Yes, We Are in an Ideological Competition With China

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. [1]
I do not think long term readers will be surprised with my position here. I return to this issue so often because I believe it the most intractable in the U.S.-China relationship (a judgement, I was glad to see, that is shared by several other participants in the Lowy debate). Military and economic tensions could potentially be resolved through “compromise” solutions (like “spheres of influence”) or made less relevant by hardliner strategies (like decoupling). It is much harder to overcome the challenge posed by ideological insecurity.
Recognizing this is especially important for the dovish among us. Several years ago I reviewed Lyle Goldstein’s book, Meeting China Halfway, which proposed a series of compromises (as well as a process for building up to them) for myriad points of tension in the U.S.-China relationship: trade, climate, Taiwan, North Korea, Japan, Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. Interested readers can peruse the long and critical review I wrote of this book for Strategy Bridge here. Notice one big-ticket item missing from the list: issues of ideology and regime integrity. Yet this a driving, perhaps even primary, concern of the Chinese side. As the NBA blow-up and all the noise around spying in the U.S. suggests, one of the most important drivers behind souring relations in Washington as well.  
Is compromise between the two powers on this suite of issues possible? In my second entry to the debate I try and imagine what such a compromise might look like:

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.

This is just a paragraph long sketch. I am sure Lyle Goldstein could write a chapter-length treatment if he really wished to,  and I am tempted to expand it into a proper article myself. Americans do not think of the nexus of activists, researchers, journalists, and bureaucrats who work on democratization in the media, NGOs, think tanks, and executive and legislative branches as a color-revolution creation-complex, but that is certainly how they are perceived by fearful minds in Beijing and Moscow. If we are to “meet China halfway” and treat its fears as legitimate,  then this issue simply must be addressed.  
However, I do not think the odds of durable compromise on the issue are great. As I write:

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? [3]
The problem is not impossible to resolve: only very, very hard. For the most part, China doves have tried to work around the issue by downplaying its importance or relevance to U.S.-China relations. I would take their suggestions for American policy more seriously if they were to tackle this issue straight.  Absent radical changes in ideology or regime in either country, disbanding American democracy promotion efforts and using state power to incentivize American NGOs away from human rights issues is a prerequisite for the “sustainable accommodation” between the two powers that doves seek. The question is how that can be done without violating American liberties, and what concessions might be wrung from Beijing in exchange for removing the source of their insecurities.
I encourage readers to view the rest of my two essays, and the entries by other participants. Other than myself, Lowy published responses by Nadege Rolland, Elizabeth Economy, Dan Tobin, John Culver,  David Kelly, and Wu Xinbo. Many are insightful; all are concise. Read them here.
Readers interested in exploring more of my writing on the nature of U.S.-China competition may find the posts “The World That China Wants,” “Two Case Studies in Communist Insecurity,” Mr. Science, Meet Mr. Stability,” and “Give No Heed to the Walking Dead,”  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, “The Challenge of Ideological Insecurity,” Lowy Institute Rules Based Order Project (23 September 2020).

[2] Tanner Greer, “An Ideological Disarmament Agreement?”  Lowy Institute Rules Based Order Project (23 September 2020).

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I'm not sure whether you are actually advocating abandoning US democracy promotion, or pointing out that reaching an accomodation with the CCP would require us to abandon democracy promotion.

I simply cannot imagine any situation short of imminent loss in war which would justify the United States abandoning its democratic ideals. Is this meant to be an argument that an ideological accommodation with the CCP is simply impossible?

Why would American NGOs have to be disbanded altogether? At the very least, the US could just agree not to do operations within Chinese territory (which I think is equivalent to the status quo in China).

It could expand outward, such that some countries which are allied with China could also ban these NGOs, and the US would ban some Chinese influence operations.

By any reasonable standard, given coronavirus responses and absurdity of prevailing ideological dogmas, it is the United States' regime that should be less secure. But we do not live in a reasonable world. The correct way not to be perceived as exporting regime change is simply not to export regime change. China and Russia certainly have no intent anyone can see of exporting regime change (and when they do, we'll see it).

Americans do not think of the nexus of activists, researchers, journalists, and bureaucrats who work on democratization in the media, NGOs, think tanks, and executive and legislative branches as a color-revolution creation-complex, but that is certainly how they are perceived by fearful minds in Beijing and Moscow.

This reminds me a lot of the frequent occasions in the 19th century when Russian or Prussian officials would file diplomatic démarches with the Foreign Office demanding that the UK make this or that newspaperman or MP or whatever stop saying the things, and the UK side would have to say that, well, there was no press censorship and they had every right to speak their mind, and of course you could sue for libel – if what you wanted to suppress wasn't just the truth. Such an accommodation would need a lot of self-censorship and even real censorship, affecting the media, academia, Congress, independent blogs…

This essay by Chang Che in the L.A. Review of Books is relevant to the theme of ideological competition. He reviews Just Hierarchy: Why Social Hierarchies Matter in China and the Rest of the World, by Daniel Bell and Wang Pei. The ideas espoused by Bell and Pei (as summarized by Che) would likely get a warm reception from Wu Xinbao, based on the writing you link.

"In 2015, [Confucian-inspired meritocrat Daniel Bell] argued in The China Model that a political meritocracy, in its ideal form, can outperform electoral democracies. China’s rise meant that democracy’s purchase on moral supremacy was waning. Less obvious, however, was Bell’s argument that an idealized, hierarchical system modeled on present-day China contained the seeds for an attractive alternative… Just Hierarchy is a colorful exploration of the moral justifications behind elements of China’s success. [The Bell/Pei] thesis — a simple truism among Chinese but a potential setback for Western progressives — is that not all social hierarchies are bad, some are good, and a fixation on equality leaves little room to appreciate the benefits of the good ones."

I would surprised to find any non-American person believing such NGOS not "color-revolution creation-complex". What do they do except stirring up color revolutions?