Back in 2014, in statements by its leadership and in government media outlets, Beijing began to express its desire for a “new type of Great Power relations” with Washington. This bold, if vaguely-defined, ambition was among the first indications that China was beginning to re-conceive its global role. The phrase was clunky, and China finally dropped it with little fanfare. Nevertheless, a new kind of US-China relationship has indeed begun to emerge.
A relationship that has, in recent decades, been organized around the pursuit of shared interests appears to be reverting to one increasingly defined by differences in worldview. Beijing is tightening the screws on internal political dissent, and Americans are growing more uneasy about the nature of Chinese influence abroad. Ideology once again defines the terms of the US-China relationship.
It has become fashionable to point to Trump’s election win as the inflection point for any number of global trends. But, in this case, the shift owes more to Chinese than to American leadership. Since his accession to the Party Secretary position in 2012, Xi Jinping has consistently taken an ideological line stronger than any party leader since Mao.
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Under pressure from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), WeChat, the chat and social networking app, has agreed to censor "distorted" versions of Chinese history that appear in private conversations on its service. Given the app’s global reach, this decision has implications far beyond China’s borders. Beijing’s renewed commitment to ideological control also manifests itself in new rules for foreign universities operating in China: institutions like New York University and Duke that were enticed to China with promises of academic freedom have now been forced to establish Communist party units on their campuses and to give high-level decision-making powers to party officials. Last month, Beijing demanded a public apology from Marriott after the company listed Taiwan as an independent country on one of its customer surveys; Beijing’s reaction was volcanic. Marriott said it was sorry.
Though Beijing’s efforts to project ideology overseas aren’t confined to the United States, the American response has grown more forceful. In late January, Trump announced substantially increased tariffs on Chinese solar panels and washing machines in response to Beijing’s “unfair” trade practices. The tariffs might or might not achieve their objectives, but their symbolic value is great. They signal that the United States is no longer as willing to bear the costs of its openness to support a global trading system.
The last few months have seen increasing hostility to Chinese projects and influence in the United States. Surveying the CCP’s growing ideological control of university education at home, many American universities are raising public doubts about the viability of Beijing’s network of “Confucius Institutes” across US campuses. And American political scientists who until recently touted the benefits of incorporating China into the global system are criticizing Beijing’s behavior and its motives and values.
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Joseph Nye, the Kennedy School political scientist who coined the term “Soft Power,” has begun to describe Chinese global influence as Sharp Power, and says we must resist it. Last week, the director of the FBI warned that Chinese students in the United States might serve as “non-traditional" information collectors for Beijing.
Ideology defined the early decades of the relationship between China and the United States, making them adversaries for nearly 30 years. But since the post-Mao thaw of the late 1970s, and especially after Deng Xiaoping’s “Reform and Opening” of the country in 1979, the United States and China have shelved most ideological differences while pursuing common interests, from trade to terrorism to the environment.
Despite this cooperation, basic ideological differences remained unresolved. American political culture remains committed to democracy, openness, civil liberties, and a boisterous public sphere. The CCP is committed to unitary rule, authoritarian values, and absolute control of information. Political leaders in both countries view themselves as having historic responsibilities toward the rest of the world.
Over the last generation, we grew used to China and the United States framing political issues in terms of a search for common ground, usually economic development and free trade, represented by the term “globalization.” This was supposed to diminish the influence of sparring ideologies. But the ideologies never went away.
Both countries are the products of revolution, and the turbulence inherent in that act defined our values. Both think now is the time to trumpet and spread those values. This will force our leaders and the public to make choices that we have avoided. We are insufficiently prepared for making some of those choices. Our policies and thinking on China were built for placid times. We need new ones for tumultuous times.