mead cohen berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn
China Feeling Hemmed In

An interesting piece in the NYT this morning looks at what Chinese leaders see as a dangerous problem of cultural encirclement.  From the lead:

President Hu Jintao of China has said that the West is trying to dominate China by spreading its culture and ideology and that China must strengthen its cultural production to defend against the assault, according to an essay in a Communist Party policy magazine published this week.

President Hu had a lot on his mind.

“We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of westernizing and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration,” Mr. Hu said, according to a translation by Reuters.

“We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond,” he added.

From Hu’s perspective the news on the culture war is not good.

“The overall strength of Chinese culture and its international influence is not commensurate with China’s international status,” Mr. Hu said in his essay, according to another translation.

“The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak,” he said.

There are a lot of obvious ‘freedom is better than censorship’ arguments to be made here, and the Times piece hammers them home.  That is all very well, and I agree that Mr. Hu and his party are among the reasons why Chinese culture isn’t taking the world by storm.  (Totalitarian culture doesn’t have to be boring, by the way.  Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini cut major swathes through the art and culture world in their day.  But the status-quo seeking, money-centered ‘communism’ of contemporary China is going to have a hard time supporting cultural products that the rest of the world cares about.)

But geopoliticians as well as students of culture and democracy should pay attention to Hu’s essay.  It’s a window into the psychology of China’s leadership at a critical time.  The sense of threat, encirclement and danger is real — along with the sense that America is trying to divide, crush and destroy China.

He is not, of course, totally wrong.  Americans generally do believe that a house divided cannot stand, and that the world cannot long endure half slave and half free.  Communism and dictatorship will, we tend to believe, someday fall in China just as they have done in so many other places.

More, our strategy for dealing with communism in China is more or less the same as our strategy for dealing with it in the Soviet Union.  It’s what Lincoln and the Republicans wanted to do to slavery in 1860: keep it from expanding, and wait while the forces of history destroy it from within.

Lincoln then and Americans today don’t think of this as an aggressive strategy. Changing the political structure of China is not on anybody’s to-do list in Washington today.  The CIA isn’t hatching plots to overthrow the Chinese leadership.  Lincoln swore up and down that he wouldn’t abolish slavery where it stood, and would have accepted a constitutional amendment making that position clear.

But Jefferson Davis and his fellow southerners weren’t fooled.  They knew that Lincoln’s program to contain slavery was a plan to destroy slavery and, worse, they were sure it would work.  Cotton exhausted the soil; sooner or later, if slavery couldn’t expand into new territory, plantations wouldn’t pay and when that happened the whole system would fail. Moreover, the North was growing faster than the South; increasingly the South would be outvoted and turned defensively in on itself.

Hu and some of his fellows seem to be thinking like Jefferson Davis.  They believe that America’s project (it isn’t as definite as a plan) to undermine communism in China will work in due course.  They fear the historical forces Francis Fukuyama identified in The End of History, and they fear that those forces march to the tune of the Star Spangled Banner.

Further, they connect (psychologically if not explicitly) America’s geopolitical strategy of balancing power in Asia with the containment policy we practiced against the Soviets.  They see us in India, Japan, Australia, Vietnam and many other places in the region and they see the same kind of geopolitical and geoeconomic web-weaving that hemmed in and ultimately brought down the Soviets.

Americans, contemplating our policies in Asia and our ideological approach to Chinese communism, see us as promoting a stable status quo that ought to appeal to the Chinese.  President Hu and many Chinese leaders see things very differently: the status quo is a dagger aimed at China’s heart. Our very moderation is a sophisticated form of aggression.

This perception gap is something both sides will have to live with, and the ensuing climate of suspicion and hostility is something we will both have to manage. Jefferson Davis, Kaiser Bill and Adolf all decided to fight what they saw as encirclement and containment by hostile powers.  It didn’t work out well for them, but a lot of others were badly hurt in the process as well.

US-China relations are a complicated mix of hostility and mutual dependence. Understanding that mix and managing the relationship in a sustainable way must be a top priority for leaders in both countries.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Kenny

    The Chicoms have an inferiority complex which will eventually lead them to over react.

