The New York Times reports that the Trump administration is considering proposals to ban all members of the Communist Party of China, and their families, from obtaining a visa to visit the United States. If implemented, would this accomplish what the administration hopes it will?
Does the administration even know what it hopes to accomplish with these measures?
The United States of America is now engaged in open competition with the People’s Republic of China over the future course of world history. This competition has geopolitical, military, diplomatic, economic, and ideological elements.
The leading members of the Communist Party of China believe that to secure victory and to bring about the restoration of the Chinese race to a position of preeminence, severe domestic repression is necessary. This includes stripping the people of Hong Kong of their freedom, the persecution of China’s religious, and a campaign of terror and coercion whose ultimate goal appears to be the demographic death
—that is, the genocide
—of the Uighur people.
There is no consensus in the West or among the democratic nations of the Pacific rim as to how to respond to all of this. Something must be done, but what should be done, and what so doing is supposed to accomplish, remains unclear. This is especially true in regard to Party aims in Xinjiang. Thusfar, most analysis of the problem has been devoted simply to uncovering what is happening. Far less thought has been given to whether we can change what is happening, and how we might do so.
I am pessimistic. I believe there is little the United States government can do that will change the broad strokes of Party policy in Xinjiang. At this point the Party has locked itself into a very dangerous position. They did not heed the old Machiavellian warning to would-be despots and tyrants: “A Prince should inspire fear in such a fashion that if he does not win love he may escape hate.”  The scale and ferocity of the terror that the Party has inflicted upon the Uighur of Xinjiang preclude “escaping hate.” A population once indifferent to the Chinese state is now alienated from it. Intellectuals who once felt genuine love for their country now know they have no place inside it. A whole people have been treated as enemies to the Party-state, and view that state as the armed servant of a hostile race. There is no “return to normalcy” in these circumstances. The Party did away with calls for normalcy, appeals to good conduct, patriotic fanfare, the promise of shared wealth, and all other manner of carrots and positive incentives the month the Mosques started coming down. It is a sad truth. The Party’s decision to rule Xinjiang through naked tyranny means that naked tyranny is the only tool of rule they have left.
At the level of individuals, organizations, and corporations, the moral argument for treating China the way Westerners once treated South Africa is strong. If nothing else, their own integrity is at stake
. But government officials—say, the sort who decide visa rules—have a different task. They are charged with changing the world, not simply “taking a stand” within it. What change is possible here?
For reasons stated above, it is unlikely that the Party will stop its repression in Xinjiang. It is more possible for Western action to accomplish one of the following:
- Directly make it more difficult and costly for the Party to carry out its repression campaign. Sanctions and restrictions on companies that provide the technical infrastructure (such as Hikvision) are a good example of this.
- Make it more difficult and costly for individual Party members to take part in the repression campaign. The Magnitsky Act sanctions we saw a few weeks ago are an example of this strategy; coordinated name-and-shame campaigns that make turn the people involved into internal pariahs might accomplish the same thing. The goal here is to change the decision calculus of talented Party members, giving them an incentive to avoid working in XUAR, for the United Front Work Department, and so forth.
- Take actions that undermine China’s growing “comprehensive national power,” and by extension, the Party’s ability to take control of and export these tools to other “separatist” regions (e.g. Taiwan).
- Take actions that undermine the Communist Party of China’s hold on power, putting them in a position where liberalization is their most likely path for survival.
I am not endorsing any of these four goals here, only noting that all four are within the bounds of what America can actually attempt. Does the “ban all Party members and their families” policy accomplish any of these aims?
I cannot see how it does.
I am not against using visa bans, even visa bans on family members, as a tool of policy. In fact I have argued vigorously (on Twitter) that this is one of the only effective sorts of leverage we have against the Party. When an American journalist is expelled from China, I argued, the right response is not to expel some nobody working at Xinhua, but to find a grandson of Zhao Leji (or Yang Jiechi, or Miao Hua, or whoever) that is studying at Harvard and send him packing. That is an argument for narrowly targeted, tit-for-tat measures. The ban being debated by Trump’s officials is different. It is far too broad to accomplish anything useful.
