Beijing’s Human Rights Victims Shouldn’t Support Trump
Foreign policy, it is said, rarely makes a dent on the ballot box in the United States. But in the upcoming presidential election, China has emerged as a dominant if not defining issue. This is especially true for communities that have long sought to hold Beijing accountable for its litany of human rights crimes. Among Beijing’s strongest opponents—a loose coalition of single-issue voters including Tibetan Americans, Uighur Americans, Hong Kong Americans, Taiwanese Americans, and Chinese dissidents—there is a perception that U.S. President Donald Trump is “tough on China” and, therefore, worthy of reelection. Trump’s clash with China, they believe, could indirectly benefit the aggrieved groups stuck under Beijing’s boot.
But the belief that Trump, if reelected, will contain China and empower its adversaries stems from several false assumptions. First, it overestimates a second Trump administration’s commitment to a Cold War-style ideological struggle against Beijing. Second, it overlooks the fact that a real containment policy cannot proceed, let alone succeed, without a global coalition of allies—a core U.S. asset that has greatly depreciated under Trump. Last but not least, it misses the simple truth that Washington can neither democratize nor contain China if Trump destabilizes the United States first.
It is understandable that communities that have been at the receiving end of Beijing’s brutality are impressed by Trump’s fiery rhetoric, especially his promises to “make China pay” for damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic and to “decouple” the United States from China. Three decades of U.S. engagement with China—propelled by the theory that economic development leads to political liberalization—has not only failed to democratize China but also further entrenched authoritarianism under the Chinese Communist Party. In the half century since the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset postulated a causal link between economic modernization and democratization, the so-called modernization theory has faced no challenge as great as China, where an authoritarian regime is drawing its sustenance from the very economic growth that was supposed to end it. As China becomes a global power, the threat it poses to freedom and human rights goes far beyond its borders.
However, there is little evidence that Trump has any intention of waging a sustained geostrategic struggle to contain China or strengthen its adversaries. Leaked stories from his inner sanctum reveal that Trump lacks the ideological commitment to freedom or democracy necessary to wage a new cold war. For instance, he told Chinese leader Xi Jinping last year that building concentration camps for Uighurs was the right thing to do, practically greenlighting an impending genocide. On the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, he refused to make a statement sympathizing with the students who were crushed for seeking democratic reforms. “Who cares about it?” he complained. “I’m trying to make a deal.” On the Tibet front, he could have at least promptly appointed a special coordinator for Tibetan issues, an undersecretary-level position created under President Bill Clinton and filled by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama within one year of taking office. Trump left this position vacant for the last four years, finally filling it last week but downgrading it to the assistant secretary level. Each of these incidents reveals the insignificance of human rights in Trump’s political imagination.
To be fair, the Trump administration adopted several strong measures on the strategic-economic front and blew open the parameters of U.S. economic dealings with China. From waging a trade war and sanctioning Huawei to banning WeChat and shutting down the Houston Chinese consulate, Trump has confronted Beijing in a way no other U.S. president has. Much of the credit, though, should go to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other realists in the administration, who called for injecting reciprocity into a lopsided relationship rigged in China’s favor for too long.
And yet, the anticlimactic end goal of these aggressive measures, in the president’s own words, is to “make a deal” with Beijing. Trump is not seeking a systemic transformation of China; he’s merely pursuing a business transaction for the United States. Furthermore, there is reason to believe that many of his moves were tactical gambles driven by reelection politics rather than strategic initiatives guided by his understanding of the national interest. Therefore, should Trump win a second term in office, his hard-line approach to Beijing is unlikely to survive beyond the first trade deal he strikes with Xi.
Trump is not seeking a systemic transformation of China; he’s merely pursuing a business transaction for the United States.Even in the doubly hypothetical scenario that Trump gets reelected and commits himself to a new Cold War against China, he would be highly dependent on the cooperation of multiple allies and like-minded nations. It is worth pointing out that the U.S.-Soviet Cold War was hardly a two-corner fight; it was a multi-actor conflict where American leaders matched political will with diplomatic skill to recruit allies to their side. As Thomas Christensen, the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the George W. Bush administration, put it, “One nation, however powerful, cannot simply create a Cold War on its own.”
Given the relative decline in American power since the turn of the millennium, especially when contrasted with the expanding orbit of Chinese influence, the role of alliances will be even more crucial today. But the Trump administration has spent the last four years dismantling America’s military alliances and strategic partnerships, alienating traditional allies, and antagonizing neutral parties from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Even the future of NATO, the cornerstone of post-World War II security, has been cast into uncertainty. Global trust in U.S. leadership has tanked since Trump took office, and the leaders of the country’s closest allies—liberal democratic nations such as Germany, Britain, Canada, and France—find it increasingly difficult to advocate pro-U.S. positions to their own constituencies.
Equally corrosive to U.S. influence is the degree to which Trump has orchestrated a retreat from international coordination, heaping scorn on liberal norms and institutions and relinquishing the few human rights instruments that remain in place for holding Beijing accountable for its crimes. In boycotting key multilateral forums such as the Paris climate agreement and the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Trump administration has only succeeded in ceding these arenas to authoritarian and illiberal states, allowing China in particular to shape the norms that will govern new frontiers of international relations.
This ongoing erosion of liberal norms has real consequences on the ground. Over the last several years, human rights conditions in China and its occupied territories have steadily deteriorated. The Chinese government is holding more than 1 million people—mostly Uighurs—in concentration camps in Xinjiang province. This past year, Beijing laid siege to Hong Kong and passed a harsh national security law, effectively breaking its promise of “one country, two systems.” Last month, the German scholar Adrian Zenz reported that Beijing is now bringing Xinjiang’s “system of coercive vocational training” to Tibet.
Today, those seeking freedom in or from China are staring into an abyss, as Xi fuses 21st-century technologies with 20th-century totalitarianism to forge a data-driven surveillance state. The United States’ democracy promotion tools, which have produced modest success in lesser regimes, have come up short against Beijing.
Many Tibetan Americans, Uighur Americans, Hong Kong Americans, Taiwanese Americans, and Chinese dissidents are left to wonder: If Washington cannot democratize China, can it at least destabilize its regime? They may see Trump as a disrupter-in-chief, a destabilizing force that might, in theory, contribute to some kind of regime breakdown in China.
In reality, the only nation Trump is likely to destabilize is his own.In reality, however, the only nation Trump is likely to destabilize is his own. His unrelenting assault on U.S. democracy—attacking the media, abusing presidential powers, delegitimizing the electoral process—has raised the prospect of democratic breakdown. Meanwhile, Trump’s colossal failure to defend the American public from the COVID-19 pandemic has made Xi seem competent and effective by comparison, giving the dictatorship a false halo of legitimacy.
There is a simpler reason why some opponents of Beijing may want to reelect Trump even as they are personally repelled by him: They worry that a Joe Biden presidency might be too soft on China. As vice president in 2011, Biden said a rising China was a “positive development” not just for China but also “for America and the world writ large.” As a senator in 2001, he supported China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. What tends to be overlooked, however, is that back in 1991, for instance, Biden sponsored a law that resulted in the creation of Radio Free Asia, one of the most effective institutions of liberation Congress has funded to open up China’s closed society by undermining Beijing’s media monopoly. Overall, his record on China is mixed rather than poor.
Ultimately, at a time when the U.S. defense establishment has designated China as the “greatest long-term threat” to U.S. security, and when Congress is passing hard-hitting legislation to hold China’s feet to the fire, Biden will be reluctant to defy the new foreign-policy consensus in Washington. In fact, the two presidential candidates’ China policies might converge in practice as much as they diverge in rhetoric. Yet important differences set Biden apart from Trump. A Biden administration would be unlikely to trigger a regime breakdown in the United States and accidentally clear the way for a China-led world order. Most importantly, a Biden administration would repair rather than tear down the rules-based liberal democratic order, the foundation on which the entire edifice of human rights stands.