The Contest for China's Soul

June 13, 2014 Topic: PoliticsHistory Region: China

The Contest for China's Soul

Will ambition or authoritarianism rule the day in modern China? 

The CCP fought hard against this approach and so far, has won. Today, Washington no longer even pretends that a push for human rights or democracy is part of its policy toward China. But the fact that China still fears that the United States is pushing for the CCP’s demise and that it thinks that certain Chinese dissidents are in cahoots with Washington in this endeavor is revealing.

What explains the continued CCP obsession with the notion that the West, along with Chinese “agents,” is hard at work subverting it? There are several explanations.

First, there is some truth to the idea. If Washington is no longer actively pursuing human rights in China, every American president would prefer that China democratize. Second, authoritarian regimes are, by their nature, paranoid. They are at war against the basic rights of their people. As Osnos demonstrates, in their quest for truth and meaning, the Chinese people are finding more sophisticated and diverse ways of fighting the state. Third, by its nature, the United States is threatening to authoritarian governments, even when it bends over backward to assure that it is not pushing for political change.

The United States is by definition a highly ideological nation—formed on the basis of ideas of liberty—forever pushing new ways of doing things, new ways of thinking, and perfecting its own freedom at home. In a sense, the American people are on a perpetual quest for meaning , for riches, and for truth. Think for a second how subversive that must feel to the CCP—a party beset by a lack of trust, corruption and a desire to perpetuate its domestic power monopoly. No matter what Washington says or does, it will threaten the CCP.

And yet, precisely because America itself is an ambitious country of highly enterprising people, a smoother path may emerge in Sino-American relations. What if the Chinese people’s ambitious quest for truth and meaning aligns with that of the American people? What if independent religious expression, the search for liberty, and private enterprise dominate the Chinese people’s great awakening? That turn of events may terrify the CCP, but should give the rest of us some hope. By persuasively discarding the implicit idea that the Chinese people simply worship the god of mammon and the god of the state, Osnos has done a singular service.

Dan Blumenthal is the director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he focuses on East Asian security issues and Sino-American relations. Mr. Blumenthal has both served in and advised the U.S. government on China issues for over a decade. From 2001 to 2004, he served as senior director for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia at the Department of Defense. Additionally, he served as a commissioner on the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission since 2006-2012, and held the position of vice chairman in 2007. He has also served on the Academic Advisory Board of the congressional U.S.-China Working Group. Mr. Blumenthal is the co-author of "An Awkward Embrace: The United States and China in the 21st Century" (AEI Press, November 2012). Follow him on Twitter: @dalexblumenthal.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov​/CC by-sa 3.0