China declares ideological war

Is the West ready for China’s offensive against liberal democracy?

Jinghan Zeng

Government and governance, Trade and industry, International relations | Asia, East Asia, The World

3 November 2017

China’s 19th National Congress reveals a Communist Party preparing to surpass the West – not only in military and economic terms, but also in global ideological clout, Jinghan Zeng writes.

In his 1989 essay “The End of History”, Francis Fukuyama pointed to “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” At the time, a nationwide pro-democracy movement was sweeping across China and almost ended the communist rule. Followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Communist Party was seriously concerned about the continuity of its hold on power.

In order to save itself, the party re-embraced market economics in 1992, which it once considered to be the source that lead to the rise of the pro-democratic movement in the late 1980s. The party hoped to satisfy the demands of the Chinese people by delivering material goods. In order to boost its economic success, it reinstated its quasi-capitalist economic policies and further pushed for market reforms.

The conventional wisdom argues those market reforms made ideology obsolete. Despite its nominally communist rule, the creation of a capitalist system seems to be a necessary condition for the communist party to stay in power.

In reality, this has never been the case. As I argue in my book, ideology plays a crucial role in legitimising China’s one-party system.

In addition to market reforms, the Communist Party has also made impressive efforts on the ideological front. It has actively manipulated popular ideations to maintain its legitimacy by discrediting Western liberal democracy. From its narratives on the collapse of the Soviet Union to the failed democratisation of the Arab Spring, the government has carefully constructed and disseminated a disastrous picture of national chaos and disintegration brought about by Western liberal democracy.

The message is very clear: Western liberal democracy is not a good idea for China, and the Chinese people are better off supporting the existing one-party system. In the past, all those efforts at persuasion mainly lay within China, serving as a defensive strategy to avoid any so-called “peaceful revolution” in China.

More on this: What happened at China's National Congress?

This strategy, however, may have been significantly changed at the Communist Party’s 19th National Congress last month. The Communist Party is no longer satisfied with using ideology to maintaining its rule domestically but also aims to re-launch an ideological competition on the global stage.

In his opening speech, Xi Jinping spoke loudly about posing an ideological challenge to Western liberal democracy. According to Xi, China is “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernisation”. In other words, the Western road of modernisation is no longer the only game in the town. Instead, China provides “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development”.

This ideological confidence can find its roots in the 2008 global financial crisis, which deepened the decline of the US and the rise of China. This confidence has been further strengthened by Trump’s presidency and his policies. Since Trump started his presidential campaign, China has been watching closely and taking advantage of his words and acts. Trump’s outrageous attack on America’s electoral system (for instance claiming the election would be “rigged”), its media organisations (accusing them to be ‘fake news’) and its judiciary (e.g. on the case of travel ban) has been carefully framed by China’s propaganda department and presented back to the domestic Chinese audience. To many in China, Trump’s attack on these core pillars of the Western system has seriously undermined the credibility of liberal democracy.

For China, now is the time to rethink the superiority of liberal democracy and the strength of its own China Model. As a consequence, the future challenges brought about by China’s rise will lie not only in the fields of security and economics but also in ideology. China’s heavy investment in its soft power, as backed by its growing economic resources, will spread its ideological values to every aspect of global and domestic issues.

Waiting for us in the near future is a China that is likely to become the largest world economy, offering a distinct growth model backed up by military power, and actively exporting its ideological beliefs. At the 19th Party Congress, Xi Jinping set “the mid-21st century” as the deadline to fulfil those promises. Now, is the West ready for China’s ideological offensive?

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