In the Time magazine list of the Top 100 Most Influential People for 2017, People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Xi Jinping was described as “forever the iconoclast breaking the mold.” The write-up pointed out “the potential that one day we might look back and say that Xi’s time at the helm marked the inflection point for his country and his people.”
The essay’s author was former secretary of state John Kerry, now back in government as the Biden administration climate czar. (More on that later.) Kerry was right in his assessment of Xi, if perhaps not in the way he intended. The Xi era has been “an inflection point” in that it has ushered in a clear consensus that — contrary to the prevailing view prior to Xi — China will not become freer as it becomes richer. There is growing general acceptance in both public and elite opinion that the PRC is a competitor and adversary.
The hope that China, as it developed economically, would glide into democratic-capitalist norms guided the policy of every U.S. administration since President Carter granted U.S. diplomatic recognition to the PRC in 1979. The approach was based on the belief that Deng Xiaoping, who had consolidated his power by 1978, at heart was a market-driven reformer and that political liberalization would follow market liberalization.
That has not happened. That this approach was erroneous is now accepted by Democrats and Republicans, by elected officials on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, and by U.S. allies across Asia and Europe.
Even more remarkable than the acknowledgement that the policy was wrong — something policy-makers and politicians don’t like to admit, even in hindsight — is the increasingly popular view that not only were assumptions about Communist China and regime intent wrong, but also that there was enough evidence for successive administrations after Carter’s to have known at the time that they were on the wrong track.
There were certainly American analysts and policy-makers whose service in earlier administrations reflected a more accurate assessment of Beijing’s true intentions. But the typical reaction to that minority view tended to be derision at the “failure” of those analysts to understand the more nuanced, artful statecraft of the people executing the broader policy.
But today, there is broader acceptance of the view that Deng and his successors prior to Xi weren’t reformers, and that we had ample evidence of this then. Of course, Deng showed this as early as 1989, in the Tiananmen massacre. But there were other signals. Over time, as China emerged from its economic and political isolation, increasingly the world observed opaqueness in defense spending, the involvement of the People’s Liberation Army in every aspect of the Chinese economy, ever more aggressive subversion of democratic Taiwan, a growing global network of propaganda and influence operations, and deliberate undermining of international institutions including the WTO, the World Health Organization, and others. These actions are not the inventions of the Xi regime; they were on display with increasing clarity over many years during previous regimes.
Even so, there is no time for recriminations about “who lost China?” The point is that Communist China was never “winnable.” That there is agreement about this now is sound basis for current and future policy. What is most important is that we not let the self-delusion happen again. Of course, Xi makes it easier to avoid that because his intentions are so obvious. What is hard to understand about a million Chinese Muslims in concentration camps? About the militarization of man-made islands dotting the South China Sea and violating the sovereignty of multiple neighboring countries? About military incursions into Taiwan’s internationally recognized air-defense zones? About arresting democratic politicians and journalists in Hong Kong?
And yet there is still a tendency to simply take the Communist regime at its word in its intentions and declarations. Media and others tend to blithely accept, for instance, China’s obviously cooked books concerning economic growth. Time reported with confidence in January that “China’s Economy Grew in 2020 Amid the Global Pandemic as U.S. and Others Floundered.” The PRC claims the economy grew 2.3 percent even as the U.S., Japan, and the major economies of Europe likely all shrank.
Derek Scissors, chief economist of the authoritative China Beige Book, has concluded that China’s economy also probably shrank in 2020. In a paper for the American Enterprise Institute, Scissors writes that it is China’s own data in other areas that give the lie to its fantastic claims of economic growth in a pandemic-seized global economy that was one of the worst in history. Scissors points to double-digit declines in fixed investment, retail sales, net exports, and other accounts in first-quarter 2020, yet GDP decline was a mere 3.3 percent. He concludes that the positive “GDP figure only made sense if the rest didn’t.” His analysis points to several other hard-to-reconcile apparent facts to bolster his conclusion about the full year. Despite such analysis, the financial press, Wall Street analysts, and elected officials simply repeat what the government in Beijing wants them to believe: that China grew in 2020.
The same is true about China’s role in the pandemic itself. Much like financial reporting of dubious economic-growth statistics, China’s reported pandemic case counts deserve scrutiny. The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracker has the PRC, with a population of 1.4 billion, having experienced 100,000 cases, fewer than Bahrain, with 1/1,000th the population. At 4,800 deaths, the PRC — where the virus originated — reportedly has experienced fewer deaths than in the U.S. state of Connecticut (3.56 million population). Of course, the truth is impossible to know, so we simply report implausible Chinese official data. It has been well-documented by citizen-journalists and others that China seriously repressed reporting about the virus in November and December 2019, well before the world was aware of the problem. Doctors were censored in filing reports about a new and uncertain flu-like virus they were seeing in patients. It has now been established that the official statistics the country released well into 2020 were off by as much as 100 percent.
