The CCP’s Global Political Expansion

The CCP’s Global Political Expansion

Why Can’t the Chinese Communist Party Become a Responsible Stakeholder?

Dr. Jinghao Zhou

Since U.S. President Richard Nixon’s administration opened a new chapter with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1972, U.S.-China relations have shifted from hostile relations to normalization and from engagement to intense strategic competition. Regardless of how these relations are defined today, the reality is that the two countries have reached their lowest point since the U.S. normalized its relations with China in 1979, and the biggest challenge to the U.S. is China, ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Why have U.S.-China relations turned a circle? There are various explanations. Some experts say that confrontation is unavoidable during the rise of a new world power because the shrinking national power gap between the two nations has created U.S. anxieties about the PRC’s rising power. Other experts have observed that the ideological and political differences have fueled the confrontation and that mutual unfavorable perceptions have influenced foreign policy. No matter the reason for declining relations, more attention should be paid to the intention and the ability of the CCP to drive China to become the premier world superpower.

A decorative plate featuring Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping appears behind a statue of the late communist leader Mao Zedong at a souvenir store next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing in February 2018. That was the year China’s propaganda machine kicked into overdrive to defend the party’s move to end term limits for Xi. AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Comprehensive Sharp Power

China is a party-state. The CCP’s power is a combination of the communist idea, system and practice with Chinese history, traditions, and culture. From Karl Marx to Vladimir Lenin and on to Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping, the communist goals are essentially the same – to dominate the commanding heights of an economy and control the means of production through the dictatorship of the proletariat led by the party.

The CCP has implemented a socialist system with Chinese characteristics to carry out the communist ideas. The CCP is the largest communist party on the planet with 90 million members, plus 80 million members of the Communist Youth League. The party is the sole leadership of the country, according to the constitution of the PRC and the constitution of the CCP. The CCP controls the entire country through its organization, ideology and coercive force. It possesses asymmetric advantages in competing with the U.S. because the CCP is the largest corporation of state capitalism, yet it has adopted market mechanisms.

The CCP has concrete plans for fulfilling its goal of the “China Dream” proposed by CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping at the 19th National Congress of the CCP in 2017. The dream calls for achieving “Two 100s” —  the material goal of the PRC to become a “moderately well-off society” by 2021 and the modernization goal of the PRC to become a fully developed nation by 2049. Made in China 2025 aims to replace the U.S.-leading position in science and technology. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and other regional multilateral banks led by China are part of the CCP’s attempt to challenge the supremacy of U.S.- and Japan-led multilateral development banks and international financial institutions. The PRC’s One Belt, One Road infrastructure scheme seeks to counter the U.S. pivot or rebalance to the Indo-Pacific. The PRC’s construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea and establishment of military bases in Djibouti in the Horn of Africa and Tajikistan in Central Asia shows the CCP’s determination of fulfilling its China Dream. In addition to these newly established military bases, as well as PRC financing and construction of other naval bases, such as Gwadar in Pakistan, there is speculation that the effort to establish military bases abroad may not yet be finished.

The Chinese government’s foreign policy is the external dimension of its domestic policy, so it aims not only to maintain the one-party system but also to replace U.S. power in the Indo-Pacific region and ultimately become the dominant superpower. As the first step toward becoming the premier world superpower, Xi proposed his new Asian security concept at a 2014 summit in Shanghai, saying that “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia and uphold the security of Asia.”

Xi’s goal is to drive the U.S. out of Asia and destroy U.S. alliances in the region. Today, the PRC’s footprint is global. The Chinese military has broken out of the first island chain of major archipelagos from the East Asian continental mainland coast and is breaking through the second island chain and component of the CCP’s three island chain strategy. In coming decades, the intensive competition between the two countries will be largely in the Indo-Pacific region.

