China Policy Institute: Analysis


Hu Jintao

How sustainable is China’s social security system?

Written by Matthias Stepan.

Social policy is one of the policy fields that remain firmly in the hands of the State Council. In the nearly four years of the Xi-Li Administration, China has made headway in this policy field: social policy programs, such as health insurance and old age pensions have reached nearly universal coverage; levels of social transfers and government subsidies have risen continuously. However, the most important achievement of the administration is the consolidation of the large number of programs that served different groups defined by their household registration (户口hukou) or occupation. In 2014 almost all localities merged the urban resident pension social insurance program and the new type rural pension social insurance program under the label of Urban and Rural Residents’ Basic Pension Insurance. At about the same time, employees in public service units (事业单位shiye danwei), e.g. university staff, have been stripped of privileges. They no longer enjoy higher levels of benefits than regular enterprise employees without paying contributions. Instead they are now insured under the same social insurance programs. Continue reading “How sustainable is China’s social security system?”

Implications for China’s Soft Power under Xi Jinping

Written by Kingsley Edney.

Soft power has become a popular concept in China. When Hu Jintao mentioned soft power in his report to the 2007 National Party Congress he ignited an explosion of scholarly work on soft power and ensured that officials all around the country would take the concept seriously. As Hu’s administration promoted the notions of ‘peaceful rise’ (later ‘peaceful development’) and ‘harmonious world’, soft power in China came to primarily refer to ‘cultural soft power’ (wenhua ruan shili).

Nye’s three original soft power ‘resources’ — culture, political values and foreign policy — were trimmed to suit the party-state’s needs. Now that Xi Jinping’s leadership has shaken up Chinese domestic and foreign policy what are the implications for China’s soft power strategy? Continue reading “Implications for China’s Soft Power under Xi Jinping”

China’s military parade is an error of judgement

Written by Steve Tsang.

Whenever the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) departs from routine protocol, it is usually highly significant. Today’s military parade in Beijing, which marks 70 years since the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, is no exception.

It is only China’s fourth military parade since the Mao era; it is the first time it has held a parade that does not commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949; it is the first such parade where the world’s heads of state are invited.

It is a bold decision. It is also a major error of judgement. To openly show off its military might in this way will harm rather than aid China’s ambitions to rally support around Asia for its claim to undisputed regional leadership and its efforts to marginalise Japan and reduce American influence in the region.

China’s readiness to assert itself militarily is unnerving its neighbours. Such an overt display of military power clashes with the notion of China’s ‘peaceful rise’. It also signals the definitive departure from Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of downplaying its military capabilities – China is set to showcase its most advanced weaponry, something it has refrained from doing in previous parades.

Those outside China will understandably ask the question: what will this military strength be used for? After all, the boy in the playground with the biggest muscles should have no need to flaunt them. As one of the Chinese government’s own favourite sayings goes: “Listen to other’s words; watch their deeds.” The rest of the world is watching China’s deeds.

But the words the CCP is using are also crucial here. China is not marking an Allied victory and the end of the War in Asia. It is specifically celebrating “the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in the War of Resistance Against Japanese aggression”. In this way the CCP is affirming its historical narrative that China defeated the Japanese under the leadership of the Communist Party.

The Party’s legitimacy rests on popular acceptance of this storyline. In reality, China was one of several countries that fought Imperial Japan and the Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-Shek, did the bulk of the fighting in China. The 30 heads of states attending the parade are in effect validating CCP propaganda, another key reason why so many are staying away.

China is using the parade to send a clear message to the region and the world. It is claiming the right to maintain what it sees as the post-War order: Japan as the defeated aggressor and China as the leading – and responsible – military power in Asia.

This statement reflects China’s soaring confidence and growing assertiveness under its president Xi Jinping despite evidence that economic troubles lie ahead. Every Chinese leader has its own slogan. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao called for the creation of a ‘harmonious society’ and a ‘harmonious world’. Xi, who came to power in 2013, champions the ‘China dream’, a philosophy that centres on national rejuvenation under a strong military. That’s quite a semantic shift in two years.

Most of East Asia was attacked by Japan in the Second World War. The fact that many of the region’s states are refusing to send top-level political representatives to Beijing underlines their unease at China’s rise.

The scale of this unease is magnified when you consider the unpopularity of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe across Asia. China, though, is squandering the opportunity to amass regional support that this negative sentiment towards Abe presents.

