The U.S.-China Clash Is About Ideology After All

Claims that the rivalry is purely geopolitical don’t hold water.

A woman examines a display of books about Chinese President Xi Jinping.
A woman examines a display of books about Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Beijing International Book Fair in Beijing on August 23, 2018. Greg Baker/AFP via Getty Images

Whether we call it great-power competition or a new Cold War, there’s no denying the United States and China are engaged in an intense long-term rivalry. But many observers, especially foreign-policy generalists and realists, seem to believe that the U.S.-China conflict is driven by geopolitics, not ideology.

They argue that China has embraced capitalism, doesn’t export its ideology, and doesn’t pose an existential threat to liberal democracy and the Western way of life in the way the Soviet Union once did. In this interpretation, sometimes bringing up Thucydides, the problem is simply the rise of China’s power, which inevitably clashes with the established superpower, the United States, regardless of their political systems. But in reality, ideology has always played a massive role in driving the conflict—and many tensions would have been avoided if the West dealt with a democratic China.

It always takes two to tango. Even if the United States somehow chose to ignore this ideological dimension, many in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership wouldn’t, as they already see this conflict through an ideological lens. That framing is already very clear in Beijing’s language—and its actions. In recent countersanctions against the European Union, Beijing has targeted not just members of European Parliament and member nations’ parliaments, researchers, and think tanks, but even committees of the European Parliament and the European Council. These measures came down even though EU leaders have been keen to sign an investment agreement with China, which is now in doubt.

Think about what a real geopolitical conflict looks like: China and India. Chinese leaders are not afraid that India wants to promote democracy and threaten the regime’s stability. In India, China could go democratic tomorrow and it wouldn’t matter as long as the active border dispute remains, China is Pakistan’s best friend, and Chinese military vessels remain increasingly active in the Indian Ocean. Equally, China doesn’t really care what system New Delhi uses.

In contrast, ideological fears have always underpinned Beijing and Washington’s views of each other. The U.S.-PRC rapprochement that began in 1971 finally led to the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1979, followed by ever-stronger economic ties. But previous decades of confrontation could not be easily undone. Among conservatives in the Chinese leadership, former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s decision to strengthen relations with the United States, like the economic reforms of the 1980s, was accepted as necessary but never fully embraced. The economic reforms themselves were seen by party leadership as a necessary tool to develop China and one day make communism possible, just as Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin implemented the New Economic Policy soon after taking power. They weren’t supposed to be a shift to capitalism and most certainly not to democracy.

And then came the Tiananmen Square massacre. Chinese conservatives and hard-liners saw it as a ploy to democratize and destabilize China. Even Deng said “the causes of this incident have to do with the global context. The Western world, especially the United States, has thrown its entire propaganda machine into agitation work and has given a lot of encouragement and assistance to the so-called democrats or opposition in China—people who in fact are the scum of the Chinese nation. This is the root of the chaotic situation we face today.” Democracy, the hard-liners argued, was a Western plot to bring chaos to China. The fall of the Soviet Union and the misery of the Russian 1990s only confirmed those feelings.

Suddenly, the PRC was the last great bastion of communism and, to Beijing, the main target of the United States and the capitalist world. Little did it matter that Washington tried to preserve relations. In fact, to party hard-liners, U.S. engagement with China was a strategy to subvert the CCP through “peaceful evolution,” taking advantage of economic ties to promote “Western values” and democracy.

To certain elements in the party, military and government, the next decade brought more proof of Washington’s perceived double-dealing, containment, and ultimate goal of regime change: the deployment of two U.S. aircraft carriers near Taiwan, the bombing of the PRC embassy in Belgrade, and the Hainan island incident. These people weren’t necessarily a coherent faction and, for many years, didn’t control the entire party. This view of the United States wasn’t pervasive in Beijing, but it influenced government actions, even among non-hard-liners. But the CCP was never a monolith: There were also officials who admired the United States and even hoped economic reforms would be accompanied by political ones.

Yet it was the conservatives and hard-liners who got lucky and piggybacked on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s rise to power starting in 2008, their views finally prevailing in the party beginning in 2012 and 2013. By then, to Beijing, the United States had already shown once again it cannot be trusted—the Obama administration had announced its Asia-Pacific rebalancing, which to quite a few in the leadership simply mean “containment.” But their main worry wasn’t geopolitical.

A relatively new concept was becoming popular—U.S. officials and analysts focused on whether places like the South China Sea might be referred to as core interests. But they missed the most important message: At the top of the PRC’s core interests weren’t rocks in the sea or even Taiwan—it was the safeguarding of its CCP-led political system. The greatest threat against the PRC wasn’t geopolitical but ideological. And that was before the conservatives and hard-liners even took power.

Once they did, they wasted no time. An internal party document, the “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” spelled out the greatest threats for the PRC: universal values, constitutional democracy, civil society, neoliberalism, and the denial of the country’s socialist nature. A documentary made by elements in the Chinese military called Silent Contest also warned of how the United States was secretly trying to subvert the PRC by Westernizing and democratizing it while arguing the great struggle between the two countries would be an ideological one.

