I've Changed My Mind About China. America Should Too. | Opinion

It was the year 2001 and I was a second-term U.S. congressman from South Carolina. Opening trade with China was the top priority of Republican President George Bush. The pressure was on Republicans in Congress to support his initiative to give China permanent most favored nation status and allow it to join the World Trade Organization.

It was a tough political decision for me, but it was one that was consistent with my principles. My district was full of anti-trade textile workers, but I was then—and remain today—an avid believer in the power of free enterprise, free markets and free trade. But I was no "globalist," was always a hawk on illegal immigration and was skeptical of what George Washington called "entangling foreign alliances."

Free trade, to me, never meant open borders or one-sided trade agreements. "Free trade" simply means expanding the benefits of free enterprise and free markets to nations and people who have too long been denied it. Free enterprise is why America is rich, strong and secure. Extending market freedoms and opportunities beyond our borders will expand prosperity in America and around the world.

When President Bush asked my support to establish freer trade with China—a poor nation of a billion people, long oppressed by a violent communist regime—I won't say the vote was easy, but it seemed like the right thing to do. I believed that trade would stabilize China's economy and improve their abysmal politics. Freedom is contagious! I had great hopes not only for the jobs and wealth that would come to America by opening China's huge new market, but the benefits that normalized trade would have for human rights, political freedoms and international security for the Chinese people. I believed free and fair trade with China would be a win-win for everyone.

I was right about free trade, but wrong about it being fair. And I was wrong about China.

The United States invited China into the global economy as a partner, but for three decades the Chinese government has betrayed that good faith and abused that privilege. They lie. They cheat. They steal. And all this was before they triggered a global pandemic with their political corruption (and, perhaps, their scientific incompetence). They run racist concentration camps for ethnic and religious minorities. Free trade has not made the Chinese people free.

Human rights in China remains a disaster. The Chinese government uses the internet as a sophisticated tool of political surveillance and oppression. There is no freedom of speech and Big Brother is always watching and ready to put critics of the government in jail. And there is no sign of reform on the horizon. The Chinese Communist Party just announced a new law giving the Chinese government access to the communications and intellectual property of any company operating inside its borders.

Meanwhile, our trade agreement with China is supposed to be enforced by unelected and unaccountable international bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO, like so many other entities corrupted by Chinese and global corporate influences, governs international trade like little dictators. This isn't free trade as Americans understand it; it's just corruption and cronyism.

But we can't continue to blame them. It's time to blame ourselves for letting them get away with it. Chinese communists, corporate thieves and oily international bureaucrats are shady by definition. They have no reason to serve America's interests. That's our government's job, and they haven't been doing it.

National Day parade in Beijing
National Day parade in Beijing GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Congress has been so eager to serve the interests of America's multinational companies that they have been blind to the damage un-free trade is actually doing. We have cheered so loudly for the lower prices and higher stock values that we have ignored the high costs—to our sovereignty, our strategic position and our jobs. And we have allowed China to use its massive trade surplus with America to build a dangerous military with our dollars and stolen military secrets. Donald Trump understands this; it's a big reason why he's president.

I still believe in free trade and engagement, but it has to be smart and strategic. China, for all its faults, seems to understand this. They don't see the American people as a partner; they see us as prey. They don't see the WTO as an honest broker, but as a tool and a weapon to wield against us.

We need to face the fact that the Chinese Communist Party cannot be trusted—and cannot be held accountable through anti-American bureaucracies. We need to reclaim the sovereignty we loaned out to the WTO and develop an economic strategy to contain and constrain China—such as bilateral agreements enforced by Americans.

American cannot be truly free if we rely on an adversary for our most fundamental needs, like drugs and medical supplies. We must modernize our tax system, regulatory policies and our trade policies to give American companies a chance to compete and win against China and every other country in the world.

We gave China a chance. They blew it. It's time to face the fact this so-called "partner" is in reality a corrupt, aggressive and vicious rival—strategically, militarily and economically. It's time for Congress to face that fact and act upon it.

Jim DeMint, a former U.S. senator from South Carolina, is chairman of the Conservative Partnership Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.​​​​​