“I really think China is the future,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk declares. British scholar Martin Jacques, who writes books with titles such as When China Rules the World, predicts, “The future is China’s.” Author-columnist Fareed Zakaria writes that “China is winning the future.”
If China is indeed the future, if China is primed to “rule the world,” if China remakes the international order in its image, it won’t be pretty. A future dominated by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be demonstrably worse than the world we know. Just look at how Xi Jinping’s regime treats its own subjects—and plays its current role on the global stage.
Those predictions aren’t outlandish. China already is the world’s top manufacturing nation, top exporting nation, and second-largest economy. The PRC was the only major economy to emerge from 2020 claiming GDP growth (if we are to trust Beijing’s books). In the pandemic’s wake, China dislodged the US as the world’s primary destination for foreign direct investment. PRC-backed firms are leaders in the global 5G and AI race. On the strength of a 517-percent binge in military spending since 2000, China bristles with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, deploys a high-tech air force, has a growing and openly hostile presence in space, is doubling its nuclear arsenal, and boasts a 350-ship navy (now the world’s largest). Beijing’s growing cultural reach is evident in everything from its influence over Hollywood, to its puppet-master relationship with the NBA, to its 480 Confucius Institutes (designated by Washington as “part of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence and propaganda apparatus”).
As President Joe Biden concludes, China is “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”
Xi is doing exactly that. But the China challenge starts inside the PRC.
Xi is pursuing what he calls the “China Dream,” which enfolds goals such as sustained economic development, military power modeled after and matching that of the US, ideological conformity, “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and “complete unification of our country.” Making Xi’s “China Dream” come true is turning into a nightmare for his subjects.
Before leaving his State Department post, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described what Xi is doing to Uighur Muslims as “genocide,” noting that Beijing has “forced more than a million people into internment camps in the Xinjiang region” and detailing “torture, sexual abuse… rape, forced labor… and unexplained deaths in custody.” As he took the baton from Pompeo, Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed, affirming that “the forcing of men, women, and children into concentration camps, trying to, in effect, reeducate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party—all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”
The US government isn’t alone. The Uighur Muslim region, according to a UN human-rights watchdog, “resembles a massive internment camp… a no-rights zone.” More accurately, all of China is a no-rights zone.
Xi’s China is a place where Christian churches are smashed and followers of Christ are sent to reeducation camps; Buddhist temples are bulldozed; Uighur men are packed into freight trains, Uighur women are forcibly sterilized, and Uighur babies are forcibly aborted; and bishops and Nobel Peace Prize laureates die in prison. Under Xi, “Religious persecution has increased… with four communities in particular experiencing a downturn in conditions—Protestant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and both Hui and Uighur Muslims,” Freedom House reports. Amnesty International adds that “hundreds of thousands of people” are subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention in China, many of them for “peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of belief.”
There’s a brutal logic to Xi’s brutal response to religious activity. The common denominator of most every religion is that there’s something above, something beyond, something bigger, more enduring and more important than the state. That notion represents a mortal threat to the legitimacy and durability of Xi’s regime, which is founded on the premise that people exist to serve the state—not to use their God-given gifts to serve others and glorify God.
Xi’s capacity to control is growing ever more insidious. The PRC’s new “social credit system” is using mega-databases to monitor and catalog every aspect of life of China’s 1.3 billion people—financial transactions, civil infractions, social-media postings, online activity—and then reward or sanction Xi’s subjects by feeding all that information to the National Development and Reform Commission, banking system, and judicial system. PRC subjects with good social credit scores enjoy waived fees, lower utility bills, promotions, and expedited overseas-travel approval, while those with poor social credit scores can be fired from their jobs, expelled from school, blocked from universities, or barred from accessing transportation.
An Orwellian surveillance state, more than a billion people denied religious freedom and other human rights, uncounted numbers tortured in reeducation camps, physicians jailed for following the Hippocratic Oath—that’s the kind of future and the kind of world Xi wants to build. As dissident leader Xu Zhangrun observed in the wake of Beijing’s criminal mishandling of COVID-19, “A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well.”
