On China, America must resume its moral leadership

There is no official estimate of how many Chinese were murdered by the Communist Party in Tiananmen Square as part of its infamous crackdown. With more than one million Chinese now locked away in dystopian concentration camps, it’s possible that the number killed in Xinjiang by Chairman Xi has already surpassed those slaughtered in 1989. Tiananmen happened, and no level of Orwellian censorship can change that. What few seem to recognize is that it’s very likely to happen again. The real question is about how the free world will respond when it does.

The US response to the massacre in 1989 is a mirror image of today’s calls for “restraint.” There was some bluster, but just days after the bloodbath, President George H. W. Bush said, “Now is the time to look beyond the moment to important and enduring aspects of this vital relationship for the United States.” This “restraint” set the tone for the next thirty years of post-Cold War dictatorship apologetics and the current US-China quagmire.

I’m not saying that the US should start trashing strategic alliances — far from it. Badmouthing and levying tariffs on allies is far from strategic. However, pretending that the human rights abuses of friends and foes shouldn’t have consequences is just as bad. Policymakers must recognize that too much restraint in the 21st century is a strategic miscalculation. Dictatorships do not operate in the same way as democracies. Treating them as if they do cedes the high ground and weakens our own position in any number of policy areas.

It is nothing short of a miracle that hundreds of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of abject poverty in a relatively short period of time. But the Communist Party allowed the Chinese people to do that. The Party does not allow ordinary Chinese to protest, to believe the “wrong” things, or even to walk around without monitoring. If we won’t support the aspiration for freedom of well over 1 billion people, we should stop pretending it’s a priority. China has 5,000 years of history and we often forget that the Communist Party has been around for a tiny fraction of that. If China is to reclaim its historical place in world politics, it will be without the Party.

America can’t make that decision for the Chinese people. The almost reflexive response to human rights abuses has become to impose sanctions. But how well will we be able to rally other nations to respect sanctions against an economy close to the size of our own? Or against a Party that has turned North Korean sanctions evasion into an art form?

Our approach should be that of leadership and the generosity characteristic of free societies. The Statue of Liberty in New York was dedicated in 1886, a gift from France in the wake of the American Civil War meant to serve as a constant reminder of the shared value of freedom. In 1989, the Chinese people in Tiananmen Square erected an aesthetically similar statue — the Goddess of Democracy. America should build a monument dedicated to the memory of Tiananmen. It should have a characteristically Chinese style because the new statue should ultimately be a gift to the Chinese people when their government is ready to transparently address what happened thirty years ago. America must return to shining the light of opportunity and liberty for all the world to see, lest the darkness of dictatorship — and its associated poverty and war — creeps back over the world.

About the Author

Clay R. Fuller is a Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where he focuses on authoritarian survival, corruption, and the means through which dictators, terrorists, and criminals use free markets to restrict freedom, sow discord, and legitimize their actions. He also collects data on the use of special economic zones and sovereign wealth funds in nondemocratic countries.