A soldier wearing an usher uniform stops journalists from getting too close to the Great Hall of the People as delegates arrive to attend China’s National People’s Congress in Beijing in March 2019. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Same Goal, Different Strategies

The China Dream is the CCP’s persistent objective, but the CCP has employed different strategies in different times. At the end of the Korean War, CCP Chairman Mao Zedong made it clear that China’s goal was to surpass the United Kingdom in 15 years and surpass the U.S. in two decades. In 1971, Mao changed the CCP’s foreign policy strategy from confrontation to engagement with the U.S. In the early 1980s, then-party leader Deng Xiaoping set up the strategic principle of “keeping a low profile and getting something done” to attract foreign investment and exploit the global trade system, which would enable the Chinese economy to eventually surpass Japan’s economy. In the early 2000s, the CCP began to emphasize a new strategy of “peaceful rise” in response to “China threat theory.”

After Xi came to power in 2012, he tried to develop a new model of great power relations with the U.S., while accelerating global expansion through economic aid, military expansion and exporting Chinese politics. These policies, along with the changes in U.S. policy, especially trade policy, that accompanied the administration of President Donald Trump, led to an increase in bilateral tensions. When Xi met a group of U.S. and European chief executives in 2018, he said: “There is a saying in the West that if someone hits your left face, you have to stretch your right face. In our culture, we punch back, called making a tooth for a tooth,” according to The Wall Street Journal newspaper.

Xi has publicly abandoned the low-profile foreign policy and is ready to implement “a tooth for a tooth” foreign policy. The CCP could promise a lot during negotiations to reach its strategic goal, but it could also break its promises anytime. Xi, for example, promised former U.S. President Barack Obama in September 2015 that he would not militarize the artificial islands created atop coral reefs in the South Chian Sea, but Xi had done so by the end of 2016. Thus, it is more important to see the party’s deeds than its words while dealing with the party-state.

A man wearing a mask walks by a mural with a modified Chinese Communist Party emblem in Shanghai in January 2020. REUTERS

Magic Weapons for CCP Survival

The CCP had only 12 delegates when it held the first National Congress in Shanghai in 1921, but by 1934, it had organized 300,000 members in its Red Army. After the Nationalist government launched five campaigns against the Red Army, only about 20,000 soldiers survived when Mao rose to power at the Zunyi Conference in 1935.

Yet slightly more than a decade later in 1949, the CCP would defeat the Nationalist Party troops who had once been dominant before fighting for years of war. Although China was isolated in the international community from the 1950s to the early 1970s, the CCP would endure the disastrous period between 1958 and 1962 in which over 30 million Chinese people starved to death largely due to bad government policies. The party also survived the turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 to 1976 in which Mao persecuted about 60 million Chinese people.

In the 1970s, the Chinese economy was on the verge of collapse, but the CCP was able to turn it around and came back to the global stage through the CCP’s Reform and Opening-Up policy. Since 2010, China has become the world’s second-largest economy and quickly expanded its global footprint. In the past two decades, the PRC dramatically expanded its national power. Over the coming decades, the PRC will seek to equip itself with a world-class military, secure China’s status as the preeminent power in the Indo-Pacific region and further expand its international influence, according to the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense’s 2019 report to Congress.

It is only a partial explanation to suggest that China’s global ambitions have been successful because Washington made mistakes based on false assumptions about China. The achievements of China’s global expansion largely rely on the CCP’s traditional magic weapons: its mass line, or ability to mobilize its citizens, and its propaganda. The CCP’s mass line is the political, organizational and leadership method, developed by Mao, to consult the masses, interpret their suggestions within the framework of communism and then enforce the resulting policies. The two weapons are overlapping: The mass movement is part of the party’s propaganda, and the CCP has used selective information filtered by its censorship system to inspire mass movement.

