American Leaders Sold a Dream of Changing China

Advocates of engagement are now downplaying the missionary impulse. That’s not what U.S. presidents said at the time.

U.S. President George W. Bush in China
U.S. President George W. Bush walks from behind a partition before a press briefing on his trip to Beijing on Nov. 20, 2005. Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

After over 40 years of engagement, China has grown increasingly illiberal at home and assertive abroad. Beijing’s deepening authoritarianism and aggressive nationalism have sparked a heated debate among policy analysts, former government officials, academics, and others about whether the United States got China wrong. At the heart of this conversation lies the contentious question of whether the United States even sought to change China in the first place.

Defenders of engagement, many of whom built their own professional careers around the notion, claim that American politicians and officials never aimed to transform the People’s Republic of China into a liberal democracy or a close partner of the United States. Some argue that “the goal was to shape Chinese policy to align more with U.S. objectives” in terms of “a more open society, reduced overseas disruptive behavior, increasingly transparent business operations.” Others suggest that the transformative framing of engagement was a rhetorical flourish, claiming that “critiques often fail to distinguish between the way Washington publicly justifies its policies, by referring to values, and the way it actually formulates them, by putting national interests first.”

These efforts to downplay the missionary impulse of engagement with China amount to historical gaslighting, an attempt to retcon the record to conceal the extent of failure. During the Cold War, American leaders justified engagement with China as reining in China’s revolutionary foreign policy, establishing a stable bilateral relationship, and countering the Soviet threat—all reasonable goals. But for the first 20 years of the post-Cold War era, American leaders, backed by their advisors and strategists, unambiguously sold engagement with China on the basis of fostering a democratic and responsible government in Beijing. During these years, U.S. Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush consistently justified their approach to China using the “prevailing liberal ideas about the linkages between trade, economic growth and democracy, and a faith in the presumed universality and irresistible power of the human desire for freedom.”

This line of argument began during George H.W. Bush’s time in office. Before the protests and crackdown of June 1989, Bush, who had been chief of the U.S. Liaison Office in Beijing in the mid-1970s, expressed a deep personal interest in China. Several days into office, he was already stressing the “strong, important strategic and commercial and cultural relationship that we have with the Chinese.” Bush spoke of great potential for robust cooperation with Beijing, expressing hope for collaboration in a wide variety of areas, including conflict resolution, arms control, anti-trafficking, environmental issues, trade and investment, science and technology, and education.

Yet despite his earlier optimism, after the bloody Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989, Bush had no choice but to adjust his rhetoric on China. In a news conference that June 5, he announced punitive measures and condemned the brutal crackdown, stating that “the United States cannot condone the violent attacks and cannot ignore the consequences for our relationship with China.” Even so, Bush also insisted that “this is not the time for an emotional response, but for a reasoned, careful action that takes into account both our long-term interests and recognition of a complex internal situation in China.” He strongly emphasized, “I don’t want to see a total break in this relationship, and I will not encourage a total break in the relationship.” Clearly, Bush was unwilling to fully cast aside his dream of working with China—a position that yielded years of tension between Bush and a more hard-line Congress.

Facing an intense post-Tiananmen backlash, Bush began justifying continued engagement with China on the basis of supporting democratization and liberalization. At the same June 5 news conference, Bush argued, “I happen to believe that the commercial contacts have led, in essence, to this quest for more freedom.” He then added that “I think as people have commercial incentive, whether it’s in China or in other totalitarian systems, the move to democracy becomes more inexorable.” Bush maintained this linkage throughout his presidency, later claiming that on issues such as human rights, arms control, and trade, “we are making a difference in China by remaining engaged.” In doing, Bush presented the American public with the first comprehensive change-focused conceptualization of U.S. policy toward China.

Despite going after Bush’s record on China during the 1992 presidential election, Bill Clinton ultimately doubled down on the language of transformation in office. At first, Clinton attempted to pressure China to change. During a major statement on U.S. policy toward China in May 1993, Clinton derided Bush for hampering congressional efforts to place conditions on the renewal of “our favorable trade rules toward China, so-called most-favored-nation status.” He declared, “it is time that a unified American policy recognize both the value of China and the values of America,” expressing a need for the United States to pressure China on human rights, proliferation, and trade reciprocity.

