President Trump seems enamored with the idea that China is getting more and more authoritarian. He told an audience Tuesday night that he praised China’s President Xi Jinping by calling him the “king” of China to his face.
“He said, 'But I am not king, I am president.’ I said ‘No, you’re president for life, and therefore you’re king,’ ” Trump recounted from his 2017 trip to Beijing. “He said, huh. He liked that. I get along with him great.”
The way Trump tells the story, he seems envious that the Chinese government changed its constitution in March 2018 to remove term limits for presidents, essentially allowing Xi to stay on as the head of the Chinese government in perpetuity.
But China’s steady slide toward totalitarian rule is the exact opposite of what’s in the interests of the United States and the world, not to mention the Chinese people. The concentration of power by Xi and his cohorts goes hand in hand with the Chinese Communist Party’s rising internal repression and external aggression.
On a journalism fellowship last week in Taiwan — the only Chinese-speaking democracy on earth — our delegation asked Foreign Minister Joseph Wu what would happen if China were to become a democracy instead of a dictatorship.
“If we think about the possibility that China is going to change itself into a democracy, I think it’s a blessing for the rest of the world,” Wu said.
A democratic China would be more focused on its own internal development than on expansionism, Wu argued. For Taiwan — which is on the front lines of China’s economic, political and diplomatic aggression — a democratic China would be less threatening and less intent on convincing Chinese people and the world that Taiwan is a territory they need to recover.
“And for the Taiwanese people’s reaction to China becoming a democracy, we would congratulate the Chinese people that they will be able to enjoy the same degree of freedom and human rights protection as Taiwan,” Wu said. “That’s a good thing for them.”
Wu was answering a question about a hypothetical situation; nobody thinks democracy in China is going to break out any time soon. June will mark the 30th anniversary of the Chinese government’s 1989 massacre of thousands of pro-democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square, and the CCP has kept its foot on the neck of the movement ever since.
But Taiwan’s situation should be a warning to the rest of the world that China’s intention is to undermine and eventually erode democracy and the values it represents, Wu said.
“Taiwan’s democracy is something that we need to treasure, and China’s intention is to destroy Taiwan’s democracy,” he said. “We have to prevail, because we have to show the international community that democracy is a better path for mankind.”
Of course, official U.S. foreign policy is to support Taiwan’s democracy and push for political reform in China. “Taiwan is a democratic success story, a reliable partner and a force for good in the world,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in February.
But Trump’s praise of Xi’s power grab undermines that message. Wu said that it’s in the nature of authoritarian regimes to be externally aggressive and internally repressive, attacking all freedoms, including religion.
“Look at their suppression of the Catholics,” he said. “It is because the churches [are] the best way of organizing the public, and the Chinese government is very fearful of that.”
Deputy Foreign Minister Hsu Szu-chien told our delegation that China’s increasing authoritarianism is not just a problem for China and Taiwan, but for all democracies. Beijing is increasingly exporting its repression to free societies, including by attempting to force Western corporations such as airlines to erase the word “Taiwan” from their websites.
“Changing the name of Taiwan is not only about Taiwan, it’s about bending democracies’ will,” Hsu said. “I think everyone in democracies around the world should wake up to that.”
No one is advocating for regime change policies in China, but the Chinese people’s demands for greater freedoms are not going away, either. As the famous Chinese democracy activist Wei Jingsheng wrote in “The Fifth Modernization,” a 1978 document that cost him 18 years in prison and permanent exile:
“People should have democracy. When they ask for democracy, they are only demanding what is rightfully theirs. Anyone refusing to give it to them is a shameless bandit no better than a capitalist who robs workers of their money earned with their sweat and blood. Do the people have democracy now? No. Do they want to be masters of their own destiny? Definitely yes.”
Trump will never be a champion of democracy. But the least he could do is avoid praising Xi for grabbing power and then bragging about that to a group of donors. He’s working against the interests of both the Chinese people and the United States.