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When China rules the world

Xi Jinping’s ideas have conquered China. Now he has his eyes on a bigger prize— the rest of the world

In April 2015, Gao Yu, a 70-year-old female journalist, was found guilty in Beijing’s Third Intermediate People’s Court on charges of leaking state secrets to foreign media. The “secrets” were contained in an internal Communist Party document that had been published on overseas Chinese news websites. The harsh seven-year sentence had the collateral effect of confirming the document’s authenticity.

The document’s full title was A Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere, but as the ninth paper in a General Office of the Party series in early 2013, it soon earned the more popular name, Document Nine. Blessed by the central leadership, it was distributed to government and party officials at all levels, plus the armed forces. It identified, and made “suggestions” to counter, the seven most important threats to the Party’s grip on power—a list of the liberal values and norms that are foundational for western democracies. It decried “constituionalism,” which is—very roughly—what we call the rule of law. Civil society made the list, too, as did the free press and “nihilistic” history—that is, history that failed to put the Party centre-stage as the engine of China’s success.

Meanwhile, it labelled elections, independent judiciaries and national armies (the People’s Liberation Army serves the Party, not the state) as the hallmarks of “anti-China forces.” Universal values and human rights were defined as threats promoted by the same sinister alliance of internal “dissidents” and hostile outsiders, who demanded such inconvenient things as the release of “political prisoners” and anti-corruption reforms.

Though focused on China’s domestic politics, Document Nine can also be read as a map of the ruling Communist Party’s anxieties as it pursues its global ambitions; five years later it reads as an early signal of what is fast becoming a global battle of ideas. The document urged vigilance against the “infiltration” of those dangerous, foreign ideas; today, as China’s global ambitions grow, it is increasingly taking the battle to the source, deploying its formidable economic resources and political muscle to challenge ideas and shape perceptions in the campuses, the communities and the media of the west, and using its weight to bring states and corporations into line with state propaganda.

The stakes in this emerging contest are high for both sides. For China, it is a bid to secure its global position without compromise to its avowedly Leninist political model; for the world’s liberal democracies, it is a test of their willingness to defend their core values of individual liberty, freedom of speech and the rule of law.

Until recently, few in the west would have taken seriously the prospect of ideological competition with China. For the first half of the life of the People’s Republic it was too poor and too consumed with its savage domestic power struggles to pose a Soviet style threat, even less so after its quarrel with the USSR in the late 1950s. Later, when Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” took the country in a more pragmatic direction, China seemed to care more about building economic strength through business than spreading ideology. The Party would stay in power, avoiding the fate of its Soviet counterpart, but the focus was on growth.

By 2012-13, the China that had horrified the world by the brutal suppression of student demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989 had been normalised over many years of economic engagement. Citizens enjoyed more personal freedom as well as more money—provided they stayed out of politics. The state had backed off, or contracted out, important fields of social policy. Proliferating protests against pollution were often ending in negotiation rather than violence. Civil society andintellectual inquiry enjoyed wider boundaries. And all this seemed set to continue as China became more affluent, urbanised and middle class.

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In Prospect’s June issue: Isabel Hilton, Rana Mitter, Kerry Brown and Yuan Ren debate the rise of China and what it means for the UK and the rest of the world. Hilton argues that China’s ideas could dominate the next century, just as American ideas dominated the last. Rana Mitter charts how those ideas have developed from Confucius to modern political theorist Wang Huning. Kerry Brown explores how Australia is dealing with the rise of China, by reimagining itself as an Asian country and drifting from the US. Yuan Ren asks whether China’s young people will forge a new path for the country in the coming decades. Elsewhere in the issue: Steve Bloomfield explores Jeremy Corbyn’s foreign policy, asking whether Britain would become a silent protester on the global sideline; Jonathan Liew asks if the World Cup has seen better days; Miranda France explores the life and meaning of Frida Kahlo, and Simon Jenkins says Trump’s charge through the China shop of world affairs is not all bad news.