National Security & Defense

China Is Coming Closer to Ditching Its Corrupt Regime, and the U.S. Can Help

Chinese president Xi Jinping (Lintao Zhang/Getty)

Over the past couple decades, China’s Communist rulers have successfully managed some of the changes Chinese society has experienced. But they are fighting a long-term battle against the tides of history. The Chinese people will eventually get their freedom, and the U.S. needs to set about helping that to happen.

Since coming to power in 2012, party chief Xi Jinping has launched the most thorough suppression of democratic forces since the years that followed 1989’s Tiananmen Massacre. If nothing else, this is a reminder that the question raised in 1989 — how can a modern society be governed by a 1920s-style Soviet regime? — has not been answered. Even as foreign observers celebrate the resilience of the China model, it is constantly being questioned by the Chinese people.

Xi’s campaign to reaffirm Communist orthodoxies has a powerful, ominous resonance: It reminds observers of the harsh crackdown on dissent and alleged corruption within the party that was launched by the Soviet leader Yuri Andropov from 1982 to 1984, which led to the wave of reforms that brought to power Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985. Xi is aware of this. In 2013, referring to the Soviet collapse, he warned about a “calcium deficiency of the spirit” growing among party members. The weak bones of the party were evident in the 2013 trial and jailing of Xi’s rival for the top position, Bo Xilai, whose support was so vast that, despite official injunctions against covering his views, he managed to go down with a fight, arguing publicly about the ineptitude of the regime’s attempts to frame him. The Chinese Communist Party finds itself ratcheting up its repression of political and social elites just as their willingness to tolerate such repression has declined.

The party may not be about to collapse. When and how China will transition to a more pluralistic and competitive regime cannot be guessed. But its current behavior tells us that it believes that a transition is a real threat. With each passing year, China’s elites are growing frustrated and humiliated by a party that has given them a taste of freedom and dignity but now wants to take it all back.

This is an opportunity for the U.S.: We need policies that will help make China’s transition easier and more successful.

Democratic countries commonly, and mistakenly, believe that democratic change comes from the bottom. It does not, even if broader social pressures are often critical. Democratic change comes from the top, from decisions by key elites. Specifically, it happens because of choices by leaders in the face of a crisis of legitimacy and governance, especially as seen within the elite itself. The U.S.’s approach to China should target top-down change, rather than bottom-up. The time for rule-of-law programs, civil-society strengthening, and legislative training will be after China’s transition, not before.

A good top-down strategy for the U.S. should focus on three policies.

For a start, the U.S. should be much more aggressive in sanctioning the overseas bank accounts, properties, travel, and children of China’s political elites, which allow them to enjoy the benefits of democracy for themselves while imposing dictatorship on others. Allowing Xi’s daughter to study at Harvard for four years between 2010 and 2014 was a mistake. Her first public appearance since returning home came in February when she joined her parents to visit a Communist revolutionary base to burnish her credentials. So much for the Harvard education. Meanwhile, I am constantly amazed by how many high-level Chinese academic delegations to the U.S. have pressing business with their colleagues at the campuses of the University of Nevada.

Chinese elites come here for more than education and entertainment, though: The capital flight from China into the U.S. is astounding, much of it under the radar of official statistics through cash-only deals and offshore companies. At the end of 2014, according to estimates by the real-estate firm Savills Studley, some 37,000 Chinese nationals had outstanding applications for EB-5 visas, which allow them to settle in the U.S. in exchange for a $500,000 investment. If we can sanction Putin’s cronies over Crimea, why can we not sanction Xi’s cronies over the current purges in China? Why was the grand wizard of Xi’s Internet crackdown, Lu Wei, allowed to attend the “7th China-US Internet Industry Forum” in Washington in December 2014? The same crackdown should also aim at U.S. facilitators and beneficiaries. Regulators, for instance, are finally taking aim at foreign investment banks like J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank for hiring children of political elites in China in order to drum up business, but plenty more can be done. In short, the No. 1 item for the U.S. is a comprehensive, high-level, and targeted campaign of sanctions against the regime’s political cronies and supporters.

Second, the U.S. should invest a lot more time and effort in cultivating the young reform-minded leaders of China — the best of whom are found in provincial and city government, in addition to the business world — by bringing them to the U.S. on study tours and encouraging them to form networks with their counterparts in the U.S. Billionaire real-estate developer Pan Shiyi, for instance, has spoken out on his microblog in support of a wide range of liberal causes. He has even withstood a veiled attack by Xi on the “weird buildings” his company constructs.

While we have a moral obligation to support dissidents and human-rights campaigners, we should harbor no illusions that they will be the agents of change. Change will come from those who have the resources to stand up to the regime’s bullying.

Third, the U.S. has a huge advantage in the worlds of information, intelligence, and social media. We can and should use our intelligence capabilities to track corruption and misdeeds in China to the highest levels, and spread that information as widely as we can. Such campaigns could help wake up the political elites (including business leaders and media elites) who are the most apt to turn against the CCP in disgust. When China’s weakest get possession of damning evidence against elites, they have been able to use information technology to spread it to great effect. For instance, micro bloggers and other netizens forced the resignation and arrest of the country’s railways minister in 2011 after he tried to cover up a high-speed rail crash that killed 40. This power of the people should be unleashed with as much outside support as possible.

Will these policies damage our ties to China? They can hardly afford it. China would lose the international influence it craves if it cut off cooperation with the U.S. Besides, the more we learn about sentiments inside the CCP, the more evidence there is that many inside the party — the ones with that calcium deficiency — are sympathetic to a liberalizing agenda. That said, the U.S. should work with its key democratic allies — especially Canada, Australia, Britain, Germany, Japan, and South Korea — to make these sanctions multilateral, so they’re more effective.

Now, do we have to worry about destabilizing China’s political order? Are we in danger of turning the country into another Iraq? Not a chance. China has a long political tradition, a well-educated and civilized population, and lives in a very non-threatening region. Its political transition will likely be a smooth one, led by reformist elements of the Chinese Communist Party and almost certainly by those with a strong sense of state power and good governance. The late Singapore strongman Lee Kuan Yew’s claim that democracy would sow discord and chaos in Asia, uttered at a London dinner in 1962, has been proven false by the emergence of strong states and civilized societies. Where South Korea and Taiwan have led, and where Indonesia and the Philippines are now following, there too will go China.

The U.S. is a great friend of the Chinese people. We supported their democratic movement in 1912, helped them defeat Japanese fascists in 1945, saved their treasures and dignity on Taiwan when Mao seized power in 1949, embraced their opening to the world under Deng Xiaoping after 1978, and condemned the regime that slaughtered them in 1989, forcing it back into reforms in 1992.

Today, China’s people are confronting another assault on their dignity, the survival of a corrupt communist regime. It’s time the United States recognized it, and offered its helping hand again.

— Bruce Gilley is associate professor of political science and director of graduate programs in public policy in the Mark O. Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University. He is the author of China’s Democratic Future (Columbia University Press, 2004)

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