China’s Global Identity Crisis: The Challenge of Being a 21st Century Superpower

By Aaron Minkoff

The US and China Cold War is a long time coming. The honeymoon period following the re-opening of China to the global community in 1979, the Fall of the Soviet Union in 1989, and international cohesion for the Global War on Terror in Afghanistan is over. The division of the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War created a gap in NATO that has not had enough time to heal. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has exploited the West’s distraction to take on their interest domestically and abroad. Now, the CCP is the biggest threat to international stability, state sovereignty, and human rights that the world has seen since National Socialism swept Germany in 1933. China is different; they use technology instead of tanks. A victory for the CCP will assert their full sovereignty,unquestioned, and acknowledged by the entirety of the international community. Additionally, China will have the power and capability to project its power in its sphere of influence in Asia and Africa without American influence. China does not seek a military conflict with the United States, but a long term strategy that will cause the destabilization of the United States to a degree that China has the ability to overtake its space of the world without firing a shot. 

Origins of Mistrust

The issue of sovereignty and mistrust of the West and regional neighbors for the CCP goes back to the age of imperialism in 1839 when the British forced the country to open up for trade. The colony of Hong Kong was established, and China lost its ability to control its borders and domestic policy over the entirety of its nation. Further, the first Sino-Japanese war in 1894 forced China to cede land claims in the Korean Peninsula, Taiwan, Penghu, and the Liaodong Peninsula. The region of Liaodong was taken over by colonial powers in Europe at the expense of the Quin Dynasty. The Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937-1945 left a traumatic scar on the Chinese population that directly led to the victory of the CCP in the civil war that ended in 1949. The nationalist government of China was forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan and remains the most contentious sovereignty issue for the CCP. China has historical claims on much of the South China Sea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Kashmir, and Nepal stemming from pre-colonial periods. China has the firm belief of never having achieved full sovereignty because of colonialism, foreign intervention, and international shaming. They view these as domestic issues that the United States and Europe must keep clear of. Their claims on these regions and over the sovereignty of what China views as their real land and maritime borders are at odds with and violates the sovereignty of their regional neighbors. 

Western Challenges to China’s Sphere of Influence

The liberal world order based on human rights, economic cohesion, and the progression of democracy is in a defining moment as China attempts to settle its ineradicable identity crisis. The duality of China’s existence on the world stage is both at odds with democracy, while also playing a major part of the capitalist global system. China is using its economic weight to carve up its sphere of influence while using its hard power to challenge what they view as internal issues of sovereignty. The problem is that an open authoritarian and globally intertwined economic power does not possess an iron curtain. A state like China cannot, (without conflict), exist as both a brutal communist regime and free market capitalist in a world order that is dominated by liberalism.

The exclusion of The People’s Republic of China from the United Nations from 1945 to 1971 and the Korean War further entrenched this idea. The United States, under former President Obama and President Trump, has been shifting its focus on Asia, specifically the growing regional partnerships and putting military pressure on China over its expanding claims in the South China Sea. The pressure comes with placing a spotlight on the CCP for what they claim to be domestic issues; China’s most sensitive area. The negative international spotlight is unacceptable to China and is viewed as a direct threat to the power of the CCP within their own home. Over the last few years, President Trump’s added pressure on trade, Hong Kong, the human rights abuses of the Uighurs Turkic Muslims, and the COVID-9 pandemic have caused the CCP to speed up its process openly countering the United States and China’s neighboring countries. 

As a separate city-state, Hong Kong is no longer worth its economic weight in the Chinese economy as Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen have all overtaken the GDP output of Hong Kong. That is not to say Hong Kong as a global financial center is not critical to China, but rather the politics of the region is shifting the balance away from the two systems policy. China, as it grows in power, is emboldened to address their core issue regarding sovereignty. The CCP control over Hong Kong outweighs the economic benefit of the region as a special economic zone; the CCP is willing to take the hit. Additionally, the separation of Hong Kong politically is no longer viable for the CCP because of the mass protests in 2014, and from 2019 through July 2020. The protesters and wide international outrage, just as the South China Sea, is seen as an infringement, by the world, on Chinese domestic issues. Thus, China has taken the step against international pressure to bring Hong Kong under the control of the CCP even if it means breaking an international treaty signed with England in 1984, receiving sanctions, and placing the economic future of Hong Kong at considerable risk. The city of Hong Kong is much more than a partially independent economic zone, but the very image of China. The embarrassment caused by the protests, the issue of sovereignty, and the threat of political enlightenment in Mainland China made the passing of the security law ultimately worth the cost. 

