There is growing debate inside the People’s Republic of China about the country’s proper strategic goals. Many intellectuals and policy-makers are asking how China can convert its new economic power into enduring political and cultural influence around the globe. The key question they are seeking to answer is: “How would China order the (post-western) world?”
Beijing’s official view - first outlined by Hu Jintao, China’s president, at the United Nations in September 2005 - is that China is guided by the notion of “building a harmonious world” (和谐世界). But two other visions of China’s purpose in the global arena are growing in influence alongside this one: an unofficial view of a Chinese-style utopian world society, and a quasi-official description of how China can compete to become the world’s “number-one power”.
This article examines these different visions of China’s grand strategy in a post-western world, and suggests briefly what kind of response western powers might be best advised to take to them.
Official policy: "building a harmonious world”
The concept of world order embodied in the idea of “harmonious world” (hexie shijie) is an extension into the arena of foreign relations of Hu Jintao’s domestic-policy equivalent, the “harmonious society". Indeed, Chinese officials and scholars regularly proclaim “harmonious society” - whose formal aim is to use state power to “close the wealth divide and ease growing social tensions” - to be “the model for the world”. By this logic, writers in China explain “building a harmonious world” as a new and better route to “lasting peace and common prosperity” that will allow different civilisations to coexist in the global community.
In practice, the official view of hexie shijie lacks detail. The Beijing government tends to describe the policy in terms of vague platitudes, making it hard (for example) to establish whether the strong state thought essential to building a “harmonious society” is also needed to build a “harmonious world”. Other channels are more outspoken; the Hong Kong Wen Wei Po has called on Beijing to be the “‘formulator, participant and defender of world order,’ in order to push the entire world toward harmony.”
The ambiguity underlying hexie shijie leaves ample room for varied understandings, where “harmonious world” is understood either as a relatively benign aspiration or as a potentially more ominous ambition of “harmonising the world”. This intellectual vacuum at the heart of the strategic concept also creates space for alternative views of China’s role in shaping the post-western world order.
Idealistic world society: Zhao Tingyang’s Tianxia System
A group of theorists has emerged in the last decade who argue that “the Chinese century” needs to be understood in terms of distinctively Chinese concepts. Zhao Tingyang’s The Tianxia System: The Philosophy for the World Institution (2005) follows Beijing’s “go global” economic policy to argue that Chinese culture has to go global as well. If China is to be a world power, it must “create new world concepts and new world structures” that exploit its own “resources of traditional thought.”
At the core of his own proposal, Zhao - who works at China’s largest think-tank (CASS) - deploys the traditional concept of Tianxia, which prescribes a form of selfless global unity that is at once geographical, psychological, and institutional. Zhao argues that China is revealed in light of this concept as naturally peaceful, orderly and generous, and that Chinese world order will embody the same qualities - in contrast to western hegemony, which has led to violence, chaos and oppression around the world. The establishment of the unified Tianxia system will enable a global hierarchy where order is valued over freedom, ethics over law, and elite governance over democracy and human rights.
The official Chinese view of “harmonious world” divides the world into civilisations led by great powers that can have different social systems; in this sense it describes the emerging status quo of a multipolar world. By contrast, Zhao’s unified Tianxia system does not allow for different points of view to coexist; it both outlines a utopia imagined for the long-term future and appeals to the more activist “harmonising-the-world” thread of Chinese foreign policy. The Tianxia System’s main problem is that it doesn’t explain how to get from an unstable and often violent present to the harmonious future.
Strategic competitor: Liu Mingfu’s The China Dream
Liu Mingfu’s book The China Dream: The Great Power Thinking and Strategic Positioning of China in the Post-American Age (2010) provides another view of future world order. Liu - who teaches at China’s National Defense University - departs from Beijing’s policies of peaceful rise and “harmonious world” by arguing that to support its economic rise, China needs to pursue a “military rise” that allows it to rival American hegemony. A purely “economic nation” (like Japan) is characterised as a plump lamb waiting in the market to be preyed upon by militarily strong countries, declares Liu; a true great power must convert economic strength into military power in order to become the world’s number one.
The book presents global politics as a quasi-Olympian competition between civilisations, themselves represented by great powers. Liu calls on China to take advantage of the current “period of strategic opportunity” to surpass American power, and thus “sprint to the finish” to become the global “champion”; that is, “world number one.”
The China Dream doesn’t see conflict with the United States as inevitable, but it is informed by a deterrence logic: “China’s military rise is not to attack America, but to make sure that China is not attacked by America.” Liu uses this approach to stress that China must seek peace through strength: the peaceful rise must include a “military rise with Chinese characteristics that is defensive, peaceful, limited, necessary, important and urgent.”
The China Dream’s understanding of international politics thus differs from both the official Beijing view of hexie shijie and Zhao Tingyang’s Tianxia system. Rather than “build a harmonious world”, Liu Mingfu envisages a grand geopolitical struggle where competition between nations is natural and good; rather than surpass the state-centric international system to build Tianxia’s unified world order, Liu sees international relations (IR) quite narrowly as “US-China relations”; rather than the win-win solutions suggested by both, The China Dream sees IR as a zero-sum game where victory and defeat are total. “If China in the 21st century cannot become world number one, cannot become the top power, then inevitably it will become a straggler that is cast aside.”
While Zhao Tingyang’s The Tianxia System does not chart a clear path to the harmonious world he imagines, Liu Mingfu’s The China Dream is unclear about what China will do once it becomes the champion nation. Yet Liu’s book is fascinating because it reveals the tensions and contradictions of outlook that have accompanied China’s rise. Even as it articulates the goal of China’s global pre-eminence, Liu veers between two positions: a “catch-up mentality” that frames China’s rise within the current international system’s laws, norms and structures, and sees China’s goal as to “surpass” America; and a “new-era mentality” that stresses China’s uniqueness in the geopolitical competition between different civilisational (and racial) models, and thus challenges existing norms.
China’s global path
Many Chinese texts, official and unofficial, give the impression that China’s victory in the global competition is guaranteed, if not imminent. In fact the PRC is unlikely to catch up with the United States - economically, politically, culturally or militarily - in the next few decades. But the disjuncture between grand intentions and middling capabilities could itself lead to conflict, for Beijing is effectively promising its citizens much more than it can deliver in terms of global power and influence.
This “propaganda gap” is likely to increase tensions between China and the US in the next few years - not least as the approach of Beijing’s transition to the “fifth generation” leadership that will assume power in 2012 after the retirement of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao is likely to be accompanied by the emergence of populist voices. Indeed, the prominent strategist Yan Xuetong recently lamented the declining status of international relations in the face of popular (and populist) views from outside the security-studies establishment. Many of these populist strategists in China see international politics as a hostile zero-sum game, a grand bipolar civilisational struggle, where victory and defeat are total.
The views of Zhao Tingyang and Liu Mingfu are interesting and influential in part because they are relative outsiders who offer a sense of the parameters within which vague official policies (such as “harmonious world”) are formulated, implemented, defended – and rejected.
The three approaches considered here - hexie shijie, Tianxia, and “world number one” - do not exhaust all the visions on offer for China’s grand strategy in a post-western world. But considering them together suggests that the best way to address the developing debate in China is to with words and actions that are positive-sum and multilateral, which engage China at various levels, and in both official and unofficial spaces. In this perspective, the main issue is not what to do about China’s many-dimensional rise, but how to keep the bumps along China’s development road from provoking a hyper-nationalist backlash.
Get our weekly email