Why Ideology still Matters in Chinese Foreign Policy: China’s Quest to Create an Alternative Global Political Ecosystem Commentary
Photos: Wikipedia, Collage: JURIST
Why Ideology still Matters in Chinese Foreign Policy: China’s Quest to Create an Alternative Global Political Ecosystem
Edited by: JURIST Staff

The recent inflating of U.S.-China tensions has popped the illusion that Washington and Beijing might be able to limit their antagonism to economic competition, as the scuttling of a high-level diplomatic summit in Beijing over the shooting of a Chinese spy balloon recalls the postponement of an Eisenhower-Khrushchev meeting in 1960 following the downing of an American U-2 spy plane over the Soviet Union.

As talk of a “New Cold War” between the United States and the People’s Republic of China becomes ever more ubiquitous, the question of the purpose of this conflict becomes even more pressing, and at the center of that is the issue of ideology.

Many have argued that China’s declared economic system of “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” in fact amounts to the adoption of capitalism and that the basis of Communist Party of China (CCP) rule, and its claim to legitimacy, is continued economic growth, which ultimately militates in favor of private-sector reforms and against international conflict. Consequently, ideology is said to take a backseat to pragmatism in the policymaking priorities of the Chinese leadership.  Conflict between China and the United States, according to this view, is about a battle for the economic spoils of global hegemony more than an ideological conflict a la the original Cold War. This interpretation of the conflict relies on an overly rigid understanding of what ideology is and the role that it plays in policymaking.

Ideology is a systematically simplified method of understanding reality that facilitates judgment and action. Reality itself is paralyzing in its complexity.  An ideology simplifies matters.  It helps pick out the most salient data points and fit them into pre-existing narratives which makes it easier, for example, to tell friend from foe. In the case of the PRC, its anti-imperialist ideology shapes its perceptions of threats and helps it understand the motivations and likely actions of other states by imputing motivations to them. China’s perceptions of the United States, therefore, cannot necessarily be changed by American actions in linear manner, meaning that American actions will always be interpreted through the prism of Chinese ideological convictions.

The interpretation of a PRC motivated by pragmatic economic concerns also misunderstands the nature of CCP ideology both before and after the reforms that followed the death of Mao and arrest of the “Gang of Four” in the late 1970s. In fact, China under Mao was never as committed to exporting the economic model of the centrally planned economy as the Soviet Union was, and it never became as pragmatically focused on economic benefit as some have portrayed it as being during the reform era. Rather, an ideology focused on anti-imperialism was central to Chinese foreign policy both under Mao and subsequently in the reform era, and, though it has changed in nuanced ways, it has become more important in recent years as Xi seeks to solidify CCP control, prevent a Soviet-style collapse, and increase Chinese influence on the world stage.

Though the PRC and the Soviet Union claimed adherence to the same Communist ideology, in fact, the origins of the two revolutions were very different, and this difference remained critical to the legitimizing narratives of CCP versus CPSU rule, as well as to their foreign policies. The history of the Chinese revolutionary movement, including the Chinese Communist Party, is centered on a particular version of anti-imperialism.  This version of anti-imperialism has its origins in the supposed humiliations suffered by China from the depredations of European imperialism beginning with the First Opium War in 1839 and continuing until the establishment of the PRC in 1949, dubbed by the CCP the “Century of Humiliation.” There are two elements that distinguish the Chinese version of anti-imperialism: the consciousness of a great empire brought low by culturally inferior outsiders, and, as a consequence of that interpretation, the belief that such humiliation was ultimately caused by internal weakness, without which the foreigners could never have succeeded.  Consequently, the mission of the Chinese revolution, going back to the “Self-Strengthening” movement of the 19th century, has always been to re-establish China’s dominant place on the world stage by reforming its domestic political economy to create a more powerful state. Domestic reform therefore has always served an instrumental purpose, namely the return of China to its central place in the international arena.

This is in contradistinction to the Russian revolutionary experience, which was first and foremost about the internal transformation of society along more just and egalitarian lines. The Russian revolutionary tradition was focused on the internal distribution of power more than on Russia’s place in the world.  Communism, the ideology around which both the PRC and the USSR were built, conflated the struggle against capitalism with the battle against foreign imperialism, but the reality of the differences between the two countries’ revolutions was reflected in their priorities.  For Moscow, anti-imperialism served the purpose of anti-capitalism.  In other words, the purpose of fighting against Western power was to establish socialism around the world.  For Beijing, anti-capitalism was a tool to further anti-imperialism. If capitalism was holding back poorer countries’ development and making them subservient to the West, then it needed to be replaced by socialism.

