Tensions between China and the U.S in the last few years have produced so much newsworthy material that it is vain to attempt to summarize the main events here: trade wars, Hauwei, coronavirus, travel bans, Hong Kong, and now there is talk of Cold War — a whole lot of drama and hype. Suffice it to say that the U.S. now views China as a national security threat. This is the context for much of the anti-China rhetoric that populates the American political discourse on both the left and the right, despite superficial differences. What are the underlying causes of this antagonism?
The global order has been characterized for years now, ever since the Breton Woods arrangements after World War I, by American leadership and thus American values. America is not merely one nation among others. Although nationalist rhetoric and Westphalian ideology make for the convenient appearance of a mere multitude of equal and collaborative nations, balancing and counter-balancing each other in a healthy laissez-faire system of separation of powers, forming one global system, nonetheless, as Adam Tooze reminds us, the political reality is that the world has long been dominated by a single power: the United States, not a mere nation, but a global empire, a true world government.
The American political and economic order, on its global as well as domestic scale, is governed by ideology. I don’t mean the alternate ideologies of competing political groups or factions (e.g. conservative or progressive), which compete for power within a supposedly neutral public sphere, like so many competitive merchants on the free market. It turns out that the market itself, i.e. the anarchy of the public square, is deliberately intended and dogmatically enforced by a largely American aristocracy. Free trade is but the global dimension of this enforced anarchy. The ideological or doctrinal assumption behind this order is that only such a pluralistic anarchy, in which the individual forces of capitalist production were totally freed from the mechanisms of political control, could produce wealth and the liberation of libidinal desire for all the peoples of the civilized world.
Of course, not only was this assumption undermined by the fact that anarchy itself was politically enforced by a hegemonic American power, but also by the fact that the production of wealth and the liberation of desire have come only at the cost of severe exploitation of workers, third world countries, and the environment. This latter fact uncovers the uncomfortable truth that liberalism has failed. The political program of the maximization of individual and productive liberties, set free to compete on the anarchic market, has not yielded the widespread abundance and social well-being that it promised, but only repression and alienation.
In the meantime, as the liberal order creaks with age and decrepitude, an illiberal power has risen in the East, taking full advantage of the opportunity to depict the liberal order as the failure it is, and to portray itself as the new harbinger of global abundance. The Chinese regime sees the failures of the American liberal order with a clear eye, while leading China itself to a position of wealth and power that now rivals America’s own longstanding claim to first place among the nations. China thus stands as a threat, not merely because China is a competitive threat to America’s dominance on the world market, but because China is not a liberal regime. China’s illiberal Confucianism prizes order and hierarchy above the anarchy of the market and the liberal “rights of man,” and holds its citizens up to a high standard of spiritual and moral excellence, rather than leaving them to the freedom of their libidinal desires. The leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are not reticent to voice their criticism of the liberal order and its failures, and to uphold the authoritarian model of Chinese governance as a much more promising alternative for the promotion of human well-being, both material and spiritual. In this way, as Tanner Greer writes, China stands as a threat to the ideological legitimacy of the American liberal empire.
For years, American pundits have predicted that China’s “opening” to Western capitalism would lead to the acceptance of Western liberal democratic ideology, and the establishment of liberal forms of governance in China itself. “Regime change” has always been the hope and expectation that the West has held forth for countries on the fringes of the American empire. But China’s recent growth and rise to power has consistently disproved those hopes. The era of Xi Jinping in particular has demonstrated how China has only harnessed the tools which it acquired from Western capitalism for ends that are entirely foreign to Western values. China consistently demonstrates how liberalism is not the only path to progress and abundance, a lesson which is only more painfully evident in the face of liberalism’s many present day failures, which stand in sharp contrast next to China’s illiberal successes. To state the matter plainly once again, it is the ideological legitimacy of liberalism that is under increasing threat from China’s rise.
This is no small matter. It gives the U.S. every motive to undermine China’s doctrinal illiberalism, in a desperate attempt to preserve American legitimacy. In other words, it gives the U.S. every motive to propagandize, to discredit and attack the legitimacy of China through the use of all the instruments of propaganda and ideological control that the U.S. has at its disposal. The recent mobilization of the U.S media against China is something magnificent to behold, as it transgresses even the traditional polarizations and divisions between the left and right extremes of the American political spectrum. American media is now constantly on the lookout for every misstep, every mistake, every abuse, every sign of China’s impending collapse, in an effort to demonstrate the unsustainability of China’s authoritarian and illiberal model.
And to be sure, much abuse and misuse of power will be and has been uncovered in China. It can’t be denied that, as with any major power, Chinese society and politics are fraught with many serious dysfunctions, not least of which is the deeply unsettling persecution of the Uighur population in Xinjiang. Nevertheless, without intending to dismiss the significance of such dysfunctions, it is important to recognize the U.S.’s motives in the current tensions. Those motives are far deeper than the risk of a merely military or economic threat. Rather, they penetrate to the very essence of America’s soul, its spiritual and moral identity. It is in the U.S.’s interest to preserve not only its position as the dominant global superpower, the seat of a world empire, but also the legitimacy of liberalism as the ideology which it proposes to the world — its doctrine of state. This mission is truly theological, in the sense defined by Adrian Vermeule: liberalism is a religion, the liberal aristocracy is its church (indeed, a near perfect inversion of the Catholic religion). It is the evangelical interest of that church to maintain its doctrinal sovereignty over the world, even by crusade if necessary.