Fairfax, Virginia – More than a year after protests for democracy in Hong Kong dominated the news, some major questions about China have been answered, and pretty decisively at that. The main takeaway is that “the China hawks” were right — with one important caveat.
China is an aggressive, expansionist power with anti-democratic values, and it is not turning toward liberal ideals. Nor does being “nice” to China yield dividends in terms of encouraging good behavior. As long ago as 2015, writers such as Christopher Balding were far better guides to reality, and far better predictors, than were the China accommodationists.
A few examples suffice to drive this point home. China has put more than 1 million Uighurs in what are effectively concentration camps, and it is trying to eliminate Uighur cultural influence throughout Xinjiang province. A true surveillance state has been constructed. Overall, the outcome is worse than the predictions of almost all the China hawks.
Yet that is only the beginning. China has broken the Hong Kong agreement and taken away basic liberties in the territory. It has amplified its saber-rattling over Taiwan, repeatedly provoked Japan over the Senkaku Islands, continued to interfere in Australian and New Zealand politics, and attacked Indian troops in the border region straddling the two countries. Meanwhile many countries, including the United States, are banning or planning to ban the Chinese video service TikTok, for fear the software represents a security risk.
As for the issue driving the news now and for the foreseeable future — the COVID-19 pandemic — it is debatable exactly how much China is to blame. But its early response was one of denial and cover-up from local government, hardly a sign of a well-functioning political order. A government without democratic checks and balances will abuse its powers, a truth too many observers neglected for too many years.
Given these realities, you might then argue that all policy and decision-making should be handed over to the China hawks. Unfortunately, the United States also has failed in some very significant ways.
Under President Donald Trump, the U.S. has conducted a trade war against China without getting very much in return. The dispute has worsened relations with China and made many nations more wary of the U.S. as an ally — and has done nothing to reverse the U.S. trade deficit.
The U.S. also has alienated many of its allies around the world, most significantly in Western Europe. To be sure, many of these problems are due to the blunders and idiosyncrasies of the Trump administration, but they are by no means the only forces at work. When it comes to Germany, for instance, there has been a general and in some cases long-standing failure to persuade Germany to contribute its fair share to NATO, to stop buying so much energy from Russia, and to keep Chinese equipment from its telecommunications networks.
Perhaps America’s biggest failing has been its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. On that score, ask yourself a simple question: If a country cannot set up a national testing regime, never mind get its own citizens to wear masks, is it capable of leading an effective global crusade against Chinese influence?
When it comes to both moral leadership and organizational expertise, the U.S. efforts keep coming up short. Furthermore, the willingness of Americans to make short-term sacrifices — even for their own health — doesn’t seem to be there.
All that said, Trump’s China policy has not been a complete failure. Sustained U.S. pressure has made many foreign governments aware of the risks of building a communications network around Chinese supplier Huawei. The administration also has had at least partial success cracking down on Chinese espionage in the U.S., including through universities. On the public relations front, it is now widely understood that China just isn’t going to open up to a lot of U.S. businesses, including the major technology companies.
Where does all this leave U.S. China policy? As a rule of thumb: If it is of clear and limited scope and can be conducted technocratically, and can avoid both excess media coverage and political polarization — and, crucially, if it requires no obvious sacrifices from American citizens — then a policy stands a pretty good chance of succeeding. But that is not enough to justify a new global crusade. Over the last year or so, no matter what you might think of the government in Beijing, it has become clear that the government in Washington faces some real limits in responding to it.
In other words: The China hawks were right about everything, except how to deal with China.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.