President Trump’s tough approach to China has drawn criticism from his opponents. They complain that he has ignored diplomatic conventions and upended a tense but workable economic relationship.
Trump’s approach also makes some of his supporters nervous because they fear that a trade war with China might well throw our economy into a tailspin and perhaps cost Trump the 2020 election. I confess to being nervous on these grounds.
There should be no doubt, however, that Trump understands China. Chen Guangcheng, a leading human rights advocate who has been struggling against the Chinese regime for many years, makes that case in the Washington Post. The title (paper edition) is to the point: “Trump gets China. His critics don’t.”
Here are key excerpts:
Presidents before Trump naively believed that China would abide by international standards of behavior if it were granted access to institutions like the World Trade Organization and generally treated as a “normal” country. But that path proved mistaken, and Beijing ignored Western pressure on matters from human rights to the widespread theft of intellectual property. Trump, whatever his flaws, grasps this reality.
Unlike many of his predecessors in the White House, Trump appears to understand innately the hooliganism and brutality at the heart of the CCP. He comprehends that — whether in the realm of trade, diplomacy or international order — dictatorships do not commonly play by the rules of democratic nations. While past administrations have curried favor with the CCP (“appeasement” is not too strong a word), Trump has made excising the party’s growing corrosion of U.S. society — from business and the media to education and politics — a focus.
Which past administrations failed to understand China?
Think of Richard Nixon marveling at staged supermarkets and shoppers in Beijing, and paving the way for the severing of ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan) in favor of the communist regime. Or Bill Clinton, after talking tough, declining to make “most favored nation” status for China conditional on human rights reviews, effectively eliminating any leverage the United States had over China with respect to fair trade, not to mention rights. As China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization moved toward reality, in 2000, Clinton described it as “the most significant opportunity that we have had to create positive change in China since the 1970s.” He said there would be no downsides to freer trade: It was “the equivalent of a one-way street.”
Following the attacks of 9/11, George W. Bush turned a blind eye when Beijing used the U.S. war on terror as cover for persecuting ethnic minorities; Barack Obama repeatedly shied away from mentioning human rights to CCP officials, notably during a visit in 2009.
Trump, by contrast, “is the first president in recent memory to seriously say to this communist dictatorship: If you want to keep doing business with us, you have to change.” And Trump has backed up this statement with his actions:
During his administration, the Justice Department has ordered that CCP-run media companies operating in the United States register as foreign agents. His is the first administration to subject Confucius Institutes at U.S. colleges and universities — which serve as the eyes and ears of the CCP — to intense scrutiny, leading to the closure of several.
Trump is the first American president to take a call from a Taiwanese president since the United States cut off formal diplomatic ties with the island in 1979. He has placed sanctions on Chinese nationals, including a CCP official responsible for the death of a human rights activist and three people involved in trafficking fentanyl. He has met with persecuted people of a broad range of religious beliefs in the Oval Office, including Uighurs, Tibetans and Christians from independent Chinese “house churches.” He’s said that a deal on tariff depends on China working “humanely” with Hong Kong.
It would be naive to think that human rights, the central concern of Chen Guangcheng, play much of a role in Trump’s approach to China. I suspect it doesn’t play any.
Chen Guangcheng doesn’t contend otherwise. He notes, however, that dissidents, both within China and in the diaspora, “note and appreciate what [Trump] is doing.”
We should too, given the nature of the regime and the power it possesses:
China is a deep-pocketed, rapacious regime that poses a significant threat not just to American interests but to the entire civilized world. Yet after decades of empty talk about nudging China toward reform, we’re at a point where it is American companies, news outlets and universities that feel pressured to play by Beijing’s rules or risk losing access to its markets and resources.
Trump, with an admittedly unorthodox style, is trying to break down the systems, and the concessions, that have allowed the CCP to operate unchecked for too long. He deserves credit, not criticism, for saying: Enough.