At stake in the U.S.-China rivalry: The shape of the global political order

In just over 40 years, the People’s Republic of China has arisen from the political chaos and poverty of the Mao Zedong era to become a powerhouse on the world stage. Its unmistakable clout is intensifying its rivalry with the United States over which country will dominate the global order and, crucially, which system will stand as the world’s political and economic model: the authoritarianism and state capitalism of China, or the liberal democracy and market-oriented economy of the United States.

China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who is expected to gain an unprecedented third term next month as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, believes that “the East is rising and the West is declining” and that “time and momentum are on our side.” For his part, President Biden noted the competition with China in a speech last year, declaring that “America won’t back away from [its] commitments to human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

The contest between the two superpowers poses perhaps the most consequential challenge in foreign affairs today. Signs of the U.S.-China confrontation emerge with striking regularity. In August, China launched its largest military exercise ever around Taiwan after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited the self-governing island, which China claims as its own. Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have enhanced their relationship in recent years based largely on a mutual opposition to the United States. And on the economic front, Biden signed new legislation in August — the Chips and Science Act — which aims to build an American semiconductor industry that will never be second to China’s.

By some theoretical measures, China’s communist regime should have collapsed by now. Almost 20 years ago, Columbia University political scientist Andrew J. Nathan argued in an influential essay assessing China’s surprising durability that, according to a thesis on international relations called “regime theory,” authoritarian states are “inherently fragile because of weak legitimacy, overreliance on coercion, over-centralization of decision making, and the predominance of personal power over institutional norms.”

So, why is the Chinese Communist Party still around? That’s a question Harvard University’s Steven Levitsky and the University of Toronto’s Lucan Way grapple with in “Revolution and Dictatorship: The Violent Origins of Durable Authoritarianism.” In a sweeping historical analysis, they examine 13 revolutionary regimes, including the Soviet Union, Iran, Vietnam, Algeria and Cuba, to understand the durability of each state.

China, whose Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary last year, is a key example of “durable authoritarianism,” according to Levitsky and Way. Counterintuitively, the authors argue that some of China’s worst mistakes — the Great Leap Forward from 1958 to 1960, Mao’s messianic attempt to use human will to drive steel production that led to the worst famine in history, killing tens of millions; and the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution, which set back the development of the country’s education, legal and economic systems by years — help explain the party’s longevity. “China’s emergence as a global power was made possible,” they argue, not just by Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms but also “by the extraordinarily risky actions” of the Chinese communists that “nearly destroyed the [party] but eventually gave rise to a powerful and cohesive party-state. The adaptation and reform of the late 20th century would not have been possible had the revolutionary regime not first built a centralized state and survived the crises of the 1950s and 1960s.”

The authors describe how violent revolutionary regimes take actions that turn people inside and outside their countries against them; the regimes that survive emerge stronger, with an even more weakened opposition. Case in point: the Tiananmen massacre. Many Chinese now feel incapable of opposing the party and resigned to accept its worst excesses.

As in all revolutionary regimes that survive long-term, a long revolutionary “war fostered the emergence of a tight-knit core of leaders” and “generated a strong and loyal army,” Levitsky and Way write. “Violent struggle fostered an intense two-front siege mentality rooted in fear of enemies both from within and abroad.” While the strength and unity of the party and army have been obvious throughout China’s modern history (unlike many other regimes, it has never had a coup), so has a culture of paranoia, today heard in the regular accusations of meddling by “hostile foreign forces” in Hong Kong and the province of Xinjiang.

The “destruction of alternative centers of societal power,” the authors’ third pillar of durable authoritarianism, continues to be part of the Chinese Communist Party tool kit. This was seen in more recent years when the party crushed a labor rights movement in 2014 and later arrested #MeToo movement feminists. Beijing views civil society — the life of the Chinese apart from the dominance of the party — as a threat to its rule and moves to repress it. The violent origins of the party, the authors argue, have prepared it to respond with little mercy when it feels threatened, as it did when it ordered the People’s Liberation Army to open fire on student protesters in 1989. “Unified by a polarizing zero-sum conception of political opposition that was rooted in their experience in the revolutionary struggle,” China’s elderly leaders “saw student actions as an existential threat to the regime.”

Today Xi is pushing a very different narrative, one that promises a benevolent regime whose paramount aim is to meet the needs of all Chinese through campaigns such as the “common prosperity” venture, explain German journalists Stefan Aust and Adrian Geiges in “Xi Jinping: The Most Powerful Man in the World.” The slogan “common prosperity” has its roots with Mao and largely vanished until Xi revived it as a promise to provide economic equality across China. “Xi holds that shared prosperity is a goal of both Marxism and Confucianism,” write the authors, noting that Xi extols the long history of China’s civilization as far back as its earliest philosopher and calls for the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

China emphasizes its humane and effective leadership by contrasting it with an uncaring and chaotic government in the United States, and it represents American shortcomings as flaws of Western democracy in general. China’s state media reported widely on the systemic racism that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and the precariousness of the U.S. political system evidenced by the violent Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection. The propaganda arm of the Chinese Communist Party also has widely reported that China has kept the vast majority of its citizens healthy during the pandemic, while the United States has had more than 1 million fatalities. The Global Times, an English-language newspaper published by the People’s Daily, quoted a Chinese scholar as saying: “After seeing how China’s zero-COVID policy has saved many lives, the biggest challenge for the US is how to rationalize its huge death toll.”

