The rise of China as a world power and potential peer of the United States is set to define geopolitics in the 21st century. This seismic change led the Obama administration to initiate its so-called pivot to Asia. It led Donald Trump to make American competition with China one of his main campaign themes and later caused him to launch a trade war.
American primacists fear the rise of China, worrying that the U.S. will find it more difficult to impose its will (or at least attempt to) across the globe and to meddle and interfere with a myriad of issues that have no real bearing on America’s national security. On the other side of the divide, there are non-interventionists who seem to believe that the only threat China poses to the U.S. is the possibility that Beijing’s actions might trigger American warmongering.
Primacists certainly shouldn’t fear a hard military threat from China. Thanks to our superior geostrategic positioning, the odds of Beijing ever projecting as much power as Washington is almost nil. At the same time, the non-interventionists are wrong to underestimate the threat that Chinese power poses to the American way of life. One needn’t be a hawk or a card-carrying member of “the blob” to see this threat.
A rose-colored view of Chinese economic power is dismissive of what this power is actually capable of. John Tamny, director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, argues that the Chinese love America and that our economic relationship is beneficial to both parties. According to Tamny, any American fear of China is merely the result of demonization by politicians. Similarly, economist Barry Brownstein has argued at the Foundation for Economic Education, one of America’s oldest classically liberal think tanks, that concerns about China can be overcome by both “love” and economic interdependence. To his credit, he acknowledges that economic interdependence failed to stop Imperial Germany and the UK from entering the First World War on opposite sides. But he brushes that aside by suggesting that we “make the economic interdependence between the U.S. and China so thick that war between the U.S. and China is no more imaginable than war between Ohio and Iowa.”
But contrary to Tamny’s effusive praise for China and his claims that it’s not a communist state, the regime in Beijing is still highly authoritarian and not in any way friendly to human freedom. The same government that ran thousands of protesters over with tanks, burned their corpses, then hosed them into the sewer system is now interning millions of Uighurs and creating a social credit system that would make Big Brother envious. No, it’s not America’s job to save the world, but as China’s economic power increases, so too will its ability to influence affairs in the United States towards nefarious ends. And it’s that very economic interdependence that non-interventionists such as Brownstein tout as the solution that will make this terrifying future possible.
It’s already starting to happen. As the Chinese economy grows larger, American-based companies face pressure to alter their conduct here in the U.S. or risk losing access to the lucrative Chinese market. Hollywood has already kowtowed to Chinese censorship standards in the hopes of gaining access to hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers. Nike recently canceled a shoe after its designer tweeted in support of the protesters in Hong Kong, which prompted outrage in China. And in 2018, a Marriott Hotels social media manager was fired after accidentally liking a tweet that thanked the hotel chain for listing Tibet as being separate from China. Marriott’s leadership quickly assured the Chinese regime that they held the same view regarding Tibetan separatism.
Domestically, fears of a cancel culture on college campuses and internet censorship driven by outrage mobs have become major issues, but the same fear can also be applied to China. American universities are starting to get hooked on funding from Beijing through government-sponsored Confucius Institutes and direct donations from prominent Chinese firms. And though last year Google announced it was canceling its censored search engine for the Chinese market called “Dragonfly,” employees have revealed that work on the project has secretly continued.
Will universities need to prevent critics of the communist regime from speaking on their campuses to protect valuable Chinese funding? What assurances do we have that Google won’t censor its non-Chinese search engine or even turn over the data of regime critics in exchange for access to Chinese markets?
The answer isn’t to tighten regulations on our commercial activity with China. China is an ancient civilization with a culturally rich history that has much to offer the U.S. To purposefully stifle the voluntary and beneficial cultural exchange that accompanies robust commerce would be detrimental to all of us.
Responding with state-imposed economic measures to the extent that would be required to roll back malign Chinese influence over the U.S. economy also wouldn’t be protecting America’s way of life. Rather, it would emulate the authoritarian model of China—Trump’s Twitter ukases to American companies notwithstanding.
A much better and sustainable method of preventing American companies from bowing to Chinese wishes is simply to exercise consumer sovereignty here at home. In the words of economist Ludwig von Mises, “the captain is the consumer.” Merely by changing their consumption habits, consumers can ultimately decide not only where resources are allocated, but what companies will stay in business or fail. Changes in consumer behavior and the resulting market signals would make it clear to Nike, Marriott, and Google that giving in to Chinese pressure will be costly here at home. And recent fears over “woke capitalism” have clearly demonstrated that corporations are eager to please their customers.
America still has the largest economy in the world, and its consumers still have immense power over even the biggest multinational corporations. Exercising that power, rather than using the state to dictate how companies act, will not only work to prevent undue Chinese influence; it will preserve America’s tradition of freedom as well.
Zachary Yost is a Young Voices Foreign Policy Fellow and a Pittsburgh-based writer.