China, Foreign Policy

A Coming American Century of Shame?

19th century Chinese Opium Den
Chinese Opium Den

It is always better to be an original than an imitation, even when the imitation is of something better than their own; but what shall we say of the fool who is content to be an imitation of something worse? Even if the weaklings who seek to be other than Americans were right in deeming other nations to be better than our own, the fact yet remains that to be a first-class American is fifty-fold better than to be a second -class imitation of a Frenchman or Englishman.

Theodore Roosevelt, True Americanism, The Forum Magazine, April 1894

Chinese Communist leaders constantly justify the legitimacy of the rule by claiming to have reversed China’s “century of shame”. This refers to the 19th century colonial exploitation by the European powers and Japan that carved up much of the country into “spheres of influence”. The most ruthless and shameful episode of this era occurred in the beginning, when Britain fought two wars to force China to accept the importation of opium. This enriched the British at the expense of the misery of millions of Chinese addicts and the Chinese economy as a whole.

Fast forward to the 21st century. Hong Kong residents carry American flags while insisting that the city’s leaders and China honor their previous commitments to expand democracy in the territory. This call to our conscience is then rejected by Apple and other American tech companies, who bow to demands to remove apps that the Chinese government believe aid the democracy movement. Meanwhile, the National Basketball Association apologizes for a tweet of support for the demonstrators by General Manager Daryl Morey of the Houston Rockets after Chinese government protests.

Why such craven subservience? The reason is simple – money. Many Fortune 500 companies earn millions selling their products in China and utilizing cheaper and more compliant Chinese labor to manufacture them. They are thus willing to be co-opted by the Chinese Communist party and thus sacrifice the values of their American employees and customers simply because it preserves those profits

Like the Europeans reduced China to vassalage with the drug of opium, China now seeks to bring America to heel with the new opiate of money. The willingness of American companies to submit to this addiction puts the lie to Fortune 500 CEOs plea to “trust us” to responsibly balance social obligations with shareholder profits (more on this later). It shows that, far from being a benign new entrant on the world stage, China is on the offensive to create its own semi-colonial empire. Indeed, as this excerpt from an National Public Radio feature showed, they may be ruthless enough to use essentially the same opiates forced on them in the 19th century to control poor Americans in the 21st.

This is not an argument for any kind of American intervention. We should remain the advocates of liberty everywhere, but the guarantor only of our own. However, the endurance of this guarantee at home and the future of liberty abroad will depend on whether Americans let the new opiates of money and despair cause our nation to sink into its own century of shame. Or will we hark to TR’s call that it is better to be a first-class American than a second-class Chinese?