What China Wants
And how the CCP will try to get it
To review the relationship between China and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), please read the primer for this article, “Why is the CCP important?”
A quick search of “what China wants” or “what the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants” yields results like global domination, replacing the US economic order, becoming a world superpower, a modest revision of global governing institutions, and a whole host of other prognostications. Discussion of such abstract goals (as accurate or inaccurate as they may be) too often fails to take into account what the CCP declares its own goals to be. American observers too often rely on their American perspective to interpret the CCP’s actions instead of the Chinese perspective.
The CCP is often all too desperate to communicate its goals, but is handicapped by its own inability to speak without relying on the crutches of marxist-leninist CCP jargon. This overly complicated language is most often released in mandarin chinese, which only compounds the culture gap.
When it comes to countering the CCP, US decision makers need to at least have a baseline understanding of the CCP’s outlook, goals, and methods.
Conveniently for policy makers and China observers, in 2011 the Chinese government released a white paper on “China’s Peaceful Development.” (CN) This white paper laid out China’s path to development and explicitly stated an updated version of China’s “core interests,” which are in effect CCP directives that the Chinese government must achieve and cannot compromise on. They consist of “state sovereignty, national security, territorial integrity, national reunification, China’s political system established by the constitution, overall social stability, and the basic safeguards for ensuring sustainable economic and social development.”
On the surface, these “core interests” seem either vague or exceedingly obvious. Any country is going to want “sovereignty” or national security, but there is a fundamental difference in the way that Chinese officials and US policy makers perceive these concepts.
An example of such a difference was in 2009 when President Obama told Hu Jintao, then chairman of the People’s Republic of China and general secretary of the CCP, that the US would agree to respect China’s core interests. In making this statement President Obama unintentionally employed CCP language to approve of China’s ambitions across the board. Chairman Hu walked away from the meeting with a perception of US support for Chinese territorial claims and CCP domination over Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, the East China Sea, and other regions. Hu did promise to respect US core interests in return, but the US does not maintain a “core interest list” to respect, making the meeting a complete win for the Chinese delegation in exchange for “feel good” diplomacy. The CCP was playing Go, while the US was playing Go Fish.
It is no coincidence that the first core interest listed in the white paper is “state sovereignty.” For the CCP, everything stems from sovereignty (主权), which can be defined as absolute and perpetual CCP control over state power. The follow-on core interests of national security, territorial integrity, and national reunification, etc. are not so much independent core interests as they are perceived prerequisites for the CCP’s sovereignty. Indeed, this is why the “Taiwan question” remains a “core of core interests” (CN) for the CCP. The CCP rightfully believes that if they cannot gain control over Taiwan and achieve the core interest of territorial unification, their absolute control over Chinese state power will be at risk.
A key difference between how the CCP and US view sovereignty comes down to perception of self in relation to other countries. The CCP believes that Han Chinese people occupy a position less than what they are owed by the rest of the world and are actively working to change this through the “Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation” (中华民族伟大复兴, a uniquely Han Chinese endeavor). The US can be described as a saturated state, one which is content with its current relative level of hard power, economic prosperity, diplomatic influence, physical borders, etc. The US has far less inclination to change the status quo.
CCP Strategic Approach to Assert Sovereignty
The CCP maintains that the current world order serves other countries at China’s expense. The party seeks to change this in two ways. First, by perverting the existing international system to allow for PRC development at the expense of other nations, and second, by seeking to establish a competing PRC-centric system which locks in CCP advantages (Global Security Initiative, Global Development Initiative, Global Civilization Initiative).
This strategy gives rise to strange situations where the CCP adamantly defends things like the PRC’s “developing” status with the World Trade Organization, while simultaneously cultivating discourse power as if PRC is amongst the most powerful countries in the world.
The PRC also supports UN efforts that help Belt and Road Initiative projects, but will then completely disregard and continue to violate the decision made at the 2016 Philippines v People’s Republic of China arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Yang Jiechi (the former foreign minister of China) said it best when he stated, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” The CCP believes that other nations should listen to China because it is a “big country” that is on its way to becoming a “strong country” (强国). In a PRC-led system, might makes right and “small countries” do not have the power to reject the demands of “big countries.”
Xi Jinping himself mentioned that “the vast Pacific Ocean is broad enough to accommodate our two big countries [PRC & USA],” creating concern for those countries that do not have the same standing as the US or CCP in foreign policy. In the most recent summit in November, Xi actually elevated China’s position from “big” to “major,’ stating, “major-country competition is not the prevailing trend of current times and cannot solve the problems facing China and the United States or the world at large. Planet Earth is big enough for the two countries to succeed...” Once again, this should cause concern for non-”major” countries (looking at Japan, South Korea, Australia, even Russia).
In contrast to this, the US sees the current international system as a type of federalism. While current international organizations initially enabled the US, these institutions have steadily transitioned into a forum and framework for international cooperation. In the modern day, there are many cases where these frameworks actually work against the interests of the United States.
