China has been more aggressive in promoting its form of authoritarianism. How should the United States respond? Photo credit: Christian Lue/Unsplash
China met with the United States for the first time during the Biden administration on March 18 in Anchorage, Alaska. By all accounts, it was set to be a normal affair between the two states – a chance to cooperate on the Coronavirus pandemic and climate change, and a chance to reset a contentious relationship exacerbated during the Trump administration’s trade wars.
It was not a normal affair. After Secretary of State Anthony Blinken started the meeting off by calling Beijing a “threat to global stability” and denouncing its records on human rights, trade, Hong Kong, and other issues,[i] Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Foreign Affairs Chief Yang Jiechi returned the fire. He called the United States “condescending” and hypocritical for being concerned about China when Black Lives Matter and other domestic situations prove the United States should not lecture others on human rights abuses.[ii] He also criticized the United States’ history of “imperialism” and invasions.[iii] It was clear that the harsh words were to play to each side’s respective domestic audience, a perfect chance to air grievances in front of the camera. Reporters and diplomats described a different atmosphere than previous U.S.-China meetings – an unspoken sense that the CCP felt it had the upper-hand due to internal divisions in the United States.[iv]
This summit is indicative of China’s growing confidence and willingness to push back against the United States to spread its authoritarianism. It is not likely that the China of ten years ago, or even five years ago, would have spoken so directly and sharply to the United States. While the United States-China relationship is complicated, the Biden administration should recognize that a confident CCP that seeks to export authoritarianism is a threat to the U.S.-led liberal world order.
Why is China’s confidence growing? It is partially due to Beijing’s belief that internal divisions within the United States are fueling its decline.[v] The last twelve months have particularly highlighted why the United States could be declining relative to China. Beyond the domestic instability following the killing of George Floyd, the U.S. also mishandled the Coronavirus pandemic, floundered in an economic recession, and disputed the legitimate 2020 presidential election.[vi]
While the United States is mired in division, Beijing is confident in its own global standing. It has increased its military spending (up 6.8 percent from the last year), continued to grow economically, and gained influence during the pandemic.[vii] For example, China has engaged in “vaccine diplomacy,” a chance to sell and spread its vaccine to countries around the world, including Turkey, Indonesia, and Mexico.[viii] This effort has allowed China to market itself as a trustworthy partner on matters of global health and an ally for future trade deals. All of this has led top Asia experts, like Kurt Campbell of the National Security Council, to declare that the United States is “seeing growing assertiveness from China.”[ix]
President Xi Jinping is using his newfound confidence to take specific provocative measures in the Asia-Pacific to make the world safe for his form of authoritarianism. This includes committing genocide against the minority Uyghur population in the Xinjiang province and rigging the democratic Hong Kong electoral process. Together with authoritarian Russia, a strong ally who also opposes the liberal American-led world order, China hopes to influence the spread of authoritarianism.
These actions are incompatible with the United States’ view of a rules-based democracy. Freedom will drop around the world as human rights violations are excused and democratic elections become less common. To uphold liberal values and democracy, the United States should be a champion for these rights on the world stage, offering a viable alternative to Chinese-brand authoritarianism.
The Uyghur Genocide
One of the most horrific ways China is using its newfound confidence to demonstrate its control and spread authoritarianism in the Asia-Pacific is through the Uyghur genocide. The Uyghurs are a predominantly Muslim minority group living in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Since 2017, China has imprisoned more than one million people in detention camps.[x] Specific information on the camps is limited because China has refused international inspectors but detainees who have escaped have described harsh conditions including forced sterilizations, manual labor, physical torture, and sexual assault.[xi] Authorities control the camps with an extensive network of surveillance and policing.[xii] The United States declared the situation a “genocide” earlier this year, in line with other human rights organizations.[xiii]
China is committing these atrocities for a few reasons. CCP officials are concerned that the Uyghurs’ threaten the territorial integrity and population of China.[xiv] To them, the Uyghurs are “separatist,” and it is easier to control them in the camps with surveillance.[xv] Additionally, Xi Jinping has warned of “the toxicity of religious extremism” as a threat to the cohesiveness and authority of the CCP, and as such is intimidated by the Uyghurs.[xvi] Any group of people that is different or unique is a threat to an autocracy because it makes them less easy to control, and the Uyghurs are no exception.
At the same time, the CCP is worried that any possible separatist activity from the Uyghurs would infringe upon China’s economic Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI, Xi Jinping’s signature economic infrastructure plan to invest in over 150 countries globally, is driven in large part due to resources in Xinjiang. The Uyghurs’ homeland has China’s largest natural gas, oil, and coal reserve, and it makes up more than 20% of China’s energy reserves.[xvii] As such, the economic power that can be gained through BRI gives CCP leaders further reason to ensure surveillance, order, and control over the Uyghurs who reside in Xinjiang.
