Why the muted U.S. response to protests in China?
It’s time for U.S. foreign policy to regain its footing, and stand for freedom
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It has long been the first instinct of the United States to support a foreign people when they rise up against their tyrannical rulers. From the so-called color revolutions in eastern Europe in 2004 to the Arab Spring uprising in the early 2010s, the government of the United States has stood with the everyday people of far-flung countries in their demand for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law. Their voices internally and our voice externally, especially when joined to those of other democracies, have combined into a mighty roar that has brought down dictators.
Which is why the Biden Administration’s tepid-at-best statement on the ongoing mass protests in China is so disappointing. Disappointing, but not surprising, because the tyranny they protest is the radical and repressive Chinese version of the Covid protocols that dominated many blue states for the past two years.
Since its inception, the United States government has stood as a beacon of liberty and self-rule for the world. And though our government has not always actively aided foreign peoples in their own quest for self-government, as the French aided us during the Revolutionary War, we have nevertheless loudly wished for others the same freedom we ourselves enjoy.
Admittedly, we have not observed the policy perfectly. In the era after World War II, we promised self-determination in the Atlantic Charter, but then sided with our French and British allies in their desire to maintain their colonial holdings, especially in later decades against socialist movements in places like Vietnam. During the Cold War, rightist and military dictators in places like Iran, South Korea, and Chile were important anti-Communist allies even as they repressed their own peoples, a point made by Will Inboden in his new volume on Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy.
And in our own day, policymakers have struggled to balance the demands of democracy against the stability of monarchs and militaries in the Middle East. Foreign policy gets messy.
Even if there are close and difficult calls when our allies face such protests, that should not be the case as the people of China take to the streets against their Communist overlords. The Xi regime, which has steamrolled the last remnants of accountability in the Chinese constitution, is our strategic competitor and rival for influence in the Pacific and globally. The list of sins logged against the Chinese government is long, from its internal repression (treatment of the Uighurs and Tibetans, lack of religious freedom, forced abortion) to its external aggression (military build-up, intellectual property theft, debt slavery, challenges to freedom of navigation in the eastern Pacific). The Communist Party uses advanced technologies to transform China into one giant experiment in social control, surveillance, and repression.
The United States government has every reason to support internal challenges to the regime, if for no other reason than to give the regime a headache so it can’t focus on its policy of hegemonic expansion (especially across the Taiwan Strait).
Inboden’s masterful book shows how Reagan, along with his secretary of state, George Shultz, effectively leveraged the Solidarity movement in Poland and other popular dissent to accelerate the breakup of the Soviet Union. By rallying American friends like labor unions and Polish expatriates, alongside global allies in NATO and Pope John Paul II, Reagan placed massive pressure on the Soviet leadership and reinforced fissures between the USSR and its vassals in the Warsaw Pact.
The ongoing protests in China may offer the United States government the same opportunity. But so far the Biden Administration has declined to take it. Not because they aren’t willing to be hard on China—indeed, President Biden and Speaker Pelosi have both been strong on Taiwan of late. Rather, the Chinese people are protesting a specific kind of tyranny, centered in Covid lockdowns. And this is the one topic on which the Biden Administration has zero credibility, because many blue-state governors enforced lockdowns of their own. Moreover, the administration won’t unnecessarily cross that hardcore element of the Democratic base for whom continued mask-wearing remains a virtue-signal of their commitment to “the science.”
This should be an easy call. The United States’ first preference should always be to stand in solidarity with a brutalized people finally pushing back against a dictatorship. That should be especially easy here, where the dictatorship is no ally of the United States. The administration’s failure to do so reveals its own political dilemma over Covid and freedom. Now is the time for U.S. foreign policy to regain its footing, and stand for freedom.
These daily articles have become part of my steady diet. —BarbaraSign up to receive the WORLD Opinions email newsletter each weekday for sound commentary from trusted voices.