The geopolitical tectonic plates are moving, and the inevitable dismantlement of the Chinese Communist empire has begun.
History teaches that the lifespan of a major communist power is about seven decades, even under the best of circumstances — that is, when the dictatorship is given every strategic advantage through sporadic Western naivete, timidity and other motivations.
That was the experience of the Soviet Union after the victorious World War II Allies handed over half of Europe to Moscow’s tender mercies and expanded and prolonged communism’s rule of half the world for another 40 years.
Now, the People’s Republic of China, itself having been given a four-decades extension by misguided Western policies before and after the Tiananmen Square massacre, is finally reaching the end of the line — and Donald Trump and Hong Kong are the bellwethers of its demise.
As a candidate, president-elect and then as president, Trump made clear that he was throwing out the old rulebook and approaching both domestic and international issues with a fresh, and very brash, attitude.
That became dramatically evident when he turned to the two challenges that bedeviled his predecessors for decades: the immediate security threat from North Korea and the immediate economic threat from China, along with its own growing aggression.
After setting the stage with North Korea through a maximum-pressure campaign of sanctions, credible threats of force and regime delegitimization, Trump cultivated a personal relationship with Kim Jong Un. The combination seemed to offer the prospect of a denuclearization breakthrough until Chinese leader Xi Jinping intervened and hardened Pyongyang’s posture. Now, Trump must decide whether to return to maximum pressure — and whether to punish Xi for poisoning the well.
He has not (yet) played the human rights card against the Chinese Communist regime, despite abundant opportunities presented by its cultural genocide and physical persecution of the Uighur people and the crisis in Hong Kong.
But the trade war alone poses an existential threat to Beijing. Trump’s escalating tactics present Xi with a dilemma. If he continues to play tit-for-tat indefinitely, the costs to the Chinese economy will keep rising at a time when the government is preparing to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic.
The costs could become unbearable if the U.S. president decides to reinstate the bans on ZTE and Huawei that he imposed, and then retracted as a personal favor to Xi — but for which Xi has not reciprocated on trade, maritime security, human rights or North Korea.
If, on the other hand, Beijing keeps the promises it originally made to reform its economic practices and behave like a normal global trading partner, it will lose the unfair advantages it has enjoyed for decades. Then Xi will be unable to sustain his regime’s investment in either massive internal repression or aggressive external adventures and will need to recalibrate his “China Dream” ambitions.
A similar Hobson’s choice confronts Beijing regarding the burgeoning, monthslong civil protests in Hong Kong — again precipitated by the Communist Party’s brazen reneging on promises made to the world community.
The 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, establishing “one country, two systems,” was already seeded with a doomed outcome, guaranteeing the civil, political and human rights of the people of Hong Kong for a period of only 50 years.
But Beijing decided it could not wait even that long to absorb Hong Kong into its totalitarian tyranny. Over the years, it undertook a gradual campaign of strangling the city-state’s political autonomy, first by eroding the promise of universal suffrage and self-government, and most recently, by trying to undermine judicial independence through an extradition law that triggered the recent protests.
It is easy to understand China’s discomfiture with Hong Kong’s status when it is coupled with the other Chinese population for which the one country, two systems arrangement was intended: Taiwan. As Vice President Mike Pence recently stated, “America will always believe that Taiwan’s embrace of democracy shows a better path for all the Chinese people.”
China obviously fears the Hong Kong/Taiwan democratic model will infect the rest of its population, especially the diverse subjugated regions of Tibet and East Turkestan (Xinjiang). It imposes a sweeping news blackout precisely to keep the Chinese people from knowing a “better path” is entirely possible for them, too.
So far, to avoid upsetting the economic arrangements that have profited some sectors of Western business, think tanks and academia — while devastating entire U.S. industries and communities — Washington and other governments have not played the powerful information card that is readily available to pressure Beijing to reform.
But the plight of the Uighurs and Hong Kongers — and the recent exposure of Nazi-like medical procedures such as forced organ harvesting against oppressed minority groups — is fostering second thoughts on not only the immorality but also the strategic wisdom of continued silence.
The external pressure from the Trump economic strategy and the centrifugal forces emanating from Beijing’s repressed populations are coinciding. At some point, Xi and/or his colleagues, or their successors, will need to confront the internal contradictions of the entire Chinese Communist system.
They will have to decide whether lashing out at external enemies and those within could produce a conflagration that will destroy all their achievements of the past 30 years — and the Communist Party itself — or whether a glide path to a soft landing can be arranged with the outside world.
At that point, China’s leaders may decide that a restored Chinese empire with communist characteristics is ultimately an untenable proposition and that the burden of trying to hold it together is too much.
Then, one system — democracy — likely will prove to be more attractive and workable for the core Chinese nation, and for the separate and independent entities of Hong Kong, Taiwan, East Turkestan, Mongolia and Tibet. Those free peoples then could decide what remerging or federated relationships they prefer.
That will be a China Dream that the 1.4 billion people presently under Beijing’s rule would welcome.
Joseph Bosco served as China country director for the secretary of Defense from 2005 to 2006 and as Asia-Pacific director of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief from 2009 to 2010. He is a nonresident fellow at the Institute for Corean-American Studies and the Institute for Taiwan-American Studies and is a member of the advisory board of the Global Taiwan Institute.