Capitalism seems passé these days. In a 2019 survey, only around half of millennials—defined as people born between 1981 and 1996—reported that they have a favorable opinion of capitalism, while nearly the exact same percentage reported a favorable opinion of socialism. And a shockingly large portion—36 percent—said they even hold a favorable opinion of communism.
Perhaps if the poll’s respondents knew more about the record of communism, both past and present, they would have a different view. Indeed, the scourge of communism, which seems so last-century, lingers on in a handful of countries—including the most populous and second-most-powerful country on earth: China. It is baffling how rarely we acknowledge that China languishes under the control of a Marxist-Maoist party. Mainstream American news media have normalized Xi Jinping (as they did his predecessors) by referring to him as “President Xi” and not more fittingly as “General Secretary Xi” or “Chairman Xi.” (Even though president is an official position, referring to him by that title, generally used by the elected leaders of democratic states, takes away from the fact that the Chinese regime is a party-led one.) Colleges and universities have witnessed relatively little anti-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) activism and, in some cases, they are so dependent upon the money they get from Chinese students that they punish students who dare speak out against the odious regime. Hollywood and many American businesses have become lobbyists for the CCP and its propagandists.
Instead of glossing over Chinese communism, the United States should make it a focal point of the geopolitical contest in which we find ourselves. The U.S. relationship with China is very different from the historical U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union—not least in terms of economic enmeshment. At its peak, in 1979, U.S.-Soviet two-way trade reached just $4.5 billion ($16 billion in today’s dollars). In 2018, U.S.-China two-way trade reached about $740 billion.
But like the long U.S. struggle with the Soviet Union, our competition today with China is in part a struggle between two ideologies. The differences between the two political systems are manifold. Americans enjoy unparalleled freedom and democratic institutions while the CCP wields an iron fist of political repression, economic centralization, and an obscene disregard for human rights. The contrast is vivid in the two states’ foreign policies: While the American military is invited to be on its allies’ soils by their democratic governments, Xi Jinping and his cronies have had enough with moderation and are hell-bent on bullying neighbors and imposing a Communist-engineered Sinocentric world order.
A necessary first step toward a more sensible China policy is clarifying our public discussion about the Chinese regime. That will require challenging useful idiots like Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna, who have made careers out of misrepresenting America’s role in the world and the liberal international order, or intellectuals like Thomas Friedman who deem the Chinese system superior. Apologies for communism writ large still occasionally pop up in mainstream publications. We must remember that China is Communist in much the same way the Soviet Union was. If you believe in unelected apparatchiks, extrajudicial killings, persecution of ethnic and religious minorities, rampant state ownership, and coercing other countries far and wide, then communism is for you. If you believe in natural rights, it’s anathema.
We need to do a better job communicating to unwitting observers that China remains Communist. As Michael Pillsbury shows in The Hundred-Year Marathon, the notion that China has parted ways with communism is just a myth—one aggressively promoted by party pooh-bahs.
Look at the economy. It’s true that Beijing has implemented some economic liberalizations since the 1980s. But the CCP still calls the shots. Through enormous state subsidies, it picks winners and losers. Just ask AmCham how hard it is to do business in China and what the costs are. Denying fair market access to foreign companies, as Beijing does as a matter of course, is no sign of capitalism. Those who would say otherwise should ask themselves whether a nation can be non-Communist if about a quarter of its GDP comes from state-owned enterprises.
It’s also true that Beijing has brooked some cultural reforms. The one-child policy is no more, and many millions of Chinese are now allowed to travel abroad each year (including, as noted above, hundreds of thousands who come to study at American universities each year). Yet other draconian Communist policies are alive and well: Consider the forced abortions and sterilizations inflicted on Uighur women in Xinjiang. This is to say nothing of the growing surveillance state, which afflicts the country more generally. This is what Communists have always done, and we should not expect anything different.
The CCP is the same Communist party that killed untold millions during Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward.
It is the same Communist party that massacred students at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
It is the same Communist party whose lies and cover-ups contributed to the worst pandemic in a century.
Those who doubt CCP’s power should read The Party by Richard McGregor. At the end of the day, the party, not the people or any other entity, picks China’s leadership from top to bottom. Upward mobility requires party membership. And the party’s ultimate goal is to protect itself, even at the cost of the Chinese people’s wellbeing and prosperity—evidenced by shrinking economic growth, which has resulted from backtracking on economic liberalization to solidify the party’s rule. China serves the party, not the other way around. Just as in the Soviet Union, the party sets the policy, and the state is a mere administrative instrument of the party.
Deng Xiaoping’s reforms in the 1970s and ’80s took the party away from its founding years and Mao’s vision. The result was a long run of prosperity. Deng made sure that his legacy would live on by handpicking his successors. But things changed once Xi came to power in 2012. General Secretary Xi has decided to return to something resembling Maoist government. Even to the minimal extent that China liberalized economically and politically under Deng, Xi has reversed course. To the extent that Communist ideology had diminished, Xi has sought to restore it. Some of this is a matter of symbolism and rhetoric. He makes a point of wearing a “Mao suit” rather than a Western-style suit on ceremonial occasions. During his message to the Chinese congress on Marx’s 200th birthday, Xi said, “We commemorate Marx in order to pay tribute to the greatest thinker in the history of mankind,” adding, “and also to declare our firm belief in the scientific truth of Marxism.”
Ideological education has returned, too. Susan Shirk observes that “Western textbooks are banned and being replaced with new indigenous versions that emphasize Marxism.”
And even if today’s Communists aren’t as explicitly committed to Marxism-Leninism as their predecessors, that does not mean they’ve forsworn its ills. The Xi-led CCP has the same callous disregard for life and liberty as past iterations of the party. Look no further than the millions around the world who have contracted COVID-19, the disappeared citizens, and foreigners detained on arbitrary charges.
Much of the West’s comparative advantage in the Cold War derived from the moral high ground it occupied. In addition to economic and military clout, the United States and its allies had a far stronger ideological argument than the Communist bloc. The same is true today—just look at immigration: Each year, millions and millions of Asians (including from China), Africans, and Latin Americans try to immigrate to the United States, and almost nobody tries to immigrate to China.
It is also incumbent upon us to distinguish between the Communist party and the Chinese people. In Age of Ambition, Evan Osnos details how entrepreneurial, diligent, and good-hearted the Chinese people are. Surely many of them resent the stranglehold of the CCP on their country. And, as in historical Communist states, some party members may just be trying to make do within a depraved system. What is more, ethnic Chinese living in freedom in Taiwan, Hong Kong (until recently at least), and the diaspora vitiate the CCP’s claim that it alone must rule the Chinese people.
Once Communism is banished to the ash heap of history, those in China will have a chance to realize all the benefits of democracy. Until that day, we should remember the sage advice that Hong Kong democracy activist Martin Lee received from his father: “You can never, ever trust the Communists.”