The timing of the parade is problematic for China. Although it was planned months ago, it arrives at a time when economic concerns are growing. On one hand the parade will strengthen nationalist sentiment among many Chinese. But on the other, many will view it as an unnecessary distraction and a sign that Chinese government is not taking the people’s anxiety over the state of economy seriously enough.

The international guest list for the event is a revealing window into China’s relations with the rest of the world – and further evidence that the way in which the CCP has framed it has alienated most leading powers.

The majority of countries that are sending high-level representatives – in particular those that are sending troops to participate in the parade like Mexico, Pakistan, Venezuela and states from Eastern Europe – did not fight Japan in the Second World War. They are seizing the opportunity to show China their political support in return for a furthering of economic ties.

Of the major Western powers, the United States is sending its ambassador to China, Max Baucus – the lowest ranking official it could get away with without delivering a deeply embarrassing snub to China. Britain is sending Kenneth Clarke MP, who has retired from ministerial duties. And while China will make some noise domestically about the attendance of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it must know that he carries little weight in current UK policy circles.

Even news of the decision by South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye fails to endorse China’s approach. A long-term victim of Japanese aggression in the past, South Korea has more reason than any other country to stand by China against Japan. Yet Park was notably hesitant in accepting the invitation, clearly uncomfortable at China’s posturing and wary of upsetting its long-time ally the United States.

The tone of the commemoration would have been different if China had opted to organise a ‘people’s parade’ to mark the end of the Second World War in Asia instead of a military one to celebrate its victory over Japan – and a greater number of foreign dignitaries may have been prepared to attend.

As it is, the high-profile absentees underline just how far the CCP and Xi Jinping have to travel to realise the ‘China Dream’, which surely depends on winning the trust of its neighbours.

Professor Steve Tsang is senior fellow at the China Policy Institute and head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham, UK. This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on September 1, 2015. Image credit: CC by Philip McMaster/Flickr.

Is the CCP’s Aspirational Leadership Narrative Un-American or Anti-American ? Wang Huning as a Test Case

Written by Niv Horesh.

In 1991, David Shambaugh famously damned China’s American-studies establishment as advancing a “shallow and seriously distorted” understanding of US culture, history, society and politics.1 Nevertheless, in the intervening two and a half decades, a new generation of experts has come to inform CCP thinking on the US. Shambaugh’s 1991 study focused on prominent figures like Zhang Wenjin (d. 1991), Han Xu (d. 1994) and their lesser-known policy-wonk contemporaries. Yet, by 2012, Andrew Nathan and Andrew Scobell, who examined later generations of Chinese experts on US affairs, concluded that the latter “…seem to have achieved a good understanding of the American political system after about twenty years’ effort”.2

Zhang Wenjin’s expertise was undoubtedly critical to Sino-American normalisation, but he had not had much hands-on experience of the US. In fact, he studied in Germany before WWII, at much the same time that Deng Xiaoping had been studying in France. Zhang would nevertheless end up playing an important role in facilitating the Mao-Nixon rapprochement, and would later also advise Deng Xiaoping, and serve as PRC Ambassador to Washington. Han Xu, on the other hand, studied English in the early 1940s at the American-run Yanjing University in Beijing (known as Peiping then). In short, neither Zhang nor Han had had hands-on, in-country US experience before rising to the top echelons of CCP US policy-making.

Born well after the establishment of the PRC, China’s senior America watchers at present are nevertheless much better informed about the US, albeit not necessarily more pro-US. The best examples are perhaps Yan Xuetong (b. 1952) of Tsinghua University, who had actually studied for years in the US before gaining a PhD from Berkeley in 1992, or Wang Huning (b. 1955), who had held visiting fellowships at Berkeley as well as at the University of Iowa (1988-9).

Surprisingly, whilst Yan Xuetong’s thoughts on the US are not unfamiliar to Western readers,3 Wang Huning’s remain largely unknown. Yet, it is Wang who commands by far more influence within the CCP, as reflected in his 2012 promotion to the rank of politburo member. The purpose of this essay therefore is to better familiarise Western readers with Wang Huning’s formative experiences in, and impressions of, the US, as captured in a travelogue he published after returning from his visiting fellowship. We will elsewhere compare, in due course, Wang’s ideas with those of Zheng Bijian, the doyen of Chinese foreign policy in the Deng era and the putative architect of China’s taoguang yanghui (i.e.“keep low profile”) foreign policy in the 1990s. It is hoped that this comparison will offer clues as to the extent to which the current advisory shaping CCP thinking on the US differs from the previous generation; and as to whether CCP thinking is un-American or anti-American in essence.


