Long before Donald Trump was elected president, China posed an attractive, alternative model to the U.S. system of government. In less than a generation, Chinese Communist Party leaders transformed their country from a poor, agrarian society into an industrialized, middle-income country. No country ever had achieved such rapid economic growth for such a sustained period of time. This economic miracle accorded China’s Leninist one-party regime legitimacy. The trade-off of fewer political rights for greater economic welfare seemed worth it to many, including those inside China as well as those watching admiringly in other less-developed countries.
While watching China’s rise, champions of the U.S. democratic model and liberalism more generally found comfort in three arguments. First, Chinese Communist leaders produced an average annual growth of nearly 10 percent for four decades by embracing economic liberalization rather than deepening central planning — in other words, they chose to become more like us economically. Second, some U.S. proponents of the benefits of democracy believed that Chinese economic modernization would eventually produce political modernization; China was on the road, however slow and winding, to becoming even more like us. Third, during China’s opening to the West over the past four decades, many Chinese — entrepreneurs, students, professors and even some officials — seemed genuinely to admire the United States. Small wonder that many assumed that we would win the Chinese over as more of them became acquainted with the U.S. model.
All three of these arguments seem much weaker today than just a few years ago.
First, Chinese Communist leader Xi Jinping has slowed the pace of market reforms and pivoted back toward greater support for state-owned enterprises, more state intervention in the economy, more restrictions on foreign investment, and greater party influence in private companies. Economic growth has slowed, but not by much. The Chinese economic system no longer seems to be converging with U.S.-style capitalism. Indeed, it looks increasingly more like a different model altogether, one that is still producing results.
Second, the hope that economic liberalization would generate demand for democratic change has not yet occurred; some now believe it never will. Chinese Communist Party officials champion the advantages of their system — an ability to undertake massive infrastructure projects, the capacity to manage income inequalities and a commitment to harmony in government and society. In contrast, polarized U.S. politics in the Trump era seem to impede any major initiative, be it infrastructure development or addressing income inequality. The claim that democracy produces better social and economic outcomes than autocracies is increasingly easy for Chinese officials to rebut.
On the global stage, Xi sounds more committed to the multilateral world order than President Trump. In words if not always in actions, Xi has affirmed his support for the international rules of the game on trade, climate and security. Trump, meanwhile, has decided to withdraw from several international agreements — including the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Many Chinese also view Trump’s use of tariffs, as well as sanctions against the Chinese telecommunication company Huawei, as international rule-breaking, state interventions to aid U.S. firms. Many leaders around the world agree.
Third, and perhaps most alarming, my impression (and it’s just that, an impression) from encounters with dozens, if not hundreds, of Chinese students and scholars during my stay in China is that we are losing those who once admired us. Intellectuals no longer seek inspiration from U.S. democracy; Trump has dampened that. Human rights activists no longer wait for statements from U.S. officials on Chinese abuses; photographs of migrants in cages near the United States’ Southern border undermine the punch of any State Department statement on Uighur “reeducation” camps. When the U.S. government cancels visas for Chinese scholars, some who are considered within China to be pro-American, we lose the moral high ground in debates about the importance of the free flow of information. Chinese students still want to study in U.S. universities but worry they will face discrimination because of rising U.S. government anxieties about intellectual property theft.
During my month in China, it was still possible to play the “whataboutism” game. In response to claims about the superiority of the Leninist one-party system for producing economic growth, I reminded audiences at my lectures about the horrendous years of economic dislocation in the years of Mao Zedong’s rule under this same regime. When prodded about the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers on the Mexican-U.S. border, I brought up China’s “reeducation” camps in Xinjiang. When asked to defend the U.S. government’s intervention in the market to destroy Huawei, I made the same argument about Chinese government interventions to keep Google, Facebook and Twitter out of their market. In response to complaints about cancellations of U.S. visas for Chinese scholars, I countered with examples of similar treatment of some U.S. academics.
And yet, the United States should not need to play this game with China. As one of the world’s oldest democracies and onetime leader of the free world, we should not have to engage in whataboutism in comparison with any country. To regain the upper hand in the ideological struggle with China, we must renew our democracy at home and reengage in leading the liberal order abroad.