By Dr. Yang Jianli and Dr. Han Lianchao
Recently the Washington Post published an open letter to President Trump and Congress, authored by five China experts and co-signed by 95 academics. The title signaled the intent of the letter: “China is not an Enemy.”
The authors walk through “seven propositions” that represent views on China and how the U.S. should interact with China. Let’s take them one by one.
We put the paragraphs of the original letter bold italics, followed by our corresponding responses in regular type.
Dear President Trump and members of Congress:We are members of the scholarly, foreign policy, military and business communities, overwhelmingly from the United States, including many who have focused on Asia throughout our professional careers. We are deeply concerned about the growing deterioration in U.S. relations with China, which we believe does not serve American or global interests. Although we are very troubled by Beijing’s recent behavior, which requires a strong response, we also believe that many U.S. actions are contributing directly to the downward spiral in relations.
The authors start with their deep concern for the “growing deterioration” in the U.S.-China relationship. As China experts and human rights activists who have lived in both China and America for decades, we care deeply for both China (the land of our birth) and the United States (the country we choose to live in). We also want to see the U.S.-China relationship–and the citizens in each country–flourish. However, the authors of the letter have fallen into a trap that has plagued every generation of China scholars and experts in the West. They place the blame for the downturn in U.S.-China relations on the United States and summarily gloss over the extensive and blatant sins of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime in the process.
The U.S.-China relationship has almost never been about who is in the White House. China has always been in the driver’s seat in the relationship precisely because our foreign policy establishment doesn’t want to recognize the true intention of the CCP. And this is despite it being consistent and transparent in its doctrine and actions.
We believe the CCP regime is the biggest threat to the US and the free world and must be treated accordingly.
The following seven propositions represent our collective views on China, the problems in the U.S. approach to China and the basic elements of a more effective U.S. policy. Our institutional affiliations are provided for identification purposes only.
1. China’s troubling behavior in recent years — including its turn toward greater domestic repression, increased state control over private firms, failure to live up to several of its trade commitments, greater efforts to control foreign opinion and more aggressive foreign policy — raises serious challenges for the rest of the world. These challenges require a firm and effective U.S. response, but the current approach to China is fundamentally counterproductive.
Recent appalling behavior of China’s party-state is almost too depressing to list, but here are just the highlights: holding more than one million Uyghurs are in concentration camps; turning the country into a hyper police-state with Orwellian surveillance; systematically torturing human rights-defense lawyers and repressing any dissent; breaking its international commitment to let the Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong; threatening to use force to take over Taiwan; aggressive militarization in the South China Sea; an expansionist economic and political model (belt and road initiative); and a global propaganda campaign designed to export its totalitarian model to the world.
At every critical point in the history of the past forty years of U.S.-China relations, most of the members of the U.S. scholarly, foreign policy, military and business communities, including most of the signers of the letter, have never accurately predicted China’s behavior would be so troubling today. Forty years ago when the U.S. and PRC first established the formal diplomatic ties, thirty years ago in the “trade-human rights” debate in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Incident, and 18 years ago when the U.S. allowed China’s WTO entry almost without any institutional conditions, most of the signers effectively promoted the idea that bringing China into the global economic order would changes its behaviors and that “normal” trade would lead to democracy because trade would inevitably result in economic growth and the growth of the middle class which would in turn demand more political freedom. After the Tiananmen Massacre, we came to Washington trying to let Congress and the community of China policy makers understand that continuing the so called “normal” trade relations with China, with it not being linked to human rights, would be like a blood transfusion to the CCP regime, making it more aggressive and harming the interests of both the American and Chinese people. Unfortunately, our warning largely fell on the deaf ears and the rest is the history. Today, the members of the US scholarly, foreign policy, military and business communities must have the courage to admit the mistake and the understanding and vision to go about the business differently.
The Trump Administration’s China policy is for the first time keeping the Chinese regime on its toes. In some ways President Trump is more popular in China because Chinese people think President Trump is the only person who has stood up to China’s leaders. He is creating a new domestic China dynamic that might actually bring about some positive changes in China, while at the same time protecting American interests. President Xi Jinping is keeping a tight lid on any opposition, but so many Chinese respect President Trump’s strongman approach because they hope it will help force the Chinese Communist Party to change.