In practice, these differing priorities led to very different foreign policies. The Soviets adopted a policy of “Peaceful Coexistence,” seeking to tamp down on revolutionary violence and interstate conflict to direct states’ energies towards socialist development.  Meanwhile, the CCP leadership sought to revamp the global power structure in favor of Asia, Africa, and Latin America, with itself in a leadership role.  Mao sought to turn his slogan “The East Wind Prevails over the West Wind” into a political and institutional reality. On a global scale, this meant seeking to build a developing country alliance to use the “global village” to surround the “global city,” encourage armed conflict that would distract and sap the power of the United States, and replace key institutions with ones more friendly to the PRC, such as creating a Council of New Emerging Forces (CONEFO) to replace the United Nations, from which the PRC was excluded.  In terms of bilateral aid, Beijing’s policy at this time was less focused on building socialism that Moscow’s was.  The goals of Chinese aid policy were to gain political allies and encourage economic development, even through the use of the private sector and market forces, in order to build up the resilience of newly independent states and ensure their independence from their former colonial masters. Even under Mao then, Chinese foreign policy in ideological terms reflected the priority of anti-imperialism over anti-capitalism, or Communism.

The supposed pragmatism and economic orientation that followed China’s “reform and opening up” period after 1978 under Deng Xiaoping, therefore, was not really as much of an ideological discontinuity as many imagined. For a time, Beijing perceived the Soviet Union as posing a greater imperialist threat both to China and to the world at large than the United States posed. After the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union collapsed, and protests rocked Tiananmen Square, that perception changed. Perhaps nothing has concerned the CCP leadership more over the past three decades than avoiding the fate of their Soviet comrades. CCP officials and Chinese scholars have spent countless hours trying to understand the Soviet collapse in order to ensure the survival of CCP rule.  It seems as if Xi Jinping’s greatest nightmare is looking in the mirror and seeing Mikhail Gorbachev staring back at him. The lessons that China’s leaders have drawn from the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR are therefore crucial to understanding what they see as keys to their continued survival and success.

Contrary to interpretations that see the legitimacy of the CCP as based on economic growth, one of the key lessons that China’s leaders have drawn from the Soviet collapse is the importance of ideology. Specifically, they see the infiltration of Western values, in particular Western conceptions of freedom and democracy, as corrosive of support for the Party, regardless of the economic prosperity that greater openness might bring. Hard power, as the Soviet example indicates, is no protection from this sort of insidious cultural and ideological penetration, and what is ultimately at stake from Beijing’s perspective, is not only CCP rule, but the very independence of China, which they believe is impossible without the CCP. As Politburo member Yao Yilin stated at a Central Committee meeting only four days after the crackdown at Tiananmen Square, “The bourgeois republic they [our students and intellectuals] planned to establish would eventually become a vassal state attached to a certain imperialist or capitalist nation. Without the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and socialist system, it is impossible for China to exist in the world as a genuine independent state.” Western values and culture therefore are fundamentally at odds with anti-imperialist ideology from the CCP’s perspective because they not only threaten Party rule, but they threaten China’s independence.

The problem is that, as hard as the CCP leadership might try, and they are certainly doing the best that they can, playing defense against the incursion of Western values and culture will never be enough. A world in which the PRC is the lone prominent holdout against a rising tide that sees free speech, multiparty democratic elections, freedom of religion, and other supposedly Western values as normative is one in which the CCP’s days in charge are numbered.  China’s leaders know they cannot afford to swim against the tide forever, especially if Western cultural products, imbued explicitly or implicitly with Western values, retain their attractiveness especially among youth.  The degree to which the Color Revolutions and the Arab Spring were instigated by Western plots or merely inspired by Western rhetoric is ultimately less significant than the perception that history is moving in a certain direction and people come to believe that sooner or later, most states will follow.

Consequently, Beijing’s perceptions of the threats to its independence mean that it finds itself in a global ideological struggle whether it wants to or not.  As Mareike Ohlberg has written, China is focused on increasing its “discourse power,” meaning its ability to shape global conversations around political and economic values. China’s intense reaction to the Biden Administration’s announcement of its democracy summit, including publishing a White Paper titled “China: Democracy that Works,” shows that while it knows that it cannot fight against the popularity of the concept of democracy, it can seek to shape the understanding of the term in ways that better fit its own system. A world in which democracy is taken by all to mean a multiparty system is one in which CCP rule is ultimately doomed.

