Does China Want a Cold War?

Recent Features


Does China Want a Cold War?

A new video by PLA generals suggest that some in the CCP are eager for a Cold War with Washington.

Does China Want a Cold War?
Credit: Wikicommons

Time and again in recent years, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has berated the West — and the U.S. more specifically — for having what it calls a Cold War mentality, a mindset that it said was detrimental to relations with China and undermined security in Asia. Fair enough, but according to a new video co-produced by China’s National Defense University (NDU) that was leaked late last month, a Cold War is exactly what the CCP needs, and contact with the West is a poison pill that must be avoided at all cost.

It’s admittedly hard to tell how many members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the CCP adhere to such views, but there is little doubt that 较量无声, or Silent Contest, has some appeal among the more extremist elements within the party, which itself in recent months has warned against the harmful influence of Western values and culture, and passed new regulations to counter their supposedly deleterious effects on Chinese society.

Besides NDU, the PLA General Staff Department and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences were involved in producing the documentary, in which a number of senior military officers from various departments are featured. General Liu Yazhou, the political commissar at National Defense University (his father in law was former president Li Xiannian, one of the so-called “eight immortals”), and Wang Xibin, president of NDU, are listed as supervisors for the project.

Interestingly, as recently as 2010, Liu was regarded as a potential reformist and voice of moderation within the PLA after he remarked that China must either reform its system U.S.-style or go the way of the Soviet Union. This apparent shift (we should note that Liu was promoted to general in July 2012) raises several questions about the existence, influence, and durability of hoped-for reformers within the PLA.

The 100-minute film, which was taken down from popular sites like Weibo soon after it was leaked, but which remains available on YouTube, takes a shot at pretty much everything Western, from U.S. think tanks — the Fulbright Fellowship, the Ford Foundation and the Carter Center are singled out — to electronic music and luxury brands, which are all elements of a plot to “brainwash” Chinese society and destroy China from within.

“The American elites … confidently believe that the best way to disorganize China is to work closely with it, allowing it to gradually become part of the U.S.-led international and political system,” Liu is quoted as saying.

The conspiracy also extends to Hong Kong, where the U.S. and British consulates are reportedly using their “unusually large” resources in the territory to infiltrate and destabilize China by influencing events such as the annual June 4 and July 1 rallies, the movement against national (“Chinese”) education, as well as Occupy Central.

Even military-to-military exchanges, a hallmark of improved ties between Washington and Beijing over the past year, are regarded in the movie not as a means to build confidence between the two competitors, but rather as part of an insidious plot to “disorganize China.” The undercurrent is that the U.S. “soft” strategy of engagement is potentially more dangerous than its military hardware.

One of the lessons that the Chinese are ostensibly expected to draw from the documentary, which can be regarded as a critique of China’s “open door policy,” is that contact with the West is nefarious. In fact, the film attributes the collapse of the Soviet Union and other closed societies in large part to a U.S.-led global conspiracy.

More tellingly, it claims that the collapse of the Soviet Union was not the precursor to the end the Cold War, as history books have informed us since the watershed event, but rather that the end of the Cold War caused the collapse of the USSR. The Cold War, and the closed, repressive, militarized, and pathologically paranoid system that it had engendered within the Soviet empire was therefore crucial to the survival of the USSR. The foundations of that system were slowly eroded via contact with the West, and once the USSR lost control over the public sphere, the whole building came crashing down.

To avoid a similar fate, the CCP must therefore ensure it retains a tight grip on every aspect of Chinese society.

If this is indeed the conclusion reached by CCP officials (at this point we must regard the documentary as part of the ongoing dialogue and jockeying for influence that is occurring within the CCP, and not as a policy statement), the ramifications of that shift could be far reaching. Not only could exchanges with the U.S. and other major Western powers suffer, but a country like Taiwan, which is often touted as a model for China and whose growing interactions with the Asian giant it is hoped will spark the flame of democratization, could also suffer the consequences. If Taiwan’s democracy and open society are regarded as a Western import and part of a U.S.-led plot to undermine China, the CCP could conclude that it is in its best interest to pre-empt Taiwan by destroying its liberal way of life, a process that some argue has already begun.

Not so long ago, Beijing’s main complaint with the U.S. was that it was stuck in time and unable to think beyond the strategies of the Cold War. Containment was bad. All Washington needed to do was open up to China and the relationship would flourish. For various reasons, the U.S. did just as prescribed. But now Beijing — or at least Silent Contest and its masterminds — warns the viewer that the ensuing exchanges are corrosive and threaten China’s very existence.

China cannot have it both ways. So which one will it be?