At that time, the consensus was that differences with China should be managed without risking its cooperation on issues such as Iran or climate change, or personal diplomacy with Chinese leaders. Now, a consensus is emerging that China’s totalitarian system affects American lives and that Beijing should not be allowed to export beyond its borders its intimidation of critics, mass surveillance and corruption. Issues that previous administrations tried to manage separately — the Chinese government’s theft of intellectual property, attempted annexation of the South China Sea and crackdown in Hong Kong — are increasingly seen as raising the same question: Can powerful states do what they want, or must they respect a rule of law rooted in democratic values?
Democrats and Republicans should agree that this question is worth settling in our favor — and by “our” I mean America, U.S. allies and all those in China who want to live in a freer and fairer society.
This doesn’t mean deflecting to China all blame for the coronavirus pandemic. In January and February, when President Trump was obsequiously praising Chinese President Xi Jinping’s handling of the outbreak, his administration knew that the Chinese government was lying to the world. I’d like to know why Trump and his advisers fell for those lies.
That said, as long as Americans accept responsibility for our government’s actions, it’s right to hold China’s rulers accountable for theirs, and to root a new China policy in U.S. interests and values.
Sometimes, that will require directly taking on the Chinese government, whether by imposing sanctions on Chinese officials and companies responsible for gross human rights abuses and nuclear proliferation, stopping American companies from working with China’s surveillance apparatus, or prohibiting U.S. firms from punishing employees who criticize Chinese policies. There is bipartisan support in Congress for all these steps.
Still, the test of an effective China policy is not how tough it sounds but whether it maximizes the United States’ comparative advantages — including the virtues of our democratic system and the quality of our allies — while exposing the poverty of what Beijing has to offer. This shouldn’t be hard given how bad the Chinese government is at winning and keeping friends. Yet it’s not what the United States is doing.
An American government that really wanted to stick it to the Chinese Communist Party would be reinforcing U.S. alliances in Asia, instead of threatening to withdraw troops from South Korea and Japan until they pay extortionate rates for U.S. bases. Imagine Ronald Reagan going to Berlin during the Cold War and saying “Pay up, or we’re leaving” instead of “tear down this wall.” That’s how the United States is treating its allies in Asia today.
Our diplomats would be playing to win at the United Nations, instead of being told to walk away like losers from every international entity China is trying to influence, including the World Health Organization. The United States would be leading the world in making eventual covid-19 vaccines available to all who need them, instead of skipping international pledging conferences and letting China fill the vacuum.
The United States would be building global coalitions to challenge China’s predatory trade practices, instead of simultaneously sanctioning allies, facing China alone and hinting we’ll back down if Beijing buys some of our wheat. Our government would be investing in research and development, fixing infrastructure and refusing to let China outspend us in the race to dominate the clean-energy economy.
An administration that really wanted to win an ideological contest with the Chinese Communist Party would stand up for human rights consistently, rather than calling journalists anywhere “the enemy of the people.” It would embrace the idea of the United States as a shining city on a hill that welcomes people seeking freedom and opportunity. It would say to Beijing: “If you suffocate Hong Kong, we’ll open our doors not just to every Hong Konger you persecute, but to all those who want to take their talent and wealth to America.”
With appropriate safeguards, the United States would continue to embrace ordinary Chinese students and academics, instead of helping Beijing stop the brain drain it fears. U.S. leaders would defend Asian Americans instead of using phrases that stoke racism such as “Chinese virus” and that help the Chinese government rally support.
Above all, the United States would frame this as a fight between competing ideals, not countries. Few would join a battle of the United States against China. But if we make it about democracy vs. kleptocracy, and the rule of law vs. the law of the jungle, the United States would have allies to spare, including among the overwhelming share of Chinese people who believe in those values, too.
This is a fight the United States can win, hopefully without firing a shot. But it is not enough to appeal for help; we have to be appealing. The United States has to be everything that China under dictatorship is not: well governed, intolerant of corruption, respectful of privacy, protective of truth-tellers and willing to help — rather than bully — the world. Americans must be realistic about our adversary but also true to ourselves.