Aust and Geiges argue that, far from turning Xi away from hard-line politics, the persecution of his father, Xi Zhongxun, during one of Mao’s many purges of rivals may have made Xi a more devoted communist and believer in the Chinese system. Many observers were proved wrong in predicting that Xi would become a reformer like his father, who oversaw the creation of the country’s first special economic zone in Shenzhen, a key step in China’s opening. Instead Xi is the most conservative leader in generations, overseeing the reimposition of the party’s role in education, media and the economy. Aust and Geiges suggest that Xi took his father’s travails as a warning for himself. As the writer Yu Jie explains: “Because his father was treated with real cruelty during the Cultural Revolution, his son decides never to become like him. . . . He does not want to suffer the same fate as his father.” Wishing to be a good communist, Xi has tacked in the other direction. “When his father is sentenced as a counter-revolutionary, he must present himself as even more communist and even more revolutionary than the others if he wants to survive,” says Chinese journalist Li Datong. “He learns his speeches by heart, until Mao’s heritage is deeply rooted in him.”

To ensure he will never be purged, nor the party toppled, Xi heavily promotes nationalism. The lessons of China’s “century of humiliation,” when European powers colonized swaths of China, are preached in the classroom to increasingly patriotic youth. No easing of the hard line is ever suggested. State media trumpets China’s success in cracking down on the “black hands” behind the Hong Kong democracy movement and reports in detail on China’s missile tests threatening Taiwan. Xi wants to be seen “as the strong leader who has made China proud again and shown the world China’s true greatness. In this way, Xi’s approach is much the same as that of [Donald] Trump, Putin, [Turkey’s Recep Tayyip] Erdogan or [Brazil’s Jair] Bolsonaro,” Aust and Geiges write.

For decades under the Communist Party, China has kept a close eye on its citizens. In earlier days, neighbors and even family members would inform on others’ suspicious behavior. Now, China has developed perhaps the most sophisticated surveillance systems in the world both to keep track of its people and, leaders promise, to manage society for the betterment of all. In “Surveillance State: Inside China’s Quest to Launch a New Era of Social Control,” Wall Street Journal reporters Josh Chin and Liza Lin reveal just how far Xi and the Communist Party have gone in deploying surveillance technology to rein in the population. The technology has been widely used in Xinjiang, a far-western autonomous region where the Communist Party says there has been terrorist activity among the Uyghur population and other mostly Muslim ethnic groups, and where Beijing has locked up as many as 1 million people in detainment camps for “reeducation.” Over the years, the leadership has undertaken a massive migration of Han Chinese, the country’s majority ethnic group, into the region to dilute the minority numbers. Many outside observers have accused China of committing horrendous human rights violations against its minority population. The United States has called China’s conduct genocide.

For Beijing, Xinjiang is a problem largely of its own making. By cracking down viciously and indiscriminately on what was at most an insignificant push by a small number of people for independence, Beijing has convinced the majority of Uyghurs that they would be better off separate from China. Now, to keep watch on the population, Beijing has implemented a vast surveillance system that uses facial recognition cameras matched with voice recognition and DNA samples to create a massive database for race-based digital profiling. The purpose of the elaborate effort is to control and erase the Uyghurs’ cultural identity, Chin and Lin write.

Beijing has another ambitious plan for the surveillance state it is building. Through the use of technology, it aims to create, in the words of state planners, a “new model of smart cities.” Cameras, smartphones and artificial intelligence will ease traffic flows, aid crime prevention, assist in paying utility bills and even find lost children, Beijing promises. “The same technologies that the Party uses to terrorize and remold people who buck its authority can be deployed to coddle and reassure others,” the authors write.

China is relying on the pervasive use of surveillance as a key weapon in combating and defeating the lure of Western democracy. “Under Xi, the Party thinks it has the blueprint for the rival system it has long dreamed of building,” Chin and Lin explain. “By mining insight from surveillance data, it believes it can predict what people want without having to give them a vote or a voice. By solving social problems before they occur and quashing dissent before it spills out onto the streets, it believes it can strangle opposition in the crib.”

With the export of these technologies, which are already in use in more than 80 countries, Beijing hopes to convince the world of the effectiveness of its surveillance state and eventually shatter the dominance of the U.S. democratic model.

China’s authoritarian leaders are playing the long game — and so far it has worked. But will they remain in power, and will China become the “rich and powerful” country Xi says it will, by the 100th anniversary of its founding in 2049? China faces huge challenges: an aging population, growing inequality, declining productivity with the stalling of its economic reforms and, in Xi, over-centralization of power by a ruler increasingly unwilling to listen to others. “In reducing choice and intensifying control, the state is eliminating the friction, uncertainty, and freedom that are vital to creativity,” Chin and Lin caution.

If the tensions of the Cold War with the Soviet Union served as any preview, the years ahead for China and the United States will pose an array of geopolitical potholes as two superpowers with vastly different political and economic systems vie for domination. “Does Xi Jinping aspire to rule the world?” Aust and Geiges ask at the end of their book. Their conclusion: “Xi Jinping is no longer interested in following examples set by others. He wants to put his own mark on China — and on the world.” Whether he will ultimately succeed, and what that mark might look like, are questions that will ring through the corridors of the White House, Congress and government capitals the world over for years to come.

Dexter Roberts, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative, is the author of “The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World.”

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