The Hong Kong Security Law gives the CCP the power to detain protesters, seize assets, and target individuals and entities over political thought crimes and relationships. The arrest of protesters can be indefinite and without legal process. Institutions and private business are also preemptively targeting employees that have sided with or participated in protest. A significant academic figure Benny Tai, who is a tenured law professor at the University of Hong Kong was dismissed from his position on July 29th, 2020, for his leadership role and vocal support for pro-democracy protests. A dozen pro-democracy candidates were also blocked from running for city government on July 30th. The elections in Hong Kong have been postponed for a year over the fear of COVID resurgence; the claim by pro democracy activists is overreach by the CCP to prevent pro-democracy candidates from winning seats. Private firms, such as international banking institutions have already begun working with the CCP by reviewing and refusing clients who have participated in or expressed support for democratic protests. Social media posts and family connections to the protest are also part of the review done by private banking institutions. Banks have taken this step because, under the new law, any organization that works with those involved in the protest is liable. The punishment includes a fine, forfeiture of assets, or being barred from business in Hong Kong. The CCP has taken this route because financial hardship and sanctions is a definite motivator to suppress political thought for the individual and family. The West’s response over the new security law has begun to unite the international community against the actions of the CCP. Additionally, the banking institutions also appear to be complying with sanctions imposed on members of the CCP by the United States in the US Sanctions Bill. The tactic of mass group punishment is not without precedent in China as the CCP is currently engaged in the destruction of the Uighurs. 

The 2014 Kunming Railway Station is one of the most significant terrorist attacks on modern Chinese history carried out by members of the domestic terrorist organization for Xinjiang separatism. Several other high profile knife attacks took place in crowded areas and bus terminals by the Uighur nationalists in the same decade. The knife attacks brought back a fear over the 2009 Uighur riots in Ürümqi which left 200 people dead. The underlying reason for the terrorist attacks is the severe discrimination against Uighur Muslims based on ethnic and language differences. The Uighurs are a small Muslim minority group with Turkic speaking and ethnic backgrounds in the Northwestern providence of Xinjiang. Some Uighurs have called for creating their state separate from China that better represents them as culturally and linguistically different from the overly dominant ethnic group Han Chinese. The response by the CCP to the series of deadly terrorist attacks carried out by a small group of extremists and over the public call for the creation of a new Uighurs nation is the complete blame of all Uighurs for terrorism and secessionism. Further, the response by the CCP is increasingly being called an act of cultural genocide. The CCP is conducting forced sterilizations, birth control, and abortions on Uighurs women. Both men and women are forced into re-education camps and work camps both within Xinjiang and in other provinces. The latest allegation is that Uighurs are being used as slave labor for US-based companies such as Nike, Apple, North Face, H&M; each company denies the use of slave labor in their production line. Separately, the CEO of Volkswagen in an interview with BBC denied knowledge of the situation in Xinjiang. Those who remain in the cities are living in a complete surveillance state under constant fear of detention. Exiled Uighurs or those who are living abroad are under constant threat of having their families arrested if they choose to speak out. Uighur activists such as Rushan Abbas and Dr. Byler, who have held speaking series on university campuses in 2019, have been shut down or disrupted by small groups of Chinese students. The widespread claim by the students who disrupt the speaking events is that the violation of human rights against the Uighurs by the CCP is a western media fabrication to make China look bad. Since the information that is coming out of Xinjiang is incredibly difficult to verify and the media is restricted, the CCP has mostly been able to hide the gross violation of human rights from the international community. The severe violation of fundamental human rights by the CCP against the Uighurs is viewed by China as a red line for the international community to probe because the issue is domestic and, therefore, an issue of sovereignty. Under President Xi Jinping, the Chinese communist party is unwavering on self-determination and the complete sovereignty of China and all of its land claims including re-shaping the image of what Hong Kong is to China. 

When talking about Hong Kong as a city, it is critical to discuss what Hong Kong is to the world, and what it has been since the English first established it as a colony. The city of Hong Kong is comparable in status to the cities of Paris, New York, London, Munich, or Tokyo. The image that is provoked from people, off the top of the head, is a cultural and economic world capital of neon lights, arts, music, food, and industry. The city is, as much, a part of the consumer culture and beneficiary of international trade as any significant western cosmopolitan capital. The issue for China is that the capital Beijing has as much flare as saying one lives in Washington DC. To be recognized as a center of civilization across the world, based on a city that exports the image of being a major world economic power, is a point of critical prestige. For China, the One Nation Two Systems policy has separated them from having that Cosmopolitan city that exports high culture across the world. In general, people separate the image of Hong Kong from China; COVID has allowed China to now fight back against that idea at unprecedented speed. The same idea for why China is hypersensitive to international criticism is also accurate for international prestige and image. Hong Kong, brought under the control of Beijing, is a part of the larger picture for the CCP in establishing China as the new center of the world. The image of ‘Made in China’ is an insult at the same degree as saying Taiwan is a separate country, thus China is moving on from the economic policy of the 1980s-2000s. 

