Is It Time to Give up on Engagement?

An Exchange

In the lead-up to U.S. President Trump’s meeting later this week with China’s Xi Jinping, Orville Schell, ChinaFile’s publisher, wrote an essay in The Wall Street Journal on the history of China’s episodic embrace of democratic principles and why in the long run he feels they are likely to persist despite an authoritarian retrenchment under Xi’s leadership. Anders Corr, a political risk analyst, penned this critique of Schell’s essay in Forbes. As he was writing it, he and Schell began an e-mail conversation on what united and divided them. What follows is their exchange, edited minimally for clarity. —The Editors

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Anders Corr: In your nicely written and optimistic piece, you have seemed to acknowledge that engagement now appears to have been naïve—which is a big admission.

You then say there is a recessive gene coding for democracy that will eventually pop up (but all your evidence, except for Taiwan, is of repressed democracy—and Taiwan is definitely still up for grabs). Nor do you address the literature on the stability of authoritarian regimes, or the possibility that other countries that are currently balancing China internationally could move in an authoritarian direction before China moves in a democratic one.

There is no teleology that proves that China will become democratic before the recessive genes of authoritarianism in the U.S. and Europe turn those places autocratic. So if the implied prescription on China is “be patient,” then we really need the other half of the argument to assess that prescription. Is time on the side of democracy?

Fukuyama now isn’t so sure.

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Orville Schell: Many thanks for your thoughtful response.

I, too, of course, lament the lack of free expression and rule of law in China. Moreover, I fear greatly what this means for a world that seems ever more to be drifting towards “illiberal democracy.”

The question that inevitably occurs, however, is this: If Trump remains as utterly disinclined to support democracy and rights abroad as he now apparently is, and, if Chinese Party leaders remain as utterly resistant to adopting more democratic forms of governance as they have been (especially when they feel them as a form of attack by the West), where do we find hope?

I suppose my piece was, in this sense, more of a triste recognition of these facts than anything, a reminder that maybe we can at least take some heart in the historical record, if not in the teleology of history.

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Corr: Thanks for your kind response. I’m in the middle of writing a little op-ed of my own in response to yours and I’m worried the takeaway for some people from your op-ed will be to remain patient. I don’t think that is a good idea right now, as democratic freedoms and liberal internationalism are eroded worldwide. Japan, Tunisia, and Taiwan have seen a couple moments of hope, but the rest of the world seems bleak. What is your prescription for the current downturn in human rights, democracy, and liberal internationalism?

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Schell: I am also deeply concerned about the erosion of democratic practice around the world, including in our own country. The gathering cloud of propaganda for “illiberal democracy” is deeply pernicious and frightening. But, the first step in terms of democratically influencing China must surely be to make our own nation a better model of what we preach. Historically speaking, I think that the American example has always served as the best lodestone for attracting devotion to democratic ideals. And of late, we have stumbled in this great challenge.

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Corr: Another question—what do you propose the U.S. should do about China’s occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, and possible plans to build a weather station there?

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Schell: Had Duterte not ruptured the U.S.-Philippine alliance, I would have said that the U.S. should go to the limit in defending Manilla’s legitimate territorial claims, which have been reaffirmed by international law.

However, with Duterte now turned on the U.S., I think Washington has to be very very careful and go only as far as the Philippine government requests. They should, however, step up, but also regularize FONOPS (Freedom of Navigation Operations) in international waters and fly, even in China’s proclaimed ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) areas.

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Corr: What would you advise the U.S. recommend to Duterte? For example, should he request that the U.S. and Philippines jointly patrol Scarborough by permanently locating naval ships at that location, and publicly commit to interfere with, or even dismantle, any dredging equipment or permanent structures that China might initiate there? That would be my inclination.

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Schell: I think the U.S. should hold such discussions with the Philippine military, which is much more pro-American than Duterte himself. But, I am under no illusions that under Duterte’s views they would dare propose such an assertive joint U.S.-Philippine course of action around Scarborough.

Alas, here, Duterte’s tendency toward thugocracy is only being re-enforced by President Trump’s ambivalence about American global involvement and his ambiguousness in affirming unalloyed support for our treaty allies in Asia, and elsewhere, (without more of a pay-to-play dynamic).

