Capstones: China's Dream, the World's Nightmare

May 2021

“I really think China is the future,” Tesla CEO Elon Musk declares. British scholar Martin Jacques, who writes books with titles such as “When China Rules the World,” predicts, “The future is China’s.” Author-columnist Fareed Zakaria writes that “China is winning the future.”

If China is indeed the future, if China is primed to “rule the world,” if China remakes the international order in its image, it won’t be pretty. A future dominated by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) will be demonstrably worse than the world we know. Just look at how Xi Jinping’s regime treats its own subjects—and plays its current role on the global stage.

No Rights

Those predictions aren’t outlandish. China already is the world’s top manufacturing nation, top exporting nation and second-largest economy. The PRC was the only major economy to emerge from 2020 claiming GDP growth (if we are to trust Beijing’s books). In the pandemic’s wake, China dislodged the U.S. as the world’s primary destination for foreign direct investment. PRC-backed firms are leaders in the global 5G and AI race. On the strength of a 517-percent binge in military spending since 2000, China bristles with anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles, deploys a high-tech air force, has a growing and openly hostile presence in space, is doubling its nuclear arsenal, and boasts a  350-ship navy (now the world’s largest). Beijing’s growing cultural reach is evident in everything from its influence over Hollywood, to its puppet-master relationship with the NBA, to its 480 Confucius Institutes (designated by Washington as “part of the Chinese Communist Party’s global influence and propaganda apparatus”).

As President Joe Biden concludes, China is “the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system.”

Xi is doing exactly that. But the China challenge starts inside the PRC.

Xi is pursuing what he calls the “China Dream,” which enfolds goals such as sustained economic development, military power modeled after and matching that of the U.S., ideological conformity, “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and “complete unification of our country.” Making Xi’s “China Dream” come true is turning into a nightmare for his subjects.

Before leaving his State Department post, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described what Xi is doing to Uighur Muslims as “genocide,” noting that Beijing has “forced more than a million people into internment camps in the Xinjiang region” and detailing “torture, sexual abuse…rape, forced labor…and unexplained deaths in custody.” As he took the baton from Pompeo, Secretary of State Antony Blinken agreed, affirming that “The forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps, trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party—all of that speaks to an effort to commit genocide.”

The U.S. government isn’t alone. The Uighur Muslim region, according to a UN human-rights watchdog, “resembles a massive internment camp…a no-rights zone.” More accurately, all of China is a no-rights zone.

Xi’s China is a place where Christian churches are smashed and followers of Christ are sent to reeducation camps; Buddhist temples are bulldozed; Uighur men are packed into freight trains, Uighur women are forcibly sterilized and Uighur babies are forcibly aborted; and bishops and Nobel Peace Prize laureates die in prison. Under Xi, “Religious persecution has increased…with four communities in particular experiencing a downturn in conditions—Protestant Christians, Tibetan Buddhists, and both Hui and Uighur Muslims,” Freedom House reports. Amnesty International adds that “hundreds of thousands of people” are subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention in China, many of them for “peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and freedom of belief.”

There’s a brutal logic to Xi’s brutal response to religious activity. The common denominator of most every religion is that there’s something above, something beyond, something bigger, more enduring and more important than the state. That notion represents a mortal threat to the legitimacy and durability of Xi’s regime, which is founded on the premise that people exist to serve the state—not to use their God-given gifts to serve others and God.

Xi’s capacity to control is growing ever more insidious. The PRC’s new “social credit system” is using mega-databases to monitor and catalogue every aspect of life of China’s 1.3 billion people—financial transactions, civil infractions, social-media postings, online activity—and then reward or sanction Xi’s subjects by feeding all that information to the National Development and Reform Commission, banking system and judicial system. PRC subjects with good social credit scores enjoy waived fees, lower utility bills, promotions and expedited overseas-travel approval, while those with poor social credit scores can be fired from their jobs, expelled from school, blocked from universities, or barred from accessing transportation.

An Orwellian surveillance state, more than a billion people denied religious freedom and other human rights, uncounted numbers tortured in reeducation camps, physicians jailed for following the Hippocratic Oath—that’s the kind of future and the kind of world Xi wants to build. As dissident leader Xu Zhangrun observed in the wake of Beijing’s criminal mishandling of COVID-19, “A polity that is blatantly incapable of treating its own people properly can hardly be expected to treat the rest of the world well.”

No Limits

That idea—the notion that the PRC is incapable of treating the world any better than it treats its own—is not particularly profound. After all, this is a regime that over the decades has erased some 35 million of its subjects and tortured millions more. Regimes like this see no limits on their power. Since they believe nothing is above the state, they rationalize everything they do in the name of the state, the revolution, the Supreme Leader, the Dear Leader, the Core Leader (Xi’s new title). With no moral constraints on what they do, they believe their ends always justify their means.

