End the China economic delusion

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It was once an accepted truth that China’s increased economic trade and participation in international bodies such as the World Trade Organization would benefit everyone.

China and its citizens would benefit through the jobs and wealth earned from their vast export market. Americans and Europeans would benefit from access to an ever-greater array of ever-cheaper goods. Asian, African, and other American nations would benefit from access to both sides of this market and the incentive to replicate a version of China’s export model. And the world’s democracies, the cornerstones of the post-Cold War international order, would benefit from China’s recognition that it would gain more by abiding the rules of the game than by breaking them.

To borrow from Shakespeare, “the jest of the truth savors but of shallow wit, now that thousands weep more than did celebrate it.”

The weeping is real. Each week brings us increasingly horrific stories of the suffering endured by China’s already impoverished Uighur population. More than 2 million of these innocent citizens have been forced into concentration camps over the past decade. They have been indoctrinated to believe that there is no ideology of value save that of the Communist Party and its god-emperor Xi Jinping. Some have been forcibly sterilized, others sent far from their homes and families. As reported just last week, hundreds of thousands of Uighurs are forced into annual servitude as cotton pickers.

There’s a defining lesson here. China was supposed to be a top partner to the liberal international order. Instead, it is now taking inspiration from the Antebellum South’s slave economy, using forced labor in support of an unaccountable elite. Even were it not beholden to China, Hollywood could not invent a better example than the Uighurs’ plight to expose the lie that China’s economic development would usher in a kinder and gentler policy on its part.

Of course, Hollywood’s pathetic deference to Beijing isn’t a solitary American corporate story. It is the story. Instead of markets leading to more economic and political freedom in China, they have led major U.S. corporations to self-censor in order to gain access to Chinese consumers and their cheap labor. As with the NBA, which rightly cares a great deal about black lives but apparently not one iota about Uighur lives, major corporations such as Disney, Dell, and Walmart deal with China even if they must do so with terrible strings attached.

Beijing is explicit in its expectation that trade opportunities come with the price of silent acquiescence. Where the Chinese Communist Party signs treaties — whether the rules of the WTO, promises on intellectual property regimes, or carbon emissions targets — its pledges must be greeted only with applause from the West, never with any enforcement or demands that Xi be held to his word.

We’re witnessing an exceptional example of this reality right now. As the European Union moves to conclude a massive trade deal with China, Beijing is insisting that forced labor rules be excluded from the final draft. This has a number of EU parliamentarians rightly upset, demanding that the political bloc stand up for its supposedly sacred values. But Beijing is confident and with good reason. The past two decades of engagement with the West have taught the communists that if the price is right, the West will swallow the stunning moral hypocrisy without much complaint.

China is now openly threatening the lives of American service personnel in the West Pacific, simply because those personnel are sailing through and flying above international waters. Yet U.S. corporations continue to make excuses and dance to Beijing’s tune. Buying American can mean many things. But what good is buying American if Coca-Cola indirectly supports Hong Kong’s repression and lobbies alongside Nike and others against new restrictions on Chinese forced labor?

Those multinationals that refuse to accept such basic standards should be restricted from federal contracts. Where they are found to be complicit in practices such as forced labor, or as with banking institutions in Hong Kong, the enabling of tyrannical oppression, their senior leaders should face criminal prosecution.

The costs of continuing on this course — moral, economic, and strategic — are simply too high. Voters and consumers must demand that basic moral and legal ethical standards be applied as a fundamental element to any corporation doing business with China. They would not support neo-Nazis, or neo-Confederates, and they should not support Xi’s regime for exactly the same reasons.

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