Economic Development as a Defense Mechanism

The CCP under President Xi Jinping has an economy in transition, moving away from a state of cheap labor, exported plastic goods, and the dumping ground for the world’s trash. On August 16th, 2017, President Xi Jinping put a hard stop to accepting imports of international trash and recyclables in a claim of environmental cleanup. Realistically, China is still the largest environmental polluter in the world and has sanctioned an armada of approximately 260 Chinese flagged fishing vessels off the coast of Ecuador in a marine sanctuary for illegal shark fishing, as reported on July 28th, 2020. The move from importing vast amounts of plastic and other waste is actually in line with President Jinping’s move to transform the economy of China into a consumer society with an expanded middle class. Cheap ‘Made in China’ exports, which lifted over 20 million Chinese citizens out of poverty since the 1980s, was essential in building the Chinese economy into what it is today. Like the American transition from child labor and black lung to technology, the future progression in industry is also true for China. The CCP no longer wants to be the place where Western companies and consumers dump their trash, nor do they want to be the state known for sweatshop labor, and cheap commodities. The Chinese economy still relies on inexpensive factory labor, but in recent years factories are increasingly being moved to poorer neighboring countries like Malaysia and Vietnam. China is also transitioning away from coal and other fossil fuels as part of their economic transformation to clean energy. The transition of China into a consumer society will bring with it the international recognition of being a ‘first world’ state. The focus of the economic transformation by the CCP is long term and centered on innovation in technology and economics. 

China wants to become culturally, economically, and technologically dominant in the spaces that the United States has overwhelming influence. American culture and technology has overshadowed much of the world. The CCP, as an authoritarian governing body, is pushing back against these US dominated fields to prevent a cultural takeover of the Chinese mainland. The imports of Iphones, Disney, and McDonalds is just fine, but the United States culture surrounding the First Amendment is not. Innovation in technology and the private sector is fundamental in China’s quest to transform its economy and outcompete the United States. This goal includes not just the dollar, but also a culture war, telecommunication, and the internet. This directly overlaps with the argument of sovereignty because a part of self-determination for China is having control over tradition and preserving the image of the CCP. The threat posed by the cell phone on authoritarian regimes is a real risk and one the CCP intends on controlling. Beijing is aware of how powerful the control over culture and mass communication is through viewing the effects of the United States exports of free speech, rock music, and designer jeans having chipped away at the USSR. Telecommunication and mass media today is, of course, completely alien to 1955. Today’s spread, the control and censorship of culture is widely manipulated over the internet, especially through technology theft, and social media platforms. 

The “Smart War”

The Cold War with the United States will not be fought in a traditional sense, as with the many proxy wars during the US Cold War with the USSR, but as a “smart war” meaning technology, intelligence, and economic victory over the United States and its allies while additionally causing internal cleavages via disinformation campaigns. The “smart war” battlespace will be through development banking institutions, freedom of navigation, espionage, cyberspace, space, and technological advancement. Europe and America have dominated this area, relatively unchecked and comfortable, since 1989. 

Firms like Huawei and ByteDance are leading the way as internationally recognized and iconic companies that are increasingly competing with Silicon Valley tech giants like Alphabet, Facebook, and the New York-based telecommunications company Verizon. Huawei is under increasing pressure internationally over its 5G network across the globe, the theft of intellectual property, espionage, and privacy concerns in addition to its links with the PLA. Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei, was arrested in Canada on December 1st, 2018. She is currently fighting extradition to the United States for her alleged role in violating US sanctions on Iran. The United States government further accuses her of expanding the network of Huawei in stealing technology and spying on US firms. This takes place through the 5G data network that takes the information that is communicated from the user to device and from device to device. The concern is centered on the security of the transmission of information, who can see it, what is saved, and is sensitive information given to state actors. The creation of the 5G network is incredibly important to tech firms as it allows for, as Huawei said, ‘unimaginable speed of communication.’ Data gathering on individuals by Chinese based firms is also of great concern for the US government. 

