China’s Vision of Victory?

Over at Foreign Policy I have a new column out reviewing Jonathan Ward’s China’s Vision of Victory. The column is not actually new; it has been on the news-stands for several weeks now in Foreign Policy‘s print edition. But it only went online two days ago. I use the review as a chance to open up some very broad questions about American policy towards China and Chinese policy towards America.

This book will not be pleasant reading for some. It is built on a hard foundation of official PRC and CPC statements, white papers, laws, and pronouncements—together these documents suggest that China’s ambitions are far less limited than many Americans hope:

China’s Vision of Victory is a useful antidote to the popular delusion that Chinese leaders seek nothing more than to roll back U.S. hegemony in the Western Pacific—or that they will be sated by becoming the dominant East Asian power. Despite presenting modest and peaceful ambitions to foreigners, the Chinese Communist Party leadership transparently communicates its desire for primacy to internal audiences. By guiding readers through a barrage of official documents, excerpted liberally throughout the book, Ward shows just how wide-ranging these ambitions are. 

To start with, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) already defines its maritime forces as a “two-ocean navy.” Chinese energy demands have led the PLA to extend its reach to Pakistan, Africa, and the disputed waters of the South China Sea. White papers spell out Chinese ambitions to be the primary strategic presence not just on the East Asian periphery but in Africa, the Indian Ocean, and the Southern Pacific. China’s leadership claims that it has core economic interests as far abroad as Europe, Latin America, the Arctic, and outer space. With these economic interests come road maps for securing Chinese relationships or presence in each region. 

By 2050, the Chinese aim to have a military “second to none,” to become the global center for technology innovation, and to serve as the economic anchor of a truly global trade and infrastructure regime—an economic bloc that would be unprecedented in human history. In their speeches and documents, Chinese leaders call this vision of a China-centered future—a future where a U.S.-led system has been broken apart and discarded—a “community of common destiny for mankind.” That ambition debunks the myth of a multipolar future: China seeks dominance, not just a share of the pie.[1]

Ward demonstrates all of this very well, document by document.

One of the more frustrating things about China’s Vision of Victory, however, is that Ward often strays from these official springs to less credible sources:

Ward peppers the book with conversations he has had with Shanghai street sellers and Qinghai truck drivers. He supplements these anecdotes with translations from Chinese books and think tank reports that support his broader characterization of the Chinese people. 

But China is vast. Look hard enough, and you will eventually find a Chinese person willing to say anything you need him or her to. Ward has no way to prove he has not cherry-picked. A similar problem plagues a section of the book devoted to China’s premodern “tributary system,” in which subordinate states like Korea made regular payments in return for protection, with the questionable assumption that Ming and Qing diplomacy gives us a clear idea of Chinese intentions. Ward relies on a model of the tributary system first developed in the 1940s. This model has been rejected almost entirely by historians who study the issue today. And while Ward is welcome to argue that the current historical consensus is wrong, the critical issue is not what Western historians believe about premodern Chinese statecraft but what the minds in Zhongnanhai believe about the country’s past and its relevance to China’s future. On this, Ward has nothing to report.[2]

I understand Ward’s desire to add color and spice to the bland Party-speak of the documents he quotes. I am sure this is part of the reason he includes so many anecdotal stories of Chinese businessmen and street sellers who tell him how they yearn for the bloody death of so many Americans. I do not doubt that Ward has had these conversations. I have had many such conversations myself. When I wrote two weeks ago that the average Chinese has a late 19th century mentality, I meant it! But I question the wisdom of including them in this book. These anecdotes will be most convincing to those who do not need convincing. The dovish sort will seize on them to unfairly dismiss the entire book as a methodological mess.

But this is not my only disagreement with Ward. The other reason Ward includes these conversations is because he believes that the Chinese Communist Party is only an “expression” of a more fundamental problem. The collision course between China and the rest, he argues, is a product of the Chinese people’s earnest desire for global dominance. The Communist Party is just one expression of this desire; were it to disappear tomorrow, not much would be different.

