-down, Peter probes Kennedy’s unrelenting skepticism about a wide range of issues.

One on One with Robert F. Kennedy Jr.,

Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.


Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has made a career out of challenging the status quo. For some of that work, like his time spent cleaning up the Hudson River as an environmental lawyer, he has received widespread praise.

But in recent years, he has taken increasingly unorthodox positions, promoting conspiracy theories without any reliable evidence. He has suggested, for instance, that antidepressants may be to blame for school shootings, that vaccines cause autism, that HIV may not cause AIDS and that Wi-Fi causes “leaky brain” and cancer.

Kennedy also accepts little of the scientific consensus about the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccinations, and he caused widespread consternation when at a Washington, DC, rally in January 2022, he appeared to liken pandemic safety protocols to measures that Nazis put in place when they were in power in Germany. Much condemnation followed that statement — including even from his wife, actor Cheryl Hines — and Kennedy apologized.

Months later, he said that he was simply misunderstood. He said he was making a broader point that surveillance technology today is so advanced that any government can surveil its citizens to an unprecedented degree, telling CNN host Michael Smerconish in April that “… in the future totalitarian systems would be able to surveil us and intrude and control our lives in ways that had never happened in the past.” Of course, the level of surveillance that exists in our world is surely worrying to anyone concerned about privacy.

Now, Kennedy is running against President Joe Biden in the Democratic primaries. A CNN poll released this month had sobering news for Biden; two-thirds of likely Democratic voters say the party should nominate someone other than Biden, and about half of them said that Biden’s age was their biggest concern.

For a candidate such as Kennedy — who at 69 is a full decade younger than Biden and whose campaign has released footage of him doing push-ups on social media — that provides something of an opportunity. Yet in a CNN New Hampshire poll last week, Biden got the support of 78% of likely Democratic primary voters in that early primary state, compared with 9% for Kennedy.

I sat down with Kennedy for a lengthy interview in Manhattan at the end of last month for the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen.”

When he enters a room, Kennedy is a commanding presence, tall and tanned with piercing blue eyes, his bodyguards discreetly in the background.

During our interview, he made several assertions that made it clear he isn’t qualified to be commander in chief. Among them: He disputes that Covid-19 vaccines saved many lives, he has doubts about the official explanation of the cause of the 9/11 attacks, he promises that he could settle the war in Ukraine by simply negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin and he thinks the media works for the pharmaceutical industry.

To boot, he would be only the second president (the first being Donald Trump) who has neither held prior political office nor had any military experience.

RFK Jr. and the media

During the interview, he made sweeping statements about the need for strong skepticism: “People should not trust the government now. It’s untrustworthy.” He also asserted that “the media habitually lies. … I don’t think you can survive in the mainstream media unless you’re willing to become a propagandist.”

For me, that triggered a question about CNN anchor Anderson Cooper, whom Kennedy had falsely and bizarrely accused of being on the payroll of the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.

In his response to me, Kennedy broadened this charge, saying that “technically, the entire news industry is working for the pharmaceutical companies.”

I’ve worked in the news business in some shape or form for almost four decades, and this was definitely news to me. I told Kennedy that I had never seen any evidence for this claim to which he asked, “Are you telling me that you could have this conversation with me on CNN?”

I asked him, “They haven’t booked you?”

He replied, “No, of course not.”

I pointed out that he had, in fact, done an interview on CNN with Smerconish in April. He conceded that was true, adding, “That’s the exception.”

Kennedy’s portrayal of the mainstream media as propagandists in the pocket of pharmaceutical companies is nonsensical. It’s part of his overall impulse to paint a picture of some kind of large-scale conspiracy to silence him when in fact, he has been the subject of significant coverage in a host of media outlets.


Kennedy questions who was behind 9/11, even though few events have been more exhaustively examined. The FBI conducted its largest criminal investigation in history, chasing down more than 500,000 leads and interviewing over 167,000 witnesses. The bipartisan 9/11 commission also produced an authoritative report after two years of hearings. Its conclusions that al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, carried out the 9/11 attacks were based on overwhelming evidence.

Yet Kennedy told me, “I don’t know what happened on 9/11. I mean, I understand what the official explanation is; I understand that there is dissent. I have not looked into it.” He added some “strange things that happened,” such as that one of the buildings in the World Trade Center complex, Building 7, collapsed even though a plane didn’t directly hit it.

The government’s official report of how Building 7 collapsed was that it was hit with debris from the massive north tower of the World Trade Center after one of the hijacked passenger jets had crashed into it, creating a giant fireball. The debris from the north tower landed on Building 7, causing fires, which led to Building 7’s collapse. There’s nothing “strange” about it.

War in Ukraine

Kennedy is positioning himself as an alternative to Biden, in part, because he says he is worried that the president is moving the US closer to nuclear war with the Russians.

Kennedy said the Biden administration shares much of the blame for the current situation in Ukraine, pointing to “the neocons within the State Department and the White House. … They want a conflict with Russia.”

Kennedy added, “Putin did not want to take over the country. He wants us back at the negotiating table. But we won’t help because we don’t want peace.”

In fact, as is widely known, Putin brought the war on himself by unprovoked aggression, miscalculating that he would win a quick victory. Instead, the Ukrainians have resisted for a year and a half with help from the United States and other NATO countries.

Kennedy said he is worried that “we’ve got Putin’s back to the wall. He’s already said that if it’s existential, he’s going to use a nuclear weapon. Once he uses it, we’re going to use all of ours, and that’s it.”

He added that he had a plan to end the war in Ukraine and any chance of a nuclear exchange with Putin, asserting, “If I’m commander in chief, he’s not going to do that because he’s going to know he’s dealing with somebody who’s going to settle this war.”

As for his assertion that Putin really wants to negotiate, it seems like wishful thinking, given the Russian leader’s long record of aggression. For instance: ordering the Russian invasion of Chechnya in 1999; invading Georgia in 2008; invading parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014; and sending considerable Russian air power to Syria in 2015 to prop up the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, not to mention the indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets over the past year and half.


It was Kennedy’s criticisms of the US government’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic that fueled his rise as the leader of an unlikely coalition. His supporters come from across the political spectrum, and their common denominator appears to be a deep mistrust of corporate and government institutions.

Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. delivers a foreign policy speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, U.S., June 20, 2023. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
RFK Jr.’s reign of error: Correcting the record about yet another false claim he just made
During the height of the pandemic in 2021, Kennedy published “The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma, and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health,” a book that has sold more than 1 million copies, according to The New York Times.

The audio version of the book is currently on the Times’ audio nonfiction bestseller list two years after it was first published.

I asked Kennedy if he was surprised by how well the book had done, and he replied, “I was surprised in light of the fact that it was so heavily censored.”

I asked, “If it sold a million copies, how was it censored?”

Kennedy said: “There was no review in any mainstream paper. It was silenced.”

As to his solution to preventing any future pandemics, Kennedy said: “I would begin (by) eliminating the most likely causes of epidemics, which is No. 1, ‘gain of function’ studies all over the world.”

“Gain of function” research takes viruses and manipulates them. By tinkering with them, the result may be a pathogen that’s even more dangerous to humans. But on the plus side, vaccines can also be developed from this research.

In his book about Dr. Anthony Fauci — the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases who played a key role in managing the Covid-19 pandemic in the Trump and Biden administrations — Kennedy asserts that Fauci made “generous investments” in “gain of function” research and, as a result, “may have played a role in triggering the global contagion.”

In 2021, Fauci told Yahoo News it was a “shame” that Kennedy’s book attacked his career and undermined confidence in the American public health system. “It’s very unfortunate because I don’t think he is inherently malicious,” Fauci said. “I just think he’s a very disturbed individual.”

A recent unclassified US intelligence assessment of Covid-19’s origins released in June said that “almost all” of the US intelligence community assesses that the virus that causes Covid-19 “was not genetically engineered.”

The same report also concluded that the virus originated either from a “natural exposure to an infected animal” or a “laboratory-associated” accidental leak. So, in short, there is no definitive answer about the origins of Covid-19.

I asked Kennedy if he believed that Covid-19 vaccines killed more people than they saved. He said, “What I try to deal with is actual science and not speculation. What I would say to you is we cannot make that judgment.”

Yet researchers at Brown and Harvard universities did make that judgment, finding that if Covid-19 vaccines had been available, between January 2021 and April 2022 they could have prevented at least 318,000 American deaths.

And the notion that there is some real debate to be had around whether Covid-19 vaccines saved lives is preposterous. The independent Covid Crisis Group’s authoritative report released this year found that, during the Delta wave of Covid-19 in 2021 and the Omicron wave of 2022, “the vast majority of hospitalized patients were unvaccinated.”

Ready to be commander in chief?
I put it to Kennedy: “You would be the second American president with no political experience or military experience. The first was Donald Trump. So, what prepares you to be commander in chief?”

Kennedy explained that he had been immersed in foreign policy and national security topics for more than five decades by writing about these issues, beginning with an article in The Atlantic on Chile in 1974 and more recently in Politico about the Syrian civil war.

Writing some foreign policy articles seems like a flimsy rationale to be the next commander in chief.

That said, during our interview, Kennedy came across as well-educated with an excellent command of American history and also of issues such as climate change, which is no surprise given his family background, his education at Harvard and his career as an environmental lawyer.

Where he lost me was his skepticism about official explanations of much-investigated events such as 9/11 and his portrayal of the American media as handmaidens of the pharmaceutical industry.

Of course, journalists get things wrong just as any other human beings do, but this doesn’t amount to a giant conspiracy to prop up Big Pharma, which is one of his key themes.

This son of a storied American political dynasty is casting himself as an outsider running against the system, one that he believes he can lead.

The key point that Kennedy wanted to make regarding his qualifications to be president appeared to be this: “I would say at this point in history, not being part of that system is actually probably a virtue.”

The high price of freeing US prisoners from Iran was worth it

Editor’s note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room With Peter Bergen,” also on Apple and Spotify. Bergen is on the advisory council of the James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for American hostages. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.


After the first wave of euphoria in the United States that five wrongly held Americans are coming home from prison in Iran, the predictable, mostly partisan, criticism of the deal that freed them is already beginning.

On Monday, former Vice President Mike Pence, who is running in the 2024 Republican presidential primaries, criticized President Joe Biden for agreeing to unfreeze $6 billion of Iranian funds in exchange for the five American prisoners. Also, as part of the deal, charges against five Iranians convicted of nonviolent crimes in the US were dropped.

Pence’s critique of the Biden administration ignores the fact that the $6 billion of Iranian funds belongs to Iran for its overseas oil sales, and the funds that are being unfrozen will not go to Iran but to Qatar, where the Qatari government will administer them to be used only for humanitarian purposes in Iran, according to Biden administration officials.

Of course, one can argue that this indirectly helps the Iranian government. Yet who it really helps is the Iranian people, who have suffered through decades of incompetent government by the ayatollahs.

The sad fact is that when regimes such as Iran, Russia, Venezuela or Afghanistan imprison Americans on spurious grounds — US citizens whom Washington terms “wrongfully detained” — the officials leading these regimes are not going to wake up one morning and say, “I’m having a good day; let’s just release those Americans we are holding.” Instead, they are going to demand a high price to release them.

Since the highest responsibility of the US commander in chief is the protection of American citizens, Biden was right to approve the Iran deal.

Consider that four of the Americans released on Monday were held in the notorious Evin prison, where torture is common, according to Amnesty International. Three of the men were held for more than five years by the Iranians.

One of the released prisoners, Siamak Namazi, an oil executive who was held for nearly eight years, had “endured prolonged solitary confinement, denial of access to medical care, and physical and psychological torture,” according to his lawyer.

The other released prisoners include Morad Tahbaz, an animal conservationist, and Emad Shargi, a venture capitalist. Two of the released Americans have not been publicly identified.

Of course, making a deal with a regime such as the one in Tehran risks what economists term “moral hazard” since any deal may only incentivize the regime to seize other Americans.

That said, the publicity around these kind of prisoner swaps must surely act as a deterrent for Americans with any plans to travel to countries like Iran.

And in the future, it would seem a sensible policy prescription that travel websites echo the US government’s warnings that any American who has plans to go to countries such as Iran, Russia or Venezuela would be taking a real risk of being wrongfully detained.

The James W. Foley Legacy Foundation, which advocates for Americans who are held hostage and “wrongful detainees,” released a report last week showing that Americans being held hostage overseas are now overwhelmingly being held by countries such as Iran that are seeking some kind of leverage over the United States.

Of the 59 Americans who are known to be held overseas, more than 90% are being held by states, rather than by terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or ISIS, which was more commonly the case several years ago, according to the Foley Foundation report.

Other tough calls

The Biden administration has made other tough calls to get Americans home, for instance, exchanging the basketball player Brittney Griner, who was held in a Russian penal colony on minor drug possession charges, for Viktor Bout, a notorious Russian arms dealer.

Still, Bout claims he has not returned to his former profession of arms dealing since he was held in a US federal prison for 15 years and has been out of the game for so long. Instead, Bout is getting involved in local Russian politics, he told The New York Times in an interview published this month

Another tough call was the deal for Mark Frerichs, an American contractor working in Afghanistan, who was held by the Taliban. Frerichs was released in exchange for a convicted drug dealer Haji Bashir Noorzai, who was in prison in the United States. The release of Noorzai was long sought by the Taliban, which regarded him as a key ally and gave him a hero’s welcome when he returned to Afghanistan.

The Biden administration will doubtless have to make other tough calls when it makes a deal for former US Marine Paul Whelan, whom the Russians have accused of spying and have detained since 2018. Whelan denies the allegations.

A similar case to Whelan’s is that of The Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, whom the Russians detained in March and accused of collecting “information constituting a state secret,” a charge that Gershkovich and the Journal, along with the US government, deny.

No doubt Russian President Vladimir Putin will try to drive a hard bargain for the release of Whelan and Gershkovich.

I believe that getting wrongfully detained Americans home is worth the high price that rogue states such as Iran and Putin’s Russia typically try to exact and applaud the Biden administration for making bringing Americans home a priority, just as the Trump administration did before it.

One of those deals involved the Trump administration in 2019 pressuring the Afghan government to swap three high-level Taliban officials held in Afghanistan for US citizen Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks, who were both professors at the American University of Afghanistan and were held hostage by the Taliban for three years.

Also in 2019, Xiyue Wang, a student at Princeton University serving a 10-year sentence in Iran on spying charges, was freed in exchange for Massoud Soleimani, an Iranian scientist who had been convicted in the US of export violations.

Awards Dinner, Friends of the American University of Afghanistan

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FAUAF 2023 Annual Awards Dinner
Friends of the American University of Afghanistan


Education Has Prevailed- A Continuing Legacy

Tuesday, October 24th, 2023
Reception at 5:30 PM | Dinner at 7:00 PM

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Four Seasons Hotel, Georgetown

2800 Pennsylvania Avenue NW

Washington, DC 20007

For room block information, please call the Four Seasons Hotel in Georgetown at (202)-342-0444.

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The Honorary Degree of Doctor of Humane Letters

Her Excellency Lolwah Rashid Al-Khater

Qatar Minister of State for International Cooperation
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A Special Presentation of the American University of Afghanistan International Public Service Award

Peter Bergen

CNN | National Security Analyst

New America, Global Studies & Fellows | Vice President
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International Stability Operations Association (ISOA)
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Ismail Ghazanfar

Ghazanfar Group | CEO
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The Honorable Lois Frankel

D-FL 21st District
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The Honorable Mike Waltz

R-FL 6th District
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Honorary Dinner Chairs

Former First Lady Laura Bush
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Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton
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FAUAF Board of Directors

Ms. Leslie M. Schweitzer, Founder & Chair

Ms. Michelle Quinn, Vice Chair

Mr. Kevin Haggerty, Treasurer

Dr. Evan S. Dobelle, Secretary

Ms. Elaina Edwards

Ms. Teri Galvez

Dr. Ellen S. Hurwitz

Ms. Suzanne Kianpour

Ms. Michelle Kosinski

Ms. Sarah Peck

Ms. Annie Pforzheimer

Amb. Robin L. Raphel

Amb. Steven S. Steiner

Ms. Karolyn Stuver
AUAF Board of Trustees

Amb. Said Jawad, Chair

Mr. Emal Dusst, First Vice Chair

Dr. Kerry Healey, Second Vice Chair

Mr. Harvey Schochet, Secretary

Mr. William Hammink, Treasurer

Dr. Ian Bickford, President

Dr. John H. Alexander

Mr. Farhad Azima

Mr. Christopher Nixon Cox

Mr. Christian Destremau

Ms. Malia Du Mont

Ms. Christine Drinan

Dr. David Edwards

Dr. Jonathan F. Fanton

Mr. Robert Gangi

Mr. Arsalan Lutfi

Ms. Leslie M. Schweitzer

Mr. David Sedney

Dr. Ayesha Sherzai

Ms. Hanaa Soltan

Ms. Alexian T. Wines

Mr. Sear Yagana

Ms. Debra L. Zumwalt

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Lessons From the Man Who Got bin Laden

