The COVID-19 pandemic is the single greatest global peacetime catastrophe that humanity has suffered since the end of the Second World War. Barely months into what promises to be a multiyear disaster, the pandemic has already cost America alone over 100,000 lives, tens of millions of jobs, and trillions of dollars in lost output, income, and wealth. The ultimate toll for the world as a whole from this pandemic — both the direct and the indirect consequences — may still lie beyond imagining.
How did such a terrible calamity befall humanity? This grave question is not only an epidemiological puzzle. It is also a political one.
As is increasingly understood in the United States and abroad, the Chinese government and its agents bear a terrible and immediate responsibility for conduct that turned a localized contagion into a global pandemic. But the COVID-19 disaster could not have devastated America and the world as it is now doing if China were still an impoverished, isolated Maoist outpost, with scant global contact, involvement, or influence. The world is suffering a planetary plague because China today is deeply integrated into the world economy, and into the institutions of global governance as well — even though it is ruled by a dictatorship whose values, priorities, and objectives are fundamentally incompatible with those of the liberal international order.
It was not by accident or happenstance that China became a major player in the world economy and, more broadly, in the liberal international order that the United States was instrumental in fashioning. That outcome, rather, is largely a result of concerted American policy.
For four decades, the United States has pursued a deliberate and explicit strategy, reaffirmed by innumerable public and private decisions under both Democratic and Republican administrations and Congresses, to “engage China” and enmesh that enormous country in “globalization,” the free world’s great webs of commerce, communications, travel, education, research, and culture.
For many long years, this strategy, though not without critics, was widely regarded as a triumph of American statecraft. For a generation and more, the policy of “engaging” China paid handsome and obvious dividends, both financial and geopolitical. Indeed, the engagement policy appeared to be a monumental win-win. Not only did China turn away from the revolutionary hostility that had characterized its international conduct in the Maoist era, but its outward-oriented economic policies and more pragmatic domestic practices unleashed an extraordinary domestic boom. China’s remarkable economic transformation not only dramatically reduced poverty at home. It also generated prosperity for trading partners around the world.
While policymakers accurately assessed the upside for America from engaging China, they missed a whole dimension of downside in the righthand column of the ledger. They gave virtually no consideration to the unintended ramifications of promoting global “interdependence” with an increasingly powerful actor that does not share Western liberal values — that is, indeed, implacably hostile to them. An entire class of hazards inherent in our grand strategy for “managing China” were left, by America’s chief risk officers, priced effectively at zero — even as our “globalization” policies exposed our society, economy, and political system to huge new vulnerabilities at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
The coronavirus crisis constitutes a “strategic surprise.” It exposes a horrendous blind spot in our China policy and highlights its unintended consequences. The COVID-19 explosion was a “made in China” export: distinctive handiwork of the CCP. It is quite impossible to imagine such a disaster being authored by an open, accountable polity — for example, Taiwan.
Moreover, horrific as it is, there is no reason to regard this disaster as a once-only black swan. More likely it is a harbinger, a foretaste of perils yet in store. For the CCP is loose in our system, potent and unquarantined. And we have not even begun to assess the risks that America and the world consequently face, much less how to protect against them.
The carnage of the coronavirus crisis casts glaring light not only on CCP malfeasance but also on a long chain of U.S. policy errors and miscalculations. They now subject our own population, our allies, and the entire international community to pandemic devastation of indefinite duration. (More on that particular fiasco later.)
But the worldwide COVID-19 plague also casts the past half century of Sino–American relations into a new and much sharper relief — and this makes for painful recounting. What lies plainly exposed today is Washington’s long-standing failure to come to terms with the true nature of its “engagement partner” in Beijing: the Chinese Communist Party. It is that partner — not the CCP’s subject population, not the CCP’s clerks and servants in the Chinese government’s administrative apparatus — that determines the regime’s objectives and priorities, sets its strategy, and commands its movements at home and abroad.
Superficially, both party and state in China are vastly different nowadays from when the monster Mao Zedong was at the helm. The regime no longer revels in upheaval; its conduct at home and abroad is no longer avowedly revolutionary. For nearly two decades the CCP has confuted its own founding precepts by extending party membership to entrepreneurs (known as “capitalists” elsewhere). Indeed, approximately 100 members of each recent annual CCP National People’s Congress were reportedly billionaires (in U.S. dollars, that is, not renminbi). And despite a major reversal of actual economic and other policy reforms, the Chinese government has officially embraced “reform and opening up” (market-based reform of the economy and opening China to trade and investment) for over four decades — ever since Deng Xiaoping issued his bold, world-turning declaration in late 1978.
Unfortunately, trapped in the confines of our own mentality and the limits of our self-referential imaginations, we children of the Enlightenment (or perhaps of postmodernism) have failed to take the proper measure of these admittedly immense Chinese political changes. China’s regime has evolved: It has modernized and ingeniously adapted to changing times. But that does not mean that the control system has liberalized. The maglev from “Cultural Revolution” to “Chinese Dream” does not make stops at Locke Junction or Tocqueville Town, and it has no connections to Planet Davos.
China’s great civilization has a long and storied heritage. But it also has an extraordinarily long political tradition of despotic imperial rule, which is in the main a saga of exquisitely perfecting mass tyranny, even when antique premodern technologies were the only instruments available for enforcing such repression. (Though born over 2,000 years before Lenin, Qin Shi Huangdi, the first emperor of a unified Chinese state, might still have taught Vladimir Ilyich a thing or two about the administration of terror and the concentration of unchallenged absolutist state power.)
Thus, trashing Marxism, and the people’s communes, and much of the previous Soviet-style central-planning system as well — as the CCP has done in recent decades — does not in fact set Chinese autocracy adrift. Hardly. The CCP has deep historical muscle memory to draw on as it develops its own updated rendition of “autocracy with Chinese characteristics,” one that harnesses market mechanisms and highly sophisticated networks to strengthen the foundations of the regime — and extend its thrall.
Some would argue that we should have known all along that the CCP had never abandoned its claim to totalitarian power, even in the heyday of the Deng Xiaoping–Jiang Zemin era of “reform and opening up.” Beijing’s economic experimentation in the 1980s and 1990s may have warmed the hearts of free-marketers around the globe, but the regime’s tilt toward more-competitive commercial and financial practices was accompanied by a horrific test drive into new uncharted realms of unfreedom: the gruesome one-child policy, history’s most ambitious adventure in population control, which insisted that the CCP, not parents, had the final say over the number of babies in China.
