China Policy Institute: Analysis


Chinese Communist Party

Party-Military Relations after Xi’s Military Reforms

Written by Arthur Ding.

In late 2015, Chinese leader Xi Jinping formally announced his much anticipated military reforms. It is said to be the largest military reform since 1949 when the People’s Republic of China was established, in that it overhauls the military system in place since the Revolution. Continue reading “Party-Military Relations after Xi’s Military Reforms”

Open Government in China: Bound to Improve, Within Bounds.

Written by Jessica Batke,* Julia Breuer, and Matthias Stepan.

From remarks by the Premier to new guidelines for open government, we’ve been hearing a lot from the Chinese government about its commitment to improving government transparency recently. But given the infamous opacity and top-down nature of Chinese governance, what does this really mean? Our research into the public availability of high-level state documents suggests that Beijing has made good-faith efforts to fulfill the transparency goals it set for itself in 2008, and we should expect similar progress with regard to new initiatives going forward. However, there remains a fundamental tension between the principles of open government and the principles of CCP rule, including differing views of public participation. This tension will likely circumscribe the PRC’s ability to fully embrace the more bottom-up aspects of open governance. Continue reading “Open Government in China: Bound to Improve, Within Bounds.”

Mao, Zhao and some “what ifs?”

Written by Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

I am always interested in counterfactual and other sorts of “what if” forays into speculation. I have often played the “what would Mao make of today’s China” game. Early in this century, for example, I wrote a “Letter from Nanjing” for the TLS that pondered the way that a revivified Chairman might have responded to perusing the bookshelves of a local bookstore that sold guides to opening one’s own bar or café, Hannah Arendt’s On Totalitarianism, and other works that would have been deemed inappropriate titles in the early decades of the PRC (and were verboten throughout the Soviet bloc then as well). More recently, I penned an op-ed for the South China Morning Post, linked loosely to this being the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution and fortieth anniversary of Mao’s death, asking what, if he were to come back to life, Xi Jinping’s most famous and infamous predecessor would think of China’s current leader. Continue reading “Mao, Zhao and some “what ifs?””

China: (not) talking about a revolution

Written by Mark Beeson.

Fifty years ago on May 16 the Cultural Revolution began. Don’t expect this event to be given much attention in China itself, though. The reality is that despite Mao Zedong’s continuing iconic status, his successors in China’s ruling elite don’t know quite how to deal with his legacy.

It’s not hard to see why. During the “Great Leap Forward” from 1958 to 1961, which was intended to modernise China’s economy through industrialisation and the collectivisation of agriculture, tens of millions died, mainly as a consequence of famine.

Mao was eventually criticised for his role in this entirely avoidable catastrophe. It was this threat to his legacy that led him to unleash the Cultural Revolution.

Both of these profoundly important historical episodes are studiously ignored in China today. The rather imposing national museum in Beijing, for example, contains absolutely no reference to the Cultural Revolution, despite the fact that it also led directly or indirectly to the deaths of another million or so.

What is most striking about this period in retrospect, however, is not the current collective amnesia on the part of the governing elites in the Communist Party of China, but the fact that it completely overturned social values that had endured in China for thousands of years.

True, dynasties had collapsed before. But not even the Boxer or Taiping rebellions in the 19th century had inflicted such upheaval, and certainly not on such a scale.

One of the distinctive features of the Cultural Revolution, depicted in graphic detail by Ji Xianlin in The Cowshed, was the role played by the young Red Guards, who were the stormtroopers of Mao’s counter-revolution. Confucian-style respect for learning, the elderly or the traditional social hierarchy were overthrown as part of a convulsive bottom up social movement that delighted in humiliating and torturing perceived class enemies.

Ji details the horrors that were inflicted on him and many of his colleagues at Peking University by his former students, suddenly elevated and empowered by Mao’s megalomania. Public beatings and humiliation became a frequent part of the punishments inflicted on possible “capitalist roaders” and class traitors.

Many of the young people who played such a prominent and spiteful part in these ritualised “struggle sessions” would become victims of the revolution themsleves. Some were sent down to the countryside to learn from the peasantry. Others became the victims of factional warfare within the red Guards themselves.

Only now are some of these stories being told, despite the profound impact it had on both the young and the old during this period.

The leadership of the CCP still finds this period acutely difficult to deal with. Despite some acknowledgement that Mao may have made errors, his portrait still dominates Tiananmen Square. Current president Xi Jinping has embraced some aspects of his legacy.

Worryingly, Xi has also concentrated more power than any Chinese leader since Mao. Xi has also begun to revive some elements of Maoist ideology in order to legitimise the CCP’s continuing political dominance – which lacks any other sort in authoritarian China.

Yet a collective failure to acknowledge or confront the realities of the Cultural Revolution means that important historical lessons go unlearned by subsequent generations. A fundamental lack of political maturity, combined with an absence of real self-criticism or internal debate, are reasons why totalitarian regimes have always been so brittle and at risk of a “Ceaușescu moment”.

It is this potential for social upheaval, to which China is historically especially prone, that helps to explain why the current administration goes to such extraordinary lengths to control social media and internal political discussion. The broadcasts of outlets like the BBC will likely be interrupted if they run stories on the Cultural Revolution today.

None of this means the CCP’s dominance is likely to disappear anytime soon, though. On the contrary, the CCP has become a pivotal vehicle for career advancement and the cultivation of vital political and business connections.

Ironically enough, the capitalist roaders have ultimately triumphed in China and are now frequently prominent and wealthy members of the CCP itself. Mao must be revolving in his mausoleum.

It is this paradox that lies at the heart of the CCP’s current difficulties about how to deal with Mao and his legacy. A more pluralistic and open society – like Germany, for example – might recognise and understand that awful things can happen, learn the lessons, and then move on. No such debate is possible in China without raising very difficult questions about what exactly the CCP is actually for, and why it should remain in unelected power.

The next time I apply for a visa to visit China I may be reminded of the pervasive and rather paranoid reach of China’s security services. Perhaps we will see some “spontaneous” expressions of outrage in response to this post.

And yet any society that needs to exercise that degree of social control to maintain its preferred collective identity and official historical narrative looks anything but secure.

Mark Beeson is a Professor of International Politics at the University of Western Australia. This article was first published on The Conversation and can be found here. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.

Soft Power on the Defensive: The Contradictions of Chinese Foreign Policy

Written by James F. Paradise.

China’s soft power offensive has not been fully effective. One reason is that many outsiders find it difficult to buy into Chinese values because of political repression, cultural chauvinism and bad pollution in China. Another reason is that some activities in the military and economic spheres are starting to give China a bad reputation. This is creating a situation in which the hard power activities are starting to undermine the genuinely good soft power activities. That’s a serious problem for the Chinese government as it will make the quest for international friendship and support more difficult.

Many of the criticisms of China are overblown and have more to do with the diminishing power of the United States in the world than China itself. Creation of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), for example, is more likely to be a good thing that helps overcome the shortfall of infrastructure finance in Asia than be a source of trouble as has often been suggested by the U.S. which tried to persuade its allies not to join the institution before offering its grudging “support” while remaining a non-member along with major powers Japan and Canada. Like other new institutions or initiatives that China is launching, which it typically bills as “open and inclusive” such as The Silk Road Economic Belt or the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, the AIIB can be thought of as a kind of “soft balancing” instrument that will contribute to global public goods.

Similarly, many of the concerns about cultural and educational activities seem exaggerated. Rather than fretting about an insidious design of the Chinese to take over the world, many foreigners are happily studying Chinese at Confucius Institutes across the globe, enjoying Chinese concerts or art exhibits in North American or European cities or are busy making friends at Chinese universities while they are studying Chinese history or economics. Mainly those who worry about the “other” or are experiencing extreme psychological discomfort from changes in the international balance of power are getting worked up about the spread of Chinese culture.

More serious are some of the activities occurring in the hard power sphere. These include the creation of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, land reclamation activities in the South China Sea and the modernization of the Chinese military, which has included the addition of China’s first aircraft carrier to its arsenal. Articulating concerns about China’s activities in the South China Sea, which also include the deployment of missile launchers and fighter jets on one disputed island, one U.S. admiral indicated that China might be trying to attain “hegemony in East Asia,” which is probably what it is trying to do.

Other concerns are being expressed by Western executives in China who claim that the Chinese business environment for international companies is becoming less hospitable because of things like “forced technology transfer,” anti-monopoly investigations and difficulties in obtaining business licenses for some activities. Descriptions of the anti-trust investigations include words like “aggressive” and “ruthless,” and note that foreign businesses say they are being targeted. Yet another area where concerns exist is with the expansion of Chinese companies overseas. There, they have been accused of resource exploitation, harsh working conditions, payment of low wages and failing to promote local workers to managerial positions, none of which are good for China’s international image. So bad have some of the activities been that China has even been accused of being “neo-colonialist,” an extraordinary description given China’s long solidarity with developing countries.

Whether or not China’s activities can be justified can in some cases be debated. One could argue, for example, that other countries have created ADIZ’s so China should be allowed to do so also or that other countries, such as Vietnam, have done land reclamation in the South China Sea so why shouldn’t China (at least this disclosure puts China’s actions in greater context)? And what is wrong with China vigorously enforcing its anti-monopoly law? Isn’t this something the U.S. should be doing more of? And don’t forget that China is a developing country in some respects and may need to protect its infant and strategic industries (provided doing so does not violate World Trade Organization law) in the same way that the U.S. and the United Kingdom did when they were in an earlier stage of their development before they “kicked away the ladder.” As for claims that Chinese companies are riding roughshod over the environment and their employees in developing countries, there may be some truth to that, but China is learning and trying to correct its mistakes. And anyhow, China is not the only country whose companies have sinned (or experienced problems) in foreign countries.

Regardless of whether one accepts these arguments, and much could be said on both sides of what are very complicated and nuanced issues, the fact is that some of China’s actions are generating fear and concern in some foreign countries. Evidence for this comes from a Pew Research Centre survey that found in 2015 54 percent of Americans had an unfavorable view of China and only 38 percent had a favorable view, a reversal from 2012, the year Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, when 40 percent of Americans had a unfavorable view and 40 percent a favorable view. Among the issues that Americans were concerned about to the extent that they rated them as very serious or somewhat serious were cyberattacks from China (86 percent), China’s policies on human rights (85 percent) and China’s growing military power (82 percent). Other advanced industrialized countries where unfavorable views outnumbered favourable views included Spain, Italy, Canada, Germany and Japan. Fairly, however, it should be noted that many countries in the world had more favorable than unfavorable views of China, including developed country Australia and even Malaysia and the Philippines with whom it is locked in a dispute over the ownership of South China Sea islands. “On balance, global views of China are positive,” Pew Research Center wrote in its 2014 report.

Indications of problems in the Chinese business environment are found in the 2016 China Business Climate Survey Report of The American Chamber of Commerce in the People’s Republic of China that found that 77 percent of survey member respondents felt that foreign businesses in China were “less welcome than before” while only 23 percent felt they were “more welcome than before.” Among the major business challenges identified by survey respondents were “inconsistent regulatory interpretation and unclear laws” and “obtaining required licenses.”

To overcome these anxieties, China needs to take confidence-building actions. On the international side, one thing that it should do is to ensure that it lives up to its “win-win” rhetoric. This would go a long way to allaying fears of Chinese economic aggression and exploitation, and might even enable a more cooperative approach to dealing with thorny Asian island disputes. A second thing that it should do is to provide more global public goods. Provision of more development finance through new multilateral institutions of its creation or support and activities to combat international maritime piracy are steps in the right direction, but there is still a sense that China’s interventions are highly selective and not always well-integrated with multilateral mechanisms. That has given China an image as a “free rider” on some issues and not fully a team player.

A third thing that China should do is to stop bullying countries with whom it disagrees on some matters and taking the position “my way or the highway.” Countries that have suffered China’s wrath or threats, and in some cases diplomatic repercussions, have included the UK, after Prime Minister David Cameron met the Dalai Lama, Norway, after the Oslo-based Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to Liu Xiaobo and South Korea, whose main opposition political party interim chairman was told by China’s ambassador to the country in February 2016 – after North Korea had done its fourth nuclear test and put a satellite into orbit through a rocket launch – that deployment of the U.S.’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system “could destroy” relations between Beijing and Seoul, which had been very good.

Hard-edged statements such as this do not serve China well, nor do the hardball politics that try to deny to foreign powers the right to express opinions on humans rights issues, as they call into question the narrative of China’s peaceful rise and make it appear that Beijing is inflexible and unconstructive which on many issues it is not as it proved when it signed on to United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea in March 2016 and made the very sensible suggestion that a peace treaty be concluded to end the Korean War.