2. We do not believe Beijing is an economic enemy or an existential national security threat that must be confronted in every sphere; nor is China a monolith, or the views of its leaders set in stone. Although its rapid economic and military growth has led Beijing toward a more assertive international role, many Chinese officials and other elites know that a moderate, pragmatic and genuinely cooperative approach with the West serves China’s interests. Washington’s adversarial stance toward Beijing weakens the influence of those voices in favor of assertive nationalists. With the right balance of competition and cooperation, U.S. actions can strengthen those Chinese leaders who want China to play a constructive role in world affairs.
It is the Communist party-state–not the United States–that has put China and America on a confrontational footing. Even during the best times in US-China relations, China’s official rhetoric always included sayings like “the US Imperialists always want to destroy us (美帝亡我之心不死).” Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying, for example, widely considered more friendly and less ambitious by the Americans, “hide our capabilities and bide our time” says so much and so clearly.
The Tiananmen Square Massacre ripped off the façade of the CCP’s Marxist ideology. Over the subsequent 30 years, the CCP thus relied on two sources of legitimacy: high-speed economic development (performance-induced legitimacy), and nationalism. Nationalism needs enemies. Internally, minorities such as Uyghurs and Tibetans have fallen prey to CCP’s Han nationalism while, externally, America has been steadily projected as the most staunch and profound enemy in the past 30 years, with Japan, the Philippines, Korea, France, the UK replacing it as the immediate target intermittently for flaring issues. Beijing has never been willing to help America with North Korea, and its UN Security Council voting record clearly shows China rarely sides with the U.S. on any issues.
The Chinese Communist regime has grown into a Frankenstein’s monster, terrorizing peoples both domestically and internationally.
And while the U.S. was busy appeasing China’s interest, the party-state has been stealing tens of billions worth of U.S. intellectual property and trade secrets through cyberattacks and large-scale industrial espionage, rewriting WTO rules, launching “Made in China 2025,” that employs dirty tricks to surpass the US in global high-tech manufacturing.
During the same period, the U.S. diplomatic establishment largely harbored the delusion that economic growth will bring about democracy in China. U.S. Presidents and other senior officials, have avoided pushing the issue of human rights, deeming thosei ssues inconvenient while engaging with China. Faced with the rising China, the U.S. gradually lost leverage. Now, Chinese leadership cares little about the pressure from Western public opinion because politicians and businessmen from around the world are salivating over China’s immense purchasing power, investments and markets. It’s no exaggeration to say that today, Chinese leaders are the most well-received, honored guests in a majority of countries worldwide; China is the destination for many of the world’s elite who thirst for money. Beijing tightly controls the freedom of the press. They could cut off Google and Yahoo anytime; they have refused visas for New York Times journalists and critical scholars, and blocked access to Twitter and Facebook. All without impunity. While at the same time, they can set up any media they would like in the U.S. Ironically, China, which screens, censors and bans any print and electronic publication, has been invited to serve as the country of honor at book fairs in Frankfurt, London, and New York. Hollywood is the epitome of free American culture; filmmakers are free to ridicule, mock, and criticize American politicians and government officials such as senators, judges, and the president, without fear of persecution. But in their pursuit of China’s box office dollars, Hollywood executives have consciously decided to steer clear of any criticism of the Chinese government. Despite this, American movies are still censored in China, and some are not allowed at all. Virtually all the American media are blocked in China. In the United States today, the Chinese government and its surrogates have wide access to universities, think tanks, and broadcast studios through which they can advance their opinions and rationalize their actions.
The party-state is using the economic power it has gained with the help of the West to build a formidable, modern military that can reach every corner of the earth. As its power grows, China is demanding a rewrite of international norms and rules. China wants to create a new international order with China at the center of the Asia-Pacific region, bringing regional and world peace under threat. Its global military expansion, in South China Sea, Africa, and other parts of the world clearly targets the American interests.
In fact, China’s strategic goal has never changed: the goal has always been to defeat the United States in both wartime and peacetime to gain world dominance. According to its own admission, the party-state wants to replace capitalism with socialism with Chinese characteristics, and replace western civilization with Chinese communist civilization.
