The West hoped trade and growth would liberalize China. Now that dream is dead.

The West hoped trade and growth would liberalize China. Now that dream is dead. By William Galston.

Something rare has happened in recent weeks: A longstanding paradigm was abruptly upended. The optimistic view of China’s rise held by many in the West has given way to alarm.

For the U.S. and its allies, hope of cooperation with Beijing is fading while fear of conflict is rising.

In the early 1990s most experts believed China’s economy would gradually converge with the West’s market-based system. As economic growth expanded the middle class, Beijing would face irresistible pressure to increase political freedom. No one expected quick multiparty elections, but individual rights, civil society and the rule of law seemed within reach for Chinese citizens. China eventually would be integrated into the international order the U.S. has maintained since World War II.

This narrative of China’s rise held up for nearly two decades before reasons for doubt began to emerge. A report from the Asia Society and the 21st Century China Center pinpoints 2008 as the moment Beijing began to change course. That year’s global financial crisis undermined belief in the superiority of the Western economic system, stimulating China’s pride, self-confidence and nationalism. The regime adopted new protectionist policies that benefited state-owned enterprises and tilted the playing-field against foreign competitors.

During the same period China began to assert claims over territories in nearby international waters, alarming many regional neighbors. The regime also stifled the spread of independent perspectives in China by campaigning against liberal values and foreign influences, restricting internet access, and barring overseas travel for Chinese intellectuals and others.

It took time for these events to change attitudes in the West. Xi Jinping claimed the role of reformer when he assumed the presidency in 2012, and his campaign against powerful corrupt
officials seemed to confirm the act. Over time, however, it became clear that Mr. Xi had been centralizing power in his own hands and those of his closest associates.

The new Mao

The situation is even less transparent now than it was in the Soviet Union. Do you know the name of the Minister of State Security? The Chinese Jagoda? I haven’t a clue.

They are spending more on internal security than on the military. But can we believe their numbers? As we know from the history of the Soviet Union, those official numbers for state security and military were always too low.

When he visited Davos last year, Xi was celebrated as the Anti-Trump, open to business, pro free trade, pro carbon restriction, pro woman rights, etc. Now reality bites back. As happened in the Soviet Union from 1928 to 1936.