The pandemic era crystalized an existing shift in China’s role on the world stage. The message from Beijing is increasingly triumphalist, emphasizing its inevitable rise and the West’s decline. Meanwhile, overseas – and particularly in the world’s democracies – China’s assertive and uncompromising stances have caused a groundswell of suspicion about the Chinese government and its intentions.
In her new book, “The World According to China,” noted expert on Chinese politics and policy Elizabeth Economy examines not only China’s role in the world today, but its desired role for the future – and Beijing’s plan to remake the world system to achieve its goal. She also outlines what this means for other countries, and how concerned governments should respond.
Economy is currently on leave from her position as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and is serving as a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Commerce. The views expressed in her book and below are her personal views and do not represent the views of the U.S. government or the Commerce Department.
As you note, there is a growing bifurcation between perceptions of China’s government within China and outside of China – with pandemic management as Exhibit A. This is exacerbated by the government’s strict control over the media landscape within China, which results in emphasizing positive narratives about China from abroad while tamping down any criticisms. What are the long-term implications of the disconnect between China’s vision of itself and other countries’ perceptions?
The Chinese government creates a number of longer-term problems for itself by limiting the ability of Chinese citizens to access outside information and insisting on a false positive narrative around international perceptions of China. First, it constrains its own ability to make informed decisions. Many Chinese scholars are critical of Beijing’s bullying Wolf Warrior diplomacy, which they believe undermines Chinese influence globally. However, they are unwilling to criticize the government’s official narrative for fear of political reprisal. The Chinese leadership also runs the risk that when travel to and from China reopens, its citizens will gain a more complete understanding of how their country is perceived internationally; this disconnect between Beijing’s narrative and that of the rest of the world could cost the Chinese government significant trust and credibility among its own citizens. The nearer-term danger, however, is that in purposefully reinforcing ignorance in its own people, the Chinese leadership is fostering an arrogance and potentially dangerous form of popular nationalism that it may ultimately find difficult to moderate.
On a related note, many studies that emphasize increasingly negative views of China are focused on the developed world or the Western liberal democracies. Yet China has some more success in norm-building in the developing world – for example, its state media outlets have found more traction in African countries than in European ones. How would you rate China’s narrative and normative influence in the developing world?
China’s state media are more likely to gain traction in countries that do not offer a wide range of choice in media outlets – a situation that is most often found in still emerging economies. However, there is significant variation in how citizens in emerging economies view China and its influence. In Africa, for example, one 2019-2020 popular opinion poll revealed that 65 percent of Kenyans but only 29 percent of Tunisians hold a positive view of Chinese influence in their country. Similarly, in a 2021 survey of elites from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the percentage of those worried about China’s growing regional economic influence ranged from 47.6 percent in Cambodia to 90.4 percent in Vietnam.
Xi Jinping’s call in June 2021 for Chinese officials to create an image of the country that is “credible, lovable, and respectable,” suggests that the Chinese leadership recognizes that the country faces a serious soft power deficit. It also suggests, however, that Xi, at least, does not fully appreciate that China’s international image derives from its actions and not from a narrative manufactured by the country’s officials.
Taiwan is one of Beijing’s most important red lines – and has also emerged as a test case for Beijing’s ability to influence the actions of other governments. Some countries – for example, Lithuania and Czechia – have shown they are willing to flout Beijing’s increasingly shrill condemnations to bolster relations with Taipei. How do you interpret these cases? Is China coming up against the limits of its ability to shape overseas behavior?
China’s ability to influence the behavior of international actors is often less than we believe. Although it has had significant success in using its economic leverage to persuade multinationals to accept its political preferences (for example that Taiwan not be recognized as a separate political entity), it has had much less success in changing the preferences of other countries. For example, Chinese economic boycotts against the Philippines, South Korea, and Australia all failed to persuade those countries to change their stance on issues related to Chinese sovereignty, social stability, and national security.
Most broadly, China’s conduct both at home and abroad – its coercive Wolf Warrior diplomacy, assertive military behavior in the Asia Pacific, political influence operations in other countries, and domestic human rights abuses – has caused many countries to rethink their policies toward China. International popular opinion polls reveal record low levels of trust in Chinese leadership and in Xi Jinping, himself. Rather than convince other countries that China is ready to be a responsible global power, for instance, Beijing appears to have persuaded many countries to coalesce in opposition to its leadership.
China’s successful handling of COVID-19 is a major point of pride at home, but it has drawbacks. China continues its severe restrictions – which have drastically limited in-person exchanges, both at the people-to-people and government-to-government levels – even as the rest of the world is starting to reopen and reengage. Do you think there’s an opportunity cost to China’s insistence on remaining largely closed to the outside world?
One of the many tragedies of COVID-19 is the extent to which countries have elected or been forced to close their doors to others. In China, however, the leadership’s decision to remain mostly closed also reinforces a pre-existing trend of declining engagement with the outside world. Since taking power almost a decade ago, Xi Jinping has issued a continuous stream of regulations designed to reduce foreign influence in China by limiting Western ideas in cultural and educational spaces, restricting the flow of information via the internet, and curtailing opportunities for civil society engagement.
For Chinese citizens who are interested in the world of ideas, want their children to be competitive in a global market, or simply favor a China that is more open to the rest of the world, the opportunity cost of Xi’s and the rest of the Chinese leadership’s choices is high. In contrast, for a Chinese leadership that desires greater control over its economy and society, the cost may appear to be not only acceptable but even perhaps negligible in the near term.
As you note, overseas Chinese play an important role in CCP influence operations and United Front work. How can foreign governments address the challenge posed by the United Front without feeding into dangerous stereotypes about the Chinese diaspora, especially in the context of growing attacks on Asians?
Governments, the media, and educational institutions all have an important role to play in ensuring that efforts to constrain malign PRC behavior do not contribute to attacks on the Chinese diaspora. This means not conflating the Chinese government with people of Chinese descent and avoiding policies and language that perpetuate and inflame racism. In addition, when responding to Chinese influence operations, countries need to take the time necessary to understand the precise nature of the threat in order to develop the most effective response. This is particularly important when policies have the potential to harm innocent people’s lives and reputations (such as those designed to identify scientists engaged in Chinese-government sponsored espionage in university and national labs).
Finally, the Chinese diaspora has an important role to play in holding both host countries and China accountable. In the United States, for example, Chinese American community leaders rightly draw attention to cases in which the government needlessly ruins the careers of Chinese American scientists through false accusations of scientific espionage. It is equally important that this community defend American values in the face of Chinese coercion, for example, by publicly defending the rights of Chinese students in the United States to voice their opinions freely and without fear of Chinese government coercion.