Opinion | The Dangerous Naïveté of Trump and Xi

Opinion | The Dangerous Naïveté of Trump and Xi


Trump is right (I can’t believe I just wrote those three words!) that China has not played fair. The best response would have been to work with allies to pressure China simultaneously from all sides; instead, Trump antagonized allies so that we are fighting this battle alone.

Why have I and so many others soured on China?

This is larger than Trump and Xi. China’s admission to the World Trade Organization in 2001 was meant to integrate the country into the global trading system as an increasingly responsible world power. But after moving mostly in the right direction under Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, China stalled under Hu Jintao and has moved backward under Xi.

China has stolen technology and intellectual property even as it has become more aggressive militarily in the South China Sea and curbed freedom at home. Xi offends global values by detaining more than one million Muslims in the Xinjiang region, arresting lawyers and Christians, and steadily squeezing out space for free thought. I used to report from China each year but now find the limits on a journalist visa so onerous that it’s not worthwhile. And I’m supposed to be the lao pengyou, or old friend, of China.

There are other grounds for American concern about China’s irresponsibility that haven’t received much attention: I estimate that around 20,000 Americans die each year from overdoses of drugs originating from traffickers in China. In particular, two-thirds or more of America’s fentanyl, a synthetic opioid far more lethal than heroin, appears to come from China.

In fairness, China has made some efforts to crack down on the drug trade, but this hasn’t been a priority so long as the traffickers mostly export their fentanyl rather than sell it at home. If the Chinese government pursued drug smugglers the way it crushes dissident Christians, labor activists, lawyers or feminists, those drug exports would end.

America’s business executives used to be strong supporters of a pro-China policy, but they, too, have cooled. Hank Paulson, the former Treasury secretary, has long been a vigorous advocate of close ties with China, so I was struck by a sober warning he gave to the Asia Society in New York the other day.

“Economic tensions are reaching a breaking point,” Paulson cautioned in his speech. He concluded, and I think he’s right, that if the U.S. and China don’t resolve their problems, the world will face “a systemic risk of monumental proportions.”


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