The world marveled at China’s export boom and the rapidly growing urban engine that was powering it. What went largely unnoticed was that the peasants streaming to the cities for factory and construction work were in effect illegal aliens in their own land — thanks to the CCP’s heinous hukou system of identity-registration papers. Migrants found outside their designated locality were de facto lawbreakers who could be summarily deported at government whim. And, of course, Deng himself ordered the slaughter of those demanding more political freedoms in Tiananmen Square in 1989. It was then that the CCP started to view Washington as a potentially serious challenge to its rule.
For years — some would say decades — warning lights have been flashing that “reform” as we understand the term is over in China and that the CCP policy is turning in a different and, from a Western standpoint, more ominous direction. The CCP is methodically transforming the existing Chinese police state into an even more intrusive and aggressive “surveillance superstate.” Beijing’s “Great Firewall” subjects the populace of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to best-in-class high-tech censorship and spying. Less compliant ethnic minorities face mass internment, with a million or more historically Muslim Uighurs recently herded into “reeducation” camps. Meanwhile, persecution of the world’s fastest-growing Christian population has become commonplace. With the coming of the regime’s vaunted “social-credit system,” its Great Leap Forward in “techno-tyranny,” artificial intelligence and big data will be used to analyze and evaluate the population’s every detectable action, so that the CCP might envelop every Chinese citizen in a customized and finely tailored mesh of rewards and penalties to bring mass behavior into consonance with the regime’s will.
This great Chinese regression is not the only thing we missed: Washington’s globalists and the globalist archipelago in universities, think tanks, and the media also stubbornly and even willfully ignored what the CCP had to say about us.
Beijing identifies us as its main rival and is working tenaciously to neutralize the frightening “American threat.” Xi Jinping didn’t begin this strategy, but he perfected it. His acuity at moving the levers of power in China by ferocious purges of his internal enemies and by rigid enforcement of loyalty to the Communist Party has given him a freer hand to pursue it. According to readily available documents and speeches, Xi has followed a “CCP first” strategy that he claims will lead to the “Chinese dream of national rejuvenation.” If the party is healthy, Xi has said, China has a pathway to rejuvenation — after years of national humiliation at the hands of the West and Japan, China in this “new era” will march to “center stage.” The CCP will lead the country back to a 21st-century version of “Middle Kingdom centrality,” the geopolitical order that the regime regards as the natural way the world is to be structured.
Since his ascendance to supreme power in 2012, Xi has announced that he would reshape international institutions to align with the CCP agenda, promote “socialist culture” abroad (exporting to other dictators high-tech authoritarian-control capabilities and an economic model dominated by the state), replace alliances (i.e., the U.S. international system) with a network of strategic partnerships with China at the center (the main motivation behind the One Belt, One Road initiative — Beijing’s scheme for a new, Sino-centric Eurasian political-economic order), build a military that would outpace the U.S. armed forces, and achieve technological dominance.
The CCP is far more powerful today than it was in Mao’s time (in no small part thanks to our own doing). Much as it may have mutated, it still hates and fears American power and remains implacably hostile to the ideals and precepts of the liberal Western order. We should have known there would be hell to pay when we let this creature loose in our own house — that is to say, into the edifice of international commercial and financial arrangements and multilateral international institutions that the U.S. and her allies built over the past three generations to ensure prosperity and security in the post-war world. But let it loose in our house we did — not in a fit of absentmindedness, but as a deliberate matter of long-term national strategy.
Letting the CCP loose in our house is part and parcel of America’s grand strategy and has been for decades. Until recently, this decision has enjoyed bipartisan support among political leaders and opinion-shapers and in business circles — although proponents of this course of action would never describe it in such terms. Their preferred formulation has been “engagement”: They regard their approach as “opening the PRC,” or “globalizing China,” or helping make China into a “responsible stakeholder” within the international community.
Drawing the PRC into the world economy and the post-war multilateral project for transnational governance has been a centerpiece of America’s China policy ever since Washington and Beijing normalized diplomatic relations in 1979. The United States’ modern China policy began with Nixon’s famous Cold War overture to Beijing. Originally, economic engagement was impossible because Mao was alive, and, in any case, setting China as a geopolitical counterweight against Moscow served our national purposes well enough. But with Mao’s death came the end of Beijing’s self-isolation. Beijing opened its economy and adopted a more responsible, supportive stance toward the U.S.-led global order. Thus arose the enticing prospect of economic and geopolitical benefits from a deeper relationship with China.
In this calculus, America would not only be safer by bringing China into our fold. We would be richer and therefore more powerful as well. Such thinking still informs our China policy, by the way, even under President Trump, who has accused China of taking “advantage of us like nobody in history,” enacted tariffs, allowed the U.S. military a freer hand to challenge China, and confronted such menacing corporate actors as Huawei. Still, his main interest is in exacting more-favorable terms from our now well-established commercial relationship — no one is filing for economic divorce.
Through tumultuous and dramatically changing geopolitical times, the Washington consensus for economic engagement with China has remained more or less constant. Its rationale is twofold: First, a more globalized China would have incentives to behave more responsibly in a U.S.-led international order; and second, the very process of integration into the global economy would generate domestic pressures in China that would temper and ultimately liberalize Beijing’s authoritarian regime.
With the Soviet collapse, the resulting end of the Cold War, and the “end of history” vogue, that second rationale came to enjoy additional emphasis. It was only natural that China would become more like us — or so it seemed to a great many of America’s deciders and explainers.
Thus, President Clinton in 2000:
By joining the WTO [World Trade Organization], China is not simply agreeing to import more of our products. It is agreeing to import one of democracy’s most cherished values, economic freedom. The more China liberalizes its economy, the more fully it will liberate the potential of its people. . . . And when individuals have the power, not just to dream, but to realize their dreams, they will demand a greater say. . . . The genie of freedom will not go back into the bottle.
So too Hank Paulson, Treasury secretary to George W. Bush, in 2006 explaining why he welcomed “China’s growth and integration into the world economy”:
Our economy is . . . a model that others strive to emulate. . . . Greater economic freedom and more widely shared prosperity within a nation can lead to greater freedom in the political system as well. . . Countries that implement market-driven policies which provide their citizens greater economic freedoms find that those citizens also naturally seek a greater stake in their political system.
