By – Abhishek Verma;
The Chinese political system —which is based on the defining ideologies of Chinese Communist Party (CCP)— is of a sui generis nature. It is a country with a unique combination of political socialism with economic capitalism. Three factors guide this implicit ideological orientation; historical experiences, the fall of the Soviet Union, and China’s quest to regain globally dominant stature as defined in the past (before western interference). One can understand CCP’s overarching intention behind its domestic and international conduct in terms of these factors. This article explores the hidden motive and overarching principle behind Chinese global behaviour. It will try to simplify some contemporary Chinese behaviour concerning their overarching objective of global supremacy. The above three factors and their influence has been discussed in detail in the following section.
Historical Evolution and its impact on Communist China
Historically, the Chinese worldview was conceptualized around divine existence and heavenly mandated kingdoms. Chinese ancient philosophers like Zhuanxu, Yao, Shun, Yu and more were instrumental in institutionalizing this conceptualization of Chinese society. More implementable ideas were put forth by philosophers like Confucius, Sunzi, Zhuangzi, Laozi and Mozi. These philosophers wielded profound influence over generations of Chinese leadership.
Chinese hierarchal international system and preconceived notion of heavenly mandated centrality were challenged by western interference in the mid-19th century leading to complete chaos. In communist China, although Mao intended to erase Confucianism from Chinese psych, a glimpse of Confucian influence in Chinese political conduct is very much visible apart from the state promotion of Confucius institutions worldwide. Political leadership in China has built narratives such as ‘Century of Humiliation’ to tighten its authority over Chinese people, society, and administration. This was visible during Mao, who initiated programs like the cultural- revolution, the hundred flowers campaign, the Great Leap Forward and others. These proved to be massive disasters for the Chinese society.
Learning from this experience, Deng Xiaoping initiated economic reforms and cleared the way for western-style financial capitalism to play a significant part in the Chinese development story. There was an implicit understanding and political consensus that if China has to regain its past glory, it needs a collaborative & cooperative approach along with peaceful external relations. Slogans like peaceful co-existence became more prominent in the Chinese diplomatic rulebook. The most auspicious moment arrived due to the great power compulsion between USA and USSR. US rapprochement towards China combined with economic reforms proved to be an ambitious cocktail that drove one the most significant societal transformations.
The Soviet Union and China became natural allies after the communist takeover of mainland China. USSR started aiding China militarily and economically as itperceived it as an essential player for the Soviet bloc in the coming cold war. But the CCP’s ambitions and Soviet leader’s deviation from basic tenets of socialism led China to change its ways. Relations started deteriorating afterwards, reaching their peak in late 1969 when the world’s two largest communist states were on the brink of war. The eventual collapse of the Soviet Union provided a necessary educative experience and governance model for China. CCP learnt that controlled economic reforms must be coupled with tightened political control to avoid the undesirable fallout of ‘Perestroika and glasnost’. As a result of this understanding, Deng ordered brutal suppression of democracy protesters at Tiananmen Square in 1989. To absolve itself of repressive image after the Tiananmen incident and implement cautious assimilation, China sighed Non- Proliferation Treaty, which it had vehemently criticized in 1970 when NPT came into force.
With a vast population, continental size, coastal landscape and above all, long civilizational history to look for, China’s rise seemed inevitable. Napoleon once said, ‘let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world’. Essential staggered steps taken by CCP has led Beijing to dominate international politics. After opening up its economy for western businesses and providing cheap labour, it intertwined the global supply chain with the Chinese domestic market. Once it gained a dominant position, China entered World Trade Organisation in 2001. This was the beginning of Chinese economic dominance globally. After securing economic power, it ventured into maritime and military superiority. Against this backdrop, we see a more politically assertive and confidant China today led by aggressive band of CCP leaders.
Presently, CCP feels confident about its international behaviour but sometimes accepts that it is legitimate for China to drift against international norms and conventions (ICJ ruling on the South China Sea). Today, much of CCP’s diplomacy is guided by a pragmatic calculation of costs and benefit corresponding to its stature and associated responsibility. Because of this pragmatism, China projects itself as a responsible state and find itself on the same page with the west on specific global issues. Three recent events demonstrate that CCP intends to raise China’s stakes politically and psychologically in international affairs. First, amidst intense great power competition, China has been at the forefront of curbing carbon emissions. As per Zheng Zeguang, preserving the environment is already written into the guidelines of china’s governing party. CCP has announced that it will not build any coal-fired power stations overseas, as well as the peak of its carbon emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060. China has also committed an initial capital contribution of 1.5bn Yuan in newly formed Kunming Biodiversity fund.
