Road Map for a Global Communist Empire
From resisting to rewriting the international order, the Chinese Communist Party desires hegemony despite denials
Story By Dr. Jinghao Zhou/Hobart and William Smith Colleges | Photos by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Since the Chinese economy took off in the early 1980s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has repeatedly vowed that the Chinese government will not export its development model and seek global hegemony. In reality, the CCP’s fast military buildup, aggressive political propaganda and ideological censorship, along with ambitious economic plans such as its Made in China 2025 and One Belt, One Road (OBOR), indicate that the Chinese government wants to translate the nation’s domestic economic power into worldwide dominance toward the establishment of a China-centric global communist empire. The CCP justifies its ambition as “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” or as the China Dream, which CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has championed since coming into power in 2012 as building a “community of shared future for mankind.”
A Potential Terminator of International Institutions
It is almost impossible for any country to become powerful outside international institutions. China, confronted with the international institutions, suffered tremendously — economically and politically — under international sanctions in the first 26 years of communist control under Mao Zedong. As early as the 1950s, Mao declared that the newly founded People’s Republic of China (PRC) would catch up to the United Kingdom in 15 years and surpass the United States in two decades. However, communist China was on the verge of collapse when Mao died in 1976. Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the PRC altered its hostility strategy toward engagement and began to participate in international institutions to fulfill the CCP’s global ambitions. Deng’s low-profile strategy was designed to buy time and quietly build a communist empire.
China has benefited greatly from international institutions in the post-Mao era, but the CCP is never satisfied with international institutions. The CCP does not simply accept the international order but pragmatically performs as three actors: a potential terminator, a selective participant and a free rider of international organizations. As early as 1996, the book “China Can Say No,” written by Chinese nationalists, expressed China’s dissatisfaction with the international order, calling on the government to stand up against the U.S. In 2006, a follow-on book by different authors, titled “Unhappy China,” articulated China’s discontent with the international order and encouraged China to become a hegemon. To incite Chinese nationalism, the CCP claims that the PRC should obtain what the party wants because Western governments bullied China during the century of humiliation.
In the CCP’s view, it is very difficult for China to fulfill the China Dream within the international order because it is built by the U.S. and supported by three systems: U.S. or Western values, the U.S.-led military allies, and the United Nations and its institutions. The CCP’s strategy toward international institutions changed from time to time based on its national comprehensive power. As China gradually became strong economically, the PRC began to challenge international institutions in the late 1990s, and it began to shift from Deng’s low-profile strategy to an aggressive strategy after China became the world’s second-largest economy in 2010. Since the U.S. rejected the Chinese government’s proposal of a new type of bilateral great power relationship, the PRC has completed the transition from a hybrid “weak-strong” state strategy to a strong-state strategy, aiming to restore the perceived dominant status in East Asia that Chinese empires enjoyed prior to the 19th century.
Propaganda is central to the Chinese government fulfilling its goal. The CCP wages a global “discourse war” to control external narratives about the PRC because it understands that whoever controls the right to speak controls the international system. The Chinese government established over 1,000 Confucius Institutes around the world to further propaganda at universities and colleges abroad. Chinese foreign-agent spending in the U.S. has increased from U.S. $10 million in 2016 to U.S. $64 million in 2020, a fivefold increase to influence U.S. business, political and social climates, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan research group based in Washington, D.C. The China Screen, a digital billboard in New York City’s Times Square, symbolizes the CCP’s propaganda in the U.S., displaying CCP ideology 24 hours a day. China Radio International has contracts to broadcast from more than a dozen radio stations in the U.S. alone, while China Daily places inserts in newspapers such as The Washington Post. Beijing has also used other Western media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter, to disseminate propaganda targeting users worldwide. The propaganda targets overseas Chinese and non-Chinese foreigners to create a positive view of the CCP, encourage foreign investment in China, suppress anti-CCP voices and promote anti-American sentiments. The malign influence of the CCP in the U.S. and other free societies is systematic.
Blurring International Rules
Marshaling all its influence tools, the CCP is challenging the international order by redefining the meaning of international rules. In the security arena, the Communist Chinese government argues that since the end of World War II, nuclear proliferation has been in line with the U.S.-led international order. When democratic countries such as Israel and India seek nuclear weapons, the U.S. has adopted a fuzzy policy, the CCP claims. When countries such as Iran, Iraq, Libya and North Korea seek nuclear weapons, the U.S. has imposed sanctions, the CCP argues in its quest to change the rules and the values on which they are based.
On the issue of climate change, the PRC has repeatedly advocated “common but differentiated responsibilities” at meetings of the International Conference on Climate Change, while Western powers believe that developing and developed countries should bear equal responsibilities. The PRC played a key role in blocking a climate accord at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, in 2009 and made no substantial promises at the virtual 2021 Leaders Summit on Climate. Xi’s promise is empty without any action plan. By contrast, the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden announced an ambitious plan to cut the nation’s emissions 50%-52% by 2030 from 2005 levels.