On #InTheRoom Admiral William McRaven. He’s the Navy SEAL who literally wrote the book on special operations, and who says the best way to plan the raid for the world’s most wanted man — or do pretty much anything else — is to start by making your bed.–

On the Trail and Inside the Mind of Osama bin Laden

It’s impossible to understand the events of 9/11 without understanding Osama bin Laden. Who was he? What was he hoping to achieve with the attack? How did the US track him down? And what can we learn from that story now? Three women – a CIA analyst, an FBI investigator, and a scholar who read 6,000 pages of documents recovered from bin Laden’s compound after he was killed – recount how they came to know and understand Osama bin Laden.

China, Critical Minerals, and the National Security Threat in Your iPhone

We can’t do much without batteries and microchips; they power everything from smartphones to electric cars to defense systems. But the US ceded control of the raw materials required to make them – to its chief rival, China. Is it possible to catch up, especially given America’s more stringent labor and environmental standards?

The ‘rising superpower’ myth about China,

Opinion by Peter Bergen and Joel Rayburn
Published 3:45 AM EDT, Thu September 7, 2023

Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and the host of the Audible podcast “In the Room with Peter Bergen” also on Apple and Spotify. Colonel (Ret.) Joel Rayburn is director of the American Center for Levant Studies and a fellow at New America. He was the US Special Envoy for Syria and the senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon on the National Security Council staff during the Trump administration. The opinions expressed in this commentary are their own. View more opinion at CNN.


There isn’t much of anything that the polarized politicians of Washington, DC agree on, but there is a large degree of bipartisan consensus around one big, supposed threat: China. The purportedly rising nation with a plausible plan to replace the US as the dominant superpower.

The Biden administration’s 2022 National Security Strategy describes China as “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to advance that objective.”

Similarly, the Trump administration said in 2020 that the United States was taking action to protect itself and its partners “from an increasingly assertive China.”

In fact, by many measures, China is on the decline.

It’s an error American leaders are prone to making. After 9/11, the US overestimated the threat posed by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and waged a war there based on false assumptions about Saddam’s purported weapons of mass destruction program and ties to al Qaeda.

Some Americans also initially overestimated Russia’s ability to quickly seize and subdue Ukraine a year and a half ago.

As a result of the perceived threat of a rising China, the US and some of its allies are now undertaking a large retooling of virtually every government sector – from militaries to intelligence and security agencies, diplomacy and economic relations, trade regulations, higher education funding, social media oversight and more.

The Biden administration’s record $842 billion budget request for the Pentagon for fiscal year 2024 is “driven by the seriousness of our strategic competition with the People’s Republic of China,” according to US Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin.

But is this vast reorientation designed to counter a threat from China that could fizzle out in the next decade or so? An examination of China’s dire demographic trends, intensifying economic woes and polling suggesting declining international standing certainly suggests so.

A recipe for demographic disaster

The demographic problem is arguably the long-term trend that should most alarm Chinese officials. China’s “one child” policy, one of history’s boldest experiments in social engineering, which was officially inaugurated in 1980 and ended in 2016, now has produced what it was designed to produce: a sharp, inexorable contraction of the country’s population.

China’s fertility rate dropped to a record low of 1.09 last year, according to the country’s Population and Development Research Center, making it the lowest level among countries with a population of more than 100 million.

China’s aging population will present significant problems for Chinese military power. China can now draw from an enormous reservoir of manpower to serve in the large armed forces President Xi Jinping has been building – but that reservoir is shrinking rapidly.

The US Census Bureau estimates China today has about 350 million males aged 15-49, the demographic cohort spanning the bulk of its military. That’s a steep drop from China’s 2012 peak of about 400 million in the same category, and by 2040 that number will drop to just over 299 million.

By contrast, key Chinese rival India already has about 402 million males aged 15-49, and by 2040 that figure will grow to 424 million, according to US Census Bureau figures.

Manpower is not the only important measure of a country’s military potential. The United States, for example, has only about a quarter of the same military-aged male population that China does. (Though that 15-49 year-old bracket, unlike China’s, is predicted to steadily rise in the coming decades.)

But in China’s case, the accelerating contraction of the 15-49 population group is an unprecedented problem – not just in the military sector but in the whole of the Chinese labor force. By 2050, almost 38% of the Chinese population will be over 60, and the country’s elderly population will outnumber its military-aged population by that point, estimates the US Census Bureau.

