Why China Didn’t Liberalize
Engagement with the U.S. was supposed to make China more free and democratic. What went wrong?
With populist authoritarianism on the rise around the globe, it’s hard to remember that only a quarter century ago the dominant assumption in American foreign policy circles was that liberal democracy would naturally spread to the rest of the world.
That optimism was rooted in then-recent experience. From Spain to South Korea, and from Argentina to the Philippines, dictatorships had been replaced by fledgling democracies. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the countries of the former Soviet bloc joined the wave of democratization, and many were integrated into both NATO and the European Union. These developments appeared to have enhanced American prestige, security, and prosperity, while also advancing American values. To hasten history toward its destined conclusion, the United States then developed a policy mix—with political, economic, and security components—in its efforts to promote democratic ideals.
The political component was active support for democratization efforts within undemocratic countries. This support was not consistent or reliable, but it was a far more prominent aspect of American policy than it had been during the first three decades of the Cold War, when America had supported military dictatorships and other undemocratic forces in the name of anti-communism.
The economic component was support for international development anchored in free trade with the United States. Development theorists argued that democracy was much more likely to take root successfully in countries with at least middle-income status. Open trade with the United States would both promote development to that level and bolster free markets within those countries. Eventually, economic freedoms would lead to demands for freedom in other areas like press and assembly.
Finally, the security component involved integrating democratizing countries into the American alliance system, expanding the American defense umbrella, and even using military force to promote human rights and democracy.
While this policy mix was applied from the Caribbean to Central Europe to the Middle East, nowhere were American hopes higher than in the People’s Republic of China. Starting in 1979, China had already begun to embrace markets and property rights as its route to prosperity. A decade later, the Tiananmen Square protests raised hopes that democracy and political rights might not be far behind. Even after the government brutally crushed those protests, the dominant view amongst American foreign policy experts was that economic development and engagement with the United States would push China in the direction of liberal democracy. And as it became more liberal, the theory went, China would grow into a responsible partner in an American-led global security order.
Those hopes have long since been comprehensively dashed. Under its current leader, Xi Jinping, China has taken a decisive turn away from free markets, and become more repressive and totalitarian in its regulation of private life than it has been in decades. At the same time, China has been vocally opposed to the American-led security order, and is increasingly prepared to challenge it militarily. China now poses the greatest emerging non-domestic threat to both American liberal values and American geopolitical dominance. Such a momentous policy failure demands an accounting. Why did China not evolve as American policymakers had hoped and expected? And what are the implications for the democracy agenda in foreign policy?
A failure of this scale cannot be attributed to a single cause, and there are numerous factors upon which blame is often pinned. The Chinese Communist Party’s interests plainly did not lie in democratization, as that would have inevitably threatened its political monopoly. While the hope was that a rising Chinese middle class would operate increasingly outside of the CCP’s control and demand greater political freedom, the CCP has successfully embedded itself in Chinese private enterprise, to the point that upward social mobility continues to depend on support from the party. The internet and other modern communications technologies that many hoped would democratize information and thereby limit state power have massively increased the party’s capacity for surveillance into people’s private lives. And instead of serving as a counterweight to the Chinese state, many multinational corporations have accepted the CCP’s ideological demands as a price of doing business.
But I suspect that an underrated factor has to do with America’s execution of the “security component” of its engagement strategy. The expansion of NATO into Eastern Europe, the NATO military operation during the Kosovo War, and America’s wars in Iraq and Libya were undoubtedly alarming to the Chinese government and provided them with a useful ideological tool for sustaining the legitimacy of their rule. Inasmuch as America’s democracy agenda involved granting America greater prerogatives to shape the world to its liking, that agenda was opposed by powers like China, who saw their interests as conflicting with America’s.
On a more philosophical level, the mere fact that the United States was championing democracy and liberalism meant that those political ideals came to be identified with American leadership. That was probably helpful in expanding liberal democracy in Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, when those countries were eager to join the West culturally and economically, and to find shelter under the American nuclear umbrella. But the same was not true for countries that had historical reasons to hold America at a certain distance, to say nothing of rival great powers like Russia or China. Insofar as liberalization was promoted as a mechanism for integration into an American-led system, it was bound to be treated with skepticism at best.
The sheer scale of China’s potential power, moreover, made it especially unrealistic that the country would accept a spot as America’s junior partner. At the beginning of the century, China’s population was over four times greater than America’s. As China became a middle-income country, its economic clout would approach and eventually surpass America’s, and its military capacity would inevitably follow. Why would such a powerful country ever be satisfied with an American-led global order? And if they would not, why would we assume they would willingly bring their political system into line with our own?
Since the accession of Xi Jinping, America’s foreign policy toward China has undergone a sea change. Beginning during Barack Obama’s presidency and accelerating under Presidents Trump and Biden, American policy has shifted decisively from engagement to confrontation. In that context, the prospects for influencing China’s political evolution would seem to be remote indeed.
So if America continues to be interested in protecting and promoting democracy in the region, our best opportunities probably lie in countries that have an interest in good relations with America and are wary about Chinese power, and in which a deepening of democratic norms would not pose an obvious threat to the power of an entrenched ruling party. One potential example of such a country is Indonesia, which has already made considerable strides in the direction of democratization.
At the same time, however, we should anticipate that the exigencies of coalition-building will limit our leverage over key allies—like India—that are backsliding away from liberal democracy as well those—like Vietnam—that have never been democracies in the first place. As with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, our preeminent aim of limiting China’s ability to threaten American interests will limit our own ability to promote American values.
Ultimately the most important lesson of the failure of American policy with respect to China is that democracy and liberalism are not universal solvents that easily dissolve power rivalries. China never was, and is unlikely to ever be, interested in joining an American-led club—regardless of whether that club is based on politics, economics, or security. That being the case, America’s focus should be on figuring out how to live with China in a fashion that avoids both catastrophic war and threats to our vital interests—one of which is the preservation of our own democracy. That alone will be challenging enough.
And, to receive pieces like this in your inbox and support our work, subscribe below: