Engaging China with Moral and Strategic Clarity

By Yang Jianli and Han Lianchao, published: September 26, 2015


26 years ago, after the bloody massacre in Beijing in 1989, we came to Washington to urge the U.S. government to link China’s most-favored-nation (MFN) status to China’s respect for human rights. Without such a linkage, we argued, continuing normal trade with China would be like a blood transfusion to the Communist regime, making it more aggressive and harming the interests of both the American and Chinese people.

But our warning fell on deaf ears. After a lengthy debate, the U.S. government decided to grant permanent MFN to China in 1992. We were assured by U.S. policymakers that democratic development would inevitably follow from economic development.

26 years on that warning has become a reality. With money and technology pouring in from the U.S. and other Western countries, the Chinese Communist regime not only survived the 1989 crisis, it catapulted into the 21st century. The country’s explosive economic growth lifted it from one of the poorest countries in terms of GDP per capita to become the number two economy in the world; but China remains firmly near the bottom of indicators on democratic development.

The Chinese Communist regime has instead grown into a Frankenstein’s monster, terrorizing peoples both domestically and internationally.

Xi Jinping reviewing troops in early September, 2015.

Xi Jinping reviewing troops in early September, 2015.

China is using the economic power it has gained with the help of the West to build a formidable, modern military that can reach every corner of the earth. As its power grows, China is demanding a re-write of international norms and rules. China wants to create a new international order with China at the center of the Asia-Pacific region, bringing regional and world peace under threat.

What went wrong with America’s engagement policy?

First, China upturned the traditional linkage between economic prosperity and democracy and re-wrote the rules of development. While China’s model of political repression paired with economic freedom is showing signs of cracking, nevertheless it has achieved tremendous economic gains over the past twenty years.

Secondly, the United States has encouraged this uneven development with its lack of moral and strategic clarity in its dealings with China.

The origin of the error can be traced back to the early 1970s when then Secretary of State Henry Kissinger claimed that by integrating Beijing into the international community economically and politically, China would behave responsibly, abiding by international norms and rules.

This amoral, geo-politically pragmatic strategy failed to recognize the evil nature and hegemonic ambitions of the communist regime, as reiterated in President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” of a great red empire, to challenge, and eventually supersede, the western civilization with the so called China model.

Washington policymakers also failed to understand that economic growth may be a necessary condition, but not a sufficient one, for cultivating democracy. Consequently, this policy has fundamentally undermined America’s national interests and security.

The alternative is to engage China with a moral strategic compass: China under the Chinese Communist Party’s rule cannot rise peacefully, and its transition to a democratic country that respects human rights, rule of law, freedom of speech and religion, is in everyone’s best interest, including China’s own. In other words, the U.S. must push for a peaceful democratic transition in China.

The reason for this is simple:

To support China’s totalitarian regime, a regime that ruthlessly represses its own people, denies universal values to justify its dictatorship, and that challenges the existing international order to seek its dominance, is morally corrupt as well as strategically unsound.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, China is now seeking to revenge against its creator — the West. It will destabilize and endanger the world. We’ve already seen other countries that have copied and are now suffering under the China model, an amoral political system that rewards the corrupt while offering crumbs to its citizens.

While many policymakers in Washington have now realized that it is time to get tough on China, some still believe that the present and future conflicts between the U. S. and China can be managed. Our view is this: Without China’s democratization, a clash between the U. S. and China is unavoidable because the two countries’ strategic goals are on a clashing course and their core interests cannot be compromised.

The only way to prevent a future war with China is to pursue its democratic transformation now.

To start, the Congress should pass a China Democracy Act that flatly states that enhancing human rights and democratic transition in China is decidedly in America’s national interest and that directs the Federal government and all its agencies to make democracy and human rights advocacy the core of all engagement with China.

Current policy allows and even encourages U. S. agencies to assist China just for the sake of engagement, with no regard to any effort to promote political reform and freedom. The act will serve as America’s grand strategy toward China, setting a firm foundation that not only guides U. S. activities with China in all spheres, but also makes clear of the U. S. intentions to the Chinese government and sends an unequivocal message of support to the Chinese people.

Is a peaceful transition to democracy possible in China?

Absolutely. Despite significant restrictions on the internet and the absence of media freedom, access to information has greatly improved and is changing China, particular the younger generations. Civil society is awakening; religious belief is flourishing. The growth of a middle class, as well as the disaffection of certain groups in China, mean that many are longing for a political system that ensures equal opportunity and fairness for all. Even the ruling elite want the rule of law to protect their wealth, because without it no one is safe in China.

Immanuel Kant and modern-day social science has shown that democracies are less disposed to go to war with each other. Long-lasting peace and friendship between the U. S. and China means that China must transition to a democracy.

If the U. S. does not place the highest priority on the development of a democratic China, we worry that China will continue down the perilous path of achieving world dominance through militarism and aggression.  That is a war that the world cannot afford.


Yang Jianli (杨建利) is the founder and president of Initiatives for China, a Washington-DC based advocacy group, and former political prisoner of China. Han Lianchao (韩连潮) is the vice president of Initiatives for China and a research fellow at the Hudson Institute.



The Historic Opening to China: What Hath Nixon Wrought? by Joseph Bosco, Harvard National Security Journal, September 2015.

To Obama – Why China Does Not Have a Nelson Mandela, by Yaxue Cao, China Change, September 23, 2015.


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