If the Communist government were confident in its current reporting, why has it strong-armed attempts by the World Health Organization and countries in that body to seek transparency about the origin and handling of the outbreak? Foreign journalists have limited access, and citizen-journalists continue to be harassed. In December 2020, Zhang Zahn drew a four-year prison sentence after a three-hour trial for her reporting about what was happening in Wuhan around the time of the outbreak, which was not the model of public health or virus eradication that the Communist government had presented to the rest of the world. Zhang was convicted for “picking quarrels and provoking trouble.” There obviously is ample indication that — despite the world’s apparent belief that “the China model” has dealt with the virus — the truth on the ground is quite different.
Which brings us back to the Biden administration, now the steward of U.S. China policy in the era of “we know what we got wrong, so let’s not repeat that.” The administration assumes office as the PRC continues to obfuscate about the global pandemic, and against a backdrop that we now understand how prevailing beliefs about the PRC were wrong for most of the past 40 years. Resisting China’s outlandish claims in every area of engagement is important in setting the right basis for the engagement the administration says it wants with the PRC.
The Biden team is off to a good start by recognizing the challenge, as expressed in the declarations of its foreign-policy team and as has been reported in these pages by Jimmy Quinn. In his Senate confirmation hearing, Secretary of State Antony Blinken seemed to acknowledge how wrong the foreign-policy community got the PRC over many preceding decades. He also indicated that he recognizes how China projects a façade of strength when, as he put it, “my own conviction is that there are many apparent weaknesses that China continues to hide when projecting its model.”
Blinken rightly believes that “China poses no doubt the most significant challenge of any nation state to the U.S.” He said it is his intention, as the chief architect of the Biden foreign policy, to approach the U.S.–China relationship from a position of strength.
To do so, he should proceed on the basis of the following precepts:
1) Xi and his Communist Party cohorts will repeat the boldest of lies for as long as the world repeats them.
2) Everything the foreign-policy establishment believed about China for 40 years turned out to be wrong, and that was knowable at the time. So let’s not do that again.
Blinken should appreciate each of these premises from firsthand experience. He was a senior Obama foreign-policy official at the National Security Council and State Department when, to take just one example, Xi Jinping was lying to President Obama about his pledge never to militarize the man-made islands in the South China Sea — which, of course, are now Chinese military installations.
Still, the administration will want much from China. Whether it is the most immediate priority, it is clear that climate change will be a first-tier platform for China engagement in the Biden administration. John Kerry will work hard for China’s cooperation in helping move the world toward the Paris Climate Accord target of net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050.
Here, too, we see on full display the PRC tendency to promise everything because the West will believe anything. The green world swooned last September when Xi declared at the U.N. General Assembly that the PRC would be “carbon-neutral” by 2060. In an analysis by The Economist, the claim seems to be of a piece with China’s claims about GDP growth, about COVID eradication, and much else. Beijing seems to believe that it can get by with its customary mix of opacity, Western gullibility, lack of verifiable data, and outright falsehoods
When it comes to emissions reductions, The Economist compares the experience in the EU, which is on path to nearly halving its emissions by 2030 from their peak level in 1990. China would have to double that rate of reduction in just 30 years to meet its declared goal — though the PRC last year built 60 percent of the world’s coal-fired power plants. Just like Beijing’s economic-growth statistics, the numbers don’t add up, and they never will. If Kerry and his team think they will be getting honesty and straight talk from the PRC, particularly if it involves trade-offs in other areas — U.S. support for Taiwan or ignoring the PRCs human-rights atrocities — then we will soon find ourselves on the path to repeating our mistake of believing China when we know in real time that we should not.
The Biden team seems to believe that it can maintain a relatively hard line on China and at the same time “engage” Beijing to reach mutually agreeable goals. It remains to be seen if that can be done. Ronald Reagan, when faced with a determined adversary that declared it was going to reform according to market forces, said that the United States would “trust but verify” Gorbachav’s perestroika policies.
But the Cold War was quite different from what we face today. Much of U.S.–USSR interactions were based on state-to-state treaties that codified the standoff and permitted intrusive verification. Those mechanisms are unavailable to Biden and his team as they seek to engage the Communist government in Beijing. To sift through Beijing’s bogus claims in everything from economic growth to pandemic response and climate talks, the Biden mantra should be “distrust, because you can’t verify.” Doing so will help prevent analysts 40 years from now from concluding that not only were the policies of today wrong, but also that those making the policies knew they were wrong the whole time.