Tag Archives: China

Why the Left needs to Talk about China

A lot of the rhetoric from segments of the Left around China lately has bothered me.

I’m not just talking about the tankies.

A couple weeks back, Peter Beinart, the liberal journalist known for his courageous support of Palestinian human rights, blamed American fears of China’s ascendancy for a recent spate of anti-asian hate crimes. Beinart’s post linked to one by the Quincy Institute’s Jessica J Lee, who asserted—with little evidence–that the Biden administration’s “toxic” discourse on China caused last year’s increase in anti-Asian hate crimes.   

Others, like Princeton human rights scholar Richard Falk, have argued that China’s success in lifting its lower-classes out of poverty (a weak claim given the persistence of grave inequality) compensates for its gross infringements on the rights of individuals and nations.

While China rhetoric on the right often veers into racist territory, and while demonization of “China” as a nation (as practiced by Donald Trump) can easily breed xenophobia, China’s trend towards revanchism and repression—at a moment when it has achieved Great Power status—deserves an accounting.


Pro-democracy lawmaker Wu Chi-wai scuffles with police during a march against new security laws in Hong Kong, China May 22, 2020. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

China’s recent “national security law”, which allows Beijing to prosecute Hong Kong citizens accused of “subversion”, “seccession” or “collusion with a foreign power” (all loosely defined so as to accommodate the authoritarian sense fo arbitrary) on the mainland, not only severely erodes Hong Kong’s formal democracy but violates the terms of the 1984 Sino-British Declaration (which, as a condition of Britain’s handover of Hong Kong, stipulated that Hong Kong’s representative government would be retained until 2047).

Just this month, the Chinese air force has engaged in repeated incursions of Taiwan’s air space, potentially foreshadowing an aerial assault. Should China follow through on its threats of invasion, it would set a chilling precedent to jingoistic governments from Azerbaijan to Israel that might makes right.

(And yes, international law never extends farther than the world’s nation-states permit. However, China’s unilateral invasion of Taiwan, if successful, would provide further precedent for states seeking to settle disputes via land grabs.)

Finally, China’s ethnic cleansing of its Uyghur minority from the Xinjiang autonomous region, which includes extensive forced sterilization and the largest mass detention since the Holocaust, makes a mockery of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and provides yet another blueprint for chauvinist states in an era of democratic backsliding.

(AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

Again, none of what China’s doing is particularly novel. The United States has also committed thinly-justified, unilateral invasions. The Soviet Union maintained a nightmarish gulag system whilst occupying a seat on the UN Security Council.  

And yet, though politics may be legitimated in the past, it is actualized in the present.

The world that China wants is one in which ultra-nationalism, police brutality, Islamophobia and racism are normalized, and respect for “sovereignity” trumps adherence to international norms on social and political rights.

Such a world is fundamentally at odds with the Left’s political values.


While China does not pose a threat to most liberal or social democracies (being militarily weaker and far away), it is able to instutionalize its world view through a strong presence in international bodies (like the UN and World Health Organization) and a lucrative consumer base.

Understandably, many on the Left who don’t sympathize with China may still fear that a vocal response would provoke war. I too oppose military escalation with China (which will cost countless innocent lives, increase sinophobia and, more likely than not, entrench repression across the pacific).

China’s integration with the global economy gives the US and international bodies multiple a strong level of economic leverage, fortunately. Aggressive carbon emission reduction policies desired by the Chinese and foreign governments can be used as a means to deter military adventurism (with war being one of humanity’s most carbon-intensive activities).

The American Left can counter China’s illiberalism while staving off the threat of a Great-Power conflict by promoting non-militaristic measures to restrain China.

But first, the Left needs to speak out, firmly and clearly.

Democracy in a Time of Crisis

The Chinese government’s draconian response to the coronavirus outbreak begs a question. Do authoritarian regimes have an advantage, relative to democracies, in responding to crises?

A brief refresher on democracy. A form of government “in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)   

A brief refresher on the Coronavirus quarantine. Following the Coronavirus outbreak, the Chinese government imposed a quarantine that severely restricts travel into and out of an area with a population the size of California. 

Chinese Police with Face Masks. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

In an interview with Scientific American, NYU bioethicist Arthur Caplan upheld the measure as necessary for containing the spread of the disease. In addition, he noted the legal hurdles that might prevent such a measure in the United States. 

“But quarantining an entire large city—or multiple cities—is not an approach that would work in many other places. You’re not going to quarantine the city of New York, ever,” Caplan argues, noting that U.S. authorities could not even effectively enforce a quarantine imposed on one nurse who returned to the country after treating Ebola patients in Sierra Leone in 2014. “ 

The last sentence refers to the quarantine attempted on Kari Hickox. Upon her return to the states from West Africa, where she had treated Ebola patients, Hickox was quarantined for three days in New Jersey before being permitted to return to Maine. The Maine authorities tried to extend Hickox’ quarantine but Hickox took legal action and won.  

(Hickox was neither infected with Ebola nor showed any symptoms).

There aren’t many other recent examples of an industrialized democracy dealing with a pandemic (though the US imposed a fair number of quarantines in the 19th-century: more on this later). 

However, democratic systems have stumbled in confronting the multitude of crises currently facing humanity. 

Take climate change. In the United States, older, more conservative constituencies support politicians who deny its very existence despite the numerous signs that it is indeed happening.

Even lefties in the US and Europe who claim to care about climate change are loath to take measures to restrict vehicle travel (e.g. ending parking minimums, raising gas taxes) that would actually make a dent in emissions. 

Contentious Hearing on a Road Diet in Los Angeles. “Road Diets”, which reallocate road space from cars to transit and non-motorized travel, have faced fierce opposition on Los Angeles’ west side. Source: Argonaut

What’s happening here? 

In a government where politicians are responsive to the people, prudent action can be hampered by imperfect information, groupthink (i.e. voting based on social identity rather than substantive issues), and lack of political knowledge. Differing levels of political participation not only take the “democratic” out of democracy (as practiced) but allow well-connected minorities to hamper actions that would benefit the populace at large.

And yet, China’s response to the Coronavirus shows that authoritarian systems, in all likelihood, do a worse job of handling crises.

In the first days of the outbreak, the Wuhan provincial government dragged its feet, going so far as to threaten a doctor who reported the first cases of the virus. 

Such misinformation may reflect authoritarian governments’ prioritization of (the facade of) stability over public welfare. They can solidify legitimacy this way (and always have a golden escape parachute in case things get out of control).

In fact, the Chinese government is already sending people back to work, despite acknowledging that the virus is still an issue.

Furthermore, the quarantine may not actually have been the most effective measure. By concentrating persons (both healthy and sick) in a disease-ridden area, it could end up increasing the infection rate in these areas. Restrictions on the flow of goods into and out of quarantine areas create shortages in medicines those infected desperately need. Democratic oversight on this policy would have probably warranted consideration of these issues.

Point being, democracies have stronger incentives and improved feed-back mechanisms for protecting public well-being in times of crisis. How can democracies respond to voters without being beholden to voters’ imperfections, or to the narrow interests of a loud minority?

I wonder how improving the spread of knowledge from expert sources can better inform voters (something social media could aid, if willing to referee). Bringing more people into the democratic process dampens interest group politics, if the focus is on achieving outcomes rather than fighting battles.

Women’s March, January 2017.

Thoughts?