Did U.S. policymakers in the 1990s and 2000s really believe that expanding trade with China would make that country’s government more humane and democratic over time? Some of America’s top China watchers have recently argued that the answer is no — that U.S. officials never took the trade-leads-to-democracy argument seriously. These scholars deserve credit for re-assessing the conventional wisdom. But their argument ultimately fails to persuade, and understanding why is important for getting America’s China policy right today.

The standard narrative within the U.S. policy community runs like this: After the Cold War, Washington emphasized economic and diplomatic engagement with Beijing. That strategy was meant to integrate China into the liberal international order and instill habits of economic freedom that would lead to a desire for greater political freedom. The strategy failed, however, as the Communist Party modernized the country economically while ruthlessly suppressing dissent. Rather than becoming a satisfied democracy, China became an aggressive autocracy. It was empowered by an engagement policy that made it richer but not freer.

Now, however, one leading American Sinologist challenges this narrative. In an article for The Washington Quarterly, Harvard’s Alastair Iain Johnston argues (among other things) that the effort to promote liberalization within China did not fail — because it was never meaningfully attempted. “Human rights in China, let alone democratization, has never been a prominent element in the practice of U.S. engagement policy,” Johnston writes. “Engagement can hardly be blamed for not achieving an outcome that it never took all that seriously or never expected to progress very far.”

American policymakers, Johnston contends, rarely emphasized human rights in their day-to-day dealings with China, and they were not so naive as to expect that economic integration would quickly lead to the democratization of a Leninist regime. Similarly, other first-class China scholars, such as Ryan Hass of the Brookings Institution, have claimed that U.S. officials might have talked about political reform as a way of persuading Americans to support expanded trade relations with China, but that human rights and democracy “never were the objectives of U.S. strategy.”

All this is useful in reminding us that U.S. officials were not fools — they never believed that a little trade would magically transform China into a Jeffersonian democracy overnight. But the argument that engagement was never truly about promoting human rights and democracy is wrong. It requires waving away what numerous American officials, from multiple presidential administrations, said about U.S. policy over more than 20 years.

Even before the Cold War ended, U.S. President Ronald Reagan said that Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening was merely the “first taste of freedom for over 1 billion people.” In 1993 — just four years after the Tiananmen Square massacre — Secretary of State Warren Christopher announced that the U.S. sought “a broad, peaceful evolution in China from communism to democracy by encouraging the forces of economic and political liberalization in that great and highly important country.”

After efforts to directly link trade to improved human rights performance failed, the Clinton administration argued that economic engagement would nonetheless create a rising middle class that would demand — and eventually receive — a stronger political voice. “The more we bring China into the world,” U.S. President Bill Clinton averred, “the more the world will bring change and freedom to China.”

This thesis remained a point of bipartisan consensus well into the 2000s. “Economic freedom creates habits of liberty,” George W. Bush said during his first presidential campaign. “Trade freely with China, and time is on our side.” In his famous “responsible stakeholder” speech in 2005, Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick agreed that “closed politics cannot be a permanent feature of Chinese society … as economic growth continues, better-off Chinese will want a greater say in their future, and pressure builds for political reform.”

This basic idea was incorporated into the Bush administration’s 2002 National Security Strategy. “Chinese leaders are discovering that economic freedom is the only source of national wealth,” that document stated. “In time, they will find that social and political freedom is the only source of national greatness.” U.S. officials argued about the details of China policy, but they mostly agreed that economic liberalization would pull Beijing slowly but inexorably toward a political opening.

What about the argument that policymakers said all this but didn’t mean it — that they used the promise of eventual liberalization to sell controversial policies like admitting China to the World Trade Organization? It is always possible that, behind the scenes, there was a more cynical calculus at work. But in a democratic system like America’s, it is extremely hard to maintain what the historian Arthur Schlesinger called “two sets of books” — one public, one private — over a period of decades. And even if this were possible, it would be a scandal in its own right. It would mean that America’s leaders misled the public — and that they pursued a policy that they knew would strengthen China but not make it any less authoritarian.

Admittedly, after the early 1990s, U.S. officials never made human rights and political reform the centerpieces of the day-to-day relationship with China. But this is precisely the point: The great, seductive allure of the engagement policy was its promise that America didn’t have to disrupt a profitable, important relationship by pushing Beijing hard on human rights, because trade would undermine the Chinese system by stealth over the long run.

“The choice between economic rights and human rights, between economic security and national security, is a false one,” Clinton argued. The choice could thus be avoided; economic engagement could be allowed to perform its subversive work. Leading public intellectuals such as Thomas L. Friedman supported this idea, arguing that globalization would ultimately prove irreconcilable with Chinese authoritarianism.

The fact that things didn’t work out this way doesn’t mean that engagement was a naive policy to begin with. That approach emerged at a time when dictatorships were being swept away and the Chinese regime looked quite brittle. Social science indicated that rising incomes and levels of education often created problems for authoritarian regimes. And the engagement policy delivered plenty of other benefits — expanded trade, increased American prosperity, cooperation on some international issues — even as it strengthened China.

The problem with the policy, rather, was that it persisted well after its limitations came into view. By the mid-2000s, the journalist and scholar James Mann was pointing out that the Chinese Communist Party was not liberalizing. Instead, it was using prosperity to co-opt the population and pay for a sophisticated apparatus of repression that kept a growing middle class in check. Academics such as George Downs and Bruce Bueno de Mesquita showed that autocracies like China were liberalizing their economies while maintaining — or even tightening — police controls. Yet the momentum and allure of engagement was such that it took another decade for most observers in Washington to accept that it was not, in fact, undermining Chinese authoritarianism.

Why does an academic debate over the history of America’s China policy matter today? In part, because debates such as these set the intellectual context in which policy is made.

It was Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis that helped provide the conceptual underpinning for the democratic optimism that infused engagement with China. And, in part, because foreign policy looks backward as well as forward. Statecraft entails a determined campaign to shape the future, but it is invariably influenced by our sense of what happened in the past.

If the U.S. is to compete effectively with a China whose power and ambition have risen at an alarming rate, it must be viciously critical in assessing its own efforts to influence Beijing’s trajectory in the preceding decades. We are unlikely to meet the profound challenge China poses unless we first come to grips with what was tried, and what failed, before.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist, the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

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