We live in a strange and significant time. A global pandemic – an event not experienced for over a century – is devastating the lives and livelihoods of millions. Ensuing lockdowns have caused a recession that may be the most disruptive economic event since World War 2. And major power politics have entered what is surely their most tense moment post-Cold War.

This complex international environment has brought into focus some of the fundamental differences shaping our modern world, a world which increasingly appears to have split into geopolitical "poles". At one extreme are the values of freedom, democracy and human rights associated with the liberal democratic West, namely the US, Western Europe and white settler states like Australia. At the other end is the culture of hierarchy, order and collectivism that defines authoritarian systems, above all that of China. Both have their strengths and weaknesses, as this pandemic has surely taught us.

Make no mistake about it, these two cultural spheres are on a collision course. As Huntingdon wrote in his controversial work, The Clash of Civilisations, disputes over culture and values are one of the hallmarks of international political conflict. They occur "when a state attempts to promote or impose its values on the people of another civilisation."

The West, with its Christian missionary heritage, has long sought to convert other peoples to its own ideals. Now, as China grows more confident on the global stage, it too strives to assert its principles on others. The result is a clash of cultures and values that has become acutely visible in recent months.

Sino-American tensions have evolved into a Sino-Western clash (Rising Powers Project).

Sino-British Scuffle

Take the situation in Hong Kong. Despite being part of China in sovereignty terms, Hong Kong has for a long time been distinct from the Chinese mainland in terms of its culture, politics and law. The epitome of that distinction is the freedoms of speech, assembly and judicial independence that exist in the city. They have long defined Hong Kong as an autonomous region, and made it in many ways more Western than Chinese.

Unsurprisingly, attempts by Beijing to encroach on those freedoms, known to Hong Kong's inhabitants as its "Core Values", have led to prolonged disaffection and civil unrest in recent years. Last month, China's imposition of a "National Security Law" on the territory, bypassing Hong Kong's legislature and processes of public consultation, drew widespread condemnation from Hong Kong activists and the Western democracies.

Prominent among those critical voices was the UK, Hong Kong's former colonial ruler, which spoke out against the law, and even offered residency to millions of Hong Kongers. Things came to a head last month, when the British Embassy in Beijing published an article on Chinese social media that sought to fact-check claims made in the mainland China press. (Some Chinese newspapers had been erroneously reporting that the UK government backs Hong Kong independence and tacitly supports protest violence.)

Within only a couple hours, that attempt by the UK embassy to have free discussion on the Hong Kong issue had been seen by over 350,000 people, but was then swiftly censored by China's Internet authorities. No official reason was immediately given for the censorship, just the standard vague message that the content had somehow violated an unspecified law.

So, one week later, the British Embassy issued another post. It lamented the fact the previous article was censored and argued in favour of free discussion and tolerance of different views on topics such as Hong Kong. As the piece (quite cutely) asked, the social media posts of China's diplomats and state media journalists are not censored in the UK. Why, then, should those of the UK embassy be censored in China?

Beijing's usual answer is that such comments amount to interference by foreign actors with no right to a say on issues of Chinese sovereignty. It is not considered meddling, however, if foreign persons and governments express views that support or align with those of Beijing. Indeed, the Chinese government was quick to point out the support for the Hong Kong National Security Law that it received from Cuba and 50 other countries.

Such actions reveal a double standard on Beijing's part, that is a defining feature of its propaganda strategy: as long as foreigners toe the official Communist party line, they will not be accused of "meddling", like the British embassy was, but welcomed with open arms. There is ample evidence of this on China’s state-run English news service, CGTN, which has been actively recruiting foreign writers in recent years. (1)

A screenshot of the British Embassy's post before it was censored (China Media Project/Twitter).

A Threat to Liberal Values

China justifies its censorship and intolerance of different views by saying that the Western media is biased and inherently anti-China, and that this creates an unlevel playing field. I am able to sympathise with this point: a lot of US and UK reporting on China is unfair, loaded and inaccurate. This has become particularly apparent during the coronavirus crisis, as I have previously touched on.

