American and other Western observers often cast the China challenge in primarily material terms, as an inevitable byproduct of the country’s growing wealth and power. The basic premise here is that rising states naturally seek to expand the sphere of their influence, and dominant powers, seeking to defend their privileges, naturally oppose them.
While not flatly wrong, this view is incomplete and, insofar as it understates the severity and complexity of the problem, misleading too. China’s rise represents a test for the United States and other democratic countries, not solely or even primarily because of its growing power, but because of the uses to which that power is being put. These, in turn, reflect its repressive, authoritarian domestic political system. The internal dynamics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime and its prevailing ideology shape how its leaders perceive threats, define goals, and select policies to attain them. And it is these perceptions, policies, and objectives that put Beijing fundamentally at odds with Washington, raise the stakes of their expanding rivalry, and diminish the likelihood of a lasting, stable entente between them.
For the better part of three decades, the ultimate aim of American policy has been to bring about a change in the character of the Chinese regime. From the end of the Cold War onward, with a brief interlude in the early 1990s following the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, U.S. policy in both Democratic and Republican administrations sought to engage China across all fronts: diplomatically, through deepening scientific, cultural, and educational ties, and above all through trade and investment. Successive administrations believed that engagement would encourage China to become a satisfied power or a “responsible stakeholder” in the existing international system, accelerating the process of market reform and promoting forces that would lead eventually to political as well as economic liberalization. It was assumed that trade would fuel growth, growth would lead to the emergence of a middle class, and, as had happened elsewhere in both Asia and Europe, the middle class would act as the standard bearer for democracy.
From the start, China’s Communist Party rulers had very different ideas. The CCP leadership recognized early that engaging with the outside world would pose risks to its continued rule. As Deng Xiaoping famously warned: Opening the windows would let in flies as well as fresh air. Deng believed that economic reform was essential to China’s return to great power status. But he was also keenly aware that subversive ideas and outside influences could encourage dissent and produce unwanted pressures for political change.
In the wake of Tiananmen, those atop the CCP who might have been willing to contemplate eventual liberalization were purged. Deng and his remaining colleagues then launched a three-pronged program to counteract and contain the potentially destabilizing political effects of continued economic reform. By allowing the Chinese people to enjoy more of the fruits of their labors, the regime hoped to win their loyalty, or at least their acquiescence. In addition, Beijing began greatly to expand its investments in the tools of surveillance and repression, including multiple domestic security forces. Finally, the CCP began to implement an intensive, nationwide program of ideological indoctrination, or “patriotic education.” The aim of this program was to bolster popular support by promulgating a substitute for Marxism-Leninism-Maoism in the form of a distinctive variant of nationalism which, rather than emphasizing the great achievements of Chinese civilization, stressed instead the “century of humiliation” and the vital and as yet unfinished role of the Communist Party in restoring national dignity.
All of these elements have remained in place to this day, although their relative weights have shifted over time. As economic growth has slowed, China’s leaders have cracked down even harder while stepping up their use of nationalist appeals. These tendencies first became evident during the second half of Hu Jintao’s reign, following the global financial crisis of 2008 and the 2011 “Arab Spring.” But they have been especially visible since Xi Jinping assumed leadership of the party-state six years ago.
The Expansion of Repression
The expanded resources available to the CCP regime have given it a widening array of options for crushing dissent. In addition to strengthening its “Great Firewall” to block unwanted Internet content, the government is moving toward implementing a nationwide “social credit” system that will use facial recognition software and big data analytics to monitor the activities, track the movements, and assess the political reliability of virtually every man, woman, and child in China.
Some means of repression are more old-fashioned. There is growing evidence of an extensive network of “detention facilities,” or concentration camps, that may hold as many as one million members of China’s Uighur Muslim minority—nearly 10 percent of the total Uighur population—whom the regime fears may be susceptible to Islamist radicalism. Prisoners are reportedly subjected to intense psychological pressure intended to “re-educate” them; many have not been heard from since being detained. CCP policy appears to constitute a violation of human rights on a truly massive scale; but to date, Western governments, including those which profess to care most about human rights, have been wary about commenting on it publicly, presumably because they fear damaging valuable economic relationships with China.
Thirty years ago, there may have been a case for downplaying the CCP regime’s mistreatment of its own people in the belief that continued engagement would catalyze faster political reform. It has become increasingly apparent, however, that what Xi Jinping and his colleagues have in mind is not a transitional phase of authoritarian rule to be followed by eventual liberalization, but an efficient, technologically empowered, and permanent one-party dictatorship: an illiberal version of “the end of history.”