Redefining terms such as democracy, however, is not enough to build China’s “discourse power.” China must also offer a positive value system on its own terms, and it is increasingly attempting to do so. China’s “Great Security Initiative” proposed by Xi Jinping on April 21, 2022 at the Baoao Forum for Asia’s annual conference is an explicit attempt to promote an international system based on an appeal to Chinese values at the expense of Western values. According to one leading Chinese scholar explaining the new initiative, “Western countries observe and handle foreign affairs based on the values of individualism and self-centeredness (本位主义).” In contrast, “Chinese civilization has a strong awareness that ‘the world is one family’ and advocates a shared, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security concept, which is it a far higher level than the ‘winner takes all values’ of Western civilization.” China is increasingly promoting its own culture, history, and values as alternative to the West because it perceives itself to be caught in a zero-sum ideological struggle. Xi does not think he has the option of choosing to put forth China’s own values and ideology or not, as some outside observers might imagine.  Rather, the struggle for “discourse power” is ultimately existential, because the lesson of the Soviet collapse is that CCP rule is ultimately untenable in a world where Western values remain dominant.

As a result, it is not enough for China to seek to establish a sphere of influence in East Asia, where it could be the predominant economic or even military power.  China is also seeking to build something like an alternative political ecosystem. This is an effort which has been gathering steam particularly since 2017 and is particularly evident in the increase in CCP activity along party-to-party lines.  Late 2017 saw the first World Political Parties Dialogue, including representatives from almost 300 parties from over 120 countries. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed the goal of this meeting saying that “The construction of a new type of international relations…is not only the historical duty that China, as a big socialist country, should undertake for the development of human society, but also the historical mission that the Chinese Communists should advance for the progress of human political civilization.” A second CCP and World Political Parties Summit was held virtually in July 2021, this time with over 500 parties and organizations in some 160 countries present, at which Xi proposed in his keynote address that the “CCP in Dialogue with World Political Parties High-Level Meeting be institutionalized as a platform for high-level political dialogue with broad representation and international influence.” China recently opened the Mwalimu Julius Nyerere Leadership School, its first political party school, just outside of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and taken in its first batch of students from six African countries. All of this is being overseen by an important but rarely mentioned institution, the International Liaison Department (ILD) of the CCP Central Committee, which has become increasingly active over this period.

The ILD is an institution without parallel in most Western democracies because it is an artifact of the party-state system. As set up by the Bolshevik Party in the USSR, most state ministries had parallel departments within the Party’s Central Committee where most of the decision-making power actually resided, while ministries existed largely to fulfill decisions that had been taken inside the Party. In the case of foreign policy, however, the responsibilities were somewhat different, as the International Department was responsible for relations with other Communist Parties while the Foreign Ministry was focused on relations with foreign governments, especially Western ones. After the dismantling of the Comintern in 1943 and the Cominform in 1956, the Soviet International Department basically internalized the functions of running the International Communist Movement, as it was called. This meant not only providing consultation and advice, but also money, aid, weapons, and training to various parties, movements, and guerilla groups that Moscow supported.  Despite its small size of only 200-300 people, the International Department played a central role in the formation of Soviet foreign policy because it was in charge of the most sacred cause of the Soviet state – making the world revolution.

In the PRC, the ILD never played as powerful a role. Its function before the Cultural Revolution, when it was decimated, was largely restricted to maintaining relations with other Communist Parties, a role that it resumed after Mao’s death. In the post-Cold War world where the Communist Bloc was a thing of the past, the ILD initially seemed likely to fade in importance, but by the late 1990s it began to expand its writ to develop relations with parties of all kinds.  According to David Shambaugh, by 2001, it maintained relations with 418 parties in 147 countries and was sending or receiving about 300 delegations per year. The ILD’s activities increased significantly after Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2012, as the number of meetings with representatives of non-party organizations more than tripled between 2012 and 2014, while party-to-party meetings in China jumped from about 75 to 170 per year over the same time period. With the advent of world political party summits since 2017 under ILD auspices, its role only continues to grow, and some of its activities are coming more and more to resemble those of the Soviet International Department.  Rather than focus merely on maintaining party-to-party ties, the ILD is increasingly involved in education and training, for example holding a virtual seminar for the Congolese Party of Labor on how “the ruling party can play a leadership role.” The Nyerere Leadership School, founded by the ILD together with the ruling parties of six African countries in July 2018, is the most concrete evidence yet that the ILD’s role as the ideological arm of Chinese foreign policy continues to expand.

