I returned often over the years. Indeed, a couple years ago I realized that I’d traveled to the People’s Republic of China more often than to any other nation. (So long as I didn’t count transiting through Munich and Frankfurt airports as trips to Germany!) Most of my PRC visits were for academic conferences on everything from U.S.–China relations to North Korean policy to Asian economic development, but there also were journalist junkets, a couple stops on my way to Pyongyang, one transit through Beijing to another country, and even a travel‐writing trip.
There have been many high points: jogging through Tiananmen Square at dawn when the Chinese flag was being raised, a visit to the Three Gorges Dam and Yangtze River boat trip, visiting Mao’s Mausoleum, exploring the Forbidden City, going to a political poster museum in Shanghai, acquiring a cheap, oversize driftwood eagle at a flea market, running along Shanghai’s Bund, boating along the fetid canals of Suzhou on my first China trip, and watching the PRC grow in size, reach, sophistication, and energy on every trip.
But most of all meeting Chinese people in all walks of life, especially students. They have been uniformly bright, inquisitive, engaging, lively, friendly, determined, and scholarly. Patriots all, they are proud of their country, unhappy with controls over their own lives, committed to enjoying life, and ready to seize opportunities their parents lacked.
While I never expected China to become America, I hoped that the Chinese people would enjoy ever‐greater freedom. The consistent increase in personal autonomy was striking and rapid after the death of Mao Zedong. Responsibility for everyday actions people in America took for granted, such as choosing a job and getting married, shifted from the omniscient and omnipotent state to individuals.
So did many commercial decisions. While the resulting economy was not exactly free, it was far freer than before. That accounted for the staggering growth, most evident in cities, obviously, but also changing the rural landscape. Although the political system remained closed, life became more open and vibrant. And authoritarianism, though still very real, nevertheless was loose so long as the primacy of the Chinese Communist Party was not challenged.
Ideas at least could be discussed. People at my think tank engaged Chinese academics and other professionals and discussed the PRC’s future. While censors might quickly terminate social media debates on sensitive subjects, students were not afraid to ask — in public in front of classmates — challenging questions about both America and China. The latter’s direction remained uncertain, but its future looked solid. And that gave me hope.
Alas, any sense of optimism dissipated with President Xi Jinping’s determined quest to close the Chinese mind. It is a striking mission by someone who suffered during the Cultural Revolution, a period of political madness unleashed in a totalitarian system animated by rigid ideology and staffed by regime automatons. The result was death, torture, and prison for many. For even more Chinese the mix of party purge, civil war, and Mad Mao crusade created an intellectual vacuum, within which independent, creative, and challenging thought was impossible. At least, its expression would result in punishment as well as humiliation. Friends who lived through that period suffered in ways that I cannot understand, or even imagine.
Now the Cultural Revolution has returned. Not in form, of course. Thankfully, there are no Red Guards roaming the streets of Chinese cities, dragging hapless victims from homes and offices. Back then, however, official China was divided, since Mao was using his most rabid followers to wage a personal power struggle. In some areas hostile local officials were able to limit if not halt the resulting human depredations.
Today’s Cultural Revolution is more legal in form and appears to have CCP enforcers solidly behind it. State‐directed efforts to remold and socially engineer human beings have become pervasive and, in some ways at least, more brutal than those carried out a half century ago.
There are reeducation camps in which masses of people, mostly Uyghurs but others too — the dispute over numbers only accentuates the outrage — are locked up because of who they are and what they believe, and are expected to become a new mass man holding homogenized views imposed by Beijing. Churches are being forced to remove religious imagery and expression, to be replaced with pictures of Xi, supplanting Jesus as messiah, and communist propaganda, constituting new official holy writ.
Most any expression of free thought has been punished. Party discipline has been tightened. Independent journalism has been largely eradicated. Members of the human rights bar have been dispersed and imprisoned. Internet censorship has been toughened, with harsher punishments meted out on those who post forbidden sentiments on social media. Conference invitations require national permission. Independent non‐governmental organizations have been disbanded and outlawed. Unlimited one‐person rule has been established.
And now the new Cultural Revolution is being exported wholesale. In Hong Kong, freedom of thought and expression are being wiped out with the application of the new “National Security Law.” Tighter controls over the media and internet seem inevitable. In time the once rambunctious and free society of Hong Kong will look like most any other Chinese city: economically vibrant but intellectually drab. Pictures of the new political messiah will proliferate as he enforces his will and closes the independent Chinese mind there as well. And if Xi gets the chance, Beijing will do the same in Taiwan.
My reaction is overwhelming sadness as much as anger. Totalitarian rule by one, with the determination to crush independent thought as well as action, is a true crime against humanity. The nature of the human person requires being allowed to learn, experience, think, understand, discuss, debate, opine, and freely apply accumulated knowledge throughout life. For rulers to use the state to force their views — conveniently shaped for their political and economic benefit — on others is an outrage, whatever the excuses offered.