But Western media outlets, like all others, are imperfect institutions, subject to bias and undue influence. And while some may be purposefully pursuing and selling an anti-China slant, there is a broader reason for their demonization of Beijing. For Western journalists, China's illiberal media environment is the antithesis of the values on which they consider their work to be founded, above all the principle of press freedom. It makes sense, therefore, that the West's media should be so critical of and even hostile to an authority that threatens its very existence.

Despite their many faults, Western newspapers and broadcasters operate in a realm of genuine press freedom, unlike their Chinese counterparts. Take the BBC, for example, the UK's public broadcaster. In its TV and radio programmes, you can hear a range of genuinely different views being exchanged; criticisms of government policy are not just tolerated but expected; and the limits of what is kosher extends even to unflattering jokes about the head of state and her family. (Our apologies, your Majesty.)

Such things are unthinkable in China's statist system, and Beijing doesn't usually try to pretend otherwise. Rather, it says that the country's unique national conditions require a different kind of governance and media environment. When the US chose to label Chinese media outlets as foreign missions, Beijing had no grounds on which to dispute that fact. Instead, it responded by expelling over a dozen American journalists.

Rising International Tensions

These tit-for-tat geopolitical exchanges have been escalating, and not just over Hong Kong. In the Himalayas, for example, a skirmish last month between Indian and Chinese soldiers resulted in multiple casualties for each side, the first such combat deaths for decades. India has since seen anti-Chinese protests and a ban on over fifty Chinese apps, including the popular TikTok.

Washington is now also considering a ban on TikTok and other China-made software, adding to restrictions previously imposed on the Chinese hardware of ZTE and Huawei. For now, though, the US has focussed its attention on Tibet and Xinjiang, imposing sanctions on officials involved in alleged human rights abuses.

If there is one thing that all of these issues have in common, it is that they are set in China's disputed border regions: Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang and the South China Sea archipelago. These are what Beijing calls "inseparable parts of China since ancient times". (They were in fact mostly conquered relatively recently through military and economic force by emperors sat in Beijing.) (2)

China's imperialist system survived for over 2,000 years before its decline in the mid nineteenth century, when the Western powers, Japan and Russia sought to exploit it. This culminated around 1900, with an anti-foreign uprising by local militia called 'Boxers' fighting an alliance of Britain, Russia, Japan, the US and European powers. The Boxers, together with the ruling Qing dynasty, were defeated, and that effectively spelled the end for imperial China which, by 1912, was replaced by a republic.

In recent times, many of those same Western powers appear again to be coordinating against China, with notable exceptions such as Russia and Germany. But many governments remain perplexed by Beijing, unsure of the most prudent approach to take towards it. Should they stand up for rights and values against a strategic competitor? Or do such attempts only serve to exacerbate underlying geopolitical tensions?

A cartoon from the Boxer Rebellion era depicts foreign powers trying to divide up China (Bibliothèque nationale de France).

Growing Chinese Assertiveness

In 1994, Nixon concluded that "China's economic power makes US lectures about human rights imprudent. Within a decade it will make them irrelevant. Within two decades it will make them laughable." This prediction seems to have been quite accurate. In 2020, Western attempts to influence China on values such as press freedom and free expression have increasingly little impact. In fact, they are very possibly counterproductive.

Chinese leaders and citizens resent Western power and the threat which they feel it poses to their culture, society and success on the global stage. Decades of sustained economic growth and growing international influence have made China more confident in its own system of censorship and highly regulated information. In Beijing's view, allowing too much freedom of thought and discussion could result in another challenge to its legitimacy – like that of the 1989 democracy movement – or even bring about fundamental regime change, as it saw happen in the USSR in 1990.

The result is that as China's economy has continued to grow, its government and people have become increasingly affirmed of the validity of their values and institutions, seen as superior to those of a terminally degenerate West. In broad terms, this Chinese value system is described as a “Confucian” or “Ruist” one. That is to say, it is founded on values of authority, hierarchy, and the subordination of individual rights to those of the collective state and society.

