Chinese Communism is a Magic Mirror

“We are the Communist Party of China, and we will define what Communism is.” That’s what Chen Yuan, the deputy governor of China’s central bank, told political scientist Tom Robinson at a dinner party in the mid-1980s. It’s one of the most compelling scenes in Richard McGregor’s seminal work, The Party. But for all the times it has been quoted, larger and larger numbers of Western observers of China are demonstrating the exact opposite understanding. Armed with a level of objectivity that could only be afforded to people outside the system, and immune to accusations that they may harbor loyalties to an ancestral homeland, China’s new Watchers grow exceedingly confident in their own abilities to define not just communism, but the ambitions and functions of the Party, and the 92 million people it comprises.

Since the 1980s, the world has enjoyed vicarious access to China through the empathetic eyes and ears of perhaps three hundred foreign correspondents and highly influential expats who live there. The most seasoned China hands produce incisive analysis about the Middle Kingdom, its leaders, and the confluence of personal and professional interests that motivate them. They also tend to share a recognition that China’s Communist Party does not speak for the other 1.3 billion non-Party members, despite its attempts to do so. But as more foreigners are being banned from the country or imprisoned, China is losing some of its greatest public diplomats — and their nuanced views.

It’s not just that veteran reporters are leaving the country. It’s that their voices, and those of longstanding, foreign-based China experts, are being drowned out by a cacophony of sweeping claims and unfiltered aggression aimed at the CCP and anyone suspected of being affiliated with it. The volume of English-language information about China is ballooning, commensurate with demand. A new newsletter about China is founded every month. People who are not China experts, but who have been tangential observers of its rise, are being platformed sporadically. New voices are entering the China studies field, including young people with limited experience, and older people who are discovering China for the first time.

This surging interest in China is, in many ways, a good thing. New analysts are bringing secondary skill sets and diverse perspectives to the field. But more people are discovering they Also Have Something to Say About China — and specifically, about the threat posed by its Communist Party — at the exact moment expert access to the country is dwindling, racism against Chinese people is on the rise, and debate about U.S.-China decoupling has all but ended. We are living through the popularization of country expertise, akin to the simplification of Russian studies in the 1950s. The result is not a vibrant discussion of policy options to shape the environment into which China rises, but a convergence on some permutation of, “the CCP is evil, and the United States should punish it,” punctuated by vapid memes about China’s strategic culture and mystic wisdom.

I am not a China expert. I spent my formative years studying other autocracies, only to find myself swept up — like so many other people in Washington — in a tidal wave of inquiries surrounding China, its military, and its quest for global influence. But I’ve spent enough time contrasting statements and planning documents from the CCP’s leaders, and analyses written by those who watch them, to understand one thing: Being a China Watcher is dangerous. It is dangerous because, whatever assumptions you start with — about the Party, Chinese companies, or people — you can substantiate. It is easy to convince casual observers that the all-powerful Communist Party is pursuing a strategy of global domination that threatens our very way of life. It is even easier to convince yourself. Yangyang Cheng wrote, tongue-in-cheek, that in China communism is a faith. In the West, it is a magic mirror.

What China Watchers see in the Party is determined in part by their willingness to take seriously what the CCP says about itself. Take Xi Jinping’s July 16 letter in Qiushi, outlining the preeminence of the Party in China’s New Era. “Government, the military, society, and schools, north, south, east and west,” he writes, “the Party leads them all.” For Watchers who were convinced the Party has seeped indelibly into every corner of Chinese society, Xi’s letter armed them with irrefutable proof. Such thinking makes it easy to argue the Chinese people cannot be separated from the system that governs them. For others, Xi’s letter reflects the same kind of “cheap talk” as other Party statements — a propagandistic ambition, distinct from reality.

Look, alternatively, to Watchers who believe China has a secret strategy to supplant the United States as a global superpower. Why else would the Party hack the Office of Personnel Management, or target the personal, financial data of 145 million Americans? Why would it so aggressively market Chinese companies’ surveillance equipment, or shove the nine-dash-line down the throats of Western consumers, if it weren’t hellbent on molding the world in its totalitarian stead? These are valid questions, and their conclusions are not unfounded. But to draw meaning out of the Party’s actions and statements fundamentally requires making assumptions. They might be tiny, well-corroborated, seemingly innocuous assumptions — but that is still what they are, and consumers of China news and analysis have a right to know about them.

To the most thoughtful Watchers, writing about China is a painstaking, uncertain process. It should be. Protecting that discomfort is the only way to guard against a flattening China discourse that threatens the livelihoods of Americans, Chinese, and everyone in between. That means aggressively caveating, forcing alternative analysis, mastering precision in wording, and rejecting alarmist analogies, even at the expense of clicks.

The United States should not shy away from the legitimate threats the CCP poses to people inside and outside China. But we are living in a volatile, explosive period of U.S.-China relations. The lines between Party, state, and society are anything but clear, and fading fast. It is incumbent upon China’s new Watchers to be explicit about their assumptions — honest about what they know, and humble about what they don’t. Otherwise, when they look in the mirror months or years from now, they might not like what’s staring back.