To promote human rights and democracy, Biden should start with China

To promote human rights and democracy, Biden should start with China

The so-called “Taiwan question” — i.e., Taiwan’s future status in the international community— is often described by China’s communist leaders, and by Western academics, as “the unfinished business of the Chinese civil war.” 

That is why Henry Kissinger presses Taiwan to accept Beijing’s rule by warning that “China will not wait forever.” And it is why Chinese leader Xi Jinping echoes that the matter “cannot be passed from one generation to another.” 

But, inevitably impacting Taiwan’s fate is China’s own future, because the continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in fact represents the larger unfinished business of the Cold War. In the late 1980s, as the Moscow-imposed communist regimes in Eastern Europe were falling and the Soviet Union itself was teetering, the people of China were peacefully calling for major political reform to match Deng Xiaoping’s economic opening up.


But Deng lost his nerve and the historic opportunity to lead the great Chinese civilization to a brilliant democratic future. True communist that he was, and with the world watching, he defaulted to Mao Zedong’s teaching that “political power grows from the barrel of a gun” and  unleashed the People’s Liberation Army against the Chinese people. That disastrous decision on June 4, 1989, tragically forfeited for at least the next couple of generations China’s enlightened evolution as a normal country. 

Nor did Deng or his successors pay a significant price economically, diplomatically, or in world public opinion. After the Tiananmen massacre, the first Bush administration and the Clinton, Bush II and Obama administrations all proceeded with engagement policies that had reaped for China the economic and diplomatic benefits of inclusion into Richard Nixon’s “family of nations.”  

Only the Trump administration has mustered the will and formulated the strategy to insist that, in return, China play by the same international rules as all other countries. The Trump White House has confronted, and refused to accept, China’s ingrained inclination to “nurture its fantasies, cherish its hates and threaten its neighbors,” as Nixon aptly put it. Ironically for some, it has demanded normal behavior from China. 

The Trump team has challenged Beijing not only on its trade cheating — which the president took on as a personal challenge — but also on its maritime aggression in the South and East China Seas and its economic, diplomatic and military pressures on Taiwan. The incoming Biden administration cannot afford to backslide in any of those areas without opening the door to increased militant Chinese opportunism.

Already during the transition period, there are hints of a softening position as Biden appointees signal an overriding desire to return to smoother relations with China — that is, to be the anti-Trump administration. The president, for example, calmly defied Beijing by accepting a congratulatory telephone call from Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen within 24 days of being declared the winner in 2016. Biden, after a longer comparable period, so far has declined to extend that courtesy to America’s democratic friend and security partner, even as he accepts calls from other national leaders, both democratic and authoritarian.


Clearly, the motivation is to avoid provoking or confronting Xi Jinping, with whom Biden touted his years of warm personal relationship as vice president but, as a presidential candidate, he called “a thug” to demonstrate his “toughness” on China. Xi, however, knows well that actions, and inaction, can speak louder than name-calling — at which Trump excelled and for which he was roundly criticized by his political opponents and media critics.

Biden’s moderate approach, like Obama’s, Bush’s and Clinton’s, will be seen by the Chinese communist leaders not as self-confident steadiness but as timidity and weakness — and they will continue their adventuristic probing. Accepting Beijing’s self-serving definitions of what constitutes Western “provocations” and “containment” is a fool’s errand and a prescription for policy paralysis. From China’s perspective, Taiwan as a democratic governing alternative and de facto independent state is a continuing provocation justifying the use of force to rectify.

The most significant legacy Trump is leaving his successor is a commitment to work with the Chinese people and the international community for peaceful political reform in China.  Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoBlinken vows to confront, cooperate with China in first remarks at the State Department Mark Meadows joins Conservative Partnership Institute Biden administration reviewing China genocide designation MORE, in a July speech at the Nixon Library, declared “[C]hanging the CCP’s behavior cannot be the mission of the Chinese people alone. Free nations have to work to defend freedom.” 

Given the Biden team’s proclaimed intentions to emphasize human rights and collaboration with friends and democratic allies to differentiate the new administration from the incumbents’ alleged shortcomings, the Pompeo declaration provides a solid rhetorical starting point.   

The West’s success in supporting the earth-shaking, yet largely peaceful, political revolutions in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union offer, if not a roadmap, at least a model for effective strategic communications. Information warfare — which China long has waged incessantly against the West — is far preferable to the kinetic alternative that will become inevitable if Washington reverts to earlier accommodationist policies.

Taiwan is a normal — indeed a model — democratic country but is treated as a diplomatic pariah. Communist China, by definition, is an aberration in the modern civilized world, but is dealt with as a normal state. The international community needs to get its priorities straight.

For decades, the conventional resolution of that paradox called for pressing Taiwan, which had painfully thrown off its anti-communist tyranny, to submit instead to a communist dictatorship.  More recently, however, as Beijing expanded its assault on international norms and triggered a global pandemic, and as the Trump administration drew a strategic and values-based line in the sand, more governments in Asia, Europe, Africa and elsewhere followed the U.S. lead, consciously or implicitly.  

The Biden administration can take the passing baton and show Xi Jinping a collaborative glide path to a democratic future and peaceful coexistence with Taiwan. The first step would be for Beijing to stop inciting artificial nationalism on “reunification” (Taiwan has never been part of the People’s Republic of China) and then using that “patriotic” fervor as the pretext for its aggression. A democratically-elected government in China would not need that dangerous tactic to establish its popular legitimacy — which it had and squandered at Tiananmen. Xi needs to start over.

Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.