“…the East is rising and the West is declining.” — Chairman Xi Jinping, March 2021
“Many people within the United States actually have little confidence in the democracy of the United States.” — Yang Jiechi at the Anchorage Summit, March 18, 2021
In the 1970s, our nation was deeply divided over race and an unpopular war. The Watergate scandal and the coverup of that scandal led to President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Other events shook America’s confidence further. Those included the Vietnamese Communists’ brutal assault on Saigon and the desperate evacuation of the American embassy in April 1975. Less than a month later, the Khmer Rouge seized the U.S. merchant vessel Mayaguez. Three U.S. Air Force helicopters were destroyed during the initial assault, and the Marines fought a desperate daylong battle with the Khmer Rouge before being evacuated. Three Marines left behind on the island of Koh Tang after the battle were executed by the Khmer Rouge; their names are the last names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Stagflation and oil crises added economic trauma to foreign policy and national security failures. The decade ended with an Iranian revolution, a failed hostage rescue attempt, and a 444-day-long hostage crisis.
Pessimism pervaded. The United States appeared weak. In contrast, the Soviet Union appeared strong. Soviet leaders saw America’s tolerance for civil and political liberties as a vulnerability. Their communist totalitarian state could crush dissent or preempt it with jingoistic propaganda and tight control of information. But the struggles of the 1970s belied American strength. Democracy affords citizens authorship over the future.
A half-century later, America is again emerging from crises in the midst of a consequential geostrategic competition with a Eurasian power. Americans have a lot of work to do after the recent traumas of a pandemic, a recession, social divisions laid bare by George Floyd’s murder and the violent aftermath, and vitriolic partisan political divisions that have reduced confidence in our democratic institutions and processes. The self-inflicted defeat, humanitarian catastrophe, and incompetent evacuation effort in Afghanistan — brought on by a precipitous retreat following surrender to the Taliban, a terrorist organization — are shameful. It seemed — like the Iranian hostage crisis from 1979 to 1980 — to add an exclamation point to the narrative of American decline. This narrative gained strength across more than a decade from the 2008-2009 financial crisis, the opioid epidemic, and the unanticipated length, cost and difficulty of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But Americans and like-minded partners across the free world can resolve to strengthen their democracies as the first step in competing effectively internationally. The stakes are high as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) races to perfect its technologically-enabled police state and export its authoritarian, mercantilist model. If the United States and the free world do not rise to the occasion, the world will be less free, less prosperous and less safe.
The Chinese Communist Party became more aggressive during the global pandemic. Chairman Xi Jinping and CCP leaders believe that they have a narrow window of opportunity to strengthen their rule and revise the international order in their favor — before China’s economy sours, before the population grows old, before other countries realize that the party is pursuing “national rejuvenation” at their expense, and before unanticipated events like the pandemic expose the party’s vulnerabilities. The CCP is obsessed with control because it is afraid of losing its exclusive grip on power. The narrative of regaining honor lost during the “century of humiliation” and “taking center stage” in the world is meant to promote the “China model” of one-party authoritarian rule and portray that model as superior. Another reason that China has accelerated the tempo of competition is because, like the Soviets in the 1970s, the CCP senses weakness in the America of the 2020s.
CCP fear and ambition drive strategies designed to maintain control and gain an economic and strategic advantage. They have names like “military-civil fusion,” “Made in China 2025,” and “One Belt, One Road.” The goals are to establish Chinese hegemony, create exclusionary areas of primacy across the Indo-Pacific region, challenge the United States globally, achieve a preponderant advantage in advanced manufacturing and the emerging data-driven global economy, dominate global logistics and communications infrastructure, and rewrite the rules of international trade and political discourse.
Across all those strategies, the CCP employs a combination of co-option, coercion and concealment. China co-opts countries, international corporations and elites through false promises of impending liberalization, insincere pledges to work on global issues, debt traps for corrupt or weak governments, and, especially, the lure of short-term profits and access to the Chinese market, investments and loans. Co-opted entities are vulnerable to coercion. The party coerces others to turn a blind eye to its most egregious human rights abuses, support its foreign policy, and accept its violent self-conception as a one-party nation with no room for plurality except on its own rigid terms.
The party’s success depends on concealing its intentions and portraying its most egregious actions as normal practice. Free trade Xi Jinping signs a draft Comprehensive Agreement on Investment with Europe while punishing Australia economically and shutting down market share for retailers who object to slave labor. Environmentalist Xi Jinping promises carbon neutrality by 2060 while China finances and builds scores of coal-fired power plants internationally every year. Human rights Xi Jinping speaks on rule of law while he interns millions in concentration camps, extends the party’s repressive arm into Hong Kong, imprisons journalists and freedom activists, and holds hostages. Compassionate Xi Jinping asserts that the “Chinese nation does not carry aggressive or hegemonic traits in its genes” while: his army bludgeons Indian soldiers to death on the Himalayan frontier; his cyber forces continue a massive campaign of espionage; his air force menaces Taiwan, South Korea and Japan; and his maritime forces try to exert ownership over the ocean in the South China Sea.
Chairman Xi has internalized George Orwell’s observations in 1984 that “he who controls the past controls the future,” and “he who controls the present controls the past.” In this 100th anniversary year of the party’s founding, he highlights China’s century of humiliation at the hands of foreign powers while obscuring the century of misery that the CCP inflicted on the Chinese people. There will be no commemoration of the victims of the Red Army during the civil war, the tens of millions who died during the Great Leap Forward and were killed, beaten, interned and humiliated during the Cultural Revolution, or the thousands gunned down during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. And there will be no mention of the suffering of Uyghurs, Tibetans, Christians and other oppressed minorities.
So, the first step in competing effectively with the CCP is to counter Xi’s Orwellian reversal of the truth. Doing so requires correcting two misunderstandings that provide cover for the party and conceal what is at stake in its campaign of co-option and coercion. Both misunderstandings are rooted in the conceit that the CCP mainly responds to external actions rather than pursuing its own ambitions.
The first misunderstanding is that Chinese aggression is the result of U.S.-China tensions. A survey of the CCP’s actions during the pandemic reveals that the United States did not cause CCP aggression and that China’s promotion of its model poses the real threat to security and prosperity. The CCP suppressed information about the COVID-19 outbreak, persecuted doctors and journalists who tried to warn the world, and subverted the World Health Organization. To “kill one to warn one hundred,” China inflicted economic punishment on Australia for proposing an inquiry into the origins of the virus. Meanwhile, Chinese hackers conducted massive cyberattacks on medical research facilities around the world while using the cover of the pandemic to advance China’s surveillance police state, extend repression in Hong Kong, and continue genocide in Xinjiang.
Some continue to apologize for the CCP, blame the United States, and call for more engagement with China as an end in itself. For example, in a July 2021 Foreign Affairs essay, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) accused the “Washington establishment of beating the drum for a new Cold War” and “casting China as an adversary.”
The Sanders essay stems from strategic narcissism — the self-referential tendency to attribute causality to us alone. Strategic narcissism leads to a moral equivalency that helps China conceal its objectives. Some of America’s closest friends in the Indo-Pacific region and in Europe proclaim that they do not want to choose between Washington and Beijing. The actual choice that those nations face is not one between Washington and Beijing. It is a choice between sovereignty and servitude.
The second misunderstanding that provides cover for CCP aggression gained wide acceptance in early 2017. Some policy experts argued that competition with China is dangerous or even irresponsible because of a Thucydides Trap — a term coined to express the likelihood of conflict between a rising power (China) and a status quo power (the United States). CCP leaders love the Thucydides Trap trope because it allows the party to escape responsibility for its actions and promotes a false dilemma between passive accommodation and war. But the party promotes the false dilemma to portray itself as a victim and accuse the United States of trying to keep the rising power and its people down.
It is important to correct these misunderstandings because they provide cover for the party’s aggression and a rationalization for those who are eager to shrink from competition. And correcting both misunderstandings is essential to turning what the CCP views as weaknesses of our liberal democratic societies into competitive advantages.
Wall Street and other international investors continue to pour money into Chinese stocks and bonds, undaunted by the CCP’s increasing intervention in the private sector. When China surpassed the United States as the top destination for new foreign direct investment earlier this year, one could imagine CCP leaders evoking the quotation erroneously attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “The capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them.” Except it is worse; we are financing the CCP’s purchase of the rope.
Nations and corporations should take something like a Hippocratic Oath for doing business or investing in China. Free world political, corporate and financial leaders should vow to cause no harm or hurt in three ways:
- Do not transfer sensitive technology that gives the CCP a military advantage or unfair economic advantage.
- Do not help the CCP stifle human freedom and perfect its police state.
- Do not compromise the long-term viability of companies in exchange for short-term profits.
In general, companies and academic and research institutions should make decisions consistent with long-term ethical and fiduciary considerations. Shareholders and directors should demand it. Boardroom conversations often focus on Environment, Sustainability and Governance (ESG) issues. The CCP should be the main ESG topic for international corporations and academic institutions.
