China was one of the major issues in the US presidential election. No matter what stance we take, we must acknowledge an objective reality: four decades of the US strategy of “peaceful evolution” and engagement with China has failed spectacularly.

Drawing on the lessons of the Soviet Union, China has developed a series of ways to respond. It is even trying to redefine many global norms through constructing a “community with a shared future for mankind,” as defined by Chinese characteristics. Washington did not awake to such strategic moves until recently.

File photo: EU.

The collapse of the Soviet Union, two years after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, was a source of huge alarm for China. Following a series of reviews, there is a growing consensus among its rulers about the “Soviet tragedy” and the West’s engagement strategy:

  • The Soviet collapse was not due to militarily inferiority: it kept pace with the United States until the last minute.
  • Even though the Soviet economy was weaker than that of the United States, had it persisted, it would have lasted quite some time.
  • The biggest problem in the Soviet Union was a loss of “institutional confidence” and a “vacuum of belief”.
  • As a result, the USSR allowed western ideology to transform its internal society and culture. It turned a blind eye to nationalist forces which replaced belief in communism within the supposed confederation.
  • At the same time, a refusal to join Western society in accordance with Western norms led to stigmatisation and a loss of leverage over opponents.
File Photo: The White House, via Flickr.

To avoid following in the footsteps of the Soviet Union, China has developed a multi-pronged strategy:

  • It must increase its military power but solely as a foundation for negotiation, not a trump card for victory, because it is difficult for China to become as powerful as the Soviet Union.
  • It must accelerate economic development, because this is the biggest key to boosting people’s confidence in the system.
  • Once the economy improves on a large scale, all institutional problems can be rationalised, which may even lead to “institutional superiority” over the west.
  • It is inefficient to simply ban Western ideology from influencing China’s national security; however, if “preventing Western infiltration” is associated with “protectionism”, which becomes an economic incentive, it will be easier to legitimise the need for a ”unilateral firewall”.
  • Subsequently, China can suppress all kinds of internal nationalism by upholding patriotism.
  • Through utilising Western rules and the shared discourse of the West, China can play a role in the international community and even in the internal politics of other countries. When the West cannot exert influence on China, but China can do the opposite, it will become invincible.

This strategy is undoubtedly pragmatic, skilful and wise. In Mao Zedong’s era, criticism of western imperialism, Soviet revisionism and so on was rigid. The contemporary Chinese government would insist that it also emphasises democracy, human rights, freedom and the rule of law. It is just that conditions in each country are different, so nations should not use a single definition. If countries have a different understanding, they should enter into a dialogue to solve problems peacefully and construct a community with shared civilisation for mankind.

These proclaimed principles are almost unassailable. As a result, many Western experts still insist that China is different from the Soviet Union and will not threaten, or at least attempt to change, the West.    

China military parade on September 30, 2019. Photo: CCTV screenshot.

A deeper look at these arguments would suggest that the devil is in the details. For instance, China joined the World Trade Organisation through emphasising and supporting free trade, a principle widely respected by many countries.

Ironically, before China’s accession to the WTO, since its economy was smaller than today’s, it had less political repression.

Many Hong Kong businessmen attending the June 4th annual Tiananmen Square memorial in the morning were still able to visit work sites in Shenzhen or Dongguan in the afternoon without any problems. But now, if Americans merely tweet in support of Hong Kong people, they may be blocked from the Chinese market – which is definitely not an act of respect for the free market.

Yet no matter how strongly Chinese companies criticise the US, their businesses there are unlikely to be severely impacted. If they are, company owners can still lodge an appeal under US law – even though it is questionable whether US companies have the same rights and protections in China. In this way, an asymmetrical competitive relationship is formed. 

In the case of freedom of speech, China emphasises that this should not apply to those violating its national interests, national security and national unity – a definition which could cover even the mildest critics within Hong Kong. On the other hand, liberals in the West keep stressing that Chinese media, such as Global Times, have freedom of speech.

In the internet era, the advantage of this “China model” can even be maximised. WeChat is a case in point. We cannot view any politically incorrect information on WeChat, a strictly censored social media app that can be used worldwide. Therefore, in the US, China can organise netizens and manipulate public opinion on social media such as Facebook. It is much harder, if not impossible, for the US to enter the world of WeChat and discuss different values and a different understanding of truth.

WeChat can be a useful tool for China to mobilise Chinese-American and international students in the US, but the United States cannot influence this group of “Americans” through WeChat, let alone mainlanders in China by Facebook. If this is the case, will the mainstream ideology in the world remain unchanged?     

Then there is individual freedom and the rule of law. Take the recently passed National Security Act in Hong Kong. Literally, the law covers the whole universe, which means that if you take part in anti-extradition protests in Taiwan or make “politically incorrect” remarks about Xinjiang in a Harvard university classroom, you can be considered to be breaking the law and be sanctioned accordingly. Yet, visiting American scholars in China are allowed to return to the United States and live freely, without fear of consequences for introducing the shortcomings of the US system to China and promoting, say, the independence of Texas.

In contrast, international students in the United States are starting to grow fearful of the NSA implemented in Hong Kong. Will the Chinese students next to me secretly take pictures and send them back to the Chinese embassy? Will my papers be archived and be used against me after 30 years? As witnessed by the level of anxiety of ethnic Chinese in US classrooms, China’s cross-border system is very mature since it takes action in accordance with the law.

Last but not least, in the international community, who defines democracy, freedom, human rights and rule of law? While China stresses the absence of a universal definition, it is also trying to strengthen one of the benchmarks of international relations: only sovereign states are qualified to take part in international affairs, and sovereign states have equal rights, no matter whether they are large or small, strong or weak.

In fact, in the history of mankind, there has never been such a rigid dichotomised definition of the “club of sovereign states” and its rules of the game. Even when the United Nations was founded, there were many examples of non-independent countries becoming founding members (Soviet Ukraine, Soviet Belarus, British India, the Commonwealth of the Philippine Islands ruled by the US). At the same time, the United Nations made relatively clear statements on democracy, human rights, freedom and the rule of law.

However, as enthusiastically promoted by China, the principle of “one country, one vote” has gradually been widely accepted by international organisations in recent years. Under this understanding, the combined GDP of the 55 African Union countries is only one-tenth of the United States; yet, the African Union has 54 votes, while 50 states in the US have solely one vote. GDP is not everything but the above rules are unfair as well.

As a result, through wooing Third World countries via its Belt and Road initiative and promoting authoritarian rule, China has gradually become the mainstream voice in international organisations, revising the international understanding of democracy, human rights, freedom and the rule of law. We all know this defies common sense but it is not easy to change.

Wang Yi at United Nations General Assembly. Photo: UN News.

While Washington faces a formidable opponent like China, Beijing faces a rigid, dogmatised and seriously divided United States. It is undeniable that many people sincerely support the China model: if this is implemented solely within China and those who do not support it are allowed to leave, then it is an issue for China alone.

However, when this model tries to transform the world through the “sharp power” described above, what are the consequences for our human civilisation?


HKFP does not necessarily share views expressed by opinion writers and advertisers. HKFP regularly invites figures across the political spectrum to write for us in order to present a diversity of views.

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Simon Shen

Dr Simon Shen is the founding chairman of Glocal Learning Offices (GLOs), an international relations start-up company. He also serves as an adjunct associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.