Opinion

KOLB: China Is Still Playing Us For Fools

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Charles Kolb Deputy Assistant to George H.W. Bush
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Why are we still engaging with China as if nothing important has happened during the last two years?

Over 630,000 Americans have now died from the novel coronavirus that originated in Wuhan, China, sometime in the autumn of 2019. Despite repeated efforts by governments around the world and the World Health Organization to determine the virus’ origins, China adamantly refuses to cooperate. There are also indications that China has destroyed critical evidence about the disease’s breakout.

One of President Jimmy Carter’s most important, and principled, decisions was to boycott the 1980 Soviet Olympics after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. To my knowledge, no Americans died during that invasion.

So why would we even consider participating in next year’s Winter Olympics scheduled to occur in Beijing?

China’s long-term game plan is now coming into clearer focus as soon-to-be “leader for life” Xi Jinping consolidates his internal power. Xi now controls both the Chinese Communist Party and virtually all levers of government.

Xi has ripped up the 50-year agreement guaranteeing Hong Kong’s freedoms, condoned human rights abuses against Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region, threatened to annex Taiwan and taunted the island with frequent airspace violations by Chinese fighter jets, schemed to undermine the U.S. dollar’s role in the global economy and cheered as the U.S. military executed a flawed Afghanistan withdrawal.

Even before the U.S. Afghanistan debacle, we have seen Xi flex his muscles in ways that challenge America’s sole superpower status and, in particular, the American presence in Southeast Asia.

What’s remarkable is the extent to which some American business and political elites, well aware of China’s growing hostility towards, and direct challenges to, America, continue to serve as enablers of Xi’s regional and global ambitions. These elites pursue business and other opportunities with the Chinese government and commercial sector as if all that matters are profits and maximizing shareholder value.

Some business leaders approach China as if they are dealing with the European Union as a trading partner. China is certainly an economic competitor like the European Union, but that is where all such comparisons should end. Europe remains an American ally and a geostrategic partner devoted to Western liberal values and democracy. China consistently disparages those values and openly promotes authoritarian government. The Chinese Communist Party rejects the rule of law, sanctity of contract and human rights.

Xi’s increasingly authoritarian playbook, however, should surprise few observers: it comes directly from guidance offered a century ago by the father of Soviet communism, Vladimir Lenin.  The Soviet Union’s founder told Russia-born anarchist Emma Goldman that “free speech is a bourgeois prejudice, a soothing plaster for social ills. In the workers’ republic, economic well-being talks louder than speech.”

It’s like ancient Rome’s “bread and circuses” all over again. Just keep the people well fed and entertained. Fat, dumb and happy. And, by all means, keep them far away from government. Xi’s repression of free speech and assembly in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China comes straight from Lenin’s guidance.

Some Americans keep hoping that continued engagement with China will, ultimately, prompt the CCP to embrace Western liberal values. Unfortunately, we’ve tried that approach for over three decades to no avail. Authoritarian regimes respect only two attributes: strength and determination.

Notwithstanding his Afghanistan debacle, President Joe Biden should proceed to meet with our allies to forge a coalition of nations committed to the values associated with liberal democracies. This effort should also entail a renewal of the principles and commitments associated with NATO and other collective-security agreements around the world, especially in the Middle East and Asia.

Once these efforts have been solidified, this Freedom Coalition should work with African nations that want to join the effort. It would be ill-advised for the West to cede Africa’s future economic and political development to China’s cynical and costly Belt and Road Initiative.

One major future test of this Freedom Coalition’s seriousness will be how it handles next year’s Beijing Olympics. President Biden and our democratic allies around the world should announce soon that they will boycott China’s games unless and until the Chinese government comes clean about its role in the coronavirus pandemic.

Adolf Hitler cemented Nazi Party control of Germany in 1933. The now infamous Berlin Summer Olympics occurred three years later. The Olympics convey a sense of global stature and legitimacy, both of which Xi Jinping and his government have forfeited. Please, no more Americans at Chinese circuses.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H.W. Bush White House