In March 1983 Ronald Reagan, America’s president, gave his famous ‘Evil Empire’ speech in which he advised that ‘if history teaches anything, it teaches that simpleminded appeasement or wishful thinking about our adversaries is folly. It means the betrayal of our past, the squandering of our freedom.’ The democratic world’s approach to China since the end of the Cold War has failed to heed his advice.
The plan had been simple: the end of the Soviet Union was the End of History and all the West needed to do was to bring China into the fold of international trade and China would develop a middle class. That middle class would demand its gains were protected through an increasingly democratic system, and thus China would become a more open, transparent society, if not a democracy. This plan has evidently failed. In 2018, Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of Chinese Communist Party and de-facto President of the People’s Republic of China, eliminated the two term limits that constrained his tenure.
The lack of political progress notwithstanding, China’s human rights record is also dismal. In the words of the Human Rights Watch World Report 2019:
Authorities dramatically stepped up repression and systematic abuses against the 13 million Turkic Muslims, including Uyghurs and ethnic Kazakhs, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region. Authorities have carried out mass arbitrary detention, torture, and mistreatment of some of them in various detention facilities, and increasingly imposed pervasive controls on daily life.
China’s blend of authoritarian capitalism produces a unique challenge for the world’s democracies. Over the last two centuries the liberal order has faced four major challenges: Napoleonic France, Wilhelmine Germany, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Each of these had their own unique flaws and weaknesses but in the end all were defeated because they were contained by the liberal superpowers of the past two centuries, the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States (US). These two states have shaped the global economy, shipping lanes, and finance markets, allowing them to cut the revisionist powers off from the global economy.
The UK and US have not taken the same approach to China. Since the Cold War, they provided the economic investment necessary to allow China to dominate high volume production. They welcomed China into the World Trade Organisation and the broader global economic system; they even began to coax Chinese investment into their own economies, with Huawei playing a significant role in constructing America, British and European telecommunications networks (though the US barred Chinese firms from involvement in its fifth generation system). And they turned a blind eye as China illegally copied their companies’ intellectual property. This would have been unthinkable in relation to Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union.
As China has grown in power, it has adopted an increasingly revisionist international posture. In the words of the Human Rights Watch World Report 2019:
China’s growing global power makes it an exporter of human rights violations, including at the United Nations, where in 2018 it sought to block participation of its critics. China again ranked among countries singled out for reprisals against human rights defenders, and in March successfully advanced a Human Rights Council (HRC) resolution on a retrograde approach that it calls “win-win” or “mutually beneficial” cooperation. In this view, states do not pursue accountability for serious human rights violations but engage merely in “dialogue”; moreover, there is no role for independent civil society, only governments, and a narrow role for the UN itself.
By including China in the very sinews of an international system that was designed to constrain bad actors, the world’s democracies have given China the ability to massage criticism and protect itself. Beijing’s miss-treatment of its own people should be cause for action. But instead China has used its economic power to silence criticism, interfering with democratic concepts of free speech. For example, during Beijing’s recent crackdown on pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong – an event that met with very little chastisement from the world’s democracies – China used its sponsorship of NBA events to ‘punish’ the Houston Rockets’s manager for supporting the protests.
Until now it was possible to dismiss the growing challenge from China as paranoia. But the outbreak and spread of Covid-19 has revealed as a failure the attempts to ‘normalise’ China (insofar as it was ever possible)…
China also continues to pose a threat to its neighbours. In the words of a report to the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the US House of Representatives:
In addition to expanding its military in support of, or through commercial activities, Beijing has also directly increased its military presence in the East and South China Seas. In the East China Sea, Beijing regularly uses maritime law enforcement ships and aircraft to assert its sovereignty claims over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands which are claimed by both Japan and China. In the South China Sea, Beijing has steadily engaged in land reclamation and the construction of military outposts in the Spratly Islands. According to recent reports, China has now installed anti-ship missiles, surface-to-air missile systems, and military jamming equipment on a few of the disputed features. Given the increasing militarisation of these territories, US Navy Admiral Philip Davidson writes that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”
China as a state is using its economic power to redress the military balance of power, one that has been firmly in the favour of the world’s democracies since the collapse of the Soviet Union. It would be folly to return to a system where authoritarian states have the ability to oppose the democracies on an even basis. The lesson from history is clear, if the democracies do not possess a preponderance of arms, then authoritarian powers will try to dominate with their own totalitarian orders.
Until now it was possible to dismiss the growing challenge from China as paranoia. But the outbreak and spread of Covid-19 has revealed as a failure the attempts to ‘normalise’ China (insofar as it was ever possible). The world is now being ravaged by a disease that was caused by Xi’s regime’s incompetence and made worse by its paranoia and callousness. China’s refusal to act after the outbreak of SARS in its unhygienic ‘wet markets’ to prevent a new virus originating are grounds enough for the global community to seek compensation for the untold damage to people’s lives and economies. The Chinese authorities’ actions in forcing Li Wenliang, the doctor who first identified the virus, to confess to spreading false rumours moves this outbreak from a crime of complacency to manslaughter on a global scale. China has threatened our lives and our livelihoods; now as much of the world sits in quarantine, people everywhere have their liberty to go outside even curtailed.
It is now clear that democracies like the UK can no longer go on acting as though China is a normal state that shares their own values and objectives. China is a revisionist power that seeks not only to oppress its own people but to export its system to the rest of the world. It is not necessary to accept that the world’s democracies are perfect or faultless to realise that it is inopportune to aid and abet the development of an authoritarian power that does not have its own people’s best interests at heart, let alone the interests of others. It is within the democracies’ power to act, to meet the challenge from China before it cannot be contained, to strip from Xi the legitimacy that comes with being accepted in the global community, and to oppose his revisionism and expansion. Much as the populations of the Third Reich and the Soviet Union were freed from their confinement by the democratic world, it is time for democrats everywhere to resist Xi’s regime – a regime that is not only at the gates but may well soon be in our phones.
The author – an academic at a prominent university in London – does not wish to release their name due to the pressure many scholars are under in some British universities to not criticise the policies of the government of China. Entities in China sometimes provide funding for those universities or their research programmes.