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Society & Culture

Assessing the Ideological Trap

Apr 24, 2023
  • Chen Jimin

    Guest Researcher, Center for Peace and Development Studies, China Association for International Friendly Contact

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Starting in the Trump administration, the United States has followed a strategy of comprehensive, whole-of-government and all-domain competition with China. One important tool in that strategy is emphasizing and strengthening ideological rhetoric.

Domestically, the U.S. government is working to align the administration with Congress and mobilize nongovernmental forces by portraying China as a threat to American democracy and way of life. Internationally, the U.S. seeks to unite the so-called Western democratic world by framing the narrative as “democracy vs. authoritarianism” and fomenting a joint response to the “China challenge.”

In May 2020, the Trump administration report — United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China — said that the Communist Party of China had “accelerated its efforts to portray its governance system as functioning better than those of Western capitalist democracies” and that it “sees itself as engaged in an ideological competition with the West.” The United States argued that “the CCP promotes globally a value proposition that challenges the bedrock American belief in the unalienable right of every person to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The U.S. remains highly vigilant about this and has responded is various ways — such as the Trump administration and American mainstream media often using terms like “CCP,” “Communist China” and “Communist Chinese government” in their coverage.

The Biden administration has attached importance to building alliances based on its values and spinning China’s ideological threat is an important means of integrating international opinion.

In October, the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy (NSS) viewed the competition for the international order in the next decade as a contest between democracy and authoritarianism. U.S. President Joe Biden wrote in the preface to the NSS: “Autocrats are working overtime to undermine democracy and export a model of governance marked by repression at home and coercion abroad.” The NSS argued that “democracies and autocracies are engaged in a contest to show which system of governance can best deliver for their people and the world.” addition to the policy tool perspective, the power perspective and the historical perspective also yield insights.

First, this reflects a significant change in the balance of power between China and the U.S. Clearly, America’s hegemonic anxiety is more pronounced as a result of its decline. Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that as the balance of power between China and the U.S. became increasingly equivalent, the two sides would begin to emphasize the ideological competition. He added that if an anxious America and an overconfident China slipped into increasingly intense political hostility, they were likely to begin waging an ideological war of mutual destruction.

Second, America’s deviation from the teachings of its founding fathers in formulating foreign policy based on ideological preferences runs against the original aspirations. In his farewell address to Congress on September 17, 1796, President George Washington warned of potential dangers and laid out the attitude the U.S. should adopt in international relations:

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all,” Washington said. “Just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

Currently, the U.S. government views China’s policy actions through a preconceived subjective lens of ideological bias, resulting in deeply ingrained stereotypes. To a certain extent, the U.S. today has been captured by the “demon of ideology” and is becoming increasingly extreme and even irrational. This situation is not conducive to the stable development of China-U.S. relations, nor to global peace and security. It may not even be beneficial to the interests of the U.S. itself.

China should respond with caution, firmly defending national ideological security while avoiding meaningless ideological debates. It should provide no evidence for the ideological threat theory that the United States has fabricated, and should avoid falling into the trap of ideological confrontation.

In fact, avoiding ideological debates is a traditional principle of Chinese diplomacy. On August 12, 1954, Zhou Enlai stated during a meeting of officials held to receive a delegation from the British Labor Party, that China “should not argue with them about Marxist theory or the socialist system. … We do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, and revolution cannot be exported. Each country’s social system should be chosen by its own people. ... We need not argue about issues related to different positions, ideas or lifestyles, and we demand mutual respect.”

On March 3, 1990, Deng Xiaoping emphasized during a talk with leading members of the CPC Central Committee: “Whatever changes take place in the Soviet Union, we should steadily expand relations with it, including political relations, on the basis of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence and refrain from arguing over ideological differences.”

On Sept. 22, 2020, in a major statement at the General Debate of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly, President Xi Jinping stated: “We should embrace the vision of a community with a shared future in which everyone is bound together. ... We should rise above ideological disputes and avoid falling into the trap of a ‘clash of civilizations.’ More important, we should respect a country’s independent choice of development path and model.”

Recently, in his keynote speech during the CPC in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting, President Xi proposed the Global Civilization Initiative for the first time. One of its important elements, he said, is that “[w]e advocate the common values of humanity. ... Countries need to keep an open mind in appreciating the perceptions of values by different civilizations, and refrain from imposing their own values or models on others and from stoking ideological confrontation.”

Obviously, China has no intention of spreading or promoting its ideology abroad, let alone the motivation to engage in ideological competition or confrontation. China’s defense of its own ideological security under all-around maximum pressure from the United States is a natural response to the situation. From this perspective, the so-called ideological competition with China can be seen as a U.S. fabrication. It is by no means a fortunate thing for China, the United States or the world.

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