The Single Most Important Thing About China

Don Feder delivered the following speech to The Awakening Conference on January 7, 2007, at The Cloister, Sea Island, Georgia. It originally appeared at — The Editors.

The single most important thing you need to know about China does not concern its economy — impressive though that is.

  • Most countries have difficulty sustaining 5% annual growth for any period of time. China’s economy has grown at an annual rate of almost 10 percent for 30 years — virtually unheard of in the course of modern history.
  • On January 11, 2006, Beijing announced that its trade surplus tripled in 2005 — rising from $32 billion to $102 billion. During the same period, the nation’s exports climbed to a record $762 billion.
  • The U.S. trade deficit with China also hit a record $230 billion in 2005.
  • Of course, China’s prosperity is in part driven by industrial wages as low as 30 cents an hour, the massive transfer (in some cases theft) of Western technology and the worst pollution in the world.

The most important thing about China isn’t its military expansion — in many ways, comparable to the re-arming of Germany in the 1930s.

  • The PRC has also experienced double-digit growth in military spending for 17 straight years. China’s 2006 military budget increased 14% over 2005 – and that’s what Beijing admits to
  • China’s military expansion is the reason 60% of the U.S. fleet is now stationed in Asian waters.
  • A Department of Defense review, published last February, observes: "Of the major emerging powers, China has the greatest potential to compete militarily with the United States and field disruptive military technologies that over time offset traditional US military advantages absent US counter strategies."
  • Frank Gaffney of the Center for Security Policy told a congressional hearing last year, "I believe the PRC’s aim is to inexorably supplant the United States as the world’s premier economic power and, if necessary, to defeat us militarily." Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Aso calls China a "considerable threat."

But neither China’s booming economy nor its alarming military growth is the root of the problem. In any discussion of China, the place to start is with an understanding of the reality of political power on the Mainland.

The People’s Republic of China remains what it was at its inception in 1949, at the end of the civil war — a ruthless, totalitarian state. As the name implies, a totalitarian regime attempts to exert near- absolute control over the lives of its subjects.

China is controlled by the Communist Party. Ostensibly, political power resides in the 3,000-member National People’s Congress. But the Congress is a rubber stamp. In reality, power is exercised by a 9-member standing committee of the CCP politburo. In other words, 9 individuals decide the fate of 1.2 billion people.

The New York Times — never known for hard-line foreign-policy positions — says of China’s current leader, Hu Jintao, that he "governs sternly and secretly, almost never grants interviews, and has overseen an unrelenting crackdown on journalists, lawyers, and religious leaders who defy one-party rule."

  • In its latest report, Freedom House observes, "The Chinese government continued to restrict political rights and repress critics of the regime in 2005. Restrictions on communications became more severe." Also, Freedom House notes, "The Chinese state closely monitors political activity and uses vaguely worded national security regulations to justify detainment or imprisonment of those who are politically active without party approval."
  • In 2003, Amnesty International reported that in Chinese prisons, "Torture and ill treatment remained widespread … . Common methods included kicking, beating, electric shocks, suspension by the arms, shackling in painful positions, and sleep and food deprivation. Women in detention were vulnerable to rape and sexual abuse."
  • In China, there are over 1,000 "re-education-through-labor" camps scattered about the country.
  • There are credible reports of organ harvesting from executed prisoners.
  • In the People’s Republic, no fewer than 65 offenses carry the death penalty.
  • China’s one-child-per-family policy has led to forced abortions, infanticide and a booming sex industry.
  • Former CIA Director James Woolsey describes China as "the worst of the worst" dictatorships.

The communist regime has a morbid fear of opposition to its authority and the independent institutions from which such opposition could arise.

In China, all media are state-owned. There are no independent labor unions. The judiciary is a handmaiden of the regime. In politically sensitive cases, verdicts are directed by the Party. Religions not controlled by the regime are harassed or suppressed — witness the home-church movement and the Falun Gong.

Beijing regularly blocks websites it deems subversive. In 2005, the government shut down over a quarter of the nation’s 573,755 websites.

