The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Americans must rally against the real threat to our democracy: China

Workers remove part of the “Pillar of Shame” statue by Danish sculptor Jens Galschiot, which paid tribute to the victims of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing, at the University of Hong Kong in Hong Kong on Dec. 23. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

“I don’t like you,” Samuel L. Jackson yells at Bruce Willis in 1995’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” “because you are going to get me killed.” That sort of frustration likely sits near the root of what divides Americans as the year ends: a suspicion that the other side is going to ruin everything. Whatever the root cause, our current venom-based politics will cripple our country if only by diverting our eyes from the one genuinely existential threat: the Chinese Communist Party.

Make an early New Year’s resolution for your country’s sake: Even if you won’t put down your dueling sabers with the other side in our endless cultural and political wars, you will at least try to see that the real danger is China.

Elections in 1968, 1980 and 2004 were driven by unique national security concerns — the Vietnam War, the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan and a generalized feeling of incompetence in matters foreign, and of course 9/11. The elections of 2022 and 2024 might fall into this category if the country’s political and chattering classes reject both the tyranny of their extremes and the obsessions of social media and cable news. The country cannot afford another 15 years of self-absorption. We can’t afford five.

President Biden’s national security posture is anchored in a suspicion of American exceptionalism and is overseen by folks who are still replaying the Vietnam-era dramas in their minds, now merged with climate millennialism. Another big swath of America — the vast financial and technological fortresses of Manhattan and Silicon Valley — is quite certain their rise was the work of genius and not the lucky intersection of smartphones and Internet connectivity. Meanwhile, the Democrats’ intellectual wing, having conquered realms at home that are subject to the rule of law, is mostly oblivious to the regimes that do not care a whit about law, namely China, Russia and Iran.

By far the most dangerous of these is China, as it is led by the most able of the absolutists, President Xi Jinping, and backed by a Communist Party as ruthless as any of its predecessors. The technological, military and economic might of China is greater as 2021 comes to a close than the U.S.S.R. was at the height of its power, even given that collapsed empire’s much larger nuclear arsenal.

The United States and its allies were constantly alert to the threat the Soviets posed. The allies waged a 40-year Cold War against the Soviets across nearly every continent. It took time, sacrifice, and lengthy and deadly standoffs.

In the past 25 years, we largely ignored the rising challenge of China and only now are approaching an appropriate level of alarm. Beijing’s calling cards are there for all to see: a willingness to crush Hong Kong’s quasi-independence, to erase any person for any reason in Orwellian fashion, to conduct genocide against its minority populations, to threaten Taiwan, and to allow a killer virus to escape its country without alarm, evident regret or sincere apology.

To paraphrase John Mitchell, attorney general under President Richard M. Nixon, watch what a country does, not what it says.

Two decades of battles with Islamist extremism might seem to have left the United States too exhausted for a long struggle with China, much less with a China potentially aligned with Russia and Iran. But there isn’t much of a choice here: Rally, or face eclipse. Eclipse will not be pleasant. Not for the near term; and most certainly not for our grandchildren.

Rallying is possible, but it requires indifference to the radical 1 percent at each end of our politics, who are addicted to trashing the other extreme, yet refuse to compromise with their own compatriots. The best of the Trump era’s national security policy was its broad re-funding of the military, the Abraham Accords and its vocal alarms about the Chinese. The best of Year One for Team Biden was the new submarine accord between Australia, Britain and the United States, aimed at keeping Beijing in check.

But it will take much, much more. Rallying requires national security realism and a resolute bipartisan approach to the extraordinary challenge China poses. Our policy of strategic ambiguity toward Taiwan needs clarifying. Our defense budgets must shift to sea, air and space more quickly, and we need to hear from a new generation of writers and public intellectuals equal to those who waged the first Cold War.

Serious men and women need to lead the two great parties. We should hope our political battling never ends — it’s a central mark of our freedom. But it needs perspective. Now.