The Chinese people, President Xi Jinping proclaimed in 2016, “are fully confident in offering a China solution to humanity’s search for better social systems.” A year later, he declared that China was “blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization.” Such claims come as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been extending its reach overseas and reverting to a more repressive dictatorship under Xi after experimenting with a somewhat more pluralistic, responsive mode of authoritarianism.
Many Western politicians have watched this authoritarian turn at home and search for influence abroad and concluded that China is engaged in a life-and-death attempt to defeat democracy—a struggle it may even be winning. In Washington, the pendulum has swung from a consensus supporting engagement with China to one calling for competition or even containment in a new Cold War, driven in part by concerns that an emboldened China is seeking to spread its own model of domestic and international order. Last October, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence decried China’s “whole-of-government” effort to influence U.S. domestic politics and policy. In February, Christopher Wray, the director of the FBI, went further: the danger from China, he said, was “not just a whole-of-government threat but a whole-of-society threat.” Such warnings reflect a mounting fear that China represents a threat not just to specific U.S. interests but also to the very survival of democracy and the U.S.-led international order.
This fear gets the challenge from Beijing wrong. Not since the days of Mao Zedong has China sought to export revolution or topple democracy. Under Xi, the CCP has promoted “the Chinese dream,” a parochial vision of national rejuvenation that has little international appeal. China’s remarkable economic growth under previous leaders came from experimentation and flexibility, not a coherent “China model.”
Since 2012, China’s growing authoritarianism and resurgent state dominance over the economy have dashed Western hopes that China would eventually embrace liberalism. And China’s actions abroad have
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