We can go back three or four administrations and find presidents and other top US officials expressing the same sentiment: the more deeply engaged China is in the global economic system, the more cosmopolitan its leaders will become and the more likely it is to succumb to liberal political change.
But that all-too-easy formula hasn’t worked, nor should there have been such widespread expectations that it would work. It rested on an inflated notion of capitalism’s magic and on a misunderstanding of China’s political history.
For Chinese leaders during and since Mao’s time, the chief purpose of economic strength has been to promote social stability and elevate China’s standing in the world. Political liberalization, far from being the goal of a more powerful economy, has been the outcome to be avoided. “A fortress can be most easily captured from within,” China’s leaders have said, and “bourgeois capitalism” is the kind of force that, if not properly managed, can undermine the one-party state.
Under Xi Jinping, China’s extraordinary economic rise has been coupled with stark social controls and emphasis on communist party discipline, precisely in order to prevent certain dangerous features of Western politics from “infecting” China. Chinese Communist Party Document No. 9 in 2013 cited seven threats to party control, including “Western constitutional democracy,” human rights, pro-market “neoliberalism,” and Western-inspired ideas of media independence and civic participation. That view, reminiscent of Mao’s concerns, should have been taken into account long ago by US leaders.
The two most fundamental problems today in US-China relations are their utterly different political-economic trajectories and the structural dilemma of a (lonely) superpower facing a rapidly rising challenger. America’s disappointment with China is no basis for dealing with these problems — No more so than Chinese disappointment with America’s failure to acknowledge China’s new status in world affairs.
China’s rise is irreversible, and the model of economic growth without political liberalization is going to have its appel — and failures — for internal leadership and leadership abroad, regardless of American criticisms or insistence on forever being the “Number One” country in the world.
The proper US response is to compete with China — in trade, development assistance, accountable governance, respect for human rights, and protection of the environment, for example — rather than punish it for deflating “American dreams.”