Features | Politics | East Asia

What West Doesn’t Get About China

The idea that China has a unified vision about its role in the world is misplaced. Excessive focus on nationalist voices, however loud, will do the U.S. and others no favors.

By Allen Carlson for

China’s rise on the world stage and the United States’ supposed decline are perhaps the two most discussed trends in international politics today. Many feel we are seeing two great ships of state passing in the night, with the former poised to lead and the latter at risk of falling behind. While the degree to which this has occurred is open to debate, the sense that a new strategic threshold is being crossed is accepted on both sides of the Pacific.

Yet the ancillary (but no less important) suggestion that the Chinese somehow have a clear and unified vision of what this new order should be is entirely contestable. It’s true that many Chinese opinion-makers increasingly are confident of – and even boastful about – their country’s emergence as a global player. Moreover, their worldview often combines equal measures of great power calculation, nationalism and a mercantilist approach to economic competition. This leaves little room for long-term cooperation with other states or constructive engagement in international institutions. And, as a result, the outlook for Sino-U.S. relations and China’s relationship with the rest of the international system can often seem bleak. But this analysis has a fundamental problem: it overlooks real ferment within the Chinese political establishment regarding each of these issues.

Although many Chinese do hold zero-sum visions of international relations, that view hasn’t yet cornered the market. On the one hand, there are signs within China of a military pushing for more rapid modernization and advocating more forceful policies toward both its neighbors and the United States. On the other, the Chinese Foreign Ministry remains actively engaged in a wide array of bilateral and multilateral exchanges. Moreover, in recent years, debates have ebbed and flowed within the Chinese foreign policy community over how to think about Sino-Japanese relations, the possibility of China’s rise remaining a peaceful one, and the distribution of power within the existing international order. 

In addition, while strongly nationalist voices are often the loudest ones heard from China, it’s clear there’s no agreement about just what role nationalism should play in the country’s foreign relations. Assertive nationalism has been on display in its discussions of the 1999 Belgrade embassy bombing and more recently in response to the anti-Chinese protests in Tibet in 2008 and Xinjiang in 2009. Yet it was much less evident following the 2001 spy plane incident or, more recently, in discussions about contested territorial claims relating to disputed North Pacific islands and huge chunks of the South China Sea. It also hasn’t dominated relations with Taiwan, which have grown closer without rancor. Moreover, some establishment intellectuals have even begun to question the relationships between China’s Han majority and minority groups that live in border regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang. In doing so, they are suggesting novel, even innovative, approaches to broader questions of Chinese nationalism and what it means to be Chinese.

Finally, there are obvious divisions over the basic direction of China’s economy and its relations with the rest of the world. For example, China’s central bankers are at odds with many export-oriented industries and even government agencies over exchange rate policies. In addition, questions of how to respond to mounting economic inequalities within China, and the social dislocations they create, have generated intense disagreements.

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The Shakespearian fall of Bo Xilai, the now disgraced politician who many expected to join the nine member Standing Committee of the ruling Politburo this autumn, plus the waves of recrimination and accusation it has caused, offers a fascinating window into some of these disputes. Much more is involved than a simple reshuffle of the leadership. More basically, questions are percolating about the basic social purposes of the Chinese state at home and abroad. Why are such differences so often overlooked, with many outside commentators suggesting there’s a single “Chinese” opinion on major issues? To be fair, the differences are rarely on display in the monochrome policy pronouncements of Chinese leaders. Nor do they often feature in officially sanctioned media outlets. They are, however, readily discerned just beyond these easily accessible and conventional sources. 

Chinese cyberspace is teeming with multiple perspectives, with views that range from virulent nationalism to liberal cosmopolitanism. While these may be dismissed as the work of netizens who operate only on the establishment’s fringes, similar diversity also exists in the expansive universe of more official Chinese foreign policy and national security journals. In addition, and perhaps most tellingly, these differences are also displayed prominently in China’s widely read and purportedly most nationalistic newspaper, the Global Times (Huanqiu Shibao). While its provocative headlines and cover photos attract great attention (and are often cited as examples of an aggressive Chinese perspective), a survey of its influential editorial pages discloses a striking plurality of thinking. Here, uncompromising and especially nationalistic voices are nowhere near as dominant as one might expect. In fact, many of the essays are quite critical of the Chinese state and reflect real division over what to make of broader changes within the global economy. Finally, criticisms of America, which one might expect to be a leading topic, do not dominate the writings of this important outlet’s leading contributors.

This doesn’t suggest rivalries within Chinese elite circles are likely to bring about social upheaval and political change. But it does challenge the common perception that a singularity of mission and purpose exists. Those in China, in reality, are more divided about the nature of the existing global order, and the country’s place within it, than at any time since the Tiananmen protests of 1989.  

There are two primary reasons why outside observers shouldn’t overlook this fact.

First, such oversight would miss a duality within Chinese thinking. On the one hand, those who make decisions or lead policy discussions clearly display confidence and pride in Chinese accomplishments. However, they also are somewhat uncertain and uneasy about the condition of the implied social contract – economic growth and vigorous patriotism in return for one-party rule – that has grounded Chinese politics for the past 20 years. Worries about social unrest, contagion from the Arab Spring, preserving national unity despite ongoing challenges from the territorial periphery and the sustainability of China’s economic rise, are all visible within China. Current thinking therefore includes both perspectives, but isn’t dominated by either. To see only one side is to distort and misrepresent the complexities involved.   

Second, within this somewhat volatile pairing of external confidence and domestic insecurity it’s possible to find new points of intersection between China and the rest of us. Overall, Chinese thinking revolves around a rather broad set of concerns about governance as the nation struggles to come to terms with the promise and peril of managing the country’s integration into the global political and economic system. It is important that outsiders recognize this debate (which mirrors our own) rather than overstate the role of either side. Assuming that any single worldview is dominant only exacerbates American worries about China’s rise. It even could exaggerate a spiral of mistrust and produce greater discord between China and the world. 

Instead, recognizing these internal differences and forming American policy accordingly, could offer a better foundation for our approach to Beijing. As a result, relations would no longer pivot around such issues as containment or engagement, peaceful rise or preservation of hegemonic stability, but rather hinge upon how the two will relate within a changing international system.

For example, we’ve long pressed China on human rights issues and done so in ways that suggest we can define what the term should include. By contrast, it might be more productive if Washington talked less about universal standards and their violation, and more about the rule of law and transparency.

Likewise, we’ve lectured the People’s Republic on environmental issues for years. But now Beijing seems to realize the seriousness of the threat it faces (even as it plays games with reporting on pollution levels and tamps down environmental protests). Thus, it may be more receptive to greater cooperation with the U.S. when formulating policies that could affect both nations (after all, Chinese coal dust does cross the Pacific). Conversely, Beijing has been much more actively investing in green technologies, so we might gain from more cooperation in this area.

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In sum, the playing field is closer to level in some key areas. Yet if we are to survive, even prosper, it’s imperative that the United States and China cooperate, rather than rage against each other’s perceived faults. The debates within China today suggest a growing awareness of this and it’s in our interest to recognize it when seeking points of policy intersection.

Even so, it would be exceedingly naïve to argue that other nations have nothing to worry about when surveying China’s increasing wealth and influence in Asia and beyond. Yet it also would be a grave mistake to assert that those Chinese with great influence over policy already are quite sure how to manage their growing strength. It’s of paramount importance not to overlook this intellectual turmoil, and to seek ways within those multiple views to shape trends constructively as China searches for its role within an evolving world order.

Allen Carlson is an associate professor of government at Cornell University.