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.

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