The Communist Party of China has approximately 90 million members. When you add that together with the immediate relatives of these members you have somewhere between 180 and 270 million people—that is, somewhere between one eighth and one sixth of the population of China. A very large number of these members are not especially political, and joined on with the Party sometime in the last few decades for the sake of business connections or to improve their chances of getting a desired job as a government employee (say, as a teacher or state contractor). This includes many Uighur, Tibetans, and so forth.
A lot of the folks arguing against the ban on twitter bring all of this up as a question of culpability. Just how responsible are these 90 million people for policy in Xinjiang or Hong Kong? (Not very). From the perspective of policy, a better lens is leverage. A ban on this scale reduces, not increases, our leverage over the Communist Party.
Consider aim #2 in my list above. This ban makes no distinction between those with authority to craft policy and those who must implement it, nor between those who implement Party directives and those who just pay their dues, nor between those who are actually implementing genocidal directives in Xinjiang and those who are implementing anti-pollution directives in Guizhou. From the perspective of leverage this matters. Those already damned have no qualms with murder. Party members already punished for actions they have not taken will lose nothing by taking them.
Perhaps then the aim is closer to #4—destabilizing the Party writ large. If the goal is to divide the Chinese people from the Party (which recent administration rhetoric suggests is an important aim of the administration’s policies) it will not work. I promise you, the average man on the Chinese street will not view this as an attack on the Party, but an attack on the Chinese people. How could they think otherwise, when one out of six Chinese is being targeted? Instead of dividing the people from the Party we would instead be rallying them around the Party flag.
The same is largely true for Party members themselves. As mentioned earlier, a substantial percentage of the Party are not Marxist faithful. They joined up for crass, materialistic reasons. At first glance one might assume that a ban like this would set them against Xi and the powers that be, perhaps even cause some people to leave the Party. But this is silly. Xi has spent the last decade purging and repurging the Communist Party of China. He just announced a major new “rectification” campaign last week
. These campaigns are cloaked in anti-corruption and anti-privilege rhetoric. In this kind of environment, no Party member in their right mind is going to leave the Party for the sake of their son at Wharton. Leaving now is simply too dangerous of a signal to send. If anything, this sort of ban drives the due-payers into the arms of the Party ideologues, confirming what they have been saying all along: uncommitted Party members can no longer live in the muddled middle. They have to pick a side, and the only safe side to pick is with Xi Jinping.
If visa bans are the tool of choice, use them with discrimination. It is not hard to identify who is actually responsible for policy in Xinjiang. An expansive list might include the full Politburo, members of the 19th National Congress of the CPC, current members of Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, attendees of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and key personnel staffing the Central Secretariat staff, the United Front Work Department, the Ministry of State Security, and the People’s Liberation Army. This already provides us with a few thousand people, but the list can be expanded to include various officials working at the provincial level (or in this case, the “autonomous region level”). Add in their family members and you may well have a black list of 5,000-6,000 people. Creating that list will require some grunt work, but going forward, anything involving China should. In the world of “great power competition” lazy, ineffective short-cuts (like attempting to block out 200 million people) should not be seriously contemplated or tolerated.
To read some of my other pieces on the Chinese Communists, see the posts “A Note on Historical Nihilism,” “The World That China Wants,” “Xi Jinping and the Laws of History,” “Case Studies in Communist Insecurity,” “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II.” For posts specifically about the situation in Xinjiang, you should read “Moral Hazards and China” and “On the Terror of Uncertainty.” To get updates on new posts published at the Scholar’s Stage, you can join the Scholar’s Stage mailing list, follow my twitter feed, or support my writing through Patreon. Your support makes this blog possible.
 Paul Mozur and Edward Wong, “U.S. Weighs Sweeping Travel Ban on Chinese Communist Party Members,” New York Times (15 July 2020).
 Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, translated by Hill Thomson (1910), chapter 17. Find it on Wikisource here.
 I understand that there are legal reasons for why this is not done, but those could be changed if we wished it so.
