When the Berlin Wall fell and the Soviet Union dissolved, the Western world thought, with considerable justification, that the generational struggle with communism had ended. But in our exultation, we forgot to finish the job. Communism lived on in mainland China and is once again challenging the free world for dominance.
This time, they’re doing it with our money. As we have begun to realize these past few years, and as the coronavirus outbreak has made even clearer, China has used our free markets and open-mindedness against us, running an economy based on the bizarre fusion of communism and mercantilism while cracking down ever more on its people’s natural rights and freedoms. It is time for the free world to rejoin the fight.
Harsh in War, Generous in Peace
Historically, the United States has been generous in victory. As the Civil War drew to a close, President Abraham Lincoln resisted calls for vengeance against the conquered South, famously saying after the fall of Richmond that he would prefer to “let ’em up easy.”
After the First World War, President Woodrow Wilson declined the territorial concessions America’s allies were demanding, focusing instead on an ultimately misguided plan for permanent peace. Likewise, after the Second World War, presidents Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman did not look to conquer territory, as Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union did, but to rebuild the shattered lands of Europe and Japan, making former fascist enemies into democratic friends.
That spirit of magnanimity was likely in President George H.W. Bush’s heart at the end of the Cold War. As the Iron Curtain in Europe fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, Bush was right to reach out to our former adversaries to help with their transitions to liberal democracy and a market economy. His error, though, was in extending that same hand to Communist China, a nation that had not thrown off the shackles of socialism and had only recently suppressed the first glimmers of democratic sentiment in the Tiananmen Square of 1989.
Mercy in victory is good, but it does no good to let ‘em up easy when you haven’t knocked ‘em down yet. Bush struck the perfect tone with the Soviet Union’s premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, rewarding political concessions by the communists with economic concessions on our side. The result was a gradual and mostly peaceful winding down of what Ronald Reagan had rightly called an “evil empire.”
Who Lost China?
But if Bush struck the right note in Europe, he was well off-key in Asia. Colin Dueck explained the problem in “Hard Line: the Republican Party and U.S. Foreign Policy Since World War II.” “For Bush, the strategic relationship with China…was vital to the United States. So were Sino-American economic ties. Bush was loath to in any way encourage massive social or political upheaval within China. He believed that continued U.S. economic and political engagement with China would best serve the cause of reform in that country.”
At the time, there was some reason to believe that might work, but it required a very optimistic view of human nature. With the Soviet Union, Bush demanded greater self-determination of the peoples that country dominated. When that was granted, he promised economic aid.
China was less in need of aid, which removed the carrot from the equation, but Bush removed the stick as well. His condemnation of the Tiananmen Square massacre was muted. While China agreed to free some political dissidents so Congress would reauthorize most-favored nation trading status, these concessions to a few individuals let them avoid loosening control of their people as a whole.
Communism was in retreat, and China was isolated. Bush’s conservative temperament was what the relationship with the Soviet Union called for, but our relationship with China still needed Reagan’s bold vision. Instead, we accommodated the rising red power in the East.
We hoped a soft touch would turn China down the same path as the newly free nations of central Europe. Instead, access to western capital only fueled China’s industrial machine.
The increased wealth to which their citizens now had access did not, in any meaningful sense, lead to more freedom, as it had elsewhere. Communist China combined the economic policies of the 19th-century British Empire with the political rights of the Soviet Union. Instead of a liberal democracy, we got red mercantilism.
Finish The Job
America’s broad-mindedness and openness to trade has been good when dealing with nations like us. With other industrialized democracies, like Japan, more trade—including fewer restrictions on their end—would be an improvement. But with Red China, the coronavirus pandemic has shown the folly of our live-and-let-live approach to trade there. It also highlights how we no longer demand even the minor improvements to human rights that we used to insist on as a matter of course.
Instead, Red China has been the one demanding concessions from the rest of the world—and getting them. American companies will criticize their own nation, but any dissent against China is quickly squashed, as we saw in the NBA kerfuffle last year. They are not rolling tanks in the streets any more, but only because they don’t have to: their wealth—our wealth!—does the job for them. As Lenin prophesied 100 years ago, we capitalists have sold the communists the rope with which they seek to hang us.
The coming confrontation with China resembles our Cold War with the Soviet Union because it is the continuation of that struggle, one that was ended before it was over. We declared peace, but Red China kept on fighting.
The consequences of 30 years of surrender are now apparent. Whether we wish it or not, the new Cold War is upon us. The struggle must be joined. The rights, the freedoms, and the jobs of the West are at stake, and our leaders must no longer fail to fight for them. This time, we should not give up until we have won.