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Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai welcomes U.S. President Richard Nixon during his official visit to Beijing, China on Feb. 21, 1972. Richard Nixon sought to play the China card as a way to gain advantage in the contest with the Soviet Union. (AFP/Getty Images)
Twenty years ago, the United States won the cold war by disintegrating the Soviet Union. Now, facing the People’s Republic of China, a regime that once looked up to the Soviet as the “Big Brother,” and whose economic and military strength still lags behind that of the United States, the United States often finds itself accommodating to instead of changing China. The fact is: the United States has grown ever weaker in promoting human rights and democracy in China, while the PRC has grown more assertive in the international arena.
At the very beginning, the Nixon and Carter administrations reached out to Beijing as an ally against the Soviets. After 1991, the change in the strategic situation necessitated a new justification for the relationship with the PRC.
For the last 20 years, the buzz word for U.S. China policy has been engagement. By contacts and exchanges, the United States has hoped to gradually transform China into a free and democratic society under the rule of law.
In the Cold War a head-on competition in hard power proved to be effective in bringing down a giant empire. In the case of the PRC, converting China to a democratic nation by engagement, which seems preferable in not involving an arms race, is in theory possible. If engagement had worked, it would have been the best foreign policy wisdom.
However, twenty years have elapsed, and China under Communist Party rule has seen zero political progress. History has proven that the policy has failed.
To be fair, the failure is not in the policy itself, but rather in conscientiously implementing the policy. The fundamental problem is that the United States has been more interested in economic gain in trade with China than in transforming a repressive regime. In practice, five things went wrong.
First, unfettered opening of the U.S. market to China.
After World War II, the United States was the world’s No. 1 super power, economically and militarily. Its domestic market is the world’s most mature and efficient market with gigantic purchasing power. Post-war world economic history has shown that if the U.S. market opens its doors to a country, that country will get rich. This was true in the case of the Marshall Plan that revived Europe, and also for Asian boomers such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
When the diplomatic relationship was inked in 1979, the United States granted the PRC Most Favored Nation (MFN) trading status, which needs to be renewed every year. The annual review of the MFN status gave the United States an upper hand. It could condition access to the U.S. market on China’s human rights record.
Beijing could not afford to take MFN lightly. Since 1978, economic growth has been the sole source of legitimacy for the ruling Communist Party, and its export-oriented economic model has made the U.S. market critical to China’s economy.
The situation changed in 2000, when the Clinton administration pushed through the law conferring permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) status on China. Thereafter, the U.S. market has been wide open to China without any material restriction, and the Chinese regime is relieved from annually having to gauge whether its survival might be endangered by its mistreatment of its own people.
With many authoritarian regimes, the United States has adopted a carrot-and-stick approach, but toward China, it dropped the stick. Nowadays many helpless U.S. officials, despite the wrongdoings of China, often sigh and say, “we don’t have any leverage.”
Behind the passage of the bill were U.S. corporations that gazed longingly at the cheap labor in China and were able to persuade the politicians to open the way for U.S. companies’ investment in China.
As a result, the U.S. government knowingly betrayed its own principles in exchange for economic benefit. It did so at a time when human rights had taken a disastrous turn for the worse in China. Only one year before the passage of PNTR, the communist regime started a nationwide campaign to eradicate the spiritual practice of Falun Gong, which campaign has become a model for repressing dissidence of all kinds in China.
Once open, the door can never be shut. The snowballing economic benefits become an effective weapon for Beijing to gain leverage over U.S. corporations, who then further influence the U.S. government for policies favoring the PRC.
Second, disregarding the competition in soft power.
As many U.S. officials in charge of China affairs were Soviet experts, they tended to adopt a similar Cold War approach toward the PRC and focused on the development of China’s economic strength and military buildup.
However, this approach ignores another source of power: the Chinese regime’s skill in winning domestic and international public opinion via deception and propaganda. It quietly works to build up soft power, which will materialize into hard power, which can be used to defeat the opponent.
Beijing indoctrinates the Chinese people with the belief that the United States is the No. 1 threat to China, while running non-stop propaganda programs that attack Western democratic values.
With the regime holding an iron grip on the Internet and other communication channels, the United States and other foreign media have an extremely difficult time giving the Chinese people uncensored information. The purpose is clear: to prevent liberal ideas from eroding the power of communist ideology and propaganda.
