U.S. President Donald Trump chats with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony in Beijing. Nov. 9, 2017. (Andy Wong/AP)

Chen Guangcheng, an activist who has been blind since childhood, was detained in 2005 for exposing forced sterilization of women to meet China’s one-child policy. In 2012, he escaped from house arrest and was subsequently granted asylum in the United States. His book, The Barefoot Lawyer: A Blind Man’s Fight for Justice and Freedom in China, was published in 2015. 

As U.S. representatives visit China this week to talk about trade negotiations, President Donald Trump and his administration have an opportunity to take advantage of a pivotal moment. Trump should pressure the Chinese regime to make real, substantive change regarding the rule of law and human rights, both to form the basis of a fair and stable trade relationship going forward and to reassert America’s embrace of universal values.

In 2001, the United States granted China a legal status called permanent normal trade relations. This officially uncoupled human rights from trade relations after years of effort in that direction. The purported motive was that with more access to American goods and culture and with a developing economy, the emerging Chinese middle class would demand more political freedoms, leading to a democratic transformation of the authoritarian regime.

The years since have laid bare the reality of this misguided policy. The Chinese regime has continued its oppression, often in new and more technologically advanced ways, while the United States lost an important tool — the annual debate about renewing China’s trade status — in promoting human rights.

Ironically, while the United States chose to overlook the important role universal values play in the interaction between the two countries, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is laser-focused on the relationship between the economy and human rights. Each time a democratic country criticizes China’s atrocious human rights record, the regime swats back with a punishing club from its party-state economy, a technique that has proven consistently effective in forcing Western democracies to mute their talk of human rights. When the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters awarded the Nobel Prize to Liu Xiaobo in 2010, for example, China broke off diplomatic relations with Norway for six years and blocked imports of Norwegian products like salmon.

Unfortunately, an authoritarian regime flush with cash seems like a siren song to businesses and institutions from the United States and elsewhere. Many are so intent on not upsetting the moody CCP, in hopes of access to China or Chinese capital, that self-censorship has become common in diverse realms of American society today, including Hollywood, the media, tech, hospitality, academia, politics and more. This steady erosion of values strikes at the heart of democracy.

Taking human rights out of the bilateral trade relationship has not only stripped the United States of its moral high ground and shown the CCP what is really most important to U.S. leaders — it has also left U.S. companies and institutions vulnerable. Many of the structural weaknesses in the Chinese system have a direct impact on American business interests but because the system is so opaque, the risks are often not easily visible from the outside. Western news outlets, for example, have revealed that some Chinese provinces have been fabricating economic data for years.

Of course, the Chinese people have long been aware of the regime’s penchant for falsehood. In my hometown of Linyi, in Shandong province, people used to scoff each year when officials posted the “annual average income” on the public notice board. The numbers simply had no basis in reality and, as everyone knew, were based on a preordained number from the central government. There’s even a well-known rhyme that reflects the widespread practice of fudging the numbers: “The village fools the town, the town cheats the county, everyone’s cheating all the way up to the ministry of foreign affairs.” In other words, the rot is systemic, a top-to-bottom affair.

Party-state numbers or reports are especially unreliable when it comes to China’s vast countryside, an area that remains somewhat impenetrable to foreigners. Villages are emptying out, with children left alone with aging grandparents. Anyone who is remotely able-bodied leaves to seek work in factories or cities far away, coming home only for a few days during the Chinese New Year. But these rural migrants in cities have no protections or benefits because of residency requirements, and they are regularly harassed.

City residents who are employed at state-owned companies often find themselves waiting for work (the state doesn’t want to have unemployed people on its rosters, so workers are left in limbo) or having to pay for the right to retirement benefits (having been laid off or left waiting) that then never materialize. The state-owned companies themselves are heavily financed with debt from state-owned banks in a circular network of corruption. These are all common phenomena in China, yet are not easily visible to those voyaging in from abroad.

Meanwhile, at the top, wealthy Chinese elites — including CCP insiders — secure their riches and families abroad in stable Western democracies like the United States, Canada and Australia. They know for sure that if the Chinese system crumbles, there will be no safeguards for their most vital assets at home. These measures alone — and the CCP’s rush to stem the flow of cash overseas — should be the canary in the coal mine for anyone wondering about the Chinese economy. Even those who have benefited most from it have little faith in its near or long-term viability.

Speaking openly about these widespread irregularities will get you nowhere (and might land you in jail or worse), and most opposition voices online are censored immediately, making it appear from the outside that few take issue with the way the state operates. When it comes to the United States though, an opaque dictatorship based on cronyism and corruption that blatantly ignores the rule of law simply cannot be relied on to protect U.S. assets and interests or to produce the accurate economic data that companies need to make reasoned investment decisions.

Xi’s calculated response to the trade threat from the United States reveals an underlying truth: For Western democratic nations, the Chinese market is about money, but for the Communist regime, the Western market is about survival. The United States should use the threat of a trade war to push China to adopt political change and institute a strong rule of law system based on human rights.

All matters, including trade, should begin from a basis in the founding values of America — freedom, democracy and human rights. Universal values should be upheld as we bravely say no to the repressive regimes of the world. That is what will make America great again.

This was produced by The WorldPost, a partnership of the Berggruen Institute and The Washington Post.


Chen Guangcheng and his wife, Yuan Weijing, hold their son in Shandong province, China, in 2005. (Joan Lebold Cohen/AP)