It is, furthermore, a system which emphasises consensus and "saving face" in place of confrontation or the adversarial exchange of ideas. Clearly, there are inherited cultural factors behind China's present-day approach to restricting political or intellectual discussion.

Nixon in Shanghai in 1972, the start of a very different era for Sino-Western relations (Bettmann/Guardian).

The Embedded Costs of Illiberal Governance

The Communist Party of China (CCP) clearly believes that its illiberal value system sustained power and stability within Chinese borders for the past seven decades. Indeed, Beijing has in recent years only intensified its control over the media and academia, restricting an already tiny space for dissent or civil society activities.

But while this has in many ways been an effective strategy for Beijing, it is also an Achilles heel for China’s ruling party. As I often hear people remark, censorship and media control are a sign that the government is afraid. “If a ruler were confident in his power," they say, "then he would not feel the need to block out dissenting voices."

For all the authoritarian benefits of censorship and media regulation, it also clearly incurs enormous costs on the regime. Ultimately, these are costs that do not serve Chinese interests, but actually damage them in several key ways:

Cost 1 – Creativity and Cultural Soft Power

While authoritarian systems may be excellent at maintaining social order and dealing with crises (such as this pandemic), they are terrible at promoting creativity and the flourishing of ideas. China is testament to this fact. Despite its incredible economic rise, there are still very few globally successful Chinese brands or icons of popular culture.

Some of the few possible examples are from Hong Kong and Taiwan, figures like Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Teresa Teng. But even these are somewhat outdated, the hackneyed memories of a bygone era.

Perhaps the most well-known Chinese brand today is Huawei; unknown a few years ago, it is now recognised around the world (though not for the best reasons). And the most globally famous contemporary Chinese artist is probably Ai Weiwei, a dissident now living in exile, whose Bird's Nest olympic stadium is largely forgotten in his home country.

Beijing may have no trouble amassing the economic, territorial and military assets of hard power. But as long it continues to stifle free thought and creativity, the country will struggle to complement those hard assets with any of the soft power of cultural or ideological exports.

Huawei and Apple – targets in an evolving US-China technology war (Roman Pilipey/EPA/Shutterstock/NYT).

Cost 2 – Trust from Other Countries and Peoples

Huawei offers a segue into another one of the costs that China suffers because of its state-controlled system: the true independence of its companies operating overseas. Beijing has long wished to create businesses that are global leaders or "national champions" in strategic areas. And it has seen some success in traditional industries such as energy and metals.

But in other areas, like Internet technology, it is facing growing backlash internationally. Foreign governments and consumers do not feel they can trust Chinese companies, which are required by numerous laws to comply with anything the CCP asks of them. For example, handing over the sensitive data of overseas users.

This risk is clearly starting to hurt the global interests of China Inc. Huawei may soon disappear from the telecoms infrastructure of the UK and much of Europe. TikTok and over 50 other Chinese apps have now been banned by India, with other countries contemplating similar action.

Cost 3 – The Image of a Positive, Benevolent Power

The Chinese Government under Xi Jinping desperately wants to improve its image overseas. It has poured billions of dollars into propaganda, diplomacy and international investment. But all of this gets forgotten amid the illiberal policy actions that Beijing takes at home.

Perhaps the best example of this is the repression the CCP is pursuing in Xinjiang, of which we have learnt more in recent weeks. According to reports, a forced sterilisation campaign has been underway in the region, causing birth rates to fall by around 25%. This is on top off forced family separations, prohibitions of cultural activities and imprisonment for a range of spurious charges.

Meanwhile, back in Beijing, the authorities recently detained Professor Xu Zhangrun, a respected academic who, for two decades, taught law at China’s most prestigious school. His crime? “Prostitution,” said the official line. In reality, he was held in jail for several days because of some critical essays that he wrote about Xi Jinping.

