The Lowy Institute has a published an interactive debate titled “China and the Rules-Based Order.” I participated in the debate and wrote two small essays as a part of it. All participants were asked to describe the nature of Sino-American competition, Chinese intentions for the future of the “world order” and any possibilities for a sustainable compromise or accomodation between the two powers.
In my first piece, I argued that the insecurity Party elites currently feel (and which motivates them to reshape the world order) is grounded in fears of ideological or cultural threats to their rule:
As Xi would explain in a different speech a few years later, the party leadership has determined that “hostile forces at home and abroad constantly try to undermine our Party, attempting to make us abandon our belief in Marxism.” Chinese communists like Xi survey the history of the last 40 years — from the collapse of communism in the Eastern bloc, through the Colour Revolutions, the Arab Spring, and popular anti-China movements that now grip both Hong Kong and Taiwan — and see the nefarious hand of an enemy who has learned to weaponise values and overthrow regimes like theirs without firing a shot. This fear is an old one: former presidents Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin used language nearly identical to Xi’s when they held power, and concerns about cultural contagion and ideological pressure from the capitalist West leading to a ‘peaceful evolution’ of Chinese socialism into something more liberal were part of the narratives of both Deng Xiaoping and Mao Zedong. This fear translates into action.Many of the party’s most opprobrious policies — from cultural genocide in Xinjiang to ‘interference’ operations in foreign countries — are an attempt to address threats to the party-state’s cultural or ideological security. CCP directives warn cadres of forces that threaten to “dismantle [their] party’s social foundation.” The threats identified are not military, such as the American nuclear arsenal, or geopolitical, such as the US–Japan alliance, but are instead concepts like “independent judiciaries”, “universal human rights,” and “Western freedoms.”Any scheme of mutual accommodation that neglects this acute ideological insecurity will not last. To ask whether a sustainable accommodation between the United States and China can be found is to ask, ‘what must be done to convince the Chinese communists that ideals like Western freedom no longer threaten their rule?’ Part of the solution may simply be rhetorical: Western leaders could loudly affirm that yes, Leninism is a natural expression of Chinese culture at its best, and no, there is nothing wrong with throwing a million Uighurs in re-education camps, and so forth. Had Western governments a system of speech control comparable to China’s, public commitments like these from Western leaders might be enough. But Western governments rarely censor speech and do not exercise much control over civic associations or social movements freely formed by their own citizens. Leaders in Beijing, who are themselves constantly working to mobilise the entirety of Chinese society towards state ends, treat with suspicion this sort of distinction between governments and those they govern. From their perspective, ideological challenges from “hostile forces at home and abroad” threaten their safety, regardless of whether the forces involved are government actors.It is the forces of civil society that Beijing has strangled within China, and it is these same forces that interference operations abroad are meant to interfere with. How much interference can we tolerate in the name of cordial relations with China? Just how much control are we willing to give Beijing over ‘China towns’ in the West? How much surveillance of Uighur, Tibetan, or Taiwanese communities in our midst are we willing to accept? Are we ready to shut down historians, researchers, dissidents, activists, and ideologues who anger the party? Asking how to find a sustainable accommodation with Beijing likely means asking just how willing we are to sacrifice the interests, rights, and livelihoods of a minority of our citizens to assuage the ideological insecurities of the Chinese Communist Party. 
An ideological accommodation between [the United States and the PRC is not] inherently impossible. It is not difficult to imagine a scheme of mutual concessions that assuages each side’s ideological concerns. We might call it an ideological disarmament agreement. On the American side, this would require bureaucratic changes at the federal level: dismantling government bodies such as the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor; defunding quasi-governmental organisations like NED (National Endowment for Democracy); banning former officials from working for NGOs such as Human Rights Watch; and formally ending even rhetorical support for democratisation and human rights outside America’s borders. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), for its part, would need to give up its policy of punishing foreign companies, organisations, and individuals for ‘offensive’ opinions they have voiced outside of China; dismantle the foreign-facing offices of the United Front Work Department; and greatly reduce their capacity to spy on and coerce Chinese diaspora or dissident communities abroad.
All of this is possible in theory, but incredibly difficult to accomplish in practice. Dismantling the democratisation bureaucracy would mean overturning a 40-year policy consensus in Washington (and repudiating a missionising impulse as old as the country itself). The current universal rights regime was not engineered by national security officials, but rather forced onto them by a transnational network of activists, opinion-makers, and legislators. In a free and bitterly partisan democracy, there is no guarantee this would not happen again. There is little reason for Zhongnanhai to believe any deal would survive an American election season.Washington, in turn, would view PRC guarantees of non-interference with deserved suspicion. American officials are well aware of a PRC pattern: once Beijing has gained the economic leverage to punish entire countries for crossing its ideological red lines, it does so. What guarantee can the party give that they will not do the same to American companies and individuals again once it is too powerful and wealthy to be punished by Washington?