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China’s economic liberalization and integration into the international order did not —as many expected — result in its political liberalization or its development into a responsible international actor.
Rather, its economic successes have only allowed the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to tighten its authoritarian grip at home and flex its muscles abroad. With hindsight, most observers today recognize that treating liberalization theory as an inevitability was a mistake, and one that led to a series of additional errors.
And yet, now that China has arrived as a great power — one prosecuting a genocide inside its borders while seeking to extend them — many, including the powers-that-be in the Biden administration, seem intent on repeating those same mistakes. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Antony Blinken or the other top brass at the State Department believe that with time, sunlight, and water, the current regime will soon give way to a better one. Few could have such naïveté fairly ascribed to them. However, they are acting on another equally pernicious premise: that the fundamental character of the CCP can and should be set aside at times so that the United States can work with the country on discrete issues.
We see this belief manifesting itself most notably and most recently in the United States’ efforts to engage with China on environmental issues. On Saturday, the American and Chinese governments released a joint statement announcing that “the United States and China are committed to cooperating with each other and with other countries to tackle the climate crisis, which must be addressed with the seriousness and urgency that it demands.” Jimmy Quinn has already poured cold water on the idea that China’s actual environmental performance aligns with its lofty green rhetoric. Contra this statement, China is primed to increase its already world-beating emissions over the next several years. And nothing in the statement, or the Paris Agreement, or any other international accord will hold the CCP accountable for the discrepancy between its words and its actions.
The only beneficiary of the issuance of such a statement is the CCP itself, which has, for all intents and purposes, gotten the American government to certify that it takes climate change seriously and is acting to remedy it. Worse, this statement seems to place the United States and China on equal footing as contributors to and solvers of the problem, which the Chinese propaganda machine is sure to use to counter critiques of the regime’s human-rights violations and aggressive geopolitical posturing. It’s an enormous error for the Biden administration to earnestly believe and act upon the idea that the CCP is interested in environmental improvement, rather than the benefits that appearing to commit to such a goal confer upon it.
That the character of the regime is inseparable from its motivations and behaviors as it pertains to particular issues should also be made readily apparent by the CCP’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. From the very beginning, its objective was not to stop the spread of the disease and share vital information with the global community, but to mitigate blame and cover its own tracks. As early as last March, China had already erected an elaborate line of coronavirus-related deceptions, as laid out here by Jim Geraghty.
In its rush to shift focus from its early incompetence and mendacity, the CCP hurried coronavirus vaccines to the market prior to proving that they would be capable of the task at hand. Sure enough, its Sinovac product, which it foisted upon desperate countries such as Chile, has been shown to be only 16 percent effective after a first dose and 67 percent effective after a second in real-world studies. Both marks fall well short of the protection that the United States’ Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson vaccines all provide after one dose. Chile — a victim of the CCP’s cynical vaccine diplomacy strategy — has seen a surge in cases and deaths despite a massive vaccination effort.
It’s difficult to say how many lives might have been saved had the Chinese government put the truth in front of what it deemed its immediate, short-term interests throughout this crisis, but it didn’t because it is incapable of doing so. Ruthlessly pursuing its own short-term interests is an immutable part of the CCP’s nature.
The 2022 Winter Olympics, set to take place in Beijing, are yet another example of a seemingly unifying international issue that the Chinese government will seek to exploit for its own purposes. It used the 2008 Games for propaganda purposes to announce its arrival as a world power. Fourteen years later, it will seek to showcase the People’s Republic as a competent, technologically adept, and civilized country — the very model of a modern major nation. The United States would be making a grave mistake by not pursuing a diplomatic boycott along the lines of what Senator Mitt Romney is proposing to counter this forthcoming charm offensive.
By failing to reckon with the fact that the Chinese regime’s character — as well as its domestic and geopolitical objectives — are indivisible from its approach to any given issue, the Biden administration is empowering it to achieve those objectives. It is incumbent upon the president and his diplomatic corps to identify these spheres — the environment, coronavirus, sports, etc. — as battlegrounds, and engage on them.