Are the United States and China in an Ideological Competition?

Among the growing sources of tension between the United States and China, an underexplored topic is the potential for ideological competition. In addition to the battle for trade, technological, and military superiority, will the two countries find themselves locked in a clash of values as well? On October 21, the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies hosted four leading scholars to discuss this important issue. Below are edited excerpts from their remarks.


Jessica Chen Weiss, Associate Professor of Government at Cornell University:

Not since Mao Zedong has China sought to export revolution or topple democracy. China has instead sought to make a world safe for autocracy . . . and secure Chinese Communist Party (CCP) rule at home. Of course, China has offered alternatives to U.S.-led institutions and has sought to combat universal values and made it easier for other authoritarian regimes to thrive and survive. And the recent NBA controversy made apparent that China’s effort to squelch dissent spread beyond its borders and that it had a corrosive effect on free speech and liberal values abroad. Still, these efforts are rooted in the desire to secure CCP rule at home, and its material interests abroad. These are real challenges, but in my view, they do not amount to a new Cold War. Framing competition with China in ideological terms misses the true sources of China’s international influence: its economy and its growing technological might.

When we ask what kind of ideological competition exists today between the United States and China, there’s clearly an ideological component. I see it less as a new Cold War and more as an emerging security dilemma, in which China and its efforts to make the world safer for the CCP appear to threaten the values of liberal democracies overseas, not by intent, but still as a consequence of its defensive efforts. This means we need to work with [China] to negotiate a more shared understanding of what are acceptable efforts to defend CCP rule, or at least ones what we can tolerate, and what is unacceptable interference into the internal affairs of other countries. If China were bent on undermining democracy or spreading authoritarianism wholesale, containment might be appropriate.

But a strategy of trying to counter Chinese influence wherever it appears across the globe is misguided and dangerous. It threatens the very openness of our society and the liberal principles for which the United States has stood. I see the retreat of democracy around the globe with dismay, but I think critics also exaggerate the role that Beijing has played in this trend. The CCP welcomes evidence of democratic dysfunction, but this does not amount to a grand strategy bent on destroying democracy or exporting autocracy as a form of government around the globe.

In confronting the challenge that China poses, I think the best approach is for the United States and other liberal democracies to defend and restore democracy at home, starting right here in the United States, and reinvesting in the multilateral institutions and allies necessary to make a concerted effort to confront and curb China’s worst practices. We need to work with China on issues where their leadership is critical, such as climate change, and on issues where Chinese efforts do not undermine or conflict with our democratic principles. I think it’s important that we also criticize China where its actions fall short and work in cooperation with others to curb the worst excesses of Chinese Communist influence, whether that’s exporting censorship or profiting unfairly from trade agreements.

Daniel Tobin, China Studies Faculty, National Intelligence University:

Since my university is part of the Department of Defense, I need to begin with the disclaimer that all statements of fact, analysis, or opinion are mine alone and do not reflect the official policy or position of National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense or any of its components, or of the U.S. government.

I think it’s clear that we are in a global system competition with the CCP. It’s a contest with many dimensions, but I think it’s imperative to begin by understanding it as an ideological contest. I would argue that this Thucydides’ Trap that a lot of people describe in terms of China’s growing power and fear that it causes to the United States, I don’t think is the driver of U.S.-China rivalry. The driver is precisely the ideological competition between our two systems as a source of distrust.

I think we need to be clear that we’re not simply in a generalized broad competition between autocracy and democracy. We’re in a specific competition with the ideology of the Communist Party of China, which since the 1980s it is called “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” And it is crucial to understand that this is a species of Leninism.

Leninism offers a prescription for a dictatorship led by a single Party that has a scientific access to the direction of history, and that promises to transform countries from one that is backward to a modern country that’s at the forefront of the history. These are the pieces of the intellectual architecture of Leninism that remain animating for the CCP today. For the Party, a strong Leninist state has always constituted the only antidote to China’s nineteenth- and twentieth-century weakness. That’s the story that Party tells. Now under Xi Jinping what the Party says is that China’s rise to the number two country in the world vindicates socialism internationally, and it should earn China a place of leadership for having found an alternative route to the Western path to modernity and development. This means that the Party aims to make China a global leader based on the achievements of its system. National rejuvenation doesn’t mean being left alone as one pole in a multipolar world; it means a world in which morality and prestige radiate from Beijing.

Some scholars have noted Xi’s public denial of the goal of exporting China’s governance model after people began to pay attention to both the relevant passages in his speech and the accompanying propaganda that has been issued since in Chinese, but that denial by Beijing is not credible, both because of the venue in which he delivered it—a gathering of world political parties designed precisely to promote China’s domestic and international models of governance – but also because the logic of promoting a Chines model flows directly from the Party’s consistent ambition of China making a greater contribution to mankind and human development in general on the basis of socialism.

If we are to grasp the implications of Beijing’s international ambitions, we need to understand how Leninist ideology contrasts with our values.

