The China-U.S. “ideological clash” has been continuing to make headlines since the fiery speech delivered by the U.S. vice president Mike Pence at the Hudson Institute last October that fueled the fears of new Cold War between two of the world’s largest economies. Given the renewed trade tensions between China and the U.S. that appears to escalate into all-around confrontation, some political analysts and academics are comparing China to the former Soviet Union and invoking historical analogies to interpret the ongoing disputes between Beijing and Washington as conflict of ideologies.
Besides the U.S. politicians and political observers, on the other hand, the Chinese leadership is also obsessed with the rhetoric of “ideological struggle” to guard against any factor that might lead to the regime collapse resembling the fall of the Soviet Union. In early April, the CCP party magazine Qiushi published a speech by President Xi Jinping six years ago that underlies necessity in cooperating and competing with “capitalism” and reiterates the superiority of socialism to capitalism in Marxist theory.
Whereas it is tempting for politicians and political analysts to revisit the Cold War playbook for analogical evidence of ideological conflict and put any trace of such evidence in the current context for comparison, the rivalry between Beijing and Washington is hardly an ideological adversary. Here is why.
First, China’s ideology has been flexible and adjustable throughout the past decades since the founding of the People’s Republic.
After the Communists took power on the mainland in 1949, Mao Zedong transformed China into a Soviet-style centrally controlled socialist society through forceful measures bearing the hallmarks of fundamental Marxism and Leninism, including removal of landlords, overhaul of land distribution system, destruction of merchants, wipe-out of nearly all foreign investment, all of which are collectively termed as “class struggle”.
Nonetheless, since Mao’s death in 1976, the CCP ruling elites have started to abandon Mao’s fundamentalist socialism and instead, took a revisionist approach to socialism. To save the regime from collapse, Deng Xiaoping inaugurated “reform and opening up” policy to shore up a crumbling national economy. Softening the Party’s hardline on ideology and blurring the borderline between socialism and capitalism, Deng ushered in a kind of revisionist socialism by encouraging foreign investment, private businesses, deregulation and less government intervention to lift the country out of Mao-era poverty. When he said “it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white; as long as it catches mice, it’s a good cat”, he may imply that it doesn’t matter if it’s socialism or capitalism, as long as it brings economic growth (or makes us rich), it’s a good political system. Whereas the revisionist socialism bears the brand of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”, political analysts believe it is outright capitalism or state capitalism. Under the administration of Deng’s successors, the CCP steered further away from Maoist fundamentalism, reshaping itself as a party that represents all of the Chinese people rather than the party of the workers and peasants, opening membership to capitalists and entrepreneurs, and making legislation to protect private properties.
In Mao’s era, the ideological cleavage between China and the U.S. was eclipsed by U.S.-Soviet ideological clash in a larger context. In the post-Mao era, it’s undebatable that China’s ideology has been moving towards what the U.S. values. Despite that there are backsliding signs under the leadership of President Xi Jinping that remind scholars and analysts of the Mao’s era, after all, the CCP is barely a party that advocated class struggle, execution of landlords, destroy of private properties, and eradication of capitalists and entrepreneurs. In this sense, the argument of China-U.S. ideological flight is only a misinterpretation based on terminological exaggeration.
Second, China’s apparent popularity derives from its economic prowess rather than its ideological strength.
Political analysts and academics may have concerns over China’s influence in not only developing world but also in Western democracies when they read about Italy’s joining of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Britain’s downplay of Huawei’s threat and France’s opposition to “Huawei ban” despite the warning of Washington. Based on these, they may conclude that Beijing is commanding larger influence over Western countries than Washington.
However, it should be clear that these allies of the U.S. are siding with China on some issues out of economic instead of ideological consideration. Italy endorsed China’s grand infrastructure initiative as the first of the G7 countries by signing a memorandum during President Xi’s visit to Rome early this year because Italian companies need Chinese investment and capital injection. Given tensions between Rome and Brussels over migrants and austerity measures under Italy’s new anti-establishment government, Italy had to find alternatives to finance its economy and social program expenditure. Likewise, the U.K. and France’s divergence with the U.S. on Huawei may also be attributed to economics instead of ideologies. When asked about the Trump administration’s restriction on Chinese technological giant Huawei, the French President Emanuel Macron takes into account job creation rather than “over-protectionism”, which may be the perfect example to understand the rationale of the European countries in disagreement with Washington on Huawei.
Therefore, China may wish to maneuver its economic means to win political or ideological influence over America’s allies, which, in the eyes of politicians and analysts, creates an impression that the Western allies are choosing China instead of their traditional partner. But the rationale lies in nothing more than economy and has nothing to do with ideology; in addition, there’s little evidence to show China’s success on the ideological front.
Third, China’s ideology in the contemporary world is far from attractive compared to the Soviet ideology in the Cold War era.
The most serious flaw in the “ideological battle” theory is that, the analysts ignored the fact that contemporary China is not the former Soviet Union and China’s ideology is never comparable to Soviet communist ideology in terms of global appeal. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union commanded a bloc of communist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe to confront the Western bloc of democracies led by Washington. In contrast, in spite of China’s hospitality in hosting world leaders through serial extravagant conferences and forums, the leadership’s efforts to voluntarily tout the “Chinese wisdom”, and its generosity in granting loans and financing infrastructure, most of the countries are more prepared to take the benefits than to follow China’s suit.
Of course, the defenders of the theory may cite anecdotal traces of media control, Internet censorship, arbitrary surveillance, the crackdown on dissents in other countries to substantiate the claim that China is exporting non-democratic values and practices via economic means or security cooperation, and thus contend that China challenges Western values. But the reasoning may not hold true because the causal relationship between China’s influence and these crackdown practices remains debatable. On the one hand, if these countries are authoritarian themselves, these practices might not be imported from China, but are the instincts embedded in authoritarianism. On the other hand, if democratic countries are beginning to adopt such practices, in most cases, it might be the effects of China’s money influence or economic coercion to ensure the rhetoric of local media and public opinion are in line with China’s political correctness. Again, it’s the matter of economy rather than ideology.
In conclusion, the theory of ideological clash can’t be used to accurately explain the ongoing China-America tensions and comparing China with the former Soviet Union is fundamentally wrong. It should be understood that China’s ideology keeps changing during the past decades, and China’s rising popularity never comes from its ideological attractiveness, but from its economic largesse. While politicians might be preoccupied with the ideological conflict for strategic purposes or political agenda, political analysts should bear in mind that terminological hyperbole and flawed historical analogies help little in figuring out the complexities in Beijing-Washington competition.
Image: The White House from Washington, DC [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Geopolitics.
Keyu Chen served as financial translator for Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan and Deutsche Bank. He holds M.A. in international journalism and communication from Beijing Foreign Studies University. He’s interested in political communication, comparative politics and international relations.