Why do we continue to believe the rhetoric that China does not want to replace the U.S. as a superpower? The evidence is overwhelming and we ignore it at our peril.
No regime is a monolith. This says little more than nothing about the reality in the CCP regime. For sure, there is always someone out there favoring a moderate, pragmatic and genuinely cooperative approach with the West. But their voices have not strengthened in the past 40 years when America treated China not as an enemy and at times even as a strategic partner in the past forty years under different presidents from both parties. In China under Xi Jinping, the political coercion he is imposing on his comrades, “no discussing the central committee’s policies in an open manner” （不虚妄议中央),” renders no one makes any political space except himself, who has built his own personality cult and made himself a president for life as he went backward in almost each and every policy sphere. The fact is that, in such a political situation, no one, regardless of his or her views, is daring or willing to express his or her minds, let alone put any thoughts into action. Wang Yang, the CCP’s top political advisor and one of the seven standing members of the Politburo, who is widely considered an open-mined reformist, made very “candid” remarks about Taiwan and America in his recent meeting with Taiwan delegates of the Fourth Cross Straight Media Summit. Wang said: “The Americans just treat Taiwan as a pawn. Will America go to war with China over the Taiwan issue? My judgment is no. And if they fight, will they win? I judge they cannot.” Wang mentioned that the American-led UN forces did not defeat the (Chinese) Volunteer Army on Korean War battlefields. At that time, China was still impoverished. “Facing today’s China, would America dare to go to war with China?”. We cannot afford to forget that going to war with the Americans in Korea in the 1950’s and normalizing relations with America were all decided by Chairman Mao himself.
3. U.S. efforts to treat China as an enemy and decouple it from the global economy will damage the United States’ international role and reputation and undermine the economic interests of all nations. U.S. opposition will not prevent the continued expansion of the Chinese economy, a greater global market share for Chinese companies and an increase in China’s role in world affairs. Moreover, the United States cannot significantly slow China’s rise without damaging itself. If the United States presses its allies to treat China as an economic and political enemy, it will weaken its relations with those allies and could end up isolating itself rather than Beijing.
This is a misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the ongoing U.S. trade conflict with China. Nothing is further from the truth to describe U.S. efforts as to decouple China from the global economy. The China policy shift America is taking, triggered by the so-called trade war with China, is a rightful and necessary reaction to China’s gross violations of international norms, its predatory economic exploitation and expansion will continue to harm American interests as well as those of all other nations. It is set to level the playing field in trading with China and get it to observe the international economic norms.
It is all about fairness. If a member of the international community conducts its business unfairly by breaking rules and norms, it should be subjected to punishment and all other members should work together to find ways to change its behaviors. Given its historical role in establishing the international order and the size of its stake in all this, America should take the lead in confronting China. We have a lot reservation and concerns about how President Trump has handled U.S. allies. But it is not America’s pressing its allies to treat China as an economic and political enemy that weakens its relations with those allies. Rather, it is mainly because differences on such other issues as trade imbalance, climate change and Iran, and more. None of the differences between America and these allies over these issues is rooted in value conflict and, therefore, they can be resolved through negotiations. When it came to China, it was Australia, not America who was the first to confront China on the issues of trade, security and political infiltration. When America first pressed Canada and European allies on China on trade and Huawei, there was some reluctance to immediately side with America (due to the Trump factor) and so China had hopes of winning them over. Later, however, they made their choice based on value not price. On March 12, 2019, in a departure from its usual soft approach on Beijing, European Commission called China “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” in its statement entitled “Reviews relations with China, proposes 10 actions”.
The U.S.-China trade war has shifted US China policy toward countering China’s influence in various fields. This has been described by some observers as the “New Cold War.” The conflict is not merely about trade, it’s comprehensive in nature. The deepest conflict is between values. Otherwise, it would be inexplicable as to why Canada, which is also involved in a fierce trade conflict with America, is siding with it in the so called New Cold War. When Canada arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou upon America’s request, China used tactics such as arbitrarily detaining Canadian citizens and illegally meting out death penalty on a Canadian citizen to engage in crazy revenge.
In recent months, Canada (https://www.wsj.com/articles/canadian-vessels-pass-through-taiwan-strait-11560976733) and France (https://www.economist.com/china/2019/05/09/china-bristles-at-western-naval-transits-through-the-taiwan-strait) have joined the US in sending ships pass through the Taiwan Straight and Germany is considering to do so too (https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2019-06-07/german-warship-can-send-a-message-to-china-and-the-u-s). We must admit that the aligning of the allies would have been sooner and easier it were not for Trump’s insensitivity in maintaining and managing relations with America’s allies.
China’s leaders have assured the world that it will rise peacefully, but its actions speak otherwise: it uses every leverage to outmaneuver and outmatch the West. Its global economic and political influence and infiltration have already seriously undermined the global economy and distorted democratic norms. The U.S. is the only country that can contain China’s predatory rise because China needs the American market and American technologies. China sees the trade conflict as just a cover for an ideological conflict. It is not the U.S. that is spoiling for a fight. It is China’s party-state that sees a fight as inevitable. Just two months ago Xi Jinping reminded the Party in its official magazine, Qiushi, that they “must defeat capitalism.” For China, this is not just a slogan.
Make no mistake, allowing China’s party-state to continue its predatory rise is NOT in the interest of America and its allies.
4. The fear that Beijing will replace the United States as the global leader is exaggerated. Most other countries have no interest in such an outcome, and it is not clear that Beijing itself sees this goal as necessary or feasible. Moreover, a government intent on limiting the information and opportunities available to its own citizens and harshly repressing its ethnic minorities will not garner meaningful international support nor succeed in attracting global talent. The best American response to these practices is to work with our allies and partners to create a more open and prosperous world in which China is offered the opportunity to participate. Efforts to isolate China will simply weaken those Chinese intent on developing a more humane and tolerant society.
We have no idea how the signers of the letter know Beijing do not see the goal of replacing the U.S. as the global leader as necessary and feasible. Again, even Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying, widely considered more friendly and less ambitious by the Americans, said as such: “hide our capabilities and bide our time.” The threat of China’s party-state to our economic, political, and international order is serious. We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand, calling the threat “exaggerated.”
Let’s assume the signers of the letter are right in saying the Beijing’s ambition is exaggerated. But that does not imply at all the U.S. should not contain China’s unfair, exploiting and aggressive behaviors. Otherwise, North Korea, who we don’t think has the intention to replace the U.S. as the global leader and who itself sees the goal infeasible, shouldn’t be contained. The U.S. has, in the past 40 years, never tried to isolate China but, instead, welcomed it with opened arms to the open and prosperous world. China has been afforded many opportunities to participate in an open and free international society and to be a responsible stakeholder, but it has refused to observe rules and norms and to behave itself both at home and abroad. What the signers said above — “ a government intent on limiting the information and opportunities available to its own citizens and harshly repressing its ethnic minorities”— is partly an inevitable outcome of U.S. appeasement policy toward the CCP. And we want to emphasize that the capability to repress internally is positively related to the ambition and ability to expand externally. This is very true of the CCP regime.
The best American response to these practices is to work with our allies and partners to create a more open and prosperous world in which China is offered the opportunity to participate, observe rules and norms and behave itself both at home and abroad. We won’t strengthen China’s moderates by coddling China’s dictator.
5. Although China has set a goal of becoming a world-class military by midcentury, it faces immense hurdles to operating as a globally dominant military power. However, Beijing’s growing military capabilities have already eroded the United States’ long-standing military preeminence in the Western Pacific. The best way to respond to this is not to engage in an open-ended arms race centered on offensive, deep-strike weapons and the virtually impossible goal of reasserting full-spectrum U.S. dominance up to China’s borders. A wiser policy is to work with allies to maintain deterrence, emphasizing defensive-oriented, area denial capabilities, resiliency and the ability to frustrate attacks on U.S. or allied territory, while strengthening crisis-management efforts with Beijing.
True, China is facing immense hurdles to becoming a military superpower it wants to be. But don’t doubt for a minute that it will not achieve this goal if not stopped. The U.S. has worked (and continues to work) with its allies to deter China’s military expansion and aggression. At the same time, the U.S. has not stopped its engagement with the Chinese military. But we must recognize that this engagement has not stopped the expansion of China’s military. Xi Jinping is determined to have his modern military “built to fight,” and “able to win wars,” a goal stated in his speech at the 19th party congress. Superior strength is the only way to dissuade aggression. China is racing to build its fighting capability, including deep-strike weapons. The U.S. must maintain its own superior power in response.
