Finding ways to punish China for the harm of the coronavirus pandemic is not just a matter of pursuing justice, gratifying though that would be. It is also vital to deterrence, to driving home to President Xi Jinping, and his communist cadres, that inflicting damage on America, and on our friends and allies, will entail a price that China’s ruling Communist Party cannot afford.
The problem here goes way beyond Xi’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, a saga of Chinese Communist Party intimidation, delays and duplicity that resulted in the virus spreading abroad. Having seeded the pandemic that has by now killed hundreds of thousands and caused trillions of dollars in damage around the globe, China imposed extreme lockdowns at home, while denouncing any foreign travel restrictions on China itself.
Since then, China has been advertising its totalitarian methods as a model of disease control and blaming the U.S. for the outbreak. The country is now in the process of obliterating whatever still remains of the freedoms Beijing promised under treaty to the former British colony of Hong Kong for 50 years after the 1997 British handover. The next likely target is the thriving Chinese democracy on Taiwan, which has been a genuine model of decency and disease control.
Why would Xi think he can get away with any of this? Because for generations, as the West has pursued engagement in hope of beguiling China’s Communist Party toward liberal ways, the CCP has been rolling right over the bounds of civilized behavior, perpetrating monstrous acts, above all on its own citizens, but also, increasingly, on others. And far from paying a serious price, the CCP has often done quite well out of it. Shoot protesters in Beijing? Steal nuclear secrets? Force the transfer of technology, and trade on that for more? The record shows that the American superpower and its democratic pals will huff and puff and then do nothing much, while China’s regime collects its tainted winnings.
The current pandemic comes as the second of two standout horrors with which China’s communists have shocked the world in recent decades. The first was Tiananmen, the slaughter on June 4, 1989, in which the CCP dispatched its People’s Liberation Army to crush a huge democracy movement by killing protesters in the heart of Beijing. China’s government was widely denounced, even sanctioned, but for practical purposes the CCP paid no great penalty and kept its grip on power. The nadir of Tiananmen was followed by China’s economic rise.SPONSORED CONTENT
A similar Beijing calculus is likely in play right now regarding Hong Kong, where Beijing aims to crush a vibrant democracy movement by trashing the “high degree of autonomy” it promised to Hong Kong, and subjecting the territory to a new national security law that could criminalize dissent and place mainland security operatives openly in the territory. Until now, Hong Kong has been the only place under China’s flag where people have been free to gather in commemoration of Tiananmen. No longer. When the 31st anniversary of Tiananmen arrives on Thursday, any such assembly in Hong Kong is forbidden.
President Donald Trump is now imposing penalties for Beijing’s abuse of Hong Kong. The trick will be to make them stick. Even beyond the example of Tiananmen, history quite likely suggests to Xi that he can ride this out as a transient irritation. The relevant record goes way back to the early days of the People’s Republic of China, founded by Mao Zedong in 1949, and operating for more than two decades with open hostility toward the U.S. Under Mao, China backed North Korea in the 1950-53 Korean War, and in 1964, China conducted its first nuclear test.
Seven years later, in 1971, China was effectively rewarded with visits by then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, paving the way for President Richard Nixon’s historic trip to China in 1972. That rapprochement kicked off the decades of engagement in which China — beggared under the communist policies of Mao — benefited from U.S. aid, trade and technology, and growing access to the global system.
In late 1971, as the U.S. held out a hand to China, Mao immediately cashed in at the United Nations, where since the U.N.’s founding in 1945, China’s seat had been held by the Nationalist Chinese government on Taiwan. The U.N. obligingly kicked out Taiwan and turned over the China membership to Beijing, including China’s seat as one of the permanent five members of the Security Council.
Nixon designed his rapprochement with some useful ambiguities, opening the way for the U.S. to deal with communist Beijing, but continuing to recognize the Nationalist government on Taiwan. In 1979, President Jimmy Carter switched U.S. recognition to the communists in Beijing. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, providing security guarantees to Taiwan, which Beijing aspires to subjugate under its communist system. But the stage was by then well prepared for the rise of China as an aggressive, acquisitive tyranny.
In the late 1970s, China began pressuring Britain to hand over its Crown Colony of Hong Kong, a thriving free port which, after China’s 1949 communist revolution, had become a haven for Chinese fleeing the brute repression of Beijing’s communist rule. China had ceded Hong Kong island and the tip of the Kowloon peninsula in perpetuity to Britain in the Opium Wars of the 19th century, but the colony was dependent on water piped in and additional land leased from China.
Had Britain challenged China’s demand, it is possible that China — then destitute and dependent on Hong Kong as a portal to world commerce — might have backed down. But the British, with their pre-World War II colonial empire largely gone already, declined to challenge Beijing. In 1984, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher went to Beijing and signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration, in which Britain agreed to hand over Hong Kong in 1997. China agreed that for 50 years after this handover, it would guarantee to Hong Kong’s people all their accustomed rights and freedoms, and introduce universal suffrage, allowing Hong Kong to govern itself with “a high degree of autonomy.” Thus, with hollow promises, did China acquire, without firing a shot, one of the richest prizes the free world had to offer.
In June 1989 came the Tiananmen massacre, presided over by China’s economic reformer, dictator Deng Xiaoping. There were protests in Hong Kong, vigils throughout the free world, sanctions and suspensions of aid to China. But within a month of the slaughter, President George H.W. Bush dispatched his national security adviser, Brent Scowcroft, to reassure Deng that the U.S. wished to renormalize the relationship, and that’s what happened.
In 1999, a select committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, chaired by Rep. Christopher Cox, issued a report, widely known as the Cox Report, detailing China’s theft of critical U.S. military technology, going back to the 1970s, through the 1990s, including designs for the neutron bomb. Among the report’s flashier findings was: “The stolen information includes classified information on seven U.S. thermonuclear warheads, including every currently deployed thermonuclear warhead in the U.S. ballistic missile arsenal.”
For the Clinton administration, this was no bar to supporting China’s entry, two years later, into the World Trade Organization. That brought China enormous access to the global trading system, which China has since manipulated, exploited and corrupted to such a degree that even many diehard free-market Americans are now questioning the wisdom of trade with China.
In 2002-2003 came the outbreak in China of SARS, a killer disease caused by a coronavirus similar to that causing the current COVID-19 pandemic. China’s government hid the outbreak for months, until SARS finally spread to Hong Kong, then on to some two dozen countries, causing 774 deaths before it was finally contained. The world, including American experts, rushed to help. No penalties were imposed for China’s cover-up.
Since Xi Jinping rose to power in China, becoming CCP General Secretary in 2012, and president in 2013, China’s ambitions of world dominance have soared, its aggression has increased, and its transgressions against a liberal world order have multiplied. How precisely to impose costs enough to deter China is a tough, but urgent, question. There are lots of moves in play, from lawsuits (enticing, but problematic), to sanctions (useful, but not enough), to a sweeping revamp of trade and manufacturing policy (some of that already begun, but far more is needed), to efforts by the Trump administration to challenge (or at least stop funding) China’s massive encroachment at institutions such as the United Nations. Most important would be the continued rebuilding, at speed, of U.S. military power.
It’s a tall order, to force Xi to revise a Beijing calculus grounded in decades of China’s communist regime successfully abusing access, trade and trust. But the trajectory, if we do not, is alarming. Tiananmen was an agony inflicted on China’s own people. The current coronavirus pandemic, complete with China’s deceptions, threats and preening, is a catastrophe inflicted on the world. Enough.