No wonder then that China continues to be seen as scary and sinister. This image problem was captured brilliantly in a South park episode last year. In it, one of the main characters gets caught selling cannabis in China and sent to a work camp where he meets Winnie the Pooh (who has been censored in China because of his perceived resemblance to Xi Jinping).

As that episode showed, China's rulers command little respect from the world's TV viewing audience. Perhaps it's because, to put it mildly, authoritarianism just isn't 'cool'. And if China wants to be a popular major power one day, as I believe it certainly does, then the Communist Party has to find a way to make itself 'cooler'.

Winnie the Pooh's cameo in the South Park episode "Band in China".

Cost 4 – Transparency in Times of Crisis

The fourth and final cost that I will mention is one that became very apparent during the early days of the coronavirus crisis. It is the lack of transparency and factual information flows that result from institutional fear and cover-up culture.

This is how the coronavirus outbreak started in Wuhan, where doctors, after attempting to report this grim unknown illness, were arrested by local authorities on the charge of starting rumours. Some of them, most notably a young man called Li Wenliang, later tragically died of the disease themselves. In the meantime, the novel coronavirus has spread around the world. And while its transmission has been effectively contained within China, it has come at enormous economic, humanitarian and reputational cost.

As long as there is a climate of suppression and silencing within Chinese politics and civil society, there is every possibility that similar or even more serious disasters will happen again. Many have tried and failed to predict the Communist Party’s downfall, and I will not seek to join them. But a future calamity, if not resolved to the same degree of success, may well prove to be Beijing’s Chernobyl moment.

Conclusion – Towards a Multi-Polar World?

It is, fortunately, not my job to advise the Chinese government on geopolitical strategy (though I can imagine that to be a both fun and infuriating task). Nevertheless, as someone who has lived at the intersection of China and the West, I feel an imperative to engage in critical discussion of the two value systems. Rather than seek to promote a Western universalism, I have tried here to highlight a few areas where Beijing’s policy direction may be harming its strategic interests.

Another thing I’ve attempted to do is reflect on the Western culture that I come from, and the Chinese system in which I now live and work. There are, of course, times where it is necessary to self-censor and tread carefully on sensitive issues. (That is a fact of life everywhere, but especially in illiberal political settings like China’s.) What matters most is that we don't lose sight of the bigger picture – of the principles that have made us who we are, and which we hope to take forward into the rest of our lives.

This need for reflection is especially true at a time of significant upheaval, as our world is now experiencing. Rather than simply focus on the next few years of a new electoral or business cycle, the question all of us should now be asking is this: What kind of world do we want to live in one, two or three decades from now? A planet determined by the 'pole' of freedom, democracy and human rights? Or one dominated by the illiberal values of authoritarian rule?

Maybe this is an excessively binary assessment of the current state of geopolitics. Perhaps we will not need to choose, and human civilization will evolve in a multipolar direction. The result would be a perpetual state of two major powers and systems coexisting, as was the case during the Cold War.

But it has not usually been so during peacetime. In modern world history, as in the traditional Chinese view of political power dynamics, the norm has been to have a single pre-eminent power. As the old Chinese saying goes, "There are not two suns in the sky, so there cannot be two emperors on earth." (天无二日,民无二王) (3) Whether this is true also of the current Sino-Western clash over values and culture, only time will tell.


(1) For more about how Beijing’s recent efforts to recruit foreign apologists online, see this informative blog post by Thomas Brown, “How China is Influencing YouTubers into Posting State Propaganda”.

(2) China's territorial claims expose an awkward reality of its place in the modern world. While the CCP has long presented itself as a modern force rising up against backward imperialism, the vast territory over which it now exercises sovereignty is in fact the relic of an ancient imperial system. For more on the topic, see this well articulated piece by journalist James Matthews.

(3) From the Book of Rites (禮記), a collection of texts attributed to the teachings of Confucius, dating from the Warring States Period (c. 475-221 BC).