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Is free speech compatible with free trade in China?


American populists already blame free trade for costing their country jobs and industrial might. Now they blame it for curtailing freedom of speech. The argument: If the US and Chinese economies weren’t so intertwined, then China couldn’t “export” its authoritarian values by using its huge market power to strong–arm American companies. 

Populists correctly note that the NBA’s rebuke of a Houston Rockets official’s pro-Hong Kong democracy tweet is hardly the first instance of Beijing trying to use its financial influence on foreign companies to shape global opinion — especially regarding Hong Kong, Taiwan, and its Uighur reeducation camps. As one China expert told The Washington Post, the Chinese communists don’t tolerate dissent on these issues inside China, “and increasingly they are not tolerating dissent on these issues outside China.”

But these populist critiques of Chimerica also invite the search for a counterfactual: Should Nixon have never gone to China? Should America have tried to somehow quarantine a nuclear–armed nation of one billion people even as it tried to open up and decentralize its economy? Should Washington have simply ignored the reality — and somehow persuaded our allies to do likewise — that China was undertaking significant policy reforms in the direction of liberalization?

Or maybe America’s elite policymakers in the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s should have anticipated the 2007–2009 Global Financial Crisis. A recent essay in Foreign Policy, one critical of America’s dealing with China, argues that the crisis “emboldened” China’s statists, while “reformers who favored additional progress toward liberalizing markets and rolling back party-state control were thrown on the defensive.”

So it’s hard to imagine a realistic scenario where Chimerica doesn’t exist in some form approximating current reality. And the idea of disentangling the two economies remains more a talking point rather than a serious plan. That said, basketball fans here shouldn’t be ejected from arenas for showing support for the Hong Kong demonstrators. And Chinese pressure on US firms should be countered by American pressure in favor of free expression and the right to criticize a human-rights violating, authoritarian surveillance state. Some presidential tweets bucking up the NBA might be useful. It would also help, for instance, if American presidents wouldn’t promise silence on those Hong Kong democracy protests just to facilitate trade agreements. Sets a bad example for Corporate America. 

Yet at some point, China’s oppressive actions may force some hard moral choices on American firms and cultural icons. Does Taylor Swift have to play Shanghai? Does Marvel need a red–carpet film premiere there? If Hong Kong really takes a bad turn, for instance, should the US send a team to the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in Beijing? Meanwhile, America must work even harder to globally demonstrate the values of liberal, rules–based democracy and market-driven capitalism.