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“Dangerous storms” in China

The heirs of Lenin and Mao declare a new Cold War


Chinese President Xi Jinping waves during an event to introduce new members of the Politburo Standing Committee on Oct. 23 in Beijing. Associated Press/Photo by Andy Wong

“Dangerous storms” in China
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Vladimir Lenin may have died almost a century ago, but the founder of Soviet communism’s system of totalitarian control endures in the world’s most populous nation. That is the main takeaway from Beijing, where the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) recently concluded its Party Congress and affirmed General Secretary Xi Jinping’s continued dictatorship.

As General Secretary of the CCP, Xi now stands as the most powerful Chinese communist leader since Mao Zedong. Xi is visibly proud of his stature, but it is a dubious inheritance. As the party’s founder and China’s dictator for a quarter century, Mao became the worst mass murderer in human history, responsible for the deaths of over 60 million Chinese citizens.

Following Mao’s death and his successor Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, for many years the CCP duped many Western business and political leaders by seeming to abandon its Marxist command economy for some form of capitalism. Such hopes inspired the trillions of dollars in American and European investment capital that gushed into China over the past few decades, and the corresponding diplomatic embrace of Beijing by Western political leaders.

China may have temporarily liberalized its economy and enjoyed years of record growth, but all along it held fast to its Leninist political system of one-party control of the government and military. There is a straight line from the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when the CCP murdered thousands of peaceful democracy demonstrators, and the People’s Congress of 2022, when Xi Jinping solidified his hold as dictator-for-life.

Perceptive Sinologists, straining to read the Politburo’s tea leaves, noted that Xi’s interminable speeches to the Party Congress were notable for what he did not say. For the past two decades CCP leaders reliably intoned that China was in a “period of important strategic opportunity,” and that “peace and development remain the themes of the era.” Both phrases were intended to reassure domestic and foreign audiences of China’s good intentions and commitment to prioritizing economic growth over international aggression. Xi jettisoned this boilerplate. He holds a darker view of the world situation and China’s role in it.

Instead, Xi warned of “dangerous storms” afoot and issued renewed threats to Taiwan. His minacious declaration that the democratic island’s reunification with the mainland “must” and “can, without doubt, be realized” notably eschewed any commitment to peaceful negotiations. Have no doubt, this was a threat to use force against Taiwan.

The Party Congress should also euthanize any lingering hopes in the Western business community that economic engagement can help reform the CCP.

The Party Congress should also euthanize any lingering hopes in the Western business community that economic engagement can help reform the CCP. In purging the last few (relative) reformist voices from the Politburo’s Standing Committee, and emphasizing “security” over the economy in his address, Xi reaffirmed what has been clear for some time now: He prioritizes power over profits, and communist ideology over economic pragmatism. For several years he has also tightened the Party’s control over the Chinese business community by purging or otherwise co-opting entrepreneurs and CEOs such as billionaire Alibaba founder Jack Ma.

Or, to put it another way: while the CCP has embraced Soviet founder Vladimir Lenin all along, under Xi it is rediscovering Karl Marx too.

Communist ideology includes an official doctrine of atheism, and state hostility to any independent religious belief or religious organizations. Xi Jinping and his fellow Marxist cadres have studied the end of the Cold War, and they ascribe the collapse of Soviet communism in significant part to the people’s loss of faith in Marxism-Leninism and the resilience of Christians living behind the Iron Curtain.

No surprise, another hallmark of Xi’s rule has been escalated persecution of Chinese Christians and tightened control on all religious activity. It is perhaps a sign of the CCP’s fear and loathing of religion that the state news outlet shrieked that I am a “right-wing academic” engaged in an “an extreme campaign to ‘peacefully’ overthrow China's socialist system” merely because of my support for a Christian ministry working for religious freedom in China.

One difference between the Cold War and now is that in the struggle against Soviet communism, the United States and evangelical Protestants had a steadfast ally in Pope John Paul II, who led the Vatican’s principled anticommunism. Sadly, the current Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis, takes a more supine approach to Chinese communism. It is telling that the same week that Xi Jinping consolidated his power, the Vatican bowed the knee again to Beijing in conceding the CCP’s power to select Chinese Catholic bishops, and refusing to condemn China’s ongoing genocide of Uighur Muslims.

American Christians must gird ourselves for hard days ahead in the contest with China. We must be steadfast in supporting Chinese Christians and other freedom advocates even while standing firm against the CCP. The first Cold War ended three decades ago, but now a new one is upon us.


William Inboden

William is a professor and director of the Hamilton Center for Classical and Civic Education at the University of Florida. He previously served as executive director and the William Powers Jr. chair at the William P. Clements Jr. Center for National Security at the University of Texas at Austin. He has also served as senior director for strategic planning on the National Security Council at the White House and at the Department of State as a member of the Policy Planning Staff and a special adviser in the Office of International Religious Freedom.


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