Foreign Affairs

Pax Americana Under Siege: Xi’s Emboldened China

On December 24th, 2018, Shanghai glistened with shades of red, green, and white. Christmastime had arrived in China, and Chinese youths seized the opportunity to shop in Christmas markets and partake in seasonal festivities. Strings of lights draped the city’s trees and the image of Santa Claus decorated storefronts.

Roughly 1,000 kilometers away from Shanghai, however, in Nanyang — a city roughly the size of New York — Santa Claus wasn’t received as warmly. City authorities issued a decree mandating the removal of holiday decoration, particularly targeting a massive shopping complex adorned with festive ornamentation. In Langfang, a city south of Beijing, police were deployed to ensure Christmas celebrations weren’t performed in public.

In enacting “grinchy” policies, Nanyang and Langfang have joined numerous other Chinese cities — as well as some entire provinces — in a growing crackdown on Christmas. At the helm of this movement is President Xi Jinping, whose government has directed its attention towards preserving traditional culture. While Xi is not the principal architect of anti-Christmas policies, his traditionalist rhetoric has compelled officials to target foreign elements in Chinese society.

State media has criticized Western outlets for “sensationalizing” this apparent attack on Christmas, as Shanghai and Beijing continue to host extravagant Christmas markets, and this crackdown is not centrally-directed. While this is a valid observation, this Christmas crackdown is the latest manifestation of Sino-nationalist agitation that has flourished under Xi Jinping’s reign: anti-Christmas legislation comes at a time in which the P.R.C. is doubling down on territorial claims, strengthening state censorship mechanisms, and embracing a uniquely-Chinese governing philosophy.

State media have also defended the local initiatives as mere attempts to avoid “excessive commercialization,” not as explicit warring against Christmas. However, the city of Hengyang emphasized the importance of Chinese traditionalism in issuing its Christmas crackdown, and also encouraged Chinese Communist Party members to avoid participation in “foreign festivals,” placing the issue in the context of cultural purity.

Christmas is only the most recent target of anti-Western gesturing. Ostensibly, the forced removal of Christmas lights and Santa effigies seems trivial. This holiday censorship, however, is a minor theatre in an emerging culture war between an emboldened China and an entrenched West. The China that welcomed Richard Nixon in 1972 is not the same China that tensely hosted Donald Trump in 2017. In 1972, Nixon used China as a strategic pivot against the USSR; in 2012, Obama attempted to organize both a diplomatic and military pivot toward China. China, once a pawn in a metaphorical game of Cold War chess, has been elevated to queenhood. Xi Jinping presides over a China with the mettle of Mao but the brawn of an economic superpower, and is now looking to usurp the West — more precisely, the United States — as the world’s geopolitical hegemon.

The Romance of the Pacific

Like any good romance, the history of America’s relationship with the People’s Republic of China is complicated. There are three basic stages in post-Communist Revolution Sino-American relations, beginning with “the Taipei period,” in which the U.S. recognized Taiwan as the legitimate Chinese government, and therefore had its embassy in Taipei instead of Beijing. This was perhaps the most aggressively anti-American period of my three “stages,” with Mao Zedong, anti-Western intellectual and Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, mocking the United States as a “paper tiger” and lambasting it as the “enemy of the people of the world.”

Ironically, it was Mao Zedong who would later inaugurate China’s westernization. Our second stage, the “liberalization and accomodation period,” began with President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, which would snowball into Jimmy Carter’s full recognition of the P.R.C. in 1979. In that same year, Congress would draft the Taiwan Relations Act, designating Taiwan as a sort of pseudo-independent state in which the U.S. held a de facto diplomatic relationship with the island’s ambiguously-defined “governing authorities.” The Act also included clauses about protecting the island from a potential Chinese invasion, which the U.S. has used to justify selling arms to Taiwan.

This piece of legislation has been a major source of contention between American and Chinese diplomats. Based in Taiwan is the exiled government of the Republic of China, which communist militants — that would later form the P.R.C. — forced from mainland China in 1949. By implying the sovereignty of Taiwan, the United States jeopardized the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. In 1979, however, this realpolitik strategy worked, as China was incapable of legitimate retaliation.

