August 11, 2021 Reading Time: 4 minutes

China has gone from valued partner to prospective enemy. The easiest way to pass legislation in Washington is to claim that it is directed against Beijing. The conventional wisdom today is that engagement with the People’s Republic of China has failed. 

Indeed, the PRC is an ever-worsening tragedy. President and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping has positioned himself as the new Mao Zedong. Alas, that isn’t a compliment. The latter’s madcap crusades, the Great Leap Forward and Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, killed tens of millions of people. Only his death in 1976 opened the way for change.

Deng Xiaoping won the ensuing power struggle and initiated dramatic economic reforms. The U.S. recognized the Beijing government, opened America to Chinese imports, and supported the PRC’s entry into the World Trade Organization. China became the world’s greatest trading nation. The West hoped for the PRC’s eventual political evolution even after the bloody response to the 1989 demonstrations in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere. 

Alas, that vision looks kaput. China is descending deeper into autocracy, even revived totalitarianism, with especially brutal repression in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. On the mainland religious practice and even modest political dissent are punished. Xi dominates the country like no one since Mao.

George Will observed that with the opening to China, Americans bet that “the culture of capitalism would seep into the country and would lead to a civilizing effect.” In his view, “the wager has been lost.”

He was wrong, however. He ignored the progress made before Xi. And the fact that the future is not set.

Deng’s ascension allowed an unprecedented transformation of one of the most oppressive nations on earth. Economic freedom spurred a dramatic increase in personal autonomy. Modernization replaced class struggle, wrote Jeremy Brown of Simon Fraser University: “For many people, especially students and intellectuals, it meant freedom to seek higher education, debate controversial issues, read foreign articles and books, and travel abroad for academic conferences.” 

The demand for liberty spread to politics. Indeed, two successive CCP general secretaries, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were removed by Deng for their relatively liberal views. The Tiananmen Square crackdown could have gone the other way. Zhao’s missteps and Deng’s connections made the difference.

Even after Tiananmen the country remained much freer than under Mao. The authoritarianism, which I observed on more than a score of trips to China, was loose. There were independent journalists, reform-minded NGOs, and human rights lawyers. Universities invited foreign scholars, sent professors abroad, and held conferences. Social media was censored, but usually enforced through removal of material rather than punishment of people. Although criticism of the CCP was forbidden, ideas and principles could be debated with care. In much of China religious belief was tolerated so long as politics was avoided. The existence of islands of freedom owed much to engagement with the West.

Now Xi Jinping is shoving almost everything in reverse. Terrible as that is, Xi’s tyranny may be no more permanent than Mao’s. Xi is simultaneously on the mountaintop and the precipice. Party reformers have been silenced, not eliminated. In fact, despite almost a decade in power, he recently felt the need to publicly denounce his critics. 

A new publication of Xi’s “selected discourses” included an attack “on what he called ‘discordant and cacophonous voices’ in the party. He cited unnamed cadres saying that, ‘we have for the past five years sufficiently stressed concentration [of powers] and unity in the party… [and] from now on we must put the emphasis on developing democracy within the party.” He criticized these advocates’ “political obfuscation and mental obtuseness” and “ulterior motives to push through [evil] agendas.” He would not publicly criticize this view if it did not have strong advocates including, it is thought, former president Hu Jintao.

Moreover, the CCP’s thoroughgoing assault on freedom of thought and expression is likely to adversely affect Chinese economic growth. Politics already has baked inefficiency into economic policy: poorly managed, highly indebted state enterprises; state banks loaded with bad debts; overbuilt ghost cities awaiting residents; party interference with private management. Moreover, the lengthy state assault on fertility has delivered an aging and soon-to-be shrinking population.

In past years I met entrepreneurs who still appreciated the stability provided by CCP rule. However, they expected freedom for themselves, for instance utilizing VPNs to break through the Great Firewall. They now realize that nothing is off-limits to the state, leaving them as vulnerable as anyone else.

For instance, businessmen are being jailed for holding politically incorrect views, companies are being coopted to advance regime priorities, and industries are being attacked for offending revolutionary mores. International companies in Hong Kong are looking elsewhere after the loss of the rule of law, death of free inquiry and expression, and rise of CCP control. Beijing might be willing to trade economic growth for political power, but the Chinese people are likely to prove less forgiving.

Americans should address the very real challenges posed by the PRC’s oppressive shift under Xi Jinping. But they should remain engaged with China and especially the Chinese people. Liberty is under siege but not forever lost.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties.

He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry.

He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

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