America and China are confronting each other on several battlefields at once: global trade, military might, the war of ideas. On each of these front lines, China constantly searches for America’s Achilles’ heel — the vulnerabilities through which China can undermine U.S. power and position on the world stage. While the trade war and potential military confrontations with China rightfully receive attention, we have yet to recognize fully the threat from China’s ideological warfare against the United States.
This has intensified under President Xi Jinping, and we ignore this threat at our peril. The key source of America’s power and greatness is the belief in the importance of individual liberty, which is inherent in our Constitutional rights.
The individual liberty that Americans cherish permits a free and open society in which people can question and challenge authorities, are free to innovate, and even to dissent. Belief in the importance of political freedom results in limited government, entrepreneurial spirit with a strong protection of private ownership, economic prosperity, cultural diversity and the protection of minority rights, with the capability to reform and change society to correct mistakes.
In contrast, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposes upon its people an incoherent ideology of socialism with Chinese characteristics. This ideology denies individual freedom and allows the state — or rather, a few party elites — to control every aspect of people’s lives. The CCP believes as long as the party feeds the people and generates economic growth, its denial of their political and civil rights is justifiable. This is a modern form of tyranny and a gross violation of the humanity of the Chinese people.
It should be no surprise that China’s ideology is inherently contradictory. Perhaps the starkest contradiction is the CCP’s treatment of the Chinese people. The party claims the working people are the masters of the country, but in reality, they are expendable and frequently abused. Moreover, the party has made its ideology an “absolute truth.” Anyone who criticizes it will be imprisoned. This inchoate ideology is not sustainable if the Chinese people have the ability to access the alternative offered by U.S. political liberalism.
To win this political war against China, the United States must vigorously assert the superiority of its ideology while exposing the falsehood and deceptiveness of China’s. The best way to do this is to ensure free flow of information into China. And the preeminent means to do this is through the internet. The Chinese regime knows its ideological vulnerability, and it restricts people from seeking truth and knowledge by controlling information flow with the “Great Firewall.”
This Great Firewall is the world’s most extensive and sophisticated. It blocks website content, monitors individuals’ internet access, uses humans and bots to spread China’s lies and fake news, and engages in ideological warfare to demonize American values and democracy. Through the Great Firewall, China possesses a monumental internet censorship machine that is fully integrated with its mass surveillance system such as Skynet, smart cities, Sharp Eyes and Social Credit Score system — making it the most repressive information and mind-control system the world has ever witnessed.
Effectively, the Great Firewall has sealed the country and fostered ignorance among its citizens. Therefore, the penetration of the Great Firewall should be a key U.S. response to defeat China in the ideological struggle.
Were the wall defeated, Chinese netizens, intellectuals, dissidents and activists could gather in a virtual public square to express their views, and compare and debate two ideologies. They know how evil the CCP is because they have witnessed horrific crimes committed against the Chinese people.They are America’s strongest allies and advocates in the ideological war. But this volunteer army can be raised only when the Great Firewall is smashed. To aid this, we suggest four measures.
First, the U.S. government should use its leverage to force China to destroy the wall. For example, it must confront Xi’s claim that the internet must be cyber sovereign. Washington needs to confront this oppressive idea by supporting the value of a free, open internet. Additionally, the U.S. should use its muscle in trade negotiations to open up the Chinese internet market and advance internet freedom.
Second, the U.S. government should have the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Security Agency partner with the private sector to develop technologies to defeat the Great Firewall. This might include creating a free web based on blockchain technology so that it will be unable to be censored, developing the next generation of VPNs, building global accessible internet access from satellites, and other tools of cyber circumvention.
Third, the U.S. government should set up an office in the National Security Council to lead the ideological warfare effort. This office would be tasked with understanding the core principles of the ideology, the hidden meanings of its neologisms such as “the community of shared destiny for mankind,” the ideological contradictions and failings inherent in the CCP’s worldview, as well as how it spreads the narrative within and outside of China.
This office also might map China’s overt and covert propaganda operations to advance its ideology in the United States and elsewhere. The office should design anti-communist ideology policy and create a counter-narrative to raise public awareness.
Fourth, extant federal agencies, such as the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM), must be reformed to generate innovative contents advocating America’s ideology, and contract third parties to produce honest assessments of the Chinese regime’s deleterious actions against its own people. The USAGM might illuminate the dangerous audacity of Xi’s ambition, including the use of the Belt and Road Initiative to mask China’s desire for control and determined intent to undermine the existing liberal international order. The United States is in an ideological war with China. This is a war the United States should win, given the strength and attractiveness of its ideology. But victory is possible only if we fight the war.
By Bradley Thayer and Lianchao Han
Bradley A. Thayer, Ph.D., is a professor of political science at the University of Texas, San Antonio. He is coauthor of “How China Sees the World: Han-Centrism and the Balance of Power in International Politics.”
Lianchao Han is vice president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China and a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute. After the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989, Dr. Han was one of the founders of the Independent Federation of Chinese Students and Scholars. He worked in the U.S. Senate for 12 years, as legislative counsel and policy director for three senators.