To cover up the genocide and limit foreign blowback, China has instituted propaganda campaigns. Recently, the Chinese government released “The Wings of Songs,” a state-backed musical that portrayed a happy Xinjiang, one where Uyghurs are not oppressed but are singing and dancing.[xviii] In addition, China has been trying to win the support of the broader international community for its actions, and it is even succeeding. Despite sanctions from the United States and European allies against Chinese officials for the Uyghur human rights violations, China has maintained support from its own allies. According to China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, more than 80 countries at the United Nations Human Rights Council support actions in Xinjiang.[xix] Nations are primarily supporting China’s genocidal actions based on their own authoritarian interests. Countries like Russia want to maintain leeway for their own states to surveil and detain their public.[xx]
As such, the United States should recognize that authoritarian countries will band together and make excuses to erode human rights. If they can compromise the integrity of institutions like the United Nations Human Rights Council, they will further degrade the integrity of liberal institutions. China will likely continue to use this institution against the United States if it faces further pushback from the genocide. Beyond having an excuse to continue to commit human rights abuses, the exploitation of the United Nations Human Rights Council also decreases its legitimacy and that of other U.S.-led institutions.
Hong Kong Election Interference
The second major area where China’s rising confidence is leading to further authoritarianism is in Hong Kong, where the CCP is directly interfering in its election system. Hong Kong used to be under British control though was given back to China in 1997 with the “one country, two systems” principle. This was supposed to ensure the territory would continue to have freedom of assembly, speech, and some democratic rights – protections that mainland Chinese citizens lack.[xxi] However, the CCP recently passed measures to overhaul Hong Kong’s election system. The new measures give Beijing and its puppet local leaders the power to block any oppositional candidate that China deems disloyal.[xxii] The new rules also give Chinese security bodies the ability to investigate potential candidates further reducing the odds of oppositional candidates running for office.[xxiii]
These actions are the latest measures following the 2019 pro-democracy marches in Hong Kong. The CCP argues that these moves will safeguard its sovereignty, but they are really to tighten control over Hong Kong and limit democracy following the gains made during the protests.[xxiv] Beijing has also passed a controversial national security law that diminishes Hong Kong’s autonomy and makes it simpler to punish protestors.[xxv] Overall, these actions are damaging to Hong Kong’s democracy as its citizens are unable to elect their own leaders. The United States has responded by imposing financial sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials that it deemed responsible for undermining the city’s autonomy, but measures weakening democracy in the region continue to be instituted.[xxvi]
Like with the Uyghurs, China’s ultimate goal is control. The CCP’s ideal scenario would be to have Hong Kong as a profitable financial center but without the freedom.[xxvii] For China, imposing limits on democracy and instituting favorable leaders constitutes the easiest way to maintain a controllable province. It also allows the CCP to stamp out any disloyalty in Hong Kong as leaders chosen will be supportive of Beijing’s goals. The United States should recognize that actions like this can create a ripple effect – today it is Hong Kong, what country could be next?
Next Steps for the United States
Ultimately, it is becoming more obvious that as China rises in power, its confidence grows, and so does its authoritarian actions that are at odds with democracy. As such, the Biden administration should take steps to counter the ideological threat and protect liberal values. The first step the United States should take is to present itself as the liberal champion, the alternative to China’s brand of authoritarianism. This means the U.S. should promote liberal values like freedom of speech, autonomy, and the rule of law. China has been positioning itself as the alternative to U.S.-led international institutions, so the United States should defend this order.
To be a viable alternative, the United States should work to mitigate internal domestic divisions. Working to heal domestically will lessen China’s hypocrisy claims and can help convince the world that the United States is ready to lead.[xxviii] This is a difficult task in the current polarized environment, but it is necessary to gain the legitimacy needed to convince others that the United States is up for the job.
The second step the United States should take is to concretely use sanctions, economic penalties, and public pressure to stand up to human rights abuses. The U.S. has already started to do this. In March it placed sanctions on top Chinese officials to punish Beijing for human rights abuses against the Uyghurs, and it has also instituted sanctions for the Hong Kong violations.[xxix]Sanctions are more effective when used in conjunction with other states, and the United States should continue to coordinate with allies in this regard as it did with the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Canada to take action against the Uyghur genocide.[xxx] Beyond sanctions, the United States should work with human rights organizations and international institutions to pressure the Chinese. United Nations officials have demanded access to the Uyghur camps and other organizations have demanded China shut them down; ramping up pressure will at the very least put the spotlight on China (and away from the United States’ unfixed internal divisions).[xxxi]
The third way the United States can counter the rise of authoritarianism is to lean on democratic allies to ideologically balance against non-democratic ideals. China is already using this tactic against the United States – it has recently solidified its relationship with Russia in an effort to combat liberalism and is working to build partners with smaller autocratic states like Egypt, Serbia, and Cambodia.[xxxii] The United States can play this game too. It has had success with “the Quad,” the informal partnership with India, Japan, and Australia.[xxxiii] Beyond large states, the United States can look to local actors like the “Milk Tea Alliance,” a loose coalition of activists from Hong Kong, Thailand, and Taiwan, as a way to counter CCP operations.[xxxiv] More allies that promote and stand up for democratic values will help balance against the CCP’s authoritarianism, and good strong relations might diminish its short-term confidence.