A Fudan University graduate who is fluent in both French and English, Wang Huning has had a remarkable career not least because his close relationship with Jiang Zemin did not result in side-lining by Hu Jintao. Wang is thought in fact to have intellectually shaped Jiang Zemin’s “three represents” reform; though often dubbed “hawkish” and anti-Western, and despite rumours of his advocacy of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown — Wang is also on record as supporting the rule of law.4

Leaving academia for officialdom in 1995, Wang has remained ever since in the inner circle of the CCP foreign-policy advisory, and is reported to have established a rapport with Xi Jinping too. One report even suggested that he played a role in shaping Xi’s new “China Dream” discourse.5 Zhou Qi, Wang’s ex wife, received a Ph.D. in political science from Johns Hopkins University (SAIS) and currently serves as a research fellow in the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).6

So is Wang a genuine rule-of-law enthusiast, and to what extent is his worldview shaped by his experiences living in America? In 1992, well before Wang made the transition from academia to government, he published a memoir-cum-travelogue which shed light on these questions. Entitled America versus America (Meiguo fandui Meiguo), it is a book of recollections and formative thoughts penned against the background of the Bush-Dukakis presidential run-off. 7 Despite Wang’s prominence in the CCP later on, Meiguo fandui Meiguo never received the attention it deserved in the West, and it is therefore discussed below.

Right from the introduction, Wang is scathing in his portrayal of how vested-interest lobby groups and big business work to impede the American democratic process. Wang also denounces time and again what he sees as the litigious excesses of the American lifestyle. He alleges, for example, that reliance on expensive lawyers in all walks of life systematically erodes the presumption of individual freedom and equal opportunity.8

Here, we shall try to foreground what redeeming characteristics of American society he points to, alongside other revealing anecdotes he shares with his readers. Upon arrival in San Francisco airport for example, Wang is surprised at the hordes of “pushy” Japanese tourists he sees around him. To be sure, Wang was writing at a time when far fewer PRC passengers were seen in Western airports, and just before Japan’s “lost decade” had dampened the number of Japanese tourists worldwide. Presumably coming with very high expectations about American efficiency and advancement, Wang, who by then had become a seasoned domestic passenger, also reveals his disappointment at how long it took passengers to reclaim luggage from the carousel.9

He would consistently, from then on, express wonderment in the book at how tech savvy Americans were, whilst at the same time finding moral flaws with that very same feature. Thus, for example, he marvels at the facility of magnetic card use in lieu of cash in everything from public phone booths to supermarket credit cards, but observes somewhat sanctimoniously that this facility leads to spend-thriftiness on the part of ordinary Americans.10

The impression Wang might leave on Western readers is that he often over-simplifies the complexity of American multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society. Whilst acknowledging the generally higher standard of living in the US, and whilst on occasion giving away his admiration for the American ‘can-do’ attitude, scientific progress and lack of hereditary nobility – Wang Huning is also at pains to point to Native Americans as an especially disenfranchised minority group. To him, Native Americans merely enjoy formalistic equality but are largely absent from the political conversation. Curiously, there is no sign in the book that this critical assessment of American society is stimulating him to draw any comparisons with the plight of ethnic minorities in the PRC.11 In that sense, as elsewhere, the book is devoid of reflective qualities.

Where Wang uniquely offers a glimpse into the makeup and thinking of senior CCP officialdom is in the personal and family realms. Wang suggests time and again that it is not just geo-politics that inherently divides China and the US, but also fundamentally different day-to-day behaviour patterns that feed, in turn, into fundamentally different world views. Coming from what was still a very poor country in 1991, Wang perceives Middle-American family life as insular and self-indulgent.12 His focus on selfishness and individuals shuts out, for the most part, alternative interpretations, and plays down the role of philanthropy and civic solidarity in American society. Similarly, it is an interpretation that does not invite much reflection on the real extent of civic solidarity in China behind the veneer of Marxist, and more recently Confucian, rhetoric in the PRC. Oftentimes, foreigners actually hear from their Chinese interlocutors just how materialistic and politically apathetic their society had become during the 1990s.13

