The American and Chinese flags are seen during a promotional event in Beijing. (AFP/Getty Images) (AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images)

At a foreign policy forum last week, State Department Director of Policy Planning Kiron Skinner made some controversial remarks about the “unique challenge” posed by China. In another TMC post today, Steven Ward points out that referring to China as “the first time that we will have a great power competitor that is not Caucasian” is both wrong and dangerous.

But Skinner’s remarks went beyond race. She said the competition with China is “a fight with a really different civilization and a different ideology and the U.S. hasn’t had that before.” That’s not true. The United States has faced numerous ideological adversaries — think Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. But putting that aside, this characterization still gets China more wrong than right. Here’s why.

1. China has no coherent, universal ideology

Many China scholars call the Chinese Communist Party ideologically bankrupt. The People’s Republic of China is a nominally Communist state that embraced capitalism after Communist policies led to famine and a “Cultural Revolution,” killing tens of millions of Chinese citizens.

Under Mao Zedong, China did proclaim a universal ideology that it tried to export, competing with the Soviet Union for which Communist power had the superior doctrine. After China began to reform and open up after Mao’s death, Chinese officials stressed that China’s development path is unique, dismissing suggestions that others should follow its experience.

Since becoming general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and China’s president in 2013, Xi Jinping has floated the idea that the Chinese example could better other societies. At the 19th Party Congress in 2017, Xi stated that China’s modernization path “offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” But Xi qualified this suggestion in December 2017, telling a high-level forum of visiting leaders that “we will not ‘import’ a foreign model, nor will we ‘export’ a China model, nor ask others to ‘copy’ Chinese methods.”

2. Exporting technology is not exporting ideology

China’s export of digital surveillance technology has alarmed many U.S. observers, who worry about a new battle between liberal democracy and digital authoritarianism. Primarily driven by domestic fears of social unrest and an aggressive crackdown and forced assimilation campaign in its western Xinjiang province, China has invested in high-tech surveillance and censorship methods — technologies that are then easier for other governments to adopt.

Yet the effects of these technologies are still being disentangled. Cameras can replace more brute-force methods of surveillance, as in Ecuador, which installed a surveillance system with China’s help. But as the New York Times reported, many Ecuadorans complain that the system isn’t effective against crime, given that there aren’t enough local personnel to monitor the footage or respond to crimes caught on camera. In China, access to better technology has not led to more confident policing. And the new Ecuadoran administration has been investigating the previous administration’s abusive use of its system, including inviting the Times to review its records.

In short, technology doesn't magically enable authoritarian-minded governments to control society. Nor is it an easy substitute for good governance. China’s export of “illiberal innovation” is not an effort to install autocracy and undermine democracy overseas.

3. International pressure has shaped China

Skinner said that her office is working on a new “Letter X” policy for dealing with China, based on George Kennan’s “X Article” that set forth principles for containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But Kennan’s logic, laid out in the “Long Telegram,” was premised on the Soviet Union being “impervious” to external influence and the “logic of reason.”

China has not been impervious to international influence, even though political and economic reforms in China have stalled. Some of Washington’s disillusionment may come from high expectations of what it wants to see: democratization on the political side of the spectrum, and the state’s withdrawal from the market on the economic side.

Many U.S. policymakers hoped that engaging with China would lead it to enact economic and even political reforms. But the state has increasingly taken a strong role in the Chinese economy, and Xi Jinping’s leadership has returned the country to more personalist, autocratic rule. As a result, across the U.S. political spectrum, observers have argued that policies of engagement with China have failed and that a new strategy is needed.

But is that true? When American critics say that engagement with China has failed, it’s unclear what alternative (“counterfactual”) policy they had in mind. Forty years ago, China embarked upon a path of what it called “Reform and Opening Up,” and the United States welcomed China into the international economy. U.S. companies seized the opportunity to sell to, buy from, invest in and outsource production to China. Chinese Treasury holdings kept U.S. interest rates low and underwrote a housing boom (and subsequent crisis). And economic growth lifted millions of Chinese out of poverty.

China’s repressive turn and continued state dominance over private enterprise have dashed Western optimism about the prospects for political and economic reform. But saying that China has failed to meet these benchmarks doesn't recognize the incremental — but still real — effects of external influence on China.

Here’s an example. As the U.S. trade deficit with China ballooned, U.S. officials raised public concerns about China’s undervalued currency, the renminbi. Observers debated whether public pressure would be effective or counterproductive in prodding China to appreciate the renminbi. In a new paper in the Review of International Political Economy, Amber Wichowsky and I find that U.S. pressure between 2005 and 2012 was effective when it was concerted — not the administration acting alone, or members of Congress working against the administration.

Numerous other studies have shown that international pressure and economic integration have shaped China’s domestic and foreign policy. Over time and under international pressure, Beijing relaxed its opposition to international intervention in Sudan and Syria and brought the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank closer to international practices concerning multilateral development assistance.

So does the United States face a hardened, ideological adversary in Beijing? Not really. China has been shaped by engagement with the outside world and has no coherent ideology with international appeal. As U.S. policy planners fashion a new strategy for dealing with China, understanding the differences between today’s China and the former Soviet Union will be critical to their success.

Jessica Chen Weiss (@jessicacweiss) is associate professor of government at Cornell University, a Monkey Cage editor and the author of Powerful Patriots: Nationalist Protest in China’s Foreign Relations (Oxford University Press, 2014).