A party member uses his mobile phone to attend a weekly study group for a Chinese Communist Party propaganda app called Xuexi Qiangguo, which means “study to make China strong.” REUTERS

CCP Global Propaganda

One way the CCP has rallied Chinese people around it is by propagandizing Chinese culture. The CCP promotes the belief that China, before the 17th century, was one of the most advanced countries in the world. The earliest irrigation systems have been found in China. China is the home of ancient inventions, including the compass, gunpowder and block printing. China began to adopt the civil service examination system in the Han dynasty from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. and established the most advanced civilian government in the world.

China periodically dominated the region through a hierarchical order that spanned nearly 1,300 years, from the start of the Tang dynasty in 618 to the end of the Qing dynasty in 1911, Howard French explains in his book, Everything Under the Heavens: How the Past Helps Shape China’s Push for Global Power. Countries in the region acknowledged the cultural and political superiority of China and showed their respect to Chinese authority in order to trade with China. They also benefited from the acknowledgment because in return they received generous gifts from China and obtained the Chinese emperor’s goodwill. The Chinese government enjoyed the tributary system (chao gong, 날묽) before the first Opium War.

Chinese leaders believe the China Dream is simply reclaiming the nation’s proper global position in world history. This is Beijing’s default mindset and in China’s DNA, which will drive Beijing to behave more and more like an old Chinese empire, according to author Richard McGregor. “The CCP never forgets the glorious past of a China-centric world and now hopes to reclaim the status of global center,” he points out in his 2017 book, Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century. As China quickly gains global market, Western societies are facing a dilemma: Hold the principle of universal values but lose business in China or kowtow to the CCP to make profits from China. It is dangerous for China to build an empire that forces an inevitable war, as political scientist Graham Allison points out in his 2018 book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’ Trap?

Meanwhile, the CCP has launched a global propaganda campaign, attempting to influence people’s worldview, improve China’s image and shape policymakers’ ideas in a certain direction. The CCP has spent billions of dollars on China’s international media agencies, such as Xinhua News Agency, China Central Television (CCTV), China Radio International (CRI), China Daily and Global Times. The agencies have opened more than 300 bureaus abroad and hired staff around the world. The CCP has regularly run workshops in Beijing to train foreign journalists to tell good China stories. China has established about 1,000 Confucius Institutes worldwide to expand Chinese global cultural influence. In addition, the CCP has increasingly strengthened its propaganda overseas by purchasing foreign media platforms, promoting global censorship by requiring Western journals to block access to articles about Chinese political science and international politics in China, and requesting foreign governments to ban international conferences related to Chinese politics. More alarmingly, the CCP is also trying to reshape international norms by exerting and increasing its influence in international governing bodies, including more organizations within the United Nations.

A tour guide lectures near a photo of General Secretary Xi Jinping in the history museum at the Party School of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing. THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

Incite Nationalism Against West, CCP Loyalty

Another strategy the CCP uses to rally people is to weaponize nationalism against the West. China had its glorious past but gradually weakened after its defeat in the first Opium War — the starting point of the century of humiliation, from roughly 1840 to 1949. As a result of losing the war, the Qing dynasty was forced to sign the Treaty of Nanjing that required China to grant diplomatic immunity, pay indemnities totaling U.S. $21 million, accept tariffs, offer Britain most-favored nation treatment, open five new ports for trade and cede Hong Kong to the British for 150 years. The Treaty of Nanjing, along with more than 700 other unequal treaties, forced China to gradually sink from an independent country to a semi-colonial country. China considered itself the center of the world and the only civilization in the world. The Opium War and its aftermath revealed that China was no longer a unified state with an effective central government.

The CCP has used the narrative of the century of humiliation as a bargaining chip during negotiations with Western governments on many issues and also to incite nationalism against Western societies, especially the U.S. and Japan. In the past three decades, the CCP has used nationalism in response to various international events. A survey on national identity conducted by the International Social Survey Programme shows that China has the highest level of nationalism among all countries and regions. Since the recent trade war and global coronavirus pandemic, the strength of Chinese nationalism has become unprecedented. Chinese nationalism will continue to play a role in U.S.-China relations. The CCP believes the PRC should obtain what it wants because Western governments bullied China during the century of humiliation. Xi has promised to restore China to its rightful great power status by 2049, as The Washington Post newspaper reported in October 2017.

