China: Cold war or hot peace?

The culture clash between East and West is complicated by interdependence

This article is taken from our China special issue of The Critic, featuring articles from Patrick Porter, Gary Jones, Paul Raffaele and Oliver Wiseman. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Henry Kissinger has suggested that the west and China are in the “foothills of a new Cold War”. The Chinese scholar Wang Jisi has called the confrontation more of a “hot peace”, a useful term for a strange relationship where both sides are economically interdependent but diverging ever more sharply on questions of global security and human rights. 

For the past four years, the relationship has been defined by two individuals: Xi Jinping and Donald Trump. Xi  has used the period to define a “new era” in which China has become a power with global influence. He has done so with self-confidence, taking terms that the West thought that it owned and redefining them to suit China’s interests. At Davos in 2017, Xi portrayed China as the true upholder of the values of the post-1945 order, a clear dig at the then new US president.

He had already taken a disparate range of Chinese-backed infrastructure projects across the global south and rebranded them as the Belt and Road Initiative, a blueprint compared to the Marshall Plan. And he took a term with huge resonance in the post-9/11 west, counterterrorism, and used it to justify a repression of Hong Kong’s democracy activists, as well as immense numbers of Chinese Uighurs confined in “re-education” camps. If you doubt the importance of Xi’s own personality in pulling this off, try imagining the presentation of these policies in the voice of his ultra-low-key predecessor, Hu Jintao.

After initial admiration for Xi (“the king of China”, as he called him in 2017), Trump ramped up his long-held idea of China as an existential threat to the US. Trump seemed driven by a desire to maximize American power rather than the pursuit of democratic values. While his administration supported the Hong Kong democracy advocates in public (supported by a bipartisan Congress), John Bolton’s memoir revealed that Trump had praised China’s repressive policy toward the Uighurs in private. He also expressed doubt about the longstanding American alliances with Japan and South Korea.

Nonetheless, there was method behind the meltdowns. As the Hoover Institution’s Michael R. Auslin argues in his recent book Asia’s New Geopolitics, “Trump in reality made Asia a centrepiece of his foreign policy,” building a personal relationship with the Japanese premier, Shinzo Abe, while alternating confrontational and cooperative gestures toward China. Trump’s Asian policy was rhetorically jarring and inconsistent, but it was not a wholesale shift in the US attitude toward Beijing. 

Xi has ended term limits for the presidency and placed his own system of thought into the constitution

China’s nationalist newspaper Global Times marked the end of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State in 2013 by blaming her for “severely sabotaging China’s bilateral relations with its neighboring countries”. China’s establishment was not expecting an easy ride from the second President Clinton and was actually briefly heartened by Trump’s election. Had Hillary Clinton won in 2016, her China team’s viewpoint would have been remarkably similar to that of Joe Biden’s eventual China team in 2021: toughening its stance against Beijing while bringing allies on board. 

American disillusionment about engagement with China came from a slow realisation that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was not only failing to become more democratic, but actually moving toward a harsher authoritarianism. Yet it was always an illusion to look for an embryonic liberal democracy in China, even during the post-Mao reforms of the 1980s. Perhaps the closest the country came to such an idea was during the broadcast of River Elegy (Heshang), an astonishing six-part documentary series shown on national television in 1988 that advocated closeness to the US and greater democracy, in undefined terms, as the future for China. 

Many commentators involved with the programme became prominent in the 1989 democracy movement, and fled into exile afterward. However, even the most liberal CCP leaders of the era, such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, were not seeking to establish a multi-party state, as happened in post-1989 Eastern Europe. Instead, their aims were more what the political scientist David Shambaugh has termed “soft authoritarianism”: no relaxation of single-party rule, but the growth of a limited public sphere. This allowed significant economic and personal freedoms, along with limited criticisms of the system, but absolutely no room to throw the governing party out of power.

That model was never entirely consistent nor was it particularly “soft” in western terms — after the Tian’anmen Square killings of 1989, there was a harsh crackdown for several years — but up to the early 2010s, China’s authoritarian model allowed some space for open discussion of sensitive issues. Liberal journals sought constitutional reform, investigative journalism about corruption appeared in newspapers such as Southern Weekend, and a burgeoning “grey zone” for civil society organizations that dealt with everything from environmental protest to the rights of single women.

One particular German thinker has risen in prominence in Beijing’s think-tanks — not Karl Marx, but Carl Schmitt

What changed? Xi Jinping’s centralised control is the most visible aspect of the move from “soft” to “hard” authoritarianism, but some shifts began before Xi came to power. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis made a huge impression on China’s leadership, and gifted a powerful new economic narrative to China. 

Premier Wen Jiabao was vocal in his view that the west had failed as a guardian of the world’s economic system, and that China would take a different path. In fact, China’s economic response was hardly outside the mainstream — a sort of turbocharged Keynesianism that created huge amounts of credit (and debt) that was then used, in many cases rather impressively, to build massive numbers of skyscrapers, airports, and a high-speed rail network. China had a high savings rate and strong capital controls, both of which added heft to its policy. 

Yet all was not rosy at the top. The leadership crisis of 2012, when a senior CCP politician, Bo Xilai (the party secretary of Chongqing city) tried to seize power, seems to have hardened views in Beijing. The story had astonishingly lurid elements, notably the allegation that Bo’s wife had had a British businessman murdered in a seedy Chinese hotel. Tragic though that was, the bigger story was Bo’s own downfall, with the Politburo terrified that another renegade might act like him and use financial and military connections to try and muscle himself into power. 

