The Responsibility to Counter China’s Ambitions Falls to Us

The American inheritance and the American promise are both precious and precarious. If we don’t defend them vigorously, no one else will.

An image of two pandas fighting over a globe is superimposed onto a Chinese flag.
Michael Tunk / Ideas

In August 1784, when the American merchant vessel Empress of China finally docked in Canton (modern-day Guangzhou) after six months at sea, Captain John Green of Philadelphia and his crew found a civilization at its height. The Qianlong emperor ruled 10 percent of the world’s land mass and 30 percent of its population. He controlled one-third of the global economy. He could look out on an empire of extraordinary political and cultural achievement, a civilization that had endured more than three millennia. The name China, Zhōngguó, means “Middle Kingdom”—the kingdom at the center of the cosmos, the kingdom at the heart of heaven and Earth—and he had no reason to doubt it.

In 2013, when Xi Jinping took power as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, he embarked China on a mission of “national rejuvenation” (guojia fuxing). Six years later, China is poised to become, once again, the largest economy in the world, overtaking the United States. China is home to six of the world’s 10 busiest shipping-container ports (seven, if you include Hong Kong), contributing to its increased control of global maritime trade routes. According to the World Bank, China is on pace to eliminate absolute poverty by the end of next year, completing a stunning process through which 850 million people have emerged from poverty since the early 1980s—the largest and fastest poverty reduction in human history, to accompany the largest and fastest economic expansion ever recorded. Meanwhile, Chinese political, economic, and military investments across the world intend to roll back American power, replacing a Pax Americana with a Pax Sinica (though it is not clear whether China intends to preserve the Pax part).

Present-day China intends to reestablish its place, not as one political power among others, but as the world’s preeminent power. We are witnessing the return of the Middle Kingdom. While the Middle East remains a hotbed of violence and instability that threatens American lives and interests, we cannot allow our primary focus to move from the unique, long-term, and existential threat that is Beijing. This is the defining national-security challenge of our age.

American leaders have failed to appreciate the magnitude of the threat posed by China’s renaissance. The program of “reform and opening up” launched by the former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s inspired optimistic declarations that economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization, and the collapse of the Soviet Union a little more than a decade later seemed to demonstrate that communist regimes would inevitably buckle under their own bureaucratic weight. But at the same time that the Soviet Union was crumbling, China was making strategic renovations, aiming to develop a hybrid model of political and economic organization that could secure the party’s long-term survival. Since the end of the Cold War, China has quietly and steadily laid the groundwork for displacing the United States as the world’s sole superpower.

A Chinese-led future is not inevitable. But if we want to avoid it, then understanding today’s China—its vision, its ambitions, its plans—and rethinking America’s global leadership for the 21st century is, by far, the most important foreign-policy task we face.

Contemporary China sits atop three historical foundations: ancient China, Communist China, and digital China. The first was a civilization of extraordinary achievement in political administration, science and technology, literature, architecture, and fine arts. It is to this China that we owe the “four great inventions” (the compass, gunpowder, papermaking, and printing). This stream endured until the middle of the 19th century, ending in what the Chinese call their “century of humiliation,” which saw foreign invasions, rebellions and revolution, a failed republic, and civil war.

The ascendancy of Mao Zedong and communism provided the source for the second historical foundation. Mao may have brought humiliation at the hands of foreign powers to an end, but the Great Helmsman unleashed a different kind of terror on the Chinese people for 27 years. Famine caused by a forced industrialization and collectivization policy, the Great Leap Forward, killed 30 million to 40 million people. Social upheaval during the Cultural Revolution resulted in the deaths of several million more and the near-decimation of China’s traditional inheritance and relics from the first stream. Mao’s death and the fall of the Soviet Union provided an opportunity for the Chinese Communist Party to reevaluate how it maintains power. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” evolved to include market economics, and China experienced ahistorical economic growth, lifting millions out of poverty.

The third and final foundation, and the most recent, is China’s ongoing digitalization. The once developing nation is now a global leader in digital and cyber technologies, robotics, and artificial intelligence. Beijing has plowed massive amounts of money (and countless stolen American patents) into technology R&D to corner the global tech market and push its “safe” and smart cities, models for new tech-based “governance.”