The United States must also strengthen military capabilities to deter confrontation with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It is not enough to decry the CCP’s aggression from the Himalayas to the South China Sea to Taiwan and the Senkaku Islands. Ensuring our ability to deter conflict requires greater investments in defense modernization, readiness and force structure. The Biden administration’s failure to propose real growth in the defense budget was a sign of weakness as China continues its massive military buildup. Deterring CCP aggression requires strong defense partnerships and alliances as well as capable, forward-positioned American forces. Fostering improvements in Japan and Taiwan’s defensive capabilities are particularly important. But the greatest opportunity to compete more effectively with China may lie in strengthening democratic governance, rule of law, and freedom of expression at home and abroad.
Rebuilding confidence in America’s democratic institutions and processes requires empathy. Lack of empathy is rooted in ignorance. Those who are strangers to their fellow Americans seek affirmation of their biases rather than knowledge. Ignorance is driving a destructive interaction between identity politics, vitriolic partisan rhetoric, bigotry and racism. The manipulation of history remains an important tool not only for Xi Jinping, but also for some of our fellow Americans. Ignorance of history compounded by the abuse of history undermines our ability to improve our nation because it saps our pride. As the late philosopher Richard Rorty observed, “National pride is to countries what self-respect is to individuals, a necessary condition for self-improvement.”
Pride in our nation should not derive from a contrived, happy view of history, but rather from a recognition that our experiment in freedom and democracy was always — and remains — a work in progress. For example, the emancipation of four million Americans after the most destructive war in our history was only the beginning of a long journey toward equal rights. Milestones along that journey included the failure of Reconstruction, Jim Crow segregation and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, and the “separate but equal” ideology. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement dismantled the legal basis for Jim Crow segregation, but cultural, economic, educational and other forms of disenfranchisement continued. The manipulation of history was foundational to the obstruction of equal rights for black Americans as the Myth of the Lost Cause portrayed slavery as benign instead of cruel and the Civil War as a noble effort to preserve states’ rights rather than slavery.
It is an abuse of history to cast the American Revolution as an effort to preserve slavery rather than a righteous struggle to found a nation on principles that ultimately rendered that horrible institution unsustainable. Knowledge of history should encourage Americans to celebrate the principles enshrined in our Declaration of Independence and Constitution while recognizing that much of our history has cut against those principles and that work remains to realize them. Americans can make progress because our republic was founded on the radical idea that sovereignty lies neither with king nor parliament, but with the people.
Americans can demand better from elected officials but need not wait for the political class to restore confidence. Citizens can reach out to their fellow Americans and engage in respectful debate. Americans can empathize with one another and strengthen their common commitment to the principles on which our nation was founded.
Despite our challenges and shortcomings, our American democracy is resilient while communist totalitarianism is brittle. Xi Jinping’s July 2021 speech to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP contained a combination of admonishments, warnings, threats and praise for the 95-million-member CCP. But Xi is very much aware of another anniversary this year: the 30th anniversary of Mikhail Gorbachev’s resignation and the end of the Soviet Union.
To compete effectively with today’s most powerful authoritarian regime, leaders across the free world might look back to the speech that President Ronald Reagan delivered at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 12, 1987. Reagan’s speech clarified the nature of the competition with the Soviet Union, drew a strong contrast between democracy and autocracy, provided a positive vision for the future, and spoke directly to the people on the other side of the wall. Reagan’s speech made clear what was at stake, not only for those living under communist oppression, but for all peoples. The Berlin Wall is an apt, albeit inexact, analogy for the Great Firewall of China — the combination of laws and technologies designed to isolate the realm of the Chinese Communist Party from outside influences.
The Berlin speech is remembered because it exposed, with a direct challenge, the nature of the free world’s competition with the Soviet Union. Today, leaders across the free world have an opportunity to clarify, with a similar exhortation to Chairman Xi Jinping, what is at stake in the competition with the CCP: Tear down the Great Firewall and the many walls behind which the CCP interns its political prisoners, forced laborers and oppressed minorities. If Chairman Xi and his party are confident in their system, then they should welcome open competition and allow their citizens to judge for themselves.
The perception of American weakness, division and corruption emboldens the Chinese Communist Party as it promotes a narrative of American decline. The recognition that we have to prevail in the competition with China might help Americans overcome our differences, reinforce the worn fabric of our society, and work together to strengthen our nation and the free world — to realize the vision of the motto that appears on the Great Seal of the republic: e pluribus unum — out of many, one. And it will be important for American leaders to, as Reagan did, explain clearly what is at stake to their own citizens and the rest of the free world.