When China rules the world

Xi Jinping's ideas have conquered China. Now he has his eyes on a bigger prize—the rest of the world
May 14, 2018
In April 2015, Gao Yu, a 70-year-old female journalist, was found guilty in Beijing’s Third Intermediate People’s Court on charges of leaking state secrets to foreign media. The “secrets” were contained in an internal Communist Party document that had been published on overseas Chinese news websites. The harsh seven-year sentence had the collateral effect of confirming the document’s authenticity. The document’s full title was A Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere, but as the ninth paper in a General Office of the Party series in early 2013, it soon earned the more popular name, Document Nine. Blessed by the central leadership, it was distributed to government and party officials at all levels, plus the armed forces. It identified, and made “suggestions” to counter, the seven most important threats to the Party’s grip on power—a list of the liberal values and norms that are foundational for western democracies. It decried “constituionalism,” which is—very roughly—what we call the rule of law. Civil society made the list, too, as did the free press and “nihilistic” history—that is, history that failed to put the Party centre-stage as the engine of China’s success. Meanwhile, it labelled elections, independent judiciaries and national armies (the People’s Liberation Army serves the Party, not the state) as the hallmarks of “anti-China forces.” Universal values and human rights were defined as threats promoted by the same sinister alliance of internal “dissidents” and hostile outsiders, who demanded such inconvenient things as the release of “political prisoners” and anti-corruption reforms. Though focused on China’s domestic politics, Document Nine can also be read as a map of the ruling Communist Party’s anxieties as it pursues its global ambitions; five years later it reads as an early signal of what is fast becoming a global battle of ideas. The document urged vigilance against the “infiltration” of those dangerous, foreign ideas; today, as China’s global ambitions grow, it is increasingly taking the battle to the source, deploying its formidable economic resources and political muscle to challenge ideas and shape perceptions in the campuses, the communities and the media of the west, and using its weight to bring states and corporations into line with state propaganda. The stakes in this emerging contest are high for both sides. For China, it is a bid to secure its global position without compromise to its avowedly Leninist political model; for the world’s liberal democracies, it is a test of their willingness to defend their core values of individual liberty, freedom of speech and the rule of law. Until recently, few in the west would have taken seriously the prospect of ideological competition with China. For the first half of the life of the People’s Republic it was too poor and too consumed with its savage domestic power struggles to pose a Soviet style threat, even less so after its quarrel with the USSR in the late 1950s. Later, when Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” took the country in a more pragmatic direction, China seemed to care more about building economic strength through business than spreading ideology. The Party would stay in power, avoiding the fate of its Soviet counterpart, but the focus was on growth. By 2012-13, the China that had horrified the world by the brutal suppression of student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had been normalised over many years of economic engagement. Citizens enjoyed more personal freedom as well as more money—provided they stayed out of politics. The state had backed off, or contracted out, important fields of social policy. Proliferating protests against pollution were often ending in negotiation rather than violence. Civil society and intellectual inquiry enjoyed wider boundaries. And all this seemed set to continue as China became more affluent, urbanised and middle class. Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, inheriting a country that had gone from poverty to become the world’s second largest economy in just 30 years, and one to which the whole world had been looking to sustain global growth since the financial crisis. Now, China’s economy was slowing at home, and so the continuing search for new economic opportunities abroad was inescapably stimulating outbound investment. China was, economically speaking, fast becoming a presence in almost every country in the world.


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But Xi’s political road map was not yet defined. Would China, as it knitted itself ever-more closely into the rest of the world, finally address its long-postponed reforms, as many hoped? Or, would the Party dig in, defend its monopoly of power and present the world with a new phenomenon: an economically powerful, globally engaged Leninist state that would increasingly be obliged to challenge ideas as it sought to redraw the world’s infrastructure and trade maps. Document Nine was one early indicator of Xi’s thinking, and it signalled a sharp change in direction. The immediate responses were domestically focused—“propaganda on the cultural front,” and media “firmly controlled by someone who maintains an identical ideology” with Xi and his Party. But Document Nine betrays a nagging fear of the power of other ideas, warning that the “ideological struggle” is “acute and complicated.” To counter any appearance of uncertainty, officials were urged to display three “self-confidences”—in the Party line, in its political theory and in the system. Keeping such a firm grip on the nation’s ideology at home has profound implications for China’s ambitious engagement abroad, especially in countries which are run on very different lines. All the more so as Beijing becomes more assertive. Deng Xiaoping had counselled China to keep a low profile. But Xi promised “national rejuvenation” to restore China to its lost position as a great power. To be successful, his bid for global influence requires the projection of China’s national story abroad, including in all those countries founded on the very ideas that Document Nine identifies as major threat to the Party.