Wang divulges perhaps moral outrage, perhaps amusement when portraying inter-generational relations in American society. For him, America is a veritable paradise for children and a battleground for adolescents. For the elderly, America, in Wang’s view, is hell when compared with their exalted status in East Asia.14 In much the same vein, Wang ridicules the American notion of marriage as something that would be an anathema to most Chinese and Japanese. In his view, most American couples treat each other to an excessive show of public endearment, yet are cold to one another in the privacy of their own homes.15

It is therefore no wonder, Wang infers, that the divorce rate in America is skyrocketing and family morality is in decline. With so many households broken, drug abuse and weapon possession atomise American society. Crime and homelessness further marginalise minority groups, leading, among other ailments, to wholesale African-American immiseration. Wang decries African-American poverty, and at the same time condemns the poor’s reliance on government benefits.16 Of course, this litany comes across as incorrigibly naïve in hindsight. For today, income inequalities have split PRC society asunder. The divorce rate in the PRC is also on the rise and single-parent families are not unheard of. President Xi Jinping himself had divorced his first wife because she allegedly wanted to live abroad, and many other CCP officials are re-married, including the now disgraced Bo Xilai.17

Then, Wang goes on to valorise the Singaporean experience as demonstrating how a society can industrialise whilst maintaining its Confucian mores and respect for the elderly.18 His thinking here speaks to an enduring fascination the CCP has had since 1978 with the Singaporean model of economic development as being better suited to China than the Western one. Indeed, far from neo-liberal, China’s reforms have been described by Leong Liew as “a loose hug rather than a warm embrace” of economic liberalism.19

As late as 2011, prominent political scientist and PRC government advisor Zheng Yongnian also observed that China’s economic and social experimentation in the reform era owes much to the Chinese cultural concept of zhongyong (‘the art of the mean’), and that therefore China has by and large rejected the excesses of Western neo-liberalism and market fundamentalism. Most importantly, China preferred a gradualist approach to reform. It did not let state assets (i.e. critical State-Owned Enterprises) be stripped, as happened in Yeltsin’s Russia under the influence of Western “shock therapy” advisors. Rather, China learned from Singapore how to lure in foreign investment without shrinking the size of its government or its political powers.20

Zheng then opines that China should continue to learn from Singapore how to cautiously facilitate the transition to consumerist civic society and empower its middle class; how to open up to the world whilst eschewing premature democratisation and unhindered press freedom; how to foster professionalism and meritocracy in public service by depoliticising senior appointments in government departments and elite universities; and how to curb corruption by matching officials’ salaries with private-sector norms and constraining long-term tenure in the same post. Notably, however, Zheng suggests that China’s ultimate aim should not be a Western-style system because not even Western-style individual freedoms can prevent wholesale corruption and abuse of power, as Berlusconi’s Italy shows.21


Yet not all of Wang’s impressions of America seem immutably pre-conceived. Thus, Wang apparently arrived in America believing he would encounter a very progressive society. He thus found himself surprised: despite the stories he’d heard of San Francisco hippies, the mischievous rock-and-roll scene and gay-community outspokenness – he finds most of those he engages with to in fact be exceedingly conservative. Wang notes, for example, how rare interracial marriage is (in that sense, he might find a different San Francisco nowadays).22

Later on, Wang seems to admit that Chinese and other Confucian societies are actually encumbered by guanxi and rigid hierarchies when compared with American social dynamism and mobility. But, quite perceptively here, he notes in the same breath that despite the absence of hereditary nobility – family connections still matter in the upper rungs of US society. The power structure, he observes, is not always purely meritocratic when it comes to elite university admissions or presidential nominations.23

For Wang, the American preoccupation with privacy, in all walks of life, engenders superficiality. Americans, he avers, look much warmer, open and friendlier than the Chinese when first encountered. They willingly strike up conversations with strangers, but would rarely let a friend into their inner sanctum. During his stay, Wang concludes that it proved very difficult to form all-weather, true friendships (moni zhi jiao) with Americans. Most Chinese, he reflects by way of comparison, look aloof on first encounter. But once reciprocity is discreetly established through deeds – Chinese are more easily able to form meaningful friendships (shenjiao).24 Ironically, two and a half decades after the publication of Wang’s travelogue, the passage on friendship might, on a political level, point to a blind spot in Sino-Western communication more broadly. For, more recently, some Western and Indian politicians have been trying rather clumsily to persuade their Chinese interlocutors that true friendship between countries can in fact withstand mutual public criticism.25

