Perhaps the most consequential policy of Donald Trump’s administration will be his reorientation of American strategy toward China. For decades, the United States cooperated with the People’s Republic and encouraged its “peaceful rise.” American presidents granted a “China exception” to human-rights policies and treated the Communist dictatorship as a “responsible stakeholder” in global affairs. The convergence of the two economies into “Chimerica” was thought to be mutually beneficial — and irreversible.
Big mistake. China opened its economy but not its political system. It stole foreign technology and intellectual property, spent the money it took in from American consumers to finance a staggering military buildup, bullied its neighbors, and built artificial islands in order to establish hegemony over the South China Sea. As Chinese power increased, so did Chinese ambitions. Earlier this year, after becoming China’s de facto emperor, Xi Jinping doubled down on his Belt and Road Initiative of economic and political integration in Eurasia and launched a new industrial policy aimed at dominating the global high-tech sector by 2025. Xi doesn’t want simply to challenge American primacy; he means to end it.
Trump recognizes the magnitude of the China threat. Beginning with his defense bill and continuing through his National Security Strategy released at the end of 2017, the president has made great-power competition with China a national-security priority. Vice President Mike Pence articulated the new approach in a speech to the Hudson Institute in October. “As we speak,” Pence said, “Beijing is employing a whole-of-government approach, using political, economic, and military tools, as well as propaganda, to advance its influence and benefit its interests in the United States.” And America, Pence warned, would be idle no more. “Our message to China’s rulers is this: This president will not back down — and the American people will not be swayed.”
The president has used military, economic, and diplomatic power to arrest the decline of U.S. influence in East Asia. His policy is a necessary corrective after years of strategic inertia and geopolitical cluelessness. But it also downplays an essential part of any conflict with autocratic regimes: the defense of human freedom and democracy. At Hudson, Pence spoke of the “dream of freedom” that sadly “remains distant for the Chinese people” and warned that China increasingly encroaches on freedoms inside the West. You won’t hear such rhetoric from Trump. He sees the U.S.–China relationship, among others, as a contest of brute strength and an amoral calculation of dollars and cents.
That’s his loss and ours. As the United States enters a “Second Cold War” with China, it ought to remember the way Ronald Reagan won the first Cold War. That victory came not only through strength of arms and economic output, but also through a considered and sustained assault on the ideological foundations of the Soviet Union. Reagan put it this way in his 1982 address to the British Parliament: “We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings.” Seven years later, the Berlin Wall fell. The collapse of the Soviet Empire began.
Weapons systems and ballistic-missile defenses strengthen American deterrence. Tariffs as punishment for unfair trade practices underscore the importance of reciprocity and may also help to rebalance the global supply chain and protect the defense-industrial base. Renewed alliances, especially with Asian democracies, bolster the U.S. position vis-à-vis China. Freedom, however, is America’s secret weapon.
Why? Xi Jinping has told us so.
Soon after he assumed office in the spring of 2013, Xi began circulating a memo among party leaders. It outlined what he called the “seven perils” to Communist rule. Titled “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere” and known in the West as “Document No. 9,” the brief was leaked to independent media, including the New York Times, in the late summer of that year by the dissident Gao Yu. Gao was arrested and imprisoned for her trouble.
The “false ideological trends, positions, and activities” against which Xi pledged to struggle include the following: “Western constitutional democracy”; “universal values,” such as “Western freedom, democracy, and human rights”; “civil society”; “neoliberalism” or “unrestrained economic liberalization”; “the West’s idea of journalism”; “historical nihilism,” such as “claiming that the revolution led by the Chinese Communist Party resulted only in destruction”; and voices that “clearly deviate from socialism with Chinese characteristics.”
Needless to say, these so-called pollutants of the “ideological sphere” of Communist China are the very elements of liberal democracy. By highlighting the danger posed to the nomenklatura by internal criticism and citizens’ freedom from state interference, Xi backhandedly recognized the appeal of such ideas within China. How could he not? Across the strait, 24 million Chinese live democratically in Taiwan. Another 7 million enjoy (diminished and threatened) freedoms within the “special administrative region” of Hong Kong. Thirty years ago, students raised the Goddess of Democracy before the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. They could do so again.
But not if Xi Jinping can help it. Over his half decade in power he has constructed a system of repression unmatched in its logistical complexity and technological cunning. He has poured resources into fortifying the “Great Firewall of China,” dramatically constricting the flow of news and information. One million Uighurs in Xinjiang Province have been dispatched to prison camps for labor and “reeducation.” Closed-circuit-television cameras use facial-recognition software and artificial intelligence to monitor the comings and goings of everyday Chinese.
The government plans to expand its system of “social credit,” by which Chinese subjects are assigned a behavior-based “score,” by 2020. A February 2017 report by Freedom House concluded, “At least 100 million people — nearly one third of estimated believers in China — belong to religious groups facing ‘high’ or ‘very high’ levels of persecution.” The “lawyers’ movement,” which a decade ago showed great promise in defending civil liberties, has been persecuted and marginalized.
When Liu Xiaobo, one of the main authors of the “Charter 08” manifesto for democracy and human rights in China, became critically ill in 2017, the government denied his request to leave the country for expert medical treatment. He died of liver cancer that July. The authorities continue to censor mentions of his name.
But his ideas persist. In “I Have No Enemies: My Final Statement,” read at the ceremony at which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in absentia in December 2010, Liu wrote, “I firmly believe that China’s political progress will not stop, and I, filled with optimism, look forward to the advent of a future free China. For there is no force that can put an end to the human quest for freedom, and China will in the end become a nation ruled by law, where human rights reign supreme.”
What better way for the United States to honor the memory of Liu Xiaobo than to end the China exception and incorporate human rights and democracy into a multifaceted strategy against his oppressors? The same will to power that animates Xi Jinping’s suppression of dissent at home fuels his belligerent policies abroad. Telling the truth about Chinese authoritarianism, and speaking confidently in defense of the “seven perils,” will embarrass Beijing just as the same approach did with Moscow.
Any government afraid of “civil society” and “the West’s idea of journalism” is a weak one. In the concept of freedom, President Trump has available a diplomatic tool of incredible power. He should use it.