A video screen shows the sentencing of Chinese politician Bo Xilai in 2013 in Beijing. He received life imprisonment for bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power

The same year marked the arrival of Xi Jinping at the top of the leadership. Making it clear that he would not tolerate any attempt to undermine him, he targeted the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) early on in his tenure, and over the succeeding decade, has managed to centralise most of the state’s organs under his control. Xi has ended term limits for the presidency, and has even placed his own system of “Xi Jinping thought” into the constitution. The structures of the party allowed him to rise, but there is no doubt that his confident and utterly illiberal personality have enabled him to impose his will in a way that his predecessor Hu Jintao did not.

But the change in atmosphere is not just about top leaders. The intellectual atmosphere of China has become immensely more nationalistic in the past two decades, and it has also moved away from the widely-discussed idea in the 1990s and 2000s that state, rather than party structures, might dominate government. Now there is no doubt that the party, and its writ, must come first.

China-watchers have observed how one particular German thinker has risen in prominence in Beijing’s think-tanks — not Karl Marx, but Carl Schmitt, the Nazi theorist of law whose argument that legal structures are a bourgeois fiction have become immensely powerful in Chinese political thinking: for instance, top law professors at Peking University use his ideas to argue that Hong Kong’s legal structures can and should be adapted to Beijing’s ends. 

Schmitt understood that law is not just a set of rules, but a culture in its own right. And some of China’s most influential thinkers have turned their attention to exactly these questions of culture, and who gets to shape it. Wang Hui, one of the most influential and respected Chinese scholars in the world, has argued that today’s China is best understood as led by a Lenin-like revolutionary personality: the implication is Xi Jinping. 

Carl Schmitt, Nazi theorist, 1930

Figures such as Wang cannot be dismissed as inward-looking or backward. They are multilingual and highly sophisticated thinkers, equally at ease at Harvard as at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, as familiar with the thought of Confucius as with the work of Foucault or Habermas. If there is a new cultural cold war — or as many of them would see it, a division between eastern and western civilizations — it is one where the most prominent Chinese thinkers know both west and east in the original languages and mindsets, while most of the western thinkers access China’s thinking only through limited translations, if at all. 

This emergent cultural confrontation has squeezed out one body of thought in both west and east: liberalism. In the west, ideas central to liberalism — including the recognition of ambiguity, doubt and uncertainty — are under attack from both right and left, yet they retain some space to survive. In China, the space for liberals is now exceedingly small. There are thinkers, such as the philosopher Bai Tongdong (whose 2020 text Against Political Equality is, despite the title, an argument for liberal values in a non-democratic polity) and political scientist Yu Keping (author of the influential and controversial 2006 text Democracy is a Good Thing), who are recognizably liberal, although deeply steeped in Chinese thinking. But their voices are muted. 

The comparison with the Cold War is clearer in the growing intellectual gap between the two sides

The revolt against liberalism in Chinese thinking is heavily influenced by the party-state. In 2013, the Party secretly issued “document number 9”, an edict which declared that concepts such as constitutional democracy, judicial independence, and a free media were off-limits for discussion. 

Since then, political policy and language in China have followed the tone of that document. The official version of nationalism is a top-down ideology unembarrassed about rejecting political or ethnic diversity in anything more than a token form. This has fuelled the crackdowns in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, where regional pride, language, and religion are seen as destructive of Chineseness, rather than creating the kind of complex, plural identity which had defined China over the centuries.

However, these official views are not always unpopular, even with some of the most cosmopolitan thinkers in China. Liu Cixin is perhaps the single most prominent Chinese novelist in the world today, and certainly its leading writer of science fiction. His fantasy The Three Body Problem is a highly ambiguous piece of work, in which Chinese society is portrayed in terms both heroic and deeply compromised.

It is impossible to portray Liu as a propagandist; if he had been, he could not have achieved the acclaim he has deservedly had in the west. Yet he has also been clear that he approves of the Chinese government’s policies in Xinjiang, telling The New Yorker that he regarded the region as a home for terrorists and declaring, “if you were to loosen up the country a bit, the consequences would be terrifying.”

China and the west are not in a “cold war” of the sort that characterised the post-World War Two decades. The two sides have an economic interdependence (American debt held by China, Chinese factories needed by America) much greater than that of the blocs of the earlier era, and their security relationship is plausibly described asWang Jisi’s “hot peace”.

 The comparison with the Cold War is clearer in the growing intellectual gap between the two sides. The original Cold War was a clash of doctrines both of which claimed to be universal, but were incompatible with each other. Both agreed that the primordial, ethnically exclusive nostrums of fascism were illegitimate, but neither could agree that the other side’s version of the Enlightenment was valid either. Yet although the battle of discourses between the liberal world and China has similarities to the Cold War-era political civil war over the Enlightenment, it does not yet match it, because there is a fundamental contradiction within Chinese thinking about its own model. 

China argues that its experience is globally valid, and that societies can succeed if they seek to learn from it on issues such as poverty reduction. But it also argues that China is unique because of its scale and history, and that no other country can imitate it. “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” is, by definition, not a system that can be reproduced elsewhere.

At home the state stresses the renewed relevance of Marxist-Leninist thinking. But it also draws on a Confucian language of “virtue” and “benevolence” which is supposed to underpin a “Chinese wisdom” that benefits the world. At the same time, influential Chinese political thinkers are excited by another idea common to Schmitt and Mao Zedong: that in the world, there are only “friends” and “enemies,” with nothing in between. 

Even Hegel, whose ghost floats through so much of Mao’s writings, might have had difficulty in finding a synthesis for that particular contradiction.

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