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China’s Domestic Debate on Global Governance

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China’s Domestic Debate on Global Governance

What do Chinese scholars and policymakers envision for Beijing’s role in the international order?

China’s Domestic Debate on Global Governance
Credit: UN photo/ Stuart Price

China’s contributions have become indispensable for effective global governance, and Beijing has become more and more active on relevant issues. Obviously, any serious effort to assess China’s participation in global governance requires a close examination of Chinese domestic opinions on the topic.  This essay tries to investigate this problem and discuss its policy application.

The country’s rapid ascendance has left both the Chinese government and its people unprepared for the growing demands of global governance. Chinese scholars have been preoccupied in recent years with animated discussions on the opportunities, risks, and responsibilities of being a rising power.

Different positions are largely derived from substantial divisions upon some fundamental questions. One such question involves different strategic preferences; heated debates exist on whether China should abandon its low-profile foreign policy. On the one hand, many believe that, given its rapidly rising power, Beijing must update its traditional pattern of staying low-key and mostly silent in international affairs, and instead adopt a more active and creative strategy in safeguarding its interests and expanding international influence. Meanwhile, others argue for maintaining the “keep a low profile” (韬光养晦) dictum laid out decades ago by Deng Xiaoping. They warn about the danger of over-expansion and suggest that their opponents underestimate various difficulties in China’s rise. They argue that a low-key profile would help China to reassure other countries, thus allowing Beijing to avoid containment, and that a prudent strategy will allow China to focus on solving its own domestic problems.

Meanwhile, Chinese scholars also have different ideas on China’s relationship with the current international order and what kind of responsibilities or contributions China should take on. The ideological tendencies on this problem can be classified into three major categories, namely nativism, pragmatism, and globalism, which also closely related to their proponents’ different domestic political orientations.

At one end of the spectrum is the “nativist” school. Their thinking has much to do with the identification of China as a Communist Party-led socialist state. They strongly oppose “the West” and distrust international institutions. Many of them believe concepts like “responsible power” or “global governance” are dangerous Western traps for retarding and undermining China’s power.

At the other end of the spectrum is a “globalism” school, which believes that China needs to shoulder more transnational responsibility, commensurate with its rising power. In their eyes, China is a beneficiary of globalization and the current international order. They put their faith in transnational partnerships and are more supportive of multilateral institutions than the realists.

Both of the above two group are in the minority. The majority of Chinese scholars are pragmatic about China’s role in global governance and advocate selective multilateralism. Like realists elsewhere, for them, contributing to global governance is a tactic, not a philosophy. These people could be further roughly divided into two camps based on the different strategic preferences mentioned above. Among the realists, one group has a more optimistic estimate of China’s power position and argues that China should use its newly-built influence to “get things done.” The other group has a more conservative evaluation of China’s power and status and are deeply suspicious of doing too much abroad.

The relationship between these academic discussions and government policy is difficult to ascertain, however. As Xi Jinping’s recent speeches on global governance show, Beijing’s official discourse on global governance has maintained much consistency for the past decade. Noticeably, policymakers share the pragmatic thinking that is paramount in academic discussions. Most importantly, however, they show a stronger interest in economic affairs than other aspects. In fact, Beijing uses the term “global economic governance” much more frequently than the more general term “global governance.” China’s economic growth in the past decades has benefited immensely from the liberal international order. It is indispensable for China’s economic growth, which is vital for Beijing to maintain legitimacy. Chinese leaders thus repeatedly emphasize that “the system of global governance must promote the maintenance or expansion of open economic systems and resistance to protectionism,” as Michael Swaine put it.

Beijing has become more active in expanding its own voice. Nonetheless, China’s allegedly revisionist actions recently, for instance the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), amount to limited modifications designed primarily to meet market needs and promote incremental reform. China continues to be actively involved in the existing Breton Woods institutions. The most likely net impact of Chinese initiatives like the AIIB will be to support and supplant rather than undermine existing rules and norms, even if the formal authority of the West might be somewhat diluted.

However, in the political arena, the situation is more complicated and Beijing’s pronouncements are more ambiguous. Regime security and domestic stability are still Beijing’s top concerns. It thus repeatedly emphasizes that the bedrock of any system of global governance must be “the principle of the equality of sovereignty,” especially the right of a state to “choose its own social order and development path,” as Swaine points out. Beijing is trying to apply these principles to new issues such as the cyber realm.

China also uses its growing influence on the world stage to slow down (but not undermine) the development of the “new civilization standard” promoted by the West. For instance, it has adopted a pragmatic “norm containment” strategy toward emerging norms like the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), to constrain the concept’s development and limit its applications. All these endeavors are by nature reactive and defensive, however.

In sum, pragmatic thinking prevails both in academic circles and government discourse in China. Beijing has varied orientations toward different international regimes. It is more active in global economic governance, where more pragmatic gains exist. Meanwhile, on political issues such as human rights, it usually adopts a more conservative and defensive profile.

That means great space exists for the West to shape China’s rise and its influence. People should be careful to not treat current competition around international institutions and norms as a zero-sum contest of honor, prestige, and ideology. China is a country of conflicted strategy orientations, and the future of its role in global governance will largely depend on its domestic political and economic dynamics.

Dr. Chen Zheng is Oxford-Princeton Global Leaders Fellow of the Global Economic Governance Programme, University College, University of Oxford. Chen is also assistant professor of international relations at the School of International and Public Affairs, Shanghai Jiaotong University.