To this end, Clinton articulated a new (and ill-fated) policy toward China. Clinton’s policy placed “resolute insistence upon significant progress on human rights in China,” binding the future renewal of the most-favored-nation status to “whether China makes significant progress in improving its human rights record.” Clinton justified this policy shift on the belief “that China’s process of development and economic reform will be accompanied by greater political freedom.” As Clinton put it, by “supporting peaceful democratic and pro-market reform,” the administration planned to “cultivate these hopeful seeds of change in China.”

A year later in May 1994, Clinton abandoned this approach, shifting to a policy of seeking change through engagement. As other areas of the bilateral relationship grew in importance, Clinton announced his move to “delink human rights from the annual extension of most-favored-nation trading status for China,” arguing that “we have reached the end of the usefulness of that policy and it is time to take a new path toward the achievement of our constant objective.” While articulating his new position on China, Clinton proposed:

I believe the question, therefore, is not whether we continue to support human rights in China but how we can best support human rights in China and advance our other very significant issues and interests. I believe we can do it by engaging the Chinese. … We will have that in an atmosphere which gives us the chance to see China evolve as a responsible power, ever growing not only economically but growing in political maturity so that human rights can be observed.

Thus began the second phase of Clinton’s policy toward and rhetoric on China, one that justified engagement not just in terms of promoting liberalization within China, but also fostering the growth of a “responsible power” on the world stage. This new stance fed into Clinton’s campaign to get China into the World Trade Organization and eventually resulted in him advocating for a “constructive strategic partnership” with China in 1997. Within this new framework, Clinton affirmed his support of engagement with China. He sold this new era of cooperation to the public on the basis of promoting internal liberalization and because “a stable, open, prosperous China that assumes its responsibilities for building a more peaceful world is clearly and profoundly in our interests.”

As with Clinton’s campaign efforts, George W. Bush initially struck a far more hawkish tone on China than his predecessor. On the campaign trail, he called for the United States to redefine China as a “competitor” and place greater emphasis on its Asian allies. Once in office, Bush labeled China a “strategic competitor.” When speaking before Congress, administration officials called China “a potential regional rival” and advocated for Washington to “be frank about our differences” with China on such issues as Taiwan, human rights, and proliferation.

But even as the president sought to reorient the bilateral relationship toward competition, Bush also doubled down on the transformative power of economic engagement with China. In doing so, Bush mirrored Clinton’s moralistic rhetoric, painting trade as a wondrous tool for fostering a more liberal Beijing. Speaking before the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in May 2001, Bush declared “When we open trade, we open minds. We trade with China because trade is good policy for our economy, because trade is good policy for democracy, and because trade is good policy for our national security.”

9/11 was the final blow to any idea of China as a strategic opponent. A month after the attacks, during a press conference in Shanghai, the president pivoted to describing China as one of the United States’ “important partners” in the “global coalition against terror.” Bush welcomed China’s accession into the World Trade Organization and called for a “candid, constructive, and cooperative” relationship with China.

Though Bush switched his focus from competition to cooperation, he continued to explain U.S. policy in terms of shaping China’s future. At the same press conference in Shanghai, the president reiterated that “economic freedom and political freedom will go hand in hand” and that “the advance of Chinese prosperity depends on China’s full integration into the rules and norms of international institutions.” The administration eventually expanded and rebranded this stance on China’s role in the world, calling for Beijing to become a “responsible stakeholder” in 2005.

As such, George W. Bush ultimately replicated the rhetoric and policies of Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush. Each of these three presidents came to frame U.S policy toward China in remarkably similar terms, stressing that engagement could liberalize the government and shape its behavior.

Defenders of engagement may argue that George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush did not actually believe their own rhetoric on China, that their advisors and strategists held a more realistic view of U.S. goals, and that the idealist rhetoric existed only to sell engagement to the public. There is little evidence to support such claims. Moreover, the United States is a democracy, and presidential administrations are ultimately accountable to the public. If three successive administrations knowingly misled the American public on U.S. policy toward China, that would amount to a significant betrayal of public trust.

Rather, in the optimistic days of the unipolar moment, American leaders believed in their ability to change China. Even though American rhetoric shifted under President Barack Obama, who abandoned any pretense of changing China internally and instead emphasized cooperation with China on global issues, defenders of engagement cannot sweep the early post-Cold War era under the rug. For nearly 20 years, American leaders sold engagement with Beijing as changing China. This is not to say the United States should not have engaged China, but rather that Americans cannot learn from the successes and failures of engagement if they blind themselves to the motivations behind two decades of U.S. policy toward China.

Zachary Haver is a China analyst based in Washington, D.C Twitter: @zacharyhaver