China’s government cannot credibly deny its repressive nature. It is bad enough that there is no political freedom and that it censors public expression and the Internet. Its suppression and ruthless colonization of Tibet were a cause celebre years ago but unfortunately have been forgotten even as Tibet’s culture and its people are slowly crushed beneath the weight of state power. What is happening now in Xinjiang, home of the Uighur population, and Hong Kong isn’t a bug; it’s the essential feature of the Chinese regime.
The United States bears some responsibility for what is going on. China’s Communists would repress its people regardless of what we do, but our open and extensive economic ties finance the regime’s power. Without our markets, China would be a poor and technologically backward country. With them, however, they are fast becoming a global power that can dream of repressing other people in addition to its own.
We had hoped the regime would liberalize once it saw how rich it could become by becoming more Western. Instead, open economic ties enrich its economy while Western governments turn a blind eye to the terrors the government perpetuates. Carrots have not worked. If we want China to liberalize, and if we want to reduce its potential threat to our way of life, we need to start looking at using sticks.
A bill working its way through Congress is a good first step. Because Hong Kong is officially semi-independent of China under the “one nation, two systems” doctrine, it has long had a separate economic status under U.S. law. That status gives goods and services that flow through Hong Kong special access and favored treatment and is thus unaffected by the current trade war with China. The bill would require an annual reassessment of that status based on whether Hong Kong is credibly a separate part of China or remains under the thumb of Beijing as any other Chinese city. The bill has already been approved by the House, and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is working this week to ease its passage through the Senate by unanimous consent. All signs suggest he will succeed.
President Trump should then sign the measure and show China’s government that he does not value a trade deal more than he values human rights. Indeed, a veto would be a sign of weakness in his trade negotiations, as China would see that pressure from U.S. businesses eager to keep the money flowing can influence the White House. Signing the Hong Kong bill would thus both help the protesters fighting for freedom and strengthen Trump’s hand in the ongoing discussions.
But this should be only a first step. China’s government needs rapid economic growth to further its power and ambitions. Its people have become used to capitalist comforts. Any slowing of that growth would raise the potential for discontent and unrest among the Chinese themselves. It should be U.S. policy to slow that growth and thereby force the Chinese government to choose between freedom and repression, between guns and butter.
That will mean going much further than even the Senate bill contemplates. Taking a tough line on trade negotiations is essential. The United States should not sign any deal that allows China to continue its mercantilist practices, even if refusal to sign a deal causes U.S. businesses pain. China is counting on our government caring more about avoiding pain than on inflicting pain on it. Trump revels in showing he is a tough guy; he cannot show weakness now by giving in to commercial pressure.
The United States also needs to commit to a slow economic disengagement from China. The government should encourage U.S. firms to find other countries to invest in, and we need to work with our allies to have them follow suit as much as possible. This will slow global economic growth for some time, as moving businesses is expensive. But the Chinese government should see that global engagement with the West means adapting to the values of the West.
China is known for its collection of wise proverbs. “Patience is power,” one states. “In a struggle between strength and patience, patience will win,” advises another. If the United States can patiently use its power, it will start to change China’s dangerous and unjust behavior. This will take a while, but “it takes more than one cold day for a river to freeze a meter deep.” For our sake, and for the sake of the Uighurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers and all of China, we should start today.