China's extraordinary transformation over the last four decades has been among the most dramatic events in history.
One aspect of the PRC's rise was to create personal and institutional relationships around the globe. Multiple ties bind Chinese to people in nations, such as America, which only a few decades ago considered Beijing to be a reckless, dangerous enemy.
However, relations between China and much of the West appears to be moving in reverse. The PRC risks losing its best friends in other nations. Which could result in more contentious and destabilizing future relations.
Obviously, Beijing is empowered to make its own decisions, based on what it believes to be its people's best interests. And there is no reason to assume such judgments will match the preferences of Washington or elsewhere. However, when the PRC's policies inflame foreign sentiment, they risk creating costly blowback.
Consider trade. President Donald Trump can be criticized both for his focus on trade deficits — which are a largely irrelevant accounting measure — and confrontational approach.
Nevertheless, the PRC has taken advantage of the West's more liberal economies to benefit Chinese firms and, most important, the Chinese state. Chinese laws and rules have been applied in ways that hinder American and other foreign enterprises. American and European technology has been acquired through means both fair and foul.
As a result, many U.S. firms, once strong advocates of the bilateral economic relationship, have turned hostile. Some welcome the administration's economic truculence.
The result is to put at risk vast financial, product, and service flows which have been mutually beneficial. The danger goes beyond economics, however.
A Relationship At Risk
For years, commercial ties have undergirded the American-Chinese relationship. If that foundation deteriorates, other disagreements will loom even larger, putting the entire relationship at risk.
Beijing's crackdown on academic and other exchanges also concerns the West. Until recently Americans could work with Chinese to explore issues of common interest.
The willingness of Chinese scholars, thinkers, and activists to engage those from around the world was an important sign that the PRC saw itself as a member of a shared international community and system. While Chinese authorities might dislike some of the influences coming from the West, Chinese participants in turn acted as informal ambassadors for their country.
Hindering such exchanges suggests fear, the belief that Beijing cannot withstand free contact among peoples. Indeed, today's policy appears to be an indirect attack on Westerners who once visited and interacted freely with Chinese citizens.
Disagreements over the PRC's treatment of Hong Kong and Taiwan may be inevitable but need not pose insurmountable differences. The PRC's treatment of the two lands acts as a measure of Beijing's willingness to respect their unique characteristics.
Particularly important is China's commitment to peace. However, Beijing's recent policies suggest a dangerous impatience. Coercion and violence would undermine the relationship and, especially if used against Taiwan, risk broader conflict.
Western governments recognize the challenge of dealing with Muslim extremists. However, Beijing's extraordinarily harsh policies imposed in Xinjiang against the Uyghur population are seen as not just overbroad, but neo-totalitarian. That suggests a return to an earlier era when the Chinese government sacrificed the Chinese population to satisfy ideological imperatives.
China also appears to be reversing what had until recently been a more tolerant policy toward people of faith, protected by China's constitutional guarantee of the "freedom of religious belief." For many in the West, the willingness to respect people who exercise their faiths in ways that do not harm others is an important standard for assessing other governments.
Another reminder of an unpleasant past comes from recent criticism of the role of the constitution and rule of law. These concepts were helping to create accountability and predictability in governance. The seeming abandonment of these objectives brings to mind the PRC's previous experiences with excessive political power.
China: Return To The Past?
Overall, China appears to be racing backwards toward future hardship.
Most Chinese citizens understandably are sensitive about foreign criticism. But many of China's best friends in other nations fear that ongoing changes will badly undermine international relations.
Indeed, the PRC's policies have encouraged its neighbors to increasingly cooperate with other, more distant powers, such as America and India, against China. Even further abroad, some of Beijing's good friends have turned into critics.
The PRC has changed much in recent decades. It would be a tragedy if China retreated from the freer, more open society which it appeared ready to become. Beijing should listen to its friends as it moves into the future.