China and the US: Deep-seated differences

November 14, 2019 08:30
Senior Trump administration officials have ratcheted up their rhetoric on China even as Washington pursues a trade deal. Photo: Reuters

While China and the United States once again appear to be close to a trade agreement, the fact that it is a “first phase” accord makes it clear that intractable issues have been left for a second and, possibly, third phase.

Meanwhile, senior members of the Trump administration have ratcheted up the rhetoric, subjecting China to rare criticism about its increasing authoritarianism.

Vice President Mike Pence, in a speech on Oct. 24, criticized China’s trade surplus with the United States, Beijing’s treatment of Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, alleged Chinese theft of American intellectual property, and Chinese militarization of the South China Sea.

He also accused Beijing of pressuring American companies to “self-censor to maintain access to that Chinese market.”

But, Pence asserted, Washington “does not seek confrontation with China” but rather “a level playing field, open markets, fair trade and a respect for our values.”

“America will continue to seek a fundamental restructuring of our relationship with China,” he said. “This is a relationship that both the United States and China have to get right.”

Six days later, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a speech in New York titled, “The China Challenge.”

Pompeo recalled the country’s “long-cherished tradition of friendship with the Chinese people” but added that "the Communist government in China today is not the same as the people of China.”

He was frank in acknowledging that the United States had been slow in recognizing the challenges posed by China.

“We downplayed ideological differences, even after the Tiananmen Square massacre and other significant human rights abuses,” he said. “We hesitated and did far less than we should have when China threatened its neighbors like Vietnam, and like the Philippines, and when they claimed the entire South China Sea.”

The US, Pompeo said, also “downgraded our relationship with our long-time friend, Taiwan, on the condition that the ‘Taiwan question’ would be resolved peacefully, to normalize relations with Beijing.”

He said the US had been far too accommodating, even when China’s rise “was at the expense of American values, Western democracy, and security, and good common sense.”

Before concluding, Pompeo said that in the coming months he would be delivering more speeches on China. The New York speech was but the first shot in a campaign.

The following week, Pompeo spoke in Germany to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. He warned that “the Chinese Communist Party is shaping a new vision of authoritarianism” and “uses tactics and methods to suppress its own people that would be horrifingly familiar to former East Germans.”

China wasn’t slow in responding. The day after Pence’s speech, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, said his remarks were “full of political bias and lies,”adding that “the Chinese people now enjoy unprecedented rights and freedoms.”

The day after Pompeo’s New York speech, another spokesman, Geng Shuang, accused the secretary of trying to “drive a wedge” between the Communist party and the Chinese people. “Mutual respect and seeking common ground while shelving differences is the right way for countries to get along,” said Geng.

After the Berlin Wall speech, the nationalistic Global Times accused Pompeo of “telling a big lie” in saying that the Communist Party was “shaping a new vision of authoritarianism.” Again, Pompeo was accused of “trying to drive a wedge between the Chinese people and the ruling party.”

Beijing likes the term “ruling party.” It makes China sound normal, almost like a democracy. But then, in a democracy, there are opposition parties. Where are China’s opposition parties? The only so-called parties allowed to exist are those that support the Communist party. Potential opposition politicians end up in jail.

In defense of authoritarianism, China asserts that every country should be free to choose its own political system. That sounds fine. But then, when did the Chinese people freely choose a political system whereby they lose the right to change the government?

The Communist Party claims a mandate from winning the civil war in 1949. But at the time the Communists depicted themselves as democrats. Every July 4, America’s Independence Day, the party’s Xinhua Daily ran an editorial praising democracy. The party certainly did not say that, once in power, it would never step down. So, what is the source of its legitimacy today?

Such questions aren’t being raised in the first phase negotiations. But if talks go on, basic issues, such as Washington’s assumption that the Taiwan issue would be resolved peacefully when it established diplomatic relations with China, would inevitably surface. What then?

It’s not clear the US-China relationship itself can survive such close scrutiny.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.