ByteDance is the parent company for the largest social media platform TikTok. The application functions the same as companies like Facebook or Google in saving user information, search history, demographics, and contacts to then use for targeted advertisements and increasingly relevant user experience. What makes TikTok different even though they are doing the same data mining as US tech companies is that ByteDance gives CCP officials preferential hiring for management positions. Thus, the company has no independence from the Communist Party. TikTok stores user information, search history, and clipboard (copy/paste) of content even outside of the application. This information then gives the CCP broad and individual human intelligence across the globe. The specific threat by TikTok falls in multiple areas that threaten democracy and the ability for people to control their personal information. 

TikTok has taken on the role that is akin to being the cultural and social wing of the CCP by monitoring and banning political and religiously sensitive topics even in democratic countries with free speech. A teenager who published a viral short video about human rights violations against Uighurs on TikTok was briefly banned from the application; international outcry caused the ban to be reversed. Other videos that have not gone viral across social media have been taken down and the producer banned from the application. Information gathered by the CCP on individuals is used to establish personal connections and political thought leanings. The threat to democracy from this, especially in China and Hong Kong, is finding the social networks of political or religious dissidents. The wider implication of social networks is reflected in a key sector of Hong Kong, the banking institutions. Applications like TikTok and FaceBook have given crucial insight into the personal political leanings and family connections of users that are used by international banks to decide who to do business with as part of cooperation with the Hong Kong Security Law and US sanctions on members of the CCP. 

What’s Next

The duality of China’s existence on the world stage is both at odds with democracy, while also playing a major part of the capitalist global system. China is using its economic weight to carve up its sphere of influence while using its hard power to challenge what they view as internal issues of sovereignty. The problem is that an open authoritarian and globally intertwined economic power does not possess an iron curtain. A state like China cannot, (without conflict), exist as both a brutal communist regime and free market capitalist in a world order that is dominated by liberalism.

The future of the conflict is uncertain as it is too early to know whether the US-China Cold War turns into a hot conflict, the isolation of the CCP, or a compromise the CCP is willing to use violence over its view on sovereignty, as seen in the Line of Actual Control land dispute with India. China and India claim the contested frontier region of Galway Valley in Kashmir. Galway Valley has been the site of numerous skirmishes and the latest violence broke out on the 15th and 16th of June 2020 over the construction of an airfield and the DSDBO road by India. The estimated casualties for China are 35, as reported by the US News and Report, while 20 Indian soldiers were killed. China’s aggressive actions against India are further proof that the CCP is doubling down on the ability to project influence and violence within its borders and in the territories that it claims. Both India and China are nuclear powers which sparks fear of a devastating war between the two nations. 

The CCP has increased the use of force over the past few months as the trade talks with the United States have faltered, and the cold war rhetoric heats up. China has threatened retaliation for the actions taken by the United States. The first measure of hard retaliation is the forced closure of the US Consulate in the regional capital city of Chengdu in response to the US closure of the Chinese Houston Consulate. The US Chengdu Consulate is in the southeastern province Sichuan that also served the autonomous region of Tibet. In response to the sanctions on the CCP members, China has placed restrictions on four US Senators that are outspoken on the human rights record of China. President Xi Jinping and Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei signed a preferential trade agreement called the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership between Iran and China. The agreement also includes access to Iranian ports, defense, and logistical infrastructure. The conflict between Washington and Beijing has not turned aggressive, but has remained a tit for tat escalation that is increasing in frequency. 

The United States response has been more active than the CCP over the last few months. The shape of the response to China’s actions against Hong Kong’s freedom, the Uighurs, and the breakdown in trade talks is being formed on multiple fronts. The US Congress and Senate passed a unanimous sanctions law on July 2nd, 2020, that targets banking institutions working with the CCP. The bill further bars the exportation of defense and technology goods into the region. The special status of Hong Kong as separate from the CCP is also stripped. In addition to the bill the United States has closed the Chinese embassy in Houston, Texas. The Embassy is responsible for much of the mission in the midwest and southern US states. The accusation brought against the Huston consult is theft of technology, COVID 19 research, and intellectual property. Further, the US government has banned all travel into the United States by members of the CCP. The FBI has arrested three Chinese nationals with active links to the People Liberation Army (PLA) for falsifying visa documentation while entering. A fourth Chinese national sought by the FBI is reported to be hiding at the San Francisco Chinese Embassy. Chinese nationals with links to the CCP are also accused of stealing intellectual property from universities like Harvard.Through the US military, the Navy is conducting freedom of navigation missions into the South China Sea. 