The bottom line is the U.S. should not tolerate the fact the CCP is taking blood transfusion from the U.S. to beef up itself economically and militarily and in turn harming the interests of both the American and Chines people and threatening the security of America and its allies. The U.S. must change the past course and do it collectively with its allies. It can and should do better.
6. Beijing is seeking to weaken the role of Western democratic norms within the global order. But it is not seeking to overturn vital economic and other components of that order from which China itself has benefited for decades. Indeed, China’s engagement in the international system is essential to the system’s survival and to effective action on common problems such as climate change. The United States should encourage Chinese participation in new or modified global regimes in which rising powers have a greater voice. A zero-sum approach to China’s role would only encourage Beijing to either disengage from the system or sponsor a divided global order that would be damaging to Western interests.
The signers of the letter argue that Beijing doesn’t want to overturn Western economic order because China has benefited from the system. This is perhaps their most naive argument. China has never been, and does not plan to be, a good-faith actor in the Western-dominated economic and political system. It has consistently used and twisted the rules of the system to its own benefit. Defeating capitalism remains the long-standing goal for the party-state. It is actively creating its own system and rapidly changing the current system to fit its own ideals. Playing nice with the CCP as a means of bringing them into international norms is a sure-fire way to lose those norms.
If Beijing, seeking to weaken the role of Western democratic norms within the global order, has itself benefited from that order for decades, it is the time for the US and other democracies to work together to find ways to change Beijing’s behavior in this order and defend the democratic norms, or to help change China’s political system altogether so it will ultimately observe the democratic norms. It is the only right and logical thing to do. How could one advocate otherwise — letting China continue to benefit from the order where it is trying to do everything possible to weaken the role of Western democratic norms and even giving China a greater voice?
7. In conclusion, a successful U.S. approach to China must focus on creating enduring coalitions with other countries in support of economic and security objectives. It must be based on a realistic appraisal of Chinese perceptions, interests, goals and behavior; an accurate match of U.S. and allied resources with policy goals and interests; and a rededication of U.S. efforts to strengthen its own capacity to serve as a model for others. Ultimately, the United States’ interests are best served by restoring its ability to compete effectively in a changing world and by working alongside other nations and international organizations rather than by promoting a counterproductive effort to undermine and contain China’s engagement with the world.)
This last proposition leaves us a bit befuddled. After arguing for six propositions that the U.S. can cajole China into cooperation and that it isn’t really a threat, we finally get to the point that the U.S. needs friends to contain China.
In conclusion, nobody will disagree that “a successful U.S. approach to China must focus on creating enduring coalitions with other countries in support of economic and security objectives,” or that “(i)t must be based on a realistic appraisal of Chinese perceptions, interests, goals and behavior; an accurate match of U.S. and allied resources with policy goals and interests; and a rededication of U.S. efforts to strengthen its own capacity to serve as a model for others.” But, the signers’ appraisal of Chinese perceptions, interests, goals and behavior were wrong two decades ago and, unfortunately, remains the same today. The fundamental point here is that the signers have dangerously misread China’s strategic intent dangerously prescribed for the U.S. the continuation of our failed policy toward China.
Here we want to repeat our three propositions–There is no such thing as a free trade between a free society and a closed one.–The regime that treats its own people harshly won’t treat other people nicely.–China’s human rights deficit has contributed largely to America’s trade deficit with China.
We believe that the large number of signers of this open letter clearly indicates that there is no single Washington consensus endorsing an overall adversarial stance toward China, as some believe exists.
The signers of the letter call for more of the old-school China engagement–the type of engagement that got us the powerhouse military and economy that China enjoys today with absolutely no hint of democratic development. No thanks. We have ample evidence of where that got us. It’s time to engage China with Moral and Strategic Clarity. The struggle for our economic and political future is real. Yes, there has never been single Washington consensus toward China. But the big question is: How many Americans want to continue the mistake of the past forty years?