The threat is real

By Bill Gertz
web posted November 6, 2000

A fundamental lesson of the twentieth century is that democracies cannot coexist indefinitely with powerful and ambitious totalitarian regimes. Sooner or later the competing goals and ideologies bring conflict, whether hot war or cold, until one or the other side prevails. This central lesson must be learned before we can even begin to understand the China threat. Unfortunately, President Clinton and his advisers have proved to be slow learners.

Nazism and Soviet-style communism were the ideologies that guided the past century's dictatorships, and they were discredited only when their brutal regimes were destroyed at fearful cost in human life and material wealth. The great threat of the twenty-first century -- to the United States and the whole world -- is "socialism with Chinese characteristics," as the unrepentantly violent rulers in Beijing beguilingly call the theory and practice that oppress the 1.3 billion wretched inhabitants of the People's Republic of China.

The China ThreatThis book is an examination of the recent history of the China threat and how it grew stronger through the misguided policies of the Clinton-Gore administration. While his predecessors in the Oval Office share the blame, the magnitude of the Clinton-Gore administration's missteps, fumbling, and outright appeasement is in a class by itself. The result has been that the United States has actually helped in the creation of a new superpower threat to world peace and stability in the decades to come.

While the China threat is not yet in the same league as that posed by the nuclear-armed Soviet Union during the Cold War, Beijing is a serious danger nonetheless. As a dictatorship with no regard for human life and no input from outside its small circle of Communist Party policymakers, it has repeatedly shown itself to be prone to miscalculations on a staggering scale -- miscalculations that have cost tens of millions of its own people's lives. In light of this record of massive blunders and the continuing insularity of its ruling clique, there exists the very real possibility that China's rulers could make the same kind of catastrophic miscalculation that Japan's dictators did in attacking Pearl Harbor. Serious internal problems -- widespread corruption, social unrest, and economic instability -- might combine with their longstanding ambition to dominate the Pacific region and tempt Beijing into the dictator's historic strategy: military aggression.

Another danger, somewhat ironically, is that China will collapse and fragment, Soviet-style. The country is not unified; it could easily break up into several nation-states. While this could eventually reduce the threat of a Chinese Communist superpower, it would throw into question the central government's control over a small but growing strategic nuclear arsenal.

The great unknowns about the almost opaque Chinese Communist system also hold many dangers. China is a "hard target" for American intelligence agencies, a euphemism meaning ignorance about the inner workings of the last remaining nuclear-armed Communist state. The danger in not knowing or understanding the true nature of Chinese communism, China's government, and its military poses the most serious internal threat to the United States today. Communist governments have never responded favorably to concessions; they pocket them and demand more. They do respond to pressure. But before pressure can be applied, a strategy is needed, and the crucial requirement for a strategy is solid intelligence.

Those who insist, ignorantly or deliberately, that China is not a threat put great faith in the supposedly democratizing effect of increased trade with the West. Unhappily, there is little evidence that the Beijing dictatorship has been undermined by such trade. The growth of prosperous coastal cities has not alleviated the poverty of rural China. The levers of power that keep the Party in control remain unchanged and unreformed. The permanent normal trade status granted to China in 2000 by Clinton and Congress will do little to liberate the Chinese people or lessen Beijing's threat to the West. To the contrary, the Clinton policy of conciliation has only increased the danger.

Perhaps the greatest failure of the Clinton appeasment policy was a moral one: its betrayal of the long-suffering Chinese people. Their true aspirations emerged with tragic results in the Tiananmen Square demonstrations. The protesters looked to the United States as the beacon of freedom and hope. We learned from survivors of the Soviet Empire that it was the United States, by its very existence, that kept their hopes of freedom alive. Thus, while the Beijing regime is a threat to the United States, our nation by its very existence is a threat to Beijing. Any strategy designed to counter the China threat must include persistent exploitation of America's status as a model of democracy and a symbol of hope for the oppressed Chinese people.

The frightful human toll of the Chinese Communist regime is almost beyond imagining, despite attempts by some academics and other apologists to ignore or minimize the slaughter. As long ago as 1971 in a study done for Congress, Professor Richard L. Walker, in "The Human Cost of Communism in China," noted that Beijing was responsible for the deaths of between 34.3 million and 63.8 million people. The figures can no longer be dismissed as those of a Cold War anticommunist. A 1999 estimate by European historian Jean-Louis Margolin confirms Walker's figures. Margolin stated that Chinese communism cost the lives of 44.5 million to 72 million people from repression, famine, executions, and forced labor.

Since the fall of Eastern European communism in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, China's rulers have survived by rejecting the central economic tenets of Marx, Lenin, and Mao Zedong. But they have kept Communism's brutal totalitarian structure so aptly captured in Mao's famous nostrum: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

The central question underlying the China threat is whether the Beijing regime, direct heirs of those who sacrificed so many millions of their countrymen at the altar of a false god, can be reformed by exposure to the civilizing influence of the West. Bill Clinton believed they could. His biggest mistake was to treat the Beijing government as just another foreign government, no different or worse than a noncommunist dictatorship. The problem is that China's patient communist rulers have a strategy that stretches over the next several decades. They rightly regard the United States as their main enemy and the primary obstacle to China's achievement of world status and Pacific domination.

Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton in 1999
Jiang Zemin and Bill Clinton in 1999

Bill Clinton was elected in 1992 as a critic of George Bush's friendly policies toward China, having lambasted Bush for "coddling" dictators from Baghdad to Beijing. But the new president soon became a key facilitator of China's march to world superpower status. China's human rights record was criticized, but only because polls showed it would gain political points. There was never a serious effort to bring about changes in Beijing's behavior. The idea of pressure -- using leverage to force changes -- was specifically rejected by the administration as counterproductive. The central theme of Clinton's policy was that China is a "normal," nonthreatening power. That is the same theme that has been advanced by China's Communist rulers from its first premier, Chou Enlai, to its current president, Jiang Zemin.

China's always pragmatic rulers know well that decisions made today by U.S. defense planners, under the mistaken notion that China poses no threat in the future, will prevent the United States from preparing for the challenge from China in the crucial decades up to 2030. Weapons systems being designed and researched today must anticipate the threats of tomorrow.

Business groups have played a key role in playing down the China threat. Their argument is that free trade will not only help China evolve peacefully, but will actually undermine the communist system. But the evidence from trade with Beijing over the last two decades shows that China today is less free and more threatening than it was before the United States established formal government-to-government relations in 1979. Free trade has not worked. A prosperous middle class in China is emerging, but there is no sign it will lead the government toward democratic reform.

The China threat is real and growing. The solution is not trade, but democracy. But as China's rulers have made clear, their current program of modernization leaves out democratic reform. Resolving the China threat will require patience and clear-headed strategy. It will require studying the People's Republic of China, understanding its strategy and tactics, and forming alliances with democratic states that share democratic values.

Most important of all, the United States must maintain and build up its military power, following the same strategy adopted by President Ronald Reagan that left the Soviet Union in ruins: Peace through strength.

Bill Gertz is the author of China Threat: How the People's Republic of China Targets America which was released on November 1. This article is an excerpt from that book and was printed here courtesy of the National Book Network.

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