A critical issue facing the United States is whether the confrontation with China should be based on divergent ideologies — communism versus liberalism — or on interests, where purportedly there are greater avenues for cooperation. We know that Beijing’s leadership publicly prefers the latter.
In December, China’s Global Times assured the American people that Sino-American tensions are not the result of the divergent ideologies, but of interests. According to Beijing’s mouthpiece, Western leaders should abandon discussions of values, and alliances based on values, and instead embrace the “common values of humanity.” China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, has argued that to improve Sino-American relations, both sides must respect each other’s political system. He noted that the U.S. must respect China’s system or there will be no peaceful coexistence.
Writing in the New York Times in November, China’s former vice foreign minister, Fu Ying, called upon “cooperative competition,” suggesting that China would cooperate if the U.S. abandons its positions on Taiwan, Hong Kong and the South China Sea and accepts China’s revisionist ones. China’s human rights abuses, she believes, should be considered internal affairs.
What unifies China’s arguments for anchoring confrontation on interests is Beijing’s fear of the ideological motivation for confrontation. Understanding the difference between communism and liberal democracy delineates the fundamental nature of the Sino-American conflict: tyranny versus freedom, a debate the U.S. wins hands down, if it is willing to defend liberal democracy.
Ironically, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) not only comprehends the importance of ideology, but also operates as if its life depends upon it. As Mao Zedong said, “To overthrow a political power, it is always necessary, first of all, to create public opinion, to do work in the ideological sphere.” China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, has stated: “Ideological work is an extremely important task. Whether we can do the work well determines our party’s future and destiny, the long-term stability of the country.”
In 2019, Xi elevated ideology security as the number one requirement for regime security. He emphasized: “The disintegration of a regime often starts in the ideological sphere. Political turmoil and regime change may occur overnight, but ideological change is a long-term process. When the ideological defense line is breached, other defense lines are difficult to hold.” He warned that the CCP must avoid the mistakes made by the Soviet Union, which disintegrated following a “very fierce” struggle “in the ideological sphere.”
The world should understand that the CCP is dictatorial. Xi has greatly intensified thought-control in China, issuing a ban on discussion of university values, constitutional democracy, an independent judicial system, and other Western ideas. He relentlessly campaigns to impose the CCP’s ideology on the Chinese people.
If ideology is fundamental to the CCP, then why the effort by its senior voices to focus on interests in the Sino-American confrontation? We believe the CCP does so to deceive the West.
In actuality, the CCP fully understands that its ideology is its Achilles’ heel. The ideology is based on false assertions that the party rules in the name of the “workers/peasants alliance,” which provides it with self-justified authority to rule over 1.4 billion people without their consent. Its ideology explains which states are allies and which are foes, and thus yields the ultimate reason for the struggle with other states: Communism must be defended against its inevitable class enemies.
The ideology is the force that unifies and provides cohesion for the party and like-minded people around the world. As a corollary, it defines the domestic enemy, including those struggling for human rights, and the enemy abroad. Ideology also is a weapon to be used to expand the influence of the CCP and challenge the legitimacy of liberal democracy — because liberal democracy provides the alternative of human success, prosperity and freedom to the CCP’s oppression. Indeed, only 110 miles away, Taiwan demonstrates that liberal democracy can work for Chinese people.
The CCP knows that it cannot defeat the West on ideological grounds. Domestically, it relies on terror, censorship of information to block Western ideas, and coercive thought-transformation and indoctrination to deceive the Chinese people into believing in the superiority of socialism with the Chinese characteristics. In its external relations, it downplays its ideology as a tactic to deceive the West, and hopes to shift the debate to interests. Interests can be bargained and negotiated, but ideologies cannot. By doing so, the CCP hides its strategic ambition of world hegemony and attempts to fool the West into lowering its guard.
China’s effort to promote interests over ideology is a calculated political warfare strategy to achieve four aims. First, it aids the CCP’s attempt to establish ideological superiority over liberal democracy. Second, it may disarm the United States of its most important weapon. Third, it seeks to advance a narrative acceptable to Western policymakers to minimize the perception of China as a threat. Fourth, for Western and all other audiences, the narrative about shared interests is a hopeful, positive message for those China can intimidate.
In reality, the distinction between ideology and interest is false. Ideology largely defines interests. Ideology defines why the CCP brutalizes the Uighurs, Tibetans and other ethnic peoples, and the Hong Kong and Chinese democracy activists. It defines why the CCP must destroy liberal democracy and confront the U.S. Equally, it is ideology that explains why the U.S. must defend itself from China’s aggression.
Liberal democracy is foundational for the U.S. — the cause of its revolution, the source of its strength, a symbol for people around the world. Liberal democracy provides a future vision for international politics that is inspiring, in sharp contrast to China’s vision. Yet China has launched an ideological battle for the future — who gets to define the world’s values is now contested space. This is a war between two value and political systems, between freedom and tyranny, between right and wrong, good and evil. It is in the interest of the U.S. to win it.
Bradley A. Thayer is Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas San Antonio and is the co-author of How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.
Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, Dr. Han was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three Senators.