There was a time when China’s rise seemed like a miracle. After Mao’s death in 1976, China’s new leadership began pro-market reforms to introduce competition and new opportunity to their economy. This program led to historic economic growth that lifted millions of Chinese citizens out of poverty.
Many Americans believed that China’s economic liberalization would gradually lead to its adoption of liberal democratic values and human rights. In 2000, President Bill Clinton expressed his hope that trading with America would move China “faster and further in the right direction,” and towards, he said, “a China that contributes to the stability of Asia, that is open to the world, that upholds the rule of law at home and abroad.”
Looking back twenty-one years later, President Clinton’s expectations—which he shared with Americans across party lines—have turned out to be badly wrong.
China is less democratic and less open than it was then. Its foreign policy has grown more hostile, and threatens conflict with its neighbors in the South China Sea and America’s friends in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
The Chinese Communist Party has tightened its control over its own people, suppressing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and introducing the most pervasive surveillance system in the world. With little international backlash, the Chinese government is trying to wipe out its Muslim Uighur minority.
China has been willing to punish even its most prominent citizens for disobedience. Recently, every reference to Zhao Wei, one of China’s most popular actresses, was wiped from the country’s entire internet. Jack Ma, the billionaire founder of Alibaba, China’s equivalent of Amazon, was also famously silenced for speaking out.
Instead of importing our values, the CCP has exported its censorship here. Witness the cowardice of Hollywood or the NBA in the face of the slightest Chinese pressure!
This censorship is just one way that China has abused its influence over our economy. It has employed industrial espionage and stolen intellectual property to reap the profits of American innovation. The “valuable new safeguards” and enforcement efforts that President Clinton promised would keep China from undercutting our economy have failed to do so.
All the while, China’s leaders have concealed their true ambitions, which have gone largely unchallenged. But the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the urgent need for policies to oppose China’s aggression. A country that would arrest its doctors and disappear its journalists in an attempt to cover up the outbreak of the coronavirus is not one that can be trusted.
And most Americans, across the political spectrum, are realizing this. But as criticism of China starts to mount, China’s stance will likely become more aggressive and more focused on expanding its influence, in order to undermine its opposition and protect its power.
But the worst response to China’s aggression we can have is complacency. As Dan Blumenthal and Hal Brands, prominent scholars at AEI, have recognized, China’s rise has happened in the absence of international opposition. So, our leaders need to send a message, loud and clear, that America is willing to stand up to China, diplomatically and economically.
Like President Reagan, we must champion human and democratic rights, because it is the right thing to do and because it is in our interest. Political dissidents inside China should know we have their backs, and we must join with other countries to express our determined opposition to the ongoing ethnic and cultural cleansing of the Uighurs.
Countering China will be the great foreign policy challenge of this decade. Meeting that challenge will require both courage from our leaders and unified support from our citizens.