The end of history

Henry Luce claimed the 20th century for America, a century in which the US flexed its military and economic muscles and also spread its ideas as global norms: the rule of law, representative democracy, shareholder capitalism, and the importance of individual liberty. If China succeeds in claiming the 21st century, what will a world shaped by China look like? To answer that, we need to understand how China thinks about itself, its past and its place in the world—and where those ideas came from. Like the United States, China believes in its own exceptionalism. The US sees itself as the shining city on the hill, the inspiration of the new world. China roots its exceptionalism instead in its venerability—with its dubious claim to 5,000 years of uninterrupted imperial state history. (No matter that the history, dimensions and nature of successive states are far from continuous.) The US feels that its state of exception entitles it to make (and sometimes break) the rules that have defined the global order since 1945. China, by contrast, claims to be a “civilisational state” that has never sought hegemony, although neighbouring states such as Vietnam tell a different story, and a glance at a historical atlas reveals that the empire doubled in size between 1644 and 1911. It also claims to espouse “non-interference” in the internal affairs of other nations, an assertion that did not temper Mao Zedong’s active support for revolutionary movements. Today, revolution is off Beijing’s agenda, and China prefers to describe its approach as a “mutual respect, fairness and justice, and win-win co-operation.” It suggests itself as a benign exemplar for developing nations, while seeking to re-fashion global rules in its favour, and increasingly, imposing the Party’s version of Chinese history and culture far beyond its borders. China’s real post-imperial story is still a work in progress and, ironically in view of Document Nine, is heavily informed by two imported ideas: Marxism-Leninism and nationalism. Until recently, the Party had largely dismissed the country’s pre-Communist traditions of statecraft, thought and religious belief as backward, superstitious and incompatible with “scientific” Marxism. Today it draws selectively from a cultural reservoir that includes Confucianism and Legalism, which date from the Warring States period around two millennia ago. The fit of these ideas with its 20th century import of Marxism-Leninism, now including Maoism-Xism, can be puzzling, not least because, like in an old-fashioned kaleidoscope, a twist of the wrist can alter the pattern. Take Confucius. As the Qing dynasty broke down in the early 20th century, would-be reformers reviled Confucian ideas of hierarchy as the chief cause of China’s backwardness. In the Cultural Revolution, the sage was attacked again, as emblematic of the “four olds”—old customs, old culture, old habits, and old ideas. But by 2006, Hu Jintao, then president of China, had proclaimed a “harmonious society,” a concept which owed more to Confucius than to Marx or Mao. In 2011, a statue of Confucius appeared outside Beijing’s National History Museum. Weeks later it disappeared, but the Confucian name was by now bestowed on China’s huge investment in international cultural projection: the Confucius-branded institutes China has set up in universities worldwide. More recently, Xi has visited the sage’s home town of Qufu, vowed to read the Analects “carefully,” and given speeches so full of classical allusions that party newspapers have had to publish glossaries to explain them to a people who are no longer as literate in their own culture as they had been before Mao’s total war on China’s traditions. Referencing Confucius invokes a halo of legitimacy: he stands for virtuous rulers, as well as for the social order and ritual that are more obviously useful props for today’s authoritarians. But it is a rival philosopher who has a clearer influence on Party thinking: Han Fei, an exponent of the Legalist school—the favourite of the tyrannical first Qin emperor, the ancient ruler Mao most admired. Unlike Confucius, who argued that a good emperor ruled by example, the Legalists promoted fear and harsh punishments, with the law applied in the service of power. While Confucius’s fortunes have fluctuated, Han Fei’s approach has been a consistent if little acknowledged thread in Party’s governance. He would certainly have endorsed Document Nine’s rejection of judicial independence: Han Fei, like the Party, endorsed rule by law, not rule of law.

"There are more millionaires in its parliament than in the US Congress"

As for Marxism-Leninism, it is still claimed as the guiding principle, despite China’s extreme inequality and a hybridised economy, more than half of which is now technically in private enterprise. There are more millionaires in its parliament than in the US Congress, and the authorities grapple with such capitalist diseases as debt crises, stock market volatility and property bubbles. But if Marx might raise a quizzical eyebrow, Lenin would find much to commend: Lenin’s model of the unchallengeable dominance of a “vanguard” party is as firmly held as ever. The Communist Party’s overriding ambition to remain in permanent charge of China narrows its scope for ideological renovation: there has been no de-Stalinisation and certainly no repudiation of Mao. Today, though, the Party’s Leninism is blended not only with selected elements of older Chinese thinking, but also with the imported idea of nationalism. After all, forging a modern nation state out of the wreckage of empire has never been an easy task. Sun Yatsen, one of the founders of modern China in the early 20th century, described the numerous and diverse Chinese people—who spoke dozens of languages, worshipped hundreds of gods, and were bound by myriad local loyalties—as a “tray of loose sand.” In addition to the majority Han Chinese, there were many others who dreamed different dreams and cherished different traditions. Absent the emperor, what did they have in common? The first modern effort to knit all this together—in a democratic system—collapsed under warlordism, civil war, Japanese invasion and renewed civil war, until finally in 1949 Mao declared the People’s Republic, and the real nation-building began. Mao’s unifying idea, drawn from Lenin, was a violent millenarian socialism that demanded incessant mobilisation and the suppression of all other loyalties and faiths. After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping led China away from ideology towards pragmatism and the pursuit of growth, dismissing doctrinal objections with his remark that it did not matter whether the cat was black or white, as long as it caught mice. By the time Xi arrived at the top, the Party had strayed so far from Mao’s formula that it was being challenged as much from the left—by disappointed Maoists angry at revisionism—as by China’s liberals demanding more freedoms. Party membership remained a sound, but no longer essential, career move: it offered a leg up the ladder to personal wealth and power, but its ideological message was at odds with political realities. In the Party schools, hapless scholars still struggled to align current doctrine with ancestral socialist texts—to reconcile “harmony” with Marx, for example—but few outside an increasingly corrupt Party, and probably not that many inside, cared. People were enjoying the freedom to remember the rituals of old folk religions, or to turn to new ones: Christianity, Buddhism and Daoism all thrived, even if others, like Falun Gong, had flourished too fiercely and been suppressed. In the already-growing digital space, satirical memes mocked the Party’s pronouncements. In think tanks, intellectuals studied political systems and political transitions, successful and unsuccessful. One professor publicly proposed that the Party split into its respective factions to contest power peacefully among themselves. The future seemed open. China, then, briefly had a public sphere in which, as Mao had once proposed, a hundred schools of thought did, indeed, contend. Today, those debates are hushed. Party control is being expanded, with active cells in all significant organisations, including in private companies. Universities are warned to beware “foreign” ideas, a stricture that moved one brave professor to inquire whether Marxism was included. Editors, too, have been instructed to “love” the Party and alternative sources of information are digitally blocked. Western digital giants like Google, Twitter and Facebook are virtually excluded from the Chinese market in favour of controllable homegrown substitutes like Baidu, WeChat and Weibo. The return of Marxism to public discourse has not included his defence of a free press, or his warning that, without it, “the government hears nothing but its own voice.” Xi Jinping’s “new era” has, in sum, re-imposed the Party line, in schools, the media, and in cultural and legal circles. And, especially, in the study of history. Historians in China today may no longer make a distinction between Mao’s China and what followed—they must tell one seamless, sanitised Party story. In April this year, China’s National People’s Congress passed a law that criminalised criticism—or scepticism—of any revolutionary hero or martyr. History must praise the Party or risk inquisition. Like the infallible pope, Xi Jinping, the Party general secretary, whose thought is now written into the constitution, is the final arbiter of doctrine, and only he, or his successor, can modify the country’s story of itself: history seems to have ended in China, though certainly not as Fukuyama cheerfully envisaged it one generation ago.  

Selling stories

In January 2017, shortly after Donald Trump had announced his intention to leave the Paris Agreement, Xi Jinping appeared in Davos with a carefully calibrated counterpoint to America First. He spoke in praise of globalisation and free trade, promising that China would be steadfast in its commitments and, by implication, a dependable leader in the global order that Washington seemed to be undermining. The speech went down well with an elite western audience rattled by Trump. But should China come to lead, it will not be superintending the familiar “Made in the USA” world order, but—emphatically—its own “Made in China” vision. China has benefited from globalisation, but does not plan to open its markets wide; its commitment to the existing global order did not include accepting the recent judgment of, for example, the Court of Arbitration of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. And increasingly, it wishes to persuade the world that it offers a better option than what it sees as failing democracies. All great powers have pursued their interests with a measure of ruthlessness. But successful great powers also win a degree of consent from their allies and partners, a consent eased when engagement is lubricated by a commitment to common rules and by “soft power”—the sheer attraction of its ideas and culture. Herein lies a dilemma for ascendant China. As the regime exercises its right to dictate the “correct” view of history at home, neither Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, nor even “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for the New Era” have much appeal overseas. The more China engages in the world, the more its citizens travel and its businesses put down roots abroad, the more it must compete with the ideas and practices that prevail in places with cultural and academic freedom.


As China Inc goes global, it seeks to define what global audiences learn about China, through investment in its own international media, partnerships with foreign outlets, and restrictions on visas for journalists from abroad. But there is another dimension to this effort—one that has acquired the rubric “sharp power ”—conducted by the long-standing but publicity-shy United Front Work Department. This is the entity in charge of enforcing the Party’s story about itself in non-Party sectors, including businesses, religious leaders, and these days any personalities with big social media followings. Mao once identified it as one of the Party’s three “magic weapons.” It operates at every level of the state and reports to a Party leading group chaired by Xi Jinping. In Xi’s new era, perhaps its biggest challenge lies overseas. Xi has enlarged the United Front’s responsibilities to include the supervision of approximately 50m overseas Chinese, including entrepreneurs, students and any citizens who have moved abroad since 1979. The United Front regards its emigrés as “all sons and daughters of the Chinese nation bounded by Chinese blood” whom the United Front pledges to “support,” or, more precisely, to enlist in its mission to ensure that the Party’s version of China’s history, politics and society prevail. They are instructed to challenge “wrong” views, to discredit critics and to promote those sympathetic figures of influence outside of China who can be persuaded to push the Party’s interests in their own home countries. The United Front supports a huge range of front organisations and keeps a close eye on China’s overseas students, marshalling them for demonstrations in support of visiting leaders, and counter-demonstrations against China’s critics, exile opposition figures, and when necessary, mobilising students against scholars whose research threatens the official story. The innocuously named Confucius Institutes also have a role: there are more than 100 in the US, as well as some 500 “Confucius Classrooms” in US schools, and a further 1,000 Confucius Institutes and Classrooms in other countries. In the UK, the Confucius Institute at Manchester University co-ordinates a network of a dozen Confucius-branded operations, including at Leeds, Liverpool, Edinburgh, SOAS and the LSE. Their image is depoliticised, but Confucius Institutes were described in 2009 by Li Changchun, then head of of the Party’s Central Propaganda Department, as “an important part of overseas propaganda,” and the contracts the institutes strike with western universities routinely demand that the host institution respect Chinese law. As of last month, that Chinese law includes that ban on the “defamation” of revolutionary heroes, so even if the pledge of respect is regarded as notional, it is a disturbing one for so many western universities supposedly committed to academic freedom to be making. In practice, the Institute’s performance is patchy, but they provide the Party with an important vantage point from which to monitor western academic views. The sheer numbers of Chinese students in western universities, and the attraction of the China market to academic publishers, lends the propaganda effort heft. But it has not gone unchallenged. In the last few months, there has been consternation in western academic circles over the revelation of the censorship demanded of publishers like Cambridge University Press on their Chinese websites. One scholar reported a systematic purge of past articles in online editions of Chinese law journals, to expunge the record of past debates and evidence that there had ever been anything other than the Party’s latest single truth. These cases, coupled with anecdotal evidence of Chinese attempts to exclude western scholars who exercise the right to disagree, have engendered enough anxiety to prompt some universities to close Confucius Institutes. In Australia and New Zealand, successive scandals about Chinese influence buying in domestic politics have roiled the political establishments, while Beijing issued stark warnings that any pushback will not be good for relations which—(as Kerry Brown writes on p28)—are not something Canberra can afford to be relaxed about. Business is not exempt. The Australian scandal spotlighted the role in advanced economies of wealthy Chinese citizen-emigrés, who can be persuaded that their best interests lie with advancing the Party’s interests. As at home in China, compliance is rewarded, and resistance can be punished. Foreign enterprises with interests in China have fallen into line: earlier this year, the Marriott Hotel group fired a US-based employee after China complained that he had “liked” a Twitter post from Tibet campaigners that congratulated Marriot for treating Tibet, Taiwan and Hong Kong as separate countries in an online survey. No matter that Twitter is blocked in China itself, or that the hapless worker thought he was merely weighing in behind the company. China accused the hotel chain of “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people” and closed its booking websites for a week. The company issued a groveling apology. A string of other companies, including western airlines, have come under similar pressure. China’s growing confidence in the world has been facilitated by what the Party sees as the weakness of established democracies, still struggling with the fall-out of the financial crisis. China emerges from that period with a troubling mountain of government and corporate debt, but is nevertheless able to point to Indian inefficiencies, Brexit and Donald Trump as evidence of the superiority of its own, increasingly influential, political arrangements.  

