The Trump administration is currently engaged in a trade war with China. The issues are complex, ranging from alleged Chinese theft of Silicon Valley intellectual property, to whether the Chinese market itself is actually open to American goods. Perhaps most significant is the assertion, long made by labor unions, that while free trade with China has reduced the price of consumer goods, such as iPhones, the real cost has been the impoverishment of the American working class through the loss of thousands of factories to China. The original hope of allowing China into the WTO was that, despite these costs, free trade would lead to more political freedom and democracy in China and thus a more peaceful world. Whether is has is certainly debatable. This trade war, however, may ultimately lead to a much less peaceful world, perhaps even a hot war – as the US petroleum embargo against Japan during 1941 led to the war in the Pacific.
In 2008, during a pervious period of tensions with China, that time over Tibet, Justin wrote a very incisive column making the classical liberal argument for free trade, including free trade with China. We need to ponder his words carefully as we move into an uncertain future.
Originally published March 26, 2008
China’s continuing crackdown on Tibetan pro-independence protesters is a big, big issue here in San Francisco. Why, just the other day, I was coming out my front door, and there was one of my neighbors – a very nice woman in her fifties, albeit an archetypal limousine liberal, typical of the breed. So typical that she might almost be mistaken for a living, breathing, walking, talking cliché. She hates George W. Bush and the neocons because she’s against the (Iraq) war, but she’s eager to “liberate” Darfur – and, lately, Tibet. That morning, as she earnestly informed me, she was on her way to a meeting of the Board of Supervisors (our town council) to exhort them to vote for a resolution condemning the Chinese government’s actions and calling for “freedom” for Tibet. What she doesn’t realize, and doesn’t want to know, is that she and the neocons – the very ones who brought us the Iraq war – are united on the Tibet issue. I tried, in vain, to point this out to her, but she just shook her head, cut the conversation short, and was on her way…
As it turned out, the supervisors voted for a meaningless, toothless resolution, stripped of provocative rhetoric, much to the dismay of the far-lefties who argued for a stronger statement. The initiative for this effort was made by supervisor Chris Daly, an obnoxious left-liberal with delusions of grandeur, whose pose of self-righteousness is both grating and characteristic of his sort.
Prior to the vote on the Daly resolution, which was vociferously supported by the supposedly pacifistic supporters of the Dalai Lama, the Chinese consulate was… firebombed. This is what the War Party would like to do to China.
Fortunately, there are a number of restraining factors that get in the way: in the meantime, however, our preening politicians demagogue the China issue, and none so brazenly as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, my congressional representative, who is merely Chris Daly writ large. Traveling all the way to India, at taxpayers’ expense, Madam Speaker visited with the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala and announced that if Americans don’t speak out against Beijing’s repression in Tibet “we have lost all moral authority to speak on behalf of human rights anywhere in the world.”
Pelosi is a longtime opponent of Beijing – not just the Chinese government, but China itself. Pelosi and the unions she depends on for political support despise all things Chinese for the simple reason that China, today, is more capitalist than the U.S. – in spite of the Chinese Communist Party’s ostensible commitment to Marxist ideology. Thinly veiled racist-chauvinist bilge is routinely directed at the Chinese people by union bosses and right-wing paleo-protectionists, who stupidly claim that the “chinks” (or, as John McCain would put it, the “gooks”) are stealing “American jobs” – as if Americans have a hereditary right to the very best salaries on earth, a “right” that doesn’t have to be earned by competitive business practices but is conferred on them by virtue of their nationality. Like hell it is.
Lucrative trade and cultural exchanges between China and California, as well as the fact that many Chinese in her congressional district have continuing ties to the mainland, have – so far – failed to deter Pelosi and her fellow Know-Nothings: politics, as they used to say during the Cultural Revolution in China, is in command.
These Sinophobic protests, engineered behind the scenes by leftist union bosses and God knows who else, are focused on the passing of the Olympic torch, which is slowly but surely making its way to Beijing, where the games are scheduled to be held Aug. 8-24. Here in the Bay Area, activists in the “Free Darfur” movement announced they were mounting demonstrations urging China to “extinguish the flames of genocide” in Darfur in San Francisco on April 9, the day the flame passes through the city.
The hosting of the Olympic Games in Beijing is the focus of much pride in China, seen by the people as well as the ruling caste as symbolic of the nation’s arrival in modernity. As such, the worldwide protests and political posturing of preening politicians – from Pelosi to Nicolas Sarkozy – are bitterly resented and have been met with increasingly shrill denunciations by the Chinese state-controlled media – a sentiment that probably understates popular resentment of Western criticism in the Chinese “street.”
I know we are supposed to believe that the vast majority of the Chinese people are groaning under the weight of Commie oppression and sympathize (albeit silently) with the downtrodden Tibetans, but that is hardly the case. Indeed, the exact opposite is closer to the truth. Every time the West gets up on its high horse and lectures the Chinese government about its lack of “morality,” the tide of anti-Western Chinese nationalism rises higher.
