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Changing China by Respecting Liberty is the Principled, Prudent Path

The author argues that strengthening Western democracies, instead of constraining China by restricting the liberties of Chinese individuals, is a better path.



China military
China's 14th National People's Congress in Beijing on March 5. (© Kyodo)

Living next to the People's Republic of China (PRC) sensitizes one to its complex relationship with human liberty. An overwhelming 92% of South Koreans believe that the PRC does not respect personal freedoms, exemplified by its demands for political conformity in Hong Kong.  

But since post-1978 economic reforms, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime has also overseen the greatest expansion of economic well-being for the most number of people in the shortest amount of time. 

Michigan political scientist Ron Inglehart theorized that economic development kindles individualism. And London School of Economics' Keyu Jin finds that the younger generations are "open-minded on a whole range of issues, so much more than their parents."

Reflecting on this complex dynamic, one sees a mix of party conformity (loyalty to the CCP regime) and critical individualism among the huge influx of overseas Chinese students. In 2019, pre-pandemic, 71,067 Chinese students were enrolled in South Korea, accounting for 44.4% of the international student population. 

Police detained a protester during a march marking the anniversary of the Hong Kong handover from Britain to China, Wednesday, July 1, 2020, in Hong Kong. (© AP Photo by Kin Cheung)

The 'Liberal Patriots' of China

That year, some Chinese exchange students clashed with Korean supporters of Hong Kong pro-democracy protests, and allegedly removed or defaced pro-democracy banners, including at my university (Hanyang). They fit a larger pattern of pro-CCP nationalist students "canceling" democracy protests in neighboring countries, including Australia.

However, other Chinese students, perhaps a majority (certainly among mine), do not equate patriotism with party loyalty. These "liberal patriots" want their country to grow and prosper, but worry that CCP policies may hamper this goal. 

Said "Student 1": "Only with more freedom can China have more economic development. As a Chinese, I also hope that China can achieve greater freedom and have more freedom and power." 

Said another (Student 2): "While the Chinese Communist Party may block it, China's middle class will push history forward and strive for democracy and freedom."

But Student 2 emphasized, "The Chinese people need the help of the world to help China make a peaceful transition to a democratic and free political system." 

Xi Jinping speaks at the 20th National Congress of the CCP on October 16, 2022, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (© Xinhua via Kyodo)

Equal Legal Treatment of Chinese Nationals

Other governments, especially the United States, should treat Chinese people fairly and legally. But both the Donald Trump and Joe Biden administrations reduced the number of student visas for Chinese nationals. And they pressured other countries, including South Korea and Japan, to restrict their trade and investment with China, especially on advanced semiconductor technology. They also restricted Chinese-owned companies inside America, most famously, the social media platform TikTok.

Student 3 argued, "Americans seem to be turning away from the values ​​that once defined America. The more you emphasize your [nationalist] identity and actively reject China, the more you are destroying the core value system of equal opportunity, freedom, and democracy that the United States [historically] advocated." 

The liberal value of equal legal treatment means that the government cannot arbitrarily discriminate against people of particular nationalities. Also, it certainly should not punish without evidence of wrongdoing. Thus far, my students argue, the US has found no evidence that Tik Tok executives have violated US law or shared sensitive data with the Chinese government. 

A strategy of economically containing China, by limiting the liberties and aspirations of its people, fans resentful nationalism and delegitimates reformist liberals inside China. It also divides Western democracies, as exemplified by the disputes within and among Western democracies over banning Tik Tok. A more principled and sustainable strategy is to call on governments to respect everyone's liberties, whether they are Chinese executives in the US or student protesters in Hong Kong. 

Political Liberalization of China

Peaceful, internal change (political liberalization) is ultimately the only path to fundamentally change the PRC's policies. China today, even under the autocratic Xi Jinping, is a much more open, peaceful nation than it was during Mao Zedong. Fareed Zakaria writes

In the early 1970s, before [Richard] Nixon's opening to China, Beijing was the world's greatest rogue regime. Mao Zedong was obsessed with the idea that he was at the helm of a revolutionary movement that would destroy the Western capitalist world … Beijing spent between $170 million and $220 million from 1964 to 1985 in Africa alone, training 20,000 fighters from at least 19 countries. 

By comparison, today's China is a remarkably responsible nation on the geopolitical and military front. It has not gone to war since 1979. It has not used lethal military force abroad since 1988. Nor has it funded or supported proxies or armed insurgents anywhere in the world since the early 1980s.

Beijing is now the second-largest funder of the United Nations and the UN peacekeeping program. It has deployed 2,500 peacekeepers, more than all the other permanent members of the Security Council combined. Between 2000 and 2018, it supported 182 of 190 Security Council resolutions imposing sanctions on nations deemed to have violated international rules or norms.

Bipartisan US policies from Nixon's 1972 opening to Bill Clinton's support for Chinese accession to WTO (2001), helped to open up and develop China. And Western policies should support further global integration of the Chinese economy. 

President Richard Nixon Shakes Hands with Chairman Mao Zedong on February 21, 1972.

Strengthen Western Democracies

Yes, such integration would enhance the economic resources of the CCP regime, some of which may be siphoned for military use. But rather than attempting to weaken CCP power by restricting ('canceling') the liberties of Chinese persons, the normatively and empirically superior path is to strengthen the power of Western democracies instead. 

Democratic power rests on a shared commitment to liberty, including free speech and open debate. But this commitment is threatened not just by external actors, but perhaps more by internal ones that frame domestic opponents, and their viewpoints, as harmful and that suppress public discourse

For instance, rather than containing China economically, western democracies should strengthen ties between democratic South Korea and Japan, which would help balance PRC power. This requires voicing support for reconciliation and open, rational debate on the two nations' shared, often tragic history.


Author: Joseph Yi

Joseph Yi is an associate professor of political science at Hanyang University. Cui Lin, Li Chunying, Li Xinrui, Song Fangbing, and Hu Yishan contributed to this essay, but do not necessarily endorse its contents. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

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