Whether due to the COVID-19 pandemic that began in Wuhan, China, or thanks to Beijing’s increasingly intimidating, if not aggressive, behavior in recent years, one of the more dramatic shifts in global opinion has started a long-overdue reconsideration of the liberal world’s relationship to the People’s Republic of China. In addition to a raft of high-level policy statements from the Trump administration, including the 2017 National Security Strategy, the 2019 Department of Defense Indo-Pacific Strategy report, and the 2020 “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” a number of independent reports have been tracking Beijing’s predatory and threatening policies, whether in economics, security, or civil society. After decades of turning the other cheek to Beijing’s abuse of the free world’s open societies, all in order to maintain trade relations that themselves were turning increasingly one-sided, liberal states have begun the process of recalibrating their ties to China.
This is no easy task for America or other states, after nearly a half-century of engagement. How to reduce supply chain vulnerability without crashing current manufacturing models, how to support Taiwan and Hong Kong in the face of Beijing’s aggressive actions, whether to keep admitting hundreds of thousands of Chinese students to American universities, how to keep doing business with Chinese firms while defending rampant theft of intellectual property, the “to do” list goes on and on. The difficulty is a testament to just how thoroughly the post-Mao PRC intertwined itself with free economies and societies around the world, while at the same time resisting much, if not all, pressure to liberalize in turn. Despite decades of optimistic comments from Western leaders, including U.S. presidents, China under current Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary Xi Jinping has become an even more repressive and insular state, committed to the Leninist control by the CCP, and steadfastly opposed to liberal notions of free speech and free association. The PRC’s techno-authoritarian surveillance state has taken the world’s leading technologies, many originated in Western research institutes and universities, and twisted them into a comprehensive network of social control. Western businesses, media, universities, and the like have all submitted to Beijing’s pressure, self-censuring and apologizing for remarks critical of the PRC.
The great question facing the free world is how to deal with the PRC in this new era of competition. One answer is provided in a new “handbook” for democracies, published this week by the Halifax International Security Forum (HFX) to coincide with its annual conference. The handbook, entitled “China Vs. Democracy: The Greatest Game,” is a primer on how the PRC threatens the open global society that is the source for most of its own wealth and power (full disclosure: I am the senior advisor for Asia at HFX, and was part of the team that produced the handbook). Divided into chapters that look at the CCP’s oppression inside China, influence campaigns against democracies, the battle over global economic domination, the race for technological supremacy, and the military competition that may determine war or peace, the handbook is one of the first comprehensive attempts to chart the broad China challenge.
As the handbook notes, this is not the competition, or tension, that the liberal world wanted or expected when it opened its doors to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his reform plans back in the 1970s. Betting on China made sense during the Cold War and in light of what appeared to be legitimate reform inside China. The failure of Washington and its allies to conduct due diligence over the succeeding decades, questioning whether Beijing was living up to its promises and was becoming a cooperative nation upholding international norms, gave the CCP a free hand to build up its global power while eliminating any threats to its continued control. By the end of the Obama administration, the severity of the challenge could no longer be ignored or explained away as the result of a China still attempting to find its way in the world.
Yet, it is in the hands of democracies to deal with the China challenge in a way that not only protects their interests, but also may one day help the people of China. As HFX president Peter Van Praagh, who initiated the project, notes in his introduction:
Working in concert, the world’s democracies have overwhelming advantages that China cannot meet. The challenge is no longer about trying to cooperate with a rising China governed by autocrats. The real China challenge for the world’s democracies is how to cooperate effectively with each other.
Indeed, that theme of the HFX China Handbook — democratic cooperation — is one increasingly echoed by other Western reports and studies on China. Despite the disruptions of 2020, from pandemic to elections, liberal societies and free states remain stronger and yes, more peaceful, than their authoritarian counterparts. Their politics may be messier and often inefficient, but they remain laboratories of innovation and magnets for those fleeing repressive systems. They remain more committed to equality and the long-term improvement of their governing mechanisms than states run by unelected oligarchs. More pertinently, democracies may find a renewed appreciation for the moral worth of their systems by working together to defend common interests, whether economic, social, or security, against a PRC that seeks to subvert liberal norms and make the world safe for autocracy.
Perhaps the most innovative part of the handbook is the “HFX China Principles,” a set of seven pledges to not be complicit in Beijing’s assault on democracy. The Principles include a pledge not to censor or self-censor criticism of China, not to punish those who critique the PRC, not to support Chinese businesses that participate in the oppression of the Chinese people, and not knowingly to patronize businesses that benefit from Chinese slave labor. Public pledges to adhere to the China Principles by governments, multinational corporations, universities, media companies, and ordinary citizens would be a beginning in right-sizing the world’s relations with the PRC, giving hope to those in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and bolstering democratic states in Asia, from the Philippines to Japan. As a form of thinking globally and acting locally, the Principles may give the free world the confidence to begin defending itself against the China challenge.