From the 1970s to the early 2000s, starting with Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successors implemented capitalistic reforms and further opened the country to the West. While the Sino-American relationship was imperfect, sullied by events such as the Tiananmen Square massacre, the accidental 1999 U.S. bombing of China’s embassy in Belgrade, and multiple crises in the Taiwan Strait, it was relatively passive and low-key. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s immediate successor, approached foreign policy with the attitude of “keeping a low profile and hiding one’s brightness.” Premier Jiang Zemin, Deng’s successor, was also quite non-confrontational.

Finally, we find ourselves in the G-2 period, beginning under the reign of Hu Jintao and continuing into Xi Jinping’s regime, in which the Sino-American relationship began to shape the world. The term “G-2” refers to the status of the U.S. and China as the world’s econo-political juggernauts. Strife between the superpowers has largely been economic, as exemplified by the current U.S.-China trade war.

Perhaps the most interesting point of conflict in the Sino-American relationship, however, is culture. Hu Jintao was conscious of negative perceptions fostered by China’s growth, and advanced the idea of a “peaceful rise,” in which China would focus more on “soft” — rather than “hard” — power. While Xi has expressed an interest in modernizing the Chinese military and expanding projection power, as of now, China is incapable of matching the U.S. military’s global reach, and it doesn’t appear interested in militarily challenging the U.S. beyond East Asia.

The China of the G-2 period, then, isn’t expected to develop into a sort of neo-Soviet Union, confronting the U.S. in a Second Cold War fraught with proxy wars throughout the globe. Currently, the CCP recognizes that the U.S.S.R. committed geopolitical suicide by engaging in unsustainable military expansion and relying more on missile diplomacy than socio-political legitimacy. The battleground of any Second Cold War, then, won’t be the jungles of Vietnam, but rather, forums of economic and ideological exchange — a clash of the American Dream and Xi’s Chinese Dream.

Xi’s Rejuvenated China

If this article were written ten years ago, it would have stressed the importance of avoiding characterizations of China as an active assailant to American hegemony. The administration of Hu Jintao appeared disinterested in challenging the unipolar, American-led world order of the early 2000s, advocating the aforementioned “peaceful rise” which would incorporate China into the preexisting institutions of the “American century.”

Xi Jinping is not as passive. He has called on his Chinese compatriots to secure “pioneering global influence” by 2050, has outlined a plan to oppose U.S. technological leadership, and is looking to “rejuvenate” his country, all as part of a “a new ideology for a new era.” Xi is certainly the most antagonistic leader in recent Chinese memory, and is poised to fill power vacuums induced by Trumpian isolationism.

China’s enthusiasm to project its power is best illustrated by its ventures in Africa. The Chinese government has funneled billions of dollars into African countries, supporting economic and infrastructural projects. The prevalence of renminbi-funded initiatives underlies China’s much grander ambition to incorporate the African continent into its growing sphere of influence. China’s physical presence (as seen in new roads, dams, power plants, etc.) bolsters its budding intellectual presence on the continent. Each year, 1,000 African politicians are invited to study in China as part of the CCP’s strategy of advertising the Chinese system. Furthermore, in line with Xi’s desire to project “a good Chinese narrative,” the CCP is looking to strengthen its influence on African media.

Before Xi can manifest his vision of China as a global power, he has to ensure an ideological bedrock exists on the homefront. Hence, his campaign of “national rejuvenation” calls for a rejection of Western values — which some officials have described as “foreign hostile forces” — in Chinese society, thus precipitating the anti-Christmas scenes in Nanyang and Langfang.

Other censorship mechanisms, such as China’s “Great Firewall” — a collection of regulations and surveillance operations blocking most Western websites from Chinese Internet users — have been strengthened under Xi. It’s important to note that Xi, as the head of numerous committees, wields direct influence over what the Chinese people can and cannot see on the Internet. When Google attempted to re-enter China, its engineers designed a browser that would not return search results related to democracy or human rights.