Meanwhile, Beijing has gone on the offensive. Every year, the regime invites U.S. federal, state, and local officials for guided tours courtesy of the PRC.
In the United States, almost every American family can now have access to English-language programming from the state-run China Central Television, via satellite, cable, or by broadcast. The government mouthpiece China Daily circulates in the United States in large volume.
In dozens of Confucius Institutes installed on U.S. campuses, young Americans are learning the Chinese language from teachers and textbooks sent by Beijing.
The regime is also exporting a large number of cultural programs and projects, promoting a Communist-sanctioned version of Chinese culture.
Chinese-Americans in particular, are exposed to Chinese-language media that are either bought or controlled by Beijing. For decades, Chinese embassy and consulate officials have been engaged with the local Chinese-American community, inviting them to attend conferences or pay visits back to their homeland.
These decades-long efforts are having an effect. In the backyard of the United States, the Chinese Communist Party has built an ever growing alliance, which has already started to advance Beijing’s agenda.
The so-called “Beijing Consensus” theory, which essentially makes the case for the PRC’s dictatorship, has found its way into public discussions. Important U.S. journalists have praised what they see as the high degree of efficiency of the Chinese Communist system.
Whenever some incident happens between the United States and China, many Chinese Americans speak out for Beijing. Even worse, the Chinese regime has been able to pressure democracy activists and dissident groups on U.S. soil.
The U.S. defense against this invasion has been weak. In a democratic and open society, the doors are wide open to Beijing’s media and cultural infiltration. Some have not even been aware such infiltration is taking place. (for example, the U.S. Department of Commerce issued its 2009 Media Award for Minorities to China Daily USA. This Beijing-based propaganda outlet is certainly far from what is normally considered a minority media.)
In addition, large U.S. corporations that surged into China for the sake of making a profit are being corrupted by their experience there.
The U.S. disadvantage in soft power has made it difficult for the U.S. to flex its hard power.
Trapped in the post-recession economic sluggishness, today’s United States is still the world’s number one economic and military power. However, in recent years, it has acted less and less like a supreme world leader in the international community. Multilateralism has become the rule of thumb. Russia and China can easily thwart its efforts on issues relating to human rights.
Administrations after President Ronald Reagan have not been proactively promoting freedom and democracy to China. Or if they have done so, they have done it quietly and most of the time with efforts channeled through Beijing.
The problem is that the Chinese side has been doing its version of “peaceful evolution”—which does not include human rights and democracy—more and more vigorously. If the trend continues, the balance will certainly tilt.
Third, treating a rogue regime as playing by the rules.
In the West, people play by the rules, with a common understanding of basic moral principles that ensure a fair game. When dealing with a rogue state such as China, the game is totally different.
A rogue does not honor its promises. In its bid for the 2008 Olympic Games, the PRC made several promises in 2001 to the International Olympic Committee regarding improvements in human rights.
When 2008 arrived, as Amnesty International pointed out, “in the run-up to the Olympics, the Chinese authorities have locked up, put under house arrest and forcibly removed individuals they believe may threaten the image of ‘stability’ and ‘harmony’ they want to present to the world.”
The Games went on and hundreds of world leaders flocked to Beijing and gave the regime a big boost. PRC clearly understood that if it did not promise to improve human rights, the IOC likely would not make a decision in favor of Beijing. However once the decision is made, keeping the promise is no longer important.
When the PRC applied for entry to the World Trade Organization, it gave many pledges to open its markets. However, once it became a full-fledged member, the pledges were simply neglected. Up until today, governments and corporations have been able to do nothing to make the PRC honor its word.
A rogue is also a bully. If you play nice with him, he will not reciprocate but even become more aggressive. During President Obama’s 2009 trip to China, he chose not to criticize its bad human rights record as a friendly gesture in exchange for Beijing’s cooperation on issues such as global energy and climate change.
Clearly Beijing just didn’t get it. Later at the year-end United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, as heads of state from two dozen countries, including U.S. President Obama, U.K’s prime minister Gordon Brown, and other world leaders, were meeting, the Chinese premier Wen Jiabao sent a second-tier official in the foreign ministry to sit opposite Obama.
As the U.K’s newspaper Guardian described the scene, “the diplomatic snub was obvious and brutal, as was the practical implication: several times during the session, the world’s most powerful heads of state were forced to wait around as the Chinese delegate went off to make telephone calls to his ‘superiors.’”
