DUFFY: How The US Can Use Chinese Protests To Avoid War In The Pacific

(Photo by KAZUHIRO NOGI/AFP via Getty Images)

Daniel Duffy Contributor
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Recent Chinese anti-lockdown protests across several cities and over 50 universities reveal fissures in the social fabric of the authoritarian giant.  After almost three years of strict lockdowns, a petering economy and with many struggling to obtain basic necessities, some Chinese have had enough. While it is difficult to gauge how widespread this sentiment is, there is evidence it is sizable. Public demonstrations are rare in China. Many still remember the massacre at Tiananmen Square, making these protests all the more significant. Moreover, in response to them, Xi has hinted that he will relax COVID restrictions, demonstrating their efficacy. 

Notably, the demonstrations are not aimed only at COVID policy, but the communist party and Xi himself. “Xi Jinping! Step down! CCP! Step down!” and “We do not want PCR (tests), but want freedom,” were common chants.  Others held up a blank piece of paper as a symbol of their censorship. Xi may be able to temporarily assuage the dissent with piecemeal concessions, but given how authoritarian his regime has become, it will be impossible for him to rescue a failing economy without fundamental changes, adding to the angst. Therefore it’s likely deep-rooted resentment will continue to bubble under the surface.   

This is of considerable interest to the United States and its allies given the region’s geopolitical context. 

The powder keg in the Pacific revolves around China’s obsession with “reunification” of Taiwan — a politically independent country in practice, but claimed by China. Beijing has repeatedly stated it would take Taiwan by force, if necessary, and grows in bellicosity by the year.  

Outside of being much freer than China, Taiwan is a key, strategic ally of the United States due its semiconductors production. Most semiconductors are produced in Taiwan and South Korea (it’s true that much of the technology is developed in the U.S. and is supported by a complex supply chain, but the actual production takes place largely in Taiwan and South Korea). 

Semiconductors are used in almost everything in modern society: appliances, cars, medical devices, defense, and more. Remember how desolate the car lots felt last year during the chip shortage? Magnify that across all industries and you have an idea of how devastating Taiwan’s loss would be. It’s easy to see why the United States has a vested interest in keeping Taiwan free, and could easily become entangled in a conflict with the nuclear power if China were to blockade or invade the island.  

The best outcome of the Chinese dissidents would be Xi’s replacement with a more classically liberal government. The chances of this, at least in the short term, are small.  But the protests may be able to disrupt Xi’s agenda enough to delay his designs on Taiwan, giving the U.S. and its allies time to prepare for that eventuality.  A better outcome would be if the protests convinced Xi that the stakes of invading Taiwan are just too high. Chinese history is fraught with rebellions and revolutions. He may come to the conclusion he can’t risk his own neck if invading Taiwan means turmoil at home.   

How can we encourage that outcome? If there is an opportunity to avoid an extremely thorny crisis in the Pacific without risking lives or costing a dime, it shouldn’t be missed.  

The easiest, cheapest, and arguably one of the most effective things we can do is also the most overlooked — provide moral support. It can’t be understated how brave these protesters are.  With the Chinese surveillance state, people have received threatening calls from authorities after being spotted at a protest. People that risk their lives need to know they have support.  They need to see that their cause is just and have hope that it is achievable. The Soviet dissident, Solzhenitsyn, wrote about his admiration for Reagan with his vision of freedom for the countries behind the Iron Curtain. In spite of its problems, the fact remains the U.S. is still the most powerful country economically and militarily. It still has an effective pulpit.  

To be effective in curbing Xi’s imperialistic plans, the messaging must be just right.  An inconsistent or ambiguous message can backfire. Articulating why it’s important for the Chinese to have their individual rights protected, not only in COVID policy, but in freedom of speech, freedom of press, representational government, and the protection of minorities, gives Chinese citizens the moral and intellectual ammunition to start asking the big questions. 

In 2013 a CCP document called “Document Nine” was leaked. It confirms that what the CCP fears the most is the dissemination of “western values” including a free press, market liberalization and individual rights. They know that when everyday citizens become aware it isn’t divinely ordained that government should be a master, a logical question becomes: why should Chinese die in the Taiwanese strait for a cause that does not protect their lives or rights? 

It is a hopeful sign that some Chinese seem to grasp these principles, as evidenced by the nature of their rallying cries. For real change in the country Western leaders should do all they can to support those principles that have been pushed aside. 

Unfortunately, I do not anticipate many voices in America or elsewhere articulating a vision of freedom for the Chinese. There are many here that supported lockdowns, and may feel self-muzzled out of hypocrisy or fears of sounding “imperialistic.”  But that shouldn’t stop the rest of us from speaking out. Western leaders should not let themselves be bullied by Xi, or feel guilt-ridden by their own countries’ inconsistencies to speak out against China’s authoritarianism.  It is true China’s widespread censorship will hinder any efforts, but it will not prevent it.  

Leaders are not only heads of state.  CEOs, journalists, intellectuals, and everyday citizens’ voices will matter for the Chinese citizen that fights for his future and yours.


Daniel Duffy is a Marine Corps veteran who studies and writes on foreign policy.  Currently he lives in Minnesota and works as a banker. He can be reached on Twitter @Daniel0311Duffy.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the Daily Caller.