The People’s Republic of China now commands the world’s largest population, its second-largest economy, and a military-industrial complex and high technology sector second only to America’s. Behind this great mass of men and material stands Xi Jinping, General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. Xi, supported by the class of Chinese communists who rule along with him, believe it is their role to guide China—and the rest of the world—into a new age. China’s military expansion, massive economic investment in controlling global trade routes, and escalating information operations all point to a struggle for dominance that puts it in direct conflict with the West.
In their internal speeches and planning documents, China’s communist party leaders describe their perceptions of this struggle quite openly: As Beijing sees it, China’s success depends on discrediting the tenets of liberal capitalism so that notions like individual freedom and constitutional democracy come to be seen as the relics of an obsolete system. To understand how China’s leaders intend to accomplish this and fully appreciate their designs for the future, we must first come to terms with how they understand themselves.
“The very purpose of the [Chinese Communist] Party in leading the people in revolution and development,” Xi Jinping explained to an audience of party cadres in 2012, “is to make the people prosperous, the country strong, and rejuvenate the Chinese nation.” This “rejuvenation” of the Chinese people, which might also be translated as their “revival” or “restoration,” reflects a specific understanding of Chinese history and China’s proper place in world affairs. Chinese of all political persuasions are acutely aware that China was once the standard setter in advanced civilization, the center point around which the economies and cultures of much of the Earth revolved. For many Chinese nationalists, the last two centuries have been a painful aberration from this natural order. The party labels the years that China was exploited by imperialists and divided by warlords “the century of humiliation,” a century that ended only when they took control. The century that followed—which comes to its end 29 years from now, in 2049—is different. This will be the century that makes China great again.
“The rejuvenation of the Chinese people” has been officially endorsed as the “historical mission” of the Communist Party since 1987 but it is an old dream whose origins predate the party’s founding. In the early 20th century Chinese intellectuals searched for a way to “save China,” modernize it, and restore it to the preeminence that the world’s largest civilization deserved. What made the later communists different from other Chinese modernizers was the solution they endorsed. As their sloganeering went: “Only socialism can save China.” The slogan is still in use, though Xi and other 21st-century Communists add a second clause: “Only socialism can save China, and only socialism can develop China.”
Listening to Chinese communists champion their socialist bona fides in one of China’s money-hungry metropoles summons a special sort of cognitive dissonance; distant electric billboards gleam through industrial smog while your conversation partner parrots Marxist cant. But this dissonance cannot be too different from, say, what an outsider might have felt listening to Franklin Delano Roosevelt address a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in 1936. If Jefferson’s writings are your scripture, Roosevelt’s titanic interventions in American life are heresy. Yet Roosevelt thought of himself as the heir to Jefferson and Jackson. He earnestly believed that his program was an adaptation of Jeffersonian ideals and principles to a 20th-century political economy. Roosevelt’s politics were a natural—albeit historically contingent—evolution of America’s liberal tradition, so the politics of the Chinese communists are an outgrowth of their Leninist identity.
One of the most salient continuities between classical Leninism and the current version of communist politics endorsed by Beijing, which the Chinese uncreatively have labeled “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” is the conviction that true modernization must be led by a “vanguard” party that is able to act in the interests of the “overwhelming majority” of people. According to this Leninist line, free markets and free elections lead to the rule of selfish elites, and China’s rejuvenation depends on being protected from both. Despite the concessions made to market-price mechanisms that have helped drive China’s recent economic boom, Chinese communists believe that they lead an ideological-political system distinct from and in opposition to those of the capitalist world. Circumstance forces temporary cooperation with the self-interested capitalists, but these two systems cannot be permanently reconciled. This was the message Xi delivered to party cadres in one of his first speeches as general secretary of the party in 2013, when he declared his faith in the “historical materialist view that capitalism is bound to die out and socialism is bound to win.” However, as “the ultimate victory of socialism over capitalism” may take several lifetimes to achieve, China’s communists should focus their efforts on a more modest goal:
[We must now] broaden our comprehensive national power, improve the lives of our people, build a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and lay the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.
As proud self-declared Marxists, the Beijing leadership has carefully studied the failures of past attempts to “construct a socialism superior to capitalism.” From the failings of the Maoist era, the Chinese communists learned that economic and technological modernization cannot happen in a vacuum. In many Chinese minds the People’s Republic of China’s technological stagnation under Mao blends together with the Qing dynasty’s unfortunate discovery that scientific advances in the West had left their military obsolete. The lesson in both cases is the same: If China is to grow strong, it must be integrated with the world outside it.