A rogue will also use deceptive tricks to gain an advantage. For example, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the PRC became a lone wolf in the international community. Facing worldwide criticism and economic sanctions, it came up with an idea and struck a deal with many Western governments to carry on a human rights dialogue behind closed doors.
The PRC’s view is that criticizing the PRC’s human rights is fine, but please do it quietly. Many governments were thus trapped. As a result, talks were nicely done, beautiful promises were made, the international criticism subdued, and the PRC continued business as usual.
Whenever the PRC is pressured on human rights, or before a U.S. president visits China, the PRC usually releases a political prisoner to show “improvement,” although U.S. officials may actually take the gesture as a diplomatic success. After releasing one prisoner, the PRC can immediately arrest hundreds more, once the media spotlight turns elsewhere.
Fourth, engaging with the rulers instead of the people of China.
The U.S. has consistently engaged with Chinese state officials and Communist Party cadres, not the Chinese people.
Engaging with officials may not be a mistake when dealing with a democratically elected government, where there is no huge conflict between the people and the government. But the situation is different in the case of China. The regime controlled by the Party is not legitimate and does not represent the people.
None of the U.S. Presidents has ever met in person with political dissidents or oppressed groups during their visits in China. In the past decades, much of the State Department’s funds for promoting democracy have been funneled through the Chinese government.
Between both governments, there are a wide range of established mechanisms of contacts and exchanges: summits for heads of states, high level strategic dialogues, state-provincial governorship meetings, and regular conferences of the political parties of both countries.
However, between the U.S. government and Chinese people, especially those who are suppressed by the PRC regime, there is almost zero regular engagement.
By making friends with the Chinese people, the United States can benefit in two ways:
First, by allying with the Chinese people, the United States is embracing the most powerful weapon for containing the PRC. The Chinese Communist most fears two things on earth: the U.S. government and the Chinese people.
A main reason why Beijing put economic development in the center of its national policy is to use economic growth to justify its continued rule, in the eyes of 1.3 billion people. While Beijing continues to suppress the Chinese people, it tries very hard to win their devotion by handing out monetary and material benefits.
In fact, most of the Chinese people do not belong to the ruling class and have been subject to various forms of persecution by the Communist Party. If the U.S. government could wholeheartedly help them and stand firmly for their freedom, rights, and beliefs, the United States would win their support.
However, if the United States fails to show its support for the people but instead makes friends with those who persecute them, the Chinese people would also see this and might give up on the United States.
Second, no matter how the political situation in China evolves, the future of China belongs to the 1.3 billion people. Engaging with them is to engage with the future of China, thus ensuring U.S. long-term strategic interests in Asia.
The Arab Spring gave fresh lessons. The U.S. had adopted a similar engagement policy with Egypt by befriending the regime’s dictator and viewing him as a U.S. ally in the Middle East.
In March 2009, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Egypt and the media asked her whether human rights violations by the Egyptian government would interfere with Mubarak’s visit to the White House, she replied, “It is not in any way connected…. I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family. So I hope to see him often here in Egypt and in the United States.”
In early 2011, people of Egypt took to the streets to overthrow the Mubarak regime, putting the United States in an awkward situation. After Mubarak stepped down, major political groups in the country have embraced anti-American sentiments.
Fifth, treating freedom and human rights as mere decorations for US China policy.
The U.S. government has explicitly set human rights and freedom as a much lower priority than trade and the economy, when dealing with China.
The semiannual U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialog, attended by top cabinet members and policy heavy weights, clearly outweighs the biennial U.S.-China Human Rights Dialog, led only by a State Department assistant secretary.
In February 2009, when Hillary Clinton visited Asia, she said that U.S. pressure on human rights issues “can’t interfere” with dialogue on other crucial topics.
Before the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, under pressure from Congress and the media, President Bush met with a few U.S.-based democracy activists in the White House, but this move could not compare with his personal trip to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Games.
U.S. actions send a clear and unmistakable signal: the United States does not attach much importance to human rights in China, which could be interpreted by Beijing as acquiescence to its human rights violations.
Obviously Beijing understands the implications of U.S. actions and becomes more aggressive. Every year since 1999, on the day after the U.S. State Department’s release of its annual human rights report, Beijing releases a report criticizing the U.S. human rights record, putting the United States on the defensive.
Li Ding, Ph.D. is a senior researcher with Chinascope, a Washington, D.C.-based research group that analyzes Chinese-language media.