The result of these several influences—the China we know today, a generation into the 21st century—is a political-economic model unlike any in history: a careful blend of Leninist state collectivism, technological totalitarianism, 21st-century mercantilism, Chinese nationalism, and neo-Confucianism. The bosses of today’s Chinese Communist Party have a strong vision: of complete pacification of the Chinese nation, while bringing the region, and ultimately the globe, under the political and spiritual hegemony of the CCP—all things “harmonized,” as the Communist oligarchs like to say.

An illustration of Xi Jinping set against a map of China.
Michael Tunk

Xi Jinping has been the chief architect of China’s revised and reinvigorated ideological program. He has rejected Western forms of political organization in favor of what has supposedly made China distinctive: its hierarchical, authoritarian, Confucian state. Adapting this vision for contemporary circumstances has meant reestablishing the party’s role in every detail of policy making—a reversal of reforms that had attempted to shrink the party’s participation in day-to-day governance. For Xi, the Communist Party and the Chinese people are a seamless whole. As he told the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations in Seattle in 2015: “The fundamental aim of the party is to serve the people’s heart and soul.”

To ensure that no one misunderstood his spiritual talk as benevolent, he added this warning: “That is why we demand strict enforcement of party discipline as the top priority of governance.”

“Discipline” is putting it too gently. Xi has exploited anti-corruption policies to purge both the party apparatus and the government of dissenters, filling crucial personnel positions with loyalists and confidants. “Xi Jinping Thought” has already been formally enshrined in the Chinese constitution—a privilege accorded to previous Chinese leaders only after they had left office. Last year, the National People’s Congress voted (2,958–2) to remove the constitution’s presidential term limits, all but guaranteeing that Xi will serve for as long as he can effectively wield power. Xi is already the most important Chinese leader since Mao, and he holds the whip hand over China’s future.

For a glimpse of that future, look to Xinjiang province, where more than 1 million Chinese Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic minority, have been detained without legal recourse in what the Chinese government calls “vocational training centers.” This network of camps constitutes part of China’s larger gulag archipelago, which is spread throughout the country, and which detains political dissidents, journalists, lawyers, religious believers, and other persons inconvenient to the regime. Prisoners who have escaped from Xinjiang’s camps report that Chinese officials attempt to force detainees into loyalty pledges or apostasy, sometimes through torture. Women have reported sexual abuse and coerced abortion.

Beyond the camps, throughout the rest of Xinjiang province—a territory the size of Alaska—some 11 million more Uighurs exist under China’s most exacting surveillance measures. Authorities monitor traffic on wireless networks, record shopping and financial activity, and collect biometric data through iris scanners and facial-recognition technology. The DNA profile of every Xinjiang resident is recorded in a database. An “Integrated Joint Operations Platform” houses and sifts through all of this information to pinpoint suspicious individuals for detention. As Bernhard Zand wrote in Der Spiegel: “Nowhere in the world, not even in North Korea, is the population monitored as strictly as it is in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.”

China’s coercive homogenization has taken its most extreme form in Xinjiang, the situation of which is regularly and appropriately described as “cultural genocide”: Mosques are razed, the traditional language and religion are destroyed, and all vestiges of independence are obliterated. Beijing intends to erase the Uighurs as a distinct people; even the name Xinjiang, which means “New Frontier,” is a Chinese imperialist coinage. What is happening there is extreme, but not unique. The same motivation underlies the “reunification” efforts aimed at Taiwan, Tibet, and Hong Kong. Bringing these areas to heel is a central part of the Chinese project; from Beijing’s perspective, anything less is a transgression against China’s unity.

Nor does the rest of mainland China get a reprieve. China’s domestic-security agencies already employ an expansive network of surveillance tools to target tens of millions of “key individuals”: not only paroled criminals and known drug users, but the mentally ill, government petitioners, and religious believers. WeChat, China’s most popular messaging service, is routinely monitored, as are certain other mobile applications, such as the popular selfie-editing app Meitu. China’s social-credit system, which is expected to become active nationwide next year, is being used to curtail travel: In 2018, more than 150 “severely discredited” individuals were banned from air and rail travel because of infractions such as “trying to take a lighter through airport security, smoking on a high-speed train, tax evasion and not paying fines,” the South China Morning Post reported. Beijing claims that it has partially restricted travel for millions more.

