We recently learned a lesson which was more than three decades in the making.
The lesson partially stems from two seemingly unrelated events.
The world noted the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine at the end of February. And after an air incursion by a spy balloon, saber-rattling over Taiwan and TikTok dance videos blowing up everyone’s phone, the U.S. Congress suddenly grew more serious about China. This culminated in a prime-time House hearing over the winter studying the threat posed by Beijing by a special House committee designed just to study problems between the U.S. and China.
The Ukraine and China episodes are connected. And they explain a great deal about the Cold War and where the west thought the world was going in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Let’s go back in time.
1989 was a heady period.
It began in the spring when thousands of students and demonstrators crowded Tiananmen Square in Beijing pushing for economic reform, free speech and democracy.
An iconic set of images stands out from Tiananmen Square. A long column of Chinese Type 59 tanks rolls down a massive, tree-lined boulevard near the square. From the left, a lone, unidentified, Chinese man steps out into the street holding satchels in either hand. The man stands stoically as the tanks approach, slowing to a crawl. There is a momentary impasse as the man gestures wildly with his right arm. The tank then maneuvers to the side to drive around the man. But the man gallops to the left, blocking the tanks from passing. The man then stutter-steps, left and right as the tank tries to get around him. “Tank man” finally climbs onto the tank and appears to speak briefly with someone inside the tank.
Screenshot of Chinese military propaganda video that was posted on Chinese state-run media. (Chinese PLA)
He then resumes his human roadblock.
No one really knows what happened to “tank man.”
Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared martial law to clear the square. It’s unknown exactly how many Chinese were killed or wounded.
But everyone thought this was a seminal moment. The movement by the people was too powerful. Things would eventually trend in a different direction. Perhaps toward democracy.
Then came the fall of 1989.
The Berlin Wall fell. The Eastern bloc fell. The Soviet Union disintegrated by the end of 1991.
It was said that “western TV signals” helped undo communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Citizens of those countries would watch reruns of “Dallas” and “Miami Vice” to see how the west lived. It was said that U.S. finally prevailed in the Cold War – not through military might – but with “Madonna and Coke.”
McDonald’s opened in Moscow. In the early 1990s, McDonald’s opened more than 4,000 restaurants in China. Business experts noted that at the time “one-fifth” of the world’s potential Coke drinkers and McDonald’s diners resided in China.
By the late 1990s, even former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev starred in a Pizza Hut commercial.
Experts believed that free trade and capitalism advocated by the west might moderate totalitarian movements and curb dictators. Oppressive regimes would be no match for forces of the market and economic opportunity.
Fast-forward to today.
Russia reverted toward its old ways, punctuated by the death and carnage its war unleashed on Ukraine.
TOPSHOT – In this picture taken on April 13, 2022, a Russian soldier stands guard at the Luhansk power plant in the town of Shchastya. – *EDITOR’S NOTE: This picture was taken during a trip organized by the Russian military.* (Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images)
China is now a cyber-security state. The U.S. Department of Energy believes China may have sparked the coronavirus pandemic, with COVID-19 leaking from a Wuhan lab. Beijing now tracks Chinese nationals on U.S. soil via various “police stations” set up in American cities. We mentioned the spy balloon and TikTok. Military experts believe a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is a high possibility in the coming years.
This is a pretty bleak assessment of the world’s geo-political situation compared to what was anticipated more than three decades ago.
The period the U.S. and the west now enters may be more dangerous than the most icy days of the Cold War.
“Over the past three decades, both Democrats and Republicans underestimated (China) and assumed that trade and investment would lead to democracy,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill, the top Democrat on the House China panel. “Instead, the opposite happened.”
It’s hard to argue with that assessment.
“As China’s economy has grown more than ten-fold since gaining access to U.S. and world markets, (China) has among other things, strengthened its authoritarian control at home,” said Krishnamoorthi. “The goal (of China) has become clear, to displace the U.S. and other competitors. Especially in tomorrow’s strategic industries.”
The lesson the U.S. learned? They overstated optimism which brimmed as the curtains fell on the Cold War and democratic movements rustled in China.
The future the west expected in Eastern Europe and China never materialized. It could be argued that the U.S. found itself on a stronger footing near the end of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. That’s because you had two, reasonably equal superpowers. Now, you have a nuclear-armed Russia which eschewed democracy, ruled by an unpredictable Vladimir Putin. That might mean the U.S. and west is worse off in that relationship.
When it comes to China, the U.S. and westernized democracies are definitely worse off. Congress is considering banning TikTok since its technology pierces the privacy of 152 million Americans. There’s a potential threat of war over Taiwan. It’s doubtful the U.S. would sit that one out.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, just visited Taipei. He told colleague Aisha Hasnie that his committee has a “license” to repel an attack militarily with the authorization of a use of force.
“I think if communist China invades Taiwan, I think that is certainly if the American people support this, the Congress follow,” said McCaul.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., recently met with Taiwanese leader Tsai Ing-wen in California.
When the Chinese embassy in Washington rebuked American lawmakers for heading to Taiwan and McCarthy huddling with Tsai, the Speaker scoffed that Beijing didn’t dictate with whom he would meet.
Former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has been a thorn for China over human rights since a visit to Tiananmen Square in the early 1990s. To describe the relationship between Pelosi and McCarthy as “frosty” does a disservice to Jack Frost. But Pelosi uncharacteristically applauded McCarthy for meeting with Tsai. Pelosi praised her Golden State colleague saying McCarthy should “be commended” for “leadership” huddling with Tsai.
Now China is conducting military exercises in supposed retaliation for the recent enclaves between U.S. lawmakers and Taiwanese officials.
Taiwan’s Foreign Minister Joseph Wu accused Beijing of engaging in what he termed “cognitive warfare,” suggesting that the U.S. might not assist Taipei should China attack.
In this photo released by the Taiwan Presidential Office, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, R-Texas, left, attends a luncheon with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, during a visit by a Congressional delegation to Taiwan in Taipei, Taiwan, Saturday, April 8, 2023. China sent warships and dozens of fighter jets toward Taiwan on Saturday, the Taiwanese government said, in retaliation for a meeting between the U.S. House of Representatives speaker and the president of the self-ruled island democracy claimed by Beijing as part of its territory. (Taiwan Presidential Office via AP)
“We are not counting on the U.S. to directly intervene in war,” said Wu. “But, if for Taiwan to be able to defend itself, there’s several things we need. One is for the United States to continue to provide defense weapons for us.”
Appearing on Fox, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., declared he’d “be very much open to using U.S. forces to defend Taiwan.”
But some Republicans are resistant to the U.S. supporting Ukraine. Most lawmakers from both sides back U.S. help for Taiwan. Where the public stands about American involvement in a shooting war with China is unclear. But don’t forget that there’s significant fatigue from two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. In fact, the Senate just voted to repeal two war authorizations for Iraq, one dating all the way back to the early 1990s.
So reconsider that optimism about the future three decades ago.
“For the time being, it’s still up to us to decide if that’s the future we want for our children. But it won’t be for much longer,” said House China committee chairman Mike Gallagher, R-Wisc., at the prime-time hearing. “Time is not on our side. Just because this Congress is divided, we cannot afford to waste the next two years lingering in legislative limbo or pandering for the press.”
The future is now.
And that bright future everyone hoped for 30 years ago may seem a lot darker today.