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The China Challenge: America as a Rising Power
The U.S. can flip the script on Beijing by positioning itself as an underdog
By Zachary Shore
Chinese leaders insist that America is a declining power. It’s time to counter China’s narrative by turning it on its head. The Biden administration is wisely attempting to “build back better.” In the process, it should embrace the role of underdog. If framed correctly, this narrative shift could undercut China’s PR strategy, rally America’s allies and foster national unity. Getting the narrative right is the key.
Beijing is attempting to discredit America in the eyes of the world, and especially in the eyes of its neighbors. Its leaders aim to supplant American influence with their own by consistently pointing out signs of America’s waning power. Unfortunately, some aspects of their story are not wrong. The U.S. has been failing to fix its myriad woes. It is not just America’s infrastructure that is deteriorating. Its life expectancy is falling, much as Russia’s did after the Soviet Union’s collapse. U.S. educational achievements have plummeted, so that it must import foreigners to work in the tech industry. Too many Americans lack basic critical thinking skills, allowing conspiracy theories to warp perceptions and fuel unrest. And while many metrics of national prestige are sinking, homelessness and suicide rates continue to rise.
All this is fodder for Beijing’s narrative that America is in decline, but that narrative overlooks America’s remarkable ability to right itself. If Congress passes a massive infrastructure spending bill, it will potentially set the country on a course correction. The legislation will at least provide some means with which to reverse these disturbing trends, as long as American leaders acknowledge their severity. The question will then be how best to engage with China’s narrative of American decline.
Flip the Script
America’s leaders could embrace the role of underdog and turn Beijing’s narrative on its head. Although the U.S. possesses a dynamic economy, entrepreneurial elan, enormous capital (both financial and human), an energized civil society, impressive humanitarian organizations and military power that reigns supreme, Beijing’s depiction of American decline remains largely unchecked. But there is a way to combat this perception: The trick is to flip the script.
America’s passionate defense of free speech and the right to protest injustice tend to focus attention on the country’s woes, making it seem as though the nation is caught up in relentless turmoil. In contrast, because of China’s state-controlled media, it is easy for Beijing to depict China as a land of glorious achievements. We are told that Chinese citizens have seen the rise of safe streets; clean public spaces; and gleaming new buildings, roads and bridges, as well as a rising standard of living. Chinese citizens, unlike their Soviet-era counterparts, can travel freely, and most choose to return home.
That story is, of course, true, but it masks another side. China’s social ills are many. Buildings shake and sometimes collapse from shoddy workmanship. Scarcely one week before the Miami condominium collapse, a residential building in Hunan province suffered the same fate, but China’s media kept the cameras rolling on Miami. A few weeks later, a three-story hotel in China crumbled, killing at least eight. The list of building collapses In China is so long and tragic that there is even a Wikipedia page devoted to the subject.
Construction happens overnight thanks to the government’s disregard for the environment and indifference to its citizens, who can be forcibly evacuated from their homes. City dwellers willingly wear masks not just to stem the spread of COVID but to shield themselves from intense pollution, though the Chinese government has taken steps to reduce the toxic effects of pollution on both the environment and its citizens’ lifespans.
Despite China’s improvements, many Chinese nationals would rather live in America. Chinese companies profit from “birth tourism,” enabling pregnant women to visit the U.S. soon before they give birth so their children can obtain American citizenship—a practice that should be banned. Parents are often desperate to get their teenage children into U.S. universities, and America has eagerly accepted hundreds of thousands of them.
The picture is not as rosy as Beijing presents to the outside world. While China likes to focus on America’s internal issues, U.S. leaders should not retaliate by spotlighting China’s domestic ills but should instead fix its own problems. On the international front, however, it is essential to shine a light on Beijing’s coercive behavior. This is where America must consistently expose Beijing’s actions, both to increase international pressure against China’s aggression and to embolden China’s victims to resist.
While Beijing’s story of its domestic rise is partly true, its narrative about its international actions is mostly fiction. On July 1, 2021, at the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s founding, President Xi Jinping insisted that China would not tolerate “sanctimonious preaching” from other nations that think they have the right to lecture China. Casting China in the role of innocent victim, Xi affirmed that Beijing would not be bullied. “We have never bullied, oppressed or subjugated the people of any other country, and we never will.”
The truth is quite different. Under President Xi, China has intimidated Taiwan with repeated flights into its air space, soured relations with the Philippines by encroaching on its waters, stirred Vietnamese resentments by smashing its fishing vessels, antagonized Australia and New Zealand by meddling in their internal affairs and piling on tariffs, infuriated India by murdering its border troops, and sent chills through democracies worldwide with its naked authoritarian crackdown in Hong Kong. Beijing has even managed to make Canadians mad, an impressive feat, with the arrest of Canadian citizens inside China. In short, Beijing has been simply masterful at sabotaging its own soft power. American leaders could capitalize on its ineptitude.
A New Soft-Power Strategy
The Biden plan to build back better at home and abroad is the sensible approach. Massive investments in infrastructure and human capital can completely undercut Beijing’s entire PR plan if these investments are repeatedly described as part of America’s resurgence. Once the U.S. admits that it has fallen behind, it can be free to set ambitious goals, just as it did with the vaccination drive.
