US President Donald Trump’s government and other observers assert that China and the US are at odds primarily because China’s Communist Party (CCP) rule is ideologically and unalterably committed to destroying American liberty.
However, this is an oversimplification that could potentially and dangerously distort policy-making. The rhetoric that frames US-China relations as an ideological struggle incorporates two important assertions.
The first is that communist ideology drives Chinese policy. According to Princeton University scholar Aaron Friedberg, “China’s problematic behavior stems from the character of its regime… It is difficult to see how a China in which the party continues to wield absolute authority can coexist comfortably in a world where liberal democracies remain strong and united.”
US Senator Tom Cotton, meanwhile, says, “I’ve always recognized China is a threat because communism is a threat wherever you find it.”
The second assertion is that the CCP’s commitment to undermining democracy seriously jeopardizes US political systems and other liberal democratic countries. US National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien opines, “The CCP’s ideological agenda … represents a threat to the idea of democracy itself, including in the United States.”
Researcher and activist Steven Mosher similarly says that “China is the principal threat … to democracy in the United States.”
Two members of the US Congress write that “the CCP … seeks to replace the American Dream with the Chinese Dream” and that urgent American counteraction is required “to secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity.”
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warns that “our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.”
These assertions are all dubious. Outside of China, the Chinese government can indeed act as an enemy to liberty, but mainly in certain limited ways.
First, Beijing attempts to interfere with free speech in other countries in one specific area: discussions that mention China.
Chinese officials seek to shape these discussions toward building a positive image of China, to reduce resistance to Chinese economic penetration, and to win foreign acceptance of China’s irredentist claims – for example, by vilifying Tibet’s Dalai Lama and Taiwan “separatism.”
Second, by bribing the leadership classes of other countries to gain political and economic privileges, Chinese operatives undercut good governance. In the Pacific Islands, for example, Australia often conditions its economic assistance on progress in building up democratic institutions, while the Chinese approach deepens corruption and patronage.
Third, the Chinese government consistently obstructs international efforts to expand protections for civil and political human rights in the developing world. The Chinese government undermines democracy abroad as a practical matter, not out of ideological zeal.
Another country’s civil liberties are a potential obstacle to Beijing’s preferred method of economic statecraft, which often involves paying off foreign elites in exchange for their cooperation in enabling Chinese influence.
This kind of activity is harder to conduct in a country that has a watchdog press and where the public successfully demands transparency and accountability from officials. Moreover, Beijing sees America’s advocacy of expanding democracy and civil liberties into other countries as a US government effort to overthrow the CCP as China’s ruling party.
The CCP regime originally promulgated a full-blown Marxist-Leninist ideology. Among its major tenets were collective rather than private ownership, commitment to the eventual withering away of the state, abandonment of capitalism (private ownership of the means of production) and equality of income and living standards among the citizenry.
The CCP leadership was previously committed to supporting armed insurgencies by communist movements in other countries. It also eschewed participation in the global capitalist trading system.
Most of that ideology is long gone except for the practical Leninist principles of how to sustain a one-Party dictatorship. China is now a center of the world economy and a showcase of state capitalism, and is second only to the US in its number of billionaires.
The Chinese state is stronger than ever under Xi Jinping. And rather than exporting revolution, Beijing now “stresses non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.”
The Chinese are thus not a newer, economically stronger version of the Soviet peril. In the original Cold War, the Soviet Union nominally represented a model that was truly revolutionary in economic as well as political terms.
Moscow was also avowedly internationalist, defining itself as the vanguard of a movement that would transplant Soviet systems and values throughout the world. Today’s PRC, on the other hand, is largely fascist. It is not trying to turn the rest of the world into China, but rather is only to make the world more accommodating to its designs.
The CCP rejects what it characterizes as the liberal democracies’ claims that their values are “universal.” In this sense, China is opposed to liberal ideology. But China offers the world no viable alternative ideology other than a few empty slogans.
To be sure, China opposes many international norms favored by America and other liberal democracies and seeks to influence other countries to support key Chinese objectives.
Those include rapid economic and technological development in China (and, if possible, international primacy in key industries), guaranteed Chinse access to vital supplies, Chinese control over the territory on the PRC’s periphery and, of course, continued security for the CCP regime.
China’s government will not hesitate to coerce and corrupt its way toward achieving its goals, employing China’s economic centrality as leverage. In places such as Cambodia, China’s approach is proving effective.
In mature democracies, not so much. Recent Chinese attempts to leverage economic dependence for political gains suffered backlashes in nearly all the Western countries.
China is not a serious threat to US democracy. Americans are increasingly wise to Chinese influence operations involving the few issues at play, such as Chinese economic pressure on China-exposed US businesses to watch what they say about Taiwan or Hong Kong.
The Chinese social, economic and political models have no significant appeal in the US. Moreover, while the CCP leadership clearly wants to keep political liberalism out of China, there is little if any indication that the Chinese are hankering to destroy America’s freedoms.
China’s external behavior is more authoritarian than communist, more Machiavellian praxis than Marxist theory and more a way of doing business than an ideology.
Denny Roy is a senior fellow at the East-West Center, Honolulu.