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China’s Sheen of Civility Masks a Dreadful Reality

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Anne Pierce

Despite all the signs, the U.S. still does not understand that China does not take “de-escalation” seriously.

The sheen of civility with which China opportunistically presents itself masks a dreadful reality. It is illogical to assume that a dystopian communist surveillance state with vast imperial ambitions and an entrenched plan to subvert the U.S.-oriented world order will significantly change course because of economic or diplomatic “engagement.” China has, in fact, stepped up repression, grey zone attacks, and hard power provocations despite engagement. When China seeks an apparent “warming” in U.S.-China relations, as it did at the recent APEC Summit, it is usually to ease pressure on its economy, human rights violations, and expansionist foreign policy. It defies reason to think that an aggressive dictator like Xi Jinping wants a sustained détente with the United States.

Trying to keep channels of communication open between Chinese and American citizens and leaders makes good sense, but not when the effort and resultant “talks” lead to unwise concessions and not at the price of indifference to human rights. Too often, the veneer of congeniality and attempts to win the cooperation of adversaries lead to complacent or even enabling policies. Yet, what the Free World requires now is a sense of urgency about deterring the serious threat China poses to our security and way of life. What the multitude of people severely oppressed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) need now is for free people to react and speak out. China’s ever more menacing and emboldened stance in the world, ever more cruel and draconian authoritarianism, and ever more extensive dissemination of anti-American propaganda put both the power and the principles of the United States at stake.

The lingering hope that, once China realizes the economic benefits of opening up to the West and interacting with open-minded Westerners, more political freedom and less military ambition will follow has been overtaken by reality. After it was granted permanent normal trade relations with the United States and entrance into the World Trade Organization, China increasingly gamed the system, reaping economic spoils while cracking down on dissent and putting profits into state-dominated companies and weapons of war. China collaborated with U.S. corporations and universities to acquire advanced technology and intellectual property. From 2001 to 2021, China’s economy grew by 1,200 percent, and China became the world’s largest exporter. But China’s dramatic rise and domination of manufacturing paralleled surging imperial ambitions, a massive military buildup, and, eventually, a return to Maoist-level repression.

In the Wall Street Journal, Select Committee on China Chair Representative Mike Gallagher highlighted President Joe Biden’s assertion in Vietnam in September, “I think China has a difficult economic problem right now…I don’t think it’s going to cause China to invade Taiwan. And, as a matter of fact the opposite—it probably doesn’t have the capacity that it had before.” Yet, observed Gallagher, “Building a first-class military and reclaiming Taiwan are among President Xi Jinping’s priorities. Even if the economy sags and Mr. Xi has to cut back in other areas, the military will get the funds it needs.” Gallagher added that Putin invaded Ukraine in spite of economic pain and that the Great Depression did not stop imperial Japan from instigating war in the Pacific.

Neither the prospect of economic pain nor economic gain will stop the CCP’s drive for totalitarian authority and a dramatic revision of the post-World War order. Xi Jinping and the CCP view these goals as irrevocable. Instead of compromising our moral, strategic, and military position because of the desire for wealth, temporary peace, and repose, we should use China’s multiplying economic problems as leverage while recognizing that financial incentives and disincentives will only go so far. The utmost priorities for the Free World—security and rights—are compromised when America indulges in wishful thinking.

Witness the credulity and enthusiasm of the Biden administration and especially of U.S. business leaders surrounding the recent APEC summit in San Francisco. The summit allowed Xi to be seen on an equal footing with the U.S. president on the world stage and was the perfect platform for image-building. Moreover, Xi played China’s quintessential trump card with the West: the profit motive. He received a standing ovation from executives after alluding to China’s “super-large economy and super-large market” and terming China a “partner and friend.” So he, too, demonstrated China’s ability to turn the West’s characteristic eagerness for “peaceful co-existence” into unprincipled or unwise concessions.

Biden agreed to lift sanctions on a Chinese police institute implicated in Orwellian surveillance, detention and torture, and even “population genetics” against Uyghurs in exchange for Xi agreeing to help stop the flow of Chinese precursor chemicals and fentanyl into the United States by way of Mexico. This agreement might look reasonable on the surface. Still, Xi could already have cracked down on Chinese companies profiting from the fentanyl killing American youths and devastating American communities, and Biden was alreadydownplaying human rights for the sake of smoother relations. Biden deserves credit for pursuing the re-start of military-to-military talks with China, but he probably should not have agreed to “intergovernmental dialogue” on artificial intelligence since that makes it likely that loopholes in U.S. export restrictions will continue; among many chilling findings of the DOD’s 2023 China Military Power Report is that China is focused on “dominating artificial intelligence for warfare.”

