Former Political Prisoner Chen Guangcheng: Trump Has the Right Idea on China

Blind Chinese activist Chen Guangcheng (C) together with relatives of political prisoners held in China takes part in a protest outside the Capitol in Washington DC on September 17, 2014. The daughters and relatives of political prisoners held in China made an appeal to Beijing to let their fathers and …
MLADEN ANTONOV/AFP/Getty

Chinese dissident and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Chen Guangcheng, a blind scholar imprisoned for speaking out against the Communist tyranny in Beijing, commended President Donald Trump for handling China correctly in an opinion piece published on Sunday.

Chen, who has denounced Communist China as an “extraordinarily dictatorial and authoritarian nation” where dissidents are “tortured” and “calls for justice are met with the iron hand of the state,” explained in his Sunday article that “blunt tools” like tariffs are the only way to get Beijing’s attention.

Chen dismissed the belief of Trump’s predecessors that economic engagement would liberalize China as clearly “mistaken,” as Beijing “ignored Western pressure on matters from human rights to the widespread theft of intellectual property.” He praised Trump as the first U.S. leader to see the Chinese threat clearly:

For decades, U.S. presidents have allowed themselves to be taken in by China. Think of Richard Nixon marveling at staged supermarkets and shoppers in Beijing, and paving the way for the severing of ties with the Republic of China (Taiwan) in favor of the communist regime. 

Or Bill Clinton, after talking tough, declining to make “most favored nation”status for China conditional on human rights reviews, effectively eliminating any leverage the United States had over China with respect to fair trade, not to mention rights. As China’s entrance into the World Trade Organization moved toward reality, in 2000, Clinton described it as “the most significant opportunity that we have had to create positive change in China since the 1970s.” He said there would be no downsides to freer trade: It was “the equivalent of a one-way street.”

Following the attacks of 9/11, George W. Bush turned a blind eye when Beijing used the U.S. war on terror as cover for persecuting ethnic minorities; Barack Obama repeatedly shied away from mentioning human rights to CCP officials, notably during a visit in 2009.

Trump is the first president in recent memory to seriously say to this communist dictatorship: If you want to keep doing business with us, you have to change.

Chen offered an interesting perspective on Trump’s volatile rhetoric about China on social media, arguing that his policies have sent a firm and unmistakable message to Beijing even as his public remarks have been “impolitic and unpredictable.”

He suggested the volatility of Trump’s rhetoric served as a form of information warfare against a Chinese system that is heavily censored and insulated against the kind of information war China practices against free and open societies, alternately rattling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cages and offering face-saving avenues to end the trade war, while U.S. policies send constant and unmistakable signals that China’s old way of doing business with the United States is over.

Chen implied that he and other dissidents would like to hear Trump say more about the horrendous state of human rights in China, but they “note and appreciate what he is doing” to actually change the Chinese system instead of just criticizing it:

Most activists agree that civilized talks behind closed doors have never elicited concessions from the CCP. The only way to make progress is by landing pointed blows, particularly against the party elites and their bank accounts (which are reliant on party-owned, nepotistic, monopolist companies).

The CCP’s 70-year rule has been marked by extreme bloodshed, with more than 40 million Chinese killed in state-induced famines and political movements in the mid-20th century, roughly 10,000 slaughtered during the democracy movement of 1989 and innumerable lives lost under the one-child policy. Today, the party is as reliant on lies, violence, fear and corruption as ever: Coerced prison labor and land seizures are common, economic inequality is stark and countless citizens are routinely locked up for their beliefs, including Tibetans and Falun Gong members, human rights lawyers and activists — and the roughly 1 million Uighurs detained in camps.

Such practices reveal the character of the CCP, and they help put Trump’s approach into perspective. We have to be clear about our values. China is a deep-pocketed, rapacious regime that poses a significant threat not just to American interests but to the entire civilized world. Yet after decades of empty talk about nudging China toward reform, we’re at a point where it is American companies, news outlets and universities that feel pressured to play by Beijing’s rules or risk losing access to its markets and resources.

A potential benefit Trump’s approach is that firm policies combined with fluctuating rhetoric, occasionally including both sharp criticism and fulsome praise for China’s dictator Xi Jinping, creates conditions where China could agree to take significant steps in the right direction without feeling humiliated or jeopardizing the legitimacy of its government. This is even more clearly a factor in diplomacy with China’s client North Korea.

Brutal authoritarian regimes regard submission to human rights criticism as an existential threat; the one thing they will never do is openly accept arguments that the regime is fundamentally unjust and evil. The pre-Trump approach criticized by Chen amounted to verbally haranguing China with criticisms it could never accept in any way while implementing policies that did not pressure it to change, and indeed rewarded it for not changing. If Trump’s strategy is successful, he will have created conditions where Communist China could change in a meaningful way while appearing to resolve a purely economic dispute instead of admitting that its regime deserves to be overthrown.

Chen is not the only Chinese dissident who has expressed approval of President Trump’s policies. The South China Morning Post in February described the pro-Trump contingent as including “some of Beijing’s most prominent and outspoken liberal critics, activists with first-hand experience of a government’s zero-tolerance approach to dissent.”

Former Peking University professor Xia Yeliang dismissed Trump’s tendency to flatter Xi Jinping as a “bad habit” left over from his business career while praising the Trump administration’s trade policies as “a direct attack [on] the vulnerability of the Chinese regime.” Human rights activist Ge Lifang praised Trump for his “piercing” critique of communism, which Trump said has “delivered anguish and devastation and failure” in countries around the world. Dissident intellectuals who still live in China said Trump’s policies have been “very helpful” in restraining Xi from indulging in his “worst excesses.”

Chen Guangcheng, who was also quoted in the February South China Morning Post article, said Trump’s criticism of communism was so blistering that he did not have to call China out by name. Activist Tang Baiqiao summed up Trump’s approach with the memorable Chinese aphorism “killing someone with a soft knife.”

None of these Chinese dissidents expressed unconditional support for Trump – they confessed to a bit of tooth-grinding when he indulged or outright praised Beijing for taking some actions they found unconscionable, and Tang said Trump has “10,000 faults that I won’t go into” – but they all offered versions of the same perspective Chen laid out on Sunday that Trump is the first American president to understand how actions speak louder than words to the Chinese Communist Party.

“Should he use the methods of Hillary Clinton – saying disingenuous things all the time like ‘We condemn China for arresting these dissidents’ then going silent and returning to business as usual with the Chinese?’” asked Tang. “Trump is using irregular methods. His aim is to improve the state of human rights in China.”

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