Democratizing China Should Be The U.S. Priority

Journal of Political Risk, Vol. 7, No. 7, July 2019

By Anders Corr

Protestors hold placards and illuminated smartphones beside a large banner calling for democracy during a protest in Hong Kong, China, on June 26, 2019. Some protesters held signs calling on U.S. President Donald Trump to save Hong Kong. Paul Yeung/Bloomberg via Getty Images

U.S. goals in relation to China, our biggest national security threat, tend to array along three main axes: military, diplomatic, and economic. But in deference to the failed strategy of engagement, we don’t use the significant normative and ideological power of democratization as a multiplier on these battlefields, nor does the prospect of democratizing China factor sufficiently in our cost-benefit analyses.

Militarily, we prioritize defense from China, but other than ongoing military support to Taiwan and the Tibet campaign of 1957-72,[1] we have not used our substantial military resources to promote democracy in China, for example in the rebellious zones of Xinjiang or Hong Kong. Economically, we prioritize U.S. market share in China, IP protection, and beating China’s GDP, technology and industrial strength. But we don’t condition our China trade on our lowest priorities, human rights and democracy.

In the short term our military and economic priorities are correct, but given the Chinese Communist Party’s growing strength globally, we must increase the prioritization of democracy as a long-term end goal in China, and we need to reevaluate opportunities to use our still substantial but relatively diminishing military and economic power to bring democracy to China.

If we succeed in democratizing China or even parts of China, many of our short-term military and economic necessities with respect to China will be obviated. They will no longer be as urgent because China would no longer be such a threat, or in the case of potential breakaway republics like Xinjiang, Tibet, or Hong Kong, China would be divided. Were those breakaway republics to be democratic, they could be used to balance against Beijing geopolitically.

Were China as a whole to democratize, the world would benefit by reversing a global trend towards authoritarian politics. The CCP is arguably the world’s most powerful entity, with near total control of a $25.3 trillion GDP PPP. The U.S. government has only partial control of a $20.5 trillion GDP PPP.[2] It would tremendously improve U.S. national security to have the economic source of CCP power on the side of democracy, rather than the opposite.

Historically, power tends to concentrate, and already we see the gravitational pull of a nearly totalitarian China on America’s biggest corporations, including Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, and Google. Those corporations in turn have inordinate foreign policy influence on democratically-elected politicians, including in the U.S., towards inaction and appeasement in response to China’s growing power. Democratizing China, therefore, should be a priority goal of U.S. diplomacy if we don’t want to be pulled into Beijing’s orbit through our most politically influential businesses.

Were we to democratize China, we would not need to devote so many military resources to balancing against China because China would likely spend less on its military, and democracies almost never fight each other. This is philosopher Immanuel Kant’s lesson in “Perpetual Peace” (1795), and that of contemporary theoretical and empirical research on the “democratic peace”.[3] A democratic China would be a powerful U.S. ally against Russia, Syria, North Korea, and Iran, rather than a threat multiplier of those countries against U.S. national security. Democratizing China would significantly increase our security, and significantly decrease the need for defense expenditures and dangerous arms races, for example in hypersonic nuclear weapons.

One reason the U.S. is so concerned with China’s economic and technological rise is that economic power, especially of China, immediately proliferates to China’s military. The same is not true of economically powerful European or Asian democracies. We actually want these democracies to be economically powerful, and to spend more on defense, because they are democracies and therefore non-threatening. They are a help to our national security, not a hindrance.

Democracies have better human rights practices than autocracies. Were the U.S. to help democratize China, its human rights practices would improve, and we would achieve one of our major foreign policy goals. Politely asking authoritarian China to improve its human rights practices is putting the cart before the horse. It will not do so because the CCP depends for its survival on repression of political and ethnic minorities, and denial of free speech and free assembly. Thus, the ineffectual U.S. demand for human rights reform in China has become mere “lip service”, as noted this month by China’s foreign ministry spokesman.[4]

While some might argue that prioritizing the democratization of China would threaten our engagement strategy and unduly threaten and therefore provoke the CCP, engagement is already proved a failure, and the CCP is already threatened and provoked. They are an enemy to democracy and human rights, and anyone who supports those principles. Their ambition to expand their power since their founding in 1921 in Shanghai, has no apparent end. China’s state-controlled media now claims that Cambridge University research shows that the CCP is the world’s “most successful” political organization.[5] This is true, and we must now fight back for the sake of global democracy.

Democratization is a battlefield on which the U.S. has a normative, strategic, and tactical advantage against the CCP. Prioritizing democratization in our goals with China will rally global support, put China on its back foot in global debates, and divert Chinese security spending to the maintenance of internal security, thereby increasing the likelihood of U.S. success in this historically unparalleled normative and geopolitical rivalry.

Anders Corr, Ph.D., is the publisher of the Journal of Political Risk. He has a B.A. and M.A. from Yale University in Political Science (2001), a Ph.D. from Harvard University in Government (2008), and five years of experience in military intelligence, including in Asia. JPR status: opinion.


[1] Jonathan Mirsky. “Tibet: The CIA’s Cancelled War”, New York Review of Books, April 9, 2013, https://www.nybooks.com/daily/2013/04/09/cias-cancelled-war-tibet/, accessed July 10, 2019.

[2] World Bank, http://statisticstimes.com/economy/countries-by-gdp-ppp.php, March 13, 2018, accessed July 9, 2019.

[3] Dan Reiter. “Democratic Peace Theory”, Oxford Bibliographies, September 27, 2017, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756223/obo-9780199756223-0014.xml, accessed July 10, 2019.

[4] Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, “China warns Canada not to be ‘naive’ in thinking allies can help fix dispute”, July 3, 2019, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/china-canada-trump-naive-1.5198249, accessed July 10, 2019.

[5] Xinhua, “CPC most successful political organization in world by far: UK researcher”, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/1156494.shtml, accessed July 10, 2019.