China Power

Chen and the Real Trust Gap

The U.S. must avoid high-level interventions into China’s domestic politics. But human rights can’t be ignored.

Before blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng took refuge in the U.S. Embassy, Western debates about China policy focused on the so-called “trust gap” in U.S.-China relations.  A recent report by the Brookings Institution painted a dismal picture of Chinese fears of U.S. containment clashing with American anxiety over Chinese military expansion, cyber infiltration, and economic policy. But the diplomatic crisis that Chen’s escape provoked has revealed the real source of the trust gap: profound ideological differences over human rights and the social contract. These differences affect not only human rights policy but also spill over into “hard power” issues such as military and economic policy, and will only grow worse with time.

Chen’s plight is an extreme manifestation of a basic disjuncture between the Chinese government’s increasingly heavy handed approach to internal governance and the United States’ democratic culture. The zero-sum Chinese attitudes about U.S.-China relations depicted by Party insider Wang Jiaso in the Brookings Institution report are fundamentally at odds with American desires to promote liberalism abroad. This basic disconnect spills over into the economic and military arena, as U.S. advocacy for greater economic liberalization in China conflicts with Beijing’s neo-mercantilist economic strategy, and a suspicious Washington seeks greater transparency on Chinese military modernization and cyber operations.

Chen’s case illustrates the most basic problem in U.S.-China relations: what the Chinese government considers rightful measures taken to preserve social stability seem brutal and alien to most American observers, just as American political philosophy baffles Beijing. The idea that a state could inflict judicial and extrajudicial punishment on someone for political speech simply seems wrong in the American political system. Beijing might protest that the United States doesn’t always live up to its own ideals, but such complaints will fall on deaf ears. Violations of liberal norms in U.S. history are cast as excesses to be corrected, and hypocrisy is seen as the tribute vice pays to virtue.

Moreover, it’s generally accepted within the U.S. that America has a duty to protect the vulnerable abroad. Policymakers who shrink from such a mission, as the Clinton administration initially did in Rwanda and Bosnia, suffer reputational costs among the politicians, journalists, and academics that drive political discourse at home. It’s certainly true that American policymakers have done business with their fair share of dictators to further U.S. strategic interests, but Washington can’t be seen by the American people as doing so for the same reasons Beijing props up authoritarian regimes. Accordingly, U.S. officials often portray their clients as aspiring democrats and benign modernizers to domestic audiences, and sometimes are forced by political pressure to abandon particularly unsavory figures altogether.

American political elites also largely share a belief that autocracies are inherently untrustworthy. If an autocracy is willing to propagandize and abuse its own people, how can it be trusted to behave responsibly abroad? Even the realist George Kennan argued that the totalitarian heart of the Soviet system drove its expansionary tendencies and thus legitimated a policy of containment. American suspicion of Soviet military policy was also fueled by a lack of Soviet transparency, a (sometimes justified) fear of Soviet strategic deception, and a belief that authoritarian states are inherently suited to the dark arts of propaganda, covert espionage, and asymmetric warfare. It’s not hard to see how American beliefs about autocracies, deception, and military operations play into the rising suspicion of Chinese conventional military expansion and cyber espionage. The gap between Beijing’s rhetoric and its empirical record of military development, as well as the often inflammatory writings and statements of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officials, play into American analysts’ existing ideas.

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There’s also an inherent clash between an America’s liberal-democratic political economy and China’s top-down political-economic system pursuing a mercantilist economic strategy. Beijing’s desire to use its economy to shore up the Party’s political power makes it unresponsive to U.S. demands for greater economic openness. While Chinese espionage is often analyzed from a national security perspective, its spying is also a product of its economic system’s unique demands. Like France, China pursues a national policy of using technical espionage to bolster key industries. But Beijing also lacks the political cover that Paris’ relationship with the United States provides.

Whether or not American beliefs about autocracies are correct is beside the point. As long as American domestic policymakers believe them, they will strongly impact U.S.-China relations. It’s true that U.S. policymakers have traditionally touted important strategic and economic interests to justify prioritizing a healthy U.S.-China relationship, but they have also hoped that economic development would liberalize China. A more liberal China, some reasoned, would be hitherto more favorable to American interests. Unfortunately, political liberties haven’t kept pace with China’s rapid economic growth.

American-Chinese political distrust has been manageable in the past. Henry Kissinger recounts in his book On China how he managed to convince the Chinese leadership to let dissident Fang Lizhi, who had similarly taken refuge in the U.S. embassy after Tiananmen Square broke out, depart the country in 1990 to seek exile in Britain and later the United States. But if U.S.-Chinese strategic and economic interests continue to diverge, there’s no guarantee such arrangements will be reachable in the future.  

Michael Swaine and other analysts have cautioned against the U.S. embroiling itself in Chinese domestic politics, which they argue threatens more allegedly substantive political goals. But few have warned Beijing of the potential domestic costs American politicians face during U.S.-China normative diplomatic crises. Loss of face isn’t just a Chinese cultural issue. American presidents that are perceived to give into autocracies risk political embarrassment.

A case in point is Bill Clinton, who sharply criticized President George H.W. Bush’s handling of Tiananmen Square during the 1992 U.S. Presidential campaign. Criticism of China is also a staple of recent American electoral rhetoric, with Barack Obama’s likely challenger in the 2012 election, Mitt Romney, being only the most prominent Republican to attack the administration’s handling of Chen Guangcheng’s case.

Whatever the resolution of Chen’s case is, he’s unlikely to be the last major trigger of a U.S.-China dispute. China faces significant challenges to social stability in an age of unprecedented economic and informational connectivity, and Beijing’s leadership transition, concern over economic inequality, and significant corruption challenges will drive Chinese policies for dealing with political dissidents like Chen. The Bo Xilai affair has exposed the degree of insecurity the Communist Party feels about its own legitimacy, and the uproar over Chen’s treatment is likely to make the Party double down rather than give in to external criticism.

Swaine and others are correct that the United States should avoid high-level interventions into China’s domestic politics. They err, however, in assuming that U.S. policymakers will be able to neatly separate human rights issues from strategic and economic dialogue. After all, Chen’s case has significantly overshadowed a U.S.-Chinese dialogue that was meant to address the very maritime, cyber, economic, and military issues that China hands judge to be more critical.  Chinese decision makers must understand the magnitude by which Chen’s case may increase existing U.S. distrust of China. Simultaneously, future U.S. policy, whether for strategic cooperation or competition with Beijing, must also factor in the degree to which American political culture will complicate carefully devised technocratic plans.

Should either side fail to grasp the lessons of the most recent incident, the real trust gap between Washington and Beijing will only grow larger.

Adam Elkus is an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security studies. He is currently Associate Editor at Red Team Journal and a contributor to the ThreatsWatch project.