The United States has recently stepped up its attacks on China’s government, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), to levels not seen since the heyday of Cold War-era anti-communist hysteria. In just one recent speech, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke of “China’s virulent strain of communism” that is “aggressive in its hostility to freedom everywhere else.” His point was clear: because China is communist, it is ipso facto not “a normal, law-abiding nation.”
Although the question has been raised and discussed repeatedly, it still deserves to be asked one more time: Why, at this particular moment, is Washington so persistently intent on fighting Beijing, especially the so-called “evil” communist regime?
China’s political system has remained holistic and stable for quite a long time. China has never concealed the fact to the international community, including the United States, that the country will stick to the uniqueness of the path it has taken.
Nonetheless, the Americans are coming, from “pivoting” to Asia, to “rebalancing,” and finally to the current “pushback” against China on almost all fronts. The United States’ comprehensive “pushback” against China is driven by the combined interaction of complex international relations, U.S. domestic politics, changes to the world economic landscape, China’s continued expansion of foreign influence, and of course the enduring COVID-19 pandemic.
Let’s choose the perspective of the U.S.-China trade war out of those multiple lenses. The U.S. blow to Chinese high-tech companies like Huawei can be examined in the context of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, as I discussed in an earlier piece that tried to suggest a macro and strategic perspective and explanation. Meanwhile, the banning of TikTok probably comes out of the United States’ concerns about its citizens’ privacy and U.S. national security in the context of big data operation and management – at least Washington wants the world to believe so, despite people’s clear memory of Prism, the Edward Snowden revelations, and Cambridge Analytica. This also can be a macro and strategic perspective and explanation.
But is that the whole story? Obviously not.
In fact, whenever I bump into the term of U.S. “pushback” against China, I always recall the 2011 BBC documentary “The Chinese Are Coming.” There is a quote in it that especially impressed me. A White man, solemnly patriotic, who lost his job — which was among thousands supposedly “stolen” by the Chinese – gave a melancholy sigh: “What we are losing is much more than just a product that can be found in a store. We are losing a culture and a way of life.”
When the Sino-U.S. relationship has deteriorated to such an extent as we see today, recalling that scene may help us to see certain traces of an internal crisis for the American Dream and U.S. self-confidence over the past decade. As a White man, he should have had every advantage in the United States. He kept committed to traditional American values, worked hard, loved his family, and upheld his loyalty to his country – and still found himself sighing with regret at a dream denied.
But who should be blamed for all this? Is it the globalization initiated and led by the United States and Western countries? Or is it China, which has always insisted on its unique political system and is demonstrating vibrant productivity and creativity as the world economy and the corresponding systems undergo a deep transformation? If both are to be blamed, then is the current “pushback” a remedy?
The point here is this: On the one hand, China’s current political system overall rests upon its unique civilization and culture. On the other hand, China has never stopped changing and creating, especially as a rising world economy. China has emerged as a world leader in fields as widely varied as mobile payments, the sharing economy, high-speed railway, digital currency, world-leading communication facilities and technologies, and lately the eye-catching commercial successes of a number of emerging Chinese private companies like DJI and Bytedance, both of which have won the favor of hundreds of millions of consumers around the world, especially among the young generations.
Washington cannot stop technological creation, innovation, and fashion, nor can it prevent the future direction and trends of social and economic development in the coming new era. But it sees an opportunity to attack creations, innovations, and fashions brought about by companies, private or not, from China, a country that is ruled by a communist regime. All Washington needs to do is “stigmatize” Beijing and its ruling Communist Party. Then everything, from the broader “pushback” to bans and targeted sanctions on individual companies, can be defended as ideologically and politically correct, or even crucial.
But attacking China just for having a communist regime misses the reality of its vibrant economy. At a time when the world economy is facing a major transformation, China and its huge market seem to be more open and diversified than ever. In particular, some leading Chinese private companies have seized opportunities and gained market momentum. According to a recent report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, among the Chinese companies that have entered the world’s top 500, Chinese private companies are fully ahead of Chinese state-owned enterprises in respect to both “average return on assets” and “average profit margin.” Could this happen if the CCP opposed the market economy and free competition?
Let’s take TikTok as an example one more time. In the past, U.S. criticisms of Chinese companies’ overseas behaviors were mostly focused on the Chinese government’s guidance, dominance, and subsidies. But Bytedance, the parent company of TikTok, is a privately owned start-up that has acquired huge market shares, including in the United States. This gives Americans, who are used to dominating the internet and social media sectors, a new, complex, and difficult situation. Whoever leads entertainment culture in the internet age will strongly affect people, and particularly the next generation. This could be the latest manifestation of the worry I quoted earlier from the BBC documentary: “We are losing a culture and a way of life.” But technological innovations and popularity cannot be attacked directly. How to brand U.S. opposition with political purpose and thereby regain tech dominance and the lost market shares?
Washington has apparently found its solution. If something is innovative, trendy, or cutting-edge, and it comes from China, the assumption is that it has been “genetically modified” for the political purposes of the so-called “evil” CCP regime, and therefore needs to be resolutely censored and resisted.
This is an extension of the “original sin” under the China Threat Theory — Chinese companies, no matter their actions, cannot escape the stigma of their origin. Currently, the message from Washington seems to be very clear: as long as the CCP insists on the uniqueness of its development path, everything comes out of China would automatically be branded as a “threat,” if not “evil.”