Winning the Battle for Chinese Hearts and Minds

Winning the Battle for Chinese Hearts and Minds

The Chinese Communist Party 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 is in a strong position domestically and Chinese society is certainly not clamoring for change, its position is dependent on China’s tremendous success in boosting living standards since 1978. While it has achieved consistently high satisfaction levels (at least with central government performance) in surveys, generations that grow up with no memory of chronic food shortages, poor infrastructure, and political instability will take comfort for granted and expect continuous improvements. This is likely to be especially so among the ever-growing number of urban Chinese with advanced degrees, international experience, and their material needs easily satisfied. As the authors of the longest-running independent effort to track Chinese popular opinion conclude, “citizens who praise government officials for effective policies may indeed blame them when such policy failures affect them or their family members directly.” Or, as Dingxin Zhao says, “Performance legitimacy relies too much on performance. Your relationship with the people is ... transactional. People judge you ... day by day, case by case.”

It is difficult to gauge citizen opinion in China’s restrictive climate; U.S. analysts would be better served by observing CCP messaging. Perceiving a potential vulnerability if performance falters and ideas that challenge its model circulate, the Party has proactively warned that alternative truths imported from the West pose a threat. In 2013, the CCP’s Central Committee General Office circulated the confidential internal “Notice on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere,” also known as Document No. 9, to warn public officials against “false ideological trends” such as constitutional democracy, universal values, civil society, a free press, and economic liberalism. This document identifies a wide range of ways that hostile ideas can subvert the Party’s ideology, including the use of direct media, cultural products, educational exchanges, information on the collapse of communism elsewhere, the idea that modernization produces democratization, and the promotion of diverse value orientations.

THE CCP’S comprehensive internal strategy to bolster its legitimacy is supported externally by a number of steps the Party takes to safeguard its standing and undercut states or organizations it sees as threats. 

The clearest manifestation of these efforts is the Party’s efforts to “control and constrain” public messaging. Over the past two decades, the Chinese government and state media have built an immense, global media infrastructure across the world. Working in an era where communication technologies have transformed the media landscape, the CCP has been much more facile in its engagement with international media than the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). While amateurish or ham-fisted at times, and suffering from its share of misfires, the huge scale—backed by the Party’s unprecedented financial resources, state apparatus, and large number of members and affiliated organizations—means that the CCP is casting a wider and more diverse net than the Soviets ever did. In many cases, its target is even different, with the Party “using the countryside to surround the cities”—targeting areas and actors that its rivals ignore or underinvest in (e.g., developing countries, non-English language media, local governments, smaller countries) in order to encircle their strongholds. This is a global application of the very strategy that enabled the CCP to win the Chinese Civil War after starting from a position of weakness.

The Party-State control of the Chinese language media landscape across much of the world (an area mostly ignored by its rivals) gives it the ability to directly reach millions of Chinese speakers in the United States, Canada, Australia, and beyond on a daily basis. This access is something the Soviet Union could only dream about. It both ensures that China’s huge diaspora and number of international travelers remain sympathetic to the Party and denies the United States the ability to influence them. 

WeChat, which has close to 20 million daily active users in the United States, may be essential for Chinese Americans to connect with their family members abroad, but, as Alex Joske and his colleagues write, it “raises concerns because of its record of censorship, information control and surveillance, which align with Beijing’s objectives.” Its dominance of social media and registration requirements force even those outlets which want to avoid working with Beijing to act in the Party’s interests.

More broadly, the Party conducts wide-ranging influence campaigns to promote a more favorable view of China in the United States and elsewhere through its United Front work, an approach inspired by Leninist theory. United Front work coopts everyone, from business elites to scholars to politicians; is “carried out by a sprawling infrastructure of Party agencies, and organizations linked [often in an opaque manner] to the Party”; and “forms the core of the Party’s overseas influence and interference activity.” Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg write

...influential Westerners keen to engage with Chinese culture or get to know Chinese businesspeople may find that the organization they are dealing with is a covert part of the united front structure of the Party and that they are being worked on.

