For China, 1840 was the start of a century of “national humiliation.” The British started a war with China over trade, a few rebellions sprung up during the 1850s, and the Qing dynasty started weakening. All these rebellions – which mostly were caused by anger at foreign interference – were usually shut down by Western powers, making China loathe the West even more as they took advantage of their position with unfair treaties and extraterritoriality. Eventually, the KMT, eventually a failed attempt at a democratic government, sprung from the Xinhai Revolution in 1911. The people – notably students – continued to become agitated as other powers took advantage of their country. Thus, the CCP was formed, calling for a revolution against the KMT. After a few years of civil war and alliances between the CCP and KMT, the CCP created the People’s Republic of China and the KMT retreated to Taiwan.
Mao Zedong was the ruler of the CCP, and he made a lot of changes that the people usually liked, but Mao would eventually scale them up too much or retract these changes. Mao ruled like a dictator, and when he eventually took a backseat after causing a famine, he came back with a full cultural revolution led by students. After a civil war ended, the cultural revolution & mandatory appreciation for Mao and the CCP continued until Mao’s death in 1976. Deng Xiaoping then became the leader of the CCP, claiming only 30% of the Mao years were bad, and reformed the Chinese economy. In 1989, the Tiananmen Square Massacre took place as people protested against hardship and government corruption. This crackdown established the political freedoms the CCP is willing to give its people. During the 2008 economic crisis, China funded many infrastructure projects to increase GDP growth, create jobs, and increase the consumption of Chinese goods. Since 2012, Xi Jinping has become president, cracked down on freedoms, removed his competition, established himself as ‘President for Life,” and increased China’s global economic impact.
For decades, the U.S. has worked under the assumption that Beijing would eventually embrace democracy. However, every time the U.S. has expected China to do something, it has done the exact opposite. Of all the times Washington thought they had figured China out, they were proven wrong. The U.S. assumed market liberalism would eventually lead to political liberalism. We aided in their growth by facilitating technologies, hoping they would adopt our ideas – but they only became more opposed to them than ever before. Not even the U.S. military was able to persuade Beijing to allow the continuation of the U.S.-led security order in Asia – while they initially abided by our hopes, their ambitions and insecurities made them fear the U.S. would impede their growth as a nation. From here, there are only really three options for what to do next: we can learn to live with China as a growing power & dictatorship, start another Cold War, or begin the U.S.-China war of the 21st Century. As democracy is not required to have a stable and functioning government that works for the people, I think the U.S. should focus on improving the lives of those under despots rather than trying to remove them from power.
One of the solutions may be to allow the power of despots to grow. This strategy combines two past foreign policies: the George W. Bush administration’s, who wanted to remake the countries into America’s image, and the Obama administration’s, which did not impose anything on other countries yet demonstrated the benefits of democracy. However, both of these foreign policies are flawed – we have not been able to remake countries such as Vietnam and Afghanistan into our image, and allowing other countries to do their own thing ignores the dangers of today, where a few can kill thousands of people easily. The sweet spot is between these two, a policy that focuses on keeping the country safe, adopts policies that would improve other nations, and accepts that a good government is better than a democratic one. This, in turn, could lead to a wealthy & large middle class that improves the chances of democratic liberalism. To do this, the U.S. would have to strategically support the right local leaders in the countries with the most likelihood of becoming democracies – around 19 countries fit this requirement. More importantly, we’d need to favor government stability over origin and system of government – little can be done in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq, but we can still help their people. In China, this would mean allowing the CCP to prosper while somehow making sure its people aren’t oppressed or murdered and not angering the Communist party.
Another option is a Cold War with China. Some argue Kennan’s The Sources of Soviet Conduct should be updated for a U.S.-China Cold War. Both the USSR and China sought predominance and viewed the U.S. as the enemy. With the USSR however, democracy and the U.S. had to lose for them to win – China only sees Washington as an obstacle in their path for success, and does not think we need to be destroyed for it. China’s society is more similar to America’s than the Soviets’ ever was as well, but a majority have never seen war, which makes talk of war easier among those that have never experienced it. A Cold War would allow other powers to catch up while the U.S. and China become weaker – which could be considered a good thing, as many no longer see the U.S. as a reliable and stable partner. China also comes ahead on popular issues, where their stance on climate change, trade, and inequality makes them more favorable than the U.S., who does not lead in any of these areas.
Lastly, we could start an all-out war with China. In 2015, neither Obama or Xi Jinping thought war was a good idea – it was seen as unlikely and unwise. However, today, some argue it is way more likely than we think. If we continue our relationship with China, we could have another instance of Thucydides’s Trap – which reminds of the dangers when a rising power rivals an existing power, and can result in large-scale conflict if the threat is not acknowledged. The two main drivers for conflict would be a growing entitlement in China, and increasing fear and insecurity regarding the status quo for the U.S. In the past, conflict that has risen from this traphas often ended badly, with only 4 cases out of 16 in the last 500 years that did not result in war – but required a large attitude change to avoid it. China wants to become rich and powerful, and hold influence over the lands which the U.S. has provided peace to for most of the past century. We need to remind ourselves that China sees themselves as the rightful ruler after the century of exploitation and humiliation, and be careful of what that can mean.
As China is very involved in the global landscape, the U.S. should redirect its focus from the Chinese government to the government’s impact and treatment of its people, and solve whatever problems arise there. War against China would most likely end badly for both them and the U.S., and a Cold War would greatly affect the global economy, as China continues to lead in manufacturing. China will not be able to maintain a higher GDP growth than the U.S. in the long term, and the decades of exceedingly high economic growth will stop at some point soon. A Cold War against China would reflect poorly on the U.S. because the economic effect would be greater than the Soviet Cold War after WWII, as the Soviets didn’t join the global economy, and would lower the U.S.’s already-low standing in the world. Washington needs to learn to live with despots in order to protect its interests and keep the road for democratic liberalization open. Providing assistance to these potentially democratic countries is the best alternative to forcing democracies in conditions where they often fail. Nobody can be angry at the U.S. for offering humanitarian aid – as long as it’s solving the people’s issues and not causing further conflict.
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