Such quotations, we must emphasize, are not in any sense selective or unrepresentative. Quite the contrary: They precisely capture the reasoning that informed America’s China policy and continues to animate it. This globalist vision, furthermore, was not limited to U.S. policymakers — rather it was broadly affirmed throughout universities, think tanks, and leading business circles, repeated in countless op-eds and studies in the prestige press and leading American intellectual and foreign-policy journals, and ratified abroad in the corridors of enlightened globalism, such as the World Economic Forum, where it was steadily and approvingly echoed and endorsed.
To be sure, Washington recognized that Beijing was every bit a great power, animated by great-power ambitions. As Beijing’s economic and military potential surged, Washington, under Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama, shifted from Reagan-era alignment with China against Moscow to “engaging,” “hedging,” and “balancing” against China. But from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, China’s geostrategic disputes with America — over the South China Sea, Taiwan, Northeast Asia, and the rest — were regarded as manageable. Despite all the inevitable tensions and flashpoints, contentious security issues in the U.S.–Chinese relationship could seemingly be placed in a box. And with strategic competition compartmentalized, economic cooperation between the United States and China could extend out to an ever-expanding horizon, while also finding new avenues for possible international cooperation on “global commons” challenges — such as nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and climate change. (Indeed, great-power competition was thought by some to be anachronistic, given the cosmic nature of these other challenges.)
This at least was the essence of the Washington consensus calculation. And so, for four decades, the United States not only acquiesced in but actively facilitated China’s integration into the world economy and the multilateral organizations that administer peace and prosperity in the American-designed global order.
Almost immediately after the U.S. recognized China diplomatically in 1979, Washington’s “engagement” commenced. In 1980, Congress granted the PRC most-favored-nation status for trade on an annually renewable basis. That same year, with America’s assent, the PRC was granted membership in the “Bretton Woods” family: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank group. The PRC joined the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in 1986 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in 1991 (two years after Tiananmen), once again with American approval. Beijing completed its long march into the international market economy around the turn of the century. In 1999, China joined the new G-20 organization — as a founding member at express invitation from the U.S. Treasury Department. In 2000, Congress authorized permanent “normal trade relations” with China, and PRC membership in the WTO followed in 2001.
A parallel “normalizing” of the PRC was taking place in other parts of the formal and informal multilateral apparatus for transnational governance, too: By one estimate, China had already joined 50 international governmental organizations and 1,275 international nongovernmental organizations by the year 2000; in the years since then, China’s reach and influence in this multilateral construct has only grown. Meanwhile, the logic of the Washington consensus on China was often taken to mean that merely getting Beijing to sign on to global treaties was a “win.”
Modern China’s astonishing race to development is unprecedented and unparalleled. It is the most breathtakingly rapid record of economic growth and transformation in history. In 1980, China’s economy was, by some reckonings, smaller than Mexico’s; its merchandise exports were smaller than Norway’s and East Germany’s; its foreign-exchange reserves (excluding gold) ranked behind those of the Philippines and Trinidad. Today, it is the world’s largest goods exporter, has larger foreign-reserve holdings than any other country (with or without gold), and, depending on how we do the calculations, is either the world’s top economy or its second-largest in terms of sheer output.
Part of this success story is actually catch-up growth, progress postponed by two generations of war, civil war, and Maoist upheaval. Much of it can be credited to an official shift to decidedly more pragmatic policies and practices, including a variant of the “outward orientation” that spurred material advance throughout so much of the rest of Asia. But Americanpolicy was also absolutely indispensable to modern China’s amazing economic ascent. There is no doubt whatever that China today would be both poorer and weaker if America had withheld the economic sponsorship our “engagement” policy bestowed on Beijing for nearly two generations.
America is an unusual, not to say exceptional, country — and our policy of “engaging” China looks to be an exceptional experiment in the annals of international relations. It is (to say the least) a historical aberration for the established hegemon to enable, much less welcome, the rise of a challenger. The norm in power politics is always to contain and weaken would-be claimants to primacy. In earlier great-power contests — Athens versus Sparta, the Western alliance versus the Soviet bloc, even Victorian and Edwardian Britain versus Prussia — such a sustained outreach by the front-runner for cooperation with, and elevation of, the rival would have been utterly unthinkable.
From “Nixon to China” through de facto alignment against Moscow under Reagan and George H. W. Bush, U.S. China policy helped dig the grave of the Soviet empire and usher in our “unipolar moment,” which continues to this day. Since the end of the Cold War, Washington and Beijing have had tense standoffs (Tiananmen, the Taiwan Strait showdown of 1996, the Belgrade Chinese-embassy bombing of 1999, the 2001 downing of the U.S. EP-3E intelligence plane, and more). But none of these spun into a Cuban missile crisis. Beijing was no longer in the “wars of national liberation” business, and it did not take up a white-knuckle nuclear-arms race against America where Moscow had left off. World War III — a very real concern for U.S. policymakers in the Nixon-to-China era — had been put on hold, seemingly indefinitely. And Beijing is constrained by its own enmeshment in Washington’s liberal order, at least for now.
As for the benefits from integrating into the world economy: Here the U.S. and the international community gained too (though obviously not nearly as much as Beijing, at least in relative terms). A growing China offered new markets for exports of U.S. goods and services. No less important, inexpensive imports from China were boosting our national wealth as well.
China was an engine for deflation in a rapidly expanding world economy, and thus a printing press for international profits.
Further, China served as a willing, even eager, purchaser of U.S. Treasury securities, helping to underwrite modern America’s perennial current-account imbalance and to finance our federal budget deficit. There were even some glimmers that Beijing might have been getting ready to act like a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community, at least in economic affairs — for example, its stimulus commitment during the world economic crisis of 2008–09, undertaken in coordination with other leading economies, a spending jolt that not only put China back on the growth track but also buffered other economies against the global slump.
But this assessment of America’s China strategy is critically incomplete. Like the policy itself, it does not consider a terrible miscalculation — a complete oversight, actually — at the very center of Washington’s policy toward Beijing. While U.S. statesmen paid great attention to how they might constrain and deter Beijing through the economic and multilateral enmeshment they were devising, they apparently devoted almost no consideration to our own potential vulnerabilities from that very same interdependence at the hand of an unreformed and increasingly adversarial CCP. We did not think through what would happen if a powerful force in the world economy and in the global system should happen to be playing by a very different set of rules and with a very different set of objectives from those upheld by Washington, her global allies, and her international friends. But this is exactly where we find ourselves today.
