By Anitra Conover
What does the United States risk by trading heavily with China and cooperating with the ruling Chinese Communist Party?
The relationship appears economically symbiotic. According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity, nine percent of U.S. export revenue in 2013 came from China, and 20 percent of the money spent on U.S. imports went to purchase Chinese goods.
In the same year, 19 percent of China’s export revenue came from the United States, while American goods accounted for eight percent of Chinese imports in financial terms.
These strong trade relations, however, also provide China’s ruling party with something non-monetary: face. Or what retired East Asian Studies professor Marsha Cohan describes as a vital perception of credibility, respectability and reputation, an untranslatable concept with no equivalent in Western societies.
While Western conceptions of respectability revolve around the individual, the Chinese concept of face is relative.
In the West, personal achievements and conduct determine one’s respectability, but in China, it is defined by interpersonal relations. If someone earns coworkers’ respect, the person gains face because they prove they can work well in groups.
The booksellers’ arrests threatened Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Social order in China is predicated on individuals understanding that meeting obligations to others determines ultimately whether one has face. Because Chinese face is relational, the government cannot gain face just by improving citizens’ quality of life. It needs influence outside China.
As domestic mismanagement and censorship become more visible, the government loses face. But by maintaining trade relations with the United States, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) can offset the impact.
For instance, covering up the abduction of five dissident booksellers in Hong Kong became a matter of face.
Two of the booksellers, Lee Bo and Gui Min-Hai, had European citizenship and lived in Hong Kong. They were detained in mainland China before being put on trial, calling into question China’s pledge to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy as enshrined in the “One Country, Two Systems” policy.
Gui Min-Hai has Swedish citizenship, and when — amid worldwide media coverage — the Swedish Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced that it was committed to investigating his disappearance, the CCP and the government risked losing face.
“Hundred Flowers Campaign” led to hundreds of thousands of arrests.
Two weeks later, Gui Min-Hai announced on Chinese state television that he had traveled willingly to the mainland. Lee Bo, too, released a letter claiming he had chosen freely to visit the mainland.
Their statements resolved the two controversial disappearances, just in time to save face for the CCP.
In 2015, another dissenter, Wu Hai, a Beijing resident and hotelier, was invited by the CCP to a discussion with the prime minister after he had published political criticism. This, too, helped to save the CCP’s face.
Although I oppose the CCP’s conduct, my concerns extend beyond its efficacy and morality.
During the 1950’s, under Mao Zedong, the CCP launched “The Hundred Flowers Campaign,” lifting censorship and encouraging open political discussion.
When criticism of the CCP mounted, the Party launched the Anti-Rightist movement. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens were condemned as “rightists,” publicly humiliated, persecuted, tortured and in some cases executed.
Some NGOs, academics and lawyers fear a new crackdown.
Some scholars theorize that the CCP designed the Hundred Flowers Campaign to unmask dissidents.
Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, thinks that this is why the CCP was lenient with Wu Hai.
“Unlike other critics, Mr. Wu [did] not question the ruling party’s legitimacy,” he told the U.S. television station CBS. “This is propaganda warfare to show that the authorities are not intolerant but can tolerate criticism.”
But I worry that the CCP’s efforts to hide its faults from the Chinese public prefaces another crackdown. Debate is already underway among NGO’s, university professors and human rights lawyers.
The CCP violates innumerable freedoms. It censors dissent, infringes on intellectual freedoms and unjustly prosecutes.
In trading with China, the United States effectively endorses the regime and its claim to provide for Chinese citizens. It gives the CCP face.
I do not think disengagement is the answer. But I think the United States, which values personal and intellectual freedom, should seriously reconsider giving the CCP face so long as it continues to censor dissenting views.
(The views are the author’s.)
Anitra Conover comes from Washington, DC, and is spending the penultimate year of high school studying with the School Year Abroad program in Beijing, China. She has enjoyed creative writing since she was very young and started writing opinion pieces in high school. She aspires to become a public servant and thinks that writing, argumentation and critical analysis are important life skills.