AS THE United States counters the rise of China, it is taking steps to meet the challenge to its global leadership, boosting investment in technology and infrastructure, shifting military assets toward Asia, and strengthening alliances. But its efforts are defensive; they shore up its existing position and react to Chinese attempts to weaken it. There appears to be no clear idea of how to go on the offensive—how to sufficiently weaken support among the Chinese people and within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) so the regime falters from within. Such an offensive strategy was key to ending the Cold War.
This strategy undermined the Soviet regime at its most vulnerable point—its legitimacy at home. A robust military and set of alliances deterred direct aggression, but they were at best defensive measures that provided time and space for concepts like capitalism, the rule of law, democracy, and human rights to win the hearts and minds of people behind the Iron Curtain. These ideas gradually won over elites and populations in the Soviet Union as differences in what the two systems could deliver became more apparent. Eventually, belief in the communist system eroded, dissolving the regime from within.
The coming decades will likely see another protracted battle, this one with the Chinese Communist Party. The nature of this competition will inevitably be different given China’s economic dynamism, the interdependencies between the United States and China, and the divide between our histories and cultures. Nevertheless, the CCP is vulnerable at home to challenges to its legitimacy if America can show how ideas such as economic freedom, the rule of law, property rights, and religious freedom can bring greater benefits to the Chinese people than what the Party offers.
While the Party-State generally receives plaudits from its population for its economic management, its overbearing role is a burden or source of unpredictability for many. The recent crackdown on the country’s tech giants, for example, has made many entrepreneurs and executives nervous, likely dulling their spirits and making them feel they would be safer if they could shift their wealth and activities overseas. Meanwhile, hundreds have been detained for their grassroots activism, hundreds of thousands—if not millions—are aware that their civic activities are curtailed, and tens of millions are directly affected by restrictions on religious freedom. Since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, all of these trends have worsened, and today China is much less free than it was during the late 1990s and 2000s.
Xi’s aggressive assertion of Party dominance has presented an opportunity to drive a wedge between the Party and people in China. What form might this wedge take? The United States can undermine the Party’s legitimacy at home by weakening China’s economic performance and taking steps to better broadcast alternatives to the Party to the Chinese people. The United States will have to curtail the financial flows that bolster Party rule, ensure that this curtailment is tied to the Party’s behavior, open its door more widely to Chinese elites and the middle class to emigrate, and much more creatively use Chinese language media to reach the population. Changing popular sentiment will not be easy given the Party’s control over information, but it is possible if the right channels of influence are chosen. It may not achieve much in the short term given the nature of the regime and strength of the Party-State. In fact, it may lead to a nationalist reaction and more repression. But if dissatisfaction spreads, it will force the Party to shift direction—and undermine its cohesion and resolve.
ALTHOUGH THE Chinese Communist Party does not have, in the manner of the Soviet Union, a grand strategy to promote its governance model worldwide, it is anxious to prove the superiority of its model—what it calls Socialism with Chinese Characteristics—domestically to ensure it maintains high levels of support from its own people. This is a continuation of a long-standing strategy. The CCP, a Marxist-Leninist party built on the model and with the active assistance of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, has been waging a war for the hearts and minds of the Chinese people since its founding in 1921, and it has stepped us these efforts since Xi came to power in 2012.
From the CCP’s perspective, this battle for domestic legitimacy is about showing that it governs better (and more morally) than others—that it produces better results, especially material prosperity. At home, it seeks “victory” on many levels—by “proving” its model is best through its performance and ability to respond to popular needs and complaints; leveraging nationalism and anti-foreign sentiment to boost its popularity; controlling information, education, and entertainment and thus the narratives that pervade society; and restricting civil society and collective action of any kind through its robust regulatory and security apparatus. Winning the support of the urban middle class—which has rapidly expanded from almost nothing to hundreds of millions of people (the size depends on the definition) over the past few decades—is considered especially important given this group’s greater exposure to international information and greater capacity to express its dissatisfaction.
Reflecting a combination of China’s historic concept of legitimacy (the Mandate of Heaven, which dynasties retained or lost depending on how effectively they ruled), modern concepts of material prosperity, and communist ideals, the Party believes, as Bruce Dickson writes, that its legitimacy is “based not on the consent of the governed but on its ability to modernize the country.” This means, above all else, delivering stability, robust economic growth, steadily rising living standards, and declining poverty. In more recent years, the CCP’s goals have expanded to encompass a better environment, stronger global standing, and less corruption—three concerns of the country’s middle class—as well as reducing inequality and uplifting moral standards.
The Party exploits nationalism to boost its popularity, infusing education, news coverage, and movies with a nationalist message that ensures the public perceives it as the “paramount patriotic force and guardian of national pride.” For example, schools incorporate patriotic education that emphasizes the role of the CCP in securing national independence, ending the country’s century of humiliation (1839–1949), and reunifying the country. Movies play a similar role because, as Zhao Ma says,
The Chinese Communist Party has long recognized the importance of cinematic propaganda. Film possesses immense power to transmit didactic messages by arousing emotions like anger and compassion. It educates and excites. It’s an indispensable instrument for facilitating the party’s “emotion work.”
The Party is, however, aware that nationalist forces can be dangerous if mishandled or if driven to act against the Party’s interests.
The Party’s control of information bolsters its position by emphasizing its successes and restricting both coverage of its mistakes as well as alternative truths or narratives that might undermine its position—just as the Communist Party did in the Soviet Union. This modus operandi was apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic. While criticism of local authorities was allowed early on—even encouraged to shift the blame from central authorities—as soon as it was able to get a handle on the crisis, the CCP used its monopoly on information to trumpet its successful handling of COVID-19—especially in contrast to the United States and other Western countries. Any criticism of its response was squashed by the censors. Then, books and TV programs were launched to ensure the historical memory of the population would give a positive impression of the Party’s response. Voices that offered a different or even more complex portrayal were silenced.
Xiao Qiang explains,
China has a politically weaponized system of censorship; it is refined, organized, coordinated, and supported by the state’s resources. It’s not just for deleting something. They also have a powerful apparatus to construct a narrative and aim it at any target with huge scale … This is a huge thing. No other country has that.
In contrast, in the decade or so before Xi came to power, newspapers could publish investigative articles critical of some policies, lawyers could use the law and public pressure to expand the rights of citizens, and intellectuals could openly debate political reforms.
The Party recognized early on the great importance of cyberspace to its management of public opinion, charting a path quite different from the rest of the world. While the West triumphed the importance of a unified global internet, the CCP established a separate zone—a Great Firewall to regulate the inflow of outside information—and limited foreign company involvement behind it. This enables it to manipulate online discourse to enforce its truths and shape public opinion. None of the giant American internet companies—Facebook, Twitter, Amazon, and Google—have a major presence in China (Apple, which produces little of its own content and censors its App Store, is the main exception). The goal is always to control the information such that nothing negative is, “leaking out on the internet and causing a serious adverse impact to society,” as one bureaucrat in China’s internet regulator, the Cyberspace Administration of China, wrote in a message leaked by a hacker group.
All of these tools are backed up by the country’s robust regulatory and internal security apparatuses. These limit public free speech, closely monitor citizens and organizations, and ensure that the country’s many protests stay local and do not blossom into anything organized at scale. As such, collective action is always constrained; even if it is effective on specific issues at the local level (e.g., mobilizing against polluting factories, especially corrupt officials), it is never allowed to become a threat. Concerns over the Party’s ability to control events in Hong Kong and possible spillover effects led the CCP to extend these apparatuses into the city in 2020.