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Uncle Sam and the Chinese Dragon

by Dr. David Aikman
March 16, 2012

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Most Americans are by now well-aware of China's astonishing rise to global great power status over the past four decades, of that country's phenomenal wealth, and of its propping up of the American economy through the purchase of U.S. Treasury bonds. You would have to have lived since 1980 in a New Mexican rock hideaway not to have become aware of America's soaring trade deficit with China or to know that the People's Republic of China, no thanks to its Communist founder Mao Zedong, now probably boasts more billionaires than there are registered Republicans living in the South Bronx. A growing number of Americans have also learned that China is fast emerging as a military superpower, with a military about twice the size of America's, naval cruise missiles specifically designed to kill U.S. carriers, and an amorphous mob of semi-military computer hackers who routinely take down U.S. government websites.

What few Americans understand, however, is that China is not merely a friendly economic rival to the U.S., but a nation-state specifically aspiring to gain global primacy over the U.S. and, in many areas of contention with America, competing ruthlessly for national advantage. China, to judge by innumerable official Chinese policy articles in books and the Chinese media, doesn't want simply to emulate American success in the global arena. It wants to obliterate America's ability to compete with China in economics, military affairs, and the "soft power" of international propaganda.

An overwhelming case for this gloomy scenario is expansively documented in Bowing to Beijing: How Barack Obama is Hastening America’s Decline and Ushering a Century of Chinese Domination, by Brett M. Decker and William C. Triplett II. Decker (editorial page editor of the Washington Times) and Triplett (former chief Republican counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) bring to the discussion of China's growing strength some alarming new examples of China's military connections with rogue regimes around the world like North Korea and Iran, the crony capitalism guanxi ("connections") of the country's Communist Party "princelings," and the constantly expanding role of Chinese "agents of influence" close to centers of power in official Washington.

The book reminds readers of the sheer nastiness of the Chinese Communist regime: the torturing and beating to death of dissidents, the crushing of religious opponents (both Christian and Tibetan Buddhist), and the underlying premise of such behavior -- rule by law rather than rule of law. It also provides a dismaying reminder of how many apologists for China occupy high places in the U.S. government and business communities -- none being more prominent or more shamelessly exculpatory of Beijing's political repression than former Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger.

It seems impossibly long ago now that American optimists in the 1980s were trotting out the lazy cliché that growing Chinese middle-class prosperity would soon enough force the Communist Party to concede power to some sort of multi-party democratic governance. After all, went the argument, South Korea and Taiwan were at one point rather thuggish, one-party regimes, but their growing integration into the global economy and global culture eventually forced them to ditch their dictatorships and launch forth into parliamentary democracy. Surely middle-class economic pressures inside China would soon enough force the Communist Party to make compromises in favor of true democracy.

What the authors of Bowing to Beijing show, however, is that precisely the opposite has happened in China. The Chinese Communist Party has actually strengthened its hold on power by rewarding loyal supporters, especially at the top of China's business tree, with fabulous financial advantages over merely "ordinary" Chinese entrepreneurs. China's capitalist class is the strongest bulwark of the Communist state, say the authors. They add, "it's likely that China will continue to become richer without becoming freer." What’s so frightening about this observation is how closely it mirrors the pattern of Nazi Germany. As German capitalists benefited from Hitler's crusade to revive the German national spirit, they reinforced the tyranny of the S.S. and the Gestapo.

The title of the book is derived from the now infamous photograph of President Obama bowing, like a British schoolboy to the Queen of England, during an early meeting with President Hu Jintao. Indeed a sub-theme of the book is the alleged tendency of the Obama administration to bend over (in most cases backward), both to placate Beijing and to downplay any fears that China might already be posing a significant threat to American interests and freedom. In one of their more telling anecdotes, the authors describe the dismay with which many senior American intelligence analysts responded to the Obama administration's decision to move China from the "Priority One" category that it shared with countries like Iran and North Korea to "Priority Two," a category that placed the question of China as an issue alongside humanitarian problems like the earthquake in Haiti. The authors cite more than 60 examples of Americans indicted for spying for China during the merely three-year period between 2008 and 2011, the 128,000 Chinese students studying at American universities and completely overwhelming FBI abilities to keep track of their activities, and rather unpleasant cases of Chinese "agents of influence" in the U.S., like the Sanya Group. This cozy club of retired former American and Chinese military officers has attempted on occasion to delay the release of congressionally mandated Pentagon reports of Chinese military power.

Bowing to Beijing is certainly an alarming reminder of how China's power is growing unrestrained by any normal moral limits. The overall gloomy picture that emerges, however, may not be the last word on China. There are many brittle, weak points in China's burgeoning economy. Even the vaunted political stability enforced by the Communist Party, the People's Liberation Army, and the Public Security Bureau may not be impermeable. Thousands of annual domestic protest demonstrations against corruption and injustice could yet get out of hand, leading to a serious erosion of China's great power status, if not a fundamental political realignment.

Finally, and not least-important, arguably the most important cultural story in the modern world is the steady Christianization of China: the demand for morality and accountability and honesty in national life. China in the historical past has sometimes demonstrated commendable unity and civilized decency. It would be a rash prophet who completely ruled out a possible return to those standards. In that sense, it would be pleasant if some of the worst fears Decker and Triplett hold about China should not come to pass.

A version of this commentary originally appeared in the American Spectator.

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David Aikman is a professor of history and writer in residence at Patrick Henry College. A former senior correspondent for Time Magazine, he has authored ten books, including, most recently, The Delusion of Disbelief: How the New Atheism Is a Threat to Your Life, Liberty, and Pursuit of Happiness and The Mirage of Peace: Understanding the Unending Conflict in the Middle East. Read full bio.

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