China has been in the news a lot lately as pro-democracy protests have erupted in Hong Kong and the Trump administration continues to engage in hardball trade negotiations with them and other countries.
China and its almost 1.4 billion people, as a country in contrast to its current state apparatus, is no greater belligerent inherently than any other nation. However, its Communist government — the People's Republic of China (PRC) — has become increasingly hostile in recent years and has laid out a difficult foreign policy dilemma for the United States in both the present and long-run.
As we grapple with the PRC and their wide variety of military, economic, and social policies and actions, and its increasingly oppositional stance to the United States, we should be exact and informed on what kind of opponent we are dealing with and to what degree.
In the PRC’s early years it was eminently hostile to the United States. The U.S.-backed Republic of China (ROC), our ally in World War II, had been forced by the PRC off the mainland onto the small island of Taiwan. The new PRC, led by Mao Zedong, quickly found itself on not just the verbal but military battlefield against the United States directly in the Korean War and indirectly through countless proxy conflicts across the globe.
That would change when President Richard Nixon “opened” the PRC and brought it as an uneasy partner into not the free world but an anti-Soviet alliance. Mao Zedong after all was a tyrant responsible for the slaughter, labor camp, and starvation deaths of tens of millions of persons under his control as well as the torture, imprisonment, and subjugation of countless more. This strange but increasingly close partnership would continue until the fall of the Soviet Union as the PRC had already seen a number of ideological, economic, foreign policy, and even military conflict with the USSR.
By the mid to late 1980s and early 1990s there was great optimism for the PRC. Deng Xiaoping, China’s new primary leader, led numerous reforms that increased economic freedom in China and spurred hope for political freedom as well. Those hopes were quashed in the blood of the Tiananmen Square massacres in 1989 but the dreams of liberty still remained.
The next two and a half decades actually saw enormous, optimistic, bold, and serious moves towards political freedoms in the PRC — a “Glasnost” of sorts — even under the boot of the Communist Party. Powered by the internet, countless billions in foreign investment and international corporate activity, major freedom of travel, a move towards “leadership by committee and consensus,” and increasing internal pro-U.S. sentiment, many began to refer to China as a capitalist country but, only in name, still Communist.
That unfortunately mostly reversed in dramatic fashion this past half decade. That receding is a demonstration of how sensitive liberty is without engrained checks and balances and how quickly it can revert to authoritarianism. The internet in the PRC has become a censored keyhole to the wider net and a tool for citizen monitoring. Foreign companies have faced an uncertain environment as perceived openings by the PRC have been shaky. Anti-U.S. activities have increased dramatically, as the PRC seeks to build out its own international network, often in cooperation with the Russian Federation, in rivalry to the U.S. and free world.
This has all created a difficult situation for the United States. The last few decades have seen enormous exchange and interconnection that is difficult to unravel and yet is increasingly posing serious security and economic challenges. It still is unclear whether the PRC should still be pushed towards opening with a detente policy or fought against with a containment policy.
Whatever the case, we are at a pivotal point for U.S.-China relations and what will undoubtedly be one of the most defining and challenging relationships of the 21st century. Our nation must remain clear eyed on what the PRC is and the complexity of its, and our, past, present, and future.
Re-prints of some of my columns. NOTE: I ran a national weekly column from 2017 to 2018 printed/distributed by newspapers in dozens of states across the country. The 2017-2018 blogs in this section are re-prints of the national column.