Of course, the ideologies of Chinese leaders haven’t remained consistent throughout the P.R.C.’s existence. The quiet patience of Hu Jintao was succeeded by the boldness of Xi Jinping. However, Xi’s consolidation of power, secured by the abolition of presidential term limits and the incorporation of his philosophies — aptly-titled “Xi Jinping Thought” — into the P.R.C.’s constitution, will fundamentally alter China’s direction. Xi has also broken the precedent of “collective leadership” established by Deng Xiaoping, allowing him to subvert CCP bureaucracy with ease and exercise executive power in areas previously delegated to committees.

State media exalts him as “the great lingxiu,” a spiritually-charged term meaning “leader” that was once reserved for Mao Zedong. Those who dare oppose Xi’s agenda, even in the private sphere, face arrest for “subversion of state power.” This conflation of “state power” and “Xi’s agenda” implies the inseparability of China’s future and Xi’s ambitions.

Defending Hegemony for Hegemony’s Sake?

It’s worth acknowledging that the United States has been an imperfect hegemon. We herald ourselves as defenders of the free world while qualifying as a “flawed democracy” and historically supporting right-wing authoritarians throughout the globe. Throughout the 20th century, we struggled to fully incorporate minorities into our polity. It would be fair to raise the question: Is it right of the United States to stubbornly resist the emergence of a Chinese century? Is it arrogant of Americans to assume we are entitled to global supremacy?

This is written not in blind defense of American hyperpower, but rather, in defense of the liberal world order that rose from the ashes of the Second World War. The momentum of the Beijing Consensus — that is, the alternative to Western liberalism advertised by China — threatens to derail the global trend of democratization that has accelerated in recent decades. The name “Beijing Consensus” draws striking parallel to the Washington Consensus, a reform package advertised by the United States which emphasises neoliberal economics and democratic politics, framing the consensuses as opposed to one another.

Whereas the Washington Consensus outlined clear policy prescriptions, the Beijing Consensus is quite vague. At its most basic level, it seems to encourage rogue autonomy underlined by an authoritarian form of state capitalism. This is perhaps best embodied by China’s infamous defense of Sudan’s genocidal regime; in 2004, China exhorted the U.N. to avoid intervention in Sudan’s “internal affairs,” even as an ethnic cleansing campaign was underway in Darfur. China’s advocacy for Sudanese authoritarians won quiet applause from the world’s despots. With Chinese investment came shielding from meddling human rights organizations.

Domestically, the Chinese model is notoriously repressive. I encourage Americans to denounce the government that has banned its citizens from using the word “disagree” on social media, the government that jails civil rights lawyers for illuminating injustices within the Chinese system, the government that blatantly neglects due process in its judiciary, the government that severely restricts freedom of religion and association, the government that monitors its ethnic minorities with the eyes of a police state and places them in “re-education” camps.

Counteracting China will prove to be a titanic challenge. Note that 21st-century Chinese propaganda draws parallels to 20th-century American cultural propaganda; the “Chinese Dream” as opposed to the “American Dream,” or the “Beijing Consensus” as opposed to the “Washington Consensus,” imply a duality, if not an outright successorship, between the United States and an ascendant China.

It would be foolish to ignore why China is enjoying relative success in propagating itself as an alternative to American leadership. Perceptibly, the United States is a global beacon of liberty (as demonstrated by the sheer number of people who have sought asylum in the U.S. since WWII), but in practice, we have a spotty record on actually upholding liberty and democratic governance worldwide.

While the Washington Consensus hasn’t been invoked in defense of genocidal regimes, it hasn’t produced spectacular results, either. The failure of the United States to practice key aspects of the Consensus — such as prioritization of healthcare and education funding — has sullied its legitimacy, and our domestic civil rights record isn’t pristine, further exacerbating distrust in the American message.

Thus, if the Sino-American relationship deteriorates into an ideological Second Cold War, it is imperative that we strengthen the legitimacy of America’s message to the world. Be a better citizen. Fight to rectify injustices within our own system. Work to make America a better, more accommodating place for all. Do not sulk at the reminder of America’s democratic failures; rather, use our flaws as kindling for your own activism.

To better project democracy throughout the world, start by securing it here at home. America, the perceived heroine of liberty, mustn’t buckle under the pressure of an illiberal challenger. To strengthen our Pacific strategy, we must emphasize the moral authority afforded to us by the democratic ideals that underlie the American system, and fight to realize those principles, both at home and abroad.

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