Even then, they should have known better. Trump had, after all, won the Republican primary when everyone thought the thing impossible, and China had already tamed the Internet, which was supposed to be kryptonite to authoritarians. In due course, the triumphalists were humbled: Trump was elected, while China not only failed to further liberalize but went in the other direction.
All this has left elites both humbled by their poor prognostication and deeply wary of China — not just its prospects for democracy but also its industrial espionage and its aspirations toward regional hegemony. And especially, what they suspect is a Chinese drive to export its surveillance regime abroad through tech companies such as Huawei.
Yet these opinions still don’t get voiced as loudly as they might otherwise, for two reasons. The first is that for people who supported free trade, and opposed Trump, it’s nigh-unbearable to say anything that sounds even vaguely like “Trump was right” — and I include myself in their numbers; I am wincing as I write this. So there’s little love to be found for the new China trade deal, even though I agree with economist Tyler Cowen that the past few years probably enhanced America’s credibility as a counterweight to China, without necessarily immediately improving our terms of trade.
But there are a lot of elites who have more pressing reasons to keep any reservations about China silent: 1.4 billion consumers and a global manufacturing supply chain that increasingly starts or ends in China. Hence the pathetic spectacle of a major American sports league expelling fans from basketball games for signaling their support for the Hong Kong protesters — and coming down on a team’s general manager who dared to express the same sentiment.
The National Basketball Association is hardly alone in its craven collaboration with Beijing’s tyranny. Companies are busy scrubbing Taiwan from their maps, while Hollywood allows itself to be used as a de facto export arm of China’s censorship regime. This obeisance occasionally veers from the merely cowardly to the utterly daft: I have personally encountered executives who I am quite sure would never make a sensitive call on a Huawei cellphone (since they’re well aware that the company has intimate ties to the Chinese government, and also, that hidden backdoors have been discovered in some of its equipment) yet merrily suggested it would be just fine for America to build its 5G networks on a Huawei backbone.
Their complicity isn’t admirable, but it is understandable; they are businesspeople, not democracy activists, and that demands a steady attention to the bottom line. They are never going to violate the business imperatives to stay sweet with Beijing unless one of two things happens: their relationship with China disintegrates or the rich-world public pushes back, since those markets still matter more to their bottom lines than even a huge population with very modest average incomes.
But should they push back? I was asked that question recently by someone who had read the critical column I’d written about the NBA’s Chinese adventures. And it’s a fair question. The old consensus was undoubtedly wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the new paranoia is better; perhaps Chinese liberalization is just on pause and more likely to restart if we stay friendly. But even if you’re skeptical, you should also be skeptical of any idea that we can force the Chinese to liberalize by lecturing them about their bad behavior. If anything, I suspect the reverse is true: Getting sermonized by foreigners tends to activate a patriotic reaction that probably makes the Chinese less friendly to our ideas, not more — if they are allowed to hear them at all.
Why, then, should we hammer all the other companies that just want to quietly go along to get along? Not from any illusion that we are furthering democracy in China — but then, China isn’t the only important player. We have another country to worry about, our own. It may not make a whit of difference to the Chinese what we say about democracy, but it makes a great deal of difference to Americans whether we live in the kind of country that believes in fundamental liberties, and says so, loudly — or one that thinks of those values as commodities that can, if the price is right, be bought and sold.