How the CCP Perceives Threats to Sovereignty
Put simply, anything that inhibits or could potentially inhibit the CCP’s ability to assert complete control over state power is viewed as a threat to sovereignty. At the moment, the main internal threats to CCP control are slowing economic growth, local government debt, a struggling private sector, corruption within the CCP, youth unemployment, localized unrest, and an aging population.
To remedy these issues, the CCP started a Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI) investigation into corruption (CN) within the Party, established a centralized bureau within the National Development and Reform Commission to support private business (interesting move), pushed the People’s Bank of China to implement interest rate cuts and pump more cash into the economy, encouraged women to adopt a childbirth culture, and launched many other domestic initiatives.
If private citizens or companies don’t adhere to the above CCP whims, the party is able to rely on punitive measures to increase compliance. Citizens and companies that do adhere to party goals can receive benefits, preferential financing/loans, tax cuts, etc. While the party assumes and sometimes encourages CCP officials to be corrupt, a step out of line can bring harsh repercussions. CCDI scrutiny (under which some CCP officials have committed suicide), dismissals (see Qin Gang and Li Shangfu, or worse).
Adherence through oppression is also a common factor in cases where individuals are charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble (寻衅滋事),” something widely used to silence human rights lawyers or deal with individuals who act against the CCP at low levels (this includes all sorts of aggrieved victims who complain to higher authorities).
How the CCP Deals with External Threats to Sovereignty
The CCP, much to its chagrin, does not have the same domestic ability to directly affect external threats to sovereignty. Dealing with foreign critics or combating other nations’ foreign policy is a more complex task than direct and brutal domestic repression.
That doesn’t mean the CCP doesn’t attempt to replicate its domestic repression apparatus abroad. CCP “police stations” in foreign countries, Ministry of State Security (MSS) and Ministry of Public Security (MPS) overseas covert operations, and electronic surveillance of dissidents are all commonplace. In the case of more high profile threats to CCP sovereignty (South China Sea & Taiwan), these are met with air and maritime gray zone tactics such as air patrols into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone (ADIZ), maritime militia incursions into territorial waters, and a wide variety of other malign activities.
Setting the above tactics aside, there are two non-kinetic ways the CCP seeks to squelch sovereignty threats abroad.
The first is more tangible. The CCP still abides by the age old adage of “凡是敌人反对的，我们就要拥护，凡是敌人拥护的，我们就要反对” or “We should support whatever the enemy opposes, and oppose whatever the enemy supports.” This is apparent in Ukraine, the Middle East, the Korean Peninsula, and many other regions. While the US continues to pour billions into Ukraine in the form of military aid (depleting its own stores of munitions in the process), the CCP helps Russia evade sanctions and has fueled the Russian defense industrial base by providing technology and dual use equipment (e.g., ceramic for body armor and over 30,000 civilian drones) to Russian defense companies. While China does receive economic benefits from this (for example re-selling cheap Russian LNG to Europe), it is far more likely that this assistance is part of an affordable effort to further embroil the US into conflicts outside the Pacific.
A similar situation is China’s support for Iran. China continues to supply Iran with drone parts that are then exported to Russia for use in Ukraine and are also likely used by Houthis in Yemen. China and Iran also discussed the transfer of other technologies and materials for rocket and ballistic missile fuel. By materially supporting the enemies of the United States, China is able to draw the US further into regional concerns that in reality hold little strategic value for the US.
The above distracts the US from Pacific strategic issues (like Taiwan and Chinese aggression in the South China Sea) and allows the CCP to operate with more flexibility. On a side note, considering Beijing’s new “all-weather strategic partnership” with Venezuela, it will be interesting to see what assistance China provides to Maduro should he decide to invade Guyana.
The second method to manage external threats to sovereignty is through discourse power and disinformation. While less tangible, these methods more aggressively permeate international civil society. Discourse power is best defined by Lu Wei, the former Minister of the Beijing Propaganda Department and former head of the Cyberspace Administration of China (CAC). He stated, “national discourse power is the influence of a country’s ‘speech’ in the world.” The deputy director of the CAC later stated, “whoever sets standards has discourse power.” In essence, discourse power is a country’s ability to set the agenda for the international news cycle and dictate what topics are discussed or (more importantly) buried.
In a 2021 study session the Politburo emphasized, “[the Party] must focus on grasping the tone, being open and confident as well as having modesty and humility, striving to build a credible, lovable and respectable image of China.” In the same meeting, Xi Jinping further emphasized that China must “form international discourse power that matches our comprehensive national power and international status,” and “create an external public opinion environment that is conducive to the reform, development and stability of our country.”
