Some Advice from Machiavelli about China

Machiavelli says somewhere that if you injure an enemy, you not do so unless you plan to inflict a severe injury, because men will avenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot avenge themselves for severe injuries. That suggests a two-part question: Is China an enemy? And do we want to injure China? If the answer to both these question is “yes” (although that would not be my answer), why should we administer pinpricks to the Chinese, as in the case of Chen Guangcheng?

Leave aside for the moment whether China is an enemy today. Russia was an enemy during the Cold War. The debate in America during the Cold War was not over reform in Russia, but over whether to strike a long-term deal with Russia, or to try to ruin Russia. Under the Reagan administration we set out to ruin Russia. As my old boss Norman A. Bailey, then special assistant to President Reagan for national security, explained the plan to me in 1982, we would run Russia into the ground by launching a massive military buildup which its weak economy couldn’t match. That was the centerpiece of American strategy to which we added intermediate-range missiles in Europe, guerrilla war in Afghanistan, counter-guerrilla war in Nicaragua and Angola, and other things.

Russia was in fact ruined. We ruined the country and we did it with malice aforethought. Communism collapsed. Male life expectancy fell from 64 years in 1985 to just 58 years in 2000. Alcoholism became the leading cause of death of Russian men, responsible for half the premature deaths of working-age Russians. Victory is not a pretty sight. In 1992, thousands of people gathered in Moscow in impromptu markets within earshot of the Kremlin to sell used clothing and other household items, to buy food. Pensioners with military medals begged in the streets. You know when a country is defeated when it sells its women, and the women of the former Soviet Union still sell themselves in huge numbers. If you want to know why the Russians are peevish towards the United States, it is because we set out to ruin them and succeeded. That’s war, and war is hell. If you don’t believe the Russians, ask people from the state of Georgia about General Sherman.

All right, class: Who wants to ruin China? If so, how do you propose to do it?

The silence speaks for itself. If we are not going to ruin China, we had better decide how we propose to live with China.

Let’s set out a few premises here. Our purpose is not to arrange a happy outcome for every sympathetic dissident in the world, but to ensure that America remains the dominant power in the world with the strength to press for the outcomes we want.

First, the Chinese Communist party is one of the cruelest governments in history. The one-child policy broke the cycle of political upheaval that plagued China for thousands of years. China has little arable land, and has always had more people than land, and the surplus people have formed a reservoir of potential rebels. This time China preemptively eliminated this reservoir.

Second, China has accomplished something no other country ever has: it has moved the equivalent of the population of the United States from rural poverty to urban prosperity in the space of a single generation. It is the largest migration in world history, and the most successful.

Third, China is less a nation in the Western sense but an empire. Mandarin and Cantonese are as divergent as French and German, although they are written with the same characters. It is possible to have a polyglot democracy — Switzerland, for example, or Belgium — but it has never been done where linguistic minorities comprise a population larger than that of the United States, in the midst of the biggest migration in history.

Fourth, the United States could not ruin China if it tried, because China’s economy is dynamic, unlike the sclerotic Russian Communist economy. Chinese physics graduates at MIT can get higher starting salaries in China than in the United States.

Remember Machiavelli: if you propose to injure an enemy, you had better injure him severely. It’s not clear that China is an enemy, or should be an enemy. It will never quite be a friend, and it may be a competitor, but we can’t ruin China. We can ensure, however, that America has an unquestionable technological edge for the conceivable future, and that America remains the dominant player in every strategic theater of importance. China will respect strength, but nothing else. If America asserts its own economic and strategic power, China not only will listen to us, but will emulate the things that make us successful — as it did by accepting a limited amount of market freedom. If the U.S. maintains its strategic dominance, China will learn that it must emulate our political institutions as well.

It makes us feel good about ourselves to fuss over Mr. Chen, a sympathetic figure by any standards. That is my main objection to the emphasis placed on his case. We need to feel bad about ourselves if we are to prevail. A little Puritan Calvinism wouldn’t hurt us just now. Americans have spent the past twenty years being paid for being Americans. That gig came to an end in 2008.

We need to work harder, and smarter. Francesco Sisci, the dean of the Beijing foreign press corps, points out that the Chinese think nothing of calling you at home at midnight, or at 6:30 a.m., on a routine business matter. The whole country is working impossibly long hours with preternatural energy. Never in economic history has a country had such a collective adrenaline rush. China has more classical music students than we have students. Its educational system may be miserable on average, but the better parts of it  threaten to turn out more first-quality graduates than Europe and the U.S. combined.

A world dominated by China would be a brutal and unpleasant place. There is no inherent kindness or generosity, no sympathy for the weak in Chinese culture. China never revered a God who has a special love for the widow and the fatherless. Perhaps that will change.  A tenth of Chinese now profess Christianity and more may in the future. I want America to prevail. To do that we must make the Chinese leadership respect and fear us, rather than merely annoy them.