In Trump, China has an adversary who’s not afraid to push back – even if it means economic pain
- Communist Party leaders have overplayed their hand by tightening control over Hong Kong with a national security law
- Trump and his senior advisers not only believe in the law of the jungle, but are also unafraid to wield raw power against their foes
The party sees the world as, first and foremost, a jungle. Having been shaped by its own brutal struggle for power against impossible odds between 1921 and 1949, the party is convinced that its long-term survival depends solely on raw power.
When the balance of power is against it, the party must rely on cunning and caution to survive. The late Deng Xiaoping aptly summarised this strategic realism with his foreign-policy dictum: “hide your strength and bide your time”.
Hong Kong hotel becomes home to Beijing’s new national security office in the city
The party’s world view is also coloured by a belief in the power of greed. Although Western countries might profess fealty to human rights and democracy, the Communist Party believed that they could not afford to lose access to the Chinese market.
Such cynicism now permeates China’s strategy of asserting control over Hong Kong. Chinese leaders expect the West’s anger at their actions to fade quickly, calculating that Western firms are too heavily vested in the city to let the perils of China’s police state be a deal breaker.
Western governments had expected that credible threats of sanctions against China would be a powerful deterrent to Communist Party aggression. But judging by how China has thumbed its nose at the West, this has obviously not been the case.
These Western threats do not lack credibility: comprehensive sanctions encompassing travel, trade, technology transfers, and financial transactions could seriously undermine Hong Kong’s economic well-being and Chinese prestige.
But in US President Donald Trump and his national security hawks, China has finally met its match. Like their counterparts in Beijing, the US president and his senior advisers not only believe in the law of the jungle, but are also unafraid to wield raw power against their foes.
Unfortunately for the Communist Party, therefore, it now has to contend with a far more determined adversary. Worse still, America’s willingness to absorb enormous short-term economic pain to gain a long-term strategic edge over China indicates that greed has lost its primacy.
For the first time since the end of the Cultural Revolution, the party faces a genuine existential threat, mainly because its mindset has led it to commit a series of strategic errors. And its latest intervention in Hong Kong suggests that it has no intention of changing course.
Minxin Pei is Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College and a non-resident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Copyright: Project Syndicate