But there are dangers to “opening up” to the outer world. This is the lesson Chinese communists draw from extensive study of the Soviet failure. The party’s official explanation for the collapse of the Soviet Union—which has been communicated to party cadres through speeches, party school education, and even a full-length documentary—is that its demise had nothing to do with the weaknesses of its planned economy or the tensions inherent in a multinational empire masquerading as a people’s republic. In the telling of the Chinese Communist Party, the Soviet Union began to die the day Nikita Khrushchev denounced the cult of personality surrounding Joseph Stalin. Though the reformist policies of destalinization were only intended to strengthen the communist system by eliminating its errant and excessive aspects, it ended up eroding the foundation of the value system that made the USSR cohere. Once it became possible to question the party leadership, the Soviets lost the ability to shore up the “ideological security” of their regime. In these circumstances, Chinese communists studying the USSR’s dissolution now conclude, Gorbachev’s decision to “open” the system and expose formerly culturally quarantined Soviet peoples to the enticements of the Western order was a suicide pact.
Xi Jinping endorsed this explanation for the Soviet collapse in a 2013 address to party cadres. “Why did the Soviet Union disintegrate?” he asked his audience. “An important reason is that in the ideological domain, competition is fierce!” The party leadership is determined to avoid the Soviet mistake. A leaked internal party directive from 2013 describes “the very real threat of Western anti-China forces and their attempt at carrying out westernization” within China. The directive describes the party as being in the midst of an “intense, ideological struggle” for survival. According to the directive, the ideas that threaten China with “major disorder” include concepts such as “separation of powers,” “independent judiciaries,” “universal human rights,” “Western freedom,” “civil society,” “economic liberalism,” “total privatization,” “freedom of the press,” and “free flow of information on the internet.” To allow the Chinese people to contemplate these concepts would “dismantle [our] party’s social foundation” and jeopardize the party’s aim to build a modern, socialist future.
Westerners asked to think about competition with China—a minority until fairly recently, as many envisioned a China liberalized by economic integration—tend to see it through a geopolitical or military lens. But Chinese communists believe that the greatest threat to the security of their party, the stability of their country, and China’s return to its rightful place at the center of human civilization, is ideological. They are not fond of the military machines United States Pacific Command has arrayed against them, but what spooks them more than American weapons and soldiers are ideas—hostile ideas they believe America has embedded in the discourse and institutions of the existing global order. “International hostile forces [seek to] westernize and divide China” warned former CPC General Secretary Jiang Zemin more than a decade ago, and that means that, as Jiang argued in a second speech, the “old international political and economic order” created by these forces “has to be changed fundamentally” to safeguard China’s rejuvenation. Xi Jinping has endorsed this view, arguing that “since the end of the Cold War countries affected by Western values have been torn apart by war or afflicted with chaos. If we tailor our practices to Western values ... The consequences will be devastating.”
But how exactly does one go about combating a values system? One could silence those who champion it. This is the repressive logic behind the vast system of censorship and surveillance the party has built to control the traffic of ideas among the Chinese people. As communist anxieties have intensified over the last decade this system grows more blood curdling: The Chinese internet has been flooded with disinformation; prominent dissidents, journalists, lawyers, historians, academics, businessmen, and activists who have voiced opposition to Xi’s program have been censored, imprisoned, and “disappeared”; universities and corporations have had party cells inserted within them; thousands of churches and mosques across China have been demolished; and somewhere close to a million Uighurs “infected with extremism” have been placed in concentration camps.
Most Americans paid little attention to this—until the party leadership decided to punish the NBA with punitive sanctions in response to an “offensive” tweet by Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey. Though surprising to most Americans, the truth is that this was just an especially prominent example of a practice the party has long used to silence those who speak against it—be they living inside or outside of China. In its drive to control the outside world, the Chinese state has not hesitated to threaten foreign companies with cyber attacks or hold their employees hostage, cut celebrities, corporations, industries, and even entire countries off from the Chinese market. They bribe foreign government officials, buy foreign media organizations, astroturf protests, stir up online mobs against or send goons to personally intimidate prominent foreign researchers, activists, or media personalities. Chinese diaspora communities have been especially vulnerable to these tactics. A cocktail of surveillance, blackmail, harassment, intimidation, bribery, and threats to family members in China have silenced critics and brought one Western-based Chinese-language publication to toe the party line after another. When the party has enough leverage to win the contest of ideas by silencing them at their source, they do so.
