A People’s Liberation Army soldier tries to stop a photographer from taking photos at Tiananmen Square during the Communist Party's annual congress in Beijing on May 28, 2020. The events at Tiananmen Square in 1989 remain one of the most widely censored topics in China. Photo: EPA-EFE
by Michael Chugani
by Michael Chugani

US-China relations: new cold war a struggle over information, not democracy

  • This new economic and technological cold war’s most potent weapon is not ideology but information, which gives China an advantage and the US-led West a handicap
  • The West is handicapped but not doomed in this struggle, but it cannot count on glasnost taking place in today’s China to win this time round

A cold war. Extreme competition. Strategic rivalry. Call it what you want, what matters is a prolonged struggle for supremacy between the United States and China is under way.

Great power rivalries rarely end in indefinite stalemate, which means there can only be three outcomes: the US remains the dominant global power, China replaces it or a hot war decides.

Neither side wants the latter. A shooting war will send the world reeling. Let’s not think about how it would devastate Hong Kong, a front line in the US-China rivalry.

This new cold war – US President Joe Biden calls it “ extreme competition” – is a struggle between democracy and President Xi Jinping’s assertive authoritarianism.
Despite Xi’s urging multilateralism at last month’s Davos forum – where he pleaded for international rules, openness and inclusiveness – critics say China is doing the opposite. They have cited Beijing’s boycott of certain Australian goods for urging an independent coronavirus inquiry, its South China Sea behaviour and intimidation of Taiwan.


China-Australia trade: Beijing set to ban nearly US$400 million worth of Australian wheat imports

China-Australia trade: Beijing set to ban nearly US$400 million worth of Australian wheat imports
China bans Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter, and it imposes tight controls on foreign media. Even so, it spewed moral outrage at former President Donald Trump’s restriction of mainland media and apps on reciprocity grounds.
We saw that outrage again last week when Britain revoked the licence of mainland broadcaster CGTN on the grounds it could not be impartial because it was controlled by the Communist Party. Beijing hit back by banning the BBC World News, but the broadcaster was never widely allowed on the mainland anyway. Access was available mostly in international hotels and diplomatic missions. CGTN is still allowed on Britain’s internet, but China’s internet “Great Firewall” blocks the BBC.

The West won the Cold War against the former Soviet Union with an arms race and by squeezing its economy. The players and facts were different. Many in Soviet bloc countries yearned for freedom.

Mikhail Gorbachev, who headed the Soviet Union in the mid-1980s, was a reformer who emphasised glasnost, or openness, that allowed greater freedom. He knew the Soviet Union’s collapsing economy and inability to match then-US president Ronald Reagan’s arms build-up would lead to defeat.


Are Xi Jinping’s China and Donald Trump’s US destined for armed conflict?

Are Xi Jinping’s China and Donald Trump’s US destined for armed conflict?
Glasnost in today’s China? Forget it. Xi leads a rising country with a strong economy and military which believes it should rightfully be the global top dog. There’s no Berlin Wall to be dismantled, only an unassailable Great Firewall that fans nationalism by censoring the internet.

This new economic and technological cold war’s most potent weapon is not ideology but information – controlled versus free-flowing information. This deals China an advantage and the US-led West a handicap.

Democracy won the old Cold War, but democracy is its own worst enemy in the new one, especially in the age of the internet. Beijing prevents US leaders from speaking directly to the Chinese people about the virtues of democracy.

However, democracy allows China’s “wolf warrior” diplomats to spin Beijing’s propaganda on CNN, the BBC and at think tank talks. Xi’s Davos speech is readily available on the internet, but anything critical of China that Biden, Trump or US politicians say is heavily censored or banned on the mainland.

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WeChat and TikTok can take the US government to court for banning them. Some US judges have ruled in favour of mainland apps, citing free speech. Could WhatsApp or Facebook successfully challenge their ban in mainland courts?
When Mike Pompeo was secretary of state, he made many speeches highly critical of the Communist Party. Those were only relayed in filtered form by Chinese state media, though, unlike when China’s wolf warriors make speeches or do TV interviews in the US.

US media can refuse a platform to mainland diplomats and leaders, but it won’t because of free speech principles. Banning wolf warriors would allow Beijing to mock the US for banning free speech even though China is the global leader in limiting free speech.

Democracy is handicapped in this new cold war, but that doesn’t spell defeat. What it does mean is the West can’t count on glasnost to win this time round.

Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong journalist and TV show host