Wang sounds particularly wrathful when lunging at the notion that corruption is less rampant in the USA due to transparent-governance norms in all walks of life. Firstly, he notes, even at the university where he was hosted, personal connections were all-important in, for example, mobilising funding for sabbaticals. He recounts, for example, how a certain Head of Department had approved an extended fieldtrip to Africa by another professorial staff member, only to be “invited” in return for a tour of that African country later on.26 When it comes to national politics, Wang is even more damning to the point of misrepresentation: for him, the two main parties in America are completely devoid of ideology or coherent platforms; rather they constitute an agglomeration of vested interests and lobby groups with a loose common denominator.27

Equally problematic is Wang’s portrayal of the American electoral system. He likens that system to pyramidal corporate shareholding where each share-holder has one vote on the board in theory, but in reality, minority-shareholders can amass a controlling stake, to the detriment of diffuse share-holders, because the former are better organised and better funded.28 For Wang, this amounts to broad-daylight gerrymandering which in turn leads to voter apathy and low participation. The system is further encumbered by what Wang sees as costly, protracted presidential campaigns and complex voter registration systems.29

Then, like many others in China, Wang alludes to the fact that the notion of professional civil service in the West may actually have borrowed much, or be historically derived from, the Chinese imperial bureaucracy. But the US variant thereof seems to him flawed in that an incoming administration can re-appoint, at will, the entire upper echelons of the advisory.30

Finally, Wang comes closest to discussing the realities of reform in China when decrying US managerial style as too rigid and intellectually restrictive (siban, yan’ge). He contrasts that style with what he sees as Chinese managers’ penchant for flexibility and dynamism (linghuo, jidong).31 To be sure, there is a touch of Occidentalism (read: Asian supremacism) in Wang’s portrayal of the American economy in the early 1990s. Whilst openly spiteful towards the Japanese Wang came across in America, he recounts with glee how Japan’s economic success had bewildered Americans to the point that Japanese collectivist managerial approaches are accepted as superior to American individualistic ones. Chillingly, he concludes the book with a prophesy: in the 21st century, another mighty Asian nation-race (minzu) would come to vigorously challenge American primacy; the American system would eventually implode, Wang avers, because the kinds of individualism, equality and freedom it champions are, at their heart, inherently contradictory.32

Interestingly, scholars like Yan Xuetong, who had spent a longer of period of time in the US than Wang, are not necessarily more complimentary in their assessments of US society. Chinese understanding of the US has, to be sure, improved a great deal since Zhang Wenjin. What has changed is that that understanding is, at present, less anchored in a Marxian frame of reference than it is coloured by a New Confucian nomenclature that draws on the Singaporean experience.33 Yet the tiny city-state of Singapore always sought strategic closeness with America; it never aimed to offer an alternative to US hegemony, whilst the PRC always has, either explicitly or surreptitiously.

In Wang’s 1992 book, what we can arguably trace out are the origins and formative intellectual underpinnings of what would later become – cloaked in a New Confucian mantle — the PRC’s aspirational narrative of global leadership. Whether that narrative foreshadows a genuine alternative to the current American-led world system, let alone an attractive one, is in the eye of the beholder. The narrative, at any rate, is hardly pro-American.

Niv Horesh is Professor of the Modern History of China and Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. His latest publication: Toward Well-Oiled Relations: China’s Presence in the Middle East following the Arab Spring. Image Credit: CC by U.S. Embassy The Hague /Flickr.

1 David L. Shambaugh, Beautiful Imperialist: China Perceives America, 1972‐1990 (PrincetonUniversity Press), p. 41.
2 Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell, China’s Search for Security (Columbia University Press), p. 54.
3 Yan Xuetong, Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power (Princeton University Press, 2011).
7 Wang Huning, Meiguo fandui Meiguo (Shanghai wenyi chubanshe, 1992). Hereafter, WHN.
8 WHN, p. 45-46.
9 WHN, p. 1.
10 WHN, p. 9, pp. 126-130.
11 WHN, pp. 48-49, 249, 293.
12 WHN, pp. 68-69.
13 For a study of consumerism in contemporary China, see e.g. Minglu Chen and David S.G. Goodman eds., Middle Class China: Identity and Behavious (Edward Elgar, 2013).
14 WHN, p. 284.
15 WHN, pp. 344.
16 WHN, pp. 353, 356-360.
17 William Callahan, China Dreams: 20 Visions of the Future (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 20.
18 WHN, p. 347-348.
19 Leong Liew, “China’s Engagement with Neo-liberalism: Path Dependency, Geography and Party Self-Reinvention”, The Journal of Development Studies, Vol.41, No.2, February 2005, pp.331 – 352.
20 Zheng Yongnian, Zhongguo moshi: jingyan yu kunju (Beijing: Yangzhi wenhua, 2011), pp. 133-152.
21 Ibid., pp. 287-308.
22 WHN p. 73, 91, 99.
23 WHN, p. 114-116 (Dan Quayle’s nomination is for Wang a case in point)
24 WHN, p. 114-116.
25 See e.g.
26 WHN, p. 116-117.
27 WHN, 155-158, 165, 169-173.
28 WHN, pp. 182-185.
29 WHN, p. 210-211.
30 WHN, p. 248.
31 WHN, p. 269.
32 WHN, p. 384-390.
33 Daniel Bell, The China Model: Political Meritocracy and the Limits of Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2015).