But, let’s be honest: Anyone who does believe in more forceful pushback against China has now had a giant curve ball thrown at them by Duterte’s own anti-democratic, anti-American, and anti-U.S.-Philippines alliance posture. You cannot force an ally to ask you for your help!

Actually, vis a vis your own thoughtful article, let me say that our Task Force on U.S.-China Policy report does not advocate “more of the same,” as you appear to suggest. We say clearly that real reciprocity has been lost in the relationship and advocate much stronger pushback in a whole host of areas, especially on the media, non-governmental organizations, visas, trade, and investment. We even call for a review of whether FDI coming into the U.S. from China should not be conditioned until we have more reciprocity and openness in two-way flows.

As to the question of “engagement”: Yes, its prognosis is hardly rosy, as I clearly suggest in my Wall Street Journal piece. Although I do believe that people have an innate impulse towards freedom and liberty and that at some point the democratic tradition (which does exist in China) will return, I quite frankly don’t know when. Not soon. But I spent weeks in China during the spring of 1989, and who saw that coming?

And maybe we will end up being China’s adversary, even at war. . . But I hope not. Precisely because of this fear, we should make every effort possible to get Beijing’s attention at this eleventh hour by cueing them that our relationship is at a tipping point, that we either change the balance in this critical relationship, or risk a potentially catastrophic situation.

Am I optimistic? Not particularly. The Chinese Communist Party in my experience is steeped in pride, willfulness, and self-deception. But then, so is Donald Trump. It’s a very toxic cocktail.

Do I think we should try to generate more constructive relations with China anyway? Yes, I do. . . Even if we may fail! What’s the alternative?

Finally, as to the notion that my prescriptions are “soporific lullabies” that China will somehow just democratize on its own, well. . . I have actually spent most of my adult life writing about the human rights situation in China and lamenting all the ongoing abuses. So here I am with you 100 percent in my distaste for seeing people’s freedoms violated with such impunity, even in the name of stability. But frankly, with the U.S. government in such an utter and total mess itself right now, I don’t really see what else can be done except to maintain our alliance, support international law, keep a strong military, maintain a free and open press that is honest and critical about what is happening, and exert pressure when we feel it will have a good effect. I am certainly for “nudging.” But everything in effective “nudging” depends on the praxis. Here, we are in a fallen state of grace. So, from where I sit, I see no simple, short answers. Alas!

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Schell: In your Forbes piece, I think you misread my article as a plea to just leave China alone and let natural democratic forces—a kind of Hegelian teleology—slowly work its deterministic magic. That is not, and has never been, my modus operandi.

I believe deeply in democratic principle, because I don’t think any human being should be bullied, censored, or falsely accused, much less detained without due process, jailed, tortured, or worse, especially by a state. And while the Chinese people have, indeed, had four millennia of imperial autocracy, that is no excuse in our modern world to discount their inherent right to enjoy the same liberties as all other peoples.

You ask: “Should we be patient?” as if I had a disease of too much patience for injustice.

I have always felt very impatient with injustice, because I do believe that in some fundamental way, all men are brothers. But my impatience and frustration in regard to China have only been exacerbated by the recognition that there are no magic wands that can be waved now to transform China. (And, there never have been! Just read Jonathan Spence’s marvelous To Change China: Western Advisors in China.) So, before we commit ourselves to a bullish course of action, we have to ask: What are our practical options? What will snap back in our faces? What has the greatest prospect of being successful? Here is where our understandable outrage against some things China runs right into reality!

You suggest that my article is written to help people “[fall] asleep to soporific lullabies that China will eventually democratize,” that I suggest that in the long run China will automatically become more democratic, so, there is no need to worry or push them.

Not really. But I do believe freedom and liberty are fundamental human urges, especially in our contemporary world. However, there is also much tyranny and evil aloft in the land! And, often it is hard to know what to do that will not make things even worse. Here I am struggling just like you to find the best path forward.

But, I do not propose passivity as a substitute for an active strategy. I only turn to history as a palliative for there not being a lot of obvious, ready options for action, especially with President Trump eroding democracy at home and with a rejuvenated China (albeit with many obvious weaknesses and instabilities) on the rise under President Xi in Asia.

You fear that China will “export autocratic influence abroad.” I share those fears. It is happening, and is one of the most alarming aspects of China’s rise. So, here’s a suggestion:

Why don’t you come up with a list of prescriptions for the U.S. to counter these dangerous, unfriendly, and corrosive policies?

