Woke progressives must wake up to the China challenge
Progress is progress, and in America the arc of our collective moral universe tends to bend toward justice. We have an inescapably racist and sexist past, and I am proud that my generation, along with welcome allies in Gen Z, has precipitated a necessary correction in public awareness to address insidious discrimination and toxic workplace cultures.
But an overly simplistic focus on wokeism has manifested itself in dangerous ways in our public discourse, so much so that the laudable impetus – awareness of racial or social discrimination and injustice – is belied by self-defeating acts of performative virtue-signaling and call-out culture. The American public should not shy away from holding our country’s record to account, a critical element of our right to free speech. But such discourse should be grounded in current global realities.
There is another country where power is held by 25 officials from the same, unelected political party. All are members of a sole ethnic demographic, and all are men save for the one woman who is invariably given the portfolio of sports, culture and education. This regime “disappears” the more powerful members of its society who dare wage public criticism, and jails college students who post memes likening their core leader to Winnie the Pooh. It indefinitely confines people with mental and physical disabilities. This regime is also currently overseeing a genocide.
Beijing will play host to the Olympic Games in 2022. But somehow none of this is garnering any serious attention by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). Instead, efforts are being expended on issues such as the dismissal of an official who made a Holocaust-related joke during his comedy routine in the 1990s. Yes, rather than using their platform to shed light on an actual ongoing genocide, the IOC and related organizing bodies are focused on canceling staff for decades-old comments made, however distastefully, in a comedic context.
Democrats continue to enable such trends at our peril. The Chinese government’s propaganda apparatus has found a convenient ally in American wokeism and leveraged it to avoid global censure of its grossest human rights violations. Much like Putin’s Russia saw an opportunity to promote right-wing extremism to sow domestic discord in the United States, the Chinese government has aligned its perennial narrative of Chinese exceptionalism – effectively that foreigners cannot criticize China because it is unique, special and too difficult to understand – with American call-out culture.
The zeitgeist of Chinese exceptionalism is how the Chinese government deceived American officials and businesspeople for decades. Whether for genuine fascination with China’s rich and diverse culture, amazement with China’s rapid economic development or the enjoyment of lavish meals in Beijing (all of which I have personally succumbed to), the narrative resonates for a reason. But it also obscures and enables ugly realities about China’s political model that are now too dire to ignore.
The unelected Chinese Communist Party (CCP) maintains legitimacy through inextricably tying its own fate to that of the Chinese people. As Chinese President Xi Jinping warned in a recent speech celebrating the CCP’s 100th anniversary, “[a]ny attempt to divide the Party from the Chinese people or to set the people against the Party is bound to fail.”
Thus, the CCP benefits when American progressives attempt to prevent criticism of China. A recent letter addressed to President Biden from more than 40 progressive groups criticizing the “demonization of China” as a barrier to cooperation on climate change is one such example. As legendary China hand John Pomfret put it, there is no reason that we can’t “walk and chew gum at the same time.” Similar sentiments also led U.S. media to immediately dismiss the lab-leak theory regarding the origins of the novel coronavirus as racist, despite the fact that the Biden Administration is now willing to entertain that theory as credible a year and a half later.
This is not to dismiss the serious trend of anti-Asian hate in the United States, which was fueled by President Trump’s wanton and bigoted comments in relation to China’s handling of the virus. Any responsible leader should recognize the history of such discrimination and bias in American history and refrain from labeling something in a way that puts members of our community at risk. And “whataboutism” by Republicans in this regard isn’t helpful.
But we should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. The CCP wins when our leaders engage in self-defeating discourse rather than uniting and engaging in level-headed prioritization of our goals as a nation — among which are combating climate change, defeating racism and confronting the challenges posed by the Chinese government.
In short, U.S.-China competition is not actually the clash of two irreconcilable civilizations that the CCP would have it be. Instead, it is a contest of values — one between liberal democracy and Leninist authoritarianism. And there is nothing inherently Chinese about the latter.
Moreover, downplaying genocide is not progressive or woke. Nor is wordsmithing social media posts to appease an authoritarian regime whose sole goal is to maintain power at the expense of its own people and the rest of the world.
America nearly failed to intervene in World War II as a result of a similarly inward-looking mindset. We are now facing our 21st century challenge that poses a serious risk to open societies and the future of global governance. We must recognize progress for progress, but not divorce our own realities from those of the rest of the world. We must engage in introspection, but not at the expense of confronting a systemic threat to our way of life and democracy worldwide. We must confront our own evils at home, but not bind our discourse in such a way that we ignore those resulting in the extermination of an entire people.
Austin Lowe is a Washington, DC-based consultant and analyst specializing in U.S.-China relations and Asia policy.