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Last week, the State Department designated six media entities operating in the United States as foreign missions effectively controlled by the People’s Republic of China. Several days later, Deputy National Security Advisor Matt Pottinger suggested that that the United States was embracing reciprocity, which he described as “the straightforward idea that when a country injures your interests, you return the favor.”

It is tempting to assert that American policymakers should reset the U.S.-China relationship on reciprocal terms. Ironically, when the U.S. ambassador to China suggested this in an op-ed last month, it was rejected by People’s Daily. Meanwhile, China’s ambassador to the United States publishes frequently in top American newspapers like the New York Times and Washington Post. Of course, neither newspaper is available in China, nor are Twitter, Facebook, Google, or dozens of other American media and social media companies.

Setting aside the galling double standard, however, reciprocity plays into the Communist Party’s hands in three key ways. First, reciprocity in this case can appear to excuse Beijing’s censorship, disinformation, and repression by suggesting that restrictions on journalists and free speech are also commonplace in democracies. The United States should absolutely push for transparency in information sources. Yet, when democratic governments regulate content or otherwise increase state control over information, they weaken their own democratic institutions. One need look no further than the politicization of the U.S. Agency for Global Media to see the damage this can do both at home and abroad.

Second, reciprocity makes the United States reactive. A smart, competitive strategy should focus the contest on America’s strengths and China’s weaknesses. But reciprocity allows the Communist Party to determine the overall nature of the competition, as well as the timing of individual moves. The United States and other democracies have real strengths in the information space because, unlike autocracies, we thrive on free flows of truthful information. Reciprocal actions distract from these strengths by letting Beijing seize the initiative and direct the competition toward more contested issues at more difficult times.

Third, reciprocity risks undermining the very freedoms on which America’s democratic system was founded. The United States will not win the information competition with China by mirroring Beijing’s censorship or disinformation. Beijing would win that race to the bottom, and it would damage our democracy—and its perception abroad—in the process. Instead, America and its democratic friends must demonstrate the merits of democratic systems and liberal values.

Information warfare has long been part of the Communist Party’s strategy. For decades, the Party’s information campaigns focused primarily within China’s borders, aiming to consolidate the Party’s position and prevent domestic criticism. In the last decade, however, Beijing has not only increased repression at home, but it has also messaged more aggressively abroad. China’s turn toward “Wolf Warrior diplomacy” has ushered in a more nationalistic, assertive, and high-profile approach. But this strategy is failing. All around the world, perceptions of China, Xi Jinping, and the Communist Party are worsening, in large part because of China’s own efforts at information management and control.

The United States must not attempt to mirror China’s information controls. As Laura Rosenberger and Lindsey Gorman have written, “the paradox for liberal democracies in this environment is that in quashing adversarial information efforts outright, they diminish the values of openness and inclusion for which they stand.” Reciprocity may be tempting, but as the saying goes, “never wrestle with a pig in the mud; you’ll both get dirty, and the pig likes it.” The best strategy for democracies is to adhere to an approach rooted in core democratic principles like openness and transparency.

The reality is that espousing democratic values on the international stage is only effective if the United States leads by example at home. How can we possibly hope to encourage open and truthful communication abroad if we do not practice what we preach? Countries are looking to the United States to model the best practices of liberal democracies, not copy the worst practices of the Communist Party. With the U.S. presidential election fast approaching, U.S. leaders should remember that sticking to key principles is the best competitive strategy. To prevail in the competition with China, the United States must live up to our standards, not Beijing’s.

In conclusion...

Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, where Aine Tyrrell is a researcher. The views expressed are the authors' own.