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Deep Breaths: China Isn’t Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union

It presents a threat, but a Thucydides Trap isn't inevitable. America can still get the bilateral relationship right.
Trump Xi China

Chinese president Xi Jinping is determined to make his nation a weltmacht. However, the coronavirus is proving to be a significant bump in the road. Indeed, the Chinese Communist Party’s botched response to the epidemic will further undermine public trust in the regime.

Nevertheless, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will almost certainly recover and grow again. Increasingly it cannot be ignored, whether in economic, political, or military affairs. However, ever more Americans are alarmed by the PRC’s rise. Some see it as the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany reincarnated, and thus claim it must not only be contained but isolated. The risk of economic as well as military conflict is rising.

No doubt many American policymakers turned out to be Pollyannas regarding China. A quarter century of hostility was abandoned when President Richard Nixon met Mao Zedong in 1972. Beijing tilted toward Washington and against Moscow and soon opened up economically. Personal autonomy also flourished as the reform leadership discarded totalitarian Maoism. Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhu Rongji looked and talked very differently than their predecessors and won friends in Washington.

Moreover, economic engagement was expected to transform the PRC into a more liberal place, if not quite a variant of America. Even after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, the China of 1990, 2000, and 2010 was very different than what Mao left behind in 1976. The PRC was freer and the controls were looser. Incomplete authoritarianism replaced brutal totalitarianism. Ideas that could not be broadcast still could be discussed. The system seemed freer than that of such American allies as Saudi Arabia and the Central Asian despotisms.

The optimism is now gone. In 2020, Beijing appears to be reclaiming its Maoist heritage. The space for independent thought is disappearing. The assault on freedom of conscience in every form continues. In Xinjiang, repression has reached mass scale, with a million or more Uighurs forced into reeducation camps. The state is promoting communism as a new religious faith, with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) swallowing everything before it and allowing no competition. The authority of both the CCP and Xi—bolstered by a Mao-like personality cult—is central. American, and Western, disappointment is more than theoretical: growing military strength creates the possibility of Beijing enforcing its will abroad as well as at home.

Still, not everything about the PRC is bad. The “new” China is essentially the product of one person: Xi Jinping. His successors could just as easily decide to move in the opposite direction. The apparent triumph of groupthink is artificial, the result of a brutal campaign to silence anyone who thinks differently.

The CCP contains liberals and pragmatists who nod vigorously when told to do so. They and many of Xi’s minions would act differently if the prevailing political winds shifted. Many academics and journalists who have been silenced would also reenter the public debate. Persecution has driven religious believers underground, not caused them to become dutiful communists. The new Mao has forced them into secret opposition. In short, the PRC’s transformation, though real, remains superficial.

In fact, the explosive popular response to the regime’s initial cover-up of COVID-19 suggests that the CCP’s ability to control information remains imperfect and that the country is a potential political volcano. The death of Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang, who was punished for raising an alarm over the potential pandemic, triggered a social media avalanche. Beijing is scrambling to reestablish public trust.

Indeed, many of our certainties regarding China are likely to be proved wrong. Some who fear the PRC predict its inevitable global dominance, yet even many Chinese partisans recognize their country’s important weaknesses. Despite the end of Beijing’s one-child policy, China’s demographic challenge continues to worsen. As has often been said, China risks growing old before it grows rich. In which case it will find it harder to escape growing economic problems fueled by bad debts, property bubbles, and inefficient parastatals.

U.S. and Western policy should reflect such uncertainties. Nothing is set. If Washington responds badly, it risks creating the very threats that it wants to preclude.

Isolation would be the wrong approach. Engagement may have failed to deliver a China in America’s image, but that doesn’t mean it failed at liberalization. Had Nixon not visited the PRC, American firms not invested in and traded with China, the West not allowed Beijing into the World Trade Organization, Americans and Chinese scholars, tourists, entrepreneurs, journalists, policymakers, and others not exchanged visits and formed relationships, the PRC today would look much more like Mao’s China.

Despite Xi’s best efforts, the country remains very different from the totalitarian regimes to which it is sometimes compared. The PRC is well-integrated into the global economy, has normal diplomatic relations with its neighbors and the West, and remains reasonably open to the larger world. Millions of Chinese travel the world as tourists; hundreds of thousands of Chinese students study in the West. Chinese academics, businessmen, and officials circle the globe. Beijing’s censorship remains imperfect: the Chinese people stubbornly seek to make up their own minds and take to social media to criticize the government. So far the PRC has been militarily assertive, not aggressive. China has much to lose in any future conflict.

Isolating Beijing now would likely accelerate its backslide into its totalitarian past rather than make it more America-friendly. Imagine some mix of private boycott and public sanctions. Unilateral U.S. penalties would hurt China (and America) economically, but not stop the former’s growth. And there is no chance that Washington’s friends and allies would follow its lead.

The Trump administration has found it difficult enough to rally support for targeting Huawei as a security threat. The Europeans have repeatedly chosen Iran’s clerical leadership over the U.S. in seeking to preserve the nuclear agreement. Hostility to Washington’s dictates—even attempting to stop a natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany—continues to grow. Demanding that leading Asian and European states join in a global boycott of the PRC would highlight how little support America actually enjoys.

Unilateral penalties would still hurt average Chinese, but people would be unlikely to rise in revolt. Their leaders would play the nationalism card at home before surrendering abroad. Even students antagonistic to regime censorship tend to resent foreign demands. When have other regimes abandoned important political objectives in response to economic penalties? Would the U.S. retreat in similar circumstances?

Even worse, however, is the risk that treating the PRC as an enemy would in fact turn it into one. Imagine how Americans would respond if Beijing explicitly attempted to wreck the U.S. economy, traditionally considered an act of war. While seeking to control waters up to America’s coast, maintaining multiple military bases offshore in the Caribbean and Central America, sending its navy down the East Coast and into the Gulf of Mexico, telling Washington what policy to adopt toward Cuba, making Mexico a close ally hosting a Chinese military garrison, and speculating on the need for war with the U.S., Americans would not respond submissively.

Which is a good reason not to target Chinese abuses by breaking ties. China is violating human rights, but isolation and confrontation won’t cause Beijing to restore domestic liberties. More likely the regime would intensify repression to reinforce its control and expand foreign confrontation to build popular support. Given the potentially disastrous consequences of getting policy wrong—the results of war would be incalculable—Washington needs to be practical and prudential in its approach to the PRC.

There is no more important bilateral relationship than that between the U.S. and China. Much has been made of the Thucydides Trap: the risks of conflict between established and rising powers are real. However, nothing is inevitable. America and the United Kingdom (UK) worked through manifold tensions and conflicts to forge a positive relationship that survives today. Obviously the UK and the PRC are very different, but future Sino-American relations remain to be made.

Beijing’s behavior is egregious, but then so is that of many other governments, including some close friends of the U.S., such as Saudi Arabia. Washington dealt with the Soviet Union even during the worst of the Cold War and developed relations with Mao’s PRC after realizing that isolation had been counterproductive. Washington should not make the same mistake of isolating China again. The U.S. needs to find the right balance in simultaneously confronting threats, limiting abuses, and encouraging reform.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute. He is a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and the author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.