America outside the room

At last year’s Party Congress, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, was blunt: “Over the past five years, China has unprecedentedly increased its right to set the international agenda,” and “remarkably enlarged its right to make international rules.” Reviewing progress to date, he went on: “more and more countries in the world have gained an understanding of China’s socialism path with Chinese characteristics; more and more international friends agree with the CPC’s ideas” about “state governance,” and the “prospect of socialism in the 21st century.” He promised the world not only “Chinese wisdom” but “a better social system for mankind”—“a new path for all developing countries to modernisation.” The evidence is not all on Wang Yi’s side. Many countries, including in China’s neighbourhood, look on at Xi’s China and shudder. None, however, can deny China’s clout. Previous Leninist states—most notably the USSR —were economically disadvantaged by the rigidity of their Leninism. China has been more flexible, and its success more persuasive. It can, as Wang Yi did, point to impressive economic achievements: that earns a hearing. But the next battle—to convince the world that China is a political and cultural model to emulate—is being fought with the tactics forged in the clandestine historic practices of the Communist Party. Last month, Reporters without Borders, which ranks China at 176 out of 180 in its press freedom index, warned that the export of the China model threatened press freedom across Asia. In Myanmar, Cambodia and the Philippines, increasingly autocratic regimes find much to emulate. Meanwhile, the portfolio of China-dominated international organisations is growing at speed. This year’s diplomacy calendar includes the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in June, the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation summit in September, and the China International Import Expo in November. The Boao Forum, which Xi attended in April, now garners almost as much attention as Davos. China seeks to build the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership as a rival to the Trans-Pacific Partnership; it hosts large summits of African leaders, beneficiaries of nearly $100bn in Chinese lending since 2000; in Europe, its 16+1 group brings together selected EU and non-EU members in a forum blamed for deepening EU faultlines; in Asia, it has set up a multilateral investment bank; in Latin America, it courts the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. One thing these entities have in common is that the US is not included, either by choice or design. There are also pre-existing bodies that China cannot join. But even then, it can often fund compliant allies to defend its interests—as Greece has in the EU and Cambodia has in Asean. China is finding ways to get its own voice in the room, even when it isn’t there. Xi Jinping’s domestic power grab could yet falter: debt, demographics, pollution and climate change are all real threats, and perhaps the support of China’s millennial generation (see Yuan Ren, June issue of Prospect) shouldn’t be taken for granted. But if he can hold on to the power he has consolidated, the world will increasingly witness a bid for ideational influence that is consonant with great power status, a bid with disruptive and potentially disturbing implications that will be felt well beyond China’s shores. Democratic political leaders are left facing an uncomfortable paradox. Such is the weight of China now, that should it fail on its own terms, the economic and other consequences could be grim. But should it succeed on these terms, there will be consequences for democratic freedoms that most of the west has barely begun to contemplate. Now read Kerry Brown on what China's ambition means for Australia