FPI Bulletin: Can China Make a World Safe for Authoritarianism?

June 4, 2015

The anniversary of the June 4, 1989 massacre of student protestors in Tiananmen Square is a stark, annual reminder that the Chinese Communist Party’s rule in Beijing is premised upon its willingness to use force against the Chinese people.  Although the Chinese cannot observe this anniversary at home, it provides a moment to acknowledge that Beijing’s oppression of its own people is intertwined with its hostility toward the United States.

In his 2011 book, A Contest for Supremacy, Professor Aaron Friedberg writes that the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party view Washington as “a dangerous, crusading liberal quasi-imperialist power that will not rest until it imposes its views and its way of life on the entire planet.”  This fear is not entirely without basis.  Indeed, it is stoked by American presidents whose comments may seem innocuous at first glance.

At a meeting in 1998, Bill Clinton informed President Jiang Zemin that the Chinese Communist Party government is “on the wrong side of history.”  A decade later, George W. Bush proclaimed that “[we] speak out for a free press, freedom of assembly … because trusting its people with greater freedom is the only way for China to develop its full potential.”  In a November 2011 speech rolling out his “pivot” to the Asia Pacific, Barack Obama declared that human rights “stir every soul” and listed “Communism” and “rule by committee” among the failed alternatives to free societies.

The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party understand that this freedom agenda – no matter how fleetingly pursued by American administrations – threatens their rule.  This is because it validates the desires of the Chinese people for their own freedom.

The Chinese people demonstrated that desire in 1989, of course.  Since then, a group of public intellectuals organized by the now-imprisoned Liu Xiaobo articulated it in Charter 08, a petition that called for China to turn “toward a system of liberties, democracy, and the rule of law.”  The people of Hong Kong joined in the “Umbrella Uprising” to demand their own freedoms in 2014.  And in tens of thousands of “mass incident” protests across China each year, Chinese citizens take the streets to protest official abuse.

In response, the Chinese government seeks to create a world that is, in Friedberg’s words, “‘safe for authoritarianism,’ or at least for continued one-party rule in China.”  At home, this means upholding Mao’s dictum that political power comes from the barrel of a gun.  Beijing spends more on its internal security apparatus – at least according to official figures – than on its military.  The Chinese government has imprisoned Mr. Liu, a Nobel Peace laureate, placed blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng under house arrest before he fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and holds more than 1,000 political or religious prisoners.

The Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to camouflage this oppression speak to the contempt and fear in which it holds the Chinese people.  In one measure of the effectiveness of Chinese censorship, one author showed 100 Chinese university studies the famous “Tank Man” photograph of a lone protestor halting a column of tanks, only to find that 85 percent could not identify it.  In 2013, all internet searches for “big yellow duck” were banned after a wag inserted the image into an online version of the Tank Man photograph.  A recent study found China censors 100 million posts each day from Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

The need by China’s rulers to fend off freedom at home also influences their behavior overseas.  As Robert Blackwill and Ashley Tellis write in a recent report, Beijing has renewed its efforts to “delegitimize the U.S. alliance system in Asia” by promoting a new regional order in which Asian security is managed by Asians alone, under China’s leadership.  If successful, this effort will deliver “material benefits to the Chinese population while further increasing the country’s security and standing, thereby assuring [the Chinese Communist Party’s] continued grip on power.”

This drive helps to explain why Beijing has worked in recent years to intimidate its neighbors in the East and South China Seas.  After declaring an “Air Defense Identification Zone” that includes the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in late 2013, Beijing has shifted its recent focus toward its Southeast Asian neighbors.  More recently, Beijing has embarked upon land reclamation efforts in the South China Seas in order to impose its solution to territorial disputes with members of ASEAN. 

In response, the Obama administration is working to enhance security cooperation with our allies and partners throughout the Asia Pacific and conclude a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.  Although these efforts are steps in the right direction, they risk being undermined by poor resourcing for the Defense Department and the administration’s failure to build a bipartisan consensus for its trade policy.

As important, the administration has not articulated a clear strategy for promoting freedom in the Asia Pacific region, and in China specifically.  Dan Blumenthal and William Inboden recently described some of the steps that the United States can take to further this goal – strengthening cooperation with the democratic countries around China’s periphery, devoting greater counterpropaganda and informational resources to stimulate free speech in China, and devoting additional U.S. official engagements toward Chinese civil society.

A freer China alone may not guarantee a more peaceful China.  But a Chinese government that is not engaged in a constant campaign of oppression against its own people is less likely, in the long run, to engage in aggression against its neighbors.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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