What is China debating? To cooperate with Washington or to prepare for the struggle against US imperialism?

The transformation in America’s attitude towards the People’s Republic of China since the Trump-era has been described as ‘dramatic’ in political circles.

The transformation in America’s attitude towards the People’s Republic of China since the Trump-era has been described as ‘dramatic’ in political circles. In the PRC, on the other hand, there has been a noticeable shift in opinion about America. Scholars in China are fiercely debating what is causing more and more educated and affluent urban populace to become less and less aware of the US hegemony.    

In a speech delivered at the All China Organizational Work Conference on July 3, 2018 (the full text of the long speech has been released in a section of Chinese media last Sunday) – apparently on the occasion of the ninety seventh anniversary of the foundation of the Communist Party of China (CCP) – General Secretary Xi while emphasizing on the crucial role of ideology, said: “Ideology and theory are the soul, and system construction is the guarantee.” However, if the fierce, intense debate on the strategic US designs currently engulfing the country’s intelligentsia is any indication, the country or the party’s ideological soul seems to be shifting towards “pro-Americanism.”   

Before President Xi was to leave for San Francisco, the country’s intelligentsia was engaged in intense debate whether their top leader should be traveling to the US and meet with President Biden; with some Chinese scholars even characterizing the Biden-Xi meeting as “chicken-duck dialogue.” Now that President Xi is back from San Francisco – contrary to the official media, a section of China’s intelligentsia has declared the visit a failure and even warned the Chinese people to “prepare for war” with America. Polarizing debate in China is even more sharply split between whether to “cooperate for China-US friendship” or to “engage in ideological struggle against the US hegemony.”

Prior to Washington launching a “trade war” on China in early 2018, for decades the political elite in the United States genuinely believed that trade, investment, and increased peoples exchange with China could make the People’s Republic become “freer” and “more like the liberal West.” In contrast, following first under Trump and then Biden, anti-China trade restrictions and ongoing tech war, “decoupling” and “de-risking” in the past five years – not to forget Covid-19 induced “isolate China” attitude and “China plus one” supply chain strategy,” it is puzzling to see scholars in China clueless on how pro-American and anti-hegemonic voices in contemporary China are gaining in popularity.      

In a recent commentary, Zhang Zhikun, well-respected and widely known in China’s intellectual circles, the current affairs columnist has expressed shocked at the expanding urban-based social foundation of pro-American forces in contemporary China. Undoubtful of the existence and increasing influence of pro-American public opinion in today’s China, and wondering on the “magical” nature of the opinion “battle” focusing on how to characterize the political role of America today, Zhang Zhikun raises a key question: which voices are going to be a crucial factor in determining contemporary China’s strategic orientation – pro-American or anti-hegemonic.

Interestingly, in recent years more Chinese scholars – foreign affairs analysts in general and experts on US and on China-US relations in particular – have been advocating reasons for 1) why the social foundation for pro-American forces is getting consolidated and 2) why some Chinese erroneously believe that the United States targets China as its main threat and rival due to its (American) strategic misjudgment, strategic misunderstanding, and overall misjudging of China. But how does one identify the pro-America voices? Zhang Zhikun offers three simple types: those who say Beijing must maintain (friendly) Sino-US relations; those who firmly stand on   the US side at all times and on everything; and, those who believe in and accept everything the US says as ideological and theoretical weapons.

Opinion-debates on the formation of the social foundation of the gradually expanding pro-America voices in contemporary China reveal class attributes as one of the important factors. Other causes being “remnant of feudalism,” “liberalism,” and “capitalist market forces.” Recently, a digital platform blog post signed under the name, Genghis Khan, has claimed “over the past forty years of reform and opening up, American power and influence have continued to expand and deepen in Chinese society.” The blog nearly echoes what Zhang Zhikun has been advocating, i.e., the widespread and serious existence of pro-American public opinion fully proves that there are powerful pro-American and pro-Western forces in China today.      

Furthermore, the blog offers five additional factors – besides the already mentioned America misjudging China factor, to underscore why many Chinese people do not believe the United States will target China in the future. These factors are namely 1) not understanding the strategic determination of the US empire; 2) a serious lack of assessment of a large-scale war between China and the United States; 3) underestimating the degree to which American power and influence have continued to expand and deepen in Chinese society; 4) the degree and extent to which the US imperial interference is present in the Taiwan issue; and 5) the strategic fascination with the US has made quite many people in China less vigilant towards US imperialism.      

A mention must be made of how it is the leftist intelligentsia in particular that   continues to tirelessly “propagate” in order to expose “illusions” the United States has been deliberately creating that since June this year China and the US have definitely succeeded in achieving an uptick in the bilateral relations. In an article some time ago, Li Guangman, a senior researcher with the popular “radical left” digital platform kunlunce.com, wrote: “Recently, there has been a trend in Chinese public opinion that Sino-US relations have broken the ice.” It is definitely the US which is behind this trend because it (the US) is stepping up preparations for war against China, especially creating conflicts in the South China Sea, Taiwan Strait, and the Korean Peninsula, Li contended.    

At another level, it may appear to be bizarre but it is no doubt rather puzzling that at a time when the world media and China experts are alerting us of Xi’s China – especially since the 20th CPC Party Congress held last year in October – has markedly shifted away “from institutionalism toward a strongman ideology,” the country’s (left) intelligentsia is seriously concerned about the loss of ideology among growing numbers of Chinese people. To further add to this riddle, contrast the claim by some Chinese scholars that increasing numbers of Chinese are embracing the US created disillusion that “US will let go of China easily” with Xi declaring in a speech five years ago amid domestic criticism China has messed up its messaging over a trade dispute with the United States that China’s propaganda work has been “absolutely correct” and those who work in the field should be trusted.

To sum up, as if trying to make a wake-up call to those Chinese who naively believe – unlike the Americans – that since China is the world’s second largest economy, it is alright for China to become pursuer to number one position by displacing America, a popular social media blogger and researcher Hu Maoren recently warned people to “stop imagining that the US will stop suppressing China.” Citing President Biden’s repeated statements that the United States will always be the boss, Hu further added: “Maintaining US hegemony is the lifeblood of the United States. Therefore, no matter what the circumstances, whether China actually surpasses the US or not, whether China is a threat to the United States or not, America will not give up suppressing China.” 

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.