Gulag:The elements of the China challenge

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Executive summary

Awareness has been growing in the United States — and in nations around the world — that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has triggered a new era of great-power competition. Yet few discern the pattern in China’s inroads within every region of the world, much less the specific form of dominance to which the party aspires.

The CCP aims not merely at preeminence within the established world order — an order that is grounded in free and sovereign nation-states, flows from the universal principles on which America was founded, and advances U.S. national interests —but to fundamentally revise world order, placing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) at the center and serving Beijing’s authoritarian goals and hegemonic ambitions.

In the face of the China challenge, the United States must secure freedom.

China is a challenge because of its conduct. Modeled on 20th-century Marxist-Leninist dictatorship, the CCP eventually spurred rapid modernization and produced prodigious economic growth — thanks in no small measure to the party’s decision in the late 1970s to embrace free-market elements and to the decision by the United States and nations around the world to engage, and welcome commerce with, China. The party today wields its economic power to co-opt and coerce countries around the world; make the societies and politics of foreign nations more accommodating to CCP specifications; and reshape international organizations in line with China’s brand of socialism. At the same time, the CCP is developing a world-class military to rival and eventually surpass the U.S. military. These actions enable the CCP to credibly pursue the quest — proceeding outward through the Indo-Pacific region and encompassing the globe — to achieve “national rejuvenation” culminating in the transformation of the international order.

To understand China’s peculiar form of authoritarianism and the hegemonic goals to which it gives rise, it is necessary to grasp the intellectual sources from which China’s conduct springs: the CCP’s Marxist-Leninist beliefs and the party’s extreme interpretation of Chinese nationalism.

Notwithstanding its authoritarian rule over PRC citizens and the threat it presents to freedom around the world, China under the CCP is marked by a variety of vulnerabilities. These begin with the disadvantages endemic to autocracy: constraints on innovation, difficulties forming and maintaining alliances, and costs arising from internal repression. They also include vulnerabilities specific to the PRC: economic instability; demographic imbalance; environmental degradation; persistent corruption; oppression of ethnic and religious minorities; daunting expenses incurred in monitoring, censoring, and indoctrinating 1.4 billion people in China; separation of the military, which is controlled by the party, from the people; and — particularly in the wake of the illness, death, and social and economic devastation wrought worldwide by the COVID-19 pandemic born in Wuhan — mounting international anger at the CCP’s contempt for human life, indifference to other nations’ well-being, and disregard for international norms and obligations.

Meeting the China challenge requires the United States to return to the fundamentals. To secure freedom, America must refashion its foreign policy in light of ten tasks.

  1. the United States must secure freedom at home by preserving constitutional government, promoting prosperity, and fostering a robust civil society, all of which nourish the civic concord that has always been essential to meeting the nation’s challenges abroad.
  2. the United States must maintain the world’s most powerful, agile, and technologically sophisticated military while enhancing security cooperation, grounded in common interests and shared responsibility, with allies and partners.
  3. the United States must fortify the free, open, and rules-based international order that it led in creating after World War II, which is composed of sovereign nation-states and based on respect for human rights and fidelity to the rule of law.
  4. the United States must reevaluate its alliance system and the panoply of international organizations in which it participates to determine where they fortify the free, open, and rules- based international order and where they fall short.
  5. in light of that reevaluation, the United States must strengthen its alliance system by more effectively sharing responsibilities with friends and partners and by forming a variety of groupings and coalitions to address specific threats to freedom while, in cooperation with the world’s democracies and other like-minded partners, reforming international organizations where possible and, where necessary, building new ones rooted in freedom, democracy, national sovereignty, human rights, and the rule of law.
  6. the United States must promote American interests by looking for opportunities to cooperate with Beijing subject to norms of fairness and reciprocity, constraining and deterring the PRC when circumstances require, and supporting those in China who seek freedom.
  7. the United States must educate American citizens about the scope and implications of the China challenge because only an informed citizenry can be expected to back the complex mix of demanding policies that the United States must adopt to secure freedom.
  8. the United States must train a new generation of public servants — in diplomacy, military affairs, finance, economics, science and technology, and other fields — and public- policy thinkers who not only attain fluency in Chinese and acquire extensive knowledge of China’s culture and history, but who also attain fluency in the languages, and acquire extensive knowledge of the cultures and histories, of other strategic competitors, friends, and potential friends.
  9. the United States must reform American education, equipping students to shoulder the enduring responsibilities of citizenship in a free and democratic society by understanding America’s legacy of liberty and also preparing them to meet the special demands of a complex, information-age, globalized economy for expertise in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.
  10. the United States must champion the principles of freedom — principles that are at once universal and at the heart of the American national spirit — through example; speeches; educational initiatives; public diplomacy; foreign assistance and investment; sanctions in more difficult circumstances as well as other forms of non-military pressure; and, where the nation’s vital interests are at stake and all else has failed, military force. Grounded in America’s founding principles and constitutional traditions; invigorated by a bustling economy; undergirded by the world’s best-trained and best-equipped military; served by government officials who understand the American people and the American political system, recognize the diversity and common humanity of the peoples and nations of the world, and appreciates the complex interplay of ideas and interests in foreign affairs; and fortified by an informed and engaged citizenry — this multi-pronged approach will enable the United States to secure freedom.