The battle with China is over principles: totalitarian or democratic

The battle with China is over principles: totalitarian or democratic
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On Oct. 4, Daryl Morey, general manager of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, wrote a seemingly innocuous, two-sentence tweet, now deleted, expressing his support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. The condemnation of Morey was swift. 

The National Basketball Association, the Chinese Consulate in Houston, and the Chinese government itself issued harsh rebukes of his words. Morey’s own boss immediately distanced himself, and his job soon appeared to be in jeopardy. The collective message was clear: No one shall expose the Oz-like illusion that China is anything more than a pro-business paradise, free of human rights abuses. 

If only this story were a dream. Unfortunately, stories like the condemnation of Morey occur every day, and the stakes are much higher. 

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As U.S.–China trade negotiations resumed this week in Washington, it’s instructive to note that America is not really negotiating with a foreign country. In China — and in every dark corner of its global sphere of influence — nothing occurs unless directed or approved by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And the CCP has absolutely zero intent or incentive to bind itself to a trade agreement with its sworn enemy. 

Forget short-term tariffs and promises to purchase U.S. grain and pork. The current trade war is a battle over the principles — totalitarian or democratic — that will guide the world for generations. Climate change. Human rights. Market-based economies. Freedom of press. Freedom of religion. Freedom from fear. These, and more, are the stakes in all future trade negotiations.

For decades, America’s China policy has been based on the flawed belief that openness would foster economic growth and global freedoms. Instead, the CCP has subverted Western openness, exploited weaknesses in U.S. power, and invested heavily in 5G technology to advance its totalitarian agenda.

First, the CCP uses its large market and vast financial resources to incentivize elites and corrupt democratic processes. For example, Chinese companies receive billions of dollars from U.S. retirement funds despite auditing and transparency standards that do not meet common or legal fiduciary practices in the U.S. Some of these funds are used to purchase assets such as aircraft carriers. As a result, U.S. pensioners are funding the construction of China’s navy.

Other Chinese tactics, such as massive IP theft and unfair trade practices, have contributed to the decline in the U.S. industrial base and ripped apart societal bonds that once held American communities together. 

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Next, the CCP has exploited several weaknesses in U.S. geopolitical power to establish its growing military dominance throughout the world, without firing a shot. Contributing factors include a U.S. force structure designed for land wars in the Middle East; legacy Cold War treaties that constrained missile build-up in the U.S. and Russia but allowed China to proliferate; and insufficient U.S. infrastructure investment. Economic warfare and endless military challenges have sapped investment in the U.S. industrial base, infrastructure, STEM education and technology R&D.

Third, the CCP has invested heavily in emerging 5G technology to establish technological dominance and accelerate its totalitarian agenda. The CCP’s deployment of infrastructure — most importantly 5G and digital — means China will dominate future tech. In the future, Chinese built and standards-based 5G networks will enable surveillance of global populations. Dominance in 5G, artificial intelligence, big data and digital infrastructure, coupled with the rise of Baidu, Ali Baba and Tencent, will permit CCP influence and control through social media and e-commerce.

U.S.-based dot-com giants such as Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google (FANGs) became dominant because the platforms for the apps, services and business models of the 4G ecosystem were built on mobile computing platforms developed primarily by U.S. firms Apple and Google. Similarly, Chinese dominance in 5G will enable Baidu, Ali Baba and Tencent (BATs) to gain dominance as they build the apps, services and business models for IoT and smart cities

But whereas the FANGs’ goal was purely profit, the BATs’ goals will include suppression. They will crush any freedoms or expression that the CCP finds abhorrent — both in China and abroad. The case of Daryl Morey is but a sliver of the CCP’s future influence with control of 5G.  

The risks are clear: Our freedoms and national security are at stake. But by recognizing the CCP’s totalitarian need to maintain control and its aversion to freedoms, America and other Western nations can preserve their democracies. 

Openness must be offered only to nations whose principles align with democracy, free trade, rule of law and self-determination. The U.S. must shift its defense spending to manufacturing, infrastructure, STEM education and R&D. The U.S. government must reorient its policies toward globalized competition by adopting fair and equitable trade protections and targeted industrial policies, and by defending the digital domain for all. 

And, we must build a new consensus to promote democratic principles in international institutions.

Robert S. Spalding III, a retired U.S. Air Force brigadier general, is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He previously was senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council and defense attache and senior defense official at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. He is the author of “Stealth War: How China Took Over While America's Elite Slept” (Portfolio, 2019).