Over the past two years there has been much talk of a “New Cold War” possibly now breaking out between the United States and China. The truth, however, is that it’s not new. It’s the same old Cold War just being conducted in new ways.
The notion of a new Cold War arises from the widespread belief that the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union ended the war in victory for the free world. This view was strengthened by the 1979 establishment of formal relations between the United States and Communist China and by what appeared to the outside world to be an economic policy turn by Beijing onto the capitalist road. Indeed, under the Mao Zedong regime, many Chinese had been jailed and even executed for being “capitalist roaders.” Now it seemed the whole regime was becoming a capitalist roader. At least that was the impression of most free world observers.
These events sparked euphoria in America and the rest of the free world. Indeed, so much so that leading political philosopher Francis Fukuyama wrote a book entitled "The End of History and the Last Man." By that title he was referencing Marxist teaching which predicted the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the final stage of dialectics. But Fukuyama was saying that the end is democracy and human rights not dictatorship by any class.
This was all very comforting and relaxing for America and the rest of the free world. Indeed, as China began to welcome foreign investment and to open its markets to imports from abroad, a euphoria came over the free world in the form of an expectation that free trade and the impact of market forces in China would inevitably lead to its ultimate political democratization. President Bill Clinton laughed when told that China was trying to censor the Internet and said it would be “like trying to nail Jello to the wall.” President George W. Bush said that free trade inevitably carries with it the seeds of democracy. Indeed, it was the expectation that globalization would liberalize and democratize Chinese politics that convinced the free world countries to admit China to the World Trade Organization in 2001.
But were America and the rest of the free world seeing reality or were they being deceived, or, worse, were they deceiving themselves?
In the wake of the death of Mao, the Chinese economy was primitive and barely feeding the people. Deng Xiaoping and the other party leaders debated what to do. Deng pushed for some opening to market forces, famously saying that “to get rich is wonderful.” Other leaders such as Li Peng opposed introduction of market forces for fear that it would lead to revival of the rich, bourgeois classes. In response, Deng famously said that “of course, if we open the windows a few flies will enter.” But he was confident that the Communist Party could control the flies and eventually kill them.
In this context, it must be remembered that a major force driving China for the past 150 years had been to rectify the great humiliation visited upon the country by the western protagonists of the opium wars and by the revitalized Japanese empire of the early 20th century. Sun Yat-sen had voiced this sense of helplessness in saying at one point that “China is nothing but a slate of loose sand.” Both the KMT (Kuomintang) under Chiang Kai-shek and the CCP under Mao Zedong had sought to recover China’s ancient pride and power. Indeed, when Mao made his famous “China has stood up” speech in 1949 one wonders if Chiang, then in lonely exile in Taipei, might have had a moment of empathy with his old adversary.
Western audiences have some difficulty in understanding this awful sense of humiliation on the part of the Chinese. After all, two of China’s greatest dynasties, the Yuan and the Qing, were not Chinese, but Mongol and Manchurian. The western countries had never occupied and directly ruled China as had the Mongols and the Manchus. Why, they ask, was complete conquest preferable among the Chinese to occasional outside interference from the West? What they don’t realize is that while the Mongols and Manchus physically conquered China, they in turn had been conquered by Chinese civilization and ruled through the pre-existing bureaucratic structure based on the imperial examination. Thus, unlike the Asian peoples over whom China’s civilization had loomed as superior for ages, the newcomers from the West viewed China not only as weak, but as technologically and culturally inferior. This was a national insult that demanded redress.
From its beginning, the CCP aimed not only to recover China’s full sovereignty and independence but to restore the country to its long-accustomed position of the globally hegemonic Middle Kingdom. Deng may have been more flexible than Mao in terms of the tools and economic policies he would use, but his and the CCP’s aims were not different. Indeed, in discussing the international scene after the massacre of students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, Deng spoke of a “new Cold War.”
In that context, it is clear China has long aimed at achieving maximum self-sufficiency and global leadership. As early as 1993, China began constructing the BeiDou Navigation Satellite System to duplicate the U.S. GPS and European Galileo systems despite having full access to both the other systems. The construction of the Great Firewall in 1997 to separate the Chinese Internet from the World Wide Web and the barring of companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook from the Chinese market were clear declarations of Cold War. The CCP did not really accept full globalization despite constantly telling the annual Davos meeting that it did. Indeed, Beijing created its own counterpoint to Davos with the Boao Forum.
The announcement in 2015 of the Made in China 2025 policy was effectively a declaration of Cold War against the principles of the World Trade Organization of which China is a member and against the high technology industries of the free world. This has been accompanied by the quasi-militarization of the South China Sea, rapid expansion of the Chinese armed forces, and extensive hacking attacks on free world governments and corporations, and pressure on U.S. professional basketball coaches not to speak about Hong Kong and arbitrary, illegal barring of imports from countries like Australia that have called for an international investigation of the origins of COVID-19.
For 40 years, the United States and other free world countries spoke of China becoming “a responsible stakeholder in the rules-based, global order.” In March 2018, The Economist magazine cover story announced that the Free World had “Made the Wrong Bet on China.” It did not want to become a stakeholder in a global order established by others. It wanted to establish its own authoritarian world order.
The fact is that the world is not in a new Cold War. The old Cold War actually never ended.