That idea—the notion that the PRC is simply incapable of treating the world any better than it treats its own—is not particularly profound. After all, this is a regime that over the decades has erased some 35 million of its subjects and tortured millions more, that sees itself at the center of humanity, that lays claim to 2,600 years of history, that has designs on shaping the future and dominating the world. Regimes like this see no limits on their power. Since they believe nothing is above the state, they rationalize everything they do in the name of the state, the revolution, the Supreme Leader, the Dear Leader, the Core Leader (Xi’s new title). With no moral constraints on what they do, they believe their ends always justify their means.
That backward worldview informs every aspect of decision-making in the PRC. This doesn’t mean Washington should refuse to talk with Beijing. We must “leave open the possibility of negotiation,” as NSC-68 counseled during Cold War 1.0. But we must be ever vigilant when dealing with Xi. A regime that can justify imprisoning, torturing, and killing its own people for peacefully practicing their faith can and will justify anything: seizing foreign lands, annexing international waterways, absorbing free peoples, stealing proprietary information, leveraging a pandemic to gain geopolitical advantage, signing a treaty with the intent of breaking it. The godless USSR did those sorts of things, and so has the godless PRC. (For those bothered by the Cold War references, historian Niall Ferguson counters that just as World War I and World War II were not identical, “they were sufficiently similar for no one to argue about the nomenclature. Similarly, there was Cold War I… And now we are in Cold War II. This new Cold War is not the same as Cold War I. But it is sufficiently similar to deserve the name.”)
“It is difficult to imagine that a government that continues to repress freedom in its own country,” President Ronald Reagan said of the USSR, “can be trusted to keep agreements with others.” And here we are yet again.
Experts in policy analysis, academia, and military-security affairs conclude that Xi’s response to COVID-19 “was in breach of international law.” It pays to recall that COVID-19 was a local public-health problem that metastasized into a global pandemic due to Beijing’s incompetence or intention (either cause is a reason not to entrust the future to Xi); that Xi’s regime lied about human-to-human transmission; that Xi’s regime willfully allowed millions to leave the epicenter in Wuhan for destinations around the world; that Xi’s regime carried out a premeditated plan to hoard 2.5 billion pieces of protective equipment as the virus swept the globe; that Xi’s regime blocked scientists from sharing findings about genome sequencing for weeks; that Xi’s regime continues to refuse to cooperate with international health agencies.
Xi’s intervention in Hong Kong and assertion of rule by remote-control is a brazen violation of an international treaty.
In and above the East China Sea, Beijing is constantly violating Japanese airspace and illegally loitering PRC coast guard vessels in Japanese waters. All the while, Beijing illegally claims some 90 percent of the South China Sea. Xi has backed up those claims by building 3,200 acres of illegal islands beyond PRC waters. These “Made in China” islands feature SAM batteries and warplanes. Xi promised the PRC wouldn’t militarize these islands. But as America and its allies learned at enormous cost last century, words don’t matter to men like Xi. Strength and the will to wield it are all that matters. Xi has both.
His goal is to control the resource-rich South and East China Seas, assert sovereignty claims in fait accompli fashion, and bring Chinese-speaking lands under his heel. Hong Kong—where only PRC-approved “patriots” are permitted to govern—was his first objective. Taiwan is next. Xi has made clear that democratic Taiwan “must and will be” absorbed by the communist Mainland. “We make no promise to abandon the use of force,” he warns. That explains Beijing’s ground-unit exercises, naval drills, and bomber sorties around the island democracy.
Nor are Xi’s dreams and designs limited to his immediate neighborhood. Beijing is buying loyalty via development projects (see the Belt and Road Initiative), gaining a toehold in strategically located regions (see PRC control over ports in 18 countries), building an authoritarian bloc (see Russia, Serbia, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela), and fielding a power-projecting military capable of challenging the Free World across every region and every domain—land, sea, air, space, and cyberspace. Xi’s relentless cyber-siege of the Free World is siphoning away inventions, discoveries, technologies, and wealth, penetrating defense firms, and interfering in elections.
For those with eyes to see—who know about the laogai camps and brutalization of Muslims and oppression of Tibet and assault on Christianity—none of this comes as a surprise. What’s surprising is that for 40 years, the trade über alles caucus convinced itself that such a regime could somehow be reformed by access to Buicks and Kentucky Fried Chicken. In truth, the PRC is an ends-justify-the-means regime that, like the USSR, has contempt for the individual at home, disdain for norms of behavior abroad, and respect for only one thing. The rest of this series will discuss how the United States and its partners are building up the resources needed to prevent Xi’s dream from turning into a global nightmare.