Thoughts on the Trump administration’s potential entry ban for members of the Communist Party of China
On July 15th, 2020, Paul Mozur and Edward Wong of the New York Times reported that the Trump administration is considering a policy which would ban all members of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and their family members, from entering the United States. The policy measures under consideration include a moratorium on new visas as well as measures to revoke existing visas for CPC members and their family, which would lead to expulsions for those who are already in America.
If the American government actually bans all 90+ million Party members and their 180+ million family members from entering the US, it would be a policy failure.
I don’t plan to argue this would be a policy failure based on the impact it will have on peoples’ lives. For one, I’m not sure this is a consideration for the Trump administration. For two, there are plenty of these takes already. Rather, I believe it would represent a failure to take advantage of the leverage that America has in its standoff with China.
Start with the following assumptions:
- Many people with power and influence in China are Party members
- Rich and powerful Chinese often send their kids to US universities (and their spouses often live in the US with the children)
- They also buy property in the US because it is a stable store of value (property in China is grossly overpriced* and the stock market’s performance is unpredictable to say the least)
- Government officials, all of whom are Party members, have low salary by American standards (eg, $500–1,000 per month) but can earn vast fortunes through accepting bribes or owning shares in companies
- If ill-gotten funds are kept in China, they are in danger of being seized at any moment — Zhou Yongkang’s $14.5 billion in assets were seized following an anti-corruption investigation — so it is generally safe to assume that wealthy Party members store much of their money overseas
*In the US, the typical price of a property is 20x the annual rent. For example, if a house is $4000/month to rent, it will cost approximately $960,000. In China, the buying price is often 80x the annual rent.
If the US is prepared to move ahead with travel bans (and asset-freezing sanctions) for CPC officials and their family members, the most effective method would be to sanction a portion of the most powerful officials in China. By sanctioning half of the 25-member Politburo, for example, the US could create significant in-fighting within the top ranks of the Party. Imagine that 12 of the 25 governing elite suddenly lost access to the billion-dollar nest egg they have stored overseas in property and dollar-denominated assets. Suddenly there would be a meaningful consequence for China’s policy decisions regarding Tibet, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, India, the Covid-19 outbreak, etc.
There’s a saying in Chinese — 杀鸡儆猴 — which literally translates to “killing the chicken to scare the monkey.” In a less violent sense, it means making an example of someone.
Sanctioning half of the Politburo (killing the chicken) would put the other half of the Politburo on edge (scare the monkey). The officials who had not yet been sanctioned would have a multi-billion dollar incentive to reverse course on some of China’s more aggressive actions. Those who had been sanctioned may be enticed through diplomatic backchannels to work with the US in order to end the sanctions against them. At the time the first round of sanctions is implemented, the US State Department should make it clear that further sanctions are coming unless certain steps are taken with respect to the conflicts mentioned above.
Until the CPC’s top officials feel that they are under direct (financial) threat for the decisions they make on behalf of their country, they will have little incentive to reverse course.
By keeping the number of individuals sanctioned relatively low, the US can minimize the chance that innocent Americans are arbitrarily imprisoned in China. After all, China would do itself a disservice if it imprisoned ordinary American citizens in response to sanctions on top Chinese officials. Doing so would only help the US rally more allies to its side as the US-China rivalry continues to intensify.
Further, I would be shocked if the US had a comprehensive database of every Party official and their family members (270+ million people). Thus, there’s no way CBP and the US Embassies in China could actually enforce such a ban. Enacting a policy which you cannot enforce weakens your position.
Party membership doesn’t necessarily indicate zealous loyalty. Often times joining the Party is a practical measure to widen one’s access to job opportunities. The people I know with the most intelligent criticisms of China’s governance are current or former Party members. The US government can find ways to bring them to America rather than enacting a policy which screams “we hate you.” There is no need to create recalcitrant opponents among those who may be inclined to support America.
Lastly, a blanket ban would be a propaganda field day for the CPC, both inside China (“You see? We told you! America hates China and will never let you succeed, there’s no point in you even thinking about moving there.”) and outside (“America under Donald Trump has no interest in being a good international partner. Our borders are open and our Covid-19 situation is under control. Come do business here instead.”)
The Trump administration often leaks policy plans with broad-sweeping implications only to dial back the plan when it’s time for implementation. For example: “BUILD THE WALL!” became “building new sections of border wall in certain locations over the course of a four year period.” In other words, I would be very surprised if the administration actually went ahead with a Party-wide travel ban.
In sum, a blanket travel ban on CPC members is a bad idea, but selective bans and asset freezes could yield positive results in the strategic rivalry with China.
While I agree with the notion put forth in Mozur and Wong’s article that such a ban would “further poison” the relationship between the US and China, this cannot be a central consideration in shaping America’s China policy. The relationship has been declining steadily since 2012 when Xi Jinping took the helm of the CPC. Policies intended to “keep China happy” have led to decades of ceding American strategic interests in exchange for short term economic benefit. While the specific policies America should pursue are worth debating, the Trump administration was largely correct to realign America’s positioning towards China.
Whereas China under Deng Xiaoping had a policy of keeping a low profile while building strength, Xi Jinping’s China is openly assertive and aggressive. Xi wants China to overtake the United States as the world’s top superpower, both militarily and economically. In this context, a decline in US-China relations is inevitable and thus should not be the primary consideration with respect to policymaking.