For the past 15 years Americans have been told that the rise of China will be a catastrophe for the world. The idea is that should China become the dominant superpower then human rights around the world would disappear. It is said that America, even for all its faults, is a better guardian than the Chinese.
Every day it seems like some expert is talking about how war between the two is inevitable. It is assumed that not only will the U.S. oppose China in order to its place on the world stage, but that it also must do so on behalf of the freedom of every citizen on the planet.
The whole thing harkens back to a worldview that America uses to justify its role as the only superpower in which it acts as a “ force for good” by exporting its values to other countries and helping them live the American Dream.
However, not only is that notion naïve, it also overlooks a few significant realities about the world. Chief among them is the fact that since a nation is ultimately responsible to no one, the actions of its leaders are only limited by personal morals, something which, in the course of human history tend to be extremely suspect.
John Bolton, the Lorax looking former National Security Advisor to Trump and architect of the Iraq War under Bush, made waves with the way he continually disparaged international law. Specifically, he was under the opinion that, at the international level, the world is a lawless place where Rule of the Jungle reigns.
In his mind, every country is looking to augment its own power and will do whatever it can get away with in order to achieve that. Meanwhile, even moral nations are forced to do immoral things in order to keep from being taken advantage of by others. In that light, a moral leader is actually a hindrance.
Regardless of what you think of the sentiment, he’s not wrong. The “international law” that dictators are always getting accused of breaking is, in reality, more like a list of best practices. It is impossible to enforce and thus rarely followed.
Indeed, as far as countries are concerned, the only limit to what they can do on the international stage is what they can get away with. For example, Russia could invade Ukraine and expect no real consequences. However, were Ukraine to invade Russia, the results would be catastrophic for them.
On the domestic stage the limitations are even less. The rule is basically that, whatever your society will endure, you can do.
Likewise, the ability for the international community to stop a nation from dong bad things is also effectively zero. If no one is willing to either engage in warfare or directly interfere with the offending nation’s government, the options are limited to economic sanctions and otherwise symbolic gestures.
In the case of China, they can certainly do almost anything they want. No country is in a position to challenge them militarily (except perhaps the United States, although war between the two would be catastrophic for both). Meanwhile, China has so much economic leverage that sanctions against them are likely to do more harm to the country initiating them than to the Chinese.
Thus, while China wasn’t in a position to crackdown on Hong Kong 20 years ago, now they are more than willing to exploit their ability to control a world financial hub.
While this type of behavior is in keeping with the vision of China being peddled by American media, it isn’t exclusive to the Chinese at all.
Keeping in mind the nation that gave Hong Kong to China, for a long time it was the British imposing their will on the world. They were completely indifferent to human rights and willing to do whatever they needed to secure their own power. according to the International Rule of the Jungle
After the war came America’s turn, and their track record is equally abysmal.
The list of activities that the United States has carried out during its time as acting as a “force for good in the world” includes but is certainly not limited to:
- Overthrowing at least 72 governments
- Initiating wars of Aggression
- Supporting dictators
- Supporting Terrorists
- Incinerating entire cities
- Using atomic weapons on civilians
These, of course, are in addition to its exploits at home which have included over a century of systematic reduction of the liberties of its citizens. From the removal of many of their constitutionally protected rights all the way to wholesale surveillance of the whole population, the United States has long been moving in a direction that is completely antithetical to all of the values it espouses to the rest of the world.
It raises the question of whether there is anything the US won’t do. Specifically, if it has shown such contempt for human rights abroad, what has kept it from enacting similar policy at home?
The answer lies in the fact that American society places more constraints on how its government can act. Although these are not forever.
Unfortunately for the current and former leaders of the United States, they don’t have the opportunity to be as lawless as they’d probably like. With a much more open society in comparison to the Chinese, there are real consequences should leaders fail to keep up appearances.
First off is the issue of free spread of information in America. In comparison to China, behavior that offends the morals of citizens cannot just be swept under the rug. It must be dealt with lest public pressure continue to mount on officials.
Working alongside free speech is the lack of political unity. Whereas in China, the leadership is united amongst common ideals and goals, American leaders must share power with their ideological opposites. Thus, breaking international law and human rights abuses can only happen if both sides agree on it, like the Iraq War or NSA spying.
However, at the heart of every constraint placed on leadership in the U.S. is democracy itself. If a leader does something that seriously offends the morals of society, then that person may very well be out of a job. Contrast this with Xi Jinping who is President for Life and doesn’t need to worry about getting approval for anything he does.
Also, beyond domestic restrictions, America also has much more invested in its image on the world stage. Indeed, its self-proclaimed status as a boy scout is a large selling point in many international negotiations. Everything from diplomacy to the value of its money benefits from the perception of the United States as being a symbol of honesty and freedom. As such, the country is very protective of that reputation.
Meanwhile, China has managed to achieve its geopolitical position despite full knowledge of its abuses. Thus, scandals like Tiananmen Square, Social Credit, and treatment of Uyghurs don’t hurt the Chinese nearly as much and they have less qualms about committing blatant human rights violations.
However, just because the United States operates under these restrictions, doesn’t mean that it’s a better alternative to China.
Coming back to the original question of the threat China poses to human rights in the world and whether it justifies an adversarial stance, the answer is unequivocally no.
While there are certainly fewer constraints placed on Chinese leaders at the moment regarding domestic and international human rights, it’s not as though Chinese leadership is fundamentally different than American leadership. Both sides are looking to augment their own power, and since there are no rules to what they can do, they often do as they please.
Meanwhile, as far as the difference between the societies is concerned, German leadership in the 30’s, British leadership in the 19th century, Chilean leadership in the 70’s, scores of African leaders, Pol Pot, and many others will attest to the fact that the society that births a leader doesn’t really dictate anything about what they do when they find themselves playing byJohn Bolton’s Rule of the Jungle. So, just because American society has greater respect for human rights, doesn’t mean its leaders do.
At the end of the day, the name of the game is power. You do whatever you can to enhance your power over other nations and your own citizens, while taking care that the consequences of your actions don’t diminish it.
Taken that way, the current U.S. stance towards China makes much more sense. It is a country that is a threat to American power and as such is demonized as being the enemy. Just as the U.S. is demonized in China as being an imperialist nation with no morality.
Yet, from the perspective of the average citizen, the American government trying to make you scared of the Chinese, is like a wolf telling a sheep that there’s another wolf that wants to eat it.
Both nations represent equally large threats to human rights. So, the next time you see someone in the media blabbering on about the dangers of China, it’s worthwhile to ask what about China is more dangerous to the world than post-war American policy.
Should America concede world domination to the Chinese?