Interviews | Diplomacy | East Asia

China and the World: Can China Lead?

An interview with William Kirby on China’s ambitions, soft power, and education.

Jongsoo Lee
China and the World: Can China Lead?
Credit: Flickr/ neiljs

Can China lead in the Indo-Pacific region and in the world? Does it have the necessary “soft power”? And is there an exportable “China model”? For a perspective on these and other matters, Jongsoo Lee interviews William Kirby, T. M. Chang professor of China studies at Harvard University and Spangler family professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, who has served as dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University.

It is said the 21st century is the century of China and of Asia. But how does China see its role in the Indo-Pacific region and in the world? Does China have ambitions and capabilities to lead in the region and in the world?

It is frequently said this may be the Chinese century or the Asian century. One should be a bit careful as to how one makes these predictions. In the year 1800, China was probably the most powerful and richest economy on earth, but that century did not turn out particularly well for China. In the year 1900, you can be forgiven for thinking that century would have been a German century. So, things don’t always pan out as one imagines. Also, when the Republic of China was founded in 1912, there were many people thinking that the 20th century would be the Chinese century, and that did not work out particularly well.

Right now, China is doing remarkably well recovering rapidly from the disasters of the first three decades of the People’s Republic, with a strong outward-oriented economic development but also with a great strength inside the country. I think the biggest tension is actually between China and the rest of Asia. China will do well and is doing very well economically, but at the same time, the way it has, in recent years, managed its rise in influence has done everything possible to exacerbate poor relations with its Asian neighbors. This is something a bit mysterious to me.

China, today, is in the best position in its modern history. No one threatens China or China’s borders… But rather than pushing toward stronger bilateral and multilateral relations in Asia, China has picked an enormous number of quarrels with its neighbors – with Japan over islands, with Taiwan, and with Vietnam, the Philippines, etc., over the South China Sea, and more recently, and very dangerously, with India. And at one point in recent years, China had poor relations with both South Korea and North Korea. That is not an easy thing to do, to have bad relations with both Koreas. So, there is a truculence to Chinese foreign policy that is impeding its capacity to have the influence it might have. And that truculence, we hope and pray, does not lead to a conflict or war, for example, in the Taiwan Strait, because the one thing that war would do would be to undo in one moment China’s economic rise. China’s rise from the end of its war with Vietnam in 1979 to the present is the longest period of peace since the Opium War, and that peace has been the precondition for prosperity. If that peace disappears, so will prosperity.

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What is there in China’s history, culture, and tradition to suggest that China may have the “soft power” necessary for global leadership?

In high imperial times – during the Tang, Song, Ming and Qing Dynasty periods – the basic principles of civilization and governance that were articulated in China were powerful enough to be willingly adapted by China’s neighbors: Confucian forms of ethics – adapted and changed in Japan, Korea, and Vietnam in particular – and a respectful emulation of those parts of China’s tradition that leaders of those countries thought appropriate to them. That was a soft power the likes of which maybe the world had never seen: a remarkable influence over governance, education, and all kinds of structures in and among its immediate neighbors.

I think the People’s Republic has not found a substitute for that, in part because the People’s Republic in its first decades had, as its central business, the destruction of China’s tradition, not the recreation of it. Today, you have a government that is – what Joseph Levenson would have called – traditionalistic. It is not traditional. It does not believe or even know the classics of its civilization particularly well. But it wants to use the symbols of them to associate itself with the greatest moments of Chinese culture and tradition. However, the way it interacts with its neighbors is not one of setting out models that they will willingly share.

There is a lot of talk today about a China model. But the key phrase “socialism with Chinese characteristics” means something that is special to China. It is socialism with “special” Chinese characteristics. So, it is very difficult to imagine the exact model of a Chinese Communist Party or a socialism with Chinese characteristics or Xi Jinping Thought: these are not exportable items, nor does China seek to export them. China’s soft power comes from a sense of admiration for what China has been able to accomplish and what its people have been able to accomplish but not necessarily for its political model. And that is quite different than in the past.

Given your studies of China’s history, what are your thoughts on China’s capitalism as it stands now under Xi Jinping? In what ways may it evolve?

Chinese private enterprise has been the engine of Chinese economic growth from the Tang Dynasty to the present. In the 20th century, under the Nationalists and Communist rule, state-owned enterprises also came into being. They have provided certain things in producer industries – iron, steel, armaments and so on – that the private sector had not. For example, in national defense and transportation, state-owned enterprises have been important. But ever since China adopted the Soviet model in the 1950s, and despite the reforms of the 1980s and 1990s, the state sector remains unusually large and dominant in many areas of production to the detriment of the private sector. Private firms on the whole over the last decades have grown at a rate of between 9 and 12 percent per year, whereas state-owned enterprises have grown at a rate no higher than 3 percent per year. So, the greater the parts of the economy that are given over to the state-owned enterprises, the slower China’s long-term economic growth will be.

