This sort of corporate capitulation is hardly surprising. For Western companies, China is simply too big and too rich a market to ignore, let alone to pressure or to police. If the first and most important cost of doing business in China is the surgical extraction of a C.E.O.’s spine, many businesses are only too happy to provide the stretcher and the scalpel.
But it will only get worse from here, and we are fools to play this game. There is a school of thought that says America should not think of China as an enemy. With its far larger population, China’s economy will inevitably come to eclipse ours, but that is hardly a mortal threat. In climate change, the world faces a huge collective-action problem that will require global cooperation. According to this view, treating China like an adversary will only frustrate our own long-term goals.
But this perspective leaves out the threat that greater economic and technological integration with China poses to everyone outside of China. It ignores the ever-steeper capitulation that China requires of its partners. And it overlooks the most important new factor in the Chinese regime’s longevity: the seductive efficiency that technology offers to effect a breathtaking new level of control over its population.
There was a time when Westerners believed that the internet would be the Communist regime’s ruin. In a speech in 2000 urging Congress to normalize trade relations with China, President Bill Clinton famously quipped: “There’s no question China has been trying to crack down on the internet. Good luck! That’s sort of like trying to nail Jell-O to the wall.” The crowd of foreign policy experts erupted in knowing laughter.
China proved them wrong. It didn’t just find a way to nail Jell-O; it became a Jell-O master carpenter. Through online surveillance, facial recognition, artificial intelligence and the propagandistic gold mine of social media, China has mobilized a set of tools that allow it to invisibly, routinely repress its citizens and shape political opinion by manipulating their feelings and grievances on just about any controversy.
This set of skills horrifies me. China may not be exporting its political ideology, but through lavish spending and trade, it is expanding its influence across the planet. There is a risk that China’s success becomes a kind of template for the world. In the coming decades, instead of democracy — which you may have noticed is not having such a hot run on either side of the Atlantic — Chinese-style tech-abetted surveillance authoritarianism could become a template for how much of the world works.
I should say there were a couple of small reasons for optimism regarding the spread of Chinese tyranny. The bipartisan outrage over the N.B.A.’s initial apology to China did suggest American lawmakers aren’t willing to give China a completely free pass. The Trump administration also did something clever, placing eight Chinese surveillance technology companies and several police departments on a blacklist forbidding them from trading with American companies.