A Cold War with Chinese characteristics

  • Themes: Asia, China, Geopolitics

After the 1990s, as the European Cold War ended, the Asian Cold War was transformed by China's manipulation of the forces of globalisation.

A policeman stands in front of Chinese and American flags during a visit by George W. Bush to China, 2002.
A policeman stands in front of Chinese and American flags during a visit by George W. Bush to China, 2002. Credit: Lou Linwei / Alamy Stock Photo

The Cold War, in its classic sense, did not start or end in East Asia in 1989. There was an uprising against the Communist Party in China in the spring of that year, but it was suppressed at the cost of many deaths as the army was sent in to crack down on protesters in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989. We now know that the inner circles of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were dismayed not only by the events of that year, but also two years later in 1991, at the fall of the USSR. Yet the liberalisers within the CCP, who were more reformers of the existing system than pluralist democrats, were purged from the leadership in 1989. China’s leadership made the bet, which turned out to be a cynical if valid one, that there was a way of combining economic reform with political continuity.

One of the great moments of possibility was symbolised by the Chinese television show River Elegy, broadcast to hundreds of millions in summer 1988. More than three decades after it was broadcast, this six-part programme remains one of the most important shows ever to be broadcast in any country. Part documentary, part polemic, the show advocated democratisation, made a condemnation of Mao, and embraced closeness to the West. It is probably the most liberal statement of values ever seen in the Chinese public sphere. It mixed interviews with intellectuals, archive footage, and shots of top CCP leader Zhao Ziyang. After 1989, both Zhao and River Elegy were locked away, unmentionable in the new, harsher atmosphere. In China, the show has never been seen again; for the rest of the world, though, much of it has now reappeared on YouTube. Watch it. It’s worth it.

Despite the political chill after 1989, however, there was also real political liberalisation in China, albeit not on the scale seen in Eastern Europe, or indeed in South Korea or Taiwan: the 1990s and early 2000s saw a move toward a limited civil society as well as more openness of political discussion. The overall pattern of post-1989 political discourse in China is more complex than it appears on the surface: post-Tiananmen crackdown and freezing of discussion (1989-92); cautious openness influenced by the desire to re-enter the global community (1992-2008); shock at the global financial crisis and turn toward a more authoritarian rule, underpinned by the Bo Xilai political scandal (2008-12); and then the steady narrowing of political discourse under Xi Jinping (2012-). Xi’s rise was not the cause of the new authoritarian turn – it was a symptom of it.

The error that the sudden collapse of European communism encouraged was that China was a cognate case to that of Eastern Europe, and that the shift, as in that region, would be between authoritarian rule and full liberal democracy. Instead, the oscillation was between relatively more liberal and more hardline versions of one-party authoritarianism. Some have argued that there was never any basis for pluralist politics in China: this is not true. The 1946 constitution promulgated in the last days of Chiang Kai-shek’s rule, for instance, was a genuine if flawed attempt to try to embed multi-party structures in a constitutional polity that also had a vanguardist party in charge. (Chiang himself, one should note, was hardly an enthusiast for much of the new constitution.) But overall, it was clear that Chinese historical and political reality provided few reasons that a European-style liberalisation would be likely.

One of the most important aspects of the late and post-Cold War was the shift to new economic models. China was unusual in that it had started to adopt aspects of a capitalist market economy as early as the 1970s, with evidence now showing that there was significant reform in the early 1970s, ahead of the commonly-heard 1978 date. That meant that the 1989 political crisis did not lead to a wholesale shift in terms of economic direction in China; instead, a return to a more state-controlled economy in 1989-92 led to an economic downturn and then the ‘southern tour’ of Deng Xiaoping in 1992, in which the aging leader ostentatiously visited the country’s entrepreneurial south to make it clear that the turn to a market economy could not be reversed. The shift toward a managed form of capitalism in China had started during the Cold War itself and continued long after 1989.

The aspect of the post-Cold War that most shaped China during those years was the notion of a globalised economy. China, from the 1990s, participated in this process of globalisation, not least as a means of integrating itself back into international society after Tiananmen Square. In this it was assisted enthusiastically by the US; the entry of China into the WTO in 2001 marks the high point of this trend, and perhaps the last moment when the US was happy, rather than concerned, about the entry of China into major international institutions. After this point, many of the post-Cold War assumptions about the rise of free-market capitalist democracy that had remained powerful into the early 2000s began slowly to fade.

The turning point in this economic element of the post-Cold War story is the global financial crisis of 2008. At this point, China’s leadership seems to have turned against the idea that the neoliberal economic model that emerged in the 1990s had much to recommend it, certainly in the case of China. Again, this happened after Xi had been nominated for the top spot, but several years before he actually attained it. Xi marked a turn toward a more nationalistic China, but he did not cause it.

