This week China’s commerce minister, Zhong Shan, issued a broadside against the United States in the ongoing trade war. “The U.S. side has provoked economic and trade frictions against us and violated the principles of the WTO. It is typical of unilateralism and protectionism,” Zhong said, “We have to uphold our warrior spirit in firmly defending national and people’s interests in defending the multilateral trading system.”
Do you see that? China is pretending to be the friend of free trade and against “unilateralism.” This is a bit of propaganda that has reaped rewards before. There have been points in the last couple of years when Western journalists, anxious to signal their disdain for Trump, crowned Xi Jinping “the leader of the free world.” Thankfully, this period of ignorance is ending.
China’s protectionist measures— and we should include their currency manipulation and penchant for fraud among them — are extreme compared with the United States or Europe. China’s commitment to multilateralism is non-existent. Ask any of its neighbors.
On most measures of freedom, China is going backward. Political repression has increased in recent years. And religious oppression of Uyghurs and Kazakhs in the Xinxiang province is staggering in its scale and brutality; 1 million Muslims are estimated to be subjected to internment and indoctrination camps. It’s difficult to watch a recent BBC documentary on these camps. Filmmakers were allowed to see one of the more humane-seeming camps, in which Muslims are being trained out of their “extremist thoughts,” forbidden to pray and read scripture, and made to sing and dance to patriotic songs, as if they were about to be featured in China’s version of North Korea’s Arirang games. Hong Kong has been roiled by protests against the policies set in Beijing.
The Trump administration should be using the bully pulpit to humiliate China on more than a dozen major issues: political repression, religious oppression, pollution, massive accounting fraud, intellectual-property theft, the trade in fentanyl, suborning telecom companies to spy on European customers, the slow reneging on promises to Hong Kong. This is the great gun that hasn’t gone off in the trade war.
Why? Trump traded the bully pulpit away already, in negotiations with President Xi. Trump’s silence is the price of advancing trade talks.
He should retract immediately his promise not to criticize Xi’s regime on human rights. Because of the insults not just from Zhong San but from other Chinese diplomatic personnel. China’s ambassador has started tweeting aggressively about China’s dominion over Taiwan, and others have set about to criticize the United States on human rights.
Even if Trump and his advisers looked at the intelligence and concluded that China’s government was incorrigibly committed to human-rights abuses within China, there might still be a very hardheaded and practical reasons for highlighting these abuses, at least from the administration’s perspective. It would strengthen the political resolve of Americans who want to see the administration triumph in its negotiations with China. It would likely force the administration’s critics to acknowledge that America and American companies should seek not to strengthen Chinese capacity for political and religious repression. (Some people should be embarrassed for previously designating Xi Jinping “leader of the free world.”) It would provide another reason for European leaders to be skeptical.
Donald Trump is not above using largely symbolic human-rights diplomacy. His administration went out of its way to highlight a “global initiative” to decriminalize homosexuality. If China is the international rip-off artist that Trump alleged it was during the campaign, he should say so over and over again during such tough negotiations. Chinese diplomats and trade negotiators are trying to appeal to internationalist sentiments for a free-trading world order, and impugning the honor of America while doing so. A major speech, laying out the full scale of China’s crimes against its people, and against a shared, fair international market, seems more than in order.