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Americans have grown used to all kinds of arguments being called “Russian propaganda.” Specific politicians and talking heads are labeled as Vladimir Putin’s apologists or collaborators. Disagree with the current party line of the State Department, and you’re apt to be accused of spreading “Kremlin talking points.”

But consider America’s other great global rival. Most Americans realize China is the most formidable challenger to America. It’s routine for politicians to blame China for American industrial decline, or for the opioid epidemic. Patriotic Americans regularly–and credibly–accuse Hunter Biden and others of selling out American interests for Chinese cash.

Yet despite that, one almost never hears accusations that someone is repeating Chinese propaganda. In fact, one never really hears about Chinese propaganda at all, or even knows what it would look like.

Why is that? It’s because Chinese propaganda directed toward America is really, really bad. Yet even the feebleness of Chinese anti-American propaganda may, counterintuitively, also be a sign of strength.

In late 2021, we reviewed the book America Against AmericaThe book was the work of Chinese academic Wang Huning, who has since become a part of China’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee, the highest organ of power in the Chinese state.

Wang Huning’s America Against America

America Against America, though imperfect, was a deeply revealing look at how a future Chinese elite reacted to an America that was still at the height of its power, though also on the brink of a precipitous decline.

Not all Chinese takes on America are so astute, though.

On March 20, the Chinese foreign ministry put out a long document titled “The State of Democracy in the United States: 2022.” The purpose, unsurprisingly, is to make the case that the state of American democracy is not good. Well, that ought to be pretty easy; we make that case all the time. And the document does stumble onto some valid criticisms. It points to the Mar-a-Lago raid as proof that the “U.S. state apparatus [is] reduced to a tool for political parties’ self-interest.” It notes polling that shows the U.S. public is increasingly pessimistic about the country’s system of government.

But the upsides are brief. Taken as a whole, China’s report is genuinely baffling in its failure to recognize basic features of the American system. For instance, at one point China singles out the prolonged election of Kevin McCarthy as House speaker for criticism.

In 2022, the US Congress was brought into another paralysis, not by riots, but by partisan fights. The farce of failing to elect the 118th House speaker lasted four days and a decision was only reached after 15 rounds of voting. In the last round, divisions were such that Republicans and Democrats voted strictly along party lines.

There are countless ways to criticize the U.S. Congress for increasingly bitter partisanship, but the choice of Speaker of the House is hardly one of them. The choice of Speaker is supposed to be partisan, and in fact the reason the election was such an ordeal is because the GOP did not monolithically rally behind its top vote-getter.

Similar strange flubs abound. The report claims that “radical white evangelical fundamentalists” hold the reins at the Supreme Court, though there are actually zero evangelicals on the Court; China is simply repeating a Reddit-tier complaint about the GOP political coalition. China mentions the publication of the Twitter Files by Elon Musk and Matt Taibbi, yet amusingly it doesn’t seem to quite get what the Files are actually about.  China complains that AUKUS, a trilateral security arrangement between America, Britain, and Australia, is a “racist clique” (and that’s the only time race is brought up, other than a brief note that Republican voters are whiter than Democrats).

And then there’s this line:

In the US, money is the breast milk of politics

Fair enough.

Even more significant than what China’s broadside says, though, is what it does not say. China’s propaganda comes off as utterly oblivious about the underlying issues that actually drive American politics. It reads like someone at China’s foreign ministry is simply summarizing generic Marxist critiques of America from decades ago (heck, maybe that’s what it is!). Consider its take on American freedom of speech:

The United States has always prided itself on free speech. In reality, however, freedom of speech in the United States is upheld according to self-centered “US standards”. Partisan interest and money politics have become the “two big mountains” that weigh on free speech. Any speech that is detrimental to the interests of the US government or capital is subject to strict restrictions.

The report correctly notes that in many ways, America enjoys “free speech in name only,” but then says this is because “any speech that is detrimental to … capital” is pulverized. What is this, 1967? America’s speech problems are absolutely not related to things “detrimental to capital.” The report never mentions Black Lives Matter or America’s LGBT kookery, even though these forces are so integral to America’s current meltdown that they even publicly drive U.S. foreign policy.

A year ago, Revolver interviewed the author of a 250-page report analyzing the strategic consequences of “Chinese racism.” So in America, the State Department sets foreign policy goals based on LGBT, and the Pentagon weighs up China’s strategic prospects with reports fretting about their racism. Yet in China, higher officials seem barely aware that wokeness exists. 

China repeatedly remarks that “capital and interest groups” can sway and control public opinion, yet this criticism appears to just be rooted in well-worn complaints about the power of the rich to influence society more than the poor. There is absolutely zero awareness displayed of “woke capital,” or the manner by which virtually every corporate actor in the country, large or small, is inexorably driven to swear allegiance to the current obsessions of America’s current prestige ideology.

China’s failure to even mention American wokeness is all the more jarring because China could easily position itself as the world power in favor of meritocracy, law and order, and at least vaguely conventional gender roles. China has far less crime than America, its college admissions are based almost wholly on a single examination, and it’s kicking girly-men off TV. Yet at least in its criticisms of America, China hardly seems to realize it’s pursuing a different path.

Nor does China seize other low-hanging fruit. China might easily point out that American democracy routinely elevates mediocrities and clownish imbeciles to high office. Yet China doesn’t even pull the punch; it fails to throw it at all.

China’s report mentions “political violence” as a hazard in America, but its only point of reference is the January 6 incident. The politically-driven explosion of rioting, looting, shootings, and murders across dozens of American cities that followed in the wake of George Floyd’s death seems to have escaped the PRC’s notice. And what about the other facet of January 6, that America’s own government might have provoked or engineered a “riot” against itself in order to crack down on opposition? Needless to say, China is oblivious to that possibility, even though it would greatly boost one of its central claims, namely that America’s regime is hypocritical.

In short, China doesn’t get it. And yet, while that makes it look silly in the short term, in the long run their clueless insularity with respect to the West may also double as a surprising source of strength. Because if China really did have an intuitive grasp of U.S. politics, that would mean China as a country was substantially more exposed to the ideological “brain worms” of contemporary American society than it currently is.

China is the ultimate closed society. Not because it is literally closed off, like Japan before Commodore Perry’s arrival, but because it is mentally closed off. Robust English fluency is routine for elites almost anywhere else, yet China has so little that even its foreign affairs office puts out content that sounds like it ran through Google Translate. Other nations, even if they oppose America’s “woke” global priorities, are vulnerable in that they grasp what these priorities are. China’s elites don’t even seem to get that. And while this hinders their ability to put out remotely compelling propaganda, it also makes them immune to American influence like no other country.

Does that mean China will beat America? Not necessarily. China has its own profoundly destructive pathologies, as nearly three years of Zero Covid have demonstrated. But crucially, like virtually no other countries in the world, China really does represent an alternative, a wholly different way of understanding and relating to the world. This alternative isn’t even a matter of China embracing a polar opposite ideology, like the USSR in the Cold War. Notwithstanding its nominal communism, China stands out by being relentlessly non-ideological compared to the West: A profoundly pragmatic country which is deeply confused by America’s totalizing embrace of a worldview that hardly even existed just a few decades ago.

For as long as China possesses this radically different worldview, chances are its critiques of America will remain impotent, baffling, and silly. But don’t for a moment think that this means China is a joke.