Red Scare Rising: A New Cold War with China?

It began as a trade conflict (Roots of the U.S.-China Trade Conflict), but recently it has escalated into a drive to start a new global Cold War with China. On July 23, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave an ominous speech titled “Communist China and the Free World’s Future.”  He warned that China seeks the “global hegemony of Chinese Communism”  and  sees a deadly contest between “a free 21st century” and “the Chinese century of which Xi Jinping dreams.”  If we fail to act now, he warned, “our children’s children may be at the mercy of the Chinese Communist Party.” He adds that the new communist threat is even more insidious than the previous one: “The USSR was closed off from the free world. Communist China is already within our borders.”

The growing hostility toward China is also found in elite circles that do not support Donald Trump’s administration. The New York Times has long served as a voice of the politically centrist U.S. elite, and in recent years it has run articles criticizing some aspect of China almost every day. Although the message is not an explicit call for a new Cold War, the articles and op- eds support “getting tough” with China.

Such a new Cold War poses serious dangers. Coupled with racist rhetoric and misplaced fears about the coronavirus, it  has stimulated the spread of anti-Asian racism – more than 2,100 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported over a period of two months in the U.S. this year. A full-blown new Cold War would shift domestic politics to the right, making it difficult or impossible to address long-festering economic and social problems. And a new Cold War could explode into a disastrous military confrontation between nuclear-armed states.

Furthermore, the recent Cold War portrayals of the Chinese government and ruling political party are not based in reality. China does not have the capacity, today or in the foreseeable future, to pose a threat to the way of life in the West, nor is there reason to believe China aims at world domination. 

What evidence is there that the Chinese Communist Party is aiming for world domination? One could point to its expansive claims about sovereignty over nearby waters that are valuable for fishing and may have undersea minerals. That causes problems for China’s neighbors, but it seems to be standard policy for nation-states about disputed border regions. If China decided to claim sovereignty over waters near the United Kingdom, Brazil, or the United States, that would be cause for concern. But the only government that actually claims the right to dominate the seas far from its shores is, of course, the United States.

Another oft-repeated claim is that official Chinese policy aims for “domination” of the key industries of the future. The basis for this claim is supposed to be a Chinese policy document “Made in China 2025,” which the New York Times regularly has described as a plan that “aims to dominate cutting-edge sectors like artificial intelligence and mobile technology.” The actual document contains no mention of seeking to dominate key industries. Instead, it explains the goals of China’s industrial policy as fostering innovation, improving product quality, pursuing green development, and developing workers’ talents.

Some new Cold Warriors even claim that China imposed a devastating pandemic on the world. The respectable media regularly state that China tried to hide the coronavirus when it first broke out in Wuhan, allowing it to develop into a global pandemic. However, it was not the government in Beijing but low-level local officials who tried to hide the evidence, fearing criticism from above. As soon as the central government and party leadership got wind of it, they investigated, learned the truth, and rapidly instituted policies that successfully contained the virus in China. Chinese officials quickly sequenced the DNA of the new coronavirus and published it on the internet on January 11, less than two weeks after the outbreak had been discovered. 

Another charge is that China’s hi-tech companies, some of which have been establishing a presence in global markets, represent an espionage threat or even the possibility of future sabotage of U.S. infrastructure. The Trump administration has leveled such claims in its campaign to destroy Huawei, which has become a leading producer and installer of 5G networks. Although justified on grounds of national security, that effort appears intended to preserve the long-standing and highly profitable U.S. technological dominance of hi tech sectors. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman revealed an offer from Huawei’s CEO to grant a license to any U.S. company to manufacture, install, and operate Huawei’s 5G network in the United States, including the right to change the software code, thus eliminating any possibility of Chinese espionage. The Trump administration ignored the offer.

Socialists should oppose the call for a new Cold War against China, which would do nothing to benefit working people. Instead of Cold War hostility, the United States should respond to China’s rise through negotiations aimed at resolving points of conflict in ways that would avoid harm to working people in either country from the rapidly changing relationship. 

U.S. politics are at a crossroads with the approaching election in November. The Democrats have a good chance of winning the presidency and majorities in both houses of Congress. If that happens, although the first order of business will be to gain control of the COVID-19 pandemic, there might follow a period of domestic reform. Given the huge pressure from below for progressive policies, there might be  progress toward reducing economic inequality, attacking structural racism, moving toward environmental sustainability, and providing robust public services. However, domestic reform and a new Cold War will not mesh. Failure to move away from the developing Cold War could end up negating the otherwise promising conditions for a period of progressive change.