I disagree with this. This is the crux of my problem with Ward’s book. It is important to figure out which of us is right. As I write in the review:

There is, however, a more serious problem in viewing the challenge posed by China’s growing power in purely national terms. The implicit question posed throughout Ward’s book is whether the United States should acquiesce to China’s vision of victory. Can Americans live in a world where the Chinese possess the largest economy, greatest industrial base, most powerful military, and the leading centers of technological and scientific innovation? Can Americans live in a world where the Chinese possess the largest economy, greatest industrial base, most powerful military, and the leading centers of technological and scientific innovation? 

Technically, yes. The United States is a nuclear-armed state with no near enemies. It is flanked by two vast oceans and directly controls the approaches to the North American continent. It is endowed with an enormous population with net positive migration. In times of crisis, the United States can rely entirely on internal resources to keep its population fed, clothed, and warm. No other nation has been dealt such an enviable hand. Even a China that militarily or economically dominates Eurasia, Africa, and Latin America would not pose a credible geopolitical threat to the U.S. homeland. For many Americans, quietly ceding victory to the Chinese would be an acceptable cost for averting decades of nuclear brinkmanship. 

But this logic has its own problems. It dodges a deciding source of tension in the Sino-American relationship. Communist Party leaders believe they are locked in what Chinese President Xi Jinping has called “fierce competition … in the ideological sphere” with the West. They assert that this ideological competition threatens the existence of their party and imperils the road to national rejuvenation. They describe historians, researchers, dissidents, and Chinese-language media outlets in countries like Australia, Germany, and the United States as dangers equal to anything U.S. Indo-Pacific Command can throw at them. This is the root motivation behind what are now being called “interference” and “influence” operations in Western countries. 

This is a blind spot in Ward’s analysis. The term “United Front” (the party’s favored moniker for institutions that co-opt or turn people to serve the party’s objectives) does not appear in China’s Vision of Victory. “Influence operations” shows up just twice, with the gloss that these operations are “meant to distort a country’s discourse on China and to constrain action against Beijing.” Framing these operations purely in geopolitical terms misstates the challenge they pose. These operations are not just about shaping the opinions of foreign-policy elites but about controlling and coercing enemies of the Communist regime who live outside China’s borders. They are part of the same effort that has led to ever tightening censorship; sweeping crackdowns on Chinese law firms, media outlets, and religious organizations; and sent a million-plus Uighurs to detention centers inside China. 

So-called influence operations are aimed at the enemies China’s leaders fear most: the ones who pose an ideological, not a geopolitical, threat to the Communist Party. These are the hostile forces that threaten the stability of the Communist regime, and many of them—from Christians and Uighurs fleeing religious persecution to Taiwanese, Hong Kongers, and others of Chinese descent who dare imagine different futures for their people—live in America. As long as these groups can safely assemble and freely speak within the United States, America will be seen as a threat to the Chinese party-state. Similar fears have already led Beijing to demand ideological fealty from its foreign debtors. China’s leaders do not ask clients to change their system of government but to squelch criticism of Chinese communism inside their borders. Thus, the leaders of Muslim-majority countries pretend that their faith is not being crushed in Xinjiang, and the Thai government turns a blind eye to Chinese security kidnapping dissidents inside its borders. The Chinese leadership does not compel the same behavior from the United States only because it lacks the power to do so.
Accommodating the geopolitical ambitions of the Chinese people is comparatively easy. Easing the ideological insecurities of the Communist elite would demand far more drastic changes to U.S. politics and society.[3]

I encourage you to read the full thing.

I wrote and submitted this review before the controversy over the NBA and Blizzard Games began. Events have kindly demonstrated my larger point. It is not because the Chinese Communist Party fears the might of US Pacific Command that they feel threatened by corporations likes Blizzard or Apple. It is not because of the American threat to their energy supply lines that they brow-beat these corporations into silence. They treat lesser countries no better than they treat these corporations. They seek the wealth and power to treat all countries thus. Ward’s geopolitical framework does not provide him with the tools to explain these things, and that is his greatest error.