For China’s ruling class, technological totalitarianism is an indispensable instrument of its long-term survival. “The days when the Party eyed the internet with fear and anxiety are long gone,” Kai Strittmatter, the former Beijing correspondent for the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, wrote in his book, We Have Been Harmonized: “The CCP believes it can use big data and artificial intelligence to create steering mechanisms that will catapult its economy into the future and make its apparatus crisis-proof. At the same time, it intends to create the most perfect surveillance state the world has ever seen.”

Beyond its borders, China is consolidating power through a careful deployment of more traditional tools: diplomatic engagement, economic investment, and military muscle. The centerpiece of its global ambitions is the Belt and Road Initiative. The project hearkens back to the transcontinental Silk Road that, from the Han Dynasty in the third century b.c. until the Crusades, connected Eastern and Western markets. Through massive infrastructure projects—for example, the 1,900-mile China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which would link the far-western Chinese interior to the Chinese-controlled port in Gwadar, Pakistan—China is creating a unified network of overland and maritime corridors, and establishing control over its key choke points.

The ambition of the BRI is staggering: “As of October 2019, the plan touches 138 countries with a combined Gross Domestic Product of $29 trillion and some 4.6 billion people,” according to the China Power Project at the Center for International and Strategic Studies—nearly a third of the world’s combined GDP, and more than three-fifths of its population. Kevin Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, summarized the implications in an address at West Point in 2018: “The bottom line is this: In both reality and in perception, China has already become a more important economic partner than the United States to practically every country in wider East Asia. We all know where the wider strategic logic takes us. From economic power proceeds political power, from political power proceeds foreign-policy power, and from foreign-policy power proceeds strategic power. That is China’s strategy.”

If this is China’s strategy, then the obvious question should be: What’s ours?

I’ve suggested elsewhere that resisting China’s expansionist ambitions will require a far-flung strategic reorientation for a new era of Great Power competition. We need to be preparing for an age of hybrid warfare, where combat takes place at least as much over digital networks as on battlefields. Our national-security apparatus must be reorganized to enhance our intelligence about crucial threats and to streamline our ability to respond quickly and effectively. We need a comprehensive cybersecurity strategy that focuses on offensive operations just as much as defensive operations.

The Cyberspace Solarium Commission, which Representative Mike Gallagher and I modeled after President Dwight Eisenhower’s Solarium Commission, has brought public- and private-sector experts together in a first step toward formulating such a strategy. We need to leverage transparency against the black-box machinations of Beijing, expanding our use of the U.S. Agency for Global Media and other resources already at our disposal in order to expose corruption in the ranks of the CCP and bolster pro-reform forces in China. And we need to prioritize the development of institutions and multilateral alliances, especially in the Pacific, that can hem China in. Forging alliances that go beyond traditional structures—for example, partnerships around technological infrastructure and common economic projects—should be an integral part of this effort.

But we need to go deeper. The challenge that China presents is not simply political, or economic, or military—it is, at the extreme, civilizational. China is advancing a new model of rule, a new model of how human beings can and ought to live together. That model is not only different from ours; it could be fatal to it. We need to recognize this, and square up to it.

So far, we’ve responded incoherently.

While political leaders have begun to discuss China’s various abuses, many corporate leaders continue to ingratiate themselves to Beijing. In October, the National Basketball Association capitulated to Chinese censors, rather than stand by one of the league’s general managers who tweeted support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters. If American companies want access to China’s enormous consumer base, then they have to comply with Beijing’s demands. American companies are no longer exporting American values into China; rather, China is now using American companies to enforce its own tenets here at home. If the NBA is willing to order one of its employees to shut his mouth in Houston because there’s money to be made in Shanghai, whose “National” Basketball Association is it?

And the NBA is far from alone. Tech companies have worked on censorship tools for Chinese use—projects that, given China’s penchant for intellectual-property theft, are more likely to threaten those companies’ security than the Communist Party’s. A number of American companies are clamoring for federal permission to export their wares to the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, even after that outfit and dozens of its affiliates were rightly added to the Department of Commerce’s Entity List in May. Huawei is a stalking horse for one of Beijing’s other key exports, espionage, but its would-be suppliers either do not understand, or do not care.

If the short-term transnationalism that Beijing offers largely defines the current status quo, we need to understand the long-term implications of the CCP’s efforts to cow or even co-opt the Fortune 500.

What we are lacking is a common vision that can guide American decision making at every level, in every sector, from the halls of Congress to corporate boardrooms. We need a common identity that can ground common purposes. We don’t—and let’s be absolutely unmistakable about this—need an imposition from on high; we don’t need our own “Xi Jinping Thought.” Instead, we need to rediscover precisely what joins us together in liberty and national solidarity, the principles that distinguish us from the coercive vision of the apparatchiks abroad.

The first and most essential principle is this: The United States is committed to the inviolable and inherent dignity of every human being. We continue to hold to the American creed written in our Declaration of Independence: that all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights. The Chinese government believes no such thing. It will run roughshod over the basic mandates of justice, if doing so serves the agenda of the party—whether that means prohibiting families from having more than one child, or harvesting organs from Falun Gong prisoners to be sold to the wealthy, as an independent panel recently alleged. The catalog of China’s grave human-rights abuses grows every day, stretching from Xinjiang in the northwest to Hong Kong in the southeast.

We are committed to living in a constitutional republic governed by a rule of law that applies to everyone equally, regardless of color or creed, sex or station. Today’s China, by contrast, is a pseudo-constitutional oligarchy, run by a ruling class of party insiders for their own ultimate benefit, with a system of law available only to favored classes, which is weaponized against any whom the party deems dangerous.

And we are committed to a market economy that encourages individual enterprise, enables workers to reap the fruits of their labors, and is secured by strong private-property rights. Today’s China dictates its economy, distributes profits according to the whims of the party, confiscates property without recourse, and adjudicates disputes to the benefit of the more powerful and better-connected.

We can summarize the contradiction this way: The United States strives without end to realize a nation of free persons, while today’s China is struggling to perfect Friedrich Engels’s vision of an “administration of things.” Only one of these systems attempts to honor and respect the basic dignity of human beings, and only one of them aims to facilitate the flourishing of every individual, family, and community.

The fact that we are struggling to hold fast to these principles and commitments against the temptation of Chinese money or might is one more demonstration of an American crisis of confidence that has been unfolding for a long time. The fact that many American citizens—especially those who occupy boardrooms and corner offices—no longer see themselves as American citizens, with a responsibility to defend our principles and values even if it puts a dent in their bottom line, is alarming. But it’s a much wider problem: A lot of us are uneasy about those ubiquitous made in china stickers, in part because we know that a lot of conveniences would be more difficult, or expensive, to come by if the global situation changed suddenly—which is perhaps why we’re willing to ignore just how much of the Chinese economy depends on slave labor. And we know, too, that the “American way” is hardly flawless. We have high ideals, and we continue to fall well short of them, and that’s not only embarrassing—it shakes our resolve.

But we should think twice before we trade what we have downriver for cheaper iPhones and plasma screens. The American inheritance and the American promise are both precious and precarious. If we don’t defend them vigorously, no one else will.

Moreover, there are reasons to be encouraged. China’s global hegemony is not a fait accompli. China’s ongoing trade war with the U.S. has encouraged manufacturers to relocate to other shores—a much-needed redistribution of global supply chains that have grown too dependent on Chinese largesse. Meanwhile, the first half of 2019 saw record capital flight, suggesting that many wealthy Chinese anticipate troubled months, or years, ahead. We should not ignore that despite the country’s impressive economic growth, China’s per capita GDP sits at just $10,000—slightly more than one-fifth the average of the world’s advanced economies, and just barely topping the performance of Bulgaria and Kazakhstan. And, when it comes to long-term projections, many observers maintain that China is sitting on a demographic time bomb, its population rapidly aging.