In 1967, in “Asia after Vietnam,” Richard Nixon wrote of the “extraordinary set of opportunities for a U.S. policy which must begin to look beyond Viet Nam.” This riveting treatise is prescient, even prophetic: arguably in the same league as George Kennan’s “Mr. X” essay (though it remains today largely forgotten, given Nixon’s peculiar status as a prophet without honor in his own country). In it, Nixon presents America with a long-range vision for dealing with China, urging U.S. policymakers to guide their course in accordance with two objectives: “containment without isolation” and “dynamic detoxification.”
Regardless of its other accomplishments, our China policy has, to our immense peril, stood Nixon on his head. The CCP is no longer isolated — but neither is it contained. Quite the contrary, its reach in the global system extends further than ever before. Even worse, we neglected to draw off the CCP’s poison before we integrated with China economically. The coronavirus pandemic is a case study of the damage that a toxic CCP can wreak in our global system — and this may be only a foretaste of further disasters we may have invited on ourselves.
The particulars of the COVID-19 crisis shine a blinding light on the failures of America’s great China gamble.
The CCP did not behave as if the coronavirus outbreak were primarily a threat to public health. From the outset it instead treated the contagion mainly as a threat to party legitimacy and power. Epidemiological considerations were secondary: The regime’s first and foremost campaign was political, an assault launched against domestic and international enemies. Enemies were states, organizations, or individuals who demanded transparency about the nature of the new disease and about what the regime knew about it, or who insisted that the regime conform to international public-health and medical best practices for containing and controlling the epidemic.
The CCP’s own anti-epidemic tool kit involved lies, coverups, internal censorship, intimidation and persecution of domestic truth-tellers, a global disinformation initiative, and manipulation of an international institution it had succeeded in corrupting at the highest levels, the World Health Organization (WHO). The CCP repertoire also included strategic denial of key medical supplies to Western governments, and explicit threats to smaller states against which it believed it had gained leverage thanks to their dependence on trade with China. Through such actions the CCP bears inescapable responsibility for immeasurably worsening today’s raging global plague.
While the timeline of CCP misconduct is by now all too familiar, some points are worth revisiting.
The first case of COVID-19 may have come to the attention of Wuhan doctors on December 1, 2019 (although some accounts suggest an even earlier date). Soon thereafter, multiple cases of the strange new illness had presented, and a Wuhan hospital was sending out samples for testing to special laboratories. By the end of December, a Guangzhou-based genomics company informed PRC health officials and doctors in Wuhan that it had determined that the pathogen was a dangerous SARS-like virus.
Chinese officials ordered the company to cease further research and to get rid of all specimens of the pathogen. They then shut down the Wuhan seafood market associated with some (but not all) of the new infections and disinfected the entire location, destroying possible evidence and collecting none. On the last day of 2019, PRC Internet police swung into action, suppressing discussion of “Wuhan unknown pneumonia” on Chinese social media and blocking terms such as “Wuhan seafood market” and “SARS variation” from search engines.
A now famous Wuhan doctor, the late Li Wenliang, was alarmed enough about the spread of a new “SARS-like virus” to post his concerns on a WeChat group in late December. Chinese public security detained him for spreading “false rumors” — a criminal infraction under the CCP — roughly meaning “telling the truth.” On January 1, 2020, at least seven other Wuhan doctors were reportedly detained and threatened for speaking out. On January 3 the National Health Commission issued a gag order. From January 5 through January 16, the China CDC (Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention) registered no new cases of the rapidly spreading epidemic — even though hospitals in Wuhan and other parts of China were being swamped with patients afflicted with the disease. On January 10, PRC health expert Wang Guangfa declared on official CCTV that the “Wuhan pneumonia” was “under control” and mainly a “mild condition.” Meanwhile, the Wuhan Health Commission insisted that there were no new cases of COVID-19. By this time the first cases had been reported abroad.
And the cover-up continued. Four days after Wang assured the world that the virus was under control, Ma Xiaowei, head of the National Health Commission, confidentially alerted health officials through a secure videoconference that the epidemic was “likely to develop into a major public-health event” and that “clustered cases” suggested “human-to-human transmission.” The next day the head of the China CDC emergency center declared on state television that “the risk of human-to-human transmission is low.” Only on January 20 did China finally confirm human transmission officially.
The PRC lied about the prevalence of the epidemic in China from the outset and lies about it to this day. According to official PRC numbers, at this writing (June 2, 2020), China has suffered fewer than 85,000 COVID-19 infections and fewer than 5,000 deaths. These low claims — which would imply that China has sustained fewer infections than Peru, fewer deaths than the Netherlands — cannot pass the laugh-out-loud test. They are clearly off by orders of magnitude. It may be that the CCP is not bothering to collect accurate information on the toll of the epidemic at home — or is deliberately preventing its collection. But researchers outside China have come up with vastly higher guesstimates. In March, in the United Kingdom, scientific advisers to Prime Minister Boris Johnson reportedly informed him that the Chinese reports of infections were “downplayed by a factor of 15 to 40 times.” U.S. intelligence likewise reportedly concluded that the Chinese government had drastically understated the spread of the virus. In April, Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute calculated that a plausible figure for COVID-19 infections in China at that juncture might have been around 2.9 million — over 30 times the level Beijing has since admitted to — and his calculations refer only to estimated cases outside Hubei Province.
Speedy containment of the epidemic was plainly not a regime priority. Six days passed between Ma’s secret warning to officials about the novel coronavirus and Xi Jinping’s first public pronouncement, on January 20, that the “outbreak must be taken seriously.” In Wuhan, Lunar New Year celebrations continued. And throughout the rest of China, no immediate effort was made to reduce the tremendous upsurge in travel that the Spring Festival always occasions. By January 23, when Beijing imposed a lockdown on Wuhan and other parts of surrounding Hubei Province, millions had already left on holiday, circulating through the rest of China and the world.
Apparently, the regime’s concern in imposing travel bans was only domestic contagion, not the spread of the epidemic overseas. The day after travel to and from Wuhan was forbidden within China, Beijing forbade all domestic group tourism within China. While Beijing subjected its own citizens to internal travel restrictions, it criticized President Trump’s January 31 travel restrictions on visitors from China, saying the measures only “create and spread fear.” Historian Niall Ferguson of Stanford University estimates that over 1,300 flights from China and over 380,000 passengers landed in the United States in January 2020: a fateful measure of our current enmeshment.