The same mentality that sent tanks rolling over demonstrators in Tiananmen Square 18 years ago (killing more than 3,000) continues to guide policy toward dissent.

According to Beijing, there were over 87,000 incidents which it terms "public order disturbances" in 2005, up 6.6% from the previous year. These range from scuffles with police to mass protests over land confiscation.

  • In a demonstration last July, in a suburb of Hangzhou, riot police used electric batons to break-up a crowd of 3,000 Christians protesting the demolition of a home church.
  • Last January, as many as 10,000 riot police were deployed in the village of Panlong in Guagdong province to counter a protest over the confiscation of land for a factory. At least 60 villagers were wounded and a 13-year-old girl was killed.
  • In December, 2005 as many as 30 were killed in the village of Donzhou, when security forces fired into a crowd protesting the decision to locate a coal-fired power plant in their midst.
  • In China, you can go to jail for taking part in a demonstration, for applying for a permit to hold a demonstration, for reporting on a demonstration, for posting information about a demonstration on the Internet and — if you’re an attorney — for representing someone arrested at a demonstration.
  • Last year, a former garment worker at a plant in Shandong province was sentenced to 5 years in prison for trying to collect wages owed to him by a bankrupt state company. You can imagine the punishment for those who really get out of line.

Now, multiply all of this by hundreds of thousands and you begin to have an idea of the status of human rights in the People Republic.

The shimmering skyscrapers of Shanghai, the Western hotels in Beijing and the myriad products rolling off Chinese assembly lines to eventually find their way into American homes often obscure this grim reality.

In 1949, political power was seized with a gun. (Was it not Mao who said power comes from the barrel of a gun?) In China today, political power is literally maintained at gun-point.

America has a government. Britain has a government. Taiwan has a government. China has a regime. The only difference between the Chinese Communist Party and the Mafia is that the former is more successful at what it does, while the latter lacks an ideological rationale for its crimes.

Ergo, totalitarianism must be the starting point in any discussion of China. This is so because totalitarian regimes are inherently unstable. Totalitarian regimes are paranoid. Totalitarian regimes are expansionist. And totalitarian regimes require external enemies.

Again, Beijing is obsessed with maintaining near-total control of the populace and eliminating institutions or groups which could become independent power-bases, even if it’s only a remote possibility. Hence, the PRC’s paranoia.

China has decided that America is its enemy, despite the fact that the U.S. is also its major trading partner and is largely responsible for China’s modernization.

In a 2005 speech in Singapore, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld mused: "China’s defense expenditures are much higher than Chinese officials have publicly admitted. It is estimated that China’s is the third-largest military budget in the world and the largest in Asia. Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: Why this growing investment?"

The answer is simple: Because China views America as its adversary. Because China sees America as the major obstacle to the realization of its goals. Because China believes it will fight a war with America early in this century — a war it has every intention of winning.

The flash-point will probably be Taiwan.

Taiwan lies 82 miles from China, across the Taiwan Strait. It has a population of 23 million and a land area of 36,000 square miles, roughly the size of the Netherlands.

Taiwan has also experienced astonishing growth in the past 30 years. It has the world’s 17th argest economy and is the 16th major trading nation — not bad for a country of 23 million with almost no natural resources.

More important, Taiwan is a democratic success story. In the course of 20 years, it has transformed itself from an oligarchy ruled by an elite that fled the Mainland in 1949, to a genuine democracy with free elections, an independent judiciary, a free press and widespread respect for human rights. Freedom House rates Taiwan one of the two freest countries in Asia.

To say that China is obsessed with Taiwan is like saying that Iran is obsessed with Israel.

China says Taiwan is its sovereign territory, even though its connection to the island is tenuous at best. Taiwan was ruled by the mainland for roughly four of the last 100 years. It was never part of the People’s Republic.

Still, the communists insist that Taiwan’s fate is China’s internal affair — which is another way of saying the communist party’s internal affair.