Much of the entrepreneurialism, the real inventiveness that has changed China’s economy – look at Alibaba and Tencent, for example – comes from the private sector, not from government bureaucrats in the state-owned enterprises. But under Xi Jinping, the state has moved back in to the forefront, taking stakes in large private companies but more commonly controlling them through sets of party committees. You have an increasingly dependent Chinese private sector, dependent on its ties to the state that does not bode well for the private sector reaching its potential. I can go on in many different industries as to why this is the case…

Please, comment on China’s educational system and, in particular, its universities. What are their strengths and weaknesses? How can China’s universities improve their global competitiveness?

They are improving it every day. And the leading Chinese research universities are rising in the global rankings with a remarkable speed… Chinese universities have the advantage that they have the entire world of Chinese talent from which to choose their faculty, people with Ph.D.s from abroad as well as from within China. They get some of the best students in the world… I think their biggest weaknesses are, first, in forms of teaching – teaching forms that allow students a real capacity to express their views and become independently minded – and, second, in governance. Under Xi Jinping, this has gotten much stricter. A governance system where there are two heads for every university – the president and the party secretary – is not a recipe for outstanding management but rather, at least in some cases, significant tension.

Lastly, under President Xi a few years ago, a directive came out of the Central Committee saying that there were seven things that a university should not talk about on campus, such as Western liberalist ideas, constitutionalism, early history of the Party, etc. – a whole bunch of ideas that were forbidden. I always say when I talk about this in China that a great university has to be a place where there is not one question that can’t be asked, let alone seven… If Chinese universities can improve in these areas, then I think they can be the leaders of the world.

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Has China been effective in “cultural diplomacy” with instruments such as Confucius Institutes?

I know that Confucius Institutes get a lot of bad press, but I have not seen any significant number of instances in which they have done bad things… The biggest criticism that I have heard of Confucius Institutes actually comes from people in China, who think that China has spent an enormous amount of money on these, but it has not made people like China any more than before. That is to say, it’s not particularly effective, if it is propaganda.

In what ways has the current tension in U.S.-China relations affected educational exchanges between the two countries? How can the bilateral relations in the educational sphere improve?

I think the tension in educational exchanges has come mostly from the American side by limiting educational exchanges – by limiting visas, in particular – and by seeming to scrutinize, to a greater degree than ever before, the work of foreign students in the U.S., in particular of Chinese students. In my view, universities like Harvard were actually very good at monitoring what our students do. For things relating to national security and so on, we have actual protocols for this or that type of laboratory that engages in national security work, and we work very well with the government in controlling that. What we have seen this time is a kind of amateur intrusion into university life looking for people who may have done something wrong, seemingly looking for people of Asian and Chinese background.

I think that a more mature and professional approach to managing exchanges between China and the U.S. will see educational exchanges improve. Right now, the biggest losers of any diminution of educational exchanges are the American universities: They are the leading universities in the world for the moment because they can get the best talent in the world to come there. When you stop getting the best talent and a good part of that best talent comes from China, you are no longer the best.

Please, feel free to share with us any other comments or insights you may have on China’s role in the world and how to meet the challenges posed by the rise of China.

The greatest challenges that China faces are internal, not external. I see China in an extraordinary position of economic growth, with entrepreneurial capacity and real innovation particularly in the private sector. And China’s foreign relations ought to be manageable. None of the issues in dealing with its Asian neighbors or with the U.S. are matters of life and death for China. It is a good time for China in the world. But you have a very powerful party state, the Chinese Communist Party, that is also powerfully insecure in its governance. If it were secure, it would not need to extract such degrees of political loyalty from its citizens, and it would not need to intrude into the running of businesses by branches of the Party. Furthermore, it would not need to – in contravention of its own constitution, which guarantees local self-government to self-governing areas like Xinjiang and Tibet – turn those areas into police states. These are signs of insecurity, not security.

At the end of the day, I do worry, in a world in which the Chinese people are so much more educated, sophisticated, and worldly than ever before, that they cannot continue to be ruled as they have been and by the structures by which they have been ruled over the last 70 years… The question is: how is change going to be managed when it comes to China? That is the biggest challenge.