Beijing has repeatedly accused its critics of having a ‘Cold War mentality.’ But is being a Cold Warrior really something to be ashamed of? Not if we’re fighting for the cause of freedom against expansionist authoritarianism.
It has been a constant refrain among Chinese officials and party-controlled media over the years to accuse whomever opposes China’s expansionist and militaristic ambitions of having a “Cold War mentality.” Rather than shed light on the actual motivations of Beijing’s critics, however, the sobriquet serves little more than as a blanket term to silence and discredit.
Underlying the accusations is the notion, unrelentingly encouraged by Beijing despite ample evidence to the contrary, that China’s “rise” and emergence as a regional superpower is benevolent, natural, and inevitable. Following that logic, which according to Beijing should not be questioned, any criticism or policy that does not yield to this narrative is invariably proof of containment — the U.S. policy against its Cold War opponent, the Soviet Union — and therefore a Western-led (racist) conspiracy to keep China in a state of subjugation.
Thus, any country that has disagreed with China’s territorial ambitions in the disputed South China Sea has been accused at some point of espousing a “Cold War mentality,” especially if those countries formed countervailing alliances or sought security assistance from the United States. The U.S.-Japan alliance, continued American support for and arms sales to Taiwan, and even reports by American government agencies on the Chinese military have all been described by Beijing as reinforcing a “Cold War mentality.” And without doubt, Beijing’s sustained propaganda effort is giving the term a negative connotation as something that is both retrograde and uncivilized, irresponsible in the face of supposed Chinese rationality.
This attempt to discredit opponents has also extended to journalists and academics who write about China, including those who have conducted research on ties between the Chinese intelligence and propaganda apparatus and ostensibly regular Chinese think tanks, research institutions and civic organizations worldwide. Stating the facts, even when such findings are supported by open source material provided by Chinese institutions, is also grounds for accusations of having a “Cold War mentality.” Conversely, one can only not have a “Cold War mentality” if he or she ignores all the evidence and unquestionably regurgitates Beijing’s official narrative of a “peaceful” rise — despite the aggressive behavior of the PLA and militias, the artificial island-building in the South China Sea, the rampant militarization of a hitherto natural environment, the co-optation of individuals by intelligence and propaganda units worldwide, a rapid expansion of PLA capabilities, and the increasingly fascist/racialist nature of Chinese nationalism. We are not to question China’s intentions.
…it is, just as the previous global conflict, a struggle pitting freedom and democracy (however flawed and defined) against a model that invariably subjugates the individual, silences critics, and has extraterritorial ambitions both in the physical realm and in the realm of ideas.
Ironically, by using references to the Cold War, the Chinese apparatus does make a valid point: the Cold War was indeed a binary conflict opposing two ideologies. And in both cases, the underlying issue was the fact that one side was characterized by authoritarian/totalitarian systems of governance which repressed the populations they controlled and acquired through territorial expansionism. No doubt the other side, the “free” world, was not without its flaws and contradictions, as was made very clear by U.S. support for allies whose human rights track record was far from enviable. Nevertheless, the guiding principle was the defense of democracy and of countries that refused to be overtaken by an even less palatable model, that proposed (and often imposed) by the USSR. With the benefit of hindsight, it is difficult to argue that the world would have been a better place had Moscow won that battle against the West.
The challenge we face today is similar, and no matter how much China strives to convince us that its intentions are noble and peaceful, the fact remains that its political system is arguably the most successful authoritarian/repressive system to have emerged in the past century, one that furthermore has built upon the lessons of the USSR’s demise to bolster its resilience. The detrimental effects of the “China model” on democratic institutions worldwide, and upon the countries in the Asia-Pacific that are most vulnerable to a growing Chinese sphere of influence, are enough in and of themselves to convince us that China’s “peaceful rise” is anything but, and that its emergence as a global player is neither a benign nor a normal occurrence. It is, in fact, analogous to the shadow of Soviet domination, and nearly three decades after its demise, we know enough about the USSR to know of the terrible conditions which prevailed in the countries that fell under its dominion.
While China’s ambitions (so far) aren’t as colonial in nature as was Soviet expansionism, the extension of repression that accompanies Chinese influence, and the replication of models that have been used rather efficiently to silence dissent in China, is enough to warrant pushback by nations and individuals that have no interest in adopting such means of governance. With Russia, China is the engine of the democratic regression that Freedom House and the National Endowment of Democracy, among others, have been warning against in recent years.
So yes, some of us may have a “Cold War mentality,” but the connotation need not be a negative one. On the contrary, it is, just as the previous global conflict, a struggle pitting freedom and democracy (however flawed and defined) against a model that invariably subjugates the individual, silences critics, and has extraterritorial ambitions both in the physical realm and in the realm of ideas. Of course not everything is bad about China’s rise, and I am not one to argue that as a large and modernizing nation it should not have its place as a major player on the international scene. But we cannot also ignore the fact that it is controlled by a repressive, authoritarian, and increasingly paranoid regime that has no compunction in corrupting others in the furtherance of its objectives. A rising China is one thing; when its model threatens to change us and to undermine that which so many have sacrificed so much to preserve, we cannot afford to ignore the ramifications and try to do something to mitigate the negative effects.
If pointing these things out earns me the sobriquet, then let it be one that I embrace wholeheartedly and wear as a badge of honor: I am a Cold Warrior.