Thirty years ago, the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama in his book The End of History and the Last Man made the argument of the inevitability of Western liberal democracy and the universalization of democratic values worldwide. The publication of the book was heavily criticized by many, including luminaries like Samuel Huntington, Fareed Zakaria and Benjamin Barber, who interpreted Fukuyama’s ideas as naively optimistic, which failed to recognize fundamental fault-lines dividing not only the West from the Rest, but also among Western societies itself.
However Fukuyama’s vision of a liberal West that would act as a beacon of hope and promise for other nations to emulate ultimately won out, at least among liberals in America. The idea that American values (democracy, freedom, right to choose) were not just contained to Americans but reflected universal aspirations and goals (so long as political institutions could be reformed) became a central theme and worldview governing American foreign policy. The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations—to varying degrees—all maintained such a way of thinking, and Washington’s diplomatic playbook was largely premised on a highly missionizing philosophy: America would win its foes over by the attractiveness of its values and way of life, with democracy as its chief emphasis.
Such a vision, however, did not square with the realities of international life, and the United States paid a heavy price for its political vision in the Middle East where the War on Terror (started by George W. Bush) saw the United States spending the next twenty years in a costly war in Afghanistan and Iraq combating Islamic terrorism. This period of America’s involvement in the fight against terror coincided with China’s rise and as the story goes, Beijing saw a golden opportunity to assert and promote its interests first in Asia, and then more globally.
China Enters the Game
The entry of the People’s Republic of China into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 marked an important milestone in global forays. Ironically as it may seem today, the United States was one of the strongest supporters of China’s WTO participation. In a speech, then-President Bill Clinton described this as a “historic step toward continued prosperity in America, reform in China and peace in the world . . . it will open new doors of trade for America and new hope for change in China.” For Washington, China’s presence in the WTO validated America’s engagement strategy as the correct one, and that America and China would both prosper economically if China would follow the American playbook. But Beijing had other ideas.
On the surface, China was still adhering largely to Deng Xiaoping’s dictum of taoguangyanghui (hide light and nourish obscurity), but there were a number of clues that signaled Beijing’s grander ambitions and which Washington did not pay sufficient attention to. For instance, many international relations scholars in China suddenly paid strong attention to the notion of soft power in the early years of the twentieth century, despite the idea being coined by the Harvard don Joseph Nye in the late 1980s. As the Singapore-based scholar Li Mingjiang at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies puts it, the primary purpose of soft power was to refute China’s threat thesis. Chinese leaders were all too cognizant of the threat perceptions that its rise had brought about and thus pursued soft power as a means to discredit that threat.
The Beijing Olympics in 2008 further solidified China’s confidence that its time had come, and that it was ready to take the next step to challenge the United States for global supremacy. Coincidentally or otherwise, China topped the United States at the medal table, winning forty-eight gold medals to the latter’s thirty-six, thus becoming the first country to dislodge Washington since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Prior to that, the United States had won the most gold medals in the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympic Games.
The third sign of China’s growing challenge to the United States, and the West, in general, came during the 2008–09 global financial crisis. While Washington and many Western countries were trying hard to put their own countries in order, a key narrative that emerged within China was that the United States—and its brand of global financial capitalism—could not be trusted. In Beijing’s eyes, the financial crisis showed up the flaws and blind spots of the United States and the West. In the relentless pursuit of wealth, Western economies had over-leveraged and underperformed, and like a house of cards, it was only time that such a system would unravel.
With this in mind, China saw the need to create its own global institutions, one which were untethered to Western rules and arrangements, but which reflected characteristics that were non-Western and preferably reflected Chinese interests and priorities. But given the highly connected nature of the globalized world, China could not do without hurting its own interests significantly. In other words, there were few, if any, viable alternatives for China to pursue even though it was dissatisfied with what the West had to offer.
All these changed with the rise of Chinese technology giants in the early 2010s, which allowed China to challenge the monopoly of Western companies, providing Chinese citizens to operate on Chinese-designed systems. The story of Alipay and Jack Ma’s rise to international prominence is well known and requires little explanation. But what truly propelled China to the forefront of the high-tech world was the Chinese government’s involvement in these companies and its insistence that it would harness the power of technology to serve the needs of China, its citizens, and most importantly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Indeed, this also coincided with the power transition from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Party and the President as Sacred
While President Xi Jinping’s personal beliefs and worldview are certainly worth mining and investigating to uncover clues relating to Chinese political behavior and foreign policy, a more accurate assessment of China must first acknowledge the centrality of the CCP and the symbiotic relationship between Xi and the CCP, one that is akin to that of the relationship between lips and teeth. As the Chinese saying goes, “the teeth becomes cold without lips,” or more literally “when the lips die, the teeth becomes cold.” Seen this way, Xi is undoubtedly a product of the CCP and would defend the party at all cost. This includes defending the sacred image of the CCP (the party is infallible), the benevolence of the CCP (the party is good), and the all-knowing/all-powerful image of the party (the party is omniscient and omnipotent). This elevation of the CCP to god-like status—in China—is also the source whereby Xi derives his ultimate authority from. Sans the party, Xi would be relegated to another politician-bureaucrat, one who derives their authority and legitimacy from factional struggles and petty disputes. Likewise, the sacred image that the CCP seeks can be achieved only if it has a god-like figurehead in the person of Xi to incarnate its beliefs and worldview in everyday life.
Given this need to preserve a sacralized image of both the party and its leader, it is not surprising that China—in its current relationship with the United States—seeks to promote the idea that it is exceptional, in that it is better and different from the West. One reason why this is the case is that the United States has frequently touted the Western liberal international order and the promotion of democracy as a universal good. This has been a constant thorn in Beijing’s flesh, not least because of its own authoritarian system which is often being criticized by Western powers for its violation of human rights. So long as this democratic deficit exists, China’s international image would always be somewhat tainted which would, in turn, affect the sacralized image of Xi and the CCP. After all, one can only be considered divine if one is both good and powerful. In the case of China, having the latter without the former means that China’s claim to superpower status is only partial, which is not good enough for Xi and the party.
Why China Does not Trust the West
Seen this way, it is not surprising that China fundamentally does not trust the United States. Not only does Beijing see Washington’s objective as wanting to keep it down and preserving its international primacy, it also views the current Biden administration—and its emphasis on democracy promotion—as an existential threat to its political worldview. Indeed, Western criticisms of Beijing on Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and Tibet all feed into the CCP’s central narrative: the United States and the West want to challenge the Party’s grip on power and to remake China in the image of the West. Such a siege mentality means that Beijing is unlikely to find any common ground with the United States insofar as key strategic interests are concerned. Consequently, the CCP also views statements made by the United States and the West as trying to drive a wedge between itself and its citizens—which would effectively destroy its sacralized image and its paramount leader that has been so carefully and painstakingly built up over the years. Indeed, Chinese political observers—in their recount of the fall of the Soviet Union—often point not to Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, rather they attribute it to Nikita Khrushchev’s denouncement of Stalin as the start of the Soviet long decline. Unity is paramount to preserving the sacralized image of the party, and the CCP will go all out to defend this.