In justifying the need for “strategic competition” with China, both Democrats and Republicans rely on the argument that China is an authoritarian threat to democracy that must be stopped. Authoritarianism is indeed on the rise in China, and we should all be concerned about the future of democracy, but in the United States the greatest threat to democracy comes not from overseas but from the authoritarian movement that is on its way to taking over the Republican Party. And stoking the U.S.-China rivalry will only strengthen the forces lined up against democracy, both at home and abroad.
Authoritarianism and nationalism are on the rise around the world, driven by long-term dysfunctions in the global economy that have yielded intensifying competition and an overall sense of insecurity, alongside high levels of inequality within and between countries. These trends make it easier to inflate narratives of foreign and domestic threats and increase the appeal of authoritarian visions of national unity.
The growing rivalry between the United States and China is part of this global story. It is fundamentally a zero-sum competition for economic and military power, embraced in the United States by elites who are committed to perpetual hegemony, which necessitates containing a rising China. Criticisms of the Chinese government’s violations of human rights and democracy—in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, for example—are used to paint a veneer of high principle over a nationalistic struggle for power. This struggle will, however, ultimately prove incompatible with democratic ideals.
In the wake of the Trump presidency, anti-China nationalism has become increasingly important to Republican politics, and thus also to the rise of authoritarianism in the United States. Fearmongering about China—and, all too often, about people of Chinese descent—is now a recurring theme in right-wing media, at conservative conferences, and in GOP election campaigns. The importance of anti-China nationalism to GOP strategy was suggested in a 2021 memo by Indiana Republican Congressman Jim Banks, in which he argues that “opposition to China” will help the GOP to position itself as the “Party of the Working Class.” Banks, who supported the effort to overturn the 2020 election, credits Trump’s anti-China politics as one of the reasons for Republican gains among working-class voters in 2016 and 2020. He proposes that Republicans promote the narrative that China is (along with immigrants) a threat to American workers, while arguing that “Democrats’ coziness with China results from their coziness with Wall Street.”
This anti-China populism allows a party that opposes worker-friendly measures like the PRO Act, increases to the minimum wage, and the federal job programs in the Build Back Better package to pin working-class discontent onto a foreign scapegoat. The party has also used this strategy on other issues. For instance, Republicans ought to be on the defensive over their mismanagement of the pandemic, but instead they have been pushing allegations that a Chinese lab is responsible for releasing COVID-19. Similarly, Republicans are attempting to draw attention away from the racist authoritarian movement fueling their party by positioning themselves as champions of democracy in the struggle against China.
While the right has invested most heavily in these “China threat” narratives, they also play a role in Democratic Party strategy. Many Democrats hope that bipartisanship rebuilt on an anti-China basis can overcome congressional dysfunction and the radicalization of the GOP. This idea gained widespread currency during the Trump administration among commentators across the political spectrum, and today many are saying that anti-China bipartisanship is the last chance for Biden and the Democratic Party to score some legislative “wins.” (The record in Biden’s first year is notable: anti-China arguments failed to win GOP support for Build Back Better but successfully won bipartisan support for yet another increase in the military budget.) Some Democrats also hope to prove that they are “tough on China” in order to fend off Republican attacks. Both parties sense that this terrain is more favorable to the right. For Democrats, the embrace of anti-China politics represents an adaptation to political weakness in a climate of rising nationalism that provides the authoritarian right with a path to power.
Meanwhile, in China, elites use the U.S. rivalry in ways that mirror the dynamics within the United States. Narratives of Western threats feed nationalist politics at the popular level and thereby provide legitimacy for the Chinese government and its repressive policies. It is a standard tactic for Chinese authorities to justify repression through nationalistic narratives, claiming that Uyghurs, feminists, labor activists, and other targets of state persecution are instruments of hostile foreign forces. The more that people in China feel threatened by the United States, the more powerful these narratives become.
This rivalry also threatens democracy in a growing number of countries caught in between China and the United States. We are already seeing, for example, increased U.S. military support for India and the Philippines, while criticism of the highly repressive governments in both those countries is muted or nonexistent—in large part because they are important partners in the U.S. government’s anti-China strategy. It isn’t difficult to imagine the return of the geopolitics of the Cold War, in which the United States waged a conflict in the name of freedom and democracy but engaged in catastrophic violations of those ideals across Latin America, Asia, and Africa.
We need an alternative that will allow us to avoid a calamitous conflict between the United States and China and the threats to democracy that will come with it. As we fight for multiracial democracy and equality in this country, we must also embrace a renewed internationalist politics to transform the global system. There remain opportunities to pursue cooperation with China and other countries to confront shared challenges, such as the pandemic, climate change, and structural problems of inequality and zero-sum competition. By building a politics of cooperation rather than competition, we can improve the lives of working people around the world, take the wind out of the sails of authoritarian-nationalist politics, and lay a foundation for deeper and more radical forms of global solidarity.
Tobita Chow is the founding director of Justice Is Global, a special project of People’s Action to build a just and sustainable global economy and defeat right-wing nationalism. He is a leading progressive strategist regarding the U.S.–China relationship and the rise of Sinophobia in the United States.