USA Today: In China, Trade and Engagement Has Not Lead to More Freedoms

Saturday, April 2, 2016
A reality check for those who harbor false illusions that the "China model" leads to freedom and democracy -- or even good behavior, for that matter.

From USA Today's Editorial Board:

China behaving badly

Push back against troubling direction under President Xi Jinping.

Chinese President Xi Jinping recently toured the headquarters of three state-run media organizations, where he told journalists to be loyal to the Communist Party in “thought, politics and action.”

As if to underscore how seriously the assembled journalists took this admonition, the coverage of the visit was comically positive. Chinese national television CCTV reported on how Xi liked a news app he was shown: “Quite literally, he hit ‘like,’ ” an enthusiastic anchor said. CCTV also noted that a staffer for the Xinhua news agency said Xi's “encouragement was their driving force.”

The visit might have been a big hit with the regime, but it came as a big disappointment to anyone who thought that China’s decades-long economic expansion and growing middle class would lead to greater freedom.

The Chinese government is, in fact, in the midst of a news media crackdown. In addition to issuing loyalty edicts, it has arrested journalists for covering such events as protests in Beijing and last summer’s stock market crash. And lest people try to bypass officially sanctioned news media, the government continues to strengthen the so-called Great Firewall of China, the barriers that prevent the Chinese public from accessing certain information via the Internet.

China’s recent aggressive military posture make its domestic moves more foreboding. Rather than leveraging its growing prestige to become a trusted international leader, China has spent the past few years building up its military and badgering neighbors over dubious claims to various islands in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

It has created artificial islands and armed them with missiles and radar, inviting conflict with its neighbors and America, despite President Xi's assurances to President Obama that he would not do so. Xi and Obama are set to meet Thursday at a nuclear security meeting in Washington.

This is not the way responsible nations behave. Whatever natural resources or military advantages could be gained through these islands are less valuable than the good faith China is squandering with its prosperous neighbors.

The Chinese government has not been without redeeming qualities, at least internationally. It did agree to steep cuts in carbon emissions, and it recently OK'd sanctions on North Korea that it had long resisted.

China-bashing of the kind espoused by presidential candidates such s Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders is not particularly constructive. And — notwithstanding its recent behavior — China is not the old Soviet Union and should not be seen as a new Cold War adversary. Even so, the U.S. and its allies need to apply more pressure.

The best place to start would be to pass the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a pact linking 12 nations in Asia and the Americas. China not among them. The TPP, as it is known, gets a bum rap from labor unions and factions of both major parties — Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton championed it as secretary of State but has abandoned it as a presidential candidate. But it is vital to establish a set of rules for democratic capitalism and to counterbalance China’s economic strength in the region.

Beyond the TPP, the U.S. needs to forge stronger military ties with Asian nations and to find other ways to make clear that China’s aggression abroad and its repression at home are not in its best interests.

China is simply not behaving the way Western nations envisioned when they welcomed it into a series of bilateral and multilateral trade agreements. It’s too soon to give up. But Obama and U.S. allies need to be even clearer and more forceful in pushing back against China's troubling direction under Xi. If not, the silliness of Chinese news media coverage will be the least of our problems.