The Asian Century 18.

            How “hawkish” on China does President Biden want to be?  Between the election and inauguration, observers recognized that the Democratic foreign policy establishment is divided.  On the one hand, there is the global issues[1] faction that deprecates great power competition as a diversion from key future developments.  On the other hand, there are the traditionalists who see a strong United States as the leader in a movement to create a rules-based international order that can shackle “evil doers.”   China would provide a first test of which faction had the upper hand. 

            The Biden administration has moved quickly to confront the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC).[2]  It invited Taiwan’s chief diplomatic representative to Biden’s inauguration; it announced that it would sell weapons to Taiwan; it fended off a Chinese suggestion of talks in the near future by pleading the need to consult allies; it endorsed the Trump administration’s position that China’s Uighur minority art the target of genocide[3]; and allowed the voyage of a naval force to the South China Sea to go forward. 

            On the surface, there is much to like about Biden’s assertion of traditional forms of American power.  At the same time, previous practitioners would warn that it is all too easy to get into an escalating cycle of actions.[4]    

            If Zi wants tough action and not just tough talk, he could order some kind of military demonstration.  Perhaps China could whack the Indians along their common border, as they did in late January, or fly war planes into Taiwan’s air defense zone, as they also did.  The trouble is that such action might bring forth some new action by the Americans.  This, in turn, would require some further response.

The alternative of doing nothing but talk tough in response would be tricky for Zi Jinping.  It could signal weakness or uncertainty to people inside and outside China.  Zi could easily survive foreign perceptions, because he could calmly wait on the growth of Chinese power while looking for safe opportunities to demonstrate it.  Could he survive domestic perceptions of weakness?  Is he sure enough of his position?  Are his rivals sufficiently contained, his enemies imprisoned?[5]  In this case, a renewed round of domestic repression would serve a dual purpose.  On the one hand, it would offer a chance to weed out suspected weak links and dissidents.  On the other hand, human rights is now an entrenched American foreign policy concern.  So, domestic brutality would be both a way of shoring up Zi’s own position while openly defying one of American foreign policy’s stated goals.  What are the Americans going to do about it?  Sovereign countries can pretty much get away with doing whatever they want inside their own borders.  It’s one of the privileges of sovereignty. 

One might expect that Zi will opt for a policy of domestic toughness, notably against any “nationalists” who questions his toughness abroad.  Meanwhile, the US and the PRC probably will continue strengthening their positions.  Perhaps they will find a way out. 

[1] Climate change first of all, but then human rights, migration, and—now—pandemic disease. 

[2] Walter Russell Mead, “Can Biden Find Clarity on China and Russia?” WSJ, 14 December 2020; Mead, “Biden’s Opening Salvo on Beijing,” WSJ, date misplaced. 

[3] Biden had said the same thing on the campaign trail before his election. 

[4] For a scary, real-world example, see: 

[5] In all fairness, it usually took a long series of reverses before a Chinese emperor was said to have lost the “Mandate of Heaven.” 

The Asian Century 3 15 July 2019.

What do you want, freedom or prosperity?  “It’s an honest question.”[1]  For much of its history, the “West” has been able to achieve an acceptable mix of both.  Other places have not been so lucky.  Some countries climbed into the ranks of the Freedom + Prosperity group by first prioritizing prosperity over freedom.

China’s initial reforms under Deng Xiaoping both encountered obstructive resistance from “conservatives” within the Communist Party and inspired extravagant hopes among educated young people.[2]  Conciliating the conservatives would mean enraging the students; while satisfying the students would enrage the conservatives.  The problem divided even the Communist Party leadership at the center of power.  The party’s General Secretary, Zhao Ziyang, favored a policy of political liberalization.

In Spring 1989, the controversy reached a crisis when massive student demonstrations broke out in Beijing.  Tiananmen Square became the focus of the demonstrations, and of international attention.  Forced to choose, the Party leadership opted for control.  Troops violently cleared the square, and Zhao Ziyang went into house arrest.

As was the case in the European Revolutions of 1848, repression gave way to a new course by enlightened conservatives.  Deng Xiaoping used the crisis—and the fear of a recurrence—to force the conservatives to accept a dramatic acceleration of economic change.[3]  China would exploit its low labor costs and massive population to launch a dramatic acceleration of economic development.  The strategy would be export-based growth through engagement with the world economy.  The benefits of this policy would not be equally shared.  Wealth would flow to the elites and middle classes who supported it.  For the rest of the Chinese there would be low wages and a scanty social safety net.  However, the gamble Deng took reflected a belief that key people would prefer prosperity to freedom if they had to choose.

The effects in the rest of the world have been dramatic as well.  Chinese competition has wreaked havoc with many Western producers and their employees.  And China’s economic success makes it a credible model for people who find the contemporary liberal political and economic arrangements deeply dissatisfying.  Much the same was true in the Thirties, when the Great Depression in the capitalist West made Stalinist Russia look to some observers like a more reasonable alternative.

Despite the bitter divisions that are all too evident in Western democracies, it seems most likely that the countries that will imitates China’s economic and political model will be found in the developing world.  Freedom + Prosperity has become so deeply engrained in the West that incremental reforms are likely to resolve—or diminish to a tolerable level—those divisions.  In other places, where Freedom + Prosperity is new or non-existent, outcomes may differ.

Or perhaps not.  Prediction is a tricky business.  History is more reliable.


[2] Of course, many/most young people weren’t very educated.  They did not necessarily share the values of the urban educated elite.  However, urban educated elites are easy to meet and talk to if you are a Western diplomat, journalist, or traveler.  Same thing happened at Tahrir Square.  I haven’t seen much hand-wringing among journalists about how they got it wrong.

[3] Johan Lagerkvist, Tiananmen Redux: The Hard Truth about the Expanded Neoliberal World Order (2017).