Op-Ed: The Global War of Ideas is Back

January 5, 2020

In October, the General Manager of the Houston Rockets basketball team tweeted his support of the protests in Hong Kong. In response, the Chinese government banned the team from China indefinitely. The NBA scrambled to manage relations with China and its American viewers afterward.

Americans stood shocked by China’s swift attempt to bully someone for a tweet, but it is only one part of a larger global effort by the Chinese government to undermine American ideals. The United States needs to take a clear stand for its liberal principles across the world.

The biggest threat today to the dominance of liberal democracy comes from a rising China. As a communist dictatorship, the leadership of China has a strong aversion to the values of liberty and democracy.

In the past few years, China has made a concerted effort to undermine the liberal international order and even provide an alternative to democratic capitalism. It has done so by selling both its authoritarian system of government and state-led economic system. 

Previously, Chinese leaders have asserted that its political model only fits its country and should not be applied to the rest of the world. Yet in the past couple of years, the Chinese government has actively promoted the “China model.” In 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping said that China, “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.”

The Chinese government has also worked hard to promote its political values abroad in recent years. It has pushed its type of dictatorship and hostility to human rights to the forefront of its foreign policy. For example, Chinese propagandists have called freedom of speech “subversive” and an American “weapon,” and even called it a stepping stone to fascism. At the United Nations, China now actively tries to defund any human rights initiatives and insert language that is supportive of the Chinese government. It also builds coalitions of dictatorships to push its agenda in the organization. By doing so, China promotes its authoritarian principles and hurts our human rights initiatives abroad.

The Chinese government has sought to sell its model of digital surveillance to the rest of the world. China is famously pushing to build a “social credit system,” in which every citizen is closely tracked by the government and punished for violating the interests of the state. China now sells both the equipment, such as security cameras, and the management techniques of its surveillance state. According to Freedom House, China has advised 36 countries on how to monitor their citizens online.

The Chinese government even promotes its treatment of ethnic minorities as “more successful” than America’s. In recent years, China has undertaken a brutal campaign in the northwest territory of Xinjiang to place between 1-2 million Uighur Muslims in internment camps. There are reports of physical and psychological torture within the prisons.

Along with advocating for its authoritarian model of government, it is also selling its state-led economic model through the “Belt and Road Initiative.” The program is a gigantic development project and crown jewel of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s foreign policy. Through it, China is investing billions of dollars into developing nations from Southeast Asia to Africa and South America.

The Initiative comes with massive debt obligations, rampant corruption, and predatory economics. Loans attached to Chinese investment often overwhelm nations hoping for an economic boon from the projects. Corrupt local and Chinese officials also receive generous kickbacks to the detriment of those supposed to benefit. If a nation can’t pay back the hefty price tag of these projects, it is often forced to give up strategic assets to the Chinese government.

One telling example is a dam project in Ecuador. The South American nation owes China $19 billion for building infrastructure projects, including an ambitious dam that has never fully worked. In exchange for the nearly useless dam, Ecuador has to sell China 80% of its oil exports and slash social welfare spending. Multiple Ecuadorian government officials are now caught up in bribery allegations regarding the project. 

Taken together, China’s recent behavior demonstrates that it is working to export its political and economic model to the rest of the world with unsettling results. Anyone who cares about the values that Americans cherish at home should be alarmed by the growth of China’s ideology abroad. 

The United States has not faced a greater threat to its ideals abroad since the Cold War. China’s increasing national power makes it an adversary that few Americans are familiar with, and only a bold vision for international leadership can guide the United States through the coming global war of ideas.