The communist revolution destroyed any hope of humane democratic reforms, but Washington’s refusal to talk with the PRC was still foolish. If the U.S. and Beijing had direct contact in 1950, they might have avoided clashing over Korea. Had the U.S. halted midway in North Korea and drawn a line from Pyongyang in the west to Wonsan in the east, Chinese intervention and two‐and‐a‐half additional years of war might have been avoided.
Mao Tse-tung’s bloody radicalism and bizarre public threats made dialogue with America difficult. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations even considered preventive war when the PRC was developing nuclear weapons. However, Richard Nixon changed course, turning the PRC into a partner to confront the Soviet Union. With Mao’s death came the normalization of relations.
America’s great hope was that political democratization would follow economic liberalization. For a time that seemed possible. Although the killings in Tiananmen Square cemented Communist Party control, there remained room for the promotion of more liberal viewpoints. That, however, ended with Xi’s presidency. Vice President Mike Pence recently noted that previous administrations had hoped “that freedom in China would expand in all of its forms—not just economically, but politically, with a newfound respect for classical liberal principles, private property, religious freedom—-the entire family of human rights. But that hope has gone unfulfilled.”
Indeed, Xi’s rule has become the great reversal. The PRC appears to be moving back to its totalitarian past.
Xi has eliminated presidential term limits. His “thought” is now enshrined in the constitution. He has broken the unwritten rule of not imprisoning those who ruled before him and discouraged anyone from voluntarily retiring in the future. His assault on corruption has conveniently targeted his internal adversaries. He has demonized Western thought, cracked down on liberal organizations, restricted academic cooperation with foreigners, established party cells in private companies, and tightened internet controls. His government is creating a system of “social credit” that restricts the liberty and mobility of anyone who fails to satisfy government behavioral standards. Religious liberty is under siege. The regime has established what amount to concentration camps—focused on re‐education rather than murder—for masses of Uighurs in Xinjiang. Meanwhile, Xi’s promise to speed economic reform has gone unfulfilled.
All of these are disappointing, even disheartening. But none threaten the U.S. and there is little Washington can do to change any of them. Sanctions are unlikely to persuade the regime to rethink policies that it believes essential to its political objectives.
However, private actors worldwide can take the lead in promoting greater information access to the Chinese, especially the young. I speak regularly to Chinese college students, and while they’re nationalistic, they nevertheless desire freedom. Few of them want to be ruled by a resurrected Mao. Breaching the Great Firewall, in particular, should become a public as well as private obligation.
There are also plenty of economic complaints against Beijing. The problem is not the trade deficit, an accounting fiction that aggregates private purchases and sales. (Money spent on imports shouldn’t be considered lost but delivering goods and services and returns as investment.) Rather, the PRC has used the West’s relatively greater economic liberty to its advantage.