 Here is FBI director Christopher Gray at the beginning of his speech two weeks ago:
But before I go on, let me be clear: This is not about the Chinese people, and it’s certainly not about Chinese Americans. Every year, the United States welcomes more than 100,000 Chinese students and researchers into this country. For generations, people have journeyed from China to the United States to secure the blessings of liberty for themselves and their families—and our society is better for their contributions. So, when I speak of the threat from China, I mean the government of China and the Chinese Communist Party.
A week before him NSA O’Brien made a similar statement:
As I close, let me be clear – we have deep respect and admiration for the Chinese people. The United States has a long history of friendship with the Chinese nation. But the Chinese Communist Party does not equal China or her people.
There probably is, as you say, little the US can do at this point to directly change the CCP's behavior. However, the biggest problem with organizing the US response to China right now is the same problem any US federal government initiative faces: the current administration simply lacks the competence to implement any policy in a sound manner. You can see that in the nature of the visa restrictions recommended here – it subordinates the necessary goal of responding to Chinese atrocities and aggression to the unnecessary goal of reducing immigration in general that, thanks to Stephen Miller, seems to be one of the few consistent policy "achievements" (albeit a highly dubious one) that this administration has delivered. That anti-immigration stance actually hampers the US response to China, because it prevents the government from considering policies such as proactively offering asylum to people fleeing Hong Kong or Chinese repression in other areas. Even if that wouldn't necessarily change the CCP's actions, such an asylum policy would benefit the US more (and simply be more morally praiseworthy) than this proposed blanket visa ban on CCP members. That and working to establish manufacturing supply chains that don't rely on China, and thus potentially Uighur slave labor, are what I, admittedly a non-expert, think should be the US priority in its China response.
But, again, I think the biggest problem for US foreign policy right now is that the current level of dysfunction at home makes it nearly impossible to effectively project power abroad in any fashion. We can argue about what the best course of action should be in this or that foreign policy matter, but such discussion will remain largely divorced from reality until that domestic dysfunction has been reduced.
It's hard to believe that changing China's Xinjiang policy is an aim of the Trump administration. It seems more likely it has been seized upon (finally) as a justification to carry out various actions to achieve your #4 or even a #5 of "do as much damage to China's growth and power as possible whether the CCP is in charge or not".
I'm also not sure I'm fully convinced by your dismissal of the impact it would have on rank-and-file CCP members in terms of their opinions about Xi Jinping's policy decisions. Not that I have a compelling reason why things would be otherwise, I'm just wondering what you think WOULD induce this type of internal reaction against Xi Jinping if not this. And what that reaction might look like if there were indeed events to induce it. I'm not sure a blanket "Xi Jinping has scared the shit out of the entire party so they will never challenge him" is useful – surely SOMETHING must have the potential to turn the elites against him.
A naive view; China suffers from the possibility of regime escape by minor party members who would otherwise against the current leadership. Send some money abroad, and perhaps become a political refugee and citizen there, if things become bad enough. But we don't really want that (as much as refuge as a last resort has some strategic utility); we want them to mobilize against the leadership. So cut off the regime escape option?
In regards to your argument against reason #2, this misses the point: it's not supposed to be narrowly tailored to those that have policy-making authority, collateral damage is the point. You're some low-level provincial functionary in the Party, no business at all in Xinjiang, but you were hoping your kid could get sent to the US for a degree from a respectable state school, like UC Irvine or University of Iowa. Now you can't do that. And while you are right about point #4, that the average Chinese person will not view this as an attack on the Party but as an attack on the Chinese people, there are still 90 million members of the CCP, and the average Party member has a great deal more political power than the average Chinese citizen who is not a Party member.
When you compare this to the BDS actions taken against South Africa in the 1980s, the impact fell on a lot of whites (and non-white groups who still tangentially benefitted from apartheid, like the South Asian community or black elites in some tribal areas who viewed the apartheid regime as a bulwark against communism) who didn't personally support apartheid or had any political or administrative capacity to effect an end to it. The trouble, of course, is that China in 2020 isn't South Africa in the 1980s; smarter people than me have noted that, by that time, South Africa's primary economic activities and exports, like mining and diamonds, were suffering, and that apartheid may have actually been holding back the South African economy. China today isn't in that position.
Speaking of Magnitsky, we could look at senior leaders' wealth outside China.