As America moves from Independence Day to Election Day, we are on the verge of a new Cold War with Communist China. That conflict is taking place in the shadow of a raging global pandemic and a steep economic downturn.
The next President will have to chart a course for this deepening rivalry, which will mean deciding whether democracy is a priority, and if so, what that means.
The importance placed on democracy by the United States in its relationship with China has waxed and waned since the Communist Party took power in 1949. Donald Trump’s battles with China largely have avoided democracy concerns. Instead, he has focused on economics and trade, and most recently on the coronavirus pandemic—or, for Trump, “the China virus” and the “Kung Flu.”
Now, as Trump and Joe Biden prepare to face off, they provide contrasting views of how much value we should place on democracy in our rivalry with China. Three issues stand out.
First, and most urgent, is the crisis in Hong Kong. Though Hong Kong was never a full-fledged democracy, its citizens and foreign investors have long enjoyed privacy, free expression, and due process protections. China’s new National Security Law for Hong Kong threatens those freedoms. Beijing-appointed authorities and secret tribunals will have wide discretion to determine guilt or innocence of anyone—citizens and foreigners—accused of subversion, secessionism, terrorism, and foreign interference. Beijing has responded to local protests with tear gas, water cannons, and arrests.
Joe Biden responded with a sweeping set of proposed sanctions, going beyond punishing direct actions against Hong Kong to include prohibiting American companies from “abetting repression and supporting the Chinese Communist Party’s surveillance state.”
The President has been silent, but will need to decide whether to approve sanctions, unanimously passed by Congress last week. A pro-democracy faction within his Administration seems to support tough action. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called the new National Security Law “outrageous and an affront to all nations.” He is likely to have an ally in White House Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger, the President’s top China aide, who valorized China’s “civic-minded citizens who commit small acts of bravery” in May speech at a Miller Center symposium.
This would be a new direction for the Administration. In August 2019, Trump dismissed Hong Kong protests as a domestic issue: “[T]hat’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China.” As a self-described “law and order President,” whose Administration has used tear gas against protesters at home, Trump may continue to sympathize with China’s efforts to end demonstrations. He may also believe that signing the China sanctions bill may make it more difficult to conclude a trade deal before Election Day.
Second, Trump and Biden hold very different views about democracy in America, and that will establish a baseline for the broader ideological battle with China.
The November general elections, in the midst of a pandemic, will be a critical test. Wisconsin’s chaotic primary vote in April prompted state officials across the country to plan for a general election amidst a pandemic. Biden is pushing to expand voting options as far as possible, particularly in key swing states. Trump has raised the prospects of fraud, despite little evidence, which Democrats and many others see as an effort to suppress turnout.
Beyond the elections, the candidates’ contrasting views on civil rights and civil liberties also send signals to China and beyond. Trump and Biden’s dueling Independence Day speeches stood in stark contrast, with Trump emphasizing law and order and Biden focusing on the unmet aspirations of equal citizenship for all.
Chinese officials and media have been watching. They already have taken note of the polarized response to George Floyd’s killing, simultaneously citing inequities in our criminal justice system, while also mocking protests, which, for the Chinese, resembled “Hong Kong riots.”Beyond that, China has taken notice of Trump’s regular attacks on mainstream U.S. media as “fake news,” which has helped to undermine State Department complaints about lack of press freedoms in China.
Third, how Trump and Biden address the pandemic itself will speak volumes to China and the world about whether American democracy remains the best form of government.
For the Chinese, our rising COVID death toll has provided an opportunity to gloat about the failures of the Trump Administration’s version of self-governance. Trump initially claimed to be a “wartime President” in fighting the virus at home, and rebuked China for covering up the pandemic. Advisor Matt Pottinger pointed to China’s limits on press freedoms as a contributing factor and criticized the silencing of Dr. Li Wenliang, the Wuhan physician who initially raised alarms about the disease.
The President, meanwhile, has now shifted his focus away from the pandemic and toward boosting the U.S. economy. That has led to a faulty federalism, with U.S. states and localities serving literally as laboratories of pandemic response. Not surprisingly, polls show that voters trust their governor’s response to the pandemic more than they trust the President’s.
The world is paying careful attention to Trump’s response to the crisis. That includes his attempt to withdraw from the World Health Organization, and the United States skipping a European-led meeting on vaccine development. And it may present Biden with an opportunity to renew the United States’s global leadership if he is elected. In addition to his own sweeping domestic pandemic response, Biden could put China on the defensive by prioritizing democratic allies such as Korea, Taiwan, Germany, Singapore, and Greece, which have done well in fighting the pandemic. Those countries can and should form an alliance in forums such as the World Health Organization, rather than ceding leadership to China. Europeans, in particular, seem eager to engage.
American democracy still matters globally. Our Declaration of Independence sought a global audience to showcase: “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” If we are, indeed, entering a Cold War with China, whether and how we prioritize democracy will be watched closely around the world. Our next President must take a stand.