China has had the good fortune to see the United States face lots of problems in the last few years, and it is more confident as a result. Its confidence has bred drastic actions with the Uyghur genocide and crackdown of Hong Kong democracy as they consolidate power and protect authoritarianism. If the United States wants to defend the liberal world order, it should recognize that a confident CCP will lead to worse-than-vocal outbursts at a bilateral meeting.
[i] Ishaan Tharoor, “Where the U.S. and China Go From Here,” Washington Post, Mar. 22, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/03/22/united-states-china-relations-anchorage-analysis/.
[ii] David E. Sanger, “That Was Fast: Blowups With China and Russia in Biden’s First 60 Days,” New York Times, Mar. 25, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/20/us/politics/china-russia-biden.html.
[iii] Ishaan Tharoor, “Where the U.S. and China Go From Here.”
[iv] David Ignatius, “China Is Convinced America Is In Decline. Biden Has a Chance to Change That,” Washington Post, Mar. 22, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/china-is-convinced-america-is-in-decline-biden-has-a-chance-to-change-that/2021/03/22/675c4cfc-8b48-11eb-a730-1b4ed9656258_story.html.
[v] Jude Blanchette, “Beijing’s Visions of American Decline,” Politico, Mar. 11, 2021, https://www.politico.com/newsletters/politico-china-watcher/2021/03/11/beijings-visions-of-american-decline-492064/.
[viii] Nitya Biyani and Niels Graham, “COVID Vaccines: India and China’s New Diplomatic Currency,” Atlantic Council, Mar. 25, 2021, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/covid-vaccines-india-and-chinas-new-diplomatic-currency/.
[ix] David Ignatius, “China Is Convinced America Is In Decline.”
[x] Lindsay Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang,” Council on Foreign Relations, Mar. 1, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-repression-uyghurs-xinjiang.
[xi] “Who Are the Uighurs and Why Is China Being Accused of Genocide?” BBC, Mar. 26, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-22278037.
[xii] Amy Qin, “China Tries to Counter Xinjiang Backlash With… a Musical?” New York Times, Apr. 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/05/world/asia/china-uyghurs-propaganda-musical.html.
[xiii] Lindsay Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”
[xiv] “Who Are the Uighurs and Why Is China Being Accused of Genocide?”
[xv] Lindsay Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”
[xvii] Asim Kashgarian and Rikar Hussein, “China’s Plan in Xinjiang Seen as Key Factor in Uighur Crackdown,” VOA, Dec. 22, 2019, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/chinas-plan-xinjiang-seen-key-factor-uighur-crackdown.
[xviii] Amy Qin, “China Tries to Counter Xinjiang Backlash With… a Musical?”
[xix] Steven Lee Myers, “An Alliance of Autocracies? China Wants to Lead a New World Order,” New York Times, Mar. 29, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/29/world/asia/china-us-russia.html.
[xx] Tom Miles, “Saudi Arabia and Russia Among 37 States Backing China’s Xinjiang policy,” Reuters, Jul. 12, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-xinjiang-rights/saudi-arabia-and-russia-among-37-states-backing-chinas-xinjiang-policy-idUSKCN1U721X.
[xxi] “Hong Kong: What Is China’s ‘Patriot’ Plan For Electoral Reform?” BBC, Mar. 30, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-56534040.
[xxii] Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May, “How China Plans to Control Hong Kong’s Elections,” New York Times, Apr. 7, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/30/world/asia/china-hong-kong-elections.html.
[xxiv] “Hong Kong: What Is China’s ‘Patriot’ Plan For Electoral Reform?”
[xxvi] Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May, “How China Plans to Control Hong Kong’s Elections.”
[xxvii] Lindsay Maizland and Eleanor Albert, “Hong Kong’s Freedoms: What China Promised and How It’s Cracking Down,” Council on Foreign Relations, Feb. 17, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/hong-kong-freedoms-democracy-protests-china-crackdown.
[xxviii] David Ignatius, “China Is Convinced America Is In Decline.”
[xxix] Pranshu Verma, “U.S. Joins Allies to Punish Chinese Officials for Human Rights Abuses,” New York Times, Mar. 25, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/22/us/politics/sanctions-china-uighurs.html.
[xxxi] Lindsay Maizland, “China’s Repression of Uyghurs in Xinjiang.”
[xxxii] Caitlin Dearing Scott and Adam George, “As China Promotes Authoritarian Model, the Resilience of Its Democratic Targets Is Key,” Just Security, Dec. 18, 2020, https://www.justsecurity.org/73925/as-china-promotes-authoritarian-model-the-resilience-of-its-democratic-targets-is-key/.
[xxxiii] David Ignatius, “China Is Convinced America Is In Decline.”
[xxxiv] Caitlin Dearing Scott and Adam George, “As China Promotes Authoritarian Model, the Resilience of Its Democratic Targets is Key.”