In the financial sphere, the PRC has firmly advocated separation from international political issues to avoid politicizing economic and financial affairs, attempting to defend authoritarian regimes worldwide. The PRC pushed to obtain the special drawing rights designation for its currency, the renminbi, in 2016 and is advocating for a super-sovereign reserve global currency to advance its position in the international financial system. It has also implemented renminbi settlement pilots internationally to reduce reliance on the U.S. dollar for these transactions. The PRC is introducing a digital currency, which it plans to showcase at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, in an attempt to assert itself as a global leader in payments technology. The digital version of the renminbi is intended to also create efficiencies in the Chinese economy to challenge the supremacy of the U.S. dollar.
A Selective Participant and Free Rider
The CCP has used international institutions as platforms to maximize its benefits and expand its global influence. Generally, the Chinese government opposes the political aspect of globalization but supports the economic aspect to reach technological supremacy and export its development model to countries in the Global South and elsewhere. China has used the loopholes of international institutions to promote unfair trade competition. When China was allowed access to the World Trade Organization in 2001, the Chinese government promised to reform its economic system to meet the organization’s requirements but failed to fulfill many of the commitments.
The PRC is predominantly responsible for the theft of U.S. intellectual property. Over 80% of all cases charged as economic espionage involve China, and 60% of all trade secret cases involve China, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Chinese theft of U.S. intellectual property costs U.S. $225 billion to U.S. $600 billion annually. China has been a free rider for decades while the U.S. has had to bear the burden of providing public goods for maintaining international security and prosperity.
The PRC has used vast sums of money from international institutions to promote its domestic and international projects. China borrowed U.S. $450 million in 1981 and U.S. $600 million in special drawing rights in 1986 from the International Monetary Fund, received up to U.S. $9.95 billion in concessional loans from the International Development Association through 1999 and borrowed U.S. $39.8 billion from the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development through 2011. The PRC now is an upper-middle-income country but still accepts financial assistance from developed countries, including Germany and the U.K. The Chinese government uses the money to buy global power and pressure recipients of Chinese aid to support China or make diplomatic concessions. The World Health Organization (WHO) has provided China with technical assistance worth over U.S. $100 million, but now the PRC is using its distribution of COVID-19 vaccines to subvert democracy and seek world hegemony.
A Climber in Regional and International Organizations
The CCP has dramatically increased its role in international institutions by enhancing its power in these agencies. China is a member of more than 200 international organizations and holds the top post in four of the 15 specialized agencies in the U.N., as well as many other senior positions in global organizations. The CCP attempted but failed to gain the top position in the U.N’s World Intellectual Property Organization two years ago. China has tried to play leading roles in multilateral organizations such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation.
The PRC has initiated various China-led multilateral organizations, including the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum, the China-Africa Cooperation Forum and the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area. In 2001, China created the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a Eurasian political, economic and security alliance. In 2015, China began to promote the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and showed a willingness to play a leadership role to build and maintain the bank. The bank is headquartered in Beijing and has 103 members and 21 prospective members worldwide.
OBOR is the PRC’s ambitious project to expand its global influence by transforming the Chinese development model, developing multiple trade relations and establishing a new international trade framework. All these efforts aim to remake regional and global order, driven by the CCP’s leadership.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government continues to play hardball in the international political arena. The CCP’s values, by nature, are entirely opposed to what are considered universal values and human rights. It has persistently persecuted domestic political and religious activists in the name of giving priority to “collective human rights” and the “right to development,” while regularly opposing condemnation of human rights abuses worldwide. The U.N. Human Rights Council has never passed a resolution condemning China’s human rights abuses. Whenever such a resolution has been introduced at the council’s annual meeting, most member states supported a no-action motion from China or one of its backers.
China has also developed sufficient skills to negotiate in multilateral dialogues by showing gestures of compliance in exchange for other benefits. As a result, China continues to have among the world’s worst human rights records and ranked as the biggest jailor of journalists in 2020.
Consequences of China’s Threat
The CCP’s goals are multifaceted. It wants to retain the one-party system, unify the so-called greater China — Hong Kong, Macao, the mainland and Taiwan — and turn the South China Sea into its inner lake. It also intends to become the world’s superpower. As the first step toward its ultimate goal, the CCP has developed the concept that “it is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia.” The mantra serves as a justification to build regional primacy as a springboard to global power, destroy U.S. regional alliances and drive the U.S. out of the Indo-Pacific.
China poses serious challenges to U.S. interests, including its economy, values and military. In its 2020 report to Congress, the U.S. Defense Department made clear that the People’s Liberation Army’s objective is to become a world-class military by 2049. A recent Rand Corp. report, titled “China’s Quest for Global Primacy,” predicts that if the U.S. cannot maintain its position as a global leader, it could become a marginalized actor in Asia.