This is not to say that geopolitics should be writ off altogether. It should not. Chinese interest in the Indian Ocean and Africa are clearly driven by geoeconomic imperatives. For these reasons I advise you to buy the book. My only suggestion is that you temper what you have learned with other sources that take the ideological drivers behind Beijing’s behavior more seriously—say, François Bougon’s Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping. Someone who has read both Bougan’s book and Ward’s will have a very good sense for what motivates the leaders of the PRC and what potential there is for Washington to reach any sort of lasting accommodation with them.

If you want to read more about what make the Party tick, you might also find the posts “Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability,” “Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity,” and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II” of interest. 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.

[1] Tanner Greer, “Can American Values Survive in a Chinese World?,” Foreign Policy, Fall 2019 iss (published online 12 October 2019)

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

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Personally I'm more concerned about what left-wing European/American political parties are currently doing to Western Civilization than about a future threat from China. I don't think I'm alone in that.

I think that if the Communist Party were replaced by a democratic liberal system of governance tomorrow, most Chinese people's desire for their country to become a superpower would indeed not disappear. On the other hand it would be a much more humane and benign superpower, and it would find it much easier to exert a cultural appeal and present a desirable model for the rest of the world. In fact, even many Westerners might welcome it as a better alternative to US dominance, which is extremely problematic. For that reason alone, we should hope China undergoes this transformation.

Freddo, are the Right that we have much better? The big problem in Western culture is that the successes of Western society are attributed to exploitation of the non-Western world (not its advances in system of government and society, or its technological innovations) and that its internal divisions and reliance on openness are stressed over its common purpose against an external foe (male and female mistrust of each other, worker distrust of owner).

In short, that in contrast to the Chinese today as bearers of a "late 19th century mentality", every thinking person regards every mark of this sort of Victorianism in mentality as a stupidity for fools and dupes.

The Left are in the van of this, of course. But the Right, as a whole, doesn't seem much better on this. It seems enthusiastically willing to stress the rightness of female fighting against male, for ethnic or religious minority against majority, and for the building of bridges with persons in other nations and cultures with a similar personality over building common interest with different personalities within the nation. Its concerns and worldview don't seem to be those that would help Western societies uphold a common ethic or sense of community that could cooperate together against an outside force.

Rather it simply to accede to the vision of Western society presented by the Left (blandly unexceptional, other than as uniquely predatory and appropriative towards other cultures, and riven by internal division) and seems different only in being concerned with defending the rich and privileged against the poor, while trying to win cheap votes by going after soft targets like the transgender or gay (probably the least threat of any internal minority to national unity) who the middle of the road still feel bold enough to raise an eyebrow against. The Right is only the Left with a knee bent to the rich, and a willingness to play 'Family Values' like a fiddle.

Shame that, as with many of your articles, you veer into some ridiculous self-righteous american twaddle along the lines of 'Well the Chinese hated us first, we have to defend ourselves, we cant reason with these people, the souring relationship is entirely their fault'. I mean, jesus, as an american i guess you have the right to say that but…I mean…can't imagine anybody else looking at this and not laughing.

" the souring relationship is entirely their fault"

This rather misses the point. The relationship should be sour–perhaps even sourer. The CPC leadership came to their decisions about the nature of the US a long time ago. The shame is that it took us so long to see what they did.

As for non American reception – how does one measure it? Some like it, some don't. Among those who like it have been many Australians, New Zealanders, Taiwanese, Indians, and a fair number of Europeans, based off of those who contacted me afterwords or forwarded it on twitter. I am not sure if the proportion of those who approve of its message was higher or lower among people of those countries than in America–and often my work is unpopular with certain sections of the American China crowd. But it is possible.

In this case though the essential issue is not an American one. It is addressed to Americans, but the problem it lays out (an increasingly muscular China who feels threatened by freedom of association and speech in any country with large Chinese diasporas) is an issue just as pressing in Canada and the Czech Republic as it is in the United States.