Military officials were warning not of U.S. warships but Western ideas. Since then, hard-liners’ power has only grown, finally taking control of party leadership in 2017—at the same time as a new group of U.S. hard-liners tried to use the 2017 U.S. administration to alter China policy back in Washington.

The ideological factor is prominent in Washington and the West as well. The PRC is seen not just as any other country but through the prism of its authoritarian government and the threat this poses to the liberal order and democracy. Ideological tensions are inevitable because Western governments and societies can never, at least as currently constituted, do what Beijing wants them to do, which is to not interfere in its internal affairs, meaning to utter no criticism and take no action, no matter what human rights abuses might take place on its territory. This, in turn, leads to counterreactions from the Chinese leadership in a never-ending downward spiral.

For many Westerners who have never experienced a communist system, it’s almost impossible to understand how Chinese hard-liners think: the belief that democracy is bad because it creates diversity and thus chaos; the obsession with control; the reflexive distrust of anything foreign; the sheer paranoia of containment, encirclement, and foreign coalitions ganging up on China; the conspiratorial mindset of “foreign hostile forces” and “black hands” secretly subverting the political system; and the utter unfamiliarity of how democratic and open societies function. At the same time, they embrace militarism and believe power can solve any problem while having few internal constraints on that power.

Many of the people in CCP leadership are fundamentally shaped by the propaganda and ideology they were exposed to but also by a political system in which there are no friends, no trust, and you could be stabbed in the back at any second. Four of the 24 high-level officials who served with Xi on the Politburo between 2007 and 2012 later became targets of a wide anti-corruption campaign. Across China, since 2013, more than 2 million officials were disciplined. And all these statistics don’t even compare to the climate of infighting and fear from Chairman Mao Zedong’s days. Primed by such a system, not only are officials prone to perceive external dangers and threats where none exist, but they see China and the world through an ideological lens. They define the interests of China first and foremost as a CCP-led state, prioritizing party rule over national interests, which could have been defined differently by a democratic polity.

These ideological demands and paranoias are exerting a real cost on China’s relationship with others. Right now, the European country with the worst diplomatic relations with China is peaceful and neutral Sweden, which also has relatively strong economic ties to China. Why? Because of the fate of just one man: Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller with Swedish citizenship whose imprisonment in China led to criticism and started a spiral of deteriorating relations. Ten years ago, peaceful Norway was in the same situation, again because of just one person: Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This pattern repeats across Europe: European countries have plenty to gain from diplomatic or economic cooperation with China—but human rights issues, whether Xinjiang or Hong Kong, keep tripping up relationships that European business elites might otherwise prefer were comfortable. Take the United Kingdom, torn between trying to find new markets in China post-Brexit and bipartisan demands for action on Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

All this is leading not just to a U.S.-PRC confrontation but, like the original Cold War, one between the democratic world and the PRC, perhaps alongside its mostly authoritarian allies like Russia. Until recently, Beijing clearly wanted to preserve its economic ties to developed democratic countries, but as democracies form a united front against the PRC and economic incentives for cooperation disappear, CCP leadership could start seeing democracy and a free society not just as enemies against which it must defend at home but which it should attack abroad.

If the ideological contest intensifies, there is a risk the CCP could really become an existential threat to democracy and freedom worldwide, regardless of whether “China is not really communist.” In fact, as China’s wealth increases, while external and internal tensions deepen and the CCP further radicalizes, it’s possible that some party members who believe in the need to go back to collective economic ownership might take control of the party, transform China into a real communist country, and promote world revolution. This scenario seems far-fetched, but it cannot be completely dismissed while China is ruled by a centralized authoritarian organization in which some leaders profoundly distrust capitalism and yearn for the days of Mao, while the initial decision to embrace markets was justified as a strategy to reach an advanced stage of socialism.

On the other hand, there’s a silver lining for the West in the fact that the U.S.-PRC struggle for global supremacy is ideological. It’s an opportunity to connect with the Chinese people and try to keep the conflict about leadership, not about China. Such a conflict could have an endgame: a liberal, peaceful, and cooperative China. There might still be hope that one day, China and the United States could get along well.

But for this to happen, the United States has to focus on the ideological sphere instead of the geopolitical one. Inviting authoritarian regimes like Russia or Vietnam in a geopolitical coalition against China would be a huge blunder. It would confirm to the Chinese people and the world that the United States doesn’t really care about democracy and will confront China regardless of its political system. An ideological conflict that might one day end is better than a never-ending geopolitical conflict with China. It’s vital that Washington focuses on the Chinese people, not just on fighting the CCP, and tries to prevent the future growth of anti-Americanism in China, especially if this conflict intensifies and party leadership tries to stoke nationalism.

Even though Washington and Beijing aren’t yet focused on overthrowing each other’s government, both are shaped by the ideological gulf between them and fear of the other’s intentions. This is not just a U.S.-China conflict but one between the PRC and most of the democratic world. Just because it looks different than the Cold War doesn’t mean ideology is dead. Ideology is in the driver’s seat. Buckle up.

Andrei Lungu is president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP).