Today is a grand anniversary for the Communist Party of China. You will read many things about its meaning and significance. In the eyes of Party members themselves, I suspect one particular fact will stand out: this is the year the Communist Party of China outlasts the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
In the current Communist quest for survival there is a tension between competing priorities that did not exist (or rather, were not acknowledged) in the Maoist era. Understanding this tension is fundamental to interpreting why China’s leadership does what it does.
In 1949 the leaders of the Party made a strategic choice to seal their country off from the world. This was not quite how the Party leadership conceptualized what they were doing; expelling all foreign influence was but one of several radical restructurings of old China. It was done piece-meal, one life-rending decision at a time, with little reference to any over-arching plan. In the early days some places, newly flooded with Soviet advisors, actually had increased contact with the outer globe. But the Soviets were soon kicked out themselves, and by the late 1960s all the Chinese masses learned of the broader world was mediated by the Party’s propaganda machine.
If the goal was ideological purity and internal control, this worked well enough. But the Chinese have always had grander ambitions than that. The Party’s quest for revolutionary purity derailed China’s quest for national glory. This would change. Thirst for glory was soon paired with fear of falling behind. A recent twitter thread by Zhang Chenchen describes how the second problem has been reduced to a school room catechism:
Thinking about how history is taught in China. We learn the destruction of Yuanming Yuan (old summer palace) by British and French forces, the occupation of Beijing by the Eight-Nation Alliance, concessions and territorial loss, massacres. Then what is repeatedly taught is “the backwards will be beaten” (落后就要挨打), taken as one of the important historical lessons. Because that’s what the ‘century of humiliation’ showed us, it’s framed as an inescapable logic: “就要”, the backwards will surely be beaten.
But we were not told that it was wrong.
They are not taught it was wrong because most Chinese do not believe powerful countries picking on small countries is wrong. It just is. Talk with Chinese intellectuals today and be transported to the Europe of the 1890s! Current attitudes in Beijing (to say nothing of Chongqing) towards the volk, the underclasses, democracy, technology, progress, national honor and the purpose of military power would not be out of place in Wilhelmine Germany. There are exceptions and dissenters, of course, but that was true of pre-war Europe as well.
In Party circles the fear of being left behind took special valence in the late 1970s. Historians have focused on Deng Xiaoping’s 1975 trip to France as a crucial step here. Deng had lived in France in the 1920s; he was stunned by how much France had changed in the meantime. This tour—and a few others made by other leading officials in the late ’70s and early ’80s shocked Beijing out of complacency. Distracted by internal conflict and buoyed by successful resistance to the American and Soviet super-powers, Communist leadership had no idea just far China had fallen behind. 
You know the story that comes next: it has been told many times, and by scholars more talented than myself. What I want to draw out from this history is the conviction—in this case one shared by most of Chinese society—that China must secure itself on the bleeding edge of science or see the country perish. Technology is the sole and only shining path towards national safety and security.
This is not a new idea. In the 19th century, Chinese military leaders shifted blame for their defeats onto the gap between Western and Chinese military technology. The early 20th century reformers famously called for Chinese to turn their back on “Mr. Confucius” and find national salvation in “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy.” Current leaders of the CPC are less enamored with Mr. Democracy than its founders were, but remain a fan of Mr. Science. One might say their regime sees national power as resting on the shoulders of Mr. Science and Mr. Stability.
But the prerogatives of Mr. Science and Mr. Stability differ. There is a dangerous tension between the two. Science, high technology, and economic growth mean exposure to the world and its contagions. It means sending millions of Chinese abroad every year. It means allowing millions of foreigners to live inside China itself. It means the exchange of ideas and information unmediated by the Party.
All of that is dangerous.
But then again, so is falling behind.
There are different ways to try and resolve this tension. Around 2008 or so the Party recognized that the scale between openness and control had tipped too far towards the former. Many of their policies since then have been a repeat of old 1950s tactics of division and control, just with more selective targeting. Here Mr. Science has played his part: 21st century technology has allowed the Communists to selectively terrorize and censor without provoking national hysteria or instability.
But that is only half the problem. In the Mao days the Communists could defend against ideological contagion through a policy of strict quarantine. The Great Firewall, re-education camps, and the like are more targeted version of the same strategy. But this is insufficient in world where millions of Chinese leave the borders of the PRC every year. That flow cannot be cut off. Those millions must leave, or China risks falling behind. Complete quarantine means dangerous stagnation.
The Party’s solution has been to deal with these ideological threats at the source. They cannot keep Chinese out of the world, so they will use violence, surveillance, blackmail, and bribery to shape the world these Chinese travel to. Thus the concerns we hear over “influence,” “interference,” and “united front” activities.
For these reasons I doubt a long-lasting accommodation between Washington and Beijing is feasible. You will occasionally hear calls to divvy the Pacific up between the two new super-powers, each with their own special sphere of influence. If the problems between the two powers were geopolitical, that might work. But what if they are not? What if the Party is just as concerned with ideological security as it is with geopolitical heft?
Propping up Beijing’s sense of ideological security might be possible. But until there is an honest statement of the costs involved with that course, talk of “grand bargains” and “spheres of influence” is wasted breath.
 John Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 29-59; Frank Dikotter, The Tragedy of Liberation (London: Bloomsbury Press, 2013), 103-128.
 Zhang Chenchen, twitter thread, 28 September, accessed here: https://twitter.com/chenchenzh/status/1177895312331030529
 The other analogy worth pondering, more offensive to Chinese ears but useful nonetheless, is post Meiji Japan. Considering the two cases quickly pops the Economist‘s view of the world: Japanese aggression in the ’30s was seen by Japanese leaders as essentially defensive in nature, designed to safeguard industrial resources Japan would need if it had any hope of surviving a show-down with the Soviet Union.
 For a summary of the entire period, see John Garver, China’s Quest, 349-383.
 The Communists have not repudiated democracy. They have simply reinterpreted it to mean something very different from the earlier understanding. See my discussion in “Where is the Communism in the Chinese Communist Party,” Scholar’s Stage (29 December 2018).