A lot of the rhetoric from segments of the Left around China lately has bothered me.
I’m not just talking about the tankies.
A couple weeks back, Peter Beinart, the liberal journalist known for his courageous support of Palestinian human rights, blamed American fears of China’s ascendancy for a recent spate of anti-asian hate crimes. Beinart’s post linked to one by the Quincy Institute’s Jessica J Lee, who asserted—with little evidence–that the Biden administration’s “toxic” discourse on China caused last year’s increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.
Others, like Princeton human rights scholar Richard Falk, have argued that China’s success in lifting its lower-classes out of poverty (a weak claim given the persistence of grave inequality) compensates for its gross infringements on the rights of individuals and nations.
While China rhetoric on the right often veers into racist territory, and while demonization of “China” as a nation (as practiced by Donald Trump) can easily breed xenophobia, China’s trend towards revanchism and repression—at a moment when it has achieved Great Power status—deserves an accounting.
China’s recent “national security law”, which allows Beijing to prosecute Hong Kong citizens accused of “subversion”, “seccession” or “collusion with a foreign power” (all loosely defined so as to accommodate the authoritarian sense fo arbitrary) on the mainland, not only severely erodes Hong Kong’s formal democracy but violates the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Declaration (which, as a condition of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong, stipulated that Hong Kong’s representative government would be retained until 2047).
Just this month, the Chinese air force has engaged in repeated incursions of Taiwan’s air space, potentially foreshadowing an aerial assault. Should China follow through on its threats of invasion, it would set a chilling precedent to jingoistic governments from Azerbaijan to Israel that might makes right.
(And yes, international law never extends farther than the world’s nation-states permit. However, China’s unilateral invasion of Taiwan, if successful, would provide further precedent for states seeking to settle disputes via land grabs.)
Finally, China’s ethnic cleansing of its Uyghur minority from the Xinjiang autonomous region, which includes extensive forced sterilization and the largest mass detention since the Holocaust, makes a mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and provides yet another blueprint for chauvinist states in an era of democratic backsliding.
Again, none of what China’s doing is particularly novel. The United States has also committed thinly-justified, unilateral invasions. The Soviet Union maintained a nightmarish gulag system whilst occupying a seat on the UN Security Council.
And yet, though politics may be legitimated in the past, it is actualized in the present.
The world that China wants is one in which ultra-nationalism, police brutality, Islamophobia and racism are normalized, and respect for “sovereignity” trumps adherence to international norms on social and political rights.
Such a world is fundamentally at odds with the Left’s political values.
While China does not pose a threat to most liberal or social democracies (being militarily weaker and far away), it is able to instutionalize its world view through a strong presence in international bodies (like the UN and World Health Organization) and a lucrative consumer base.
Understandably, many on the Left who don’t sympathize with China may still fear that a vocal response would provoke war. I too oppose military escalation with China (which will cost countless innocent lives, increase sinophobia and, more likely than not, entrench repression across the pacific).
China’s integration with the global economy gives the US and international bodies multiple a strong level of economic leverage, fortunately. Aggressive carbon emission reduction policies desired by the Chinese and foreign governments can be used as a means to deter military adventurism (with war being one of humanity’s most carbon-intensive activities).
The American Left can counter China’s illiberalism while staving off the threat of a Great-Power conflict by promoting non-militaristic measures to restrain China.
But first, the Left needs to speak out, firmly and clearly.