American politicians and think tanks have remarkably little understanding of these issues. Few know China or Chinese strategic culture well. Almost none speak the language or have spent significant time in the country. Where there is some knowledge, scholars and think tanks have to navigate the delicate balance between promoting their own interests—which typically require access to China and Chinese officials—and getting at the truth. Too confrontational an approach means no entry visas and ostracization by Chinese authorities.

As a result, there is a bias among scholars toward engagement and avoiding especially controversial issues. In Washington, there are many analysts and scholars working on security issues or China’s policies in third countries—such as Belt and Road and loan programs—and almost none working on the Party’s influence campaigns. The same is true for Congress: the China competitiveness bill, the more comprehensive attempt to reposition America for competition with China, emphasizes the industrial competition and need to counter Belt and Road, but Congress has little to say about Chinese media and could do much more to target United Front penetration of the country.

ANY ATTEMPT to undermine the Party’s legitimacy at home should consider what succeeded in the Cold War. While it was not a major focus for much of the conflict, in the end, the battle for Soviet popular opinion was key to victory. Within the Soviet Union—and wider Communist Bloc—communist leaders consistently sought to base their authority on the moral power of their enterprise. The Soviet strategy worked well as long as the CPSU could convincingly argue that its system was morally better (e.g., it better represented the interests of and better served the poor and working classes) and materially competitive (e.g., technologically and militarily strong and able to lift living standards). But as generations passed, outside information seeped in, and economic progress stalled, the hold of its ideology weakened.

Whereas the Soviet elite could confidently ignore American strengths (its economic vitality, rule of law, system of property rights, freedoms, and widespread opportunity) when it believed the “correlation of forces” (a calculus of the strengths and weakness of each side) was shifting in its favor—as was the case through roughly 1970—when relative decline and stagnation set in during the 1980s, these strengths became too obvious to ignore. The gap in living standards—which was always large, partly because the state directed funds toward the military and capital investment—grew markedly wider. The drawbacks of the political and legal regime increasingly stood out. Meanwhile, countries in Asia and elsewhere were clearly outperforming by adopting capitalism and the freedom and rights that accompany it. As these developments became more evident, they undermined the CPSU’s narrative and catalyzed effective opposition within the Soviet Union.

The United States built up a variety of communication channels to challenge the Communist version of events and undermine Soviet legitimacy. International broadcasts, public diplomacy, and a wide range of overt and covert activities—distributing books, sponsoring cultural exchanges, and secretly funding of anti-totalitarian organizations—aimed to reach as many people as possible with an alternative to the Soviet story. While interest in these efforts waned during the 1970s during détente, Ronald Reagan reinvigorated them, repeatedly using the bully pulpit to challenge Communist orthodoxy, most famously in Berlin in 1987 when he challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to “tear down” the Berlin Wall.

IN ORDER to go on the offensive, the United States should target each of the sources of CCP legitimacy: performance, nationalism, information, and the limits on civil society. As in the Cold War, the United States should clarify the difference between the United States (and its allies) and China—between free and unfree; the rule of law and the rule of man; equal rights and ethnic, gender, geographic, and family background-based discrimination; and an economy centered on private enterprise and one geared toward promoting the interests of the state. In articulating these differences, U.S. leaders should speak proudly of the country’s accomplishments and not fixate on its faults, as the CCP exploits U.S. self-criticism in its own propaganda. As more Chinese acquire higher education, international experience, and material comforts, tangible differences are going to increasingly matter. (In contrast, it is harder to argue—especially at the moment—that a particular regime type is more suitable for China given its history, size, and internal challenges.) Encouraging dissatisfaction with the Party and its policies is key to engendering opposition to Chairman Xi’s agenda among elite actors in society—in and out of the Party.