US-China Cold War will continue to send a shiver across the world

Pressure mounts on Beijing to live up to its promises of ‘opening up’ by rolling out a ‘level playing’ field policy

Cold War rhetoric between China and the United States resembles an Antarctic winter before climate change.

Frostbite remarks branding Beijing as “the greatest threat to democracy since World War II” have simply added to the chill factor.

So have comments from China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, who has defended his government’s hardline “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy. He pointed out at the weekend that it was designed to counter “criticism” and international “bullying.”

Clearly, tension has increased dramatically between the world’s two leading economies in the past two years, fueled in part by outgoing US President Donald Trump’s all-consuming trade tussle.

Last week, the latest salvo was fired by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe in a no-holds-barred commentary for The Wall Street Journal.

‘Sensationalism and lies’

“Rob, Replicate and Replace,” he wrote, accusing China of rampant economic espionage.

“The intelligence is clear: Beijing intends to dominate the US and the rest of the planet economically, militarily and technologically,” he said, adding that US intellectual property rights worth up to US$500 billion were being stolen on an annual basis.

FBI Director Christopher Wray had previously made similar statements, which China’s ruling Communist Party or CCP has repeatedly denied.

In response, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chunying dismissed the claims as “sensationalism” and “lies.”

“[Radcliffe] just continued [to] repeat what is another concoction of lies. We hope that American politicians will respect the facts, stop selling fake news and spreading political viruses and lies, and stop damaging Sino-US relations,” she said.

Still, behind the heavy metal noise are core issues and values that have been left to fester since China morphed from an economic backwater into a global powerhouse.

Sweeping changes

A bipartisan annual report from Washington politicians, and released by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, has called for sweeping changes. They have condemned Beijing for a lack of economic transparency, human rights abuses, and China’s military posturing in the South and East China Seas.

Yet at the heart of the 600-page study is “reciprocity” or a level playing field.

“[The US] Congress [needs to] adopt the principle of reciprocity as foundational in all legislation bearing on US-China relations. Issues in applying this principle should include the ability of journalists and online media to operate without undue restriction,” the report said.

“[Other issues] include access to information [such as] financial and research data. Access for social media and mobile apps from US companies [should also be pursued, as well as] market access and regulatory parity,” the study added.

China’s state-run media groups still enjoy unfettered “access” in the US, the European Union and an array of Asian democracies.

But the same cannot be said of foreign publications in the most populous nation on earth. Major US online companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are also kept out by the Great Firewall. 

Yet outside of China, the CCP has built a powerful presence on Twitter, illustrated by the diplomatic war of words with Australia, and other social media platforms around the world.

When Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s tried to respond to Beijing’s attacks on WeChat last week, his comments were blocked by the Chinese censors. Similar stories have emerged elsewhere in the battle to control information, and hearts and minds.

State-owned English-language network CGTN is beamed overseas while China Daily is available in print or online along with Xinhua and Global Times. But publications such as the Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times are digitally blocked in China.

“The Party-state, particularly under the leadership of [President and General Secretary] Xi Jinping, is engaged in a massive campaign to influence media outlets and news consumers around the world …[to] covert, coercive, and potentially corrupt,” Freedom House, an independent advocacy organization based in the US, reported.

Global stage

Evidence of “coercive” action from human rights agencies is routinely dismissed. So, naturally, was the report compiled by the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission. Following a predictable pattern, China Daily described the study as a “campaign to contain” the country’s rise on the global stage.

A view that mirrored Xi’s media doctrine with “Wolf Warrior” characteristics. “Wherever the readers are, wherever the viewers are, that is where propaganda reports must extend their tentacles,” he said in 2016.

Those “tentacles” are part of a broader ideological conflict between democracy and the Party’s “Mandate from Heaven” but not from the ballot box. 

Sooner or later, it was always going to revolve around that issue. China’s government constantly preaches about “opening up” while cracking down on freedom of speech at home.

The belief that economic evolution would lead to political transformation after China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 has proved disastrously wrong. But it persisted.

“When Xi Jinping came to power in 2012, I was full of hope for China. As a professor at the prestigious [Central Party School] that educates top leaders in the Chinese Communist Party, I knew enough about history to conclude that it was past time for China to open up its political system. After a decade of stagnation, the CCP needed reform and Xi seemed like the man to lead it,” Cai Xia, a Chinese dissident living in the US, wrote in the latest edition of Foreign Affairs.

Anti-corruption campaign

“So, I should not have been surprised when it turned out that Xi was no reformer. Over the course of his tenure, the regime has degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness. It has grown even more repressive and dictatorial,” she said in an article chronicling her political awakening.

During his eight years in office, Xi has locked up political rivals under his anti-corruption campaign, sent up to one million Muslim Uighurs to “re-education” camps, and imprisoned pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, trampling over the “One Country, Two Systems” model. 

His regime has also applied diplomatic and military pressure on the island democracy of Taiwan and built up a potent naval force in the South and East China Seas. To cement his hold on power, Xi has even launched a “political education” program for the People’s Liberation Army or PLA.

“[Central Military Commission] Vice-Chairman Zhang Youxia called for efforts to implement Xi’s instructions, focus on the Party’s ideological and political buildup in the military, and maintain its political orientation while building an education system for the new era,” Xinhua, the official state-controlled news agency, reported last week.

For US President-elect Joe Biden, the corridors of the White House will have a distinctly Cold War chill after his inauguration on January 20. And so will the other halls of power in Washington and across the capitals of the democratic world.