Is China a challenge to the existing international order?

What does a rising China mean to the world? While some countries take China as a salient threat, others regard it as their role model for development and governance. Jiangnan Zhu responds to Xiaoyu Pu. A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Jiangnan Zhu
6 August 2013

"Can China be a normative power in the international order?" Dr. Xiaoyu Pu raises this interesting question, which probably would have sounded far-fetched not long ago. In the past few decades, China seemed consumed with domestic economic development. In terms of foreign policies, China emphasized sovereignty and non-interference, and seemed not to care very much about being a normative power in the international arena.

However, a rapid economic development has won China several new titles, such as "the China model", "ascending dragon", and even "the China threat". At the same time, China has become more confident and no longer shies away from debates on a range of international issues, such as human rights and in recent years, disputes over territory.

Thus, as Dr. Pu concludes, all the "developments suggest China is likely to become ever more engaged in the international system while pushing its own agenda." Meanwhile, Mark Leonard seeks to voice the world's perception that, even if China "had done nothing, the power of the Chinese example would have presented a major challenge to promoters of democracy." So, the following questions arise: To what extent will China challenge the existing international order? And even if China becomes a challenge to the world, is this necessarily a problem?

As for the first question, as Dr. Pu mentioned, China has gradually accepted the universality of human rights in recent years. China has joined the twenty seven international human rights conventions. Although, over the past thirteen years, China has engaged in mutual-criticism with the United States on each others’ human rights practices, this suggests in its own way that China has adopted international human rights standards to some extent. Due to its expanding international reach, on some occasions, China has also had to give up its commitment to non-interference. In other words, China has learned to play the game of foreign relations within the range of existing international norms.

Of course, China has also cultivated its own vision of human rights in several ways. For instance, China argues for a conditional pursuit of human rights, and promotes collective rights over individual rights, economic rights over political rights. These preferences are largely rooted in Chinese traditional philosophy, mainly Confucianism, as well as Communist ideology. However, in today's China, traditional values are seriously challenged by its own dramatic market economic reform and the resulting experience of rapid decay. Therefore, it is actually questionable if the Chinese government still has a firm ground on which to make its claim for a human rights vision of its own on behalf of the entire Chinese population.

Besides, even if China tried to promote its own human rights agenda internationally, its views would probably only appeal to countries sharing similar philosophical and ideological backgrounds.

Nevertheless, our recent research on other countries' perceptions of China's 60th Anniversary Celebration shows that these countries' political characteristics, mainly their levels of democracy, are the main determinant in the reporting styles of their newspapers regarding China. And political elites, whether in democratic or authoritarian societies, tend to take advantage of their mass media as a way of framing issues, exercising agenda control, cultivating popular support, and influencing their countries’ domestic and foreign policies. Moreover, several that are assumed to be China's "friends", such as Vietnam, North Korea, and some African countries have in fact only shown a lukewarm attitude toward China's rise (Zhu and Lu 2013). It is in fact questionable whether there exists a large "market" for China as a normative power, even if China had the will or the ability to constitute itself in this way.  

That being said, we come to the second question: Even if China becomes a challenge, is this necessarily a problem for the world? The word "challenge" more or less implies a certain anxiety about China's potential threat to the extant order. However, the recent global financial crisis has actually warned us that capitalist liberal democracy also has serious institutional drawbacks. The existence of an emerging normative power like China may shed light on the world when it comes to an alternative path or solutions to some enduring problems, such as poverty and instability, especially for developing countries.

If China can accept the general international standards of the west, why can't the west be more open to China's vision for the international order?


Further reference

 Jiangnan Zhu and Jie Lu, “One Rising China, Multiple Interpretations: World Representation of China’s 60th Anniversary Celebration,” Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 22, No.84, (November 2013).


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