The identity of the six African ruling parties points to the ways that the PRC is leveraging its revolutionary anti-imperialist legacy to increase its “discourse power.” The six ruling parties – Tanzania’s CCM, South Africa’s ANC, Mozambique’s FRELIMO, Angola’s MPLA, and Zimbabwe’s ZANU-PF – are all parties organized along Leninist lines that have ruled their countries since independence, or in the ANC’s case, since the end of apartheid. They all had close relations with the CPSU or the CCP, or both, during the Cold War. They are all potentially vulnerable to accusations of corruption due to their entrenched status, and they all rely on narratives of liberation from imperialism – just like the CCP does – to maintain popular support against opposition forces. Cooperation with the CCP through the ILD is both politically convenient and ideologically congenial. As the ILD continuously expands its remit and its circle of contacts around the world, it is able to create what are effectively concentric circles of ideological influence.  These range from the innermost circle of Leninist parties with whom the CCP shares a history of socialism and a commitment to single-party rule to an outermost circle where ILD rhetoric can be limited to bland pronouncements of a shared desire for peace, dialogue, non-interference, and development. The very fact that the ILD is playing such an ever-expanding role in PRC foreign policy demonstrates the importance of ideology to China’s objectives since it shows that Beijing is seeking a way to influence outsiders beyond state-to-state or economic arenas. The expansion of ILD is one of the clearest examples of how China is seeking to create its own political ecosystem to expand its “discourse power.”

Ideology therefore represents an element of continuity across the history of the PRC, and even the pre-1949 history of the CCP. Chinese anti-imperialism began with the shock of a country that had long seen itself as the epitome of civilization suddenly being brought low by barbarian attack, and it has remained ever since at the center of Chinese revolutionary consciousness: the purpose of the revolution is to restore China to its proper, central, place in the world. Along the way, Beijing has used its advocacy of anti-imperialism to seek to build a constituency of similarly oppressed and aggrieved states around the world that have a common interest in overthrowing the Western-dominated international order.

However, now, as during the Cold War, we should be careful not to overestimate the appeal of a Chinese-led world order. During the 1960s especially, many policymakers in the West feared that the Chinese appeal for an Asian-African-Latin American bloc would prove irresistible, but it never did.  Despite the fears of these policymakers, political leaders in much of the developing world felt that they either had more in common culturally with the West, or that still wanted to believe in Western ideals or institutions.  Even Julius Nyerere, the Tanzanian president for whom the PRC’s new African leadership school is named, famously wondered about the numerous Chinese experts flooding into his country in the 1970s were really up to. Similarly former Angolan President Jose Eduardo dos Santos, leader of the MPLA from 1979-2018, and the recipient of billions in Chinese investment, pointedly refused to attend any of the meetings of the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation.  Then, as now, it is important for Western leaders not to overreact to the Chinese ideological appeals.  We should not assume that political leaders in the developing world will buy what Beijing is selling.

Paradoxically, Western ideals were, and are, less appealing the more fervently they are pushed.   The more Western leaders speak openly about the value of democracy and criticize non-democratic actions elsewhere, the more they put their own societies under a microscope and invite accusations of hypocrisy. During the Cold War, both the Soviets and the Chinese focused on racial oppression and social disruption in the United States as evidence that America was a country of lies and divisions.  Today, China and Russia continue to seize on any piece of evidence that can offer evidence of American decline and hypocrisy, and they are continually seeking to create media outlets than can amplify this message on the global stage. This battle for control of the global media narrative is a central element of the battle for “discourse power.” The answer to China’s quest for “discourse power” then is not to shout our own values ever more loudly to reaffirm their power, but rather to let China’s efforts become self-defeating as their targets come to reject a new form of anti-imperialist imperialism.


Jeremy Friedman is the Marvin Bower Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. A historian of Russia, he has published two books on Cold War history, including most recently Ripe for Revolution: Building Socialism in the Third World (Harvard University Press, 2022). 


Suggested citation: Jeremy Friedman, Why Ideology still Matters in Chinese Foreign Policy: China’s Quest to Create an Alternative Global Political Ecosystem, JURIST – Academic Commentary, February 17, 2023, https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2023/02/Jeremy-Friedman-US-China-Policy/.

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