Watching the shift of American mainstream views on China has been amusing for its irony. For decades, libraries of books have been written to describe the problems of the Chinese authoritarian – some call it totalitarian – state. For most Western observers, that kind of governance could never provide sustainable growth and would naturally be riven by wastefulness and corruption. Orwellian control, so their narrative goes, can never prevent people from craving liberty and seeking the “self-evident truth” of democracy.
It has not been surprising that, in the vast majority of these analytical tomes, China is reduced to having only two futures: either it would become more “democratic” and engage in the “free market” – or collapse. By that logic, whatever Beijing’s defense of the Chinese system, why should the West, especially the US, worry about the competition? From the Western perspective, if Red China became more and more monstrous, it would simply collapse and die, much like the Soviet Union did in 1991.
Yet, despite all the bluster of the China Cassandras, the storyline has not gone as predicted. And Chinese propaganda about its system has not been deflated. On the contrary, it has gained in volume, vigor and virulence. Many in the West now view China’s soft and sharp power (e.g., the so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”) as ominous – formidable, fearsome and to be fought off with reciprocal ferocity.
Consider how US politicians, including mainly Republic Party senators such as Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas, called on the American government to impose transparency standards on Confucius Institutes (CIs) across the country and pressured host universities to close them. Funded by Chinese government grants, the CIs are cultural centers set up around the world that among other programs offer Chinese-language instruction.
In August 2020, the administration of US president Donald Trump designated the Confucius Institute US Center a foreign mission of China, which then secretary of state Mike Pompeo described as “an entity advancing Beijing’s global propaganda and malign influence campaign on US campuses and K-12 [Kindergarten-to-Grade 12] classrooms”. This move effectively made it difficult for CIs in the US to function. By May 2021, some 84 American universities and colleges had shut down or announced the closure of the centers on their campuses, reducing the number of CIs to 32, with even more expected to be deactivated.
This fear of Chinese propaganda is extraordinary, especially when compared to how little regard American elites had for the power of Soviet propaganda during the Cold War. Indeed, it was Moscow that was fearful of US propaganda, and their concerns were warranted. For the majority of Soviets, America was the Promised Land. They had practically a fetishistic worship of everything American, especially consumer goods.
The reasons for the adoration were clear: The US economy was booming, and its standard of living was rising. With China today, the story is different. The American economy is perceived to be in decline, with inequality growing and living standards falling. In September 2019, the US Census Bureau reported that income inequality had risen to its highest level in half a century. From 2018 to 2020, life expectancy in the US dropped by nearly two years, the biggest decline since 1943. The pandemic is expected to worsen the situation.
Meanwhile, China’s economy is expanding rapidly. The only major economy to have avoided contraction in 2020, it is expected to grow faster than other large economies this year and is estimated to be surpass the US as the world’s biggest economy by 2028, two years earlier than widely predicted.