The threat of authoritarian forms of government strike at the heart of a more peaceful world defined by international law.
Various authoritarian movements have emerged in countries with democratic systems. We've heard the names Nigel Farage in the UK, Marine LePen in France, and Donald Trump in the United States. Vladimir Putin's Russia represents a form of authoritarian democracy where political parties and descent exist, but parties in opposition to Putin are hobbled in various ways. In Russia, many opposition media outlets have been shut down and demonstrations are allowed if they don't threaten Putin too much. Viktor Orban's Hungry and Andrzej Duda's Poland represent the same.
The People's Republic of China represents a harder form of authoritarianism. The only elections held in China are on the village (what we in America would call local) level. There are elections under Putin, Orban, and Duda, although they are corrupt elections. The PRC is different from totalitarian countries like the old Soviet Union and the Eastern Block states and the Fascist states of the 1930's and 1940's in that it allows free and open travel and more free interaction of ideas. The PRC has a growing middle class which travels around the world. There is religious freedom, but the government occasionally destroys sites of religious worship.
There are valid worries about the PRC's behavior on the international stage. Many are worried about the Chinese invasion of Taiwan. An invasion would be considered a violation of international law and would start a war, something we must avoid. Although it must be remembered that our country has only recognized one China since the 1970's, making the international law argument murky.
The PRC is also a gross violator of human rights. In 2019, human rights groups in the United States accused the CCP of engaging in the surveillance and torture of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities and of detaining at least one million people in camps in Xinjiang. In 2020, the U.S. Congress passed legislation requiring the federal government to report on abuses in the region. And in March, the Joe Biden administration labeled China's actions in Xinjiang a "genocide" and sanctioned Chinese officials in charge of security affairs in the region. Amnesty International and other human right groups did a wonderful job of highlighting Chinese abuses.
Non-governmental organizations like AI will be influential in confronting Chinese human rights abuses in the future, as it is independent from any government. In the realm of foreign affairs, the PRC leans in the direction of authoritarian governments. This is a change from the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union where the SU leaned in favor of Communist governments, and the U.S. supported anything not Communist. The PRC became wealthy, the country's GDP is currently about 71 percent of the U.S.'s GDP, and it didn't adopt the democratic republican form of government at any time. So, their stance on the support of authoritarianism is based on experience. Of course, the PRC hopes that the authoritarian governments it favors will lean in its direction in the international system and make it more powerful. The PRC, Russia, Turkey, and several other authoritarian governments belong to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. One of the objects of the organization is to keep the power of the U.S. at bay.
This scenario means a fractured world that will not be able to agree on much. However, the recent renewing of New START by the U.S. and Russia is a positive point. Chinese officials feel that the U.S. does not want them to emerge as a great power. The U.S.'s decision to keep military installations in Asia after the fall of the Soviet Union gave these officials some ammunition in their narrative. On the other hand, the Chinese Communist Party fears democracy, as it threatens their power. If the people vote them out, they have no power.
The officials of the CCP use our country's weak points to downgrade our way of life - the democratic republic. Their officials use economic inequality, racial tensions, and attacks on Asian Americans as a propaganda tool. More than five million Americans of Asian ancestry live here in America today. Their officials also point to the instability in Iraq and Afghanistan after U.S. intervention to counter positive views of the American way of life.
Right now, it seems unlikely that the Chinese people will demand the removal of the CCP, as the party is popular with the people, regardless of how repulsive it is to those who believe in the way of life lived in democratic republics around the world, even as that way of life is threatened from within. There are many sticky points in Chinese/U.S. relations. The CCP opposed the western media's intense coverage of Tiananmen Square in 1989. In 2008, when a riot took place in Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, the CCP saw the violence as the intentional result of long-term U.S. support for Tibetan separatists living overseas and led by the Dalai Lama, who was granted nine meetings with U.S. presidents between 1991 and 2008. In 2018, President Donald Trump enacted a law that requires the U.S. Department of State to punish Chinese officials who bar Americans from traveling freely to Tibet, a move that China's Foreign Ministry condemned as "grossly interfering in China's domestic affairs." The CCP believes that the U.S. staged anti-CCP demonstrations in Hong Kong. Of course, Taiwan has been an ongoing source of friction between the U.S. and China for years. The CCP views these frictional points as methods used to destabilize their country, as stated by Wang Jisi in his story "The Plot Against China."
Attempts to change the Chinese system from within are likely to backfire and enflame anti-Western sentiment. However, if we are to defeat China in this geopolitical struggle, more military spending won't be the answer either. We must be a better example of a democratic republic if we are to present ourselves as a positive role model for democratic republics. In other words, the effort to suppress the vote must be stopped, and our country must build a stronger middle class and tackle the problem of poverty.
Intercultural exchange was a big plus in winning the Cold War against Soviet Russia. Many in Communist countries found they liked western music and fashion, blocking the appeal of the Soviet way of life. The accomplishments of the civil rights movement were also a big plus, as the Soviets used segregation as a weapon against the U.S. Remember, travel from the Communist world to outside countries was more restricted in the Cold War than travel outside the PRC today.
We must remember the ideals that animate this country if we are going to win this struggle, plain and simple. In time, the PRC might disappear or severely mellow out.
Jason Sibert is the Executive Director of the Peace Economy Project in St. Louis.