Do Two Dreams Equal a Nightmare?

Why Xi Jinping’s vision of a future China cannot coexist with the American Dream.

As President Barack Obama meets with President Xi Jinping of China this weekend in California, much more is at stake than the media's preferred storyline about whether the two presidents will discard their formal talking points in favor of casual "shirtsleeves" conversation.

Indeed, so much anticipation has been built up about interactions between U.S. and Chinese officials that we often overlook the fundamental point about America's relationship with China: What is at stake in what some call the most important relationship of the century is nothing less than the type of world we will leave to our children and grandchildren. 

This will be determined by the outcome of two dreams. One is the American Dream that for decades has served as an example to the rest of the world of what is possible for Americans of all classes, if they work hard to succeed and rise above the circumstances of their birth. That dream is increasingly out of reach for many, as the opportunities once afforded to every American no longer can be taken for granted. Many feel the system is now stacked against them.

The other dream is the so-called Chinese Dream that President Xi has spoken about frequently since assuming power earlier this year. This dream holds that China is destined to become a great power, and that meeting the Chinese people's "desire for a happy life" is the mission of China's rulers.

Although Xi's dream has echoes of the American Dream, these two visions are very different and ultimately incompatible if China desires to become a "responsible stakeholder" in the international system. Which dream succeeds in the coming decades will have profound implications, not just for the United States and China, but for the world.

That's because for almost seven decades, the United States has served as the primary guarantor of peace and stability in the world. It has built alliances, helped establish international institutions, protected the international sea lanes on which commerce flows and helped spread freedom and prosperity. In times of crisis, America has provided leadership and, when necessary, the lives of its citizens to advance its ideals and defend its security.

That is now all in question because of the last four and a half years of the Obama administration's foreign policy. Our allies are often left looking for leadership. Our military staying power is being undermined by the president's arbitrary defense cuts. And when crises arise, from Asia to the Middle East, both our enemies and our allies are often left searching for clarity on America's position. Too often, they come up empty.

As this perception of American retreat grows, Chinese leaders are presenting an image of the Chinese Dream that is not realistic to its people or to its neighbors.

China has been experiencing impressive economic growth, by copying parts of the American economic model and enjoying the stability afforded by U.S. power. Many of its citizens have been able to enjoy the fruits of that progress. However, hundreds of millions still have not, a challenge that President Xi will need to face as he tries to adapt the Chinese economic model of managed capitalism quickly enough to respond to these pressures. The clamor among the public for serious change is only growing -- and the limited reforms that the party leadership has been willing to parcel out will not be sufficient for long. 

Beyond these questions about the sustainability of China's economic model, the China Dream is unappealing to the rest of the world because of other factors. 

This week marked the 24th anniversary of the brutal crackdown on pro-democracy activists, many of them students, in Tiananmen Square. The fact that nearly a quarter century after this tragedy, the Chinese authorities still go to great lengths to isolate dissidents on the anniversary and block searches online for commentary and photos from those events shows the fragility of the Chinese Dream.

Despite its rapidly modernizing economy, China is a country where freedom of speech and assembly do not exist. Churches are routinely raided and shut down. Forced sterilizations and abortions are common. Political persecution, including detention without trial and violations of fundamental human rights, are the norm. No nation that conducts such acts can guarantee the happiness of its citizens.

What leaders in Beijing often forget is that how a country treats its citizens often portends how it will treat its neighbors. And China's neighbors will increasingly view its rise with suspicion and dread as long as these policies continue, regardless of its economic power. They are not clamoring for the China Dream, but are instead worried that their American Dream, of a beneficent ally, may be waning. 

Despite this bleak picture, America can return to the right course, get our economy in order, and resume the global leadership required to ensure that the rise of China and other powers occurs peacefully.

The first step should be for President Obama to speak frankly with President Xi about the areas where Washington and Beijing disagree. Far too often, across multiple administrations of both political parties, U.S. leaders have sought to play down irritants in the relationship in an effort to avoid controversy. The U.S.-China relationship is important enough that this is no longer feasible. 

The administration needs to build on its first term "pivot" to Asia by quantifying what this policy will mean in an age of shrinking U.S. military resources. Washington needs to send the message to both its allies -- as well as Beijing -- that the United States will remain a Pacific power and that it is willing to make the military and economic commitments to do so, including through efforts such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Currently, the administration's commitment is being questioned in the region. Key to reversing this perception is ensuring that U.S. treaty commitments are reaffirmed -- including with Japan, which faces pressure from China over the Senkaku Islands. We also need to reaffirm our commitment to stand with our democratic allies in Taiwan as they face a growing military challenge from the mainland.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the president needs to put America's democratic principles front and center in discussions with China. This is important because it is perhaps the greatest difference between the two dreams. America was founded on the notion that every human being has the God-given right to be free. 