Should we close down Confucius Institutes; censor the China Daily; demand that PBS or CNN have a network in China to match CCTV’s network here; and insist that the New York Times websites be unblocked, or we will block Xinhua, the People’s Daily, Global Times, and China Daily sites here in the U.S.?

And what in your view should we do about scholars and journalists denied visas and then often harassed in China, if and when they get there? Should we deny visas to Chinese counterparts here, thereby violating our own freedom of speech and press principles?

What exactly should we do to make things more reciprocal? Here are some topics for you to really sink your teeth into! You are smart, have energy, and are highly motivated. So what’s your own plan? Short of military action, which—I am sure we would both agree—should be a last resort, can we come up with a better plan? Especially as the two presidents are now about to meet, we need such a plan more than ever! Our Task Force recommendations are just such an effort, despite their failings.

You say, “We might want to fight back while we can.” Yes, O.K., but how? That’s the hard part. We resist, but not either hypocritically or recklessly. Indeed, if we are the world leaders we have so often imagined ourselves to be, we should, indeed, seek to lead. And the best way to do that—as our Task Force on U.S.-China Policy outlines—is to warn Chinese leaders that their belligerence, inflexibility, and lack of creative game-changing diplomatic thinking are leading our two countries to the brink. We must arrest that course before it is too late.

Finally, I am not, as you seem to suggest, bent on succumbing to latter-day Fukuyama-ism, naively believing that the forces of history are on “our” (and democracy’s) side, so we can just wait out the present unpleasantness. That’s much too naïve and hopeful for a pessimist like me. I would never throw myself completely on the mercy of teleology, much less history. After all, so many of the great and cultured nations (even those with the most highly evolved forms of humanism) have fallen victim to fascism: Germany to Hitler, Italy to Mussolini, Spain to Franco, Portugal to Salazar, Russia to Stalin, China to Mao, Japan to Tojo, etc. Here, I wish I had more confidence in Donald Trump. To me, he looks agonizingly like a lesser version of Mussolini. Of course, I would love to be proven wrong! Only the U.S. and the U.K. have remained relatively unscathed. But perhaps we, too, are more vulnerable than our “exceptionalism” has allowed us to imagine.

Nonetheless, can we not take some heart in the fact that China has had an important tradition of democracy, that dictators usually do fall, that democracies have tended to be more stable and durable, and that human beings do have an ineluctable desire to be free. (Call me naïve!) So, when all else fails, or the options become opaque, I like to, at least, be able to take a little succor in these quaint ideas. Perhaps this is the simple yearning at the heart of my Wall Street Journal piece: Let’s not give up all hope until the last moment. And let’s not surrender ourselves in seeking to become a more humane, democratic, and just country ourselves that is capable of global leadership. As we are seeking to formulate options to advance these goals, let’s at least take a little heart that tyrannies seem to ultimately undo themselves from becoming root-bound with too much control and that Chinese have frequently also been part of this worthy democratic impulse. Let’s not become too optimistic. But let’s not lose heart entirely either!

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Corr: I love your letter. I think we are on the same side here, and perhaps just have a slight difference in how we approach our prescriptions.

I have no recommendation that we rush to war. But I don’t think that we should appear unready to do so if it is forced upon us.

I think we should have economically sanctioned select Chinese companies long ago, and steadily increased the breadth and depth of those sanctions to enforce international law in China’s territorial disputes, and regarding its support of North Korea. We should also consider sanctioning China for the worst of its human rights abuses.

We should allow Chinese and Russian state-sponsored media into the U.S., but our government should pay for fact-checkers to show the inaccuracies and elisions of that media, as well as identify the fake news that Russia supports. Our democracy depends on it.

We need to stop the influence of money in politics—including corporate money, and attempts at foreign influence through that money.

Optimism is a trait that we learn to adopt in Leadership 101 class because it sells. Look at Trump and Hillary as prime examples. But optimism isn’t always true. Where optimism is not warranted, we need to critically examine its assumptions. I am not optimistic about China. Obama’s nice-cop routine did not work. We need a bad cop routine, and by that I mean economic sanctions. I am fairly certain that robust economic sanctions on China would bring it to reason across the range of issues your Task Force so expertly identified.