That backwards worldview informs every aspect of decision-making in the PRC. This doesn’t mean Washington should refuse to talk with Beijing. But we must be ever vigilant when dealing with Xi. A regime that can justify imprisoning, torturing and killing its own people for peacefully practicing their faith can and will justify anything: seizing foreign lands, annexing international waterways, absorbing free peoples, stealing proprietary information, leveraging a pandemic to gain geopolitical advantage, breaking treaties. The godless USSR did those sorts of things, and so has the godless PRC.

“It is difficult to imagine that a government that continues to repress freedom in its own country,” President Ronald Reagan said of the USSR, “can be trusted to keep agreements with others.” And here we are yet again.

Experts in policy analysis, academia and military-security affairs conclude that Xi’s response to COVID-19 “was in breach of international law.” It pays to recall that COVID-19 was a local public-health problem that metastasized into a global pandemic due to Beijing’s incompetence or intention (either cause is reason not to entrust the future to Xi); that Xi’s regime lied about human-to-human transmission; that Xi’s regime willfully allowed millions to leave the epicenter in Wuhan for destinations around the world; that Xi’s regime carried out a premeditated plan to hoard 2.5 billion pieces of protective equipment as the virus swept the globe; that Xi’s regime blocked scientists from sharing findings about genome sequencing for weeks; that Xi’s regime continues to refuse to cooperate with international health agencies.

Xi’s intervention in Hong Kong and assertion of rule by remote-control is a brazen violation of an international treaty.

In and above the East China Sea, Beijing is constantly violating Japanese airspace and illegally loitering PRC coast guard vessels in Japanese waters. All the while, Beijing illegally claims some 90 percent of the South China Sea. Xi has backed up those claims by building 3,200 acres of illegal islands beyond PRC waters. These islands feature SAM batteries and warplanes. Xi promised the PRC wouldn’t militarize these islands. But as America and its allies learned at enormous cost last century, words don’t matter to men like Xi. Strength and the will to wield it are all that matters. Xi has both.

His goal is to control the resource-rich South and East China Seas, assert sovereignty claims in fait accompli fashion, and bring Chinese-speaking lands under his heel. Hong Kong—where only PRC-approved “patriots” are allowed to serve in government—was his first objective. Taiwan is next. Xi has made clear that democratic Taiwan “must and will be” absorbed by the communist Mainland. “We make no promise to abandon the use of force,” he warns. That explains Beijing’s ground-unit exercises, naval drills and bomber sorties around the island democracy.

Nor are Xi’s dreams and designs limited to his immediate neighborhood. Beijing is buying loyalty via development projects (see the Belt and Road Initiative), gaining a toehold in strategically located regions (see PRC control over ports in 18 countries), building an authoritarian bloc (see Russia, Serbia, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela), and fielding a power-projecting military capable of challenging the Free World across every region and every domain—land, sea, air, space and cyberspace. Xi’s relentless cybersiege of the Free World is siphoning away inventions, discoveries, technologies and wealth, penetrating defense firms, and interfering in elections.

For those with eyes to see—who know about the laogai camps and brutalization of Muslims and oppression of Tibet and assault on Christianity—none of this comes as a surprise. What’s surprising is that for 40 years, the trade über alles caucus convinced itself that such a regime could somehow be reformed by access to Buicks and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

Taking Aim

Xi vows to build what he calls “a more just and reasonable new world order”—one that would supplant the liberal democratic order the United States and its allies began building after World War II. Importantly, the PRC not only has the intent to build a new world order; it has the resources and capabilities to do so—which helps explain why those who designed and uphold the existing world order are answering China’s challenge.

The PRC is a country of 1.3 billion people. Its GDP is already $14.1 trillion. Its economic tendrils—trade, banking, manufacturing, logistics, shipping, technology, super-computing, artificial intelligence—stretch into every part of the globe. All of this is fueling the PRC’s relentless military modernization and buildup. The PRC’s annual military expenditure is at least $261 billion. (Beijing recently announced an increase in military spending of 6.8 percent for 2021). The PRC has a 2-million-man military, the world’s largest navy and an intense focus on its neighborhood.

None of this would be a particularly worrisome if China embraced the values of liberal democracy—the rule of law, individual freedom, religious liberty, free enterprise and free trade, majority rule with minority rights. These are the foundation stones of what Churchill and FDR envisioned when they drafted the Atlantic Charter in 1941. Their vision led to what some call the “rules-based democratic order,” others the “liberal international order,” still others the “free world order.” These terms aim to describe how the peoples of the West have tried to make the world work and indeed manage the world: They embraced and encouraged democratic governance; developed rules and norms of behavior; promoted liberal (freedom-oriented) political and economic institutions; and called upon governments to live up to the responsibilities of nationhood by respecting international borders and promoting good order within those borders. The result has been an unparalleled spread of prosperity, an unprecedented expansion of free government and an unexpected remission of great-power war (which had become an increasingly-destructive feature of the centuries leading up to 1945).