  • Some Sock Puppet

    I see a war coming. I know I’m a broken record, but jeez, man. When it’s this obvious you try to prepare.

    Iran, and China taking advantage of the situation for a quick and dirty victory to keep the populace happy they tweaked us.

  • Mrs. Davis

    The same post could have been written about the Islamic radicals. The Anglo-American ideology is the greatest revolutionary force in the world. And it is not under the control of the leaders in either country. It’s strength lies in the hearts of the individuals who hold it dear. That is why it is such a threat to centralizing leaders.

    And the ChiComs don’t have an inferiority complex so much as a brief window of opportunity. Within 20 years the average age of the Chinese will be greater than the US. And the GDP per capita will be no where near the US. And the people will know it and know why. Bad news for ChiComs. If they last that long.

  • Estragon

    The “Anglo-American ideology” might have a little more traction if the Anglo-Americans hadn’t moved their industrial plant and much of their money to China in search of the cheapest labor possible, thereby empowering China’s leadership, building up its technical and military base, and producing a bogus consumerist paradise at home. Yes, they think we’re decadent. Maybe they’re on to something.

  • Francis W. Porretto

    What Mrs. Davis above calls “a brief window of opportunity” might be better viewed as a sense of “if not now, never.” Their potency in world markets isn’t nearly as great as we’re often told, but never before have they had economic muscle this close to that of the United States. In other words, the odds might still be against them, but if they wait much longer, those odds will become impossible.

  • Tom

    Decadent, how nice, how many times have I heard that one, the Nazi’s, Soviets, Islamists, etc. But its always the crying about the decadent west that are projecting their own weakness, their own decadence and fear.

  • M. Simon

    “Yes, they think we’re decadent. Maybe they’re on to something.”

    Decadence beat the Soviets. It will defeat the Chicoms.

    Work hard. Party hard.

    China: We will beat your arziz and have fun doing it.

  • Andy Freeman

    > Our very moderation is a sophisticated form of aggression.

    According to the standard Chinese mythology, the west is uncultured, unsophisticated, and basically dumb with no long-term planning capability.

    If that’s true, how can we conceive, let alone execute, such a subtle and long-term plan?

  • Chad


    The Western industrial base can and will move again. When China becomes too unstable, unfriendly, or uneconomical, it’ll move on to Bangladesh, Kenya, or whatever other nation the corporations can safely operate within.

    This simple fact will, of course, not be lost on Hu and his allies and will see it as even more a part of our grand scheme.

  • Kris

    “The same post could have been written about the Islamic radicals.”

    The difference being that the Wahhabis have managed to use their petro-dollars to greatly expand their ideological reach. In the medium term, there’s a race between Muslim fundamentalism on one side and Western “decadence” and developing-world hot Christianity on the other.

    Where’s my end of history, dude?

  • theBuckWheat

    “President Hu Jintao of China has said that the West is trying to dominate China by spreading its culture and ideology…”

    The key for me is just what exactly does Hu mean by “culture” and “ideology”.

    For example, I would be interested to what extent the Chinese Communists (and the ARE communists first) have problems with too much rule of law, and too much insistence on property rights, especially of western intellectual property.

    Or maybe the communist leadership sees that the more prosperous citizens become, the more they will demand a say in how they run the country. Or maybe they are getting tired when uppity citizens object too loudly to local graft and corruption.

    Just askin’.

  • Odah

    decadent.. isn’t china building cities no one is moving into .. and lots of skyscrapers that are empty.

  • Kansas Scott

    Lady Gaga’s stealth power puts the F-35 to shame. There’s nothing quiet or discreet about her act but no matter how many alarms they sound and no matter their level of vigilance, totalitarian states are always stunned when they turn around and their children are being led astray by infiltrators from Elvis to the Stones to Madonna to 2Pac/Tupac to Lady Gaga.

    What annoys western parents destroys state controllers.

  • Tblakely

    The problem with China is their overweening sense of superiority that doesn’t jib with the reality of the past few centuries. They really do think that their culture and history entitles them to be leaders of the world. However they’ve been so effed up for so long that they have a huge chip of their collective shoulders. They really, really want to get some ‘face’ back and most likely that urge will at some point override common sense. The most likely target of course is Taiwan and who knows how that will turn out.