What is happening inside China should shock the conscience of democratic citizens and their governments, and give pause to those who continue to believe in the transformative effects of engagement. But the harmful consequences of these developments extend well beyond China’s borders. The surveillance technologies and social control techniques being perfected by Beijing have already begun to spread, as Chinese companies expand telecommunication networks around the world and provide support to like-minded regimes. China’s increasing wealth and the growing importance of its market have also enhanced the regime’s ability to exert leverage over foreigners, including both governments and private actors, who dare criticize its human rights policies or otherwise incur its wrath.
Even as they seek to silence foreign critics, China’s leaders also have intensified their use of impassioned patriotism, including by courting confrontations with other countries in an attempt to rally domestic support. Beijing’s increasingly forceful prosecution of long-standing disputes with its maritime neighbors is one example of this trend; its stiffening stance toward the United States, even before the advent of President Donald Trump, is another.
The CCP regime may not want war, but it needs enemies and an atmosphere of crisis to justify its tightening grip on political power.
Economic Development and Theft
Developments in the economic sphere parallel and reflect those in the political domain. From the early 1990s onward a widespread expectation in the West was that economic and political reform would go hand in hand, and that a greater Chinese reliance on markets would encourage, and indeed require, a steady reduction in the power of the party-state. But this is not what has happened. Beyond a certain point, the CCP has proven unwilling to relinquish its grip.
Resistance to thorough-going market reforms is also a result of the incentives embedded in the structure of China’s opaque, hierarchical political system, in which party members and their families benefit from privileged access to power. Increasingly, too, the CCP leadership’s determination to continue on the path of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” also reflects the conviction that these policies are working.
The pace of economic reform began to slow shortly after China’s accession to the World Trade Organization in 2001 and, in certain respects, it has shifted into reverse under Xi Jinping. Despite its WTO commitments, Beijing is continuing to use a mix of subsidies, tariffs, non-tariff barriers, and other measures to protect domestically-based companies and to promote them in global markets. Its latest trade and industrial programs are designed to catapult it from perennial follower to a position of leadership across an array of cutting-edge technologies.
Because they continue to lag behind in many of these sectors, Chinese firms, at the direction and with the assistance of the party-state, have for some time been using a variety of techniques for acquiring the necessary technology from the advanced industrial countries. In addition to buying up foreign companies and compelling foreign firms to transfer core technologies in return for access to the Chinese market, Chinese actors have used cyber intrusions and other more traditional methods of industrial espionage to steal intellectual property in massive quantities
The problems with all of this are threefold. Some of the methods just described represent severe distortions or outright violations of existing rules and international understandings. China has been gaming the system to its own advantage and the disadvantage of its trading partners.
Aside from the means it uses, Beijing’s stated goals, as recorded in official planning documents like “Made in China 2025,” contribute to this sense of concern. The regime has declared its intention not only to promote the fortunes of Chinese firms in a general way, but to help them achieve a dominant position—including specified market shares—in a variety of high-tech sectors, first in its heavily protected domestic market and then overseas. If successful, these efforts would jeopardize the prosperity and future growth prospects of many other advanced industrial countries, including the United States.
Finally, because virtually all of the technologies involved have both commercial and military applications, Beijing’s policies could help it achieve a meaningful edge in the development of future weapons systems, reducing or perhaps eliminating a longstanding source of strategic advantage for the United States. Indeed, given its worldview, this is likely an even more important objective for the CCP regime than simply promoting national economic welfare.
Changing Asia’s Status Quo
China’s rulers have long been dissatisfied with the status quo in East Asia, especially in the maritime domain off their eastern coasts. Among their objectives are taking control of Taiwan, which the CCP regards not only as a rebellious province but also a dangerous example of a successful Chinese democracy, and asserting dominance over virtually all of the waters, surface features, and resources in the South China Sea, as well as portions of the East China Sea.
Beijing also seeks an end to America’s regional alliances and the removal of U.S. military bases from Japan and South Korea. It regards these as temporary artifacts of historical accident, the byproduct of “unequal treaties” that followed the end of World War II and are now sustained by what the Chinese describe as an outdated “Cold War mentality.” The CCP leadership believes that Washington has long sought to encircle it from without with democratic allies, while subverting its rule from within with liberal propaganda. Weakening and ultimately breaking up America’s alliances is therefore seen as essential to regime survival and to regaining China’s rightful place as the preponderant power in East Asia.
What has changed in recent years are not the CCP’s goals, but rather the means available to achieve them, as well as Beijing’s willingness to exercise its growing power in order to do so. Since the mid-1990s, China’s rapid economic growth has enabled it to fund a wide-ranging and sustained modernization of its armed forces. Among other things, the regime has invested heavily in so-called anti-access/area denial capabilities—precision conventional-strike systems capable of hitting fixed and mobile targets throughout the Western Pacific, including U.S. bases and aircraft carriers. Beijing has also begun to improve its intercontinental-range nuclear strike forces in ways that could eventually call into question the credibility of America’s extended nuclear guarantee to its allies. At the other end of the spectrum, China has developed and put to use “gray zone” capabilities—coast guard, paramilitary, and maritime construction forces that it has used to build and now to fortify a set of artificial islands in the South China Sea.
