A Brief Look at China's Misdeeds and the US Trade Response
Globally, China's behavior has been under a microscope recently. From its island building initiatives in the South China Sea, its Belt and Road gambit to the "Arab-Spring-like" upheaval its facing in Hong Kong, the Middle Kingdom is facing increasing scrutiny. In this article, we will take a brief look at its behavior over the years, as well as recently and examine our China trade policies.
A totalitarian regime is one ruled by a single party that exerts absolute control over the military, the means of communication, and the economy, and which uses the police as a tool for terror and control. Currently, close to 2 billion people live in countries that fit this description. Amazingly, 1.4 billion of those inhabitants live in the one country we know as China.
While many experts make the claim that China has never experienced any prolonged period of relative freedom in its more than three millennia of existence, it is with the arrival of the Communist Party and Mao Zedong that we can confidently identify China as a totalitarian regime.
China today is a smorgasbord of human rights violations, oppression, cruelty, persecution, and repression. The Chinese government is equally oppressive of all groups or individuals who dare dissent by speaking or acting counter to its wishes. Any philosophy or ideals that run counter to the Communist Party’s dogma are strictly forbidden, and those espousing them are considered enemies of the state and swiftly dealt with.
Going back to the formation of the People’s Republic of China on October 1st, 1949, and Mao Zedong’s rule, the Chinese government has shown little regard for the welfare of the people it governs. They have placed their own citizens second to the needs of the party and government.
Mao’s desires to maintain power by eliminating enemies and by changing the cultural fiber of China led to social and political movements such as the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, Three-Anti/Five-Anti Campaigns, Socialist Education Movement and the infamous Cultural Revolution. The implementation of these yielded terrifying outcomes, as tens of millions of Chinese were killed, disappeared, sent to re-education camps, or became destitute. The Great Chinese Famine which took place from 1959 to 1961 was a direct result of social pressure, economic mismanagement and government regulations in agriculture that prevented farms from maximizing outputs.
Deng Xiaoping Offered Some Hope
After Mao Zedong’s death and a short period under the leadership of Zhou Enlai, a new era of openness to the rest of the world and especially to the West led by the new Supreme Leader Deng Xiaoping followed. It was at this time that China began to transition to state capitalism and emerged as communist in name only.
Deng’s wishes to bring the country into the 20th century by opening China to foreign investment, the global market and allow for private enterprises to take hold became the government’s prime objective. Considering how far China has progressed in the last forty years, it is obvious that Deng’s dream of prosperity and wealth for Chinese citizens is becoming a reality.
The period that followed Deng Xiaoping’s rule witnessed outstanding accomplishments by China. During this time, the sleeping giant woke from its slumber and experienced double digit economic growth fueled by trillions of dollars in exports as well as unprecedented levels of investment in infrastructure projects.
Consequently, China has become the second largest economy in the world by gross domestic product (GDP), and the largest in the world by purchasing power parity (PPP). Currently, the Chinese government, under the leadership of Xi Jinping hopes to create a second wave of economic growth impelled by internal consumption and foreign investment.
Xi Jinping's Regressive Policies
However, as China’s citizens reap the rewards of economic growth in the form of freedom to travel abroad, robust savings accounts, improved education and health care, the same cannot be said for their ability to enjoy some of the freedoms that abound in other democratic countries.
In spite of its unprecedented economic growth, China has remained politically repressive. Additionally, Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012 has ushered other tyrannical measures that have systematically dismantled any semblance of reform that might have been marginally nascent during the time, and immediately after Deng Xiaoping’s rule.
As Chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, and President of the People’s Republic of China, today, Xi stands as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. This level of power concentrated in one person, becomes particularly poignant when considering that the National People’s Congress has approved a change in the constitution that allows Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely
Unfortunately, at the beginning of China’s post-Mao’s reforms, many political and industry leaders in the US and abroad, misjudged and misunderstood China’s governing class, its culture and history. Political and business leaders worldwide and especially in the USA fooled themselves into thinking that doing business with China would help in its transition to democracy.
The idea that once free enterprise took hold in China, democratic reforms were inevitable, has been proven wrong by China’s adaptive authoritarian regime which has managed to stay in full control.
The Middle Kingdom is not a place where liberal ideals will take hold without a tectonic bouleversement of societal defiance. It has now become clearer than ever, that China will never organically evolve into a democracy. It is not in the nature of Chinese power brokers to give in to any other system that does not allow them to maintain absolute control.
Today the repressive nature of the Chinese government is out in the open. Its crackdown on religious freedom, ethnic minorities, freedom of expression, and the free flow of information is plainly apparent to most casual observers.
Between 2013 and 2014 China’s internet censorship began with a crackdown on VPN accounts. During the summer of 2017 deleted foreign movies and TV shows from popular video websites. Messaging and social media apps such as WhatsApp and Reddit have been blocked by Chinese censors. Even the internet phone service Skype has been affected by disappearing from download sites.
Antagonism toward religious groups like the Falun Gong, Muslim Uighurs, Tibetan Buddhists, and other Christian groups has greatly increased since Xi Jinping came to power. The overall aim is to secularize China as a way to ensure that competing philosophies to Xi Jinping’s thoughts are either Sinicized or neutered.
In recent months arrests and deportations of foreign teachers in China have skyrocketed, amid a broad crackdown to “sanitize” the school system of foreign influence and create a more patriotic system of education.
As per interviews conducted by Reuters of a number of law firms, they report that they are representing ten times the amount of foreign teachers either being incarcerated or deported for minor or fabricated offenses. Many teachers are being arrested at home or at bars and nightclubs, then taken to police stations where drug testing is conducted.
In addition to his quest to exert total control on the political, legal and economic system of China, Xi Jinping has also begun a cultural war which includes the installment of the now famed Social Credit System, as well as the tightening of restrictions on film, TV, art, writing and journalism. Like many other dictators and totalitarian governments before him, Xi is forcing the insertion of ideological values into artistic endeavors.
In his mind, cultural control can only be achieved by closing off China’s population from foreign influence, hence China’s Communist government has embarked on an all-out propaganda effort to influence the Chinese population into adopting Confucian philosophy together with what Xi calls Socialism with Chinese characteristics.
To this end he has mobilized the various government offices in charged of propaganda, censorship and media to disseminate articles, books, movies, TV and radio programming that denigrates and blames the West with everything that has gone wrong in China in the last thirty or more years.
China's International Behavior
While China’s internal behavior is quite appalling, its conduct as a member of the global community has left many world leaders concerned. From its building of military bases in the disputed islands of the South China Sea to threatening the families of Chinese citizens living abroad who speak about human rights violations in the mainland, China continues to extend its repressive tentacles beyond its borders.
In recent years several stories have appeared in foreign publications regarding Chinese citizens living abroad who have either disappeared never to be seen again or mysteriously reappear in mainland China while being charged for breaking some obscure tax code violation or other charges.
Chinese citizens living abroad are often pressured, blackmailed or threaten with harm to their families back in China unless they conduct acts of industrial espionage or any other sort of intelligence that will benefit the Chinese government. Recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray issued a statement saying that while Russia continues to represent a major concern, China represents the broadest most complicated long-term counterintelligence threat to the United States.
Cases involving Chinese nationals arrested for spying have increasingly become common. One of the most recent cases on October 10th of this year involved Yanjun Xu, who was arrested in Belgium and extradited to the US for conspiring to steal trade secrets from GE Aviation as well as other companies.
Our Approach to China
The number of grievances the US as well as many other Western and Asian governments have against China’s international behaviors continue to grow. How to respond to China’s belligerence and contentiousness can be a complicated strategy that if miscalculated could lead to the equivalent of the crossing of the Rubicon.
Certainly putting pressure on Chinese exports, which so far have represented the lion’s share of their revenues, can help to curtail some of their global expansion. However, this requires a concerted effort between the US and other willing partners.
Unfortunately, the current administration has not done a stellar job in galvanizing support from traditional allies and friends. The TTP or Trans-Pacific Partnership, which could have isolated China and created synergies between countries with comparable goals, is no longer supported by the Trump administration.
International trade policies and initiative can be complicated, requiring comprehensive strategies that include free trade agreements, tariff and non-tariff barriers, safeguarding critical and sensitive industries from acquisition by unfriendly or hostile countries, as well as engagement with friends and allies.
Trade wars are to be avoided, as they undoubtedly cause a great deal of damage to the economies of the participants. Tariffs are ultimately paid by the consumers in the form of higher prices. Companies also lose due to diminished revenues.
While President Obama looked to the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other initiatives to launch a pivot toward Asia, the Trump Administration, in a move to obliterate anything carrying the former president’s name, has walked away from this agreement and consequently from the region. This action has left a vacuum which China has continued to willingly fill. The US’s obvious decoupling from this region has diminished our standing with our allies, not just regionally, but on a global scale.
While the TPP initially aroused some degree of skepticism from many in the Democratic Party as well as union leaders, it seems many of these original dissenting voices have realized that isolating China through the creation of regional partnerships is a much more pragmatic approach than an all out trade war. Placing tariffs on Chinese imports invite their own countering tariffs as well as the devaluation of their currency as a way to dilute the effect of any overt action the US could take against their exports.
Obama’s failing seems to have been in his inability to properly promote and convince the American people the TPP represented a meticulous and well thought out approach that would allow American companies to bring manufacturing back to the US, or its transfer to friendlier countries. Let’s all hope for those who can construct a long term geostrategic approach to this important and sensitive area of the world to prevail in Washington, either now or in 2020.