Understanding the Battleground
In More Detail
After the opening to the People’s Republic of China in the 1970s, and especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the world expected China to liberalize its economy and form of governance. American leaders from the George H. W. Bush administration through the Obama administration believed that deepening engagement would speed up China’s transition into an open society.
But, in retrospect, those beliefs were based on wishful thinking. Many people undervalued the role of ideology and emotion in driving the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP. Today party leaders fear losing control as they aspire to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”
Chairman Xi Jinping’s CCP is not only strengthening a system that stifles human freedom in China. it is also exporting that model and promoting a new international order that would make the world less free, less prosperous, and less safe.
At home, China uses technology to enable a surveillance police state that shuts out alternative sources of information. Its social credit score system coerces by coopting social networks. If someone criticizes the government, and his or her score falls, so do the scores of friends and family. Low scores mean denial of access to transportation, loans, and housing.
The party coopts international companies and then portrays the theft and transfer of their technologies as normal business practice. Peoples Liberation Army, or PLA, scientists routinely infiltrate academic, corporate, and government-funded research.
The regime also subjects minorities to brutal oppression. In Xinjiang Province, over a million ethnic Uighurs have been interned and brainwashed. It is an ongoing campaign of cultural genocide. To mute criticism, the party wields its economic clout and subverts international organizations.
Abroad, cooption, coercion, and concealment are foundational to the party’s strategy. Its One Belt One Road initiative promotes unaffordable construction projects to developing nations. When they cannot pay, China takes control of infrastructure in strategic locations.
Coercion abroad also includes cyberattacks and cyberespionage. During the 2020 pandemic, China conducted cyberattacks against hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and medical research facilities. Chinese leaders wanted to win the race for COVID-19 therapies and vaccines, to emerge from the crisis in a position of relative advantage and portray China’s system as superior to democratic free-market systems.
After concealing the initial COVID-19 outbreak, China’s diplomats and agents used disinformation to obscure responsibility for the pandemic and portray European and American responses as indicative of the incompetence of democracies.
The PLA used the pandemic as cover for aggression from Hong Kong to the South China Sea, to the East China Sea, to its Himalayan border with India. Party leaders believe that they have a narrow window of opportunity to strengthen their rule and revise the international order in their favor—before China’s economy sours, before the population grows old, and before other countries realize that the party is pursuing national rejuvenation at their expense.
Fortunately, the world is awakening to CCP aggression. The United States and other nations must deter conflict with China while countering its campaign of cooption, coercion, and concealment. The long-term goal should be to convince Chinese leaders that it is in their interest to play by the rules internationally, relinquish a degree of control, and pursue reform and openness.
Like-minded nations must work together to prevent China from exporting its statist economy and authoritarian political model.
Perhaps most important, our free and open societies can provide a living counterexample to China’s authoritarian mercantilist system by turning what CCP leaders see as weaknesses into strong bulwarks against Chinese aggression and subversion. Those bulwarks include:
Freedom of expression, of assembly, and of the press.
Freedom of religion and freedom from persecution based on religion, race, gender, or sexual orientation.
The rule of law and the protections it affords life and liberty.
And the belief that government serves the people rather than the other way around.
China’s leadership actively fights against those rights, at home and abroad, and that is why we must strengthen them at home and compete effectively abroad.