The purpose of China’s military buildup is not primarily to fight and win a war with the United States but rather, if possible, to “win without fighting.”
China’s economic growth has also given its leaders an expanding array of non-military tools with which to achieve their objectives. The increasing size and centrality of the Chinese market and its rapidly expanding role as a provider of aid and investment is helping Beijing draw others toward it. In addition to attracting clients with the promise of profits, the regime now has the ability to use economic instruments to threaten—and if necessary to punish—those who would defy it.
Pushing the U.S. Out
The ultimate objective of CCP strategy appears to be the creation of a new regional order in eastern Eurasia, formed from a group of countries joined by trade, transportation, and communication infrastructure with Beijing at the center. With America’s alliances dismantled or drained of significance, the United States would be pushed to the margins, if not out of the region altogether.
Regional hegemony would also give China a secure base from which it could more easily project power into areas closer to the United States, including the Western Hemisphere. Since the start of the 20th century a central objective of American grand strategy has been to forestall just such a threat by preventing a hostile power or coalition from dominating either end of the Eurasian landmass.
The ambitions of China’s CCP regime are no longer limited to its immediate neighborhood but extend to the global stage.
Chinese strategists have never accepted the Western vision of a liberal order, a world made up of states that share a commitment to certain principles, including representative government, the rule of law, and protection of individual rights. What they say they seek instead is a “community of common destiny,” a live-and-let-live world united only by the shared pursuit of material prosperity, in which every state can govern as it sees fit, free from outside criticism or interference.
Rather than trying to overturn the existing structure of global institutions, Beijing thus seeks for the moment to exploit those parts that can be turned to its advantage (like the World Trade Organization and the U.N. Security Council), ignoring those that challenge its interests (like the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea), and subverting or weakening others (like the U.N. Commission on Human Rights) that might threaten its legitimacy.
The CCP regime has also begun to develop some new institutions that bypass those favored by the West, including mechanisms that enable cross-border financial transactions beyond the reach of U.S. surveillance or sanctions, and development banks that offer capital without Western-style conditions for good governance or transparency. Finally, Beijing is attempting to win acceptance for new norms (like the notion of “Internet sovereignty” as opposed to the ideal of “Internet freedom” favored by many in the West) designed to reinforce its own efforts to block what it regards as subversive and dangerous ideas.
On Offense in the War of Ideas
China’s rulers no longer see themselves as operating entirely on the defensive in the ongoing clash of ideas with the West. They now feel emboldened not only to attack the inequities and inefficiencies of liberal democracy, but to advance their own distinctive mix of market-driven economics and authoritarian politics as, in Xi Jinping’s words, a “new option for other countries.”
Whatever the philosophical appeal of the Chinese model, the outflow of Chinese money, most notably under the auspices of Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative, is influencing the policies and shaping the institutions of countries in many parts of the developing world. Beijing’s largesse tends to strengthen the hand of the authoritarian rulers with whom it generally prefers to do business, but it is also fueling corruption and weakening democratic practices in places where liberal norms have yet to take firm root.
Despite China’s loudly proclaimed commitment to “non-interference,” in the past five years the CCP has stepped up its use of political warfare or so-called United Front influence operations. These involve a combination of techniques, including bribery and cooptation, that are intended to shape the perceptions and attitudes of foreign business, academic, media, and political elites in ways that reduce criticism of the CCP regime or opposition to its policies.
Unlike Moscow, Beijing is not trying to destabilize the advanced industrial democracies, but it does seek to exploit their openness for its own ever more clear strategic ends. Just as American policymakers set out to “make the world safe for democracy” at the start of the 20th century, so Chinese leaders are using every means at their disposal to make it safe for authoritarianism, or at least for continued CCP rule, at the start of the 21st.
In keeping with the president’s own predilections, the Trump Administration has chosen for the most part to eschew the language of values and beliefs, casting China not so much as an ideological rival but rather as America’s main opponent in a “new era of great power competition.” This is both inadequate and unwise. What is at stake in the emerging contest between Washington and Beijing is not just the delineation of spheres of influence, or some marginal readjustment in the balance of power, but the future prosperity and security of free societies in Asia and around the world.
For all their talk of “win-win solutions,” China’s current rulers regard the escalating rivalry with the United States as a zero-sum game from which only one power can emerge triumphant.
Last and perhaps most important: Downplaying the differences between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes risks overlooking the vulnerability and potential frailty of CCP-ruled China while underestimating the dynamism and resilience of the United States and its allies. Sun Tzu’s ancient aphorism is still apt: To achieve strategic success it is necessary to know the enemy, but also to know yourself.
Aaron Friedberg, Ph.D., is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University. A version of this article appeared at American Interest.