America’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China is a bygone relic of a Cold War strategy to play the two great Communist superpowers, the USSR and the PRC, against each other.
The USSR has been gone for a long time, but our strategy hasn’t changed much since the era when Nixon used tensions between China and Russia as the basis for his diplomatic strategy. It was a clever gambit, even if the price for our relationship with China was betraying Taiwan. Republicans had once built their case against Truman and the Democrats around their betrayal of China’s Nationalists.
The down payment on Nixon’s China strategy was making Truman’s betrayal into his own.
Nixon’s China strategy may have been amoral and unprincipled, but it was a proactive plan. The same thing couldn’t be said 30 years later when the PRC put down democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square, and the Bush administration shrugged, and the PRC’s most-favored-nation status endured.
By then, the United States no longer needed China to balance out a collapsing Soviet Union. Instead, long before the NBA’s complicity in Hong Kong, American business had become dependent on China.
That’s why every effort to link China’s human rights to most-favored-nation status collapsed.
Bill Clinton had promised that China’s most-favored-nation status would depend on its human rights. But, like most of Clinton’s promises, this turned out to be another lie. Instead, Clinton insisted that trade would open up the Communist dictatorship and encourage it to respect human rights.
“Let me ask you the same question I have asked myself,” President Clinton had argued. “Will we do more to advance the cause of human rights if China is isolated.”
Someone ought to ask Bill how that worked out.
China isn’t afraid to hit hard in Hong Kong, because it already tested that theory in Tiananmen Square. Even 30 years ago, American business was too dependent on China to risk any real trade tensions.
What Tiananmen Square really revealed was that the relationship between America and China had shifted from a Cold War tactic to undermine the Communist camp to an economic dependency. America was no longer in the driver’s seat. China was in charge and the relationship only benefited its regime.
30 years later, the situation is much worse.
The issue at stake isn’t Hong Kong. The British walked away because they weren’t about to defend it. And we won’t either. Giving Hong Kong protesters the illusion that we will stand with them, because a few people show up to protest NBA games and BlizzCon, is the same cruel trick we pulled on the Taiwanese and so many others. The same people protesting China won’t stop buying Chinese junk.
And that’s because the shelves of every American home bulge with products that are made in China.
The real issue is reevaluating Nixon’s “Week That Changed the World” and deciding whether a relationship with China still serves our interests. America’s China error has to be understood in light of the Cold War. Both Democrats and Republicans believed that the Cold War could be won by demonstrating through trade and cultural contacts that freedom works better than Communism.
But our system is no longer all that free and the PRC has refined its flavor of Communist into a more traditional oligarchy. China’s Confucian collectivism and workaholic drive did the rest. The PRC pitted the native ingenuity of its people, organized under its oligarchy, against our globalism and decaying morals.
And it won.
China won by making its own rules, fighting for every scrap of knowledge, territory, and power, and, unlike us, playing to win. It took generations for an administration to finally make a concerted effort to use those same levers that the Bush and Clinton administrations had been too spooked to touch.
And that’s a start.
A new China policy requires throwing out the old Cold War nonsense. American products are not going to convince China to embrace human rights. The PRC beat us economically without accepting our values. Clinton’s shallow rationalization that values will piggyback on openness has been used by numerous administrations, but we aren’t opening up China. That’s not just condescending, it’s delusional. China is building a global trade empire that rivals our own. We are not the gatekeepers of a global community.
The debate over the NBA, the reactions of Disney, EA, Vans, and countless other corporate behemoths show all too clearly that, if anything, China has been opening us up. Hollywood runs its scripts past Communist censors without a word of complaint. American corporations routinely use Chinese maps which lay claim to territory that we do not recognize. American universities may embrace BDS, but firmly reject any criticism of China. Trade hasn’t made China more tolerant of human rights. It has made us extremely tolerant of China’s human rights violations, its brazen thievery, and its military threats.
Cultural and economic exchange was meant to corrupt Communists into capitalists. And it worked. Russians and Chinese came around to the idea that life was better with microwaves, compact cars, and television with more than two channels, than with Mao’s red book and Lenin’s endless volumes. But what we sold them on wasn’t freedom, but consumerism. And you can have iPhones, sneakers, and a dozen brands of coffee in one store without having democracy, freedom of speech, and all the rest.
Products aren’t values. A cardboard box can’t encompass morality, freedom and a work ethic.
The Egyptians, Babylonians, and bygone China, all had advanced technology without the Bill of Rights. Freedom helps develop products, open up markets, and meet demand, but mercantile cultures have gotten by without it for thousands of years before Thomas Jefferson was a twinkle in Peter’s eye.
Our Cold War strategy broke Russia and China as strongholds of Communism. And that was a tremendous victory. We now have to deal with them as aggressive nationalistic oligarchies whose regimes dream of breaking us and reviving their old imperial ambitions. And that’s a simpler problem.
The answer to it begins with an even simpler question. Do we need a relationship with China?
Nixon’s answer made sense within the context of the Cold War. That’s over and we need a new answer. We can, as Bush and Clinton did, kick the can down the road, letting the problem ride, while Amazon and Walmart fill up with cheap products from China, and our future gets sold off across the ocean. We can, as Trump is doing, use tariffs as leverage to negotiate better behavior from China. But dictatorships don’t rotate leaders and without a united front among Dems and the GOP, the PRC will wait us out.
The third answer is to decouple our economy from China. And the tariff wars have begun that process.
Decoupling is a reset. The Cold War hoped to use trade to reset China to before Truman’s betrayal. That may never happen. The fall of Communism didn’t reset Russia to the Kerensky era. There’s no real reason to believe that China will turn into Taiwan or Hong Kong. History only runs in one direction.
But we can reset our relationship with China to before the “Week That Changed the World”.
Decoupling will be painful. But continued coupling will become even more painful. When a parasite has attached itself to you, the only thing more painful than getting it off is letting it stay on and grow.
After Tiananmen Square, decoupling would have been far less painful than it is now. 30 years from now it will be impossible. If current trends continue, American corporations will be little more than arms of China. Our economy will be tethered to the PRC the way that some smaller countries are to ours.
“Only a Republican, perhaps only a Nixon, could have made this break and gotten away with it,” Senate Majority Leader Mansfield had said.
The popular expression, “Only Nixon could go to China”, expressed the idea that only a Republican could toss out the traditional Republican fidelity to a free China and patriotic opposition to Communism.
These days, going to China is no big deal. Every politician goes to China. Getting out of China is.
And it may once again take a Republican to break with a traditional GOP value, international trade and exporting capitalism, by getting out of China.
Only Nixon could go to China. Only Trump may be able to get us out of China.