The global response to China is taking shape with England starting the process to dismantle the technology firm Huawei 5G network over the next seven years. England and Australia have offered a path to citizenship to millions of Hong Kong residents who are at high risk of being charged or detained under the new Hong Kong Security Law. On July 30th, Beijing took the measure to block the imigration move by the UK by stripping the special UK international travel passport of three million Hong Kong residents. One activist that is known as Mr. Wong was detained while boarding a plane going from Hong Kong to London over allegations of being involved in a knife stabbing of a police officer during a protest. Australia has additionally announced that its defense spending will increase to 185 billion USD to bring the total military budget about 2% of its GDP. Further, Uighur activists, with the support of the United States and Europian allies, have chosen to take evidence on genocide by China to The International Criminal Court on charges of genocide. The United States, in support of the Uighurs, has sanctioned four CCP members who are in command of the Xinjiang Province. Additionally, 11 companies are under sanctions for affiliation with the CCP. India responded to the border dispute by opening direct dialogue amongst the higher echelons of each respective foreign service. As of July 24th, the outcome is a fragile and partial disengagement and demilitarization of troops along the Galway Valley. 

The next step in the US-China Cold War is unknown as the situation is rapidly developing, and the US elections are under 100 days away. What can be discussed are the possible solutions that the US can take in countering the threat possessed by China. The starting point is competition in China’s ambitious neo-imperial economic policy in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. China is establishing a strong network of multilateral development banking, preferential treatment for Chinese firms, and political ‘I owe yous.’ Countering China in this space will involve hard-hitting sanctions on both the US and internationally based companies, using available tools in combating the development strategies of China’s predatory One Belt One Road initiative, and intensifying united international pressure on China along with private firms for human rights violations. To begin countering China, US firms must also be forced to clean up their act if any honest pressure is to be placed on China; repeated Bangladesh factory fires are a clear what-aboutism for the CCP. 

US-based companies, along with European and Asian firms, have been able to brush off US sanctions and international law by outsourcing their supply and manufacturing networks at the expense of human rights. Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank act attempts to tackle the issue of conflict minerals, but that places the burden on the lowest end of localized supply. Corporations like H&M, that use child labor, could give themselves a consumer-facing human rights sticker based on their supply chain ‘due diligence.’ Slave and child labor continued as the states in which exploitative labor practices are being used either don’t have the existing framework for prevention, empty condemnation, or are authoritarian governed, as with China. No laws exist in the United States that force the transparency of corporate supply chains internationally. Further, transparency does not lead to change in behavior without governmental enforcement of international human rights law. If China, as an authoritarian state, succeeds in out-competing the United States in the global supply chain, progression in human rights will be lost. The ‘neither friends nor foes’ policy of US-China relationship is over, the cold war has started, and the United States must take the necessary steps to combat the growing influence of China across the globe. The existing tools that the United States possesses has the ability to come into play in this space. 

The US State Department, with the support of The United States Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), along with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), possess an existing framework that can be used for competition in development of emerging economies that China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) have a holdover. AIIB is a critical strategy in China’s foreign policy to gain both economic superiority and political favors from countries across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. AIIB is accused of using what is known as debt-trap loans to secure their economic and political footholds. The AIIB additionally uses the collection (ownership) of commodities such as the ports taken over by China after the EXIM Bank loan in Sri Lanka to expand their networks’ raw goods procurement, manufacturing, and supply for Chinese based companies. What is important to note here is that the Chinese Multilateral Development Bank is more political in nature than debt-traps lending; votes in the United Nations and international support that sides with Beijing. The USTDA and USAID must have a mandate that can give transparent reports to the State Department and congress on international and Multilateral Banking Institutions and companies that are involved with the AIIB. 

Additionally, the USTDA and USAID’s funding and mandate must be increased to cover the transparency of supply and manufacturing networks across the globe. Expanding on and using the locally established connections is crucial for the US State Department, USTDA, and USAID. Banks and companies that are in the business of using exploitative labor by outsourced supply and manufacturing must be put into check if the United States and the Global Community is to call out the human rights abuses of China in any serious way. Expanding the use of the USTDA and USAID in the capacity of competing with AIIB, openly reporting to congress on the actions of AIIB and related institutions, would put a spotlight on the practices of China in their economic and political expansion across Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. International pressure and spotlight is a powerful tool in changing the actions of companies and states that are violating international law. The enforcement of law must also take place through sanctions on industry as non-binding resolutions are often ignored. China remains incredibly focused on its global image; hard pressure from a united international community is part of the solution that can, over time, change the actions of China on the issue of human rights, respect for international borders, the sovereignty of its neighboring countries, and for free and fair international trade and banking practices.

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