As if to mock the theater of it all, while elites met behind closed doors in San Francisco, Chinese agents harassed and even assaulted anti-CCP protestors on San Francisco’s streets. It turns out that the Chinese government paid CCP supporters to wave Chinese flags to welcome Xi Jinping to the city. On November 29, Representative Gallagher and ranking China committee member Raja Krishnamoorthi requested information from the Justice Department on the “violent assault of peaceful pro-democracy protestors … by CCP-aligned agents during Xi Jinping’s visit.” Similarly tragicomic, as the conference was underway, evidence emerged that a recently exposed “biolab” in California, producing dangerous substances and run by Chinese nationals, had received $2 million in wire transfers from Chinese banks. And, the very same week, a Chinese warship used sonar to harass and injure Australian Royal Navy divers.

Indeed, in the aftermath of APEC, there are no signs that China plans to stem its military aggression. Coercive tactics and expansive illegal claims in the Taiwan Strait, the South China Sea, and the Indian Ocean continue. A Chinese official even warned Taiwan not to take reports of a softening stance toward “Taiwan independence” seriously. China has actually intensified its bullying of the Philippines. The nation’s Coast Guard said the number of Chinese maritime militia vessels near the Julian Felipe Reef had increased from 111 in November to more than 135 such vessels “swarming” the area this month. In another telling indicator, Chinese naval ships in the Horn of Africa failed to respond to a distress call from an Israeli-owned tanker that came under attack by Somali pirates on November 26. Also in late November, in classic cases of deflection, China said it “drove away” a U.S. warship conducting a freedom of navigation exercise near the Paracel Islands, calling the United States the “biggest destroyer of peace and stability” in the region. Then, on December 4, China claimed that a U.S. Navy ship traversing international waters in the West Philippine Sea had “illegally intruded.”

The Pentagon reports that China’s overall military might is on a trajectory to surpass the United States; that China now has the world’s largest Navy and fully intends to take Taiwan, that China’s nuclear buildup is “exceeding previous projections;” that China appears to be building an intercontinental missile system that could threaten the continental United States, Hawaii and Alaska; and that China is weaponizing space. Engagement, of course, has done nothing to slow China’s massive military expansion. Moreover, Xi Jinping is expanding, not contracting, the drive to “sinicize” ethnic minorities and religions as indicated by the increasing crackdown on mosques as well as on churches. And the CCP continues to deploy ever-more totalitarian methods of surveillance, censorship, and control. Another reporter from Hong Kong has gone missing in China. So much for the heralded “thaw” in U.S.-China relations.

Although many Western companies are exiting China due to personal and geopolitical risks and the State-dominated economy’s burdensome regulations, many others still find China’s gigantic market irresistible and make harmful compromises for the sake of it. (The Free Beacon reports, for example, that Microsoft helped CCP-run media outlets disseminate propaganda.) While the United States has ratcheted pressure on China through AUKUS, Five Eyes intelligence-sharing, and other agreements, the Biden administration nevertheless conveys dangerous ambivalence regarding sanctions and deterrence. While Congress’s Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act and Taiwan Protection Act are good, Congress also broadcasts ambivalence. The House Financial Services Committee is pushing back against enhanced outbound investment screening backed by the House Foreign Affairs and House and Senate Armed Services committees.

Americans must be smarter about the technology they import as well as export. China-owned TikTok is a security risk due to the destabilizing and generally pro-China narratives it spreads and the data it collects on Americans. The House Select Committee on China insists “Congress must act with urgency” to ban TikTok, which “is perhaps the largest scale malign influence operation ever conducted.” China-owned Temu and Shein, which are massively expanding their presence in the U.S. market, should be monitored as well for disinformation, forced labor, and other potential abuses. Even more concerning, America’s largedeficit relative to China’s in minerals and components key to advanced technology, medications, and even weapons systems exposes dangerous dependence on Chinese supply chains in critical areas. It would be a grave error to do too little too late to address these vulnerabilities.