From Hide and Bide to a New Model of Big Power Relations

Written by Suisheng Zhao.

President Xi Jinping has called for building a new model of big power relations with the US, in which China’s rise would not be accompanied by the conflict and war that has marred many moments in history when rising powers rubbed up against the incumbent power. But China has increasingly behaved as a typical muscle-flexing rising power looking to challenge the US primacy in the Asia-Pacific. The notion represents a significant reversal of China’s Taoguang Yanghui (“hide and bide”) policy.

Chinese leaders’ foreign policy-making often starts from a careful assessment of China’s relative power in the world. Conditioned by China’s circumscribed capabilities and geostrategic isolation immediately after the end of the Cold War, Beijing followed the Taoguang Yanghui policy set by Deng Xiaoping to keep a low profile and concentrate on building up its national strength.

Seeking peaceful coexistence with the US, the unwieldy superpower that held the key to China’s economic modernization, President Jiang Zemin proposed a 16 character formulation in 1993: increase trust, reduce problems, strengthen cooperation, avoid confrontation. Promoting a multipolar world, China tried “learning to live with the hegemon” and made adaptation and policy adjustments to the reality of the US dominance in the international system. China did not want to become the second “Mr. No” and repeat the failure of the Soviet Union in a competition for hegemony that exhausted its economic and military capacities. President Jiang avoided taking confrontational postures in response to US sanctions after Tiananmen in 1989, the US’ inadvertent bombing of the Chinese embassy in 1999, and the mid-air collision between a Chinese jet fighter and American EP-3 surveillance plane in 2001.

President Hu Jintao continued to focus on building China’s comprehensive national strength. Focusing on domestic stability, Hu’s foreign policy emphasized the principles of maintaining the status quo and averting crises in order to extend a period of strategic opportunity in which a benign external environment would allow China to pursue its modernization programs. Cherishing China’s rising power status, Chinese leaders were very cautious to hide their big power aspirations.

President Hu endorsed the concept of China’s “peaceful rise” originally put forward by his aid, Zheng Bijian, but quickly changed it to “peaceful development” because some Chinese scholars and officials expressed concerns about whether using the word “rise” might intimidate some of China’s Asian neighbours. During a visit to Europe in early 2009, some sensitive Western reporters pricked up their ears at Premier Wen’s statement that China would be a peaceful and cooperative big power. When asked for clarification of the phrase “big power,” the official Xinhua news agency released an English text that translated the word as “country” instead. While many Chinese were initially flattered by the G-2 idea amounting to a Sino-US cooperative, Premier Wen rejected the idea as “not appropriate” and reiterated that “China remains a developing country despite remarkable achievements and its modernization will take a long time and the efforts of several generations.”

Pursuing China’s Core Interests during the Global Financial Meltdown

Narrowing the power gap to the US and weathering the 2009 global financial crisis better than many Western countries, Chinese began to see a shift in the world balance of power in China’s favour. Anticipating a rapid US decline, China’s foreign policy behavior took a notable turn in the wake of the global slowdown. For many years, Chinese foreign policy was designed to serve domestic economic modernization by creating and maintaining a peaceful international environment. Fused with growing nationalism and wealth, China began to reverse the order and use its rising economic and military power to serve its expanded foreign policy objectives. With the US in financial turmoil and seemingly desperate for cash-rich China to come to its aid, the perception of a troubled US still attempting to keep China down makes Chinese leaders less willing to make adaptations. Although far from a full reversal of what had long been a mixed practice, the center of gravity has shifted toward less accommodation. Facing rumblings of discontent from the popular nationalists who saw the global downturn as a chance for China to reclaim its great power status, the Hu leadership began to take an unusually hawkish position to confront the Obama administration in its own neighborhood.