In 1996, during Taiwan’s first direct presidential election, the People’s Liberation Army "test-fired" missiles in the direction of Taiwan, in an obvious intimidation tactic. It now has over 800 medium-range missiles targeting Taiwan, an arsenal that grows at the rate of approximately 100 missiles a year.

In July 2004, the PLA conducted war games meant to simulate an invasion of Taiwan. Over 18,000 troops, fighter planes and tank brigades took part in these widely publicized maneuvers.

In March of 2006, the National People’s Congress passed its notorious Anti-Succession Law, providing a legal pretext for a military conquest of Taiwan. In essence, the law states that the PRC is justified in using force against Taiwan whenever the Taiwanese take unspecified steps toward "independence."

In the past 12 years, two high-raking Chinese generals have threatened to launch a nuclear war against the United States if we interfere with China’s plans for the "reunification" of Taiwan.

In 1995, the man who’s now the deputy chief of the PLA general staff told a visiting US official that America should worry more about losing Los Angeles, in a possible nuclear exchange, than in saving Taiwan.

In 2005, another Chinese general told a group of journalists from Hong Kong that if Washington interferes with the annexation of Taiwan, "We will be determined to respond." To be sure that no one missed the point, he casually added that Beijing was prepared to sacrifice every city in central China, but America must be willing to lose "hundreds" of its cities in turn.

In August, Hu Jintao — he’s the guy, you may recall, who "governs sternly and secretly" and "has overseen an unrelenting crackdown on those who defy one-party rule" -warned, "We totally have the determination and the ability to crush any attempt to separate Taiwan from China."

Why Taiwan, and why now? (By the way, Mao never obsessed about the so-called reunification of Taiwan, never threatened war over Taiwan.)

Certainly, the PRC would love to have Taiwan’s economy, not to mention its strategic location, which would give it control of one of the world’s major sea-lanes and allow it to project its power south and west.

But there’s more involved here.

Taiwan enables China to focus popular discontent on an alleged threat to Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity. As a bonus, it gets to paint America as the "imperialistic" power that’s trying to undermine Chinese sovereignty and compromise its territorial integrity.

It’s no coincidence that Beijing’s obsession with Taiwan parallels Taiwan’s development as a democracy. For all of the years the island was under martial law, Beijing basically ignored it — no threats, no military buildup aimed at "re-unification," and no dire warnings of a nuclear holocaust if America intervened.

But now Taiwan is a democracy. It has all of the things many Mainland Chinese yearn for — democratic elections, a free press, an independent judiciary and the rule of law. Moreover, it is the first democracy in 4,000 years of Chinese history.

Chinese on the Mainland can look across the Strait and see how other ethnic Chinese govern themselves, how they can change governments, and how they can express themselves freely without fear of reprisal.

In short, Taiwan provides a challenge that the People’s Republic finds intolerable. China’s communist rulers view Taiwanese democracy as plague bacillus that could, at any moment, break out and infect the Mainland.

So, why not just let China have Taiwan — I mean besides the matter of Taiwan being our historical ally and America being pledged to aid in the defense of the island through the Taiwan Relations Act? Also, with Americans fighting and dying ostensibly for democracy in the Middle East, it would be ironic if we allowed one of the few democracies in the Far East to die without a whimper.

Taiwan is the beginning, not the end, of China’s ambitions. After Taiwan — what? Vietnam? Cambodia? The Philippines? Mao believed China was destined to rule all of the peoples of Asia — or to dominate them if it didn’t rule them directly.

This brings us back to that overriding political reality I mentioned at the outset — China is a totalitarian state.

Absent that, its booming economy would pose less of a problem. Absent that, there would be no reason for its relentless military buildup. Absent that, China would have no desire for territorial expansion. Absent that, Taiwan’s status would be decided by the people of Taiwan.

By all means, we should learn as much as we can about China’s economy and military expansion. But the place to start in any evaluation of the role China will play in the 21st century is with the realization that China is a totalitarian state — with all that implies.

Reprinted with permission from