China, of course, was not all of Asia. Again, it’s notable that the mid-1980s saw significant pro-democratic shifts in significant countries in the region before and after 1989. During the high Cold War, really only Japan and India (mostly) counted as consolidated democracies in the region (barring events such as the Indian Emergency of 1975-77 when democracy was suspended). Yet the 1980s saw a range of states democratise for real; South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines among them (some of these were technically multiparty regimes during the Cold War, but not in practice). Here, however, the fall of the Soviet Union was not, per se, the trigger. Instead, the key factors were the waning of Soviet influence in the region after the end of the Vietnam Wars in the mid-1970s, and the increasing dissatisfaction among many US policymakers about the maintenance of authoritarian states under their sponsorship (Latin America also saw significant shifts during this period for similar reasons).

The rise of China also became relevant to the consolidation of regional democracies and semi-democracies in the early 2000s. As the economic gravity of China became stronger, the growth figures and economic stability of major powers in region (including Japan and South Korea) became increasingly dependent on access to the Chinese market and supply chains linked to China. In other words, liberal polities in the region became increasingly dependent on an authoritarian economic hegemon. This created the dilemma most visible in the 2020s in Asia and beyond: the political differences between the liberal world and China became increasingly more visible at a time when the economic links between them remained tight. Talk of ‘decoupling’ and ‘derisking’ conceals the uncomfortable reality that, in a commonly heard phrase, Asia and China – and the liberal world and China more broadly – are locked in ‘weaponised interdependence’. In the context of the Ukraine war, a division has emerged in North America and Europe between authoritarian states and democracies. While this division is more complex than the dichotomy suggests, it has some uses. It is less useful in the context of East Asia. The democratising wave in Asia pre-dates the end of the Cold War in South Korea and the Philippines, for instance, and post-dates it in others (Indonesia). And in some cases, such as Vietnam, it is not relevant at all, even when the states concerned are part of a US-backed ‘rules-based order’.

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the settlement that comes a half-century after the end of the Cold War will be driven as a competition of technologies, with the US and China as key competitors. There are a variety of factors that have shaped both countries’ technological ecologies. China has chosen to spend very extensively on science and technology, with a rate currently running at 2.4 per cent of GDP, but this trend did not begin in 1989, but rather in the mid-1970s as one of China’s ‘four modernisations’ developed by Mao’s prime minister Zhou Enlai and later touted by Deng Xiaoping. The post-Cold War environment mattered greatly. In particular, a crucial factor was the reintegration of China into the international organisations that regulated global trade (notably the WTO), as well as the emergence of a Chinese overseas diaspora of scientists. The openness of the post-Cold War environment allowed China to build its science ecology in a combination of domestic investment and international cooperation. The merits or otherwise of US actions in allowing this remain open to debate: figures such as former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo regard it as wholly damaging, whereas most China analysts argue that it was impossible to avoid at the time.

Today’s Chinese politicians decry what they term a ‘Cold War mentality,’ one that is invariably blamed on the US and the West. Within China, it seems that the collapse of the Soviet Union is seen as a geopolitical tragedy that befell Russia and cannot be allowed to recur in China. To that extent, the high levels of control in China’s politics today are derived from that moment, although (as noted above) the 1990s and 2000s were relatively liberal for extended periods.

The central conceit of the post-Cold War moment – that liberal universalism could be regarded as a key framework for Asia as a whole, with relatively little attention to culture – was self-deceiving. This is not to say that pluralist and liberalising tendencies could not (and did not) take hold in many polities (Indonesia, South Korea, the Philippines). But the desire to universalise the concept undermined it. Local circumstances shaped political choices in Asia more than in Europe, because there was never a hegemonic actor in Asia (certainly not after the 1970s) whose collapse could cause the complete shift of politics that occurred in Europe after 1989.

The end of the Cold War did provoke the longer-term shift whose effects are more visible in the 2020s. The Cold War’s central struggle between the US and the Soviet Union was clearly visible in Asia from the 1950s to the 1970s: at some level, Korea and Vietnam were proxy wars. China, at least from the 1970s onward, was a tacit ally of the US, not least as it wished to stymie the plans of the USSR; no such third power played this role in Europe during those years. Yet from the 1990s, as the European Cold War ended (or perhaps, abated), the Asian one adapted. The economic interdependence between China and the US became more visible during the 1990s, but it also presaged the divergence of the early 2000s. As China became richer, its aspirations led it to seek security in a range of realms from economic to military. There are still debates about whether the current China-US relationship is a ‘new Cold War’ or not, but in its presentation of two superpowers with starkly different world views, there are uncomfortably large numbers of parallels. The collapse of the first Cold War structure was not highly tied to events in Asia, even though many of its first events took place there. If a second such Cold War does emerge, there is no doubt that Asia in general and China in particular will be at its heart.

This essay reflects the proceedings of The Failure of the Post-Cold War Global Order event, hosted by the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins SAIS and the University of Mainz.


Rana Mitter