Engagement with China: Was It a Mistake?

U.S. expectations may have been unrealistic, but there is much to remember and learn from our previous dealings with Beijing.


“The world cannot be safe until China changes,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a July 2020 talk at the Richard Nixon Library and Museum, quoting the 37th president. In the 53 years since Nixon wrote those words, China has changed in immeasurable ways, but not in all the ways the West had hoped. Indeed, Pompeo said that the engagement policy the U.S. has pursued for decades has been a failure.

Was the United States wrong to have engaged China? Could things have turned out differently?

In the decades following Nixon’s breakthrough in 1972, U.S. policy toward China was rooted in optimism and enjoyed bipartisan support. We knew that the payoffs for a successful relationship would be enormous for both sides, and many signs were encouraging. But history sometimes turns on bad luck, as well as policy intentions and misassessments.

We were not wrong to have given the relationship a good shot, and the story has not ended.

The Path Taken

There was a time when if a foreigner wanted to learn about China, he or she had to go to Taiwan. I was part of that generation who, in the 1960s and 1970s, learned Chinese from those who fled the mainland after defeat in the civil war in 1949. These were people who were proud of their Chinese roots, eager to preserve Chinese culture, and with whom I spent many hours trying to master Chinese calligraphy with long brush and ink stone. Life in Taiwan for young foreigners was invigorating and filled with as much fun as you can get riding an underpowered motorcycle with a date on the back.

When mainland China began to open up in the 1980s, it was very exciting. Foreigners could, with a little effort, visit all the places we had read about in the history books. But even greater than the thrill of discovery was the thrill of anticipation. China was changing. What would it become? What would life be like for our Chinese friends?

In the intervening years, from the 1980s to today, incredible things have happened. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. China has become the world’s largest trading nation. World-class skyscrapers, high-speed trains and scores of vast new college campuses demonstrate that when given a chance, the Chinese want the best. The collapse of communism as an economic and social system gave rise to all sorts of ways to find greater meaning and opportunity in life. Vast riches came for some; a materially better-off life for nearly all.

Interaction with the outside world increased profoundly, and we could imagine the day when the Chinese would enjoy all the things that we felt make life meaningful. As Americans, we were eager to share; and the Chinese seemed eager to learn. It was exhilarating to be part of it all.

Yet today we find ourselves in very different circumstances. There is a general bipartisan consensus in Washington, D.C., that China’s unbalanced trade, suppression of political freedoms and human rights, and advocacy of authoritarian government requires a new and less-engaging approach.

Some Things to Remember

Consider some of the things that occurred along the way.

1. Tiananmen Square. Dial back to 1989. Thousands of students and everyday workers in Beijing, including from many government offices, were peacefully protesting. They sought an end to corruption and reforms in governance. While there was no U.S. government involvement in the protest itself, America’s influence was evident in the construction of the protesters’ symbolic “Goddess of Democracy,” an obvious takeoff on the Statue of Liberty.

That influence was possible because in 1979 the United States and China had re-established diplomatic relations, and communication between the two societies was rapidly expanding. The head of the Communist Party, Zhao Ziyang, was sympathetic to the protesters and arranged for a meeting between their leaders and the full top national leadership. That meeting could have gone well. The protest could have ended peacefully, and China could have embarked on a path that involved some political, as well as economic, liberalization.

The meeting, however, did not go well. And the rest—the tragic killing in Beijing on the night of June 3—is history.

2. Examples in the Neighborhood. There was more history going on among China’s neighbors. In the 1980s and 1990s, two bastions of Confucian culture—South Korea and Taiwan—transformed themselves from authoritarian regimes that brooked no political opposition into vibrant democratic societies. It seemed that this change was facilitated by economic growth, in particular a rise in per capita GDP. It made sense that once people were well enough off economically, they would seek a greater say in how they were governed.

Again, the U.S. government was not directly involved in these dramatic political transformations; but the United States did promote the development of civil society, and the example of U.S. political openness and stability was a shining light. It was a good bet that China, also rooted in Confucian values, would follow a similar path once there was a sufficient level of economic prosperity.

3. WTO and the Belgrade Bombing. In the late 1990s, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji was boldly dismantling the centrally planned Chinese economy and breaking the “iron rice bowl”—the socialist system that was famously egalitarian but kept the nation mired in poverty.

In its place, private enterprise would drive China to decades of phenomenal economic growth, fueled in part by foreign investment; and U.S. companies with the best business practices were particularly sought after.

Following years of intense international negotiations, during which no one was more tough on China than the United States, the PRC got the green light to become a member of the World Trade Organization in December 2001. As a WTO member, China agreed to subject itself to global trade rules and allow other nations to sue it for unfair trade practices. Since that time, China has sued and been sued many times and has won and lost cases.

What a tragedy of history that in the buildup to this remarkable engagement, U.S. planes participating in the war in Bosnia mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. To a man, the top Chinese leadership believed that the bombing on May 7, 1999, had to have been intentional. And ever after it would prove difficult for American interests and values to gain traction in Chinese leadership deliberations.

In the late 1990s, Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji was boldly dismantling the centrally planned Chinese economy.

4. An Explosion of Communication and Exchange. As technology, especially the internet, developed rapidly in the 2000s, China was not far behind the United States in the growth of social media and an explosion of information exchange. This was accelerated by the exposure of hundreds of thousands of Chinese students studying abroad, nowhere more than in the U.S., to political, social and cultural ideas they never would have encountered back home.

International journalists began reporting from China in droves as Chinese journalists spread around the world and began educating their compatriots on what was going on outside China. International nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) began setting up operations in China, even as homegrown NGOs were promoting environmental, charitable and social causes.

Religions, including Christian churches in places like Zhejiang province, were adding millions of converts. There was an explosion of academic exchanges, with thousands of American and other Western scholars presenting at conferences in China on business, political, and technical and scientific topics.

Eventually, all this proved too uncontrollable for Beijing’s leaders; but at the time it seemed that such activities were tolerated, even welcomed, for China’s development.

5. Acknowledging International Norms. Beginning some 40 years ago, China began a tentative, though never warm, embrace of international legal and political norms. The Chinese put human rights protections into their constitution and professionalized their legal system. They signed existing international conventions. Prompted by business concerns, they tightened up contract law and established legal studies programs based on Western models. At the behest of the United States, in particular, they set up specialized courts to deal with cases of intellectual property theft.

The Chinese also began to hold elections broadly at the village level and began “experiments” with wider district elections. They began holding public hearings on local issues and, before implementing new regulations, put proposed policies out for public comment. No one commented more than U.S. entities, and their comments often changed the policies substantially.

Reviving a revered historical practice, ordinary citizens were allowed to petition local, provincial and national leaders for redress of grievances. Party membership was greatly expanded to include former “enemies of the state,” such as business owners and landlords. And the president of the country was limited to two five-year terms, leading in 2002 to the first peaceful and willing transfer of power in China’s history when Jiang Zemin gave up control of the country to Hu Jintao.

During Hu’s terms in office, his Premier Wen Jiabao publicly looked forward to the day when China would enjoy greater democracy. Another peaceful transfer of power took place in 2012 when Hu turned over the reins to Xi Jinping. Xi has since pulled back many of these political and legal reforms, promoting instead greater personal and Chinese Communist Party control; but he was not expected to, and nothing forced him to do it.

Indeed, in a move no one foresaw, Xi has set himself up as ruler for life, apparently turning back to imperial China—where there are only loyalists and traitors—as a guide for governance in the 21st century. Forced assimilation of the Uyghurs became so brutal that the United States judged it violated the U.N. genocide convention. Toleration for political differences in Hong Kong was ended, casting a deep chill on hopes for peaceful reunification with a willing Taiwan. And military capabilities that could have been promoted as reasonable protection for Chinese assets are now used to intimidate in the South China Sea and elsewhere.

Disappointment of Our Own Making

If only things had turned out differently! Yet our disappointment is of our own making. With now-clear hindsight, we can see that the idea that the West was going to adopt China into its ranks was fanciful.

China’s rise is China’s story, not ours. You do not have to be in China very long before you learn how proud the Chinese are of their long history and deep culture. Even if the “5,000 years” of history they often claim is hard to document, what is well documented is certainly impressive. What if the Roman Empire and its control of most of Europe had continued until today? What if Latin had more native speakers than any other language, and Roman poetry and philosophy had been written and matured for more than 2,000 years?

From the Chinese perspective, that would be comparable to what China and its culture are today. That such a nation was humiliated for a hundred years before 1949—forced to legalize opium for the profits of foreigners, allow foreign militaries almost free rein within its borders and be “carved up like a melon,” in the words of Chinese historians, by Western colonial powers—leaves the Chinese with a powerful imperative today: Regain China’s place in the world and the respect it is due.

Our expectations for China’s future were wrong and hubristic, but Beijing’s current expectations for its own future may turn out to be wrong, too. History is like that; there is nothing inevitable about it.

Was our engagement of China during the past 50 years a mistake? No. Had we not embraced the Chinese nation, anticipated the best and welcomed its people to our land and our values, but instead obstructed China’s development despite its great promise in so many areas, history would have judged us very harshly.

Still, it is a different world now. As the Biden administration contemplates how we might best deal with a newly powerful and emboldened China, we should remember the ways in which our engagement has united us, not only what now divides us.

Robert Griffiths teaches political science at Brigham Young University. A retired U.S. Foreign Service officer, he lived and worked for 14 years in China, including as consul general in Shanghai from 2011 to 2014.