To be sure, many regimes reject the values of liberal democracy. But the PRC, like the USSR before it, not only rejects those values; it possesses the military-technological-industrial-economic assets to challenge those values, erode the liberal international order built upon those values, and forge a new international order or at least bend the existing order toward its own goals. But don’t take my word for it.

“Some seek to challenge the international order—that is, the rules, values and institutions that reduce conflict and make cooperation possible among nations,” Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warn, pointedly adding that “China in particular is all too willing to use coercion to get its way.”

Former national security advisor Gen H.R. McMaster concludes that PRC “leaders believe they have a narrow window of strategic opportunity to…revise the international order in their favor.”

Before he retired as Indo-Pacific commander ,Adm. Phil Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Xi and his lieutenants are “accelerating their ambitions to supplant the United States and our leadership role in the rules-based international order.”

A NATO panel noted late last year that Beijing’s “approach to human rights and international law challenges the fundamental premise of a rules-based international order.”

These political, diplomatic and military leaders recognize that the liberal order has promoted the peace and prosperity of the Free World for nearly 75 years. But it doesn’t run on autopilot. If we want the benefits of a liberal order that sustains our way of life, we need to sustain the liberal order. As Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution observes, “The present order will last only as long as those who favor it and benefit from it retain the will and capacity to defend it.” He adds, “Every international order in history has reflected the beliefs and interests of its strongest powers, and every international order has changed when power shifted to others with different beliefs and interests.”

Indeed, the liberal order and its guarantors have arrived at a turning point or breaking point: Either they will marshal the means and will to update, strengthen and preserve the existing order, or Beijing will dramatically transform it. Xi’s callous treatment of his own subjects and contempt for international norms offer a glimpse of what his “more reasonable new world order” would look like.


The American people may be tired of fending off challengers and shoring up the liberal order FDR and Churchill began building, but there’s no other nation with the reach, resources and resumé to lead the Free World. Those that share our values lack the strength and the will; those that possess the strength and the will don’t share our values.

Churchill’s Britain—worn out and worn down by six years of war—didn’t have that problem as World War II gave way to Cold War 1.0. That’s because Churchill’s Britain had America—a sister nation which not only shared its values and vision for the world, but also emerged from the war stronger than when it entered. Historian Derek Leebaert describes America in the postwar period as “the one unscarred liberal power.” Ferguson adds that British leaders “regarded the transfer of global power to the United States as the best available outcome of the war.”

There’s no such partner the United States can entrust with the mantle of global leadership today, as the world lurches into Cold War 2.0.

That word “leadership” is an important one. Leadership, it’s worth pointing out, presupposes the existence of a team. After all, a nation alone on the world stage—like a household comprised of just one person—isn’t leading anyone. Biden recognizes this truism—and the need for a deep and diverse bench of teammates in this long, twilight struggle with Beijing. Thus, he calls for “a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors” and wants to harness “the economic might of democracies” to meet the China challenge—something aided by the groundwork laid during the Trump administration. Blinken, for example, is building on his predecessor’s 5G Clean Network to ensure that “the techno-democracies” (his term) can outcompete and out-innovate Beijing and other “techno-autocracies.” Aiming for the same goal, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is rallying the D10—an informal partnership of 10 democracies enfolding the Group of Seven industrialized democracies plus Australia, South Korea and India—to pool their technological resources and build an uncompromised 5G network. Leaders of the Quad—the U.S., Australia, Japan and India—are standing up a “critical- and emerging-technology working group to facilitate cooperation on international standards and innovative technologies of the future.”

America needs all the help it can get confronting the Beijing behemoth. Although America boasts a $21.4-trillion GDP and a $738-billion defense budget, it has a billion fewer people than China, just 1.3 million active-duty troops, a 298-ship Navy, a defense budget that’s plateauing, and security commitments that are diffused and dispersed. But as Biden points out, “When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles.” Indeed, the U.S. combined with democratic partners in the Americas, Europe and the Indo-Pacific enfolds some 2 billion people, 71 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of global defense spending, more than 7 million men under arms, and what former JCS Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen called “a thousand-ship navy.” These allies are force-multipliers of American power and outer rings of American security.


We peoples of the Free World sometimes forget that previous generations sacrificed everything to ensure that we wouldn’t live in anarchy or under the heel of totalitarianism. And we Americans sometimes forget that the natural order of the world isn’t at all orderly.

The liberal order, to paraphrase what Churchill said of democratic government, is the worst way to organize and stabilize a broken world “except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time”—and it’s unquestionably better than the alternative offered by Xi Jinping. The next issue of Capstones explores how the Free World is following a familiar playbook to counter the PRC’s assault on the liberal international order.

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he leads the Center for America’s Purpose. Versions of this essay were originally published by Providence (here and here).

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