The CCP has used Chinese traditional culture to consolidate its hierarchical power while manipulating nationalism to divert the Chinese people’s attention from domestic issues. Chinese traditional culture includes three religions and nine schools of thought. Confucianism, however, became the dominant Chinese traditional culture during the Han dynasty. Confucius developed a set of principles, including the Five Constant Virtues (benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and sincerity) and Five Relationships (ruled is subject to ruler; son is subject to father; wife is subject to husband; younger is subject to elder; and friends must trust each other). All these principles are about the regulation of human relations to maintain the hierarchical social order. Confucius put it this way: “Let the father be indeed father, and the son son; let the elder brother be indeed elder brother, and the younger brother younger brother, let the husband be indeed husband, and the wife wife: Then will the family be in its normal state. Bring the family to that state, and all under heaven will be established.” The doctrine of Confucianism is father-centered, and the core of Confucianism is loyalty: Be loyal to father at home, and be loyal to emperor in society.

The CCP has emphasized the traditional Confucian idea of “right relationships” in family, society and political hierarchies to reinforce loyalty to the party. Every CCP leader has called for Chinese people to unite around the CCP and unconditionally obey the top leader. Xi has further centralized his power and made his presidency a lifelong proposition by amending the constitution of China. Xi repeatedly emphasizes that the party leads everything in Chinese society. Now, Xi has a new title, “people’s leader,” which is the same as dictator Mao’s title. The CCP sets the same principles for Chinese people to follow: “Be loyal to the party” and “Follow the party unconditionally.” Many have called Xi the 21st-century emperor of China.

CCP Will Never Surrender Its One-Party System

The mindset of Chinese leaders is deeply influenced by China’s long history as an agricultural nation. China became an agricultural society 4,000 years ago. By the 13th century, China was the most sophisticated agricultural country in the world. Rural areas accounted for 88% of China’s land when the PRC was established in 1949 and 82% when China started the reform movement in 1978. The industrial revolution began to transform China after 1978, about 200 years after the Western industrial revolution. China still struggles to maintain the balance between its traditional culture and modernization and to absorb Western thinking.

The agricultural society has naturally produced a patriarchal social order and political system. The emperor was the sole source of power, final authority and all laws. The government is an enlarged family and the emperor was the father of the nation. The government in Chinese, guo-jia 벌소, means “nation-family.” The communist revolution largely relied on Chinese peasants. The philosophy of Chinese peasant uprisings is that whoever seizes power keeps power forever. This patriarchal culture requires Chinese foreign policy to consolidate the one-party system. In the post-Mao era, the “second red generation” (븐랗덜) views China as its family dynasty and wants to keep the red regime forever.

Chinese leaders apply notions of filial piety and familial obligation to international relations. The Xi administration has been seeking predominance in the regional and global order. China’s global expansion is an attempt to expand the communist “red family.” Influenced by the patriarchal culture, the CCP believes that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” as Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said at the ASEAN Ministers Conference in Hanoi in July 2010. China will not treat other countries equally but will act as a big brother.

Clearly, the CCP wants to turn China into the world’s dominant superpower while retaining its one-party system at home. Determined by the nature of the CCP, China will not become a responsible stakeholder in the U.S.-led international order as long as the CCP retains its power. When the China Dream meets “America First,” the confrontation between the two countries becomes inevitable. To preserve its values and sovereignty, the United States must prepare for a long-standing ideological war and potential military confrontation with China over the Indo-Pacific region while decisively competing with the CCP in many areas, especially trade and high technology. It is critical to understand the nature of the CCP to win the second global competition with communist China.  

Dr. Jinghao Zhou is an associate professor of Asian studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in New York.