A new book by former trade official Clyde Prestowitz, “The World Turned Upside Down,” presents a compelling if chatty and sometimes shrill call for a serious showdown with an expansionist China. One wonders why Yale University Press published an unscholarly work, but what is fast becoming a bipartisan consensus on China deserves critical examination.

Prestowitz is dead right in criticizing the naive claim that markets would liberalize China, especially those advanced for China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization. It was a spinoff of the 1950s discovery that prosperous market economies tend to be democracies. (Best summation is Lipset’s 1960 “Political Man.”) Policy makers in both parties assumed that the former cause the latter, a simplification. Causality may flow the other way, with democracy boosting the economy. Or a third factor could underlie both.

The developmentalist theory: Markets produce autonomous groups and interests, which increasingly demand inputs into politics. The interactions of interests among themselves and with receptive regimes initiate pluralism and democracy. Slowly and unevenly, this happened across much of the world. But Beijing reversed this evolution.

Chinese pluralism cautiously sprouted in the l990s, aided by electronic media that briefly cracked Beijing’s information monopoly (since reimposed). Cultural limits widened and criticism spread, even among Party members. Then, starting in 2012, Party chief and president Xi Jinping throttled nascent liberalism.

U.S. officials and think-tankers, argues Prestowitz, convinced themselves that Deng Xiaoping’s marketizing initiatives would engulf China’s entire economy. His reforms were so successful that Beijing would surely abandon state socialism. China joining the WTO would clinch the process.

But Beijing never relinquished economic control or intended to become a global “responsible stakeholder.” We deceived ourselves on both counts. Washington urged American corporations to invest in China to speed up its transition. Eager for low labor costs and giant Chinese markets, they needed little urging. They invested so deeply in China that they became its prisoners. China has gained much U.S. technology, both by contract and by theft.

Beijing, by undervaluing its currency, leashing foreign investors and protectionist restrictions, systematically skirts WTO rules and goals. Xi now increases state control of the economy, including the private sector, and pushes “debt-trap” trade deals.

Prestowitz charges that “free trade” was always a mirage. The U.S. reached prosperity through protectionism — Hamilton’s old argument — for the first century and a half of our history and should return to it. No advocate of minimal government, Prestowitz proposes tariffs, subsidies, and federal supervision to restore U.S. economic might and meet its greatest challenge.

Is Prestowitz right? Is his view — he’s not the first to express it — Washington’s consensus? If so, it could be a prescription for a series of showdowns that escalate to conflict. One likely Chinese reaction to Prestowitz’s program would be increased pressure on Taiwan. Do we then come to the defense of free and democratic Taiwan?

Prestowitz may be alarmist. China’s problems could trip up Xi’s intentions. Disbelieve all numbers and promises coming out of China. Its economic growth, while marvelous, has been overstated, its COVID rate understated. The Chinese expression “repression within, tranquility outside” means we don’t know how much discontent simmers, but it’s likely plenty. Chinese know that Mao caused 40 million deaths, most by starvation during the 1958-62 Great Leap Forward.

Xi cannot cure China’s persistent corruption. Corrupt cadres hold the system together, and Xi can’t suddenly govern without them. If you shoot all your helpers, you will be helpless. Fixing corruption by drastic punishment is like mowing weeds — they spring back up. Everyone uses bribery, gifts or connections. Peasants hate their crooked local officials who pocket fake taxes. Mao was right: China’s downtrodden peasants breed revolution.

Communist economies that attempt reform allow some private enterprise. Good growth follows. But with that come inequalities and greater freedom that threaten the Party’s grip on power. So the Party retightens controls and growth slows. After a few years, they try a little liberalization again. The system zig-zags, never finding stability. Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union experienced this, and it led to regime collapse. Will China avoid it?

Xi’s solution is to hype nationalism. The foreign devils, now led by the declining capitalist U.S., aim to stop China’s rise. Xi swears China won’t let them; China is Asia’s natural and rightful hegemon. Xi created islets in the South China Sea and launched an ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. China’s media and schools denounce Western liberalism.

Our response? Waiting is sometimes the best action. We outlasted the Soviet Union, whose economy, despite Khrushchev’s bluster, slowed in the 1960s, became worrisome in the 1970s and desperate in the 1980s. Gorbachev’s glasnost (media openness) unleashed ethno-nationalism that dissolved the Soviet Union in 1991.

Xi fears becoming China’s Gorbachev, so he strengthens Party control, which at this point is his personal control. Can’t last.