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Editorial: Illiberal Education

August 10, 2008

By the Editors
The National Review
August 8, 2008,

As the Olympics begin today in Beijing, the world's attention will be
focused on a great question mark, and that is China itself: what it
is now, and what it will become.

What's difficult about this question is that there is no clear answer
to either part of it. The Janus-faced nature of China has become all
the clearer in the run-up to the Games. China's leaders sought the
Olympics because they wanted the world to see the skyscrapers of
their shining cities; what they may not have expected is that we
would also see their crackdown in Tibet, their labor camps, their
Internet censorship, and their other forms of illiberalism.

But illiberal though it is, the Chinese government is no longer
narrowly ideological, and has not been for decades. It is Communist
in name only, and is committed, not to any set of abstractions, but
first to its own survival, and second to the advancement of what most
Chinese people might describe unironically as their national
greatness. The party's post-Mao embrace of market economics
quadrupled output in the space of a generation, and has recently
produced annual growth rates of ten percent. This is something in
which the Chinese people feel great pride; it is also a significant
justification, in their minds, for the continuation of one-party
rule. The hell of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution
is fresh enough in the collective Chinese memory to produce deep
complacency, if not outright satisfaction, with present conditions,
and this is compounded by the absence, in the Chinese political
tradition, of any role for the individual or guarantor of his rights.

That China might make life difficult for the United States, if it so
wished, is true, and becoming truer. Its massive army seemed a
relatively insignificant threat when considered alongside its
inadequate naval and air forces; how could it invade Taiwan if it
couldn't get its soldiers there? But that has changed with recent
investments in military infrastructure. China is building a
formidable nuclear-submarine fleet, and it has demonstrated its
ability to disarm orbiting satellites (a vital tool of the U.S.
military). It's true that China has a very long way to go before
reaching parity with America's military might; it's also true that,
away from the coastal cities, much of China remains poor and
backward. But extrapolate along the current trend lines and it's hard
to doubt that China will become an economic and military rival of the
United States.

What matters to us is what kind of country it becomes in that
process. A global powerhouse committed to procedural democracy,
nonaggression, and open markets would not be a great threat to
anyone. That is the direction in which our policy should try to nudge China.

The choice to nudge rather than to force -- to flood China with our
dollars and ideas, rather than to compel its acquiescence — was made
long ago, and cannot be unmade. And indeed that choice has paid
dividends: The past three decades have seen not just an economic
miracle, but a political one. The Communist party, though having
failed to relinquish power, is no longer an extension of a single
personality, as was the case in the days of Mao Zedong and Deng
Xiaoping; and the amount of personal freedom that the average Chinese
person enjoys today is vastly greater than it was a generation ago.
More and more, the party recognizes that it has a constituency to
please, and is acting with moderate success to end the corruption of
its officials and the arbitrariness of its legal system.

Our goal should be to help accelerate the rate of change. This is
ultimately a task of persuasion before an audience of 1.3 billion
people. Our most powerful tool will continue to be trade: Sanctions
and protectionism should be resisted, not just on economic grounds,
but because China's growing dependence on global markets acts as a
brake on the flights of aggression to which it might otherwise be
prone. We should also look for ways to influence future generations
of Chinese opinion- and decision-makers: for instance, by expanding
the number of Chinese students in our universities (who tend to be a
force for liberalization upon returning home), and by inviting more
second-tier Chinese leaders on extended American tours.

At the same time, we cannot let Beijing doubt that we are serious
about our lines in the sand. Taiwan has to be one of them; so, too,
does the proliferation of advanced weapon technologies to regimes
that threaten U.S. security interests. China has been willing to
yield when it knows we are serious: It has been genuinely helpful at
times during the six-party talks with North Korea, and it has scaled
back its cooperation with Iran and Pakistan in response to our
concerns. We ought to expect it to do more on such fronts, and we
ought to expect this sooner rather than later, as our leverage will
wane with time. Unless, of course, we devote serious resources to
maintaining our military edge — and that too is something we should do.

Finally, we should be careful not to let the policy of economic
engagement prevent us from raising just criticisms of the Chinese
government's abuses. National Review encouraged President Bush to
boycott tonight's Opening Ceremonies (he will attend). This was not
because an antagonistic approach to China is warranted in all
contexts, but rather because, in this context, nothing was at stake,
and the president should therefore have seized the chance to make a
powerful symbolic statement against oppression. It would probably not
have been persuasive to large numbers Chinese people, but it would
have gotten their attention, and persuasion on a national scale
happens at the level of the individual conscience.

In the days since Nixon's visit, China has shown us pretty clearly
that it is capable of acting prudently, and that it does not seek a
confrontation with us. What remains is for it to conclude, without
reservation, that prudence points the way of freedom.
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