We saw this when the US”accidentally” bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during Clinton’s Balkan War of Aggression, and again when that American spy plane went down over Hainan island. In Beijing today, they are worried about the upcoming Olympic celebration, which will provide a platform for a wide variety of groups – including ultra-nationalist Chinese students, whose street antics have augured internal regime change in the past, and could do so again. “They are worried about a larger number of things and they are worried about keeping the lid on,” according to Arnold Howitt, a management specialist who oversees crisis-management training programs for Chinese government officials at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. The same Associated Press article cites an unnamed “consultant” to the Games, who avers:
“‘Demonstrations of all kinds are a concern, including anti-American demonstrations,’ said the consultant, who works for Beijing’s Olympic organizers and asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to talk to the media.”
Any indications that Beijing is compromising Chinese pride and honor by appeasing the West are likely to be met by demonstrations that are both anti-American and anti-government – initiated, once again, by Chinese students, who have often been the agents of political transformation. Remember the Red Guards? Mao used them to initiate his own “Cultural Revolution,” but was forced to rein them in when they started talking about overthrowing the Chinese state.
The memory of that dark and chaotic era haunts China’s contemporary rulers, threatening to spoil their dream of a thoroughly modernized industrial powerhouse that is both the forge and the financial capital of the world economy. The Beijing Olympics represent the entry of China onto the world stage as a first-class power, right up there with its former adversaries: the US, Europe, and the former Soviet Union. A Chinese nationalist cannot be faulted for seeing the organized campaign to spoil that debut as a deliberate – and unforgivable – insult.
Viewed from this perspective – the perspective, that is, of the average citizen of China – the very idea of Tibetan independence might easily be seen as a rather obvious attempt to humiliate Beijing and remind it of its “proper” (i.e., subordinate) place in the global scheme of things.
After all, what if Chinese government leaders constantly reminded the world that the American Southwest was stolen from Mexico? Imagine the Chinese and Mexican ambassadors to the US demanding independence, for, say, California – or better yet, its return to Mexican sovereignty! Shall the Olympics be forever barred from Puerto Rico, which was forcibly incorporated into the US”commonwealth” in the invasion of 1898?
Of course not. Yet the Americans and their international amen corner are daring to criticize China for preserving its own unity and sovereignty. It’s a double standard made all the more insufferable by the self-righteous tone of the anti-China chorus, whose meistersingers are mainly concerned with celebrating their own moral purity.
Yes, Tibet was forcibly incorporated into the Communist empire of the Han, but this was just an episode in the long history of Sino-Tibetan relations – for the greater part of which the Tibetans held the upper hand. The Tibetan empire, at its height, extended from northern India to the Mongolian hinterlands and came at the expense of the conquered Chinese and Uighurs. It fell apart due to a ruinous civil war. A key factor in this complex narrative is that Mongol hegemony over China was greatly aided by the Tibetans, whose conversion of the Mongol nobility to Buddhism legitimized Mongol rule. Today, pro-Beijing historians point to this period as proof that Tibet has “always” been a part of China proper, yet the truth is that both were slaves to the Mongols – the Tibetans as their collaborators, the Chinese as their helots. (Underscoring Mongol contempt for their Chinese subjects was an edict forbidding intermarriage between Mongol and Chinese, although no such barrier to Mongol-Tibetan congress was imposed.) With Buddhism as the state religion, Tibetan priests, including the Dalai Lama, became the avatars of Mongol rule.
In short, the popular narrative of the pacifistic Buddhist Tibetans as the good guys and the Han Chinese as the bad-guy aggressors is the stuff of pure myth, pushed by union propagandists, lefty Hollywood do-gooders, and trendy sandal-wearing Western camp followers of the Dalai Lama, who has become a secularized yet “spiritual” substitute for Mother Theresa.
If the Chinese are wrong to hold on to their province of Tibet, then Lincoln was wrong to insist that the South stay in the Union – and we ought to immediately either grant the American Southwest (and California) independence, or else give it all back to the Mexicans.
The same goes for Taiwan – China’s rulers are no more likely to give up their claim to that island than Lincoln was inclined to let the Confederacy hold on in, say, Key West, Fla.
China is an adolescent giant: clumsy, unused to exerting its will beyond its borders, and wracked by self-doubt. Emerging into the company of world powers, it is thin-skinned – like any adolescent – and prone to wild mood gyrations. During the 1960s and ’70s, the Chinese were in a distinctly bad mood as they wrestled with the ghosts and demons unleashed by Mao. The triumph of the “modernizers” over the ultra-left Maoists in the 1980s signaled a new mood of optimism and inaugurated an era of unrivaled economic growth. The regime sanctified China’s journey down the “capitalist road” by citing the reformer Deng Tsiao-ping’s most famous “Communist” slogan: “To get rich is glorious!” Ayn Rand meets Chairman Mao (or, rather, Confucius) – and the result is capitalism-on-steroids.
