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Ideological Competition With China Is Inevitable—Like It or Not

Beijing recognizes promoting human rights and democracy is an ideological challenge. So should Washington.

By , a China advisor at the Asia Society Policy Institute.
A statue of Mao Zedong
A decorative plate with an image of Chinese President Xi Jinping is seen behind a statue of former Chinese leader Mao Zedong at a souvenir store next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing on Feb. 27, 2018. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

As rancorous U.S.-China talks in late July demonstrated, tensions between the two superpowers have continued to escalate. Beijing has declared the relationship “is now in a stalemate and faces serious difficulties.” U.S. President Joe Biden has increasingly characterized strategic competition with China as part of a broader conflict between democracies and autocracies in the 21st century. This has prompted dissenters in Washington and around the world to decry the prospect of the two countries slipping into an ideological competition reminiscent of the Cold War.

Such warnings tend to come from two main camps. Political progressives warn defining the standoff as a Cold War-style ideological contest will divide the world, distract from efforts to address social issues at home, and make it harder to fight climate change. Realist-leaning foreign-policy thinkers, on the other hand, believe framing the U.S.-China relationship in ideological terms is extraneous to the core issues of great-power competition and could also alienate important U.S. allies and partners.

Despite this, however, neither group tends to seriously suggest the United States stop standing up for human rights and liberal democratic governance around the world. It is now a rare item of bipartisan agreement in Washington and with voters more broadly—perhaps, in part, because China has served to highlight the issue and such an argument would find little traction. But this position creates a contradiction: Advocacy of these values itself represents an ideology—one fundamentally at odds with the worldview adhered to in Beijing. For that reason, the truth is ideological competition with China is inevitable.

As rancorous U.S.-China talks in late July demonstrated, tensions between the two superpowers have continued to escalate. Beijing has declared the relationship “is now in a stalemate and faces serious difficulties.” U.S. President Joe Biden has increasingly characterized strategic competition with China as part of a broader conflict between democracies and autocracies in the 21st century. This has prompted dissenters in Washington and around the world to decry the prospect of the two countries slipping into an ideological competition reminiscent of the Cold War.

Such warnings tend to come from two main camps. Political progressives warn defining the standoff as a Cold War-style ideological contest will divide the world, distract from efforts to address social issues at home, and make it harder to fight climate change. Realist-leaning foreign-policy thinkers, on the other hand, believe framing the U.S.-China relationship in ideological terms is extraneous to the core issues of great-power competition and could also alienate important U.S. allies and partners.

Despite this, however, neither group tends to seriously suggest the United States stop standing up for human rights and liberal democratic governance around the world. It is now a rare item of bipartisan agreement in Washington and with voters more broadly—perhaps, in part, because China has served to highlight the issue and such an argument would find little traction. But this position creates a contradiction: Advocacy of these values itself represents an ideology—one fundamentally at odds with the worldview adhered to in Beijing. For that reason, the truth is ideological competition with China is inevitable.

Progressives and realists opposed to ideological competition with China but unwilling to call for an end to promoting liberal values suffer from two basic misunderstandings: one about China and one about the United States. The first is not understanding the foundational Marxist-Leninist worldview of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Beijing sees the universal values promoted by liberalism as a mortal threat to its continued existence, a conclusion it reached after witnessing the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests—which called for democratic reforms, freedom of speech, and freedom of the press—and the collapse of the Soviet Union two years later. In this view, liberalism and the CCP cannot coexist within China, and liberalism’s conception of its values as universal makes active ideological warfare a necessity for Beijing.

Beijing already saw itself engaged in long-running ideological competition with Western liberalism long before Western critics discovered the issue.

The CCP expressed this view most directly in an April 2013 document—the “Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” better known as Document 9—which warned of seven “perils” subverting the party’s grip on power. Among these threats were notions that “the West’s values are the prevailing norm for all human civilization” and “Western freedom, democracy, and human rights are universal and eternal” and apply “to all humanity.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping has consistently reinforced this viewpoint in his public remarks. As early as July 2013, he was warning the party that “currently, struggles in the ideological field are extraordinarily fierce” and “although [they] are invisible, they are a matter of life and death.” In fact, he said, “Western hostile forces are speeding up their ‘Peaceful Evolution’ and ‘Color Revolution’ in China” as a strategy of “Westernizing and splitting up China overtly and covertly.” In the same vein, by January 2014, Xi was speaking of a “treacherous international situation” and “an intensifying contest of two ideologies,” with the United States desperate to use liberal ideas to undermine the CCP regime and stop China’s rise. Xi’s conviction that China is at the receiving end of an ideological war only intensified after U.S.-China relations further derailed following the growth of widespread disillusionment in Washington after decades of strategic “engagement” with Beijing and the subsequent start of the U.S.-China trade war in 2018.

Beijing therefore already saw itself engaged in long-running ideological competition with Western liberalism—as championed by the United States—long before Western critics discovered the issue. It is a mistake to think China can ever be convinced otherwise as long as the West continues to promote liberal values.

The second misunderstanding is a failure to recognize the CCP is right about at least one thing: Liberalism, with its ideas about human rights and democratic norms, is indeed an ideology—something many Americans seem to have forgotten. After the defeat of liberalism’s main 20th-century ideological rivals, fascism and Soviet communism, it became habitual to see universalized Western liberal democracy as “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution … and as the final form of human government,” as Francis Fukuyama argued in his 1989 essay, “The End of History?” In other words, Western conventional wisdom came to see liberalism as exactly what China’s Document 9 claimed: “the prevailing norm for all human civilization.”

Those advocating against fighting a U.S.-Chinese ideological contest fail to recognize that promoting human rights and democracy is, in fact, advancing an ideology. That doesn’t mean Washington shouldn’t do it anyway—but it should at least be aware this isn’t advocating a neutral position.

Given the United States is highly unlikely to ever give up promoting democracy’s superiority and the universality of human rights, and the CCP already considers itself locked in an ideological contest with the West, ideological competition will be an inevitable part of the broader U.S.-China strategic contest, whether anyone welcomes this fact or not.

The right question, instead, is how to manage this element of ideological conflict within a broader strategic framework that can establish guardrails around U.S.-Chinese strategic competition and thereby prevent open clashes. That could mean explicitly refraining from making regime change in China a strategic objective of U.S. policy as the Trump administration occasionally openly elided. It could mean carefully balancing the degree to which U.S. human rights criticisms of China translate from rhetoric into sanctions and other punitive measures or any number of other policy options that could be part of a more productive conversation. But first, those in the West who are wary of a prolonged Cold War-style confrontation must recognize some level of ideological competition with China is inescapable.

Nathan Levine is a China advisor at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

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