President Donald Trump has good reason to denounce China’s tolerance of intellectual-property theft and various other trade abuses, as even his harshest critics will acknowledge. And there are tentative signs that U.S. negotiators are securing concessions from Beijing on market access for U.S. firms and the protection of their intellectual property. But a face-saving deal along these lines won’t really change China’s behavior. To do that, Trump ought to play against type by championing the interests of ordinary Chinese workers. That would pressure the Chinese party-state right where it is most vulnerable—and drive home the point that our quarrel is not with the Chinese people, but with the Chinese party-state.
Having witnessed the Arab Spring, and the speed with which the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor sparked a massive wave of protests, the Chinese Communist Party’s elite chose to strengthen its strict censorship regime and to elevate Xi Jinping, who had long argued that the party-state could reap the benefits of a growing digital economy while tightening the grip of its digital police state, to the role of paramount leader.
The keystone of these efforts is China’s Great Firewall. It is, from one vantage point, an extraordinary triumph. At the very same time Chinese entrepreneurs have come to dominate global e-commerce and mobile payments, and as the number of billion-dollar tech start-ups in China approaches the number in the United States, the Chinese party-state has managed to stringently limit the discussion of politically sensitive ideas and events in digital media. In doing so, it has limited the spread of terrorist attacks and peaceful political dissent, both of which have a viral quality.