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Nearly 50 years ago, President Richard Nixon made history when he became the first American president to visit the People’s Republic of China. His visit in February of 1972 would be known as “the week that changed the world” because it allowed the emergence of China into the world’s economy after being a social pariah for a quarter of a century.
“The question is whether we, with different philosophies, but both with feet on the ground, and having come from the people, can make a breakthrough that will serve not just China and America, but the whole world in the years ahead,” Nixon said to Chairman Mao Zedong at his Peking residence during their first-ever meeting.
The idea was that as China opened to the United States, both nations not only would prosper economically, but China’s totalitarian ideology and structures would be reformed as it came in contact with Western democracy. Of course, we know what happened with the economic aspect. In a few decades, China became the world’s second-largest economy and a major military power. Now, China is using that freedom to validate the worst of its historic instincts.
The prosperity that made China an economic superpower in some ways had the opposite effect on individual rights and democratic reform as it helped its leaders tighten their grip on the Chinese people. The world’s willingness to turn a blind eye to China’s human rights abuses in order to profit from Chinese businesses and investments only made matters worse.
Under President Xi Jinping, who in 2018 essentially made himself ruler for life, China now has one of the most repressive regimes in the world. The PRC has brutalized its citizens and minorities and clamped down on civil rights, such as freedom of speech and religious liberty, making it one of the few nations that can nearly cut off its entire population from the rest of the world at a time when we have never been more connected. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic spreads across the world, millions of Uighur Muslims continue to suffer imprisonment in “re-education” camps.
Now the world is paying a hefty price for giving China a free pass on its human rights offenses. It’s precisely because of China’s disregard for freedom of speech that hundreds of millions of people will suffer for decades because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The coronavirus may have originated in one of China’s wet markets — or even a test lab in Wuhan as some reports suggest — but it became a global pandemic because of the CCP’s interference.
Freedom of speech is more than simply the right of expression or conscience. It includes the right to dissent and to publicize information that is critical for citizens to know. A totalitarian regime that guards information or disseminates disinformation can cause untold harm to millions.
If China cherished a free press and freedom of information, this is what could have happened: At the first notice of the outbreak of the virus — which may have been as early as November 2019 — China would have raised a global alert based on the early reports of the medical personnel in Wuhan instead of trying to cover the emergence of the virus. China also would have taken early proactive steps to stop travel through Wuhan and in and out of mainland China.
Moreover, China would have welcomed the help of the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to investigate the virus’ mechanism of action, setting in motion the process to find a vaccine so citizens around the world could be protected before it eventually reached their nations’ shores.
Instead, there’s ample evidence that China engaged in a campaign of misinformation and coverups — misleading governments, slandering whistleblowers and waiting to act until it was too late. The Chinese Communist Party also disappeared a business tycoon who dared criticize the government and other medical professionals and scientists whose oath demanded they raise their voice against the coverup.
“What brings us together is a recognition ... on our part that what is important is not a nation’s internal political philosophy. What is important is its policy toward the rest of the world and toward us,” Nixon said to Mao toward the end of their meeting.
Seeing what is happening today in the world because of China’s illiberal political philosophy, I cannot help but disagree with Nixon.
The United States and its democratic allies should reverse Nixon’s great experiment, and either demand China change or allow her to succumb to her own devices.
As a citizen of the world’s largest democracy — India, where hundreds of millions of people will suffer economically and physically because of COVID-19 — I have seen how freedom of information and speech are essential not only for a free, prosperous society but for the national and health security of the world. As China’s democratic neighbor to the south, we watch with alarm as the global system has continued to allow China to do what it wants in order to lie, cheat and steal its way into the rarified air of our world’s few but powerful superpowers.
Enough is enough. The United States and its democratic allies should reverse Nixon’s great experiment, and either demand China change or allow her to succumb to her own devices.
Going forward, no major global economy should be allowed to be integrated with the rest of the world while it continues to violate the fundamental rights of its citizens.
The alternative isn’t just death to Western democracies, but the lives of millions of everyday people, across the world.