On the domestic side as well, China needs to make changes. The main change that it should make is to stop persecuting or imprisoning those with dissenting views or legitimate grievances. Doing this would go a long way to improving China’s image and creating a healthier political system as measured by things such as protection of political rights and civil liberties that Freedom House scores and governance standards such as “voice and accountability,” “political stability and absence of violence/terrorism” and “rule of law” that the World Bank measures through it’s “Worldwide Governance Indicators.” Another thing that China could do is to tone down the military discussion and imagery, which as anyone who has watched Chinese television knows, is quite pervasive, which is a problem because it feeds Chinese nationalism which is not a friend of soft power.

Making some of these changes will not be easy for China as China has its own political traditions dating back thousands of years and its own national interests that on some issues, especially ones which it regards as “core,” diverge from those of others. Not making them, however, will mean that some foreigners will find unappealing – and even objectionable – some Chinese practices and that its hard power activities will “crowd out” its legitimate soft power activities which will make it harder for China to win the hearts and minds of people around the world. This does not mean that China has to do things “the Western way.” But it does mean that when China does things its way, it has to improve on the West on matters such as environmental protection, respect for human rights and so on. This is a formula for great success; only time will tell whether China is the benevolent and enlightened power that it often presents itself as.

James F. Paradise is an assistant professor at Yonsei University in Wonju, South Korea. Image credit: CC by European External Action Service/Flickr.

Confusing Public Diplomacy and Soft Power

Written by Barry Buzan.

There is little doubt that in relation to its size, wealth, and culture, China underperforms in the area of soft power, is conscious of that weakness, and wants to improve its performance (Li, 2008). Soft power is about the non-coercive ability to change the preferences of others, to make them want what you want purely by the force of attraction and persuasion (Nye, 2004). It is about economic and especially cultural power, in contrast to the hard power of military capability.

It can be understood in terms of Wendt’s (1999) argument that social structures can be held together by three different means: coercion, calculation and belief. Of these, belief produces by far the most stable and efficient social structures. Hard power holds social structures together inefficiently and temporarily by force. Soft power works by calculation (it is to my advantage to behave in this way) and by belief (it is good, or right, to behave in this way).

The Chinese government understands, rightly, that it needs soft power both to increase its status abroad, and to possess a more balanced power profile to compete with the West. It also needs it to defend its own culture and ‘Chinese characteristics’ from being subverted and replaced by Western cultural values. What it does not seem to understand, or at least cannot seem to find a way of dealing with, is that soft power comes mainly from civil society. Although governments can do some things to generate soft power, especially on the calculated, economic side, they can do little on the cultural side, which is where the real, durable effect of soft power works most strongly.

Indeed a good case can be made that when the government is the major player, this works systematically against the effectiveness of soft power. People everywhere rightly treat governments, both their own and others, with suspicion. Governments are self-interested players with well-known propensities to lie, deceive and manipulate. When the government is the main face of a country’s soft power, that soft power will be taken by outsiders mainly as propaganda, and sometimes actively opposed.

Soft power comes from the unmediated voice of civil society which does not attract such suspicions. No clearer example of the link between effective soft power and civil society can be given than the widespread admiration that many people have for American society even while they dislike or hate its government. American popular culture is hugely influential all over the world despite the many reservations that people have about the US government and many of its policies. That popular culture carries American values of individualism, consumerism, capitalism and religion far and wide. The government does not have to do anything other than get out of the way to make this happen.

The problem for China is threefold: 1) China’s government does not in itself have a good image to sell abroad; 2) the Chinese government appears to be afraid of the civil society that its highly successful economic reforms have created; and 3) because of its totalitarian traditions, it does not know how to get out of the way.

The poor image of China’s government abroad has many roots. Most obviously, China’s strong opposition to democracy makes it something of an outlier in Western-global international society (Jones, 2014). The CCP’s firm commitment to its own authoritarian rule creates a gap not only with the West, but also with most other big powers other than Russia. While the government is admired for its economic accomplishments, its sometimes aggressive foreign policy behaviour, and its repressions of both minority peoples and its own civil society, give it a bad image abroad.

