In July the Chinese Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary with familiar totalitarian pageantry: displays of military hardware, cheering red-scarved youth, and a nationwide crackdown on dissidents to ensure “political security.” The cult of personality that CCP general secretary Xi Jinping has assiduously built for himself was also on full display, as the unelected supreme leader of China delivered a speech wearing a drab tunic commonly referred to as a “Mao suit.” The symbolism Xi was trying to convey to the Chinese people with his garb was obvious: I am equal in significance to Chairman Mao as a leader. To the rest of the world, the message in Xi’s speech was just as overt: Any foreign force that attempts to “bully, oppress, or subjugate” China “will certainly be battered and bloodied in collision with the Great Wall of Steel built by 1.4 billion Chinese people.”
Some might dismiss these words as pure rhetoric, but we must take them seriously. Xi’s actions since taking power match his language — and then some. A century after Vladimir Lenin’s Comintern helped found the CCP, it continues to espouse the same Marxist-Leninist philosophy that served as the warped intellectual justification for brutalizing the Chinese people in the 20th century — millions were killed under Maoist rule — and the 21st — witness the ongoing genocide against Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang Province. This ideology is also the foundation for the CCP’s ongoing drive for China to replace America as the world’s true great power and establish the CCP’s model of governance as the norm for all nations.
The ideological color of the CCP’s centennial celebration therefore reaffirmed another truth: The Trump administration was right to break from a nearly 50-year-old policy of unqualified American engagement with China. By replacing unalloyed optimism with sharp-eyed skepticism, the Trump administration initiated a necessary, historic shift to better protect American security, prosperity, and freedoms from Beijing’s predations — a shift that must continue.
It’s important to trace the context for why our radical, powerful shift was so urgent. Following the completion of the CCP’s takeover of mainland China in 1949, the U.S. and China had little bilateral contact during the early years of the Cold War. Indeed, America’s most significant interaction with China before the 1970s was fighting the Korean War. Like all communist regimes, the Chinese regime was deeply suspicious of any foreign influences inside its borders and was likewise fearful of sending its most talented thinkers outside of the country. Undergirding the Maoist secrecy and butchery of mid-century China was the CCP’s Marxist-Leninist ideology, which sought not only to devour China for communism but to take down the United States as well. As Mao wrote, “People of the whole world, unite still more closely and launch a sustained and vigorous offensive against our common enemy, U.S. imperialism, and its accomplices!”
In 1967, Richard Nixon, a proven cold warrior soon to mount a successful run for president, articulated his intent to foster engagement with the regime in Beijing as a means of causing it to change. In his seminal article for Foreign Affairs that year, Nixon wrote, “The world cannot be safe until China changes. Thus our aim . . . should be to induce change.”
But events occurring during the Nixon administration caused the president, and his top foreign-policy adviser Henry Kissinger, to shift the basis for engagement. Rather than forcing the CCP leopard to change its spots, the focus became leveraging Chinese help to achieve Nixon’s own political and policy goals. Having run in 1968 on ending American involvement in Vietnam, Nixon wanted Chinese help to pressure the Viet Cong to come to the table for a negotiated American exit. Nixon also saw China as a useful means for pressuring the Soviet Union, at the time at odds with China over border issues, among other matters. Finally, he believed the opening of China would be a splashy moment for driving up his favorability in advance of the 1972 presidential election. Thus the Nixon–Kissinger diplomacy of the early 1970s, culminating in the president’s historic trip to Beijing in 1972, was, at its core, not ideological but transactional.
But after Nixon’s resignation in 1974, America’s leaders failed to question seriously whether — or how — the talismanic policy of engagement with China should continue. They should have. While the CCP built up its power, we slept. Although Deng Xiaoping allowed limited economic liberalization beginning in the late 1970s, he was no less determined than Mao to establish China as an international power capable of challenging the free world and spreading the CCP’s model of governance. He infamously said, “Hide your strength, bide your time.” In other words, accumulate power with a view toward unleashing it at the right moment.
That’s exactly what happened over the next four-plus decades. As the West opened to China, and vice versa, the CCP quietly grew stronger by exploiting its contacts with the world. Western businesses eager to access Chinese markets blithely signed joint-venture agreements with Chinese state-run companies, thereby putting sensitive technologies into the hands of the People’s Liberation Army. China put propaganda-spreading Confucius Institutes on American campuses, and secretly embedded PLA officers in American STEM graduate programs, allowing them to easily steal proprietary knowledge. The CCP demanded the censorship of negative portrayals of China on the big screen as Hollywood’s price of admission into Chinese markets — a common trade-off across industries doing business with Beijing.
If you wonder why the West didn’t push back harder on these manipulations, it’s because short-term abuses were tolerated in anticipation of long-term transformation. After the Cold War, many Western thinkers calculated that global trade and investment with China would produce the kind of political liberalization that Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika had triggered in the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc in the late 1980s. As President Clinton said in advocating China’s admission into the World Trade Organization: “Membership in the WTO . . . will not create a free society in China overnight or guarantee that China will play by global rules. But over time, I believe it will move China faster and further in the right direction, and certainly will do that more than rejection would.”
It was a bad miscalculation. Far from democratizing, the CCP viewed the democratic revolutions of the 1980s and ’90s as instructive in how not to wield power. Party leaders believed that when Gorbachev gave an inch on political freedoms, the Russian people took a mile. The result was the end of the communist experiment in Russia in 1991 and the Soviet regime’s ejection from power — an outcome the CCP’s power-mad leaders want to avoid at all costs. Instead of being transformed by capitalism or some magical arc of history, the party massacred protesters in Tiananmen Square, eviscerated freedom in Tibet, kept dissidents such as Liu Xiaobo imprisoned, and today has built an Orwellian surveillance state. Hong Kong, once free, is now just another communist city, with freedom of the press and other liberties obliterated. And WTO accession specifically was an enormous failure of American policy, as President Clinton’s dream of empowering the Chinese people with freedom simply destroyed American jobs and empowered the Chinese Politburo.
The CCP also grew more aggressive in challenging American power. From the beginning of his reign in 2012, Xi initiated a drive to modernize the PLA and build up the country’s nuclear and rocket forces. In 2015, General Secretary Xi stood next to President Obama in the Rose Garden and made empty promises that China would stop militarizing islands in the South China Sea. Yet American leaders did little to deter the CCP’s aggression and lawlessness.
Diplomatically, China worked to undercut American leadership by spreading “socialism with Chinese characteristics” overseas. The CCP dangled bribes and access to its markets in front of foreign leaders, and carried out covert propaganda activities, in hopes of winning influence and building a network of tributary states whose loyalties tilted toward Beijing more than Washington and its free-world allies. China’s principal project in this respect is the multitrillion-dollar Belt and Road initiative, designed to consolidate Chinese control over infrastructure projects and international arteries of commerce — ports, railways, etc. Similarly, the CCP has subsidized Chinese telecom giant Huawei to put 5G infrastructure in any country that will take it, thus luring nations into a devil’s bargain of cheap gear in exchange for the CCP’s being wired into their technological systems. Such arrangements jeopardize American commercial and national-security interests.
Before his death in 1994, President Nixon commented that he feared he had “created a Frankenstein” with his opening to China. Fifty years since unqualified engagement became America’s strategic north star, it’s hard to disagree with him. A policy that was left in place too long had failed to change the Chinese Communist Party or bolster American security.
Almost paradoxically, it was an American businessman who became the most prominent voice asserting that America’s no-strings engagement with China — which looked a lot like capitulation — hadn’t delivered what it promised. As Donald Trump ran for president in 2016, he called for an end to Chinese trade abuses — manipulations that entailed smashing American farmers with trade barriers, abusing “developing country” status at the WTO, and stealing vast quantities of intellectual property from American companies. He favored injecting some much-needed reciprocity into the relationship: The time was up when Beijing could escape the consequences for doing economic damage to America, cheating on international agreements, and generally trying to supplant the United States as a global leader.
That same perspective eventually shaped the entirety of the Trump administration’s China policy. The Department of Defense ramped up naval exercises in the South China Sea, initiated a modernization of U.S. nuclear forces, and began to talk about having regional allies in Asia host those capabilities. DOD also took steps to strengthen our military presence in the Indo-Pacific, while the Department of Justice started cracking down harder than ever on Chinese intellectual-property theft and espionage activities.
At the State Department, we imposed new, reciprocal measures on Chinese diplomats’ access to college campuses and closed down the den of spies in Houston that doubled as China’s consulate there. We successfully lobbied more than 60 countries to ban untrusted vendors such as Huawei from their 5G networks. We approved more arms sales than ever to our friends in Taiwan. At my direction, the United States became the first country in the world to declare the barbaric treatment of minorities in Xinjiang a genocide. And, for the first time since 1949, a U.S. presidential administration said boldly that the Chinese Communist Party does not represent the Chinese people — the last thing the repressive CCP wants its people and the world to hear.
For all the hand-wringing on America’s role in the world under President Trump, the truth is that America asserted bold leadership on the most pressing foreign-policy issue of our time. The CCP under Xi and his cadre presents the single greatest external threat to our way of life, and we began the arduous work of securing our country against it. The bipartisan shift thus initiated, is, I believe, here to stay. We handed the Biden administration an enormous amount of leverage to continue a tough policy, and its foreign-policy team would be foolish to soften various lines of effort in exchange for something like a Potemkin agreement on climate change that the CCP will never honor.
Today China’s leaders no longer believe that the world will simply overlook their coercion, aggression, and lies, especially with the party’s COVID cover-up having poured gasoline on the bonfire of its own credibility. But the CCP still believes it is at war. It is at war with the rest of the world for power and supremacy, at war with the West to crush our ideology of freedom, and at war with the lone superpower that can thwart its ambitions. It seeks commercial and military dominance in connected realms, from artificial intelligence to semiconductors to genetics and more. And it will use every tool in its arsenal to execute its battle plan, from disinformation campaigns and influence operations to traditional military-power capabilities.
American leadership, and only American leadership, can deny Xi his goals. Practicing unqualified engagement, buying manufactured trinkets, managing Chinese wealth, and selling rides to Chinese citizens at Shanghai Disneyland have not and will not work in causing the CCP to change. America has taken up the cudgels in this great cause of protecting the free world from the Chinese threat. If we and our Western allies continue down this new path — if we do not return to the failed policies of the past decades — we will prevail.
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