China Power

China’s Liberal Hawk: Yan Xuetong’s Vision for Chinese Benevolent Dominance

Reviewing the noted Chinese foreign policy thinker’s latest book.

By Pär Nyrén for
China’s Liberal Hawk: Yan Xuetong’s Vision for Chinese Benevolent Dominance
Credit: Flickr/ World Economic Forum

China is approaching the end of an era. During the last decade, and particularly since General Secretary Xi Jinping took on leadership of China’s party-state apparatus in 2012, liberal hopes about China’s political and economic trajectory have been replaced with gloomy projections. After decades of “reform and opening,” China’s economic liberalizations have stalled, civil liberties are being rolled back, and Xi’s removal of presidential term limits marked the end of power-sharing at the heart of China’s government.

Policymakers and observers in capitals around the world are worried about these developments, and not just out of concern for the Chinese people although that is a factor as well. There is growing concern about what China’s domestic crackdown means for international security and the liberal international order. U.S. Vice President Mike Pence set the tone for Western China discourse as he argued last year at the Hudson Institute that “a country that oppresses its own people rarely stops there.” In this view, China’s turn toward a more repressive stance domestically – with internment camps in Xinjiang and proliferation of high-tech surveillance – and an increasingly aggressive foreign policy – manifested by exploitative infrastructure projects abroad and militarization of the South China Sea – are not coincidental developments, but different manifestations of the same trend.

Two scenarios emerge from this perspective: either China adopts liberal-leaning domestic policies and assimilates to existing norms in international relations or, alternatively, domestic repression increases and it adopts a foreign policy that seeks to change the post-war mode of international governance.

Yan Xuetong, dean of the Institute for International Relations at China’s elite Tsinghua University, suggests a third scenario: that Chinese international dominance could be both disruptive and benign. In his latest book, Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers, Yan describes how the thinkers from China’s pre-Qin era (prior to 221 B.C.E.) believed that it was better to be loved than to be feared by other states. In the parlance of China’s ancient philosophers, Yan believes that great countries that seek respect from international counterparts may wield “humane authority” (wangdao) whereas those who threaten their neighbors exert “hegemony” (badao). These styles of international engagement are different both in form and efficacy. Arguing that perceived legitimacy, along with economic and military strength, is crucial to achieve leadership among nations, Yan believes that the ancient ideal types provide a useful roadmap for current affairs. He wants China to achieve humane authority.

For all its innocuous presentation (he wants Chinese dominance to spread the country’s traditional values of benevolence, righteousness, and rites through “leading by example”), Yan’s theory is not a reformulation of soft power. Yan Xuetong espouses a worldview where steep power hierarchies are inevitable and where exercising leadership does not simply mean being the first among equals.

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Based on this theoretical foundation, Yan for many years has advocated, in opposition to Chinese foreign policy orthodoxy, that China should establish a system of formal alliances, for whom China should provide military security. These views have earned him a reputation as one of China’s most hawkish foreign policy thinkers. Mark Leonard, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations, memorably described him as a “neo-comm,” a neoconservative with Chinese characteristics.

Despite his reputation as a hardliner, being an alumnus of the research arm of China’s Ministry of State Security, and having served as an adviser for the state-run television channel CCTV, Yan Xuetong is not an apologist for the political system of the People’s Republic. While Yan has portrayed his new book in Chinese media outlets as an overview of what China’s leaders have done right, in Leadership and the Rise of Great Powers he issues a fundamental critique of the Communist Party’s governance. According to Yan, “humane authority requires consistency between a leading state’s domestic ideology and the political values it pursues abroad. Unfortunately, the present Chinese government is conflicted in this regard.” Later in the book he goes on to claim that China lacks an ideology “shared by both the government and the governed at home,” which currently prevents China from setting the norms of international governance. Put differently, Yan Xuetong, one of the most forceful proponents of increased Chinese influence internationally, who believes that perceived legitimacy is the key to international power, contends that the Chinese people do not share the values of the Chinese government and that foreigners are put off by its domestic rule.

While he doesn’t write comprehensively about domestic affairs, over the years Yan has left some indications about his own views on Chinese politics. He has railed against extreme leftism and the dominance of China’s state-owned enterprises; in his previous book Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, he reflected that “to learn from pre-Qin thought,” the primary source for his views about world affairs, “certainly does not imply rejecting Western notions of democracy.” Defying popular black-and-white notions of ideological cliques in Beijing, Yan Xuetong can only be understood as a liberal hawk.

While Yan is pessimistic about China’s current leadership, he places his hope on the country’s millennials, whom he describes as “politically open and individualistic” due to their education and familiarity with other cultures. Unfortunately, this hope may be based on wishful thinking rather than sound analysis. As long as China’s Communist Party selects tomorrow’s leaders on the basis of ideological purity, it will be impossible for China’s youth to shape their country in a liberal direction — that is, in a way that enables China to exercise “humane authority.”

As it stands, Yan’s vision of establishing defense pacts with China’s neighbors seems far-flung, and not only because the Chinese government maintains its policy of nonalignment or because of the lacking appeal of China’s domestic governance. Multiple countries in China’s vicinity do not seek China’s protection; instead, they are afraid of its presence. China has threatened to attack both the Philippines and Vietnam over oil drilling in the South China Sea. A survey from last year showed that roughly half of South Koreans thought that China was the “most threatening country to peace on the Korean Peninsula,” while only a third thought that North Korea was the biggest threat, reflecting China’s harsh treatment of South Korea following the deployment of the missile defense system THAAD. And then, of course, there is Taiwan. Intimidation of small countries would not have been accepted even if China had been a bastion of liberalism.

If nothing else, Yan Xuetong identifies a problem that the Chinese government ought to consider more seriously than it has so far: when it comes to forging strong international ties, no amount of “win-win” rhetoric in international fora fully makes up for the appeal, or lack thereof, of how a government treats its own citizens. It is not obvious that Yan’s vision for China’s benevolent rise is compatible with the continued rule of the Communist Party. Perhaps it may only be possible after the Party’s demise.

Pär Nyrén is a project manager at the Stockholm Free World Forum, a Swedish foreign policy think tank.