In a speech last month at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared politely that Nixon had been wrong about China. Opening up to the People's Republic, in the hope that its Maoist dictatorship, moderated by a warm international embrace, would become freer at home and more cooperative abroad, has ended in failure.
In fact, Nixon never sought to democratize China – he needed Mao's help to end the Vietnam War and gain leverage over the Soviet Union.
Still, Pompeo's indictment was long. China is less free now than it was in the 1980s, he claimed. It steals Western industrial secrets, sends government agents masquerading as students, stifles criticism with threats, locks up ethnic minorities and dissidents in concentration camps, blackmails countries into buying Chinese technology used to spy on the United States, and so on. "The free world must triumph over the new tyranny," Pompeo declared. "We, the freedom-loving nations, must induce China to change…"
Could he be correct about this? Might US President Donald Trump's administration be on the right side of history at least in this respect? Does China represent an existential threat to the "free world"?
If so, the Trump administration has been remarkably hypocritical. Trump himself has called Chinese President Xi Jinping his good friend on several occasions, and patently refused to criticize him for ignoring human rights, locking up political prisoners, or undermining the rule of law in Hong Kong.
But the administration's hypocrisy does not necessarily mean that Pompeo was wrong about China. The gist of what he said is true. The Communist Party of China (CPC) maintains a dictatorship at home and is often hostile to democracies abroad.
There is, of course, a limit to how much the "free world" can do to change China's domestic politics, however abhorrent they may be. China is too powerful, economic interests are too important, and the risks of turning a cold war into a hot one are too formidable. Only the Chinese can possibly break the CPC's monopoly on power in their country. To advocate "regime change" by external force would be insane.
But there are good reasons to try to minimize the harm China can do to domestic arrangements in less oppressive countries. There is much evidence that Chinese pressure can harm one of the pillars of democratic societies: the right to free speech and expression.
Western institutions that rely on Chinese financial support, or the Chinese market, are particularly vulnerable. Publishers and universities are forced to withdraw books and papers that offend the Chinese government. Hollywood movies steer clear of anything that might cause trouble in China. European Union officials have censored reports that are critical of China.
China's vast wealth means that it can also afford to bully governments into buying Chinese technology, despite security concerns. This is hardly unique, of course. All big powers use their clout to compel others to fall into line. The US did so during the Cold War, and has sometimes done so since, to the detriment of the democratic freedoms of others. But at least the US has not been, on the whole, ideologically hostile to those freedoms, in the way that Chinese leaders are.
The question is what to do about it. How to defend what is left of the free world against the predatory strategies of a very rich and powerful dictatorship? Pompeo is right to stress the importance of solidarity. The way to organize the protection of common interests is to establish international organizations to safeguard and enforce common rules and laws. That is what the United Nations has been for, and the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization, and also the EU.
These organizations are often deeply flawed. And the hope that asking dictatorships to join them will make those regimes less oppressive is often misplaced. China has used its WTO membership to defy the rules for its own benefit. The WHO, too, has been too willing to accede to China's demands. And the UN Human Rights Council, for example, has damaged its own mission by having some very unsavory regimes as members.
But that is no reason to abandon or ignore these institutions. Trump's "America First" policy and his instinctive affinity with dictators, including Xi, is destroying the very solidarity that Pompeo says the free world needs.
This is far worse than hypocrisy. It is a direct threat to democracies East and West. Trump's blustering unilateralism, contempt for democratically elected leaders, and withdrawal of the US from international institutions are at least as harmful to freedom as Chinese bullying.
But protecting free speech and other democratic rights from Chinese efforts to weaken them should not mean disengaging from China, either, let alone insulting its citizens. A bloody century of foreign invasions does not excuse bellicose Chinese nationalism, but it helps to explain China's touchiness. Jeering references to the "Kung flu" and wild accusations that all overseas Chinese students are government spies offends even the many Chinese who still draw hope from societies freer than their own. Inflaming Chinese national sentiment is the worst possible way to temper the behavior of China's leaders.
If it is hard to feel sympathy for Trump and Pompeo, it is perhaps even harder to warm to the opinions of the editor of the Global Times, one of the Chinese government's most strident propaganda organs. Following Pompeo's speech last month, the editor, Hu Xijin, tweeted: "I strongly urge American people to re-elect Trump because his team has many crazy members like Pompeo. They help China strengthen solidarity and cohesion in a special way."
He is not wrong.
Ian Buruma is the author of numerous books, including Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo Van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance, Year Zero: A History of 1945, and, most recently, A Tokyo Romance: A Memoir.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on Project Syndicate, and is published by special syndication arrangement.