This new American narrative puts China on the defensive, revealing that it seeks to knock down any challenges to its own expansion of power. In fact, Beijing’s leaders privately see their nation as a sort of king of the mountain, knocking down anyone who dares to challenge their authority. When President Trump met with Premier Li Keqiang in 2017, the premier explained that America’s future role would merely be as a supplier of raw materials to fuel China’s dominance in the global order. When other countries recognize that Beijing intends to keep America down, those nations will understand that they, too, will be treated as inferior under a Beijing-centric world order.
Despite their many skills, there is one concept that China’s leaders seem incapable of grasping: You catch more flies with honey than vinegar. In the international arena, that concept is pivotal. Victories hinge on it. When great powers clash, the winner is often the one with the more robust alliance system. At present, China’s allies, if they could be called such, are limited to Russia, Pakistan and North Korea. America must take that grouping seriously, as it would form a nuclear Legion of Doom. But if Beijing understood the true value of alliances and how to forge them, it would look with envy at the alliance system that the U.S. has built. That system could grow even stronger if America were seen as the one on the rise.
For all his egregiously destructive policies and behavior, President Trump got at least two major issues right: China is a threat, and American workers have been ignored. Casting the U.S. as a rising power adroitly tackles both problems at once. It inspires current allies and attracts potential new ones. It shows that America admits its many failings and is actively working to correct them, rather than repeatedly asserting that the U.S. is No. 1.
It also gives Americans a positive mission, to rise again, which is something that nearly everyone can get behind—except for the most rabid extremists, who place party pettiness over patriotism. The U.S. had such a bipartisan moment after Sputnik, when all acknowledged that America had fallen behind the Soviets in not only the space race, but also education. China has had no single shocking success. In contrast, its Sputniks have been silent, swift and steady. This has made it harder to rally Americans to action.
The Limits of Spin
Although we must avoid specious Cold War analogies, at least one aspect of that conflict can inform our present position. Like China’s leaders today, Soviet leaders cast their people in the role of victim. In the Russian case, they were cast as prey to capitalist exploiters and American imperialists. But Soviet leaders’ actions belied their story. Soviet brutality could not be narrated away.
The Berlin Blockade of 1948 epitomized one of Stalin’s earliest postwar blunders. He showed the world that Russia would not hesitate to strangle a foreign city, cutting off all supplies to innocent civilians. In doing so, he enabled America and its allies to play the role of savior, literally descending from the heavens in an airlift, armed with lifesaving goods. It was one of America’s shining moments, before the CIA-sponsored coups, support of right-wing dictators and the Vietnam War so deeply tarnished America’s global standing. But eventually, Soviet cruelty outpaced American missteps.
Beijing is increasingly adopting some aspects of the Soviet role, and it is doing so in the same Orwellian fashion. When President Xi proclaimed that China would never be bullied again, he perhaps unwittingly echoed Soviet-era rhetoric. The irony is that Beijing is the true bully, coercing, coopting and crushing opposition at home and abroad. Its neighbors have felt the force of Chinese intimidation, mainly through economic pressure and increasingly from military maneuvers. Its attempts to soften the sharp end of its aggression reveal how poorly Chinese leaders understand soft power.
Despite Beijing’s spin, there are signs that China’s image globally has been dropping under Xi’s leadership. A 2021 Pew survey found that unfavorable views of China have risen to 73% in both the U.S. and Canada, 74% in the U.K. and a stunning 81% in Australia. Among its Asian neighbors, China’s appeal is also falling. In a recent survey of more than 1,000 Southeast Asian citizens, respondents said that if forced to align with either the U.S. or China in their geostrategic rivalry, 61.5% would choose America. When asked this same question in 2020, 46.4% had chosen China. One year later, that support had dropped to 38.5%—a remarkable decline in light of China’s intensive distribution of vaccines.
Beijing has been ham-fisted in its efforts at public diplomacy, even limiting vaccinations to some of its own citizens in order to ship doses abroad. China’s leaders imagine that vaccine diplomacy can overcome aggressive behavior on other issues. Foreign aid did not work for the Soviets, and it won’t work for China. Vaccines will be welcomed, but coercion never will.
Ultimately, Xi has handed the U.S. an extraordinary rhetorical gift with the removal of term limits, making him legally able to serve as president for life. But presidents do not serve for life; that is the reign of emperors. Emperors demand obedience; they cannot grasp how true loyalty is earned. They believe they have no choice but to crack down on dissent, smother free speech and exert stringent social control. And when they face no resistance, emperors can round up millions of their subjects, such as the Uyghurs, and lock them in labor camps. Who in China would dare speak out against the government’s crimes when all its subjects know the fate that would befall them if they did?
America’s leaders can rally Americans, as well as the free world, by calling out China’s authoritarian schemes wherever they occur. China must be challenged, but not as a Cold War enemy. The U.S. can succeed in a peaceful competition with China by flipping the script on the China narrative. It can frame its massive infrastructure investments as part of an American resurgence. It can foster free speech both within and about China. It can maintain a global spotlight on China’s coercive actions against other countries. And it can sharpen its soft power by embracing the role of underdog. Rather than making America look weak, such a strategy will give the American-led alliance an energizing jolt of urgency.
The rising power of the U.S., if buoyed by sensible, environmentally sound infrastructure investments at home and overseas, will contrast sharply with China’s economic coercion and military aggression. Eventually China’s aggressive actions will be widely seen as unjust and will solidify international opposition against it. If Beijing does not abandon its bullying behavior, at some point the backlash will be fierce. One day, perhaps soon, America and its allies might defiantly declare that they will never kowtow to Emperor Xi.