People have not forgotten that this is the same CCP that during the 1950s, 60s and 70s went to war with Vietnam and India, subjected its people to the horrors of the great leap forward and the cultural revolution and in 1989 ruthlessly destroyed the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square. Not surprisingly, many outsiders are disinclined to trust it.

The Chinese government’s fear of the Chinese people is communicated abroad both by its repression of a wide spectrum of civil society voices and by the priority it gives to domestic security, and this adds to its poor image. The insecurity of the CCP, and the high priority it gives to its own survival has huge consequences both for China and for the world. Domestically, it drives a continuous and self-damaging need for coercive control over China’s civil society that undermines the country’s legitimate aspiration to generate soft power commensurate with its size and cultural weight.

The CCP’s suppression of independent civil society voices and activity stifles exactly that part of China’s society that is essential to the generation of soft power on a global scale. The party thus cuts off a key source of the international status and respect that both it and China want (Schell and Delury, 2013: 396-9). China spends as much or more on domestic security as it does on external defence (Shambaugh, 2013: 3, 58). Wang and Minzner (2015) show in detail how, since the domestic and international turbulence in the communist world in 1989, the CCP has securitized domestic political stability, and constructed a massive domestic security apparatus to enforce its control.

It is highly revealing that the first priority of the PLA is still to defend the Party not the country (Harris, 2014: loc. 850). As Shambaugh (2013: 3, 14-18, 309-11), like many others (e.g. (Shirk, 2007: 53), argues, the deep insecurity of the CCP, and the priority it gives to domestic over foreign policy, generates close links between domestic and foreign policy in China. The international consequence of this is that regime security dominates national security, pushing the government to look tough abroad in order to defend itself against nationalist criticism at home. None of this does any good at all for the external image of China’s government.

The third problem is that China’s government does not know how to get out of the way. Instead, it is trying itself to generate soft power by the use of public diplomacy, in the process confusing the two. Its attempts to generate soft power by state action mainly fail or are counterproductive, and reveal that the CCP does not understand the difference between soft power emanating largely from civil society, and public diplomacy and propaganda by the state (Shambaugh, 2013: 207-67).

There is a place for public diplomacy, and even for propaganda, but these activities are not the same as soft power, and can easily be contradictory to it when the government is itself view by outsiders with suspicion. This has been the story of China’s Confucius Institutes, many of which have become targets of protest because they are seen as being too closely associated with the Chinese state, and therefore threatening to the academic independence of the universities that accept them. China needs to get used to the idea, as the US has done, that outsiders make a sharp differentiation between the Chinese party/state on the one hand (which mostly they do not like very much) and the Chinese people and culture on the other.

China’s potential for generating soft power is huge, but it will not be realised until the government realises that this is not something that can be done by the state, and gets out of the way of its civil society. China’s leadership has to make up its own mind about what it wants. If it wants mainly to retain a very tight leash over its civil society, then it will not be successful at generating soft power and will have to forego the benefits of having that kind of power. If it wants to have soft power it will need to find some way of changing its domestic security equation so as to allow a wider range of voices to speak within China and to the world.

Barry Buzan is a Professor Emeritus at the LSE. One of his latest publications is Wilson, Peter and Zhang, Yongjin and Knudsen, Tonny Brems and Wilson, Peter and Sharp, Paul and Navari, Cornelia and Buzan, Barry (2016) The English School in retrospect and prospect: Barry Buzan’s an introduction to the English School of International Relations: the societal approach Cooperation and Conflict, 51 (1). Image credit: CC by Wojtek Gurak/Flickr.


Harris, Stuart (2014) China’s Foreign Policy, Cambridge: Polity.
Jones, Catherine (2014) ‘Constructing great powers: China’s status in a socially constructed plurality’, International Politics, 51:5, 597=618.
Li, Mingjiang (2008) ‘China Debates Soft Power’, Chinese Journal of International Politics, 2:2, 287-308.
Nye, Joseph (2004) Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics, New York: Public Affairs.
Schell, Orville and John Delury (2013) Wealth and Power: China’s Long March to the Twenty-First Century, London: Little, Brown.
Shambaugh, David (2013) China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle edn.
Shirk, Susan (2007) China: Fragile Superpower, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Kindle edn.
Wang, Yuhua, and Carl Minzner (2015) ‘The Rise of the Chinese Security State’, China Quarterly, 222, 339-59.
Wendt, Alexander (1999) Social Theory of International Politics, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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