Internally, the Chinese government can appear terrifyingly omnipotent. As an actor on the global stage, the current balance of power and the existing norms of the international system still constrain the party’s power to control free speech and association outside their borders. The NBA fracas showed that the United States and other Western powers have the capability to push back against communist encroachments in their society, given sufficient will and motivation to do so. For the party, censorship of hostile ideas and intimidation of those who voice them is only a stopgap solution. To secure their victory, liberal values do not just need to be silenced. They must be discredited.
The Chinese communists’ plans to discredit and dismantle the liberal values baked into the existing global architecture are incredibly ambitious. They imagine a future reality where even the notion that China could be more successful, wealthy, or powerful if it were free would sound too ridiculous to take seriously. Xi Jinping has given a name to this future world. He calls this vision “a community of common destiny for mankind.” This future community of nations would give Chinese communism the moral recognition it is now denied. The party-state would be lauded, in Xi’s words, as a new “contribution to political civilization” and a new chapter in “the history of the development of human society.” Power blocs and existing military alliances would soon melt away as the various nations of the Earth are drawn into China’s economic orbit. No country would be compelled to shift their regime to the Chinese model in this scenario, but most would recognize that the Chinese social and political system has “demonstrated socialism’s superiority.” Many would gladly adopt the tools Beijing has perfected to manage economic and political problems to shape their own societies. Democratization, free markets, and universal human rights would no longer be enshrined as the bedrock of the world’s most important international institutions or be seen as the default standards of good governance. They would instead be reduced to a parochial tradition peculiar to a smattering of outcast Western nations.
The party does not just dream of this future: It has begun building it. In his report to the 19th Party Congress in 2017—think of it as a communist dictatorship version of a State of the Union Address, if that address were the result of six months of drafts, redrafts, and bureaucratic skirmishing—Xi Jinping declared that China had entered a “new era.” No longer would the country “hide its strength and bide its time,” as his predecessor Deng Xiaoping had directed the country to do in the initial stages of China’s opening up. Instead, China would begin to openly and proudly reshape the international system. “The banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see,” said Xi. Already, the party was
Blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization. [The Chinese example] offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.
In light of these pronouncements, politburo member and former senior diplomat Yang Jiechi urged China’s diplomats that the time had come to confidently and “energetically control the new direction of the common progress of China and the world.” The billions Chinese investors have plowed into infrastructure in developing countries under Xi’s “Belt and Road Initiative” are a key part of this plan. Each BRI-branded project, the party hopes, moves humankind another step closer to a new global order organized around economic partnership with Beijing. In Xi’s words, each is a chance to “welcome [other countries] aboard our development train.”
China’s grandstanding in favor of trade and against protectionism is similarly motivated. By increasing China’s economic integration with the world, Xi has argued, “the world also deepened its dependence on China.” As the largest trading partner of most the globe, Xi believes that China is finally positioned to begin to “transform the global governance system” and shape the “new mechanisms and rules” that will determine “the long-term systemic arrangement of the international order.”
Xi does not expect this contest over the future world order to be resolved quickly. In 2013 he warned cadres that “for a fairly long time yet, socialism in its primary stage will exist alongside a more productive and developed capitalist system ... [And there will be a] long period of cooperation and of conflict between these two social systems” before China has “the dominant position.” The PRC’s plan to build up the economic sinews of a less hostile order will take several decades to come to fruition. To make that future a reality requires convincing the world that, in the words of Yang Jiechi, “Western governance concepts, systems, and models [no longer] grasp the new international situation or keep up with the times.” Only when the world is persuaded that Yang is correct—that liberal ideals like pluralism, individual rights, and constitutional government are anachronisms of a past age incapable of solving 21st-century problems—will Chinese communists no longer fear that their bid to restore China to greatness will be derailed by the ideological plots of their enemies.
From this context many actions taken by the Chinese party-state suddenly make more sense. The PRC’s decision to allow Chinese diplomats and propaganda accounts to spread anti-American coronavirus conspiracies, for example, are hard to understand until you realize that the people spreading these conspiracies believe they are engaged in an “ideological struggle” with the values of a hostile liberal order. The stakes of this struggle could not be higher: They believe that the future of the global order and the survival of their regime is at stake. Americans should not be surprised when they act like it.
Tanner Greer is a journalist and researcher focused on contemporary security issues in the Asia-Pacific region and the military history of East and Southeast Asia.