China faces genuine political turmoil, too. Since June, Hong Kong residents have been protesting for the return of their freedoms, and in November, 2.9 million Hong Kong voters swept pro-Beijing councilmen out of all but one of the city’s 18 district councils. This staggering symbolic rebuke surprised leaders in Beijing, who, like the Soviet Politburo of yesteryear, seem to be more and more cloistered in a pro-regime echo chamber. A few days later, after President Trump signed into law the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, thousands of Hong Kong protesters took to the streets, waving the American flag and singing the American national anthem.

China has similarly struggled as Taiwanese politics continue to become more independence minded: In 2016, the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which has favored a harder line against Beijing, not only won the presidency but took control of Taiwan’s national parliament, displacing the Beijing-friendly Kuomintang for the first time in Taiwan’s brief history. China’s authoritarian model may turn out to be more vulnerable than it has seemed, and the masters in Beijing not as sure-handed as they make out, despite their widespread efforts to meddle in Taiwanese politics and media.

But the U.S. should not depend on good luck. The end of the Cold War promised an era of global peace, presided over by benevolent American power. Three decades later, that precedence is being challenged, and if China has been rattled of late, it has weathered worse shocks. Xi Jinping and the bosses of the Communist Party have a vision of a new world—with China once again at the center—and they are working toward that goal, with patience and confidence. With the help of rapid technological advances, China is exacting more precise control over every inch of domestic life; through the ambitious deployment of diplomatic, economic, and military resources, it is assuming control of global trading and military passages; and by carefully managing access to Chinese markets, it seeks to turn American companies into de facto subsidiaries of the Communist Party. China is engaged on every front to force the U.S. into retreat—and, ultimately, to supplant America as the world’s leading power.

The United States does not have a coherent China strategy. Leaders in the public and private sectors must develop one now. We need to be preparing for an age of hybrid warfare, where digital, economic, information, and political assets are as vitally important to strategic success as military firepower. Our intelligence agencies and military services must be able to play offense and defense across each of these domains. Where possible we need to partner with others—governments, nongovernmental organizations, and investigative journalists—to expose the CCP’s corruption and brutality and to empower reformers.

America’s menu ought to be wide-ranging and, at times, unconventional. If we don’t engage in creative statecraft and the status quo continues, China’s model will succeed and we will be beaten without firing a shot. It’s immediately clear that a few things ought to be at the front and center of a national deliberation.

America ought to redouble our counterintelligence efforts to match the threat we face and to expose the strings attached to CCP money so that none can plead ignorance. We did this in the Cold War with the Soviet Union; we have not yet done so with China. We need to design our military’s next generation of weapons systems to counter the People’s Liberation Army’s strengths and exploit its weaknesses. We ought to develop a trans-Pacific defense alliance among the United States, Australia, and Japan, with an eye toward potential hot spots like Hong Kong, Taiwan, and North Korea. Where the NATO model works, what can we learn? Where it doesn’t, how do we adapt?

If Beijing is going to use its market power as a tool of statecraft to secure diplomatic concessions from private American companies (and by extension from American citizens), the federal government must encourage the development of market incentives to keep American companies diplomatically aligned with American interests. We need options that encourage private-sector preference for the free and human-rights-respecting world. Leaders in C-suites and in the Situation Room ought to consider contracts with companies like Nokia and Ericsson as business opportunities and strategic alliances.

America ought to lead an international coalition to establish automatic sanctions to protect peoples and geographies that the Chinese Communist Party considers roadblocks (Uighurs, Hong Kong, Taiwan). Everything belongs on the table.

The future is never settled: China’s rise is not fated, nor is the United States’ success. Two things are certain: First, the Chinese Communist Party seeks to be the world’s sole superpower and is advancing an agenda that systematically denigrates human dignity; second, human flourishing depends on the constant rejection of totalitarianism. As a nation founded on the idea of human dignity, the responsibility to counter China’s ambitions falls to us.

It’s time for the U.S. to reassert its own vision, and to be prepared to defend it, with just as much patience and confidence.