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Winding back the China Solution

Early tensions over the China Solution cropped in a debate on the ‘Kindle­berger Trap’, a theme initiated by political scientist Joseph Nye.

Photo: Flickr/UN
Photo: Flickr/UN
Published 6 Jul 2017 

The cluster of foreign policy initiatives labelled the 'China Solution' has evolved over the past two years, from a strategy that spoke to the aspirations of a still dev­eloping China to those of a nascent major global power. Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump precipitated a dramatic rise, at least in the rhetorical temperature. The G20 Summit in Hangzhou (August 2016), President Xi's address to the World Economic Forum in Davos (January 2017) and the Belt and Road Forum (May 2017) claimed ever-greater triumph for China. Its leaders envisaged a nation now at the threshold of unprecedented authority in the world, its aspirations for 'major power' status suddenly favoured by breakdown and withdrawal in the hitherto dominant order. The China Solution is doing great business domestically at time of writing – see here, here, here and here.

There was some early pushback from the commentariat in China, notably from Renmin University's Shi Yinhong, Tsinghua's Qin Hui and other 'usual suspects'. This background noise of academic misgiving has recently become a drumbeat. Without naming Xi Jinping, the critiques have taken aim at the implementation of policies closely identified with him, often with the rider that the fault lay in media sensationalism, the rhetorical excess of propaganda organs, the echo chamber function of think tanks, and so on. Some of the recent critics sport solid Party and/or nationalist credentials, and address issues of substance rather dancing around points of style. Still unnamed, Xi is now somehow closer to the surface, insomuch as 'officialdom' replaces the 'propaganda system' as an explicit target.

At a time when forces around the Xi Jinping administration are keen to point to a high score in 'external compensation for domestic setbacks', these critiques counts as a headwind, coinciding with the Guo Wengui revelations scare, and potentially linking up with it to cloud the incumbent leadership's authority.

Kindleberger and the trap

Early palpable tensions over the China Solution cropped in a debate on the 'Kindleberger Trap', a theme initiated by political scientist Joseph Nye in January. As was the case with 'soft power' (Nye's more famous conceptual innovation), this trap has proven irresistibly attractive to China's commentariat. A trickle of articles arguing about China's stakes in the 'trap' grew and will probably continue for some time.

Charles Kindleberger bridged the chasm between US worldviews post-World War I and post-World War II. Following World War I, the US failed to produce international public goods, allow­ing an already fragile world system to collapse in the depression. This led on to the horrors of World War II, after which the lessons learned were definitively expressed in the Marshall Plan, along with the Bretton Woods institutions, the United Nations and much else.

The fall of the Berlin Wall symbolically ended the Cold War. The US-led West was, arguably, tardy in switching on needed 'Kindleberger' public goods – Eastern Europe and Russia were instead subjected the shock therapy. The 'Washington consensus', then orthodox, was often subservient to neoliberal doctrines, placing debt loads on Least Developed Countries that increased wealth gaps. Inequality started to climb in the developed world as well, giving rise to anti-globalisation populism with well-known consequences.

China rose economically and politically in the same period, its foreign policy critic­ally reshaping from the 'hide our light and bide our time' of Deng Xiaoping, through the 'positive contributions' of Jiang Zemin, the 'peaceful rise' of Hu Jintao, to peak with Xi Jinping's welter of initiatives – renminbi internationalisation, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, gaining 'right to be heard', the Belt and Road Initiative and more.

This dramatic transition, seeming to vindicate China's implicit claims be a self-sufficient civilisation on the basis of a superior political system and traditional values that nonetheless support a unique modernity, has never been free from doubt and qualifi­cation. Apart from the dark side of historical denial and suppression, reversals of polit­ical institution-building and the sweep of what Francis Fukuyama analyses as 'repatrimonialisation', questioning the bright side of double-digit growth, of growing national wealth and of state capacity for reform has grown as well.

An op-ed in May this year by Zheng Yongnian, a Singapore-based analyst, takes up this discussion (a translated version can be found here). Many in China, he notes, assume that now is the time for China to replace the US in 'writing the rules', not only of the world economy, but of strategic issues like the South China Sea. He calls for 'formulating' rather than 'writing' the rules, collectively with a range of partners, while at the same time 'developing' capacity, implicitly measured in power terms:

Empirically speaking, the power of the rules' 'writers' writing rules is what really counts. The rules written by the US were useful and effective, not because they were rational and logical, but because of American power.

… From this point of view, China's future task for some time to come is not writing rules, but focusing on development, both at domestic and international levels. In the absence of sufficient development or internal strength, even if it wrote the rules, it would not be useful.

Two facts are now faced, advised Zheng: (1) China has not yet developed sufficient capacity to provide these public goods; (2) because regional states were used to accepting public goods provided by the US in the past, they are habituated to doubting, indeed refusing those provided by China.

Zheng Yongnian upholds the popular PRC doctrine of declinism, and, while critical, supports a vision of China proceeding through Belt and Road and other policies to a position of power from which it will be possible not merely to formulate, but to 'write' the rules of the international order. While not impossible, this vision is going to take more time. Zheng's subtext must, however, be read as a critique of the heady language of the China Solution, nodding to Party triumphalism yet little different from the sharp critique of Qin Hui, who compared the China Solution to German triumphalism of the 1930s (see a translation here).

US drops out, China cannot fill the gap

Hard on the opening made by Zheng Yongnian came an interview with Shanghai social scientist Huang Renwei, published in Hong Kong's Zhongping last month and echoed on social media.

Global warming is a key topic. If China does not implement the 'Paris Agreement' purely for its own requirements, warns Huang, its air pollution problems cannot be solved, nor can the 70% proportion of coal in the energy structure be lowered: ‘China must do two things: For one, [China] must reduce the amount of coal it uses. For another, [China] must generate more energy than before,’ he said. 'If this is not achieved, don’t waste your breath on the Chinese economy; even the disposition and health of our [China’s] population will have problems.'

'As far as we’re concerned, the Paris Agreement cannot be abandoned - regardless of what the US does. Our promised 2030 Carbon emission standards are set by China’s original [energy resource] structure; if they are not reached then the Chinese economy itself cannot go on.' Huang Renwei thinks that, on one hand, China wants to urge the US to continue to implement its global climate governance obligations. On the other hand, China also wants to avoid following the beaten track of the US. 'China’s population of 1.4 billion is four times that of the US population; who would be able to support a world in which China used America’s manufacturing and societal model?' asks Huang.*

More generally, China absolutely cannot act as the 'leader of globalisation or global governance'. In terms of its overall direction, China promotes globalisation, but must advance in line with its own progress, speed, and degree of openness. The US, according to its own original position in global governance, was the founder of this system, so has the obligation to maintain and consolidate it.

Yet when first established this system did not really amount to a global governance system, claims Huang. In any turn from the old UN system to a new global governance system, the US bears new obligations. 'But [the US] does not want to bear them,' advises Huang, 'because if it acts according to the old style of leadership, it cannot lead the world, while if in accordance with the new style of leadership, it is reluctant to assume new obligations, so its leadership is self-weakening'. China's promotion of globalisation must fill the US absence on the basis of its own needs.

'In this contradictory case, it is not essential for China to fill the gap, and what’s more, if we really filled the gap to some degree, are we capable of taking this matter on? Are our capabilities sufficient?' Huang thinks that, for China, once it has made a pledge, then it must bear the responsibility of that pledge, no