President Hu’s forceful and strident stands have been reinforced since President Xi Jinping assumed power. Believing China has never been so close to regaining the glorious position it enjoyed before around two centuries ago, President Xi set out to achieve a “China dream” of great national revitalization. Calling for a new model of big power relations, Chinese leaders for the first time openly acknowledged China as a “big power” and a peer of the US. Chinese leaders have included three essential features in describing the new model: no conflict or confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation. But Beijing has made it clear that “mutual respect” of each other’s “core national interests” is the bottom line. The new model, therefore, is not just another façade on the old rhetoric of peaceful coexistence. Now China and the US can coexist peacefully only if they respect each other’s core interests and make their strategic aspirations compatible.

“Core interest”, a new term in China’s foreign policy vocabulary, has suddenly become fashionable and appears more frequently in Chinese statements. Obviously chosen with intent to signal the resolve in China’s sovereignty and territorial claims that it deems important enough to go to war over, core interest is defined as “the bottom-line of national survival” and “essentially non-negotiable”. While China’s official statements on sovereignty and territorial integrity used to refer almost exclusively to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang issue, Chinese leaders have since expanded the core interest issues to include territorial claims in the South and East China Seas.

Taking an unusually strong position to assert its sovereignty in these disputed waters, Beijing repeatedly attempted to prevent Vietnamese vessels from exploring oil and gas while it sent Chinese oil rigs to disputed waters with Vietnam, deployed ships to blockade the Philippines garrison on a contested shoal and rejected Manila’s bid for international court of justice arbitration, and scaled up land reclamation of “island-building” on the disputed reefs in the South China Sea. It also sent law enforcement ships and fighter jets to challenge the status quo of the Japanese administration of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands following the Japanese government’s decision to nationalize some of them, and declared an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) covering the Diaoyu/ Senkaku Islands as well as the greater part of the East China Sea, including the Socotra Rock (also known as Ieodo or Parangdo), which has been effectively controlled by South Korea but claimed by China as the Suyan Rock.

The Challenge to the US Power in the Asia-Pacific

Rising to great power status in a region that is not only militarily dominated by the US, but is also replete with US allies and strategic partners, China has exhibited considerable sensitivity to perceived US containment. The US strategic rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific only compounds such insecurities and anxieties. With enhanced capacities resulting from decades of rapid economic growth and military modernization, China has strived to obtain regional dominance in the Asia-Pacific. The primary impediment in this endeavour is the US, an offshore power dominant in its own home region. Viewing the US as a significant threat to China’s aims and recalling the traumas of the collapse of the former Soviet Union and other communist regimes after the end of the Cold War, Chinese leaders have not only become suspicious of US intentions to prevent China from rising to its rightful place, but have also been convinced that the US and the other Western countries have come together to encircle China and undermine the Chinese regime.

Translating its wealth into a stronger military and more assertive regional posture, China’s coercive actions to exert its claims over disputed territories is thus a litmus test of China’s broader strategic intentions. Beijing has targeted not only its neighbours in the East and South China Seas but also, and perhaps more importantly, the US in the region. China’s stepped-up claims over the disputed territories are a central part of the growing contest for influence with the US in the region. Hugh White offers simple logic to describe the situation. America’s position in Asia is built on its network of alliances and partnerships with many of China’s neighbours, and the bedrock of these alliances and partnerships is the confidence America’s Asian friends have that America is able and willing to protect them. Weakening these relationships is the easiest way to reduce US regional power and enhance China’s power. This is a strategy known in China as “cutting skirt edges little by little”, meaning that cutting off the left and right arms and legs one by one of the US would eventually isolate and defeat the superpower. China is therefore keen to do anything it can to weaken the U.S. alliance structure in Asia, which it views as a central tenet of the US encirclement strategy.

