American Leaders Sold a Dream of Changing China

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.

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.”Trending Articles