China’s wrong turn, away from freedom and toward repression, has been masked for a time by the country’s remarkable economic progress. Awestruck Western leaders have wondered whether there might be something to the idea of prosperity divorced from human rights. But now, the signs are unmistakable that this long-troubled nation is off track again, from the concentration camps of the Chinese west to shackled Hong Kong in the east. The China Miracle, unleashed by the liberalization of the late 20th century, is losing its momentum because Beijing has lost its confidence.

Yes, confidence. A confident government doesn’t lock up a million or more ethnic Muslims for months, even years, of brainwashing, as China continues to do in Xinjiang. A confident Beijing would no sooner throttle the intellectual vibrancy of Hong Kong than Canada would crack down on Montreal, or the United States would stifle San Jose. Repression is — always and everywhere — the mark of a government afraid of its own people. In the modern world, where human capital is the indispensable resource, repression is, therefore, fatal to development.

Making matters worse is China’s proud self-image as the world’s most patient country. China thinks in decades, in centuries, in millennia, whereas the West flits from month to month and quarter to quarter. But strategic patience is not a virtue in itself. It serves only when the underlying strategy is sound. A strategy of repression is doomed to fail no matter how long or how brutally it is pursued.

For proof, look no further than China’s stunningly oppressive — and demographically destructive — one-child policy. Dogged persistence only made it worse. By the time Beijing adjusted the strategy, incalculable long-term damage was done.

A great power in thrall to a repressive, insecure, stubborn government — this is the backdrop for the most severe geopolitical challenge of the coming decades. China has put itself on track for failure while priding itself for staying the course. How can the United States and its partners shorten the duration and minimize the damage of this highly precarious situation?

Answering that question is not the work of 800-odd words, but of a generation or more. However, certain principles should guide us.

First, the West holds a winning hand in our commitment to individual rights. We can lose only by folding. The fact that we haven’t always lived up to our ideals in no way repudiates the ideals themselves. Diversity of thought, freedom to question and create, equality before the law, and individual human dignity have always tended to foster prosperity and strength — and always will.

Some nations are further along in this journey than others. Where there is no rule of law, there can be no equality before the law. Where there is no education, there can be little intellectual diversity. Where there is extreme want, dignity is a luxury. But no matter where a nation finds itself on the path of development, the next best step is one that points toward human fulfillment. The West prevails by believing in this idea, nurturing it and holding it up as a beacon.

Second, Western military superiority is most effective as a shield, not as a sword. Its value is in protecting liberty and deterring aggression. The crusading spirit that led us into Iraq and Afghanistan, hopeful that military conquest would produce social progress, was misguided and ultimately dispiriting. But the goal — progress — was no mistake. We merely employed the wrong tool.

The right tool — our sword, properly understood — is economic superiority. The Western way offers a wealthier, more peaceful and freer world, and this, not brute force, explains the tremendous success of the West over the past 75 years. This will continue to work in the future, if we keep faith.

Consider Kazakhstan, on China’s western border. This vast, sparsely populated land is a place of enormous economic potential, crucial to China’s dream of a new Silk Road. Yet, while China locks ethnic Kazakhs in concentration camps, the United States is one of Kazakhstan’s leading sources of direct foreign investment. That’s how we win.

The most important, and most precarious, decision the United States and its allies must make in response to China is how deeply to commit the Western military shield to Taiwan’s independence. In few places has the sword of economic development been wielded so brilliantly; Taiwan is a high-tech power through its advances in microchip manufacturing. Will we risk war with Beijing to defend Taiwan’s freedom?

This question leads to a third principle: China policy is now too important to be a plaything for Washington’s reckless partisans. Just as warring Democrats and Republicans agreed after World War II to unite behind a Cold War strategy, so, too, must today’s leaders seek a consistent approach to China. Beijing has taken a menacing wrong turn. We need steady hands in response.

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