The reckless analogy between China and Nazi Germany
I made the mistake last week of contradicting a China hawk on Twitter. He had compared China today to Nazi Germany “circa 1935”. My response — “China is not Nazi Germany: reckless analogy” — triggered an onslaught of Sinophobic invective. “Definitely worse. The Nazis didn’t have wholesale organ harvesting,” said one. “Count the bodies. The CCP is no better than the Nazis,” said another. “The only reckless thing is appeasement idiots like you downplaying what the CCP really is,” said another. Unless you are a fan of Twitter threads, which can go on indefinitely, it is a poor forum for engaging in intellectual persuasion. So here you go Swampians.The rise of Sinophobia in the US and beyond is disturbing for three reasons. First, it has an element of self-fulfillingness. The point of diplomacy is to secure what you want via peaceful means. Even if we were suicidal enough to use force — and in the unlikely event that we won a war to occupy China, and considered the massive human toll to be worth it — the west has very little ability to make China adopt the kind of political system we would prefer. After 18 years and more than $1tn in spending, we can’t even secure a half-decent politics in Afghanistan — a country with less than two per cent of China’s population. The idea that we can coerce China into treating its own people better is quixotic. It is also counter-productive. The more we talk of China as the enemy, the more China will behave like one. That includes cracking down on internal dissent. China’s political change will come internally. The best we can do is incentivise China to reform and shine the light on China’s internal abuses. That includes the internment of 1m or more Uighurs and allegations of organ harvesting.
Second, though some Americans appear to think otherwise, not everything in history can be compared to Munich. But even that notorious summit is misunderstood. Britain was not ready for war in 1938. Chamberlain’s act of appeasement bought Britain time to step up armaments production in the ensuing year before war broke out. Nor is every country that we dislike a budding Nazi Germany. Indeed, it is hard to see that any are. There is nothing in China’s ideology to suggest it plans to conquer the rest of its continent and liquidate vast swaths of their populations. Hitler was bent on genocidal world conquest. That had been apparent since he wrote Mein Kampf more than a decade before 1935. Xi Jinping’s China is resolved on regaining its great power status and erasing its “century of humiliation” at the hands of the west. The more we talk about China in what sounds to them like neocolonial terms, the likelier China will be to respond aggressively. When Senator Tom Cotton, one of the Republican party’s leading hawks, calls China the new “evil empire” he doubtless gets wild approval among the Manicheans on Twitter. As the basis of a foreign policy, however, Cotton’s stance is foolishly self-defeating. Do we actually want to go to war with China? If not, do we have a half-intelligent plan of how to accommodate its rise?I fear the answer to that is no. Which brings me to my third concern. The better analogy is between communist China and the Soviet Union. Hence talk of a “new cold war”. Both acted brutally towards their own people. Both possessed threatening military prowess. There are also differences. The USSR was bent on exporting world revolution. China is in the more traditional business of cultivating non-ideological client states. Most importantly, the USSR’s economy was almost entirely detached from the west. China’s is intimately entangled. For a few years, we believed we could convert China to liberal democracy by deepening our economic engagement. The idea that membership of the WTO leads to democracy proved to be a naive expectation. Now we’re threatening to go into full reverse — to enforce so-called economic “decoupling” with China. In other words, we’re swapping one failed grand bet for another. This is the psychology of a person suffering from bipolar disorder. It’s as if we’re no longer capable of strategic thinking.I do not know the perfect strategy to contain China and shape it in a benign direction. I do know that a war between China and America would be a cure a hundred times worse than the disease. I also know that a full economic divorce would sharply raise the prospect of an eventual war. It may be true than any product from China — down to the rinkiest children’s toys — are infected with Chinese backdoor technology that will lie dormant until the day China wishes to take over the west. It could also be true that we have watched too many dystopian cyborg movies. The US needs to conduct a mature debate about how to continue to engage China without compromising its national security. That would involve America rejoining the TPP, treating China’s neighbours like valued allies, calling out what China is doing in Xingjiang and elsewhere, and understanding that intelligent diplomacy is based on knowledge. Throwing out words like Munich and appeasement is invariably a sign of ignorance. Rana, ten renminbi for your thoughts please.Recommended readingMy latest column highlights the weakness of the Democratic field, which was apparent in last week’s debate. A choice between Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren — which is what the race increasingly looks to be — is not as rich as many Democrats might suppose. Rana, you might wish to disagree with me here. I also wrote last week about how Trump can manipulate the 2020 election. Bear in mind that Trump is the first US president to believe he faces re-election or jail. It doesn’t matter whether that is true. All that matters is that Trump believes it.Israel goes to the polls again tomorrow. Robert Kagan has written a mournful and timely critique of Benjamin Netanyahu’s effect on Israel’s position in the world — from being a country that was part of the liberal world order to one that is now actively cultivating its enemies. “Those Netanyahu campaign posters showing him shaking hands with Putin, Modi and Trump carry the tag “a different league,” writes Kagan. “Indeed, it is. Good luck.”My colleague, Gillian Tett, wrote a very good FT cover story (to which I’m late — it came out a week ago), on the crisis of modern corporate capitalism. The debate over whether money can be moral, or whether this is all just window-dressing, is particularly acute in light of the Business Roundtable’s recent statement that stakeholder interests should be treated equally to shareholder value. “There will not be a resolution any time soon,” writes Gillian. “Welcome to the next 50 years.”Finally, George Packer’s Atlantic essay — when culture comes for the kids — captures brilliantly the ideological battles that are taking over America’s elite urban schools. Meritocracy versus inclusion. Many parents will nod in agreement when Packer talks about the illiberalism of today’s liberal social agenda, particularly when it comes to the non-binary gender debate. Rana Foroohar respondsEd, I’ll try to give my thoughts on this very big topic quickly just in case my 10 yuan devaluates. I think the problem with the entire US-China debate (at least as its conducted in the US) is that it’s focused on What China Does Wrong. Answer: plenty (I’d throw mercantilism, privacy, and massive human rights violations on to the list). But what is less spoken about is What China Does Right. Answer: it gives the state the ability to curb the private sector and society in ways that matter. Not all of them are good, of course (see the Weekend FT piece on repression in Xinjiang). But on the whole, the Chinese have put individual rights behind the larger economic trajectory of the country, which is of course in keeping with their own culture and history. I’m by no means an apologist for a repressive regime (see my piece to that effect here.) But the US system has problems that have nothing to do with China — we have become an oligopoly in which the private sector has bought the state. This is an underlying issue in the Democratic primary debates but no one has yet really landed on it with force. My feeling is that US policymakers need to stop blaming China and start focusing on the fact that our supposedly free market liberal democracy is no longer that. I’d suggest they read economist Thomas Philippon’s new book, The Great Reversal: How America Gave Up On Free Markets. Fascinating comparisons with Europe, which is actually much more competitive in many ways that the US. Your feedbackWe’d love to hear from you. You can email the team on firstname.lastname@example.org, contact Ed on email@example.com and Rana on firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow them on Twitter at @RanaForoohar and @EdwardGLuce