  • PacRim Jim

    Chinese language and culture are of no interest to any country other than the China, because the former is a pain in the brain, while the latter is a brain in pain.
    That will never change.

  • Paul

    Didn’t Chairman Obama say Americans were decadent too?

  • Locomotive Breath

    China. Once so far ahead and now so far behind.

  • werbaz neutron

    Hu is seeking a path to negate his country’s abject failure to solve its problems by “westernizing” its major export production with a fraction of its people, while leaving the rest behind in the dark ages. That will not work and he is terrified that official China now has a tiger by the tail. Failure of their high speed rail is a symptom. Collapse of their exports, along with the Euro will finish the job. It is internal chaos Hu is trying to forestall. (I buried the lead here at the end!).

  • Tom Billings

    The shift in manufacturing has many Chinese seeing us as decadent, and many others. I think they are paying attention at far too coarse a level of action. Within a 10-20 years the beginning of additive manufacturing devices inside the home will massively undercut exactly the markets for the small items that make up the bulk of China’s exports today. People will buy designs off the net, and make the hunks of stuff at home with a combination of 3-d printing and nanotech.

    When that happens, the cultural trends of the next 10 years will have a far more profound effect, because it is that future culture in China that will have to guide China through the transition from an economy dependent on physical exports to one dependent on intellectual exports, …the designs. This will certainly be a major concern of “the Princeling’s Party”. They have set up a system that is dependent already on the world’s “System D economy”, the black market. They can probably see that when China’s sales are mostly designs, then the very lack of IP they have allowed to blossom will keep them from skimming the economy as they do today. It will be worse for tax collecting.

    The only things taxable will be stuff that *must* be made in the old fashion,…like food. They will be back to the revenue source of Imperial China, …rice. Worse yet, as nanotech advances, even food can be made at home. Then where do the old hierarchies skim off what they need and what they want?

    They are right to be worried. They are paniced, though. They are trying to attribute their hierarchy’s future poverty to some foreign power, while they are helping generate the changes themselves, through their backing of Chinese Science and Engineering. We are all coming to the final days of the nation-state, and the blame as who is killing whose government by attacking its culture will be passed around fast and furiously.

  • Scott

    Watch the documentary “How to Brainwash a Nation” on youtube. A former KGB agent who defected to the U.S. in the 1970s describes how the KGB used “ideological subversion” techniques to infiltrate American society (and gave rise to the New Left in the ’60s – and of course the New Left “progressives” now dominate the Democratic Party).

    What China is worried about now are the methods used by the New Left counter-culture revolutionaries who took over academia in America the past 40-50 years ago.

    Here’s the first clip:

  • GFC

    I wonder how many people here gloating over Western cultural power – “Lady Gaga’s stealth power” – identify as Christians? Our power such as it is consists of peddling vice and filth to the rest of the world and hoping other people become as enervated and dissipated as our own. The tools by which we hope to humble foreign powers are the tools we first used to destroy religion and virtue in this country and turned America into Sodom.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    “The sense of threat, encirclement and danger is real — along with the sense that America is trying to divide, crush and destroy China.”
    The American Culture isn’t trying it is doing.
    “Try not. Do or do not!! There is no try” Yoda
    I don’t think the Chinese or any of our trading partners realize where the attack is really coming from. We let them think they are cheating us with currency manipulations, to lure them into the American Global Trading System, which in turn creates a middle class that has aspirations of living as well as the stinking rich Americans. And those aspirations can’t be met without adopting the fundamental values of western culture.
    The thing about a brilliant strategy is that it doesn’t matter if your opponents know what your strategy is, as the strategy is irresistible. If the Chinese or any other culture wants to be as successful as American Culture, they are going to have to adopt the cultural attributes that have made American Culture so successful. It is a waste of time to attempt to reinvent the wheel.

  • Anthony

    Hu Jintau has fairly (from hegemonic aspect) analyzed consequence of American project as it (American project) has facilitated apread of world capitalism; his identifying the elements of soft power as potential threats to ancient Chinese culture reflects not concern for historical forces identified by Francis Fukuyama but realism contained in recognizing doctrine of Harmonic Convergence – widespread consent to the American system.