In his discussions with Xi in Sunnydale this weekend, Obama should highlight specific cases, including that of Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, and make the point that Beijing cannot continue to shock the conscience of humanity with its violations of fundamental human rights and its policies toward Tibetans and other minority ethnic groups. This interaction should be the beginning of a sustained U.S. effort to raise these issues at all levels with Beijing.

U.S.-Chinese conflict on these and other important global issues is not preordained. But it will become increasingly likely if U.S. officials continue to focus on atmospherics and fail to tackle the tough issues that divide the two countries. Measurable progress from Beijing on issues such as China's treatment of its citizens and neighbors, on the nuclear programs of North Korea and Iran, on cybersecurity, and on its respect for a rules-based trading system is the best way to begin to improve U.S.-China relations.

Meanwhile, back at home, we need to shore up the American Dream. We need to ensure that our children once again have the opportunity to follow the paths of our parents to a better life. We need to restore optimism and hope in our citizenry about America's role in the world.

If America does these things, we will be well on the way to ensuring that the twenty-first century, just like the one that preceded it, is an American Century -- and that the American Dream continues to be what people everywhere aspire to, for decades to come.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

National Security

Obama’s Surveillance State

The war on terror has taken over not just U.S. foreign policy, but also our inboxes, smartphones, and Facebook pages. And we're only beginning to understand how much harm that's caused.

It's official. We are living in a surveillance state. This week's revelations that wave after wave of Verizon call data, and an endless sea of emails and Facebook posts, are all being trawled by government dragnets are shocking but not really surprising. We've known for years that the government's intelligence machinery has invisible means of cultivating and harvesting personal data in service of a war against terror that has taken over not just America's foreign policy, but also our inboxes and homepages. Like the video footage of the backpack-laden Boston bombers melting into the crowd, this week's disclosures are just an in-your-face reminder that forms of privacy once taken for granted -- getting lost in a crowd or maintaining a private email account -- are all but gone.

Knowing that the National Security Agency is searching our spam folders (where, after all, do many Americans have their highest concentration of messages from foreign nationals?) leaves us feeling violated. Yet, at least until now, the public and lawmakers have been content to do nothing about it. The acquiescence derives in part from knowing that intrusive and even indiscriminate government intelligence capabilities have likely prevented some, and perhaps many, deadly crimes and attacks. But it's also a consequence of an almost total absence of recent data to prove that surveillance in its current forms causes tangible harm. Once we are done being dumbstruck by the latest disclosures, focus must shift to adducing facts and evidence on the harms of surveillance that can enable the public and policymakers to strike the right balance between outrage and acceptance.

The absence of clear proof of harm from surveillance can make it impossible to challenge in court. In February of this year, the Supreme Court held that lawyers, journalists, and civil society groups including PEN American Center, where I work, lacked standing to challenge a law that allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on communications with foreign nationals. The Amnesty vs. Clapper decision held that the groups had failed to show they had suffered actual harm. In a convoluted Catch-22, advocates could not prove they were being monitored precisely because the program and its targets were kept secret, yet failure to so prove obviated a challenge in court. The case was lost and the program endures -- as far as we know -- intact.

That harm from these stealthy programs is hard to prove doesn't mean it does not exist. American history and contemporary international examples suggest that the harm can take multiple forms and be irreparable for individuals affected. In U.S. history, aggressive covert surveillance has persistently veered into government efforts to thwart and punish lawful dissent. During the McCarthy era, the FBI spied on suspected communists and used information collected to get them fired from their jobs, to foment dissent in their organizations, and to leak damaging information to the press. The sense of siege was particularly acute among the creative community, where writers and actors came under suspicion, were barred from working, and sometimes saw promising careers destroyed. During the Vietnam War and civil rights movement, intelligence-gathering was used to intimidate and blackmail activists.

While today's government data-mining tactics may be more precise and its motives more justifiable, we don't really know enough to be certain. The divulgences to date, many of which have been leaked rather than shared, tell us little about how many people -- guilty or innocent -- have been identified, suspected, scrutinized, questioned, and otherwise affected by the data collected. While the stories of those wrongly targeted by these newly exposed tactics haven't yet been told, mass-scale systems that base suspicion on algorithms must make mistakes. While the vast majority of officials with access to information generated by these schemes may maintain a strictly professional focus on ferreting out terrorism, the absence of transparency seems to virtually ensure that those who do not can go undetected. That the victims of error and overreach may be mostly foreign nationals does not mean the harm isn't real or that the consequences won't reverberate back to hurt Americans and American interests.

The trauma of the wrongly accused is not the only damage wrought by massive and intrusive surveillance; these programs may also harm those who are watched accidentally and mindlessly as a byproduct of programs directed at others.