That’s why, in spite of the sclerotic Marxoid ideology that still reins in and retards the natural entrepreneurial spirit of the Chinese people, China is moving forward by leaps and bounds. That’s also why comrade Pelosi and her union boss buddies have launched this odious Sinophobic hate campaign – because “their” jobs and sense of entitlement are going up in smoke. For decades, the US government has preached the virtues of free enterprise and urged formerly Communist nations to adopt the free market – and now that the Chinese have taken them up on their offer, Western politicians are attacking them!
The closer China has moved toward our own system – relaxing totalitarian controls over the economy and allowing a far greater degree of ideological diversity than was possible during the Maoist era – the more hostile the US government has become. Nixon went to China at the height of the Cultural Revolution, where he sat next to Madam Mao during a command performance of The Red Detachment of Women. These days, however, as China stakes its claim to a proportionate share of the world market – and Chinese investors fund the US debt – the resentment and growing hostility of the Americans is all too palpable.
Why do politicians of Pelosi’s ilk join hands with neoconservatives in a concerted campaign to antagonize China, and even threaten sanctions and possible military action when the occasion gives rise to the opportunity?
To begin with, China’s is a success story, and there’s nothing that attracts opprobrium like success, unless it’s success of the wrong color – in this case, yellow. A crude racist collectivism of a specifically anti-Asian character has long been a tradition of the War Party in this country: see the anti-Japanese Dr. Seuss cartoons from the World War II era for a particularly vivid example. Yes, he was attacking the “Japs,” but to Americans, it’s all the same Yellow Peril. This kind of sentiment is easily invoked in America, and don’t tell me Pelosi and her ideological confreres aren’t aware of it – yes, even in “liberal” San Francisco, where anti-Asian sentiment is part of the city’s history.
Never mind the first black president, or the first female president – what I’m waiting for is the first chief executive of Asian-American descent. I’m not, however, holding my breath…
Relations with China are cloudy, at best, and those may very well be war clouds gathering on the horizon. The reason is that Sinophobia is a point of unity between the Left and the Right: the union of the Weekly Standard and the AFL-CIO, and perhaps even the majority of my paleoconservative friends, who quail before the rising Chinese giant and see it as a potential threat on account of its sheer scale – a third of the world’s population, and a land-mass that rivals our own. Surely such a stirring titan will knock us out of the way as he takes his place at the center of the world stage.
This reflects a fundamental error on the part of many conservatives, as well as liberals of the more statist persuasion. They fail to understand that there are no conflicts of interest among nations as long as their relations are governed by the market, that is by mutually beneficial trade agreements voluntarily entered into. Ludwig von Mises said it far better than I could ever manage, and I’ll leave my readers to Mises’ ministrations on this abstruse but important subject.
Suffice to say here that our relations with China on the economic front are a benefit to American consumers – that is, to all of us. They enable us to buy inexpensive quality products and keep the cost of living down. Protectionists who argue that “they” are “destroying American jobs” are simply arguing for higher prices – ordinarily not a very popular cause, and especially not these days.
Free trade is the economic precondition for a peaceful world and the logical corollary of a noninterventionist foreign policy. If goods don’t cross borders, then armies soon will – a historical truism noted by many before me, and with good reason. Let it be a warning to all those anti-free trade, antiwar types of the Right as well as the Left – you’ll soon be jumping on the War Party’s bandwagon when it comes China’s turn to play the role of global bogeyman. The way things are going, that day may come soon enough.
Finally, a word or two about this nonsensical demand, raised by the “Save Darfur” crowd, that China must somehow “extinguish the flames of genocide” supposedly carried out by the government of Sudan. What does China have to do with Sudan and its government? Well, you see, the Chinese have oil interests in the region, that is, they are engaged in competition with Western oil companies in opening up new fields – and, well, that just isn’t permissible.
The Chinese, we are told, have a moral responsibility to either pressure the Sudanese to let up on Darfur, or else abandon their Sudanese assets. As if Sudan were a Chinese colony, and the Sudanese authorities mere sock-puppets of Beijing.
A more arrogant and self-serving argument would be hard to imagine. Presumably Western interests will fill the vacuum left by this spontaneous display of Chinese moral rectitude – and that alone should tell us everything we need to know about what’s behind the “Save Darfur” bloviators and their high-horse moralizing.
If our professional do-gooders of the “progressive” persuasion are so concerned about the fate of Darfur, let them campaign for the granting of mass asylum to the survivors of this latest African catastrophe. Give them sanctuary and green cards, but keep US troops out of Africa, specifically out of Darfur – and get off Beijing’s back.
Like Russia, China is awakening from the long Leninist nightmare, albeit less traumatically, and with greater prospects for full recovery. However, it wouldn’t take much to push it back into a revival of neo-Maoism – or worse – and a new dark age triggered by an external threat. A resurgence of Chinese ultra-nationalism in response to Western pressure – and the specter of U.S.-sponsored separatism – does not augur well for the cause of world peace. As is so often the case, we are creating the very enemies we fear, empowering and arming them ideologically. We are, in this sense, our own worst enemies.