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The challenge of ideological insecurities

Tanner Greer
Journalist & Researcher
Specialising in the Asia–Pacific

“[Chinese leaders see] the nefarious hand of an enemy who has learned to weaponise values [to] overthrow regimes.”

This project aims to discern whether a sustainable accommodation between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) can be found, or whether the two powers are doomed to an ever more hostile contest over the future contours of the international order.

A recent piece by Fu Ying, chairperson of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee, former Ambassador to Australia and the UK, and one of Beijing’s most experienced ‘barbarian handlers’, describes the source of this hostility bluntly:

From the Chinese perspective, the United States has never given up its intent to overthrow the socialist system led by the Communist Party of China.”

This perspective is not new. All general secretaries of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) from Zhao Ziyang forward have stated that in order to bring about the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, their party must construct “a socialism that is superior to capitalism”. In one of his first speeches as China’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping described China’s developing socialist system as being fundamentally different from, and ultimately irreconcilable with, liberal capitalism. Given this reality, the task of the party and its leaders is to “lay the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position”.

The trouble is, 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.

Tanner Greer is a journalist and researcher who writes on security issues in the Asia–Pacific region and the military history of East and Southeast Asia. His writing on these topics has been published in Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and Tablet Magazine.