Indifference to the international consequences of the coronavirus also informed a secret operation that Beijing planned in the days after it privately recognized the seriousness of the pandemic risks but before it acknowledged them publicly. Around January 14 or 15, according to a Canadian report, the regime issued urgent worldwide guidance to Chinese consulates and their United Front Work Departments (or UFWD, CCP organs that mobilize like-minded overseas allies to work on Beijing’s behalf) “to prepare for and respond to a pandemic” by securing, on a massive scale, international supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other medical equipment. (The broad outlines of this Canadian report were subsequently corroborated by a leaked U.S. Department of Homeland Security paper, according to the Associated Press.) In the six weeks following the alleged UFWD directive, China quietly managed to buy up much of the world’s available stockpiles of such gear as N95 masks. In all, as is now known from China Customs Statistics, the regime procured nearly 2.5 billion pieces of anti-epidemic equipment, including 2 billion masks, at a cost of over $1 billion.
This covert scheme temporarily stripped the rest of the world of supplies needed to battle the pandemic and helps explain the otherwise inexplicable shortages other countries faced when their own outbreaks struck. China did later agree to sell back some of this equipment to the international community — but at extortionate prices. According to Jorge Guajardo, a former Mexican ambassador to China, the Chinese markups on resold surgical masks originally procured from Mexico’s own stockpiles ran about 2,000 to 3,000 percent.
Beyond profiteering, the CCP’s approach to the pandemic internationally featured both political offensives and coercive diplomacy. America naturally was the target of a high-profile CCP disinformation campaign, with the spokesperson of the Chinese foreign ministry personally insinuating that the coronavirus had been brought to Wuhan by the U.S. military. China is also believed to have spread disinformation anonymously — for example, through text messages warning Americans that Trump was about to lock down the country, and through other memes intended to sow division or panic. But U.S. allies were also victims of official Chinese disinformation; regime mouthpieces implied that the coronavirus originated in Italy, a country hit especially hard by the pandemic.
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia called for an impartial, transparent international inquiry into the origins of the pandemic, China countered with economic threats. Australia has become highly dependent on the Chinese market, which accounts for nearly a third of its merchandise exports. Beijing cut Australian beef imports, imposed 80 percent tariffs on Australian barley, and raised the specter of punishing tariffs on other products too. Chinese tourism and Chinese students are also important to Australia’s economy — and the Chinese ambassador to Canberra hinted that “ordinary people” in China might boycott Australian tours and schools if the inquiry went ahead. For the CCP, honest investigation of its conduct is taken to be a threat to national security.
And then there is the World Health Organization, the international institution whose “primary role is to direct and coordinate international health within the United Nations system.” We can no longer count on the WHO for unbiased expert assessments, advice, and assistance in the COVID-19 crisis, for the CCP succeeded in perverting its leadership. In 2017, China successfully lobbied to promote its candidate, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus of Ethiopia, to director-general of WHO.
Unlike all previous WHO chiefs, Tedros is not a medical doctor. He is, however, a thoroughly political creature. A veteran of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front, he rose through Ethiopia’s dictatorship despite a persistent cloud of scandals over him. Tedros’s gut instincts were revealed early in his Geneva posting when he nominated Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president for life, to be a WHO goodwill ambassador. The offer was withdrawn under international outcry.
With the eruption of the COVID-19 epidemic, Tedros proved his worth as a willing accomplice to his Chinese sponsors. In the early weeks of the crisis he parroted the CCP’s line and shielded the Chinese regime against international scrutiny, stiff-arming international requests for access to local Chinese evidence and data. Perhaps the most comic moment of his tenure was when, on January 28, in Beijing with Xi, he lavished praise on the regime for its “transparency” in confronting the pandemic.
There was more. The assistant director in charge of the WHO–China Joint Mission on COVID-19, Dr. Bruce Aylward, sang the praises of Beijing’s coronavirus response: “If I had COVID-19,” he insisted, “I’d want to be treated in China.” His mission to China to assess the epidemic was packed with PRC personnel, and the report extolled Beijing’s “exceptional” commitment to “collective action in the face of this common threat.” In an internationally televised interview he also clumsily avoided questions about Taiwan’s genuinely exceptional achievements in combating COVID-19. (Beijing relentlessly strives to isolate and ostracize Taiwan, which was expelled from the WHO at its behest, and it is incensed by anything that lends Taiwan legitimacy.) Aylward, a Canadian physician, has repeatedly refused to appear before Canada’s parliament on the coronavirus crisis; eventually Ottawa took the unusual step of voting to summon him, but WHO legal counsel is fighting to keep him from having to testify before his own government.
It is impossible to assign a precise figure to the damage the CCP is responsible for in the current crisis. Relying on information available at the time, in March 2020, a team of epidemiologists from the University of Southampton in Britain simulated that the incidence of COVID-19 would have been reduced by 95 percent in China if Beijing had adopted “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (quarantine etc.) three weeks earlier, when the National Health Commission was attempting to suppress any information on the virus. But such a reckoning is both imperfect and incomplete, and it necessarily excludes the enormous social and economic havoc the CCP’s actions — and inactions — set in motion.
No cover-up is large enough to hide the truth about the CCP’s role in the global coronavirus disaster. Throughout the drama, the Chinese regime has acted in bad faith. It has treated its purported partners in the international community as hostile powers. In other words, it has behaved exactly as we should have expected from a totalitarian state embedded in a liberal international order, gaming the rules to its own advantage while also harming its enemies to the extent opportunities afford.
Embedding the CCP in the global order without prefigurement of potential consequences was a terrible miscalculation in its own right. One of those many consequences, furthermore, was to empower the CCP enormously. Economically and militarily, China is far stronger today than a generation ago, or even a decade ago. We have integrated an unfriendly government run by an unreformed and apparently unreformable political party into our domestic system as well as our global order. There is no reason to think that the COVID-19 disaster will be a once-only result from this great mis-integration. We are exposed to a whole new realm of uncatalogued risks to our well-being and security, entirely outside the military sphere that strategists ordinarily examine. We urgently need to take inventory of these risks.
Washington’s national-security policymakers have always focused primarily on external threats to the safety and well-being of the United States — and naturally so. Over the course of our history, most threats to our national security have come from “hard power” deployed against us by hostile states located overseas. The overseas focus of our national-security planning has been reinforced both by our geography — the providence of the two oceans that have long afforded a measure of distance from our adversaries and competitors — and by our national preference for “bringing the fight” to the other guy’s home turf if shots must be fired in anger.
There were, of course, exceptions. The Soviet Union funded agents of influence, political parties, and media organs and used disinformation against us, all on our home turf. But the CCP today poses a new and “unconventional” threat to our national security — and one for which established U.S. security doctrine offers virtually no guidance. This is a threat from within, by a hostile regime wielding “soft power” against us, our allies, and the international community. We are as yet almost completely unprepared even to think about this sort of threat, which makes it all the more potentially devastating. Having purposely integrated the CCP into our global system without heed of the unintended problems that could beset us, we are now in the awful position of suddenly realizing we must retrace our every step in the past 40 years of “engagement” with the PRC, with an eye to identifying vulnerabilities that we may have inadvertently inflicted on ourselves — knowing that these risks we are just now recognizing are, for the Chinese regime, opportunities, and ones to which they have already devoted lengthy consideration.
It would not be possible to offer a comprehensive survey in this space of these unappreciated vulnerabilities, but we can start by flagging a few of them.
i) Vulnerabilities from supply-chain dependence. We already know that the CCP is willing in principle to exploit for political objectives the vulnerabilities that foreign governments suffer because of their dependence on Chinese supply chains. In 2010, to punish Tokyo over an unrelated territorial dispute, Beijing without warning summarily suspended exports to Japan of rare earths, which are essential ingredients in the manufacture of electronics (including cellphones and defense equipment). At that time, China was the dominant global supplier of rare earths. In the intervening years, as China’s role in world trade has increased, the PRC has been allowed to gain a stronger position in other commodities that foreign states depend on as well — and is poised, should the CCP so choose, to threaten the economic or even national security of selected trade partners by withholding a wide range of products.
Supply-chain vulnerabilities are a distinct problem within the much larger family of risks attendant to weaponization of trade by the CCP. We focus here only on the threats that importing societies face from CCP-controlled chokepoints, but many other problems for China’s trading partners could and do come from Beijing’s manipulation of commercial relationships for strategic or political advantage (about which more below). As China’s role in the world economy has grown, so has the scope of these problems.
In 2019 the U.S. imported about $450 billion in goods directly from China — about a fifth of all merchandise purchased abroad. China is America’s No. 1 source of overseas products — and because of the globalization of commerce, a great part of the merchandise Americans buy from other countries also includes components made in China. But from a chokepoint perspective, most of this trade turnover lacks strategic significance, in the sense that a Chinese embargo of (say) umbrellas would not greatly inconvenience America, and likewise a PRC clampdown on (say) certain auto parts would just leave Detroit calling alternative subcontractors.
That would not be the case with information technology, including personal computers, laptops, cellphones, and the like. According to a 2018 study for the United States–China Economic and Security Review Commission, slightly over half the total supply of products for major federal information-technology providers from 2012 through 2017 came from China. Dependence on this scale speaks to the risks only of supply disruption. It does not even begin to account for the risks from the spyware, trapdoors, special chips, and so on that Chinese suppliers routinely place in their products destined for overseas markets.
America faces even more-acute vulnerabilities in pharmaceutical and medical products because U.S. firms outsourced most of the manufacture of critical elements in their supply chains to mainland China over the past generation. Yanzhong Huang of the Council on Foreign Relations notes that China now supplies 97 percent of the antibiotics Americans use, 95 percent of ibuprofen, 91 percent of hydrocortisone, 70 percent of acetaminophen, and a very large but as yet indeterminate share of “active pharmaceutical ingredients” (APIs), the basic building blocks in modern medications. China is also our top supplier of medical devices and our second-largest supplier of biologics. Well played, Big Pharma. What could go wrong with any of that?
A recent study by Britain’s Henry Jackson Society attempted to quantify the “strategic dependence” on PRC supply chains of the U.S., Canada, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand (the so-called Five Eyes). The assessment is necessarily somewhat arbitrary but informative nonetheless. It identified eleven industries as “critical” today (such as communications and energy) and nine others as vital for the future (such as quantum technology and synthetic biology). It determined that the Five Eyes countries imported almost 6,000 categories of goods from China in these sectors. “Dependence” was defined as the state of being a net importer. The study flagged over 400 categories of goods for which America was said to be “strategically dependent” on China — over a quarter of all categories of strategically important imports in the U.S. For Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, the degree of strategic dependence was found to be even higher.
In April, the government of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe committed over $2 billion to support relocation of Japanese manufactures out of China, to protect Japan against both inadvertent and deliberate disruption of supply chains involving the PRC. But reducing reliance on Chinese supply chains is likely to be expensive and difficult — and therefore unattractive for corporate decision-makers. In many commercial areas, China already has ample pools of skilled labor and well-developed infrastructure. There is also a scale problem: Vietnam and other prospective venues for relocation cannot yet accommodate the demand that China can manage. Unless U.S. policy demands otherwise, even in areas where the U.S. could be strategically vulnerable, some businesses may decide that their comfort zone lies in maintaining reliance on Chinese supply chains.
ii) Further vulnerabilities from “trade with CCP characteristics.” Forgoing exhaustive itemization, we can highlight the general nature of other problems we face from our commercial enmeshment with the PRC by contrasting them with difficulties that America in an earlier generation experienced with Japan. Japan was a rising economic competitor in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, gaining market share and making significant inroads in industries where the U.S. had enjoyed dominance. Many Americans at the time criticized Japanese trade practices — sometimes heatedly and harshly. But Japan was and remains an open society, a constitutional democracy, and a U.S. ally, while China remains ruled by a party-state that controls much of the national economy. Large portions of the Japanese corporate sector had what we considered unfair and ultimately unhealthy relationships with the Japanese state. Large portions of the Chinese corporate sector are owned by the Chinese state, and the rest have no choice but to accept CCP dictates.
One major difference between China’s “economic engagement” with the U.S. and that of Japan concerns intellectual-property theft. Japan was accused of violations on occasion, but wholesale pillaging is part and parcel of the CCP’s “business model.” In 2017 the Intellectual Property Commission, an independent think tank, estimated that IP theft by China cost the U.S. economy more than $255 billion annually and could run as high as $600 billion per year. (Such costs are intrinsically difficult to calculate, but even a much lower cost of, say, $60 billion annually would weigh heavily in any assessment of the net economic benefits of America’s engagement with the PRC.) While China was by no means the only bad international actor identified, the IP Commission concluded that the PRC alone was responsible for 50 to 80 percent of all global IP theft (e.g., counterfeited goods, pirated software, and theft of trade secrets).
Directly related is the problem of espionage, both economic and noneconomic. High-profile examples of Chinese industrial espionage targeting U.S. businesses abound. According to a 2015 estimate by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, economic espionage through hacking alone may have cost the U.S. $400 billion per year in 2012–15, with China reportedly responsible for 90 percent of it.
