The U.S. can't change China
It has not gotten wide attention thanks to the country falling to pieces, but the Trump administration has all but declared a new cold war against China. In a recent hardline speech at the Nixon Library, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that "today China is increasingly authoritarian at home, and more aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else." He argued that economic development had made China more authoritarian, not less, and it had abused the international trade system to steal jobs, production, and intellectual property from the United States.
However, it's not just Republicans. Democrats have also taken a much harder line on China of late — indeed, some Biden campaign ads attack Trump from the right. "Trump said he would get tough on China," says one. "He didn't get tough, he got played."
It would be a great mistake for American politicians to bluster their way into a high-stakes international conflict. The United States' severe internal problems make a mockery of the idea of standing up to China in the name of freedom, and confrontation would surely lead to disaster. Meanwhile nothing short of the future of the planet is riding on successful diplomatic engagement.
On first blush, the Trump administration's stance on China is utterly preposterous. Pompeo raises worries about China's authoritarianism, but he is part of an administration that is straight-up trying to steal the 2020 election. Trump is a classic budding tinpot dictator down to his ill-fitting suits, and the rest of the Republican Party (with a couple minor exceptions) would not object to setting up a Chinese Communist Party-style dictatorship in this country — so long as they were in charge and could prevent poor people from getting any welfare. Trump and the GOP are a million times' greater threat to American freedom than China ever could be. Similarly, Pompeo's complaints about human rights abuses against Uighur Muslims ring hollow given Trump's own Muslim ban and migrant concentration camps. So does his attempt to blame the coronavirus pandemic on CCP misrule, because Trump so obviously screwed up the U.S. response. Most of Western Europe has gotten it under control, just like China — only in America has it been allowed to rage basically unchecked.
All that said, Pompeo is right that the last several decades of American diplomatic policy towards China did not work as expected. President Nixon engaged with China with the objective of trying to split off the CCP from the Soviet Union (which did work), and also to coax the CCP towards liberal democracy (which did not). Every following president up to Obama followed a similar path, particularly during the '90s, when credulous faith in neoliberal economics was at its height. China got permanent normal trade relations in 2000 partly on the knee-jerk faith that economic prosperity would lead to political freedom.
What actually happened was that the number of U.S. manufacturing jobs plummeted by about 20 percent in just four years after 2000, as manufacturers shipped them to China, and starting about 2013 under President Xi Jinping, the CCP leadership consolidated more and more power at the top. It turns out it is perfectly possible to reconcile fast economic growth with brutal tyranny.
Pompeo might be a hypocrite, but he is also not wrong about China's slide towards abject totalitarianism. The CCP really is committing an attempted cultural genocide of the Uighurs in Xinjiang. There are perhaps a million Uighurs in reeducation camps, many have been sent around the country as slave labor, and many Uighur women have been forced to take contraception, had their pregnancies aborted, or been sterilized. Their cities are subject to a staggering level of constant surveillance, and their cultural and religious practices are being stamped out.
Across the rest of China, the CCP has developed perhaps the most advanced and intrusive form of Orwellian dragnet surveillance ever created — designed not to catch criminals or terrorists, but to create a nation of cringing, subservient sheep who will obey government demands instantly and turn in their fellow citizens for expressing political dissent.
All rather alarming! But that raises the question of just what the United States could do about it, even supposing Joe Biden were to take office in 2020 and restore some semblance of functioning democratic government. The plain fact is that the American government has limited purchase on the internal politics of any large state — and there is none larger or more powerful than China. Its economy is already larger than the U.S. economy, and its state institutions frankly work much better than ours do (which isn't saying much, to be fair). An actual war is out of the question given China's nuclear capacity, and I would not be surprised if even a low-level conflict turned out very badly for the U.S. military, given how thoroughly the Pentagon is infested with corruption, and how U.S. military capacity is built around vulnerable aircraft carriers. In any case, the U.S. is 20 years deep into a spree of imperialist wars of aggression that ruined an entire region of the globe. America is in no position to tell anyone how to conduct their affairs.
Indeed, it is fairly plausible to think that America has subtly enabled China's turn towards more sinister authoritarianism simply through its appallingly inept governance. If you were a CCP ideologue looking for evidence that Western democracy and liberal freedoms enable irresponsible, idiotic demagogues who cruise to office by whipping up mob hysteria and then proceed to bungle every single decision they make in office, the United States under George W. Bush and Donald Trump would be Exhibit A.
The best thing America could do vis-à-vis China is reform itself, setting a good example while maintaining warm relations with other nations around the Pacific rim — particularly Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand. If the U.S. were not such a shambling basket case and egregious hypocrite, the CCP might feel a bit more shame about its dysfunctional economy, moderately serious corruption, or murderous Islamophobia, and our allied nations would not be having second thoughts about depending on a superpower that is visibly pulsating with rot.
However, the U.S. does have one major lever it can and should use to influence China — trade policy. As I have explained before, the Chinese income distribution is hugely unequal, which means that its workers cannot afford to consume all that they produce. America has enabled that inequality by running a huge trade deficit — allowing China to avoid a depression of underconsumption by sending its surplus to the U.S. A President Biden could use trade policy not to incoherently lash out, as Trump has done, but to get China to cut down its inequality and increase American imports. That would help workers in both countries.
But as a general matter, the U.S. should abandon any expectation that it can change Chinese politics much from outside. At best America might push here or prod there, but ultimately the fate of China is in the hands of the Chinese people. That does not mean diplomatic engagement is unimportant — on the contrary, as Kate Aronoff argues at The New Republic, we simply cannot avoid negotiating over climate change, because China is by far the largest source of emissions today. It means that instead of conditioning diplomatic talks on trying to force China into undertaking some sweeping change, America should simply look for areas of mutual interest where a deal might be struck. Climate is certainly one of those areas, given how extremely vulnerable most of China is to sea level rise or other problems — the enormous Three Gorges Dam was recently under severe strain due to extreme rain and flooding.
Tyrannies have historically not lasted all that long, but it's impossible to say how long the CCP might hold out given its unprecedented techno-dystopia. America has no choice but come to some kind of way to live peacefully with China, and soon. Because we can't live without international action on climate.