It’s difficult to see how the Chinese economic model that requires constant growth can sustain itself as its productive population collapses.

An economy in trouble

Then there are China’s myriad of economic problems, many of which are self-inflicted from Xi’s rigid “zero-Covid” policy. (After a rapid spurt of activity following the lifting of Covid-19 lockdowns earlier this year, China’s economy is now flagging.)

Such problems are particularly acute among the young. Unemployment among Chinese 16- to 24-year-olds in urban areas was at a record 21.3% in June. After that, China’s National Bureau of Statistics said it would suspend publishing youth unemployment data in the future.

A large-scale real estate crash also appears to be brewing. Evergrande, one of China’s largest real estate developers, started collapsing in 2021. It is the world’s most indebted developer, according to the Financial Times, with over $340 billion in liabilities. Last week Evergrande’s shares crashed by more than 70%.

These financial failures are important because real estate plays an outsized role in the Chinese economy. In some years, real estate has accounted for a quarter of China’s GDP, yet the most recent available figures from 2018 indicated that about one-fifth of Chinese apartments were vacant, more than 130 million units, according to a study by China’s Southwestern University of Finance and Economics.

Rocky international standing

At the same time, China’s imprisonment of more than a million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, according to the United Nations citing “credible reports,” has resulted in an economic and political cost for Beijing as the US has imposed trade restrictions on Chinese companies that have any alleged connection to these policies. (China has called the accusations of mass imprisonment “completely untrue”).

Meanwhile, China’s expansive “Belt and Road” investment policies worldwide have proven to be a financial drag as billions of dollars’ worth of loans haven’t been repaid to China.

China has worked hard to position itself as an international peacemaker, as when it brokered a rapprochement agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this year.

But on balance, China is losing friends and international standing. Last year, Pew Research Center found “negative views of China remain at or near historic highs in many of the 19 countries” where the organization polled.

What does a weaker China mean?

What does it signify that China’s national power, which today is vast, is almost certain to be weaker in the future? The jury is out on whether Beijing, seeing a closing window of opportunity to achieve its goals by military means, could become more aggressive in the immediate term.

It’s true that declining powers have grown aggressive at times in the past, notably the late 1970s USSR and contemporary Russia. Russia’s Ukraine invasion is a caution to China and everyone else about the danger of overconfidently going to war with a military that lacks recent experience of a major conflict. Aside from brief clashes with Vietnam in 1979 and India in 1962, the last time China fought a major, protracted war was seven decades ago in Korea.

Conversely, it is not hard to envision China in 2035 or 2040 being too overwhelmed by its own socioeconomic crises to project power abroad. After all, the weight of China’s elderly population on the rest of its society, economy and state will be truly crushing just a few years from now.

Other societies in modern history, such as Italy and Japan, have grown as old as China’s population is becoming, but never on such a vast scale and never as a result of an intentional policy of depopulation. China is now offering incentives for having children such as tax deductions for families and strengthening maternity leave, but they seem to have had scant impact so far.

Beijing seems to have no real, workable plan for steering away from the demographic cliff or for managing the end of the Communist Party’s economic growth model. If Xi and his strategists have a feasible plan for nimbly averting China’s demographic doom, they are keeping very quiet about it. What’s more likely is that no such plan does or can exist.

This brings us back to the question of national security strategies for the United States and its allies. Declining or not, China poses clear strategic dangers for the near term. There’s its longtime theft of American intellectual property, its massive cyber breaches of US government institutions, its aggressive efforts to transform the South China Sea from international waters into a Chinese lake, its saber-rattling over Taiwan, its suppression of democracy in Hong Kong and its overall large-scale military buildup.

As a result of some of these trends, the previous Trump administration’s National Security Strategy made the case that China “actively competes” against the United States and is a “revisionist power.” Trump imposed tariffs on a wide range of Chinese goods.

The Biden administration has largely kept the Trump-era tariffs on Chinese goods in place, and last month, it prohibited or restricted a range of American investments in advanced technologies in China, including in AI and quantum computing.

It’s fair to criticize the US and its allies for underestimating the dangers from China for most of the past quarter-century, and it’s right and reasonable to refocus on deterring Chinese aggression in the near term.

But what comes after the near term? It’s a strategic error to underestimate an adversary, but it’s just as great an error to overestimate one.