Though by definition it is impossible to know the true magnitude of China’s undetected espionage operations against the United States, Andrew E. Lelling, the U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, estimates that there were thousands. Note that such indications of the scope of PRC commercial and other espionage do not include the built-in surveillance capabilities of Huawei’s 5G network, for example, or of Zoom, the virtual-meeting app that the COVID crisis made so famous, nearly a third of whose employees work in China. Last month Toronto Citizenlab detected Zoom routing encrypted data from international users back to servers in Beijing (by mistake, Zoom says).
Perhaps most portentous, however, is the CCP’s approach to cultivating interest groups within the U.S., with an eye toward influencing American behavior and policy by pressure from within. This dates back to Mao Zedong’s use of “magic weapons” to influence foreign opinion in ways that might advance his struggle. Today Beijing has a large institutional apparatus to support such efforts, starting with but by no means limited to the United Front Work Department. With the allure of its large domestic market, and its thick network of economic relations in the U.S., the CCP is positioned to gain ever more from “magic weapons.”
Making common cause is the essence of politicking in open societies, and identifying kindred interest groups in other countries is integral to international diplomacy and negotiations among democratic societies. What sets the CCP apart is its use of these tactics as war by other means against countries it regards as hostile.
It may not have taken much strategic gardening for Beijing to exact groveling apologies last year from the National Basketball Association for a single tweet, by the general manager of the Houston Rockets, in vague support of Hong Kong democracy activists. Such is the economic leverage inherent in threatening to withhold TV revenue based on a potential viewership of 1.4 billion people. Perhaps the same holds for the paradox of the decision by Google, a U.S. giant, to decline collaboration in projects with the Pentagon even as it was operating in China’s police state.
But now that a great many of America’s largest and most profitable businesses rely on China one way or another for their sales and profits, it is hard even for apolitical managers in corporate leadership to ignore the risk of displeasing the CCP. It is one thing to lobby on behalf of one’s business interests, quite another when corporate elites lobby a U.S. presidential administration to soften up on issues such as strong support for Taiwan or Hong Kong, or human-rights abuses in general — and that line is sometimes crossed.
Beijing puts enormous pressure on foreign businesses to see their interests and those of the CCP as one and the same. So it is that the U.S. financial industry more or less consistently lobbies against efforts to bring Chinese firms into compliance with U.S. financial-disclosure requirements, for example.
Many titans of Silicon Valley have also tried to co-opt the U.S. government on their behalf, with varying degrees of success. The big social-media companies have been mostly shut out of the market by their Chinese competitors. Chinese influence through censorship has also hit the heart of American entertainment in Hollywood. Americans have likely noticed the absence of Chinese villains in American movies. Since China agreed to open its market to foreign films in 2012, Hollywood has had to make concessions to Chinese censors. Producers and directors must coordinate with the Chinese government or lose access to the Chinese market.
No less impressive, and no less worthy of greater understanding, is the sophisticated network of well-paid consultants and advisers, from Henry Kissinger on down, that has developed over the past 40 years to service a whole panoply of clients within China. It may suffice to observe that nothing like this coterie of consultants, fixers, and former high-level U.S. officials was ever a feature of the U.S.–Japanese bilateral relationship.
iii) Vulnerabilities in U.S. higher education. “Government, military, society and schools — north, south, east and west — the party is leader of all”: This cornerstone of “Xi Jinping Thought” and tenet of the CCP’s revised constitution of 2017 must be borne in mind when evaluating Beijing’s “engagement” with schools, both at home and overseas. With Xi’s ascendancy, educational policy within China has been formally mobilized against “hostile foreign forces” — meaning Western ideas and those who abet their “infiltration.” Under this policy, “educational exchange” with the U.S. has been throttled — but only on Chinese soil. Fewer than 12,000 American students have been authorized to study there in recent years; both their studies and their access to Chinese society are highly restricted. Beijing has a different approach to accessing America’s educational system, even if Americans do not recognize the scope of the CCP’s objectives.
China now has an enormous footprint in the U.S. educational system. In 2018–19, some 360,000 Chinese were enrolled in American universities. No other country sends more students. In 2019, students from South Korea, for example, totaled just one-seventh the number of those from China. Almost half of America’s Chinese university students are in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, and nearly a third of all U.S. doctorates in science and engineering for international students were awarded to PRC nationals in the years 2000–17.
Tuition from PRC students is a major revenue item for America’s institutions of higher learning, as much as a fifth of total revenue for some of them (see, e.g., the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign). PRC students in the U.S. (and their families) spent an estimated $13 billion in academic year 2017–18. (And that does not include gifts from China that the universities “forget” to report. The Department of Education estimates that such unreported foreign monies from China and other countries has totaled many billions of dollars since 1990.)
The broad benefits from this bilateral arrangement are clear enough. A large number of talented young men and women from China obtain a much better education abroad than they could at home, while America gets to hold on to most of this highly trained talent. Nearly 90 percent of U.S.-minted Ph.D.s from the PRC are still in America ten years after graduation.
Overall this looks like the sort of “win-win” that globalization is meant to encourage, although one could argue about which side profits more from the arrangement. But at the hand of the CCP, risks to the U.S. from this large presence are wholly different from, say, the risks from the almost equally sizeable population of students from the Republic of India.
To begin, there is the espionage. U.S. universities are both a target and, where possible, a platform for CCP operatives and helpers. From this platform the CCP can orchestrate placement of agents, theft of cutting-edge research, and spying on U.S. defense research at civilian laboratories and institutes.
This is not a hypothetical risk. It is going on all the time, all across America. A few examples from just the past year, as cited by NBC News:
A Chinese Harvard-affiliated cancer researcher was caught in December with 21 vials of cells stolen from a laboratory at a Boston hospital.
A Chinese professor conducting sensitive research at the University of Kansas was indicted in August on charges he concealed his ties to a Chinese university.
A Chinese scholar at the University of California, Los Angeles, was convicted in June of shipping banned missile technology to his homeland.
A Chinese student at Chicago’s Illinois Institute of Technology was charged last year with helping to recruit spies for his country’s version of the CIA.
We may also note the case of Charles Lieber, the chairman of Harvard’s department of chemistry and chemical biology. He was arrested in January for his alleged paid secret involvement in Beijing’s “Thousand Talents Plan,” whose goal, in the words of the U.S. National Intelligence Council, is the “legal and illicit transfer of U.S. technology, intellectual property and know-how.”
