The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the case of conflict with China, check your Cold War analogies

How China in 2021 is similar to — and different from — the Soviet Union

President Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. (Alex Brandon/AP; Eraldo Peres/AP)
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President Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, are scheduled to hold a virtual summit on Monday. The White House has framed this as an attempt to manage an increasingly competitive relationship and has denied that the United States and China are heading into a new Cold War.

Nevertheless, the Cold War analogy shadows much of today’s discussions of Sino-American relations. Perhaps the most important question in this debate is whether China poses an ideological challenge akin to the one once presented by the Soviet Union.

It is rare that a debate over a historical analogy sits at the center of contemporary foreign policy. And yet this not simply an academic dispute. Rather, the question carries significant implications for American national security.

The claim that China is less driven now than the Soviet Union was then to impose an ideological model on other countries has helped justify arguments that Beijing poses less of a challenge to democracies and is therefore less deserving of full-fledged systemic competition to defend open societies and individual rights. On the other hand, the claim that today’s China has wholly adopted Moscow’s old Cold War playbook overstates similarities in their approaches to spreading Marxist ideology, misdiagnoses the threat to liberal democracy and obscures what Beijing is actually attempting to accomplish.

Cold War comparisons work only with a clear understanding of how the Soviet Union attempted to export its ideology and impose its system of governance on countries around the world. Armed with that history, democracies can accurately see how the Soviet Union mirrored — and departed from — today’s China and better respond to Beijing’s challenge.

The Soviet Union’s goal was remarkably consistent: the violent overthrow of existing capitalistic governments and their replacement with communist regimes. From the outset, this goal was grounded in a Marxist ideology that aspired to be global in its reach. As early as 1850, German philosopher Karl Marx declared that “it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent,” with workers conquering state power “not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world.”

This formed the basis of the Marxism-Leninism revolutionary ideology forged 70 years later when the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia. Speaking in 1920, the leader of Soviet Russia, Vladimir Lenin, declared his belief that the Russian Revolution “will be a lasting victory only when our undertaking will conquer the whole world, because we had launched it exclusively counting on the world revolution.” To carry this out, Moscow used traditional diplomacy and, simultaneously, subversive measures meant to destabilize, control and eventually overthrow foreign governments.

The attempt to spread communism abroad began in earnest after World War I, when Lenin created the Communist International, better known as Comintern. This was an organization controlled by Moscow that operated on a covert basis and promoted the line that Moscow dictated. In discussing how to co-opt trade unions, Lenin said communists should be willing to “resort to every kind of trick, cunning, illegal expedient, concealment, [and] suppression of truth.”

Similar strategies were fundamental to spreading propaganda abroad, organizing parties sympathetic to communists, funding influential political figures, infiltrating and co-opting mass movements, and identifying and training cadres of future foreign leaders. Taken together, these methods were intended to undermine public faith in non-communist regimes across the globe, ultimately leading to their overthrow and the installation of new governments willing to follow Moscow’s orders.

In the aftermath of World War II, the Soviets put this into practice in Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria — nations that remained ostensibly independent but with restrictions on all policies and military capabilities that might threaten the USSR. In these countries, Moscow attempted to impose key elements of its own authoritarian system, including the creation and use of secret police, government control of the media, the evisceration of civil society and the imposition of a planned economy. As historian Anne Applebaum has written, local communist parties, aided by their Soviet allies, “would attempt to eliminate all independent organizations; recruit followers into state-run mass organizations instead; establish much harsher controls over education; [and] subvert the Catholic and Protestant churches.”

The Soviet system was more than just a philosophy about how the world worked. It was a series of policies meant to enhance centralized planning, hasten the collectivization of private property and the industrialization of the nation, and establish the dominance of a Leninist party-state. And it was a series of practical techniques and methods aimed at establishing total control of the state.

Though there were always some hard-liners in the Kremlin who believed that it was necessary to replicate the Soviet model in its entirety, most Soviet rulers were more pragmatic — holding a core set of beliefs about the inevitable demise of capitalism while taking advantage of local conditions to ensure different countries recognized Moscow’s authority and fell in line. The aim was twofold for Moscow’s leaders: They sought to prove the superiority of their system and undermine the capacity of their opponents to resist it.

The Soviet Union was ultimately unsuccessful in persuading countries to adopt its approach to Marxism-Leninism. After the mid-1960s, it was clear that only the few countries that employed extreme measures of control and radical reordering of society, such as North Korea and Cambodia, were able to implement and maintain systems most ideologically consistent with the Soviet approach. But Soviet inspiration and influence did echo throughout much of the Cold War, particularly in how many other countries adopted quasi-socialist, nondemocratic systems that were viewed as responses to national conditions and not as the imposition of a foreign system or ideology.

There are important differences between the Soviet and Chinese models. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not driven by a missionary impulse to spread Marxism, nor to install mini-CCPs in countries around the world. Rather, Beijing seeks to legitimize its own authoritarian model of governance as a tool to achieve the CCP’s true driving purpose of power, security and global influence for China and for the party. But such differences should not lead analysts to discount the ideological challenge posed by Beijing’s unique approach.

The Communist Party wants to undermine faith in democratic governments and popularize China’s authoritarian model, which Xi, China’s president, has called a “contribution to mankind.” Xi and other Chinese leaders now frequently portray China’s economic success as proof that the road to prosperity no longer runs through liberal democracy. This message is highly attractive to leaders who hope to achieve economic success without answering to the demands of democratic societies.

Promoting a country’s “right” to be ruled by a nondemocratic regime is clearly different from forcibly installing autocratic leaders around the world, Soviet-style. But the CCP’s increasingly full-throated promotion of authoritarianism as a superior governance model presents no less of an ideological challenge to democracy, particularly when paired with China’s actions that bolster authoritarian resurgence and weaken democracies around the world. Entities linked to China’s party-state are exploiting and exacerbating weak governance in fragile democracies, reducing political accountability and offering would-be autocrats the tools and training to repress and monitor their citizens.

In short, Beijing is popularizing its system while undermining democratic processes and bolstering illiberal actors. The CCP’s methods may be different, but its ideological challenge to liberal democracy is ultimately just as potent as that once posed by the Soviet Union.