Most think tanks predict that the Chinese economy will surpass that of the U.S. China will be powerful, and it will seek to drive the world away from democratic values and the rule of law. The coming decade will be critical for both nations and for the global community. Historically, there were great power competitions between the U.S. and the U.K., the U.S. and Russia and the U.S. and Japan. Twenty years ago, Dr. John Mearsheimer, an American political scientist and international relations scholar, noted that great power rivalry was not over. The major powers still fear each other, and dangerous security competition is repeating.
China has been preparing for the battle against the U.S. in three aspects: focusing on domestic priorities and reemphasizing self-reliance policy; reducing dependence on the U.S. while increasing the rest of the world’s dependence on China; and accelerating the expansion of Chinese influence overseas. Xi told CCP members that “the biggest source of chaos in the present-day world is the United States,” essentially identifying the U.S. as China’s enemy.
In March 2021, at the first face-to-face, high-level talks between China and the U.S. under President Biden, the top Chinese diplomatic official attacked U.S. politics and the U.S.-led international order in an 18-minute diatribe. CCP foreign affairs chief Yang Jiechi insisted that the U.S. does not represent the world, and China will follow its own socialist system because it is better than Western democracy.
Most recently, Xi characterized the development trend of the post-pandemic era as a “rising East and falling West,” saying it was time for China to look the world straight in the eye. In his recent speech published in the CCP’s official journal, Quishi, Xi noted that the world is in chaos and that China should seize the opportunity. He claimed that no one can defeat China. Xi has promised to restore China to great power status by 2049. The CCP’s worldview and practices are clear: China totally abandoned Deng’s “low-profile” foreign policy and now is decisively moving in the opposite direction of the U.S.-led international order. At the CCP’s 100th anniversary in July 2021, Xi warned foreign forces that anyone who wants to bully China will have their “heads bashed bloody against a steel wall forged by more than 1.4 billion people.”
The Future of Strategic Security Competition
The future of the global order will largely depend on how the U.S. and the world community respond to China’s comprehensive challenges. There are various misconceptions about China’s threats. Some analysts argue that China has greatly benefited from the current international order and does not intend to overturn it. Others argue that although Beijing has many goals that conflict with those of the U.S., China’s role in international institutions still benefits the global community, including the U.S. There are also those who believe that China’s global influence is limited because China is using its foreign policy principles and approaches to play roles in the international society. Still others argue that U.S. media exaggerate China’s security threat because the international order is complex and multilayered and, therefore, difficult to overturn.
The U.S. National Intelligence Council’s “Global Trends 2040” report envisions five scenarios: The U.S. and its allies will continue to lead the international system; the international order is aimless, chaotic and unstable; democratic societies are becoming increasingly divided; the world is slowly falling into anarchy; and a global coalition, led by the European Union (EU) and China, is emerging.
Without a doubt, the future of U.S.-led international order is still promising.
Although the CCP’s intention to rule the world is decisive, it is likely a dead end because the China Dream mainly represents the CCP’s worldview. Communist ideas and Chinese patriarchal tradition are no longer popular in China or abroad. China’s development relies heavily on U.S. high technology and service, so it’s not easy for China to implement a self-reliance policy in a short time frame. Pursuing democracy and freedom remains the mainstream goal of the globalized world.
More and more, countries are standing up to China’s aggressive expansion. Canada, the EU and the U.K. have coordinated sanctions against China for human rights abuses on minorities. The EU Parliament passed a motion in May 2021 to formally freeze the EU’s proposed investment agreement with China and to call on the EU to increase coordination with the U.S. to deal with China. Germany has enacted a supply chain law requiring German companies to limit their activities in or leave the Xinjiang region in northwest China, where the CCP is accused of genocide against ethnic Uyghurs.
More important, the U.S. remains strong. At his first news conference in March 2021, President Biden said that China wants to “become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world.” He added, however, “That’s not going to happen on my watch.”
President Biden’s administration has been retooling U.S. alliances to strengthen and innovate its international network. The U.S. has rejoined the WHO and the Paris Agreement on climate change, and it is working closely with the EU, NATO and the Group of Seven on issues such as technology, climate change and human rights to counter China’s threat. In the Indo-Pacific after World War II, the U.S. built treaty alliances with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Thailand.
Known as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or Quad, Australia, India, Japan and the U.S. closely cooperate in the economic, military and supply chain arenas. They also conduct multilateral military exercises and are inviting more countries to participate in the Quad, which aims to create a substantial deterrent to the CCP’s hegemonic ambitions.
Meanwhile, the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea have already become the frontier of competition between China and the U.S. and may prove to be the first litmus test of the global community’s resolve to block China’s path to global hegemony. While the CCP asserts that China’s complete reunification is an unshakable commitment of the party, the U.S. no longer sees Taiwan as a problem in its relations with the PRC, but as an opportunity to promote a Free and Open Indo-Pacific. This reflects not only that China-U.S. competition is becoming more intense, but it also demonstrates the decisive determination of the U.S.
to continue to maintain its superiority in the Indo-Pacific region.