These are only the known incidents of recent CCP espionage in the American academy. Given the nature of U.S. domestic counterintelligence — perennially underfunded, haphazard, and often inept — it might be a safer first approximation to assume that CCP academic espionage in America is now taking place always, and everywhere.
The scale and scope of the CCP’s espionage efforts on U.S. campuses ought to make us think about other risks America may face from “academic engagement” with Beijing. Academic self-censorship and suppression of freedom of speech? We see this today in Australia, where a student critical of China at a highly Beijing-reliant college faces expulsion for speaking out. Chinese student activists shutting down critics of Beijing’s human-rights violations and bullying pro–Hong Kong demonstrators? Been there, done that. Just take a look at what has been happening on campus recently in South Korea. Why should we think “it can’t happen here”? Because Chinese authorities would never want to exert such sway in our country?
Ironically, the coronavirus crisis may create new opportunities for the CCP to pressure the American academy. From a report of the Hoover Institution and the Asia Society (2018): “Some American faculty members report troubling conversations with university administrators who continue to view Chinese students as such a lucrative revenue stream that it should not be endangered by ‘needlessly irritating Chinese authorities.’” Today colleges and universities across the nation are panicking about the loss of prospective tuition revenue in the coming school year — and PRC students who are not coming back will surely blow a big hole in the budgets of many institutions of higher education. What sort of entreaties, concessions, and compromises, one wonders, will the American academy be willing to proffer to woo these full-fare PRC students back to their schools?
iv) Vulnerabilities from penetration of international organizations and institutions. As a consequence of Washington’s design for integrating the PRC into global governance and of China’s rapid development, Beijing has become an increasingly significant player in multilateral organizations and international institutions. But the CCP does not intend to use its increasing influence in these places to promote “Western constitutional democracy,” “universal values,” “civil society,” or “the West’s idea of journalism.” Quite the contrary. The Xi Jinping regime regards all of these as direct threats to the CCP and its power, as is spelled out in the party’s now-famous “Document 9” of 2013. Xi has declared that the regime favors “reform of the global governance system” in order “to create a favorable environment” to promote “a great modern socialist country” — his own.
With the WHO’s top-level pandering to the CCP’s wishes during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, we got just a sneak peak of what “reform of global governance” is going to look like. The case of the WHO, we should note, demonstrates that the CCP does not need PRC nationals in charge to get its bidding done in global organizations — subservient foreign minions can do almost as nicely.
That said, Chinese citizens, as of April 2020, headed a number of multilateral institutions, including the International Civil Aviation Organization, the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, and the U.N. Industrial Development Organization. The international community also elected a PRC national as head of INTERPOL. Ironically, his tenure ended when Chinese authorities secretly arrested him for “corruption” and sentenced him to a lengthy prison term. And in a near-death experience for the international regimen for secure intellectual-property rights, the Chinese candidate for director general of the World Intellectual Property Office was beaten out by a competitor from Singapore this past March. Chinese nationals hold senior leadership positions in many other international organizations, including the U.N. Secretariat, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In light of the WHO debacle, Americans need to think carefully about the ways that Chinese civil servants in seemingly innocuous international slots could misuse their influence at Beijing’s behest. No one can seriously think that a Chinese international bureaucrat who resisted a directive from the CCP could ever return home without reprisal.
America’s failed experiment with engaging China has come at a steep price. Our country has incontestably benefited in a number of respects from facilitating China’s globalization, as already noted. But even a summary glance at the conventional metrics of great-power politics is worrisome.
China is far wealthier and more powerful than it was when the U.S. engagement policy began in the 1970s, and it seeks to undermine U.S. global leadership and geopolitical primacy. It has an increasingly formidable military and menaces U.S. allies around its periphery. With its increasing economic reach, growing diplomatic influence, and worldwide propaganda efforts, China is making the case that it is a rising global leader, in contrast to a faltering United States.
And the classical great-power calculus overlooks a very special factor in America’s rivalry with a rising China. That is the entire domain of internal threats to our well-being and security from a hostile foreign power deeply enmeshed within our globalized order. This is a new and unfamiliar security risk that we caused for ourselves — welcomed, even — because we could not see, or would not see, the dangers a rising CCP might someday pose to our system from within.
Thanks to our strategy of engagement, the PRC’s great-power challenge to the U.S. and the West is taking place in many more dimensions than did our struggle with the USSR — including dimensions we are only belatedly beginning to understand. By comparison, the Cold War may in retrospect look almost simple.
Even the old Britain–Prussia analogy is of limited utility in illuminating our current straits. Our enmeshment with China is immeasurably deeper and more complex than that of the U.K. with Germany at the dawn of the 20th century — and the CCP is more skilled at cultivating its opponents’ potential vulnerabilities than the kaiser would have dreamed of.
There is one important additional and devilish difficulty that our failed engagement policy poses for America. For the truth is that most of our economic connections with China benefit the U.S. side — and more than a few may benefit the U.S. more than the PRC.
If the current arrangements were overwhelmingly disadvantageous for the U.S., it would be a straightforward matter (albeit painful and unpleasant) just to end them. But this is not the case. Instead we find ourselves in a tableau mainly painted in shades of gray. Careful discrimination and informed judgment will be required to determine whether each of the myriad cords that bind us to China today is actually in the American interest. For each of these cords, domestic U.S. constituencies will be at the ready to make the case that their particular relationship really is.
And so today we must begin the task of quarantining ourselves against the CCP. If we are successful, that task promises to be laborious and vexatious and endlessly disagreeable. It will also be unceasing, with constant new questions about constant new opportunities always arising. It will entail close calls and near calls and bad calls, all of which will be debated publicly by critics and activists and would-be claimants. And it will require not just years of concerted effort and attention, but likely decades. Possibly the task will not be satisfactorily advanced in much less than a generation’s time.
But we have just had a dress rehearsal to remind us of what failure in this task will look like. And we should entertain no illusions that the CCP will spare us from exploiting the vulnerabilities we have offered them through the hubris of an only half-thought-through China policy.
— Daniel Blumenthal, author of the forthcoming book China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State, is the director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, where Nicholas Eberstadt holds the Wendt Chair in Political Economy. They would like to thank Evan Abramsky and Linda Zhang for their sterling research assistance with this study. The authors are responsible for any remaining errors. This article is sponsored by National Review Institute.
This article appears as “China Unquarantined” in the June 22, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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