The key question for us is whether the preeminence Beijing envisions will change the nature of the global order in a way that is acceptable or unacceptable for the United States and its allies. The phrase “ideological competition” accurately captures that we have incompatible political visions. That incompatibility has nothing to do with Chinese culture but everything to do with Leninism. In a free society, we see people as ends in themselves, and we believe liberty is worth prioritizing, even if [this society] makes political decisions more difficult and costly, and even if it, at times, works against the interests of the whole or the group. Leninism, by contrast, makes individuals into means towards the achievement of collective social ends.

Toshi Yoshihara, Senior Fellow, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments:

There is indeed an ideological component to the overall competition. The case that I'll make is that the CCP perceives an ideological threat from the United States in particular and the West in general. As the CCP's point of contact with the wider world has multiplied, the Party has gone global in its quest to defend against this ideological challenge.

My remarks are drawn primarily from my recent work on Chinese political warfare. To tackle this research, I looked to Chinese open sources. Fortuitously, I came across quite a few publicly available writings about and by the United Front Work Department.

What is the United Front Work Department? It's a Party organ designed to keep the CCP in power. Its mission is to co-opt non-Party constituents inside and outside of China and bring them in alignment with the Party. The department was institutionally elevated and expanded under Xi Jinping, and multiple works have been published to promulgate and promote the importance of United Front work to Party cadre and the public alike. What I'd like to highlight from these writings is the ideological worldview of the department and by implication the view of the Party through this ideological lens.

One key rationale for revitalizing the United Front Work Department is the Party's assessment of the class system in China. China’ economic reforms and opening to the world created new social classes and unleashed new social forces that have deeply unsettled state and society.  There is also a sense that the CCP needs to restore ideological discipline and vigilance. The writings from the department offer the Soviet Union as a cautionary tale. The reason for the USSR’s collapse, according to these writings, is fundamentally ideological in nature. When the Communist Party of the Soviet Union failed to instill adherence to ideological doctrine, the people lost faith in the system, and it came crashing down. The lesson is clear: ideological complacency is lethal to the Party’s survival.

Since the reform and opening era, China's contact with the outside world, including with the West, has exploded. That contact has involved the exchange of ideas, including Western ones, frequently subversive ones. The United Front Work Department sees Western ideas, such as universal values and constitutional democracies, as ideological contaminants. They see people or classes of people potentially carrying and spreading those ideological viruses into politics.

In conclusion, I think the Party does see the world in an ideological hue. It sees itself in an ideological contest with the West. The writings of the United Front Work Department bespeak a siege mentality and paranoia about the outside world. It is a deeply insecure worldview. But, even if this is largely a defensive mentality, to the extent that this is about preserving the Party's monopoly on political power, the Party has adopted offensive means to achieve its strategically defensive aims. The challenge to the West is to respond to the Party's attempts to convince, if not compel, the external environment to come to terms with, and accept, the very nature of the authoritarian regime.

Andrew Mertha, George and Sadie Hyman Professor of China Studies, Johns Hopkins University Paul H. Nitze School for Advanced International Studies:

Are the United States and China in an ideological competition? My answer is no. That is not to say that these two countries do not seek to be, or do not think they are in an ideological competition. They do.  Yet I think they are unable to engage in such a competition, for neither country today possesses the capacity to pursue anything meaningful on the ideological front.

During Xi 's rise to power, many early analyses likened him to Mao Zedong. The argument was that Xi was restricting freedoms, reevaluating Maoist social experiments, and enhancing his own power within the system like Mao had before him. Those were in contravention to much of the thrust of the Reform and Opening period over the last 40 years. However, such an analysis arguably betrays a misunderstanding of the profound ways in which the two leaders are so different, primarily with regards to ideology.

For Mao, ideology was the spark that would release the innate correctness of action that lay within all of us in pursuit of the goals of socialism. Mao saw the Party and the people as co-equal branches of governance, both bound by ideology, with the people being the engines of history. Yet Mao was extremely distrustful of institutions and bureaucracy, and all his signature accomplishments and failures were attempts to push back against China's governing institutions. The fact that all of these were failures does not negate the fact that they were genuinely ideological in orientation. Mao believed that people were, by default, poised toward socialist goals and that incorrect thinking caused us to deviate from them.

Xi's approach could not be more different. While Mao Zedong may have had misplaced confidence in the ideological forces of a given society, Chinese or otherwise, Xi Jinping seems to have precious little confidence in the Chinese society he presides over. Xi’s fingerprints on Chinese politics are in the form of an unprecedented degree of institutional bureaucratic state-building. To Mao, bureaucracy was an anathema, and to Xi, it is the savior of his ability to bring China to its full potential.

What does this have to do with ideology? The answer is ideology today—whether “socialism with the Chinese characteristics” or simply the perennial search for “wealth and power”—is fully and utterly in the service of the state. The narrative of the Chinese Dream is open to infinite interpretation, and the China Model remains unspecified. These are slogans, shortcuts, bumper stickers: they're not a robust ideology that can be exported abroad. And the genuine narrative that has emerged under the Xi’s era, that of China reclaiming its proper place in the global pecking order, is also not an ideology but a blunt, albeit historically grounded, nationalist imperative. Meanwhile, as under Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, most Chinese I know—not the ones interviewed by the New York Times or the Washington Post—are able to navigate all of this by simply laying low. This is the opposite of ideological mobilization.

Watch the full event here.