The idea of a Cold War II between the West and China has quickly evolved from a misleading analogy into a self-fulfilling prophecy. But contemporary China is nothing like the Soviet Union, and in today’s world, we simply cannot afford another clash of mutually exclusive systems.
BERLIN – This month’s G7 summit seemed to confirm what has long been apparent: The United States and China are entering into a cold war similar to the one between the US and the Soviet Union in the second half of the twentieth century.
The West no longer views China just as a competitor and rival but as a civilizational alternative. Once again, the conflict seems to be about mutually exclusive “systems.” Amid an escalating clash of values and competing claims to global power and leadership, a military confrontation – or at least a new arms race – seems to have become a distinct possibility.
But on closer examination, the Cold War comparison is misleading. The systemic rivalry between the US and the Soviet Union was preceded by one of the most brutal and catastrophic “hot” wars in history, and reflected the frontlines of that conflict.
Though the US and the Soviet Union were the principal victors after the German and Japanese surrenders, they had already been ideological foes before the war. If Hitler’s Germany and imperial Japan had not both sought world domination through military conquest, the US and the Soviet Union never would have been allies. As soon as the war was over, the faceoff between Soviet communism and Western democratic capitalism resumed, their enmity intensified by the brutality of forced Sovietization in Central and Eastern Europe between 1945 and 1948.
At the same time, the dawn of the nuclear age had fundamentally disrupted power politics by making any future war for global hegemony impossible without self-annihilation. Mutual assured destruction kept the superpower confrontation “cold,” even as it threatened all of humankind with nuclear catastrophe. If the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact had not collapsed four decades later, the conflict presumably would have dragged on indefinitely.
The situation between the West and China today is totally different. Though the Communist Party of China calls the country “socialist” to justify its political monopoly, no one takes that label seriously. China does not define its difference from the West according to its position on private property; rather, it simply does and says whatever is necessary to maintain one-party rule. Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the late 1970s, China has established a hybrid model that accommodates both markets and central planning, and both state and private ownership. The CPC alone stands at the top of this “Market-Leninist” model.
The Chinese system’s hybrid character is what accounts for its success. China is on track to surpass the US both technologically and economically by around 2030 – a feat that the Soviet Union never had a chance of accomplishing at any point in its 70-year history. China’s “Billionaire Socialism” is clearly better equipped to compete with the West than the old Soviet system ever was.
If today’s systemic rivalry isn’t the same as in the Cold War, what should a Cold War II really be about? Is the goal to force China to become more Western and democratic? Or is it simply to contain China’s power and isolate it technologically (or, at a minimum, slow down its ascent)? And if the West were to achieve any of these objectives, what then?
In fact, none of these objectives could ever be satisfied at a reasonable cost for the parties involved. China is home to 1.4 billion people who can see that their historic opportunity for global recognition has come. Given the scale of the Chinese market and the economic interdependencies it engenders, the idea that China can be isolated is absurd.
But perhaps the issue is more about power than economics. Who will be the twenty-first century’s hegemon? By uniting with the rest of the West, can the US really change the historical trajectory of China’s rise and the West’s relative decline? I doubt it. The West’s recognition that China will not become more democratic by dint of its economic development and integration into the global economy is necessary and long past due. Greed kept
that fantasy afloat for far too long.
But I will venture a prediction that the twenty-first century will not primarily be characterized by a return to great-power politics at all, even if that looks where things are headed now. The experience of the pandemic forces us to take a longer and wider view. COVID-19 was a mere prelude to the looming climate crisis, a global challenge that will force the great powers to embrace cooperation for the sake of humankind, regardless of who is “Number One.”
For the first time ever, the pandemic has made “humankind” more than an abstraction, turning that concept into a material field for action. Containing the coronavirus and sparing everyone from the threat of dangerous new variants will require more than eight billion vaccine doses. Assuming that global warming and the overburdening of regional and global ecosystems continue apace, this same global field of action will become the dominant one in the twenty-first century.
In this context, the question of who is on top will be decided not through traditional great-power politics, but by which powers step up to provide the leadership and competence that the situation demands. Unlike in the past, a cold war would hasten, not prevent, mutually assured destruction.
Published on Project Syndicate
Jeffrey D. Sachs, William Schabas
US President Joe Biden’s administration has doubled down on the claim that China is mounting a genocide against the Uighur people in the Xinjiang region. But it has offered no proof, and unless it can, the State Department should withdraw the charge and support a UN-based investigation of the situation in Xinjiang.
NEW YORK/LONDON – The US government needlessly escalated its rhetoric against China by claiming that a genocide is being mounted against the Uighur people in the Xinjiang region. Such a grave charge matters, as genocide is rightly considered “the crime of crimes.” Many pundits are now calling for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, dubbing them the “Genocide Olympics.”
The genocide charge was made on the final day of Donald Trump’s administration by then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, who made no secret of his belief in lying as a tool of US foreign policy. Now President Joe Biden’s administration has doubled down on Pompeo’s flimsy claim, even though the State Department’s own top lawyers reportedly share our skepticism regarding the charge.
This year’s State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices (HRP) follows Pompeo in accusing China of genocide in Xinjiang. Because the HRP never uses the term other than once in the report’s preface and again in the executive summary of the China chapter, readers are left to guess about the evidence. Much of the report deals with issues like freedom of expression, refugee protection, and free elections, which have scant bearing on the genocide charge.
There are credible charges of human rights abuses against Uighurs, but those do not per se constitute genocide. And we must understand the context of the Chinese crackdown in Xinjiang, which had essentially the same motivation as America’s foray into the Middle East and Central Asia after the September 2001 attacks: to stop the terrorism of militant Islamic groups.
As the Hong Kong-based businessman and writer Weijian Shan has recounted, China experienced repeated terrorist attacks in Xinjiang during the same years that America’s flawed response to 9/11 led to repeated US violations of international law and massive bloodshed. Indeed, until late 2020, the US classified the Uighur East Turkestan Islamic Movement as a terrorist group, battled Uighur fighters in Afghanistan, and held many as prisoners. In July 2020, the United Nations noted the presence of thousands of Uighur fighters in Afghanistan and Syria.
The charge of genocide should never be made lightly. Inappropriate use of the term may escalate geopolitical and military tensions and devalue the historical memory of genocides such as the Holocaust, thereby hindering the ability to prevent future genocides. It behooves the US government to make any charge of genocide responsibly, which it has failed to do here.
Genocide is defined under international law by the UN Genocide Convention (1948). Subsequent judicial decisions have clarified its meaning. Most countries, including the United States, have incorporated the Convention’s definition into their domestic legislation without any significant alteration. In the past few decades, the leading UN courts have confirmed that the definition requires proof to a very high standard of the intentional physical destruction of a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group.
The definition specifies that one of five acts must be perpetrated. Obviously, killing tops the list. The State Department’s report on China says there were “numerous reports” of killings, but that “few or no details were available,” and cites only one case – that of a Uighur man detained since 2017 who died of natural causes, according to the authorities. The report doesn’t even explain why the official explanation should be questioned.
Technically, genocide can be proven even without evidence that people were killed. But because courts require proof of intent to destroy the group physically, it is hard to make the case in the absence of proof of large-scale killings. This is especially true when there is no direct evidence of genocidal intent, for example in the form of policy statements, but merely circumstantial evidence, what international courts refer to as a “pattern of conduct.”
International courts have repeatedly said that where genocide charges are based only upon inferences drawn from a pattern of conduct, alternative explanations must be ruled out definitively. That’s why the International Court of Justice rejected in 2015 the genocide charge against Serbia and the counter- charge against Croatia, despite evidence of brutal ethnic cleansing in Croatia.
So, what else might constitute evidence of genocide in China? The State Department report refers to mass internment of perhaps one million Uighurs. If proven, that would constitute a gross violation of human rights; but, again, it is not evidence, per se, of intent to exterminate.
Another of the five recognized acts of genocide is “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” The State Department report refers to China’s notoriously aggressive birth-control policies. Until recently, China strictly enforced its one-child policy on the majority of its population but was more liberal toward ethnic minorities, including the Uighur.
Today, the one-child policy is no longer applied to the majority Han Chinese, but stricter measures have been imposed on Xinjiang’s Muslim minority, whose families are traditionally larger than China’s average. Still, Xinjiang records a positive overall population growth rate, with the Uighur population growing faster than the non-Uighur population in Xinjiang during 2010-18.
The genocide charge is being fueled by “studies” like the Newlines Institute report that recently made global headlines. Newlines is described as a “non-partisan” Washington, DC-based think tank. On closer inspection, it appears to be a project of a tiny Virginia-based university with 153 students, eight full-time faculty, and an apparently conservative policy agenda. Other leading human rights organizations have refrained from using the term.
UN experts are rightly calling for the UN to investigate the situation in Xinjiang. China’s government, for its part, has recently stated that it would welcome a UN mission to Xinjiang based on “exchanges and cooperation,” not on “guilty before proven.”
Unless the State Department can substantiate the genocide accusation, it should withdraw the charge. It should also support a UN-led investigation of the situation in Xinjiang. The work of the UN, and notably of UN Human Rights Special Rapporteurs, is essential to promote the letter and spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Published on Project Syndicate