Title：China's Great Leap Backward The country has become repressive in a way that it has not been since the Cultural Revolution. What does its darkening political climate—and growing belligerence—mean for the United States?
WHAT if China is going bad? Since early last year I have been asking people inside and outside China versions of this question. By “bad” I don’t mean morally. Moral and ethical factors obviously matter in foreign policy, but I’m talking about something different.
Nor is the question mainly about economics, although for China the short-term stability and long-term improvement of jobs, wages, and living standards are fundamental to the government’s survival. Under China’s single-party Communist arrangement, sustained economic failure would naturally raise questions about the system as a whole, as it did in the Soviet Union. True, modern China’s economic performance even during its slowdowns is like the Soviet Union’s during its booms. But the absence of a political outlet for dissatisfaction is similar.
Instead the question is whether something basic has changed in the direction of China’s evolution, and whether the United States needs to reconsider its China policy. For the more than 40 years since the historic Nixon-Mao meetings of the early 1970s, that policy has been surprisingly stable. From one administration to the next, it has been built on these same elements: ever greater engagement with China; steady encouragement of its modernization and growth; forthright disagreement where the two countries’ economic interests or political values clash; and a calculation that Cold War–style hostility would be far more damaging than the difficult, imperfect partnership the two countries have maintained.
The eight presidents who have managed U.S. dealings with modern China, Nixon through Obama, have essentially drawn from the same playbook. The situation could be different for the ninth. The China of 2016 is much more controlled and repressive than the China of five years ago, or even 10. I was living there at both of those earlier times—in Shanghai in 2006 and in Beijing five years later—and have seen the change firsthand. Given the chaotic contradictions of modern China, what any one person sees can be an exception. What strikes me is the consistency of evidence showing a country that is cracking down, closing up, and lashing out in ways different from its course in the previous 30-plus years.
The next president, then, will face that great cliché, a challenge that is also an opportunity. The challenge is several years of discouraging developments out of China: internal repression, external truculence, a seeming indifference to the partnership part of the U.S.-China relationship. The opportunity is to set out the terms of a new relationship at the very moment when it is most likely to command China’s attention: at the start of a new administration.
WHY does china need to be high on the new president’s priority list? Because an important assumption has changed.
In both word and deed, U.S. presidents from Nixon onward have emphasized support for China’s continued economic emergence, on the theory that a getting-richer China is better for all concerned than a staying-poor one, even if this means that the center of the world economy will move toward China. In one of his conversations with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, Barack Obama said, “I’ve been very explicit in saying that we have more to fear from a weakened, threatened China than a successful, rising China.”
Underlying this strategic assessment was an assumption about the likely direction of China’s development. This was not the simplistic faith that if China became richer, it would turn into a liberal democracy. No one knows whether or when that might occur—or whether China will in fact keep prospering. Instead the assumption was that year by year, the distance between practices in China and those in other developed countries would shrink, and China would become easier rather than harder to deal with. More of its travelers and students and investors and families would have direct connections with the rest of the world. More of its people would have vacationed in France, studied in California, or used the internet outside China, and would come to expect similar latitude of choice at home. Time would be on the world’s side in deepening ties with Chinese institutions.
For a long period, the assumption held. Despite the ups and downs, the China of 2010 was undeniably richer and freer than the China of 2005, which was richer and freer than the China of 2000, and so on.
But that’s no longer true. Here are the areas that together indicate a turn:
Communication (internet censorship and firewalls, state control of the print and broadcast media etc). Repression of civil society. Extraterritoriality. use economic muscle to advance political or ideological ends beyond borders. Failed reform.(anti-corruption) Anti-foreignism. The military. ... It would be a mistake to view China’s recent actions “primarily as the product … of an aggressive leader,” Jeffrey Bader, the National Security Council’s China expert during Obama’s first term, wrote this year. ...Rather than being based purely on personalities, these changes are most often traced to the messages—both emboldening and unsettling—that the Chinese leadership took from the world financial collapse of 2008.
The messages were that maybe China’s moment had finally arrived. The financial crisis had started in America, after five years of a disastrous Middle Eastern war—and just as the China of the Beijing Olympics was seeming shiny and unstoppable in every way. I was living in Beijing at the time and couldn’t miss the tone in state media and from government officials that the rise and decline of empires was happening faster than anyone had foreseen. “The crisis made the leadership much more confident and assertive abroad—but also more worried and nervous about what might happen to their own economy at home,” a foreign academic, who didn’t want to be named, told me. “And the combination of being arrogant abroad and paranoid at home is about the least desirable combination of all, from the rest of the world’s perspective.”
The concern about a more internationally aggressive China involves not a reprise of the Soviet Union during the tensest Cold War years but rather a much bigger version of today’s Russia. That is: an impediment rather than an asset in many of the economic and strategic projects the United States would like to advance. An example of kleptocracy and personalized rule. A power that sometimes seems to define its interests by leaning toward whatever will be troublesome for the United States. An actual adversary, not just a difficult partner. China is challenging in many ways now, and increasingly repressive, but things could get worse. And all of this is separate from the effect on China’s own people, and on the limits it is placing on its academic, scientific, commercial, and cultural achievements by cutting itself off from the world.
WHAT is to be done? The next president will face a quandary often called the “Thucydides Trap.” This concept was popularized by the Harvard political scientist Graham Allison. Its premise is that through the 2,500 years since the Peloponnesian warfare that Thucydides chronicled, rising powers (like Athens then, or China now) and incumbent powers (like Sparta, or the United States) have usually ended up in a fight to the death, mainly because each cannot help playing on the worst fears of the other. “When a rising power is threatening to displace a ruling power, standard crises that would otherwise be contained, like the assassination of an archduke in 1914, can initiate a cascade of reactions that, in turn, produce outcomes none of the parties would otherwise have chosen,” Allison wrote in an essay for TheAtlantic.com last year.
No sane American leader would choose confrontation with China. The next president has no rational choice but to keep trying to make the best of this relationship. The two countries’ cooperation on climate and energy is the main thing that gives the rest of the world even faint hope of progress. U.S.–Chinese collaboration and compromise were essential to reaching the Paris accord on greenhouse gases last year, and the equally important Kigali agreement to ban the very damaging HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) refrigerant chemicals in October. Without China’s support (and Russia’s), the deal to control Iran’s nuclear program would not have been struck.
The Chinese and U.S. economies are increasingly intertwined; U.S. universities depend on Chinese students who pay full freight; the culture of each country is enriched by its exposure to the other. ...
The United States will be less fully able to realize its national potential if it can no longer deal with China. But the terms of engagement may need to be changed.
Choosing battles carefully. The seas around China have been the theater for some of China’s most dramatic recent muscle-flexing. But for reasons of geography, history, and national psychology, they may be the wrong place for highly publicized efforts to draw the line.
Concerns for the moment, confidence in the long run. To most outsiders, the Chinese leadership’s strategic choices in the Xi era seem rash, overreaching, and ultimately self-defeating. (Obviously China is not the only country ever to have miscalculated in this way.) China’s current pattern of repression at home and aggression abroad may be doing the country so much damage that its own leaders will finally choose a different course.