Most of the world righteously united against Russia after its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is now an international pariah. Ukraine is receiving billions in military and humanitarian aid. The world’s soft power resources have mobilized to sever Russian access to financial services, trade, most business opportunities, and international travel. Russian oligarchs have been sanctioned, their mega-yachts seized. The United States will henceforth refuse to buy Russian oil. Even the hapless United Nations General Assembly condemned Russia in an overwhelming, albeit nonbinding, vote.
This is all very encouraging. Resisting a ruthless dictator bent on expanding his power as he suppresses his own people and commits human rights atrocities requires a robust international response if the world is to remain minimally civilized. But the question must be asked: Why mobilize so effectively against Russian human rights atrocities while concomitantly shrugging at the profound crimes against humanity being committed by the People’s Republic of China?
Yes, the Russian invasion is horrific and inexcusable. Innocent people are suffering and dying. Their shed blood cries out for a focused reaction.
But is the ongoing evil committed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) any less worthy of a focused international response? First, there’s the active and ongoing genocide inflicted against the Uyghurs of Western China where more than 1 million innocent people have been imprisoned in concentration camps simply because they’re a Muslim ethnic minority. Uyghur women are raped as a means of oppression, and often forced to endure involuntary sterilization and abortions; Uyghur workers are shipped involuntarily throughout the country as literal slaves. It’s all sickeningly reminiscent of the Third Reich.
But that’s far from all. Falun Gong practitioners are routinely arrested for their beliefs and murdered to supply China’s “organ tourism” trade. Then, there’s the illegal occupation and cultural genocide of Tibet, the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong against China’s treaty obligations, its increasingly bellicose threats against the independence of Taiwan, the pernicious social credit system, military incursions against the Indian border, the illegal militarization of the South China Sea, and the mass theft of international property—not to mention the great COVID-19 coverup—all at the direction of a Communist Party dictatorship as cold, calculating, and indifferent to the sanctity of human life as the man who rules Russia.
Yet, despite all of this—and more—China remains a “respectable” member of the international community. Here are some of the reasons why:
The Power of Video
The adage of a picture being worth a thousand words is multiplied exponentially when shocking images are live-streamed. Who among us hasn’t recoiled at the plight of terrified Ukrainian refugees packing train stations or been outraged at the intentional destruction of residential neighborhoods and the murderous shooting of fleeing families by the Russian army? Wh0 among us hasn’t shed tears at the widespread misery Putin unleashed?
In contrast, China is an opaque society. Most of its evil acts happen internally, in the deepest shadows where no videos photograph the gruesome events to shock the conscience. Yes, the rapes of Uyghur women are known, but their horrified screams remain unheard. The photos of concentration camps taken from satellites depict huge prison complexes, but not the excruciating tortures within. The mutilated bodies of harvested Falun Gong practitioners aren’t broadcast to the world because their murders are committed in sterile hospital surgical suites. In short, the horrors of Ukraine are vividly depicted for all to see, but those committed in China remain abstract.
The Power of Effective Leadership
China certainly doesn’t lack for critics. But most of the resistance comes from demonstrations rarely reported in the media and scholarly think tank studies that are insufficient to mobilize popular resistance. In contrast, the opposition to Russia has a heroic face, that of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who, along with his government, remains in the country under constant threat of sudden violent death. Zelensky’s leadership has inspired his country and the world to emotionally support the defense of Ukraine. With no equivalent opposition leader in China around whom to rally, world opposition to CCP policies remains unfocused and flaccid.
The Power of Money
Russia is a huge country geographically, but relatively puny economically, with a GDP smaller than that of Italy, Brazil, and Canada. Indeed, if Russia didn’t have the world’s largest inventory of nuclear arms, it wouldn’t be a world power. This means there’s little financial risk for the world’s countries and corporate conglomerates to disconnect from the Russian economy.
The opposite is true of China. China generates more than one third of the world’s GDP and is the manufacturing center of the world. Economically divorcing the country would cause genuine pain.
Moreover, the country isn’t only rich when compared to Russia; its one billion-plus population is a crucial market for the world’s goods. More insidiously, China uses wealth to insinuate its values into the institutions of the West, ranging from our universities to our entertainment industry, to our political and business organizations. Money buys acquiescence. Notice that the same major corporations that boycott Georgia for minor changes to its voting laws—and which have righteously pulled their businesses out of Russia—are inert in the face of China’s multitudinous human rights abuses.
The Power of Shared Culture
Finally, Ukraine is a Western country. When we see the suffering of its people, we see ourselves—in their clothes, the look of their cities, the structure of their cultural and political institutions, the churches they attend. We share the democratic values they espouse, and perhaps—in this, I hope I’m wrong—also identify with their European features.
China, in contrast, is an Eastern civilization. Its most prominent political and cultural values are illiberal. Its people look differently than many of us. In this sense, China is more “foreign” (if you will) to Westerners than Ukraine and the suffering of its people therefore—and again, I hope I’m wrong in this—perhaps more difficult with which to empathize.
And here’s the irony. Both Russia and China present clear and present dangers to Western values. But of the two, Russia is the lesser existential threat. Its reckless dictator aspires to control Eastern and Central Europe. But China’s cold-blooded leaders plan to dominate the world.
That doesn’t mean we should oppose Russia’s aggression less forcefully. But it does mean we should resist China’s greater overall peril with an equivalent strategy of muscular “soft power” now mobilized against Russia. Ukraine is the immediate crisis, to be sure. But over the long term, the Middle Kingdom poses a far greater peril. Our policies going forward need to reflect that threatening reality.