Do Western Values Threaten China? The Motives and Methods of Xi Jinping’s Ideology Campaign | Wilson Center
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Do Western Values Threaten China? The Motives and Methods of Xi Jinping’s Ideology Campaign

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Picture Source: Wikimedia Commons

Key Takeaways

  • Xi Jinping’s current ideology campaign reflects China’s preference to have Chinese standards adopted as legitimate alternatives to Western values and institutions.
  • The ideology campaign should not be viewed as anti-West or -American but an effort to maintain and cultivate Chinese culture while at the same time borrowing from the West, a strategy China has carried out for many years. 
  • The current campaign serves both to reform and renew the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and strengthen its power.

Ideology has returned as a major factor in U.S.-China relations. Chinese government warnings against the pernicious influence of “Western values” have surged under Xi Jinping and vigilance against Western influence is now a guiding component of his policies toward the Internet, traditional media, culture and entertainment, universities, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations. While not yet as prominent as his anti-corruption drive, the elements of a sustained ideology campaign are now in place and are already affecting the atmospherics of the bilateral relationship. For instance, the current campaign has the potential to force the issue of human rights back onto the U.S.-China agenda, an issue many on both sides would like to see downplayed.    

Moving beyond human rights and civil liberties, Xi Jinping’s ideology campaign raises many other issues concerning China’s rise to global power status. As Robert Daly, Director of the Kissinger Institute pointed out, it is not clear whether these policies are an indication of China’s strength or fragility. Richard McGregor, Public Policy Fellow at the Wilson Center argues that the Chinese government is in fact both confident and insecure about its ability to stay in power. In the broader context of Xi Jinping’s governance style, McGregor views the ideology campaign as another tool for Xi to use in consolidating his power. Beyond this motivation, McGregor also pointed out that the campaign also works to renew and reform the current governance system, which is viewed by some in China as outdated. 

More importantly for the global community, what do the values and dispositions revealed in the campaign indicate about China as a shaper of international norms and as a builder of international institutions? According to Daly, as China continues to grow on the world stage, so too does its preference to treat individuals, information and institutions internationally the same way it does domestically. This ultimately is an indication of China’s preference to have Chinese standards adopted as legitimate alternatives to Western values and institutions.

As one of the world’s leading scholars on Chinese propaganda, Wilson Center Global Fellow Anne-Marie Brady has long been in the Chinese ideological trenches. She noted that the current campaign in China today can be summarized as “the more things are changed, the more things stay the same”. Brady argues that it is necessary to distinguish between the rhetoric and actions of the CCP today. Although a number of senior officials are backing Xi’s campaign, even using the term “foreign hostile forces”, Brady stresses that this should not be misread as China being anti-West. On the contrary, Chinese leaders see the benefits of remaining open to the United States/the West while rejecting its hostile and negative influences. 

Brady goes on to point out that the purpose and method behind the current campaign is not new. Maintaining Chinese culture and borrowing useful elements from the West has long-existed in China. What is new is the environment in which the CCP propaganda machine is operating, which is complicated by social media and globalized communication networks. The CCP is quick to adapt however and we see this in their attempts to frame propaganda as publicity in the media.

One major difference between ideology campaigns past and present is that Xi Jinping has been able to consolidate his power like no other Chinese leader in the past, which in turn strengthens his campaign.  

-Yuyang Zhang and Sandy Pho

 

Speakers

  • Anne-Marie Brady

    Global Fellow
    Professor, University of Canterbury and Executive Editor of The Polar Journal
  • Richard McGregor

    Public Policy Fellow
    Former Beijing and Washington Bureau Chief, Financial Times
  • Robert Daly

    Director, Kissinger Institute on China and the United States