Earlier this year, Zhao Wei disappeared. The 45-year-old Chinese actress vanished from the internet, social media, and streaming services. Zhao’s name was erased from the credits of projects she worked on. She wasn’t alone. Chinese authorities announced a “heightened crackdown” on the Chinese entertainment industry. This is part of Xi Jinping’s “Common Prosperity” campaign to regulate large private-sector corporations and promote traditional morality in China’s society from the top down. The “Common Prosperity” campaign represents an important ideological shift within the CCP from economic growth to social engineering. This movement in focus towards values has hardened China’s opposition to the West on an ideological front as well as an economic one. China’s shift in focus from economic growth to societal reconstruction will further crystalize the conflict between it and the United States.
The United States’ Ideological Turn
The United States has already shifted into an ideological battle with China. As early as 2011, the United States had turned its attention to China as an emerging competitor. The Obama administration’s pivot to Asia sought to offset China’s growing political and economic power in the region as the United States reeled from the 2008 financial crisis. The Trump administration escalated Sino-American competition with a trade war beginning in 2018. Alongside this trade war came American denunciations of China’s perceived economic and military aggression, economic and political fraud, and domestic political repression. By 2020, this confrontation had crystallized into an ideological confrontation as the United States government framed China as undermining international values and breaking international laws.
The United States has framed China as a threat to international democratic ideals through its purveyance of authoritarian communism. The United States views itself as the defender of democratic ideals and the current world order. In the words of former National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien, “America, under President Trump’s leadership, has finally awoken to the threat the Chinese Communist Party’s actions and the threat they pose to our very way of life.” O’Brien goes on to characterize the CCP as a Marxist-Leninist organization whose ideology is antithetical to American liberal ideals. In fact, O’Brien dismissed the liberalizing effect of America’s engagement with China as nonexistent. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo echoed these sentiments in his assertions that “America can no longer ignore the fundamental political and ideological differences between our countries”; “we can’t treat this incarnation of China as a normal country”; and “we, the freedom-loving nations of the world, must induce China to change.”
China’s Economic Pragmatism
In many ways, Pompeo was right when he said that “the CCP has never ignored them [the fundamental political and ideological differences between our countries].” China’s government cannot permit political and ideological dissension without jeopardizing its stability. Indeed, the CCP has promoted Xi Jinping Thought in an attempt to impose discipline on China’s domestic intellectual circles. In foreign affairs, the Chinese government seeks to protect itself from Western liberal ideas detrimental to its power and legitimize its own political system internationally. The CCP has adopted a siege mentality with Western liberal ideas as an existential threat to the Chinese way of life. It seeks to legitimize its authoritarian power structure and “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” using its perceived success compared to Western models and ideals. The Chinese government has even utilized international institutions to this end.
China, however, had not fully entered into ideological conflict with the United States before 2021. Despite domestic repression and foreign lobbying, the Chinese government had always prized economic growth over ideological homogeneity since the 1970s. It is this prioritization of economic growth that led to China’s current intellectual plurality. The rise of Deng Xiaoping’s pragmatism over Mao Zedong’s continuing revolution led to economic reform and openness to the West. Deng sought to adapt socialism to China’s circumstances, leading to the adoption of market systems and extensive trade. This willingness to modify Communist ideology and engage with the West softened ideological thinking among the CCP and even showed promise of further liberalization for a short while.
China’s Ideological Turn
New circumstances and leadership have called this economic pragmatism into question. Although China became the world’s second-largest economy in 2010, its Gini coefficient according to the World Bank was 0.437 (43.7). In 2021, China’s Gini coefficient has risen to 0.47 as compared to America’s 0.41. China’s college graduates face a future of unemployment. Rural areas are becoming unpopulated as urban areas face overpopulation. Societal trust has plummeted, leading to disillusionment and low work ethic among youth. China’s fertility rate has dropped to 1.3 children per woman, second only to South Korea’s fertility rate as the lowest in the world. For many, children are too expensive to raise; others spend their extra income on themselves instead of children. China’s society has become rapidly individualized and consumeristic, calling its future economic growth into question.
Xi Jinping’s new Common Prosperity campaign seeks to solve China’s societal and economic problems. China can no longer prioritize economic growth over culture, as its economic and social viability as a nation depends upon increased birth rates and societal trust. On the one hand, the CCP is moving to reduce wealth inequality and corporate corruption. In doing so, the CCP intends to give its citizens hope similar to how Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms did initially. On the other hand, the CCP is seeking to combat Western liberalism and consumerism. Not only are Western ideas seen as dangerous to government authority but they are also seen as caustic to the very society of China itself.
China’s new policies have gained theoretical backing from intellectuals such as Wang Huning and Jiang Shigong, who both seek to synthesize Marxist socialism with traditional Chinese Confucianism and Legalism to form a coherent ideology consistent with China’s current circumstances. Wang Huning is terrified by the prospect of Western liberalism with its accompanying materialism, societal decay, and endemic despair. For Wang, such a society has “an insurmountable problem,” as it has no coherent conceptual grounds for resistance or restoration. He argues that to resist global liberal influence, China must become a “culturally unified and self-confident nation governed by a strong, centralized party-state.” Likewise, Jiang Shigong seeks to integrate Communism and Confucianism into a coherent Chinese ideology to resist liberalism. In fact, Jiang sees China as a model for how states might maintain social and economic welfare while encouraging economic productivity.
In turning towards ideas, China has crystallized the differences between itself and the West. By affirming their own values, China’s government and intellectuals have denounced the values of all others. In fact, China’s turn towards ideas was precipitated by the danger posed by Western ideas to state stability, economic growth, and societal health. Now, China views these ideas as an existential threat. This focus has moved the United States from a political and economic competitor to an antithetical regime. To use the language of Secretary of State Pompeo, China cannot treat this incarnation of the United States as a normal country. It is threatening to the point of requiring the revision of national security to include defense against hostile and incompatible ideologies.
China’s Ideological Challenge
Moreover, China is moving beyond purely defensive ideological measures to offensive ones as well. Although it has previously subverted international law for its interests, China has not actively sought to replace the current American-led system. Nevertheless, perceptions of Chinese exceptionalism and Western decay may lead to Chinese aspirations for a world empire. In fact, the work of Jiang Shigong suggests just such a system. According to Jiang, the decaying American empire founded upon liberal principles must be replaced with a Chinese system based upon a “differential mode of association” capable of cooperation while preserving heterogeneity. Unlike Western models, he proposes that the Chinese imperial tradition is best suited to accommodate global political conditions. The Chinese not only fear the influence of Western ideas at home, but they also believe that Chinese ideas have something to offer the world.
China’s recent turn towards ideology and social engineering has placed it squarely in opposition to the United States’ liberal policy. To have peace, two countries must agree upon what that peace is, and the willingness to compromise is crucial on both sides. According to Bull and Watson, an international society requires that a group of states not only interact but “have established by dialogue and consent common rules and institutions for the conduct of their relations, and recognize their common interest in maintaining these arrangements.” China’s perception of Western liberal ideas as not only a threat to state stability but also societal existence removes any possibility of dialogue or compromise. As Jiang Shigong has made clear, liberalism has no place in China.
Although China has always been wary of Western liberalism, its previous focus on economic growth prompted its governments to accommodate opposing ideas and even incorporate them where profitable, as in the case of markets. China’s new focus on ideas, however, will lead it towards greater inflexibility and hostility towards opposing ideas. Western liberalism is no longer merely an opposing alternative; it is an existential threat to the Chinese way of life. As Xi Jinping made clear as early as 2016, the Chinese believe that “hostile Western forces…have not for a moment ceased their ideological infiltration of China.” China increasingly seeks to resist this perceived Western imposition of “universal values.” China views Western decay as proof that such values as corrupt and unworkable. Not only has China rejected liberalism domestically, but the work of Jiang Shigong also lays out China’s goal to replace the Western world system of homogeneity with a Chinese world system allowing for heterogeneity and the preservation of China’s unique institutions. It has already started doing so through the Belt and Road Initiative and the International Telecommunication Union. China’s turn towards ideology over economics has made it increasingly defensive towards the West and may prompt it to go on the ideological offensive.
S. Lyons, “The Triumph and Terror of Wang Huning,” Palladium, last modified October 11, 2021, https://palladiummag.com/2021/10/11/the-triumph-and-terror-of-wang-huning/.
CFR.org Editors, “Timeline: U.S. Relations with China,” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified March 17, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/timeline/us-relations-china.
Anthony H. Cordesman, “From Competition to Confrontation with China: The Major Shift in U.S. Policy,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, last modified August 3, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/competition-confrontation-china-major-shift-us-policy.
Robert O’Brien, “The Chinese Communist Party’s Ideology and Global Ambitions, June 24, 2020,” University of Southern California US-China Institute, last modified June 24, 2020, https://china.usc.edu/robert-o’brien-chinese-communist-party’s-ideology-and-global-ambitions-june-24-2020.
Michael R. Pompeo, “Communist China and the Free World’s Future,” U.S. Department of State, last modified July 23, 2020, https://2017-2021.state.gov/communist-china-and-the-free-worlds-future/index.html.
David Ownby, “Chinese Intellectual Ecology,” Palladium, last modified September 21, 2021, https://palladiummag.com/2021/09/21/chinese-intellectual-ecology/.
Toshi Yoshihara, “Are the United States and China in an Ideological Competition,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, last modified December 13, 2019, https://www.csis.org/blogs/freeman-chair-blog/are-united-states-and-china-ideological-competition.
Charles Edel and David O. Shullman, “How China Exports Authoritarianism,” Foreign Affairs, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2021-09-16/how-china-exports-authoritarianism?utm_medium=promo_email&utm_source=lo_flows&utm_campaign=registered_user_welcome&utm_term=email_1&utm_content=20211003.
Ezra F. Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 658, 684-85.
CFR.org Editors, “Timeline: U.S. Relations with China”; World Bank, Development Research Group, “Gini index (World Bank estimate) – China,” The World Bank, last modified 2016, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.GINI?locations=CN.
Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China, 658, 684-85.
Jude Blanchette, “Ideological Security as National Security,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, last modified December 2, 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/ideological-security-national-security.
Vincent Garton, “Jiang Shigong’s Chinese World Order,” Palladium, last modified February 5, 2020, https://palladiummag.com/2020/02/05/jiang-shigongs-vision-of-a-new-chinese-world-order/.
Hedley Bull and Adam Watson, Expansion of International Society, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984), 1.