The People’s Republic of China is the largest, most powerful and arguably most brutal totalitarian state in the world. It denies basic human rights to all of its nearly 1.4 billion citizens. There is no freedom of speech, thought, assembly, religion, movement or any semblance of political liberty in China.
Under Xi Jinping, “president for life,” the Communist Party of China has built the most technologically sophisticated repression machine the world has ever seen. In Xinjiang, in western China, the government is using technology to mount a cultural genocide against the Muslim Uighur minority that is even more total than the one it carried out in Tibet. Human rights experts say that more than 1 million people are being held in detention camps in Xinjiang, 2 million more are in forced “re-education,” and everyone else is invasively surveilled via ubiquitous cameras, artificial intelligence and other high-tech means.
None of this is a secret. Under Xi, China has grown markedly more Orwellian; not only is it stamping its heel more firmly on its own citizens, but it is also exporting its digital shackles to authoritarians the world over. Yet unlike the way we once talked about pariah nations — say East Germany or North Korea or apartheid South Africa — U.S. and European lawmakers, Western media and the world’s largest corporations rarely treat China as what it plainly is: a growing and existential threat to human freedom across the world.
Why do we give China a pass? In a word: capitalism. Because for 40 years, the West’s relationship with China has been governed by a strategic error the dimensions of which are only now coming into horrific view.
A parade of American presidents on the left and the right argued that by cultivating China as a market — hastening its economic growth and technological sophistication while bringing our own companies 1 billion new workers and customers — we would inevitably loosen the regime’s hold on its people.
Even Donald Trump, who made bashing China a theme of his campaign, sees the country mainly through the lens of markets. He’ll eagerly prosecute a pointless trade war against China, but when it comes to the millions in Hong Kong who are protesting China’s creeping despotism over their territory, Trump prefers to stay mum.
Well, funny thing: It turns out the West’s entire political theory about China has been spectacularly wrong. China has engineered ferocious economic growth in the past half century, lifting hundreds of millions of its citizens out of miserable poverty. But China’s growth did not come at any cost to the regime’s political chokehold.
A darker truth is now dawning on the world: China’s economic miracle hasn’t just failed to liberate Chinese people. It is also now routinely corrupting the rest of us outside of China.
This was the theme of the NBA’s hasty and embarrassing apology this week after Daryl Morey, the Houston Rockets’ general manager, tweeted — and quickly deleted — a message in support of Hong Kong’s protesters. After an outcry from U.S. lawmakers, Adam Silver, the NBA’s commissioner, later seemed to backtrack on his genuflection.
But I wasn’t comforted. The NBA is far from the first American institution to accede to China’s limits on liberty. Hollywood, large tech companies and a variety of consumer brands — from Delta to Zara — have been more than willing to play ball. The submission is spreading: This week the American video game company Blizzard suspended a player for calling for the liberation of Hong Kong in a livestream. And according to Deadspin, ESPN — a network owned by Disney, which has worked closely with the Chinese government on some big deals in China — warned anchors against discussing Chinese politics in talking about the Rockets controversy.
This sort of corporate capitulation is hardly surprising. For Western companies, China is simply too big and too rich a market to ignore, let alone to pressure or to police. If the first and most important cost of doing business in China is the surgical extraction of a CEO’s spine, many businesses are only too happy to provide the stretcher and the scalpel.
But it will only get worse from here, and we are fools to play this game. There is a school of thought that says America should not think of China as an enemy. With its far larger population, China’s economy will inevitably come to eclipse ours, but that is hardly a mortal threat. In climate change, the world faces a huge collective-action problem that will require global cooperation. According to this view, treating China like an adversary will only frustrate our own long-term goals.
But this perspective leaves out the threat that greater economic and technological integration with China poses to everyone outside of China. It ignores the ever-steeper capitulation that China requires of its partners. And it overlooks the most important new factor in the Chinese regime’s longevity: the seductive efficiency that technology offers to effect a breathtaking new level of control over its population.
There was a time when Westerners believed that the internet would be the Communist regime’s ruin. In a speech in 2000 urging Congress to normalize trade relations with China, President Bill Clinton famously quipped: “There’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet. Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” The crowd of foreign policy experts erupted in knowing laughter.
China proved them wrong. It didn’t just find a way to nail Jell-O; it became a Jell-O master carpenter. Through online surveillance, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and the propagandistic gold mine of social media, China has mobilized a set of tools that allow it to invisibly, routinely repress its citizens and shape political opinion by manipulating their feelings and grievances on just about any controversy.
This set of skills horrifies me. China may not be exporting its political ideology, but through lavish spending and trade, it is expanding its influence across the planet. There is a risk that China’s success becomes a kind of template for the world. In the coming decades, instead of democracy — which you may have noticed is not having such a hot run on either side of the Atlantic — Chinese-style tech-abetted surveillance authoritarianism could become a template for how much of the world works.
I should say there were a couple of small reasons for optimism regarding the spread of Chinese tyranny. The bipartisan outrage over the NBA’s initial apology to China did suggest U.S. lawmakers aren’t willing to give China a completely free pass. The Trump administration also did something clever, placing eight Chinese surveillance technology companies and several police departments on a blacklist forbidding them from trading with American companies.
But if we are to have any hope of countering China’s dictatorial apparatus, we’ll need a smarter and more sustained effort from our leaders. I’m not holding my breath.
Farhad Manjoo is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.