This second point hits home at the crux of “wolf warrior diplomacy,” which is incredibly aggressive diplomacy involving storming out of meetings and shouting at foreign counterparts. By behaving this way, the CCP is able to adjust the standards of conversation and shift discussion away from topics that threaten their control (Taiwan independence, Uyghur genocide, crackdown in Hong Kong, etc.). Diplomats, politicians, academics, and analysts in other countries then become unwilling to talk about these issues out of fear of being attacked by the CCP propaganda machine. As Congressman Gallagher mentioned in the Select Committee on the CCP hearing on discourse power on November 30, “The war has already started on the most important battlefield, which is in your mind [...] the CCP sometimes calls it ‘cognitive domain warfare,’ and it is part of their larger political warfare strategy.”
In this sense, discourse power is not just a defensive tool for protecting the CCP against criticism on strictly China-related issues, it is also an offensive tool for shaping the way that people talk about issues in countries that threaten CCP sovereignty (namely the US). Disinformation plays into discourse power as a method of shaping narratives and guiding how people talk about issues.
What can the US do?
Name and shame. As a recent article in the Financial Times pointed out, there are many individuals from the US and other western countries who are almost certainly working on behalf of the CCP by spreading disinformation and promoting CCP narratives abroad. In one such case, Hua Chunying, the Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs of China actually lauded one American who supports the CCP on Chinese and international social media platforms. In return for “telling China’s story well,” these individuals often receive cash prizes or other support (free lodging for media trips, free travel, free equipment, etc) from Chinese government organizations. To combat this, news outlets and social media users can identify these individuals and directly dispute the disinformation they push out on platforms. Additionally aspointed out on Sharp China, the most notable American CCP supporters should be audited by the IRS, as it is unlikely they pay taxes on gifts they receive from CCP-affiliated organizations.
Establish a Combined Joint Intra-Agency Information Command. While this is something that is unlikely to happen in the short term, there are already moves to establish bilateral coordination to address CCP disinformation campaigns. The major issues with these fledgling efforts are numerous. They lack direction on how to combat disinformation, are so far limited to MOUs, are primarily limited to the highest levels of government, and are highly fragmented. Having such a command would streamline information efforts across nations, services, and agencies, and would be a proactive measure to deal with tactics employed to facilitate the CCP’s malign intent. As things currently stand, US and Allied information operations are fragmented and isolated. In order to combat the CCP this must change.
Block CCP controlled/directed social media. The effects of TikTok are well documented and to our longtime readers we have written about the dangers of TikTok ad nauseam. The data from the recent Select Committee hearing on discourse power is below and it further illustrates how a CCP controlled algorithm influences social consciousness.
More on Discourse Power
Below is an excerpt from the Atlantic Council’s research paper “Chinese Discourse Power” on how the CCP (specifically the PLA in this case) uses disinformation to shape discourse.
Abroad, China’s information operations are more covert and less effective than its efforts on domestic platforms, mostly because, with domestic platforms, they can control the mechanisms themselves at home. Despite the fact that there has been an increasing trend of Chinese officials adopting a more confrontational approach when engaging foreign actors, the tactics rely primarily on outsourcing the operation to third parties and utilizing “astroturfing” and “sockpuppets.” For this study, the DFRLab focused on Facebook and Twitter as the main Western social media platforms on which the CCP attempts foreign interference. According to Puma Shen, assistant professor at National Taipei University, the CCP has “content farms” in Malaysia and in Taiwan, which are used to spread pro-party messaging. A content farm is a website established to create a high volume of highly trafficked articles. Content farms do not actively manage their content—in that they crowdsource articles while providing no editorial control— leading many articles to include false and excessive information. After creating the articles, content farm operators recruit—and often financially compensate—individual social media users to help spread them. Researchers, such as Puma, assert that such strategies of hiring third-party contractors are meant to conceal content that would otherwise be able to be traced back to the CCP. Since many of the fake Facebook pages used during the 2020 Taiwanese election were shut down or deleted, the PLA relies on outsourced freelancers in Malaysia or overseas Chinese nationals to disseminate content farm-originating disinformation across Facebook, which avoids detection and direct association between these entities and the government.
Failures in domestic content generation for foreign audiences has resulted in a two pronged approach. The first (and most effective) prong is censoring sensitive topics. This can be seen in the TikTok data below. The easiest way to shape a narrative is to censor a sensitive topic out of existence, essentially lobotomizing the social consciousness. The second prong is foreign pro-CCP content generation. As mentioned above, the CCP has historically struggled with this outside of China, but in recent years the CCP changed tactics to focus on recruiting western (primarily white) foreigners who “can tell China’s story well.” The Financial Times released an article on this, naming a number of foreigners who are almost certainly involved in CCP influence/disinformation campaigns.
Example of Discourse Power: CCP directed TikTok vs Instagram
In the recent hearing on discourse power the Select Committee on the CCP identified that TikTok is almost certainly silencing pro-Israel, pro-Ukraine, pro-Uyghur, and pro-Tibet content, as well as any mention of Tiananmen Square. The visualizations below are made from data that TikTok provided to the Select Committee.
Allowing TikTok to continue operating in the US with a CCP controlled and directed algorithm is an affront to the freedoms that American citizens hold dear.