In 1890, future Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and attorney Samuel D. Warren wrote a seminal article defining a right to privacy. They pointed out that the law already recognized a "right to be let alone" and asserted that the common law "secures to each individual the right of determining, ordinarily, to what extent his thoughts, sentiments, and emotions shall be communicated to others." That zone of individual control, they argued, is essential to enable intellectual and creative freedom. The process of drafting and redrafting an article, story, poem, love letter, or advocacy petition would be radically transformed if the writer focused on the fact that every single version could be sucked into a government server somewhere. Brandeis and Warren rejected the idea that voluntary surrender of privacy in one setting or to one group of people (Facebook friends, for example) forfeited the right to privacy in relation to others. They attributed to the individual the right to "fix the limits" of such disclosure. The freedom to create requires the freedom to control who sees your creation. While its parameters would evolve, the right to privacy became enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the world's most influential international human rights instruments.

Brandeis and Warren ground their right to privacy in the principle of an "inviolate personality," arguing that infringements on the individual's ability to decide who sees their thoughts and writings interfere with basic attributes of personhood and human dignity. This intangible but long-recognized form of harm correlates loosely but unmistakably with the discomfort and disgust most people feel at the thought of a national security bureaucrat, human or mechanical, rifling through our emails even if only to dismiss them unread as dull and useless. Although Brandeis and Warren's arguments were set forth in the context of publishing and public disclosure, the prospect of personal information being involuntarily and secretly disclosed to the government is no less troubling, and probably more so.

In the extreme, the idea that government surveillance causes harm is hard to dispute. The resonance of dystopian fiction like Orwell's 1984 and the film Minority Report attest to the deep-seated popular fears associated with being watched by the government. The apprehension, conformity, loss of freedom, and widespread mistrust that eroded social norms and quality of life in societies like Hitler's Germany or Soviet Russia are widely documented. In reflecting back on life for Czech writers under totalitarianism, the novelist Philip Roth told the audience at this Spring's PEN literary gala: "Every day brings a new heartache, a new tremor, more helplessness, and yet another reduction of freedom and free thought in a censored society already bound and gagged.... Unforeseeableness as the new norm and perpetual anxiety as the injurious result. And anger. The maniacal raving of a manacled being. Frenzies of futile rage ravaging only oneself. Alongside your spouse and your children, imbibing the tyranny with your morning coffee."

Research also shows that closely watched prisoners' sense of perpetually being watched contributes to anxiety, an inability to form bonds, and loss of individual initiative. In authoritarian regimes such as China and Iran, dissidents speak compellingly of the trauma and despair they endure as a result of being followed, monitored, and tracked in a dossier. Scarcely a week ago, the United States announced the easing of sanctions on Iran to permit the flow of technologies and tools to enable Iranians to be "more able to protect themselves against government hackers." The rationale seemed obvious.

The few studies that have looked at the effects of similar tactics in less hostile and restrictive settings have confirmed similar, though more muted, effects. An EU privacy study documented that under surveillance, individuals make choices that are more likely to conform to mainstream expectations. A Finnish research project installed cameras and recording devices in the homes of 12 families and documented annoyance, concern, anxiety, and anger among the watched, as well as a loss of spontaneity as inhabitants contemplated any new social event or activity being captured by the cameras.

Now multiply that 12 by 100 million and there are grounds for concern about how surveillance may reshape Americans' moods, psychology, and social life on a national scale. Until now, it might have been argued that what we did not know -- or chose to ignore -- about the staggering breadth of government surveillance couldn't hurt us. Now that it's front page news and trending on Twitter, that's no longer true. The idea that friendly and trusted online brands -- Yahoo, Facebook, and others -- had some part in enabling the NSA's broad incursions raises questions of what platforms and transactions, if any, can be fully trusted.

It seems inevitable that in the coming weeks, on the Sunday talk shows and perhaps in congressional committee hearings, we'll learn of examples of conspiracies thwarted and deadly plots exposed as a result of the powers afforded the vast intelligence-tech industrial complex. We'll also hear about well-intentioned, meticulous professionals who pry into all of our affairs only as much as absolutely necessary for national security, and not an iota more.

Defining the permissible limits of secret government surveillance programs isn't an easy task. Failure to rigorously assess the benefits and dangers of surveillance and to hold a transparent national debate about what levels of intrusion are warranted risks pushing the United States toward a creeping embrace of elements of societies, past and present, that it most abhors.

The idea that new technologies can be simultaneously indispensable and dangerous isn't new. That the popular addiction to email, texting, Facebook, and YouTube will keep usage levels high virtually no matter what is revealed about where posts may wind up should not be confused with public consent to ever more encroaching surveillance. As long as the programs remain even partially secret, that consent can never be fully informed. There is no substitute for courts, legislators, and executive branch officials taking responsibility to ensure that, in trying to protect American society, we don't destroy what we love most about it.

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