Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Beijing’s Best Joke Yet

Trump sold out rule of law. Of course, China is laughing.
October 7, 2019
Beijing’s Best Joke Yet
Protesters hold up umbrellas and American flags in the face of advancing riot police in the district of Yuen Long on July 27, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. (Photo by Laurel Chor/Getty Images)

On Sunday night, the NBA became the latest part of corporate America to accept Chinese propaganda as the price for market access. After Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, the NBA released an apologetic statement that, among other things, implied that standing up for democracy was “regrettable.” (The league’s Chinese-language version was even worse, noting that the NBA was “extremely disappointed in the inappropriate comment.”) 

Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle were quick to condemn the NBA’s capitulation to the Chinese Communist Party line. Some of the strongest criticism came from Republicans with Sen. Marco Rubio labeling the NBA’s statement “disgusting” and Sen. Ted Cruz writing that he was “proud” of Morey’s support for Hong Kong. 

Those statements, however, contrasted starkly with the GOP response to Trump’s request, just days earlier, for Beijing to investigate his political rivals and the revelation that Trump had made a deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping to keep quiet on the protests in Hong Kong. Compared with strongly worded critiques of the NBA, the silence of the majority of Republican lawmakers or awkward attempts to dismiss Trump’s comments as a joke, are defenaning. 

Although it is troubling to see the power of Chinese economic pressure laid bare, it is far more concerning that the sitting U.S. president would so casually toss aside the foundational values of rule of law and, with it, Washington’s credibility.  

Beijing clearly recognizes this and the Chinese Foreign Minister trolled the White House, issuing a statement all but overtly mocking the corruption drama unfolding in Washington. Senator Marco Rubio tried to pass the whole thing off as “not a real request” but make no mistake: the President’s comments are a PR coup for China and a long-term problem for U.S. credibility.

In case you missed the President’s remarks, which were broadcast live on television, President Trump said this: “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.” Moments earlier, he added a thinly-veiled threat regarding the upcoming trade talks: “if they don’t do what we want, we have tremendous power.” 

Those remarks, and the implication that a foreign government could win favor with the White House by providing President Trump with political dirt, echoed the president’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. As documented in a White House-released readout of the call, after mention of Ukraine purchasing missiles, Trump began his response to Zelensky with, “I would like you to do us a favor, though” before discussing looking into both Hunter Biden and Crowdstike. That call, and a subsequently released complaint from a CIA whistleblower, are the subject of an ongoing impeachment inquiry by House Democrats. 

On Thursday night, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi responded to the president’s request for Beijing to investigate Biden. In comments shared by the Global Times, an English-language branch of Chinese state media, Minister Wang Yi noted, “China will not interfere in the international affairs of the US, and we trust that the American people will be able to sort out their own problems.” 

Even if they’re trolling us, China speaking up for rule of law and non-interference as a critique of a sitting U.S. president is funny in a sad and ridiculous kind of way. Not only does China lack independent courts, but recent moves to erode the rule of law in Hong Kong have sparked ongoing protests, Beijing is actively engaged in an extra-judicial campaign targeting Uyghur Muslims, and Chinese attempts to interfere with politics in Australia and elsewhere are well documented. 

Moreover, China has increasingly offered itself as an alternative to the American rules-based international order. As Beijing expands its reach through investments abroad, including the massive Belt and Road Initiative, the pitch for drawing in new participants has not only been easy money, but the lack of requirements that come with western funding such as anti-corruption measures, support for human rights, and adherence to rule of law. 

For Beijing, this strategy has paid off. Its investments have won support at the UN even as China has engaged in human rights abuses and pushed countries to cut ties with Taiwan. That “no strings attached” approach has also allowed China to rapidly expand its economic and political access beyond the Asia Pacific.

As the U.S. has struggled to match investments dollar-for-dollar, Washington has tried to push back on China’s influence by highlighting Beijing’s debt-laden deals, lack of transparency and failure to help local communities. As one State Department supported video warned, echoing language from a report produced by the Center for New American Security, “liabilities for host countries – loss of control, opacity, debt, dual-use potential and corruption – are often strategic assets for Beijing.”

The goal is to cast the U.S. as a fairer and more transparent alternative, or at least potential partner, for nations looking for investment. For this strategy of limiting Beijing’s power to work, however, the U.S. actually has to represent an alternative that rejects corruption, interference and opacity. Without a clear commitment to those principles, Washington’s messaging will be seen as little more than talk and easily dismissed as insincere. 

Trump’s conspiracy theory riddled attempts to pressure foreign powers to investigate political rivals and then cover it up do little to inspire confidence.  Same with his uncritical congratulatory tweet marking the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China or his decision to stay quiet on protests in Hong Kong. He has all but tossed the best argument the U.S. could make for why countries should work with Washington over Beijing out the window. That loss of credibility has long ranging consequences and will undermine U.S. efforts to defend the rule of law and mitigate Chinese (and Russian) interference operations for decades.

If the U.S. is to recover any shred of credibility, lawmakers—especially Republicans—must speak up and unequivocally reject Trump’s actions just as they condemned the NBA’s statement. While the GOP is gun shy on impeachment at the moment, and that’s unlikely to change, they could support censure. That would make clear that Trump’s conduct does not represent the country or its values and recover some international faith in our principles and democratic process. 

Since that hasn’t happened, and likely will not, Republicans have enabled President Trump to  hand Beijing its best talking point yet: the U.S. doesn’t actually support the principles it talks so much about. 

Of course Beijing is laughing. The joke is on the country—not just President Trump.

Erin Dunne

Erin Dunne is a writer based in Washington D.C. and a graduate of the Yenching Academy at Peking University, where she earned a Master of History in China Studies. She previously covered national security and defense policy for the Washington Examiner on the commentary desk. Her work has also appeared in Morocco World News, Real Clear Defense, The Diplomat and other publications. You can follow her on Twitter @erinelsadunne.