    From perspective of power politics, Hu Jintao grasps the challenge represented by countering power. The surprise is that essay’s content is publicly available given the complicated mix of mutual dependence in world system.

  • a nissen

    So much knee-jerking, even you WRM.

    If not for #18, it would be unanimous, more war party than discourse.

    Exactly because I sense it’s not the sort of thing that very many of you’d care to believe, I recommend reading (at minimum) the China chapter of N. Klein’s Shock Doctrine. Believed or not, that book instantly, and forever, widens the possibilities one’s mind sifts through as one attempts to parse the “scenarios” fed to us from around the globe.

  • Wellington

    Reputed sinologist Thomas Friedman of the New York Times had previously established that the Chinese Communist Party is led by a “reasonably enlightened group of people”.

    We need Friedman’s insight here because it is not clear what the Party will do if we don’t stop spreading our culture and ideology. As they strengthen their own cultural production to defend against the West’s assault are they going to become even more enlightened or could they stop being enlightened?

  • a nissen

    More nuanced comments were posted after #18, the last on screen as I was composing my broad brush comment above. In the interest of accuracy, I wish to moderate my prior comment as follows: ” … up until #18 it is unanimous…”

  • LarryD

    “Cotton exhausted the soil; sooner or later, if slavery couldn’t expand into new territory, plantations wouldn’t pay and when that happened the whole system would fail. ”

    Which is why the Old Southerners were aggressively expressionistic. Hence the Trail of Tears and the Mexican-American War.

  • Lightning Metropolis

    > But the status-quo seeking, money-centered ‘communism’ of contemporary China is going to have a hard time supporting cultural products that the rest of the world cares about


  • Kris

    Sorry, nissen@24@26, I still don’t detect any unanimous war party. Naomi Klein must have failed to enlighten me sufficiently.

    Larry@27: “aggressively expressionistic”? That is the funniest auto-correct I have seen on this blog.

  • Pa Deuce

    Sheesh. Doesn’t anyone recognize an economic bubble when they see it? We have had plenty of practice with economic bubbles recently: Japan 1991, Bubba Bubble in the late 1990s, Democrat’s Unaffordable Housing Project Bubble 2008. The Chinese Bubble is not big in world terms, but it is huge in relation to the Chinese economy.

    The cost of policing the Chinese people is growing greatly, just as China’s trading partners are slowing down. As bad as the American situation appears, the EU is worse off and China will soon be much worse off. Now when we get rid of the […] artist in the Oval Office, America will be back on track.

  • Wellington

    a nissen@26: Thanks. I find pleasure in my effort to show nuance.

  • teapartydoc

    Good article. Chairman Obama. Great.

  • John Fisher

    Is there a link to an English translation of President Hu’s remarks? I dislike having to depend on NYT summaries of anything.

  • Brett_McS

    It’s the Chinese people themselves who are embracing westernisation. It’s a bit hard to ‘elect a new people’ though when you already have a billion of them.

  • Rob L

    Does Korean Pop Culture (aka Hallyu) count as Eastern or Western?

    On a smaller scale the Korean peninsula echoes the Cold War, w/ South Korea in the past 2 decades developing a vibrant enough pop culture to infiltrate the North Korean youth..

  • Jim.

    A couple pieces of unsolicited advice regarding Chinese literature: Use different names for your Great Books, when you market them to Western audiences.

    First, we have “The Water Margin”. What does that even mean, in English? You wouldn’t know it was a collection of Robin Hood type stories, unless you had some exposure to it already.

    Use the title “The Marshes of Mount Liang” instead, or “The Adventures of Song Jiang”.

    Next, we have “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. Hint, guys: “Romance” means something different to litterateurs than it means to most Americans. It’s a great book, a cross between King Arthur and the fall of the Roman Republic… and next to no one in this country reads it.

    Call it “The Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms”. Then get Peter Jackson to make a miniseries out of it, once he’s done with “The Hobbit”.

    I’m usually not a “marketing” kind of guy, but there are some egregious blunders here. When someone asks, “What are you reading?” being a red-blooded American male, I don’t want to say, “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms”. “The Water Margin” is even pushing it.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2016 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service