In February 1947, U.S. President Harry Truman decided to aid the Greek government in its fight against a communist insurgency. He told the American people that the civil war in Greece was a critical test of America’s ability to confront international communism. Yet, despite his anti-communist rhetoric, he largely ignored a far more consequential communist threat: the one that even then threatened the most populous country on earth.
Chairman Mao Zedong’s Red Army was on the march, but the “deep state” of his day counseled Truman not to intervene. Mao and his followers were not true communists, State Department advisors told him, but merely “agrarian reformers.” By the time he realized otherwise, the government of Nationalist China, our long-time ally, had been driven off the mainland. A communist dictatorship, closely allied with the Soviet Union, had been created.
This was only the first of many, many missteps that the United States has made in dealing with the Chinese regime over the decades. From Jimmy Carter’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1979—virtually without conditions—to Bill Clinton’s promotion of China’s membership in the World Trade Organization, U.S. China policy has been driven by a strange concoction of naivete and greed—naivete about the Communist Party’s willingness to undertake political and economic reform, and greed stoked by the imagined fortunes to be made in the giant China market.
In recent years, however, a broad swath of Americans has come to understand some fundamental truths about the Chinese regime. The closure of thousands of U.S. factories and the loss of millions of manufacturing jobs has tarnished the country’s image. The factory worker whose job has been outsourced to China is unlikely to harbor warm feelings about the country whose predatory practices led to his or her firing. The ongoing blizzard of reports about the country’s multitudinous human rights violations—among the worst in the world—has done its part as well, strengthening antipathy towards the regime on both ends of the political spectrum.
But I believe that the major impetus for the new clarity with which Americans view China had been President Trump himself, whose toughness and plain speaking have crystalized in the minds of many their vague feelings of disquiet about the behavior of the Communist giant.
Pew Research Center began assessing American attitudes towards China in 2005, and found that these have been trending negative ever since. In fact, some 60 percent of the American public now have an unfavorable impression of China. It is important to note that this shift was not a response to shifting elite opinion, but to a large degree was a driver of it. Washington elites, whether these work in the State Department, the think tanks, or the elite media, have for the most part resisted the effort to redefine China as a hostile power. They would rather continue their fruitless “engagement” with China rather than confront it, and shrink back in horror at the thought of a new “cold war.”
In other words, the new consensus about China has emerged not because of, but in spite of, elite opinion. In this sense, it constitutes a kind of populist rebellion on the part of ordinary Americans against the globalist elite, the “deep state,” the opinion makers (or whatever you want to call those who believe themselves to be our intellectual betters).
It has taken decades for reports of the damage caused by elite engagement with China to percolate back up into their exalted ranks, but the nature of the challenge from the Chinese regime—so much more complex and dangerous than that posed by the Soviet Union—is now generally recognized. The result is a new consensus—one which now encompasses the majority of people in both parties, the military establishment, and most elements of the mainstream and alternative media—that holds that the Chinese regime constitutes an existential threat to the United States in both economic and strategic terms.
The new consensus recognizes that engagement did not, as promised, fundamentally transform China into a country that respected the rule of law either within its own borders or abroad. Rather, it sees that past U.S. policy to conciliate China by giving it “a seat at the table” has failed, and that the United States needs to work with its allies to contain China’s economic and territorial aggression, hold it accountable for its grievous violations of human rights and, at least where critical technologies are concerned, disengage our two economies.
Even globalists like Fareed Zakaria, who recoil at the very thought of “containment” and “disengagement” where China is concerned, now concede that it is run by “a repressive regime that engages in thoroughly illiberal policies, from banning free speech to interning religious minorities.”
This, of course, doesn’t begin to describe the totalitarian nightmare that is today’s China. The Chinese regime is busily engaged in setting up a hi-tech digital dictatorship of a kind that has previously existed only in the pages of dystopian science fiction novels. The goal is to monitor everyone, all the time, in real time. And by means of video surveillance cameras, electronic eavesdropping, face-recognition technology, retinal scans, artificial intelligence, big data, etc., Beijing is making daily progress towards this goal. One may expect that these methods of control will in time be exported—for a profit, of course—to other oppressive regimes around the world, such as Venezuela.
Beijing’s foreign policy is currently the most significant global threat to U.S. interests and, by extension, to the rules-based international order that the United States created after 1945. The Chinese regime continues to bolster its military spending by double digits each year. According to its published figures, which undoubtedly underestimate real defense spending, China now has the second-largest military budget in the world after the United States.
At the same time, it frequently resorts to non-kinetic means to force other countries to do its bidding, such as imposing bans on Chinese tourism or the export of rare earths to countries critical of its policies, or baiting and bribing the leaders of poor countries into accepting loans that are actually disguised debt traps. China’s communist leaders are well aware that leveraging its economic might to achieve political ends this way violates the rules-based international order but, as long as their interests are advanced, they simply don’t care. As Deng Xiaoping famously remarked, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is white or black as long as it catches mice.” The Chinese Communist Party’s behavior is black indeed.
The international consequences of ignoring the growing threat from China over the past few decades have been enormous—the continued existence of a now nuclear-armed North Korea, the spread of authoritarian regimes in Latin America and Africa, the threat to freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and elsewhere, the continuing threat to Hong Kong and Taiwan, and the undermining of international institutions.
Fortunately, we now have an administration in Washington that not only recognizes the challenge posed by the Chinese regime, but is willing to condemn it for its actions at home and abroad. As U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently put it at a speech at the Hudson Institute, “the Chinese Communist party is a Marxist-Leninist party focused on struggle and international domination.” He went on to say that the United States and its allies must keep China in “its proper place,” which means of course to keep its multifaceted mischief within its own boundaries. Given China’s ongoing military build-up and hegemonic ambitions, NATO should reconceive itself as a bulwark not just against Russia, but against an even more threatening China.
With American power and purpose combined with that of its allies and robustly deployed, China will be deterred from engaging in the kinds of overt adventurism that could result in open conflict. Containing the Chinese regime in this way will help ensure that the internal contradictions common to any totalitarian state will intensify and lead to its eventual demise. This is not to say that the Chinese Communist Party will reform itself. Rather I hold that the political system itself will simply disintegrate, in the same way that the Soviet system disintegrated, perhaps leaving China a collection of provincial-sized political units.
Dynastic collapse has often happened in Chinese history and there is no reason to think that it cannot happen again. This will provide an opportunity for the democratic aspirations of the Chinese people—already on full display in Taiwan and Hong Kong—to reach the heartland of China itself. It is about time.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of “Bully of Asia: Why China’s Dream is the New Threat to World Order.”
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Author: Steven W. Mosher