The reluctant making of a China hawk

Today, China is not the same country it was a decade ago. Then, it was possible to believe that the People’s Republic was evolving toward a stable, corporatist system that, while neither liberal nor democratic, didn’t pose a frontal challenge to the liberal order. If you squinted, it was even possible to believe that increasing private wealth and increasing public corruption could power a movement for actual liberalization.

But under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the opposite has happened. In the name of crushing corruption, China’s political system has become less institutional and increasingly personalized, while the state has largely reasserted authority over private enterprise. Nationalism and ethno-nationalism have become increasingly important parts of the state ideology, and state ideology as such has become an increasingly dominant factor in national life. The crackdown in Hong Kong and the genocidal campaign against the Uighur people of Xinjiang are hardly unprecedented in PRC history, but the precedents being set now all point in a decidedly ominous direction. Americans can certainly live with such an odious regime on the other side of the Pacific; it’s less clear that we can live with such a regime being more powerful than the United States.

The case for hawkishness, then, is clear — but its implications are muddy.