The World That China Wants (II): The Communist Case In Brief

Add caption

One month ago I announced a series that would investigate “the world that China wants,” using Dan Tobin’s recent congressional testimony and Nadege Rolland’s recent research brief as the foundation of this discussion. My original plan was to dissect each of these documents at length. However, I put that aspect of the project to the side when Tablet Magazine requested I write for them a ~2500 summary of my entire case. Today that summary was published under the title “China’s Plans to Win Control of the Global Order.” While it is not the most elegant piece I’ve writtent, it does a good job of putting all the important pieces of contemporary Chinese Communism in one place.

One of the highlights comes at the beginning, where I present a metaphor for thinking about Chinese “socialism:”

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.[1]

There is an entire PhD thesis to be written on what aspects of Marxist and Leninist thought are still relevant in 21st century China. To me the obvious answer is quite a lot. But in this essay I focus in on a narrower part of the whole:

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.[2]

Another interesting hold over is their sense of the relevant history:

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.[3]

That is the Communist’s problem. The nature of this problem is misunderstood in the West:

Westerners asked to think about competition with China 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.” [4]

One way around this is censorship, intimidation, and bribery. This is how the Chinese communists direct ideology inside their own borders, and increasingly outside it as well. But this solution is insufficient:

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….

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. [5]

It is to this end both the grand project of the “Belt and Road” and the narrower task of creating anti-American propaganda shorts are devoted.

I encourage folks to go read the full thing over at Tablet. I have finally put together a condensed statement of my thinking about the Party’s intellectual trajectory and current priorities. While I came to a similar conclusion as Rolland and Tobin independent of their research, what I have written here would not have been written without the hard work they have done tracking down sources and compiling them into coherent reports.

I think both of them would argue that the full story is a shade more complex and nuanced than I’ve presented in this five-page Tablet piece, and in future episodes of this series I will return to their reports and explain some of the caveats and unknowns attached to the project. Yet this works for now, and should serve as a useful primer that “normal people” not waist-deep in the weeds can use and understand. My hope is that it will be shared widely.

If you are interested in other things I have written about China’s Communists, you might also find the first post in this series,”The World That China Wants (I)” useful.  Similar themes are pursued in “A Note on Historical Nihilism,” Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability,” “Case Studies in Communist Insecurity,” “Review: Inside the Mind of Xi Jinping,” “Where is the Communism in the Chinese Communist Party,” and “Reflections on China’s Stalinist Heritage, Parts I and II.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, “China’s Plans to Win Control of the Global Order,” Tablet Magazine (18 May 2020).
[2] ibid
[3] ibid
[4] ibid
[5] ibid

Leave a Comment


Within the western political traditions, the purpose of government is to protect the individual rights of its citizens (most famously life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness). I'd be interested in seeing unpacked what the Chinese socialist alternative to human rights is. I imagine it would be some blend of the Confucian idea of social harmony/mandate of heaven and Marxist notion of a satisfied Gattungswesen, which I can imagine in outline if I squint. But the details might help understand what the Chinese perceive to be the major cleaves between western and civilization and their own.

Absolute contrast reading your blog on this vs Fukuyama's latest –

Fukuyama = "the regime is what Xi wants; he took power in 2012, and the direction he took was a revival of totalitarianism and was not at all clear or predictable from what went before; they could easily revert to mere authoritarianism".

You = "This is the Party; this is the Communist case; it is almost an inevitable consequence of the enrichment of a Communist regime of this size and placing these tools at their disposal; it could've been predicted in the 2000s or '90s".

Of course, I suspect you are right and Fukuyama is wrong, if you agree with that analysis of each of your approaches.

Fukuyama's prescriptions of course seem a decent sort of middle of the road of what the emerging consensus ought to be ("the United States and other liberal democracies need to begin a gradual economic disengagement from China" without war), but it seems that there is a bit of a defense of prior China engagement going on – "No one could've expected Xi!" sort of thing.

While this is a good piece, it is terribly American in its lens. Speaking from a third-world country that has seen what imperialism does to a country and the mechanisms it employed and continues to employ (most of which you've listed in the article as what the Chinese do, like astroturfing, etc), it is a bit apalling that you seem to view the American Liberal World Order as a good thing.

"To secure their victory, liberal values do not just need to be silenced. They must be discredited."

Trump's current behavior is an absolute godsend to the Chinese regime. He's doing more to enable this target that it ever could. If he wins re-election in November the rest of the world will effectively fall into China's lap. If Biden wins, China will have a real opponent.

^ Yes to the above. Expect Chinese (and Russian) meddling in Western democratic elections to continue. They will be abetted by the useful idiots on the Fascist Right.
Cold War II has begun and with it, the battle for hearts and minds.
But this blog is too Ameri-centric. In the 21st century, India will be leading the coalition of "Western" democracies. The US will become like the fading British empire of the 20th century.
In the 21st century, economic dynamism will be in India and Africa.