The Problem With “Liberating” China – Opting Out


All eyes are on China after the devastating effects of COVID-19, and many are pointing the finger squarely at the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Many Westerners acting in good faith will treat the issue of China like this: “I support the Chinese people, I just oppose the CCP.”

It does make sense to draw a clear line between “the people” and “the state”: the state is the ruler, the law-maker, the exploiter. The state is not always considered morally legitimate. In the case of the CCP, that’s quite an easy case to make.

However, if your ultimate intention is peace and prosperity between nations, the problems with this “White Savior” mentality are manyfold.

The rub is that no matter whether people like their government or not, agree with their policies, or feel oppressed by them, it is rare that they perceive aggressive foreign forces as benevolent liberators.

Notice understanding this subtle truth does not require us to believe that Xi Jinping is a saint and the CCP has done nothing wrong. Anyone who speaks this truth is not automatically a “CCP shill.”

Falling for this trap is exactly what wiley people in Western governments and corporate media want — to lull you into believing a cartoonish dichotomy of the great Western fighters for freedom and democracy versus the smelly communist oppressors. These “good intentions” serve the pretext for more expansion of power by a force bent on empire.

Ironically, it also supports China’s propaganda efforts, reinforcing the belief that the West will do anything to stop a true people’s revolutionary power.

Is the West Even Good At This?

The first problem is that it reinforces the worldview that Western powers led by the US are a force for good and it is their job to liberate the Earth from tyranny.

Even if you believe that that is their job, they have so far got a very bad track record. US military interventions just as often exacerbate tyranny and social disruption. To name a few: Installing the Shah of Iran, and “freeing” Iraq from Saddam Hussein, neither resulting in greater freedoms for their peoples. In fact, in many cases it’s gotten worse.

There’s the intervention in Afghanistan, which is getting on to be a two-decade-old war. The Taliban are still in control of many parts of the country. Insurgents have meant the US military has made little to no progress at the cost of millions of lives.

It’s not obvious that American military adventures have resulted in a net positive for oppressed people.

It’s fair to say not everyone is talking about military action towards China. Most would like to see economic retaliation to put pressure on the CCP for what they see as severe negligence over COVID-19.

If this is such a good idea, then we surely would be seeing the end of dictatorial socialism in Cuba after decades of sanctions and blockades. Yet it turns out preventing poor people from receiving necessary goods doesn’t encourage their leaders to pursue a policy of human rights and free enterprise.

There is no doubt that the people in these various countries are oppressed. That’s not the point. We have to look at trade-offs and unintended consequences. Look at the track record of forces that claim to be liberators — how can we keep trusting them?

The idea that Western forces and influences, even if they’re not explicitly aggressive, will receive a warm welcome from the Chinese is farcical.

Take the observation by 16th century French political theorist Étienne de La Boétie in Discours de la servitude volontaire ou le Contr’un (Discourse on Voluntary Servitude) that no regime can survive without common, at least tacit, support. No government could successfully “oppress” 1.6 billion people without some kind of public consent.

Most Chinese people see their state as at least inevitable, if not a force for good. Every Chinese person is or knows someone who is a party member.

Let’s say you don’t believe the polls which suggest most Chinese people support the government, giving it an 8 out of 10 on average. Let’s assume the pollsters are all liars.

Just put yourself in their shoes and reverse the scenario — imagine the Chinese military launching ground invasions to “liberate” you from your native state. Regardless of how you feel about your government, at minimum you would take this as presumptuous and reckless.

I’m not a fan of my own government in the United Kingdom. I’d sooner see it abolished completely and have nothing replace it. But I can barely cope with foreigners criticizing it — there is little more irritating when Australians and Americans are permitted on public television just to tell us how stupid we are for leaving the European Union and how inept our police are — let alone putting economic sanctions on us, or coming over here and installing a leader they would prefer.

It’s like, can you bugger off? You might be right that my government is evil, but I don’t need someone from some other country informing me of it, and if I need your help I’ll ask for it.

Then look at the Middle East. Their people’s first thought when their village is being bombed by American drones is likely not “thank goodness!” In fact, it’s not difficult to imagine them believing the things extremists say about those foreign devils.

It is not likely that the peoples of that country will perceive that action the way you want them to, regardless of your intentions.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.


  1. Anti-militarism is a good sentiment, but you appear to be presenting a false dichotomy between military action and turning a blind eye. The CCP can be isolated and forced into more transparency and liberty for their minority populations through economic pressure by a united front of nations. Taiwan could be recognized, as a first step. Hong Kong was begging for foreign support during their protests this past year: waving American and British flags and singing the US national anthem at gatherings. Hong Kong could be supported through Economic and diplomatic means.
    Over the past 40 years, China has caused a decline in the life-style of the middle and under classes in most western countries by undercutting wages. Tariffs or complete embargoes should be enacted by EU and North American countries to rebuild manufacturing elsewhere. (For the US and Canada: Central and South American countries. For the EU: African and Middle-Eastern countries) This would reduce untenable levels of immigration from, and poverty in, those countries, and reduce the power of the CCP by reducing production based prosperity in China. China would have to shift to more consumption based growth on footing with the rest of the world…which would require more freedom for their own people.
    While I am normally opposed to tariffs, even Libertarians must recognize that fully open trade with an authoritarian regime runs against the cause of liberty. The only truly justifiable punishment in a free society is shunning. When a person misbehaves, we stop dealing with that person. Eventually they have to change their behavior, become a non-issue, or get aggressive. (The third is an extreme, admittedly bad, result…and then we have to defend ourselves.) This is justifiable at the level of nation-states as well. The cause of liberty does not require us to deal with an authoritarian power. We can isolate and shun them. One thing I have to say for Trump…his trade policy with China has been effective in getting the CCPs attention, and it’s done good things for Mexican manufacturing.

  2. The problem is that many people in China — vast swatches of them — are not Chinese, not by any stretch of the imagination — Tibetans, Inner Mongolians, Uighurs, and others. Indeed the real “China” is about half of its current size before the takeover by the CCP. The PRC is not a nation-state in the same way that Western countries are. Nor is it a democratic and relatively socially and culturally coherent federal republic like India or Russia.

    And those people are by far the MOST unhappy about being under the Chinese Communist government’s totalitarian grip. With very few exceptions, in reality.

    So this is a bit of an apples and oranges comparison, in this light in particular.

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