This demonstrates CCP’s the resolve and determination to protect environment which it uses to project its sensitivity towards global issues. Second, China and other significant oil consumers agreed to release crude oil from its national strategic stockpiles, a plan coordinated by the USA to reduce global prices. Third, China’s State Council Information Office published a recent paper titled “China: Democracy That Works”. Before mentioning the new model of democracy that is different from the western conceptualization of democracy, the report explains China’s internal political processes, institutional framework, and pragmatic practices internalized by Chinese society. On the lines of a most democratic constitution and contrary to the exaltation of state-led development at the hundredth-anniversary celebration of the Communist Party of China, the report stipulates that “….all the powers in the Peoples Republic of China belongs to the people….. China’s political power is not linked in any way with personal status, wealth, or social relations, but is equally enjoyed by all the people.” Scholars saw it as a standard propaganda tool. However, it needs greater scrutiny to decipher its importance for Chinese political elites.
Domestically, other key issues that have emerged recently are growing inequality in rural and urban incomes. As a result of which, under the banner of ‘common prosperity’, CCP is trying to reinforce its control of private sector which has been instrumental in China’s economic success for the last 4 decades. Other major issue for CCP is china’s aging population. Because of the ‘one child policy’ introduced in 1980 to reduce the number of mouths to feed, Chinese working population in today’s context has stated shrinking. This led china to abandon the policy in 2016. Apart from these challenges, huge internal debt and unprofitable capital investments inside China have created severe constraint to China’s quest for supremacy.
The Ultimate ‘Guiding Light’
The quest for supremacy guides China to be pragmatic in their international behaviour and not just be antagonistic to Western-led initiatives. They analyze issues on their merit, driven by their national interest (and not by international consensus). This strategy educates them while being proactive in climate negotiations and curbing carbon emissions; they can ignore ICJ ruling by granting legislative backing to their sovereignty over the disputed South China Sea. The two most dominating factors to analyze a country’s developmental trajectory are its ‘capacity’ (in terms of resources) and ‘intentions (ideological orientation and experiences). Communist China’s political trajectory since Mao’s takeover of the mainland explains that Intentions were always self-educative. It was just a matter of time for China to develop that capacity and internal strength required to dominate international politics. Today, China is a well-recognized economic superpower, made significant advancements in information technology, is the global leader in the electronic low end to high-end products and has a robust space program.
Hence, the fundamental Chinese approach towards international relations is based on a perception that they are already a hegemonic power. This is quite evident because China today cares about not only its material interest but also its psychological image. Today, they are more than ever ready to condemn publicly and even punish other countries for causing a dent in the Chinese image or advancing the western conception of authoritative China (Australia’s support for inspection on COVID origin and subsequent trade restrictions imposed by China). Following a debt trap diplomacy under Belt and Road Initiative, China is well poised to arm-twist the creditors, so much so that they issue a precautionary warning for the act, which are still being contemplated (warning Bangladesh of severe consequences if they join QUAD).
As a result of extreme globalization, China has integrated its economy with the world’s economy and created a well-knit web of economic dependence in South Asia and South-East Asian regions. Lately, China has also initiated buying stakes in global conflict zones such as the Middle East (Iran-China 25 Years Cooperation Program) and Afghanistan quagmire. China’s intervention in both these conflict areas is a perfect manifestation of CCP’s intention in terms of furthering the great power competition with the United States of America. Iran is facing the brunt of US led western sanctions and Afghanistan, after US withdrawal, provides a readymade opportunity for China to make inroads. Overt claim of stakes in these regions make Chinese presence more desirable by the regional players as they seek to offset US influence or grab economic assistance by China. All these initiatives point towards a unique Chinese strategy wherein they attempt to institutionalize a particular framework that will act as a fulcrum on which their future dominance will be based.
The unprecedented economic and societal growth in China, to a great extent, can be attributed to the CCP. People’s Republic of China is a practical manifestation of Chinese Communist Party and their ideology. But in a bid to maintain strict political control over the party and Chinese people, various fissures have emerged within the top echelon of CPC. How the upcoming third-term bid for Xi works out is to be seen, but seeing Xi’s attempts at constant eradication of political rivals and deeper integration of his governance within the CCP, it becomes more likely than not that the CCP will continue to channel its power over China via Xi in the next election, hence showing consistency in China’s contemporary behaviour in the coming future.
Abhishek Verma, is a PhD scholar at Diplomacy and Disarmament (DAD) division, Centre for International Politics, Organisation and Disarmament (CIPOD), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He holds a research experience at international relations magazine ‘The Kootneeti’ and ‘Foreign Policy Research Centre’ (FPRC) a New Delhi based think tank, The Takshashila Institute and Chennai Centre for China Studies. He had several publications across these platforms including a monograph titled ‘China’s Growing Stature and Inherent Conflict: Tracing Chinese Strategic Thoughts and its Contemporary Behaviour’. He completed his graduation from Hansraj College, Delhi University and MA in Politics (Specialisation in International Studies) from Jawaharlal Nehru University. He can be reached out at @soni_abhi2018.