Still, hope remains. Some of Xi’s efforts may backfire spectacularly. For instance, ongoing persecution ensures that tens of millions of Christians secretly hate their ostentatiously ungodly regime. Indeed, when they retrieve their hidden Bibles after the security personnel depart a church raid, believers may turn to the book of Revelation. It describes the rise of two allegorical Beasts, political systems/leaders that demanded worship, blasphemed God, and marked the people. But then evil loses — decisively and dramatically. Through this imagery Chinese Christians likely will see their own government and its eventual fall, which will reinforce their faith.
In the meantime problems will continue to bedevil the Chinese state as it attempts to extend its authority. There appears to be no answer to the demographic cliff toward which the country is heading. The one‐child policy was a moral abomination and practical disaster that continues to weaken China long after its repeal.
Moreover, both Hong Kong and Taiwan demonstrate that ethnic Chinese people who live in free systems with unrestricted information and open debate overwhelmingly reject communism and demand liberty. Support for the CCP is vanishingly small among younger generations. They see Xi’s way as that of the past, not future. The PRC dictatorship can survive only so long as it starves people of information about the world around them.
Punishing inquisitive minds will hamper economic innovation. The CCP’s determination to control much of the economy and extend political influence over nominally private enterprise inevitably will do the same. Someday bad debts and property bubbles will have to be accounted for. If economic growth slows noticeably the CCP, which lacks democratic or moral legitimacy, will find its role roughly questioned by a population still waiting to enjoy the good life.
Moreover, Beijing’s abandonment of its “peaceful rise” policy has triggered second thoughts in many nations that had welcomed the PRC, especially for commercial benefit. There no longer is any doubt about what rule by Beijing means in practice. “One country, two systems” has been revealed as a contemptible fraud. Particularly noteworthy is rising fear and hostility in Australia and India for very different reasons, but which may have similar results. The international environment has become much more hostile toward an aggressively ambitious Chinese government.
Indeed, prior totalitarian episodes in history tended to end badly and often relatively quickly. While the CCP might prove resilient, control by one leader, an extreme and brutal one at that, might not. He may be simultaneously standing on the political mountaintop and at the edge of a political precipice. Mao’s blunders cost the latter his dominant party position, which is one reason why he triggered the Cultural Revolution. After his death the CCP raced to eliminate his impact though not his name.
Once Xi goes, there could be an equally swift campaign to eradicate his influence, and memory too, since he, in contrast to Mao, was not essential to the creation of the PRC. In fact, Xi’s once dominant presence could prove surprisingly ephemeral, leaving little trace, becoming a nightmare everyone desperately tries to forget.
And disappear he eventually will. Xi has created a large if disparate group of enemies. He dares not peacefully retire lest his successors do to him what he did to those before him.
Tragically, Xi risks the future of the Chinese people as well as his own. Contrary to critics of American engagement with the PRC, the opening to China should be judged a huge success. The escape of hundreds of millions of Chinese from immiserating poverty over the last four or so decades is a huge and undoubted moral good. Many friends have benefited from that change and now enjoy the advantages, economic, cultural, social, and personal, that resulted.
But the Chinese state, as presently constituted, will misuse any additional power that it gains. So long as the regime seeks to extend totalitarian controls, its strengths are a vice, not a virtue. And the West must address Beijing with that understanding.
What should the U.S. do? Adopt growth‐enhancing economic policies to raise American living standards. Improve the U.S. educational system, which badly fails those in the greatest need. Elect leaders who promote domestic and international cooperation.
Avoid war — whether hot or cold, military, or economic. Stop wasting lives and money on foolish, counterproductive interventions worldwide. Don’t treat policy toward Beijing as a campaign weapon. Work with, rather than dictate to, other liberal states concerned about the PRC’s totalitarian transformation at home and increased belligerence abroad. Avoid demanding that others choose between the U.S. and China: Washington might not like the decisions made. Emphasize the responsibility of Beijing’s neighbors to work together to dissuade the PRC from attempting a violent rise. Assist them in doing and cooperating more.
Finally, play the long game. Invite the PRC to play a larger, more responsible role internationally. Increase engagement with the Chinese people. Welcome students and scholars while addressing legitimate security concerns. Promote the free flow of information into an otherwise increasingly closed land. Avoid demands for regime change, insults to China, and other rhetoric and behavior likely to inflame nationalism in a people proud of their civilization and progress. Unashamedly promote the inherent rights of the human person to life, liberty, and dignity. Emphasize that political systems might vary, but every human being remains unique and of special value that transcends any aspiring empire and emperor, irrespective of how red.
China’s emergence is not ephemeral, even though there are legitimate questions how far and fast it will continue to rise. The end of the Century of Humiliation was long overdue. So will be the eventual end of the totalitarian state being constructed today. China deserves its place in the sun, to use a cliched and much abused term. But the Chinese people deserve much more, a political system directed by, concerned about, and accountable to them.
Through it all I will continue to admire China — civilization, people, and land. There is much to love, though not the government in control today. I look forward to the day when the ruling regime that oppresses its own people finally disappears.