02
Apr
10

the china we’re stuck with

WARREN COHEN, PROFESSOR EMERITUS OF HISTORY

The widely reported refusal of Google to serve as an instrument of Chinese repression is a reminder that those who have been predicting the liberalization of China for the last twenty years were wrong.  American leaders have long imagined that a strong, stable and prosperous China would be in the interest of the United States. In the early years of the new millennium, China has become strong, prosperous, and reasonably stable—but its actions have left few Americans believing that’s good for them.

Apprehension about the future of Chinese-American relations derives only marginally from the fact that the Communist Party monopolizes power.  Few Americans fear a Chinese attack or the spread of communism. They do fear the possibility of China outstripping the United States.

For the United States, China’s surge has been a mixed blessing. China’s purchase of US debt has kept the economy afloat, and China’s growth has driven the economies of its neighbors. The boom years of the 1990s were in part a result of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms and China’s leap into the global marketplace. And, however grudgingly, Beijing has moved toward acceptance of some international norms of behavior. But there are caveats: American (and European) workers have lost jobs to lower paid Chinese workers and the undervalued Chinese currency has had a negative impact on the economies of the United States and the European Union.

Furthermore, Chinese leaders share few Western values and there is little evidence of trust between Beijing and Washington.  Most recently, China has obstructed efforts to halt Iran’s march toward becoming a nuclear power. It has done too little to help end North Korea’s nuclear threat and it has sustained vicious dictatorships. At home, its human rights record is appalling. Not only dissidents, but lawyers who attempt to defend them are subjected to beatings, torture, imprisonment—and disappearances. Tibetans and minority groups are discriminated against and often brutally repressed.  

Few of China’s transgressions are known to its people. The government has been strikingly effective in censoring the Internet—until now with the acquiescence of Google, and still without opposition from Microsoft, allegedly poised to expand its search engine in China.

And then there is the issue of Taiwan. Within the intelligence community, the Taiwan Strait is referred to as the most dangerous place in the world, the only spot where two nuclear armed Great Powers have confronted each other–and might again. Each time Washington approves an arms sale to Taiwan, Beijing roars its disapproval—as it has in recent days. A defenseless Taiwan, without expectation of American intervention to protect it, could be intimidated into submitting to reunification with the mainland.

Much of Beijing’s outrage is based upon the conviction that China is rising and the United States is in decline. Chinese leaders expect Washington to behave more deferentially. American scholars and diplomats have been struck by the growing arrogance of their Chinese counterparts. This will only get worse until we can demonstrate again that democracy works and that our economic system can provide a decent standard of living for all Americans.

The Chinese have been wrong about America’s decline before.  We can only hope to prove them wrong again.  In the interim, China is too important to be ignored or pressured. That leaves us with the unappealing policy of “engagement.”  It means coexisting with a difficult, unsavory regime, relying on diplomacy, and accepting what progress can be made.  It need not—and must not—mean that we refrain from calling that regime to account.

Historically, China has overreached and self-destructed whenever it played the role of hegemonic power. Its current arrogance suggests it is headed in that direction again. But it is not in the interests of the United States for China to collapse. It remains in our interest to have a strong, stable, and prosperous China. Optimally it would also be friendly and democratic.

Don’t hold your breath.

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