As a matter of fact, Chinese scholars have debated if China should adopt its own “Monroe Doctrine” to “kick America out” of Asia. De-Americanization has become a popular term in China and has begun impacting China’s foreign policy. Taking advantage of the so-called “Host Diplomacy” to engage national leaders of Asian countries in summits hosted by China, President Xi has demonstrated clear intentions to drive the US out of the region. At the 2014 Shanghai summit of the Conference of Interaction and Confidence-Building in Asia (CICA), he announced a new Asian security concept in which China is located at the heart of a new Asian diplomatic architecture that offers Asian management of Asian security problems without the US presence. This little-known regional summit had languished for years, but President Xi suddenly invigorated the CICA because its membership includes Russia, Iran, and Egypt, but does not include the US nor most American Asia-Pacific allies and partners such as Japan, the Philippines, and Singapore. As one observer suggested, “part of the real reason for China’s new emphasis on the CICA and its arbitrarily landlocked map of Asia is that, in this post-charm offensive phase, Chinese diplomacy seems comfortable only on a stage it manages.”

Many Chinese believe building a new model of big power relationship depends overwhelmingly on the US changing the way it works with China and adapting to the new reality of China’s rise because “China has never done anything to undermine the US core interests and major concerns.” Therefore, “the principal barrier in building a new model of big power relations between China and the US is on the US side. While no country is responsible alone for the problems, self-righteousness and lack of empathy can only intensify the China-US strategic rivalry. Leaders in both Washington and Beijing have to engage each other on points of mutual interest while working separately to secure their interests by maintaining a delicate balance of power to avoid the China-US rivalry turning into a new cold war.

Suisheng Zhao is Professor and Director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. He is also Editor of the important scholarly publication, Journal of Contemporary China. Image credit: CC by Steve Cadman/Flickr.

Next PLA Shoes to Fall

by Chris Clarke.

With the appointment of the two vice chairmen, it now seems clear that outgoing General Armaments Department Director Chang Wanquan, 63, will be the new defense minister, a position that likely will not be formally announced until next March when the National People’s Congress reveals the state and government leadership changes.  Chang was one of only three members of the Central Military Commission eligible to stay on.

The promotions to CMC vice chairmanships contained a few surprises:  first, some analysts expected Navy Commander Wu Shengli to be the one to get the VC slot, given the increasingly important role of the Navy in China’s strategic thinking and military outreach and Wu’s seniority.  But at 67, he would be eligible for only one term.  Recently replaced PLA Air Force Commander Xu Qiliang, by contrast, is only 60 and will be eligible to stay on for two full terms, suggesting the leadership opted for both youth and future continuity.

Importantly, the promotion of a non-ground forces officer as CMC vice chairman underscores the PLA’s recent drive for greater “jointness.”  Even so, with Xu gaining the CMC vice chair position  it seems unlikely that another non-ground force officer like the PLAN’s Adm. Wu,  would get the defense ministry.  Most likely, Wu will remain as Navy commander.  (The only post-Mao precedent for a non-ground forces CMC vice chairman is Adm. Liu Huaqing, who was promoted under very unique circumstances after Tiananmen and cannot be considered as a “precedent” for greater inter-service opportunity to attain the PLA’s top positions.)

General Fan Changlong’s promotion was also something of a surprise, and represented an unusual two-grade promotion in position and a jump from military region command directly to the top.  Fan has never served on the CMC , but did have experience as an assistant chief of the general staff and so is familiar with central PLA politics and procedures.  At 65, however, he will likely be a one-term vice chairman.

Both Fan and Xu attracted favorable attention from party chief Hu with their quick and capable response during flood-fighting and emergency rescue operations in recent years, a major part of Hu’s effort to adjust the PLA’s mission focus.  Both have also been at the forefront of pushing joint training and operations.

These changes leave unanswered two key questions about the inner dynamics of decisions about PLA leadership change, however.   First,  will Hu remain as CMC chairman for several years?   And second, what role (if any) did heir apparent and CMC Vice Chairman Xi Jinping play in these decisions on PLA leadership change?

One would hope, if Hu is genuinely trying to engineer a smooth transition, that he would have consulted closely with Xi on his preferences for top PLA promotions, but we outsiders really have no insight into the Hu-Xi dynamics on military affairs.  I think also it’s still a 50-50 toss-up whether Hu will remain or not.  To do so will raise all the complaints Jiang Zemin faced about creating “two centers” and having someone not even on the politburo commanding the military. At the same time, it might ease Xi into power, allowing him to consolidate authority in party and government before having to assume the role as commander in chief.  On balance, it seems to me a smooth transition requires Hu to step down from all positions at once.  But only time will tell (and not much time at that).

Christopher M. Clarke is an independent researcher and the retired chief China analyst for the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors

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