Two days after the United States ordered China to close its consulate at Houston within 72 hours, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo clarified the Trump administration’s foreign policy on China in a major speech on July 23. Because shutting down a country’s diplomatic mission is a very serious and provocative step, many wonder if the Sino-U.S. relationship is in freefall and what that could mean for the rest of the world. So Pompeo’s speech couldn’t have come at a better time.
A noteworthy aspect of Pompeo’s speech was its criticism of America’s failed engagement-oriented policy toward Communist China during the last four decades. Pompeo proclaimed:
The truth is that our policies — and those of other free nations — resurrected China’s failing economy, only to see Beijing bite the international hands that were feeding it. We opened our arms to Chinese citizens, only to see the Chinese Communist Party exploit our free and open society. China sent propagandists into our press conferences, our research centers, our high-schools, our colleges, and even into our PTA meetings …
We gave the Chinese Communist Party and the regime itself special economic treatment, only to see the CCP insist on silence over its human rights abuses as the price of admission for Western companies entering China.
Despite the U.S. political divide, there is wide agreement that Pompeo’s assessment is spot-on. The Western world’s engagement-focused foreign policy toward China failed to help transform China into a more free and open society. Instead, it only enriched and empowered the Chinese Communist Party to become increasingly authoritarian at home and hostile to freedom across the globe.
A Pivot Toward Reality
So if past policies failed, what is the Trump administration’s policy, and what result the administration hopes to achieve? According to Pompeo, the Trump administration’s new China policy is rooted in practicality. This begins with treating the CCP as who they are, not whom we wish them to be.
Pompeo pointed out: “We have to keep in mind that the CCP regime is a Marxist-Leninist regime. General Secretary Xi Jinping is a true believer in a bankrupt totalitarian ideology.” Therefore, “America can no longer ignore the fundamental political and ideological differences between our countries, just as the CCP has never ignored them.” Pompeo also revised President Reagan’s famous phrase, “Trust but verify” to “Distrust and verify” when dealing with the CCP.
The Trump administration’s new China policy can be summarized in two words: induce change. To achieve this goal, the administration is taking two approaches simultaneously.
On one hand, it’s setting clear expectations of what the Sino-U.S. relationship should be — balanced, fair, and reciprocal. On the other hand, it’s confronting the CCP head-on, whether it’s about the South China Sea, human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, the trade imbalance, or years of technology theft and political influence campaigns planted by the CCP within the United States.
This explains why the administration rolled out several policies in recent weeks, including imposing sanctions against the CCP officials and employees of Chinese technology companies. The order to close China’s consulate in Houston is the most drastic step the Trump administration has taken so far.
All Chinese People Aren’t the Communist Party
While the administration is taking a more confrontational approach against the CCP, Pompeo made a clear and necessary distinction between the CCP and the 1.4 billion Chinese people. As Pompeo put it, “Communists always lie, but the biggest lie is that the Chinese Communist Party speaks for 1.4 billion people who are surveilled, oppressed, and scared to speak out.” The right approach for the United States is to “engage and empower the Chinese people — a dynamic, freedom-loving people who are completely distinct from the Chinese Communist Party.”
Pompeo has been leading by example. He met with Uyghur activists, Hong Kong dissidents, and survivors of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre. In an extraordinary move, Pompeo recognized two Chinese dissents and asked them to stand up during his speech. They were Wang Dan, a student leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests, and Wei Jingsheng, a democracy activist since the 1970s.
While calling for Chinese people to help transform the CCP’s behavior, Pompeo also recognized that “changing the CCP’s behavior cannot be the mission of the Chinese people alone.” He asked all free nations to work with the United States to defend freedom.
In an interview with Richard Nixon Foundation CEO Hugh Hewitt, when Pompeo was asked if he was demanding other free nations to choose between the United States and China, Pompeo responded that he asked other nations to choose between freedom and tyranny. If free nations fail to act now, Pompeo painted a dark picture for us: “If we bend the knee now, our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.” He ended his speech by quoting President Nixon, who said “the world cannot be safe until China changes.”
Pompeo’s speech was part of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign in an attempt to induce a change of behaviors from the CCP. The day after his speech, Beijing ordered the closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. Chengdu is one of the megacities in southwest China and the capital city of Sichuan. The city’s location is strategically important because it covers another megacity, Chongqing, and the ethnically diverse provinces of Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and Tibet.
The closure of the U.S. consulate in Chengdu serves two purposes. One is to show that Beijing is willing to take a stand against the United States. The second is to further isolate sensitive regions such as Tibet from outside influence, especially from America.
Beijing’s retaliation underscores the difficulty of trying to induce CCP’s behavior change and the cost of such confrontation. Because of past policy failures to address the CCP’s aggression when the cost was relatively low, any pushback against Beijing’s aggression now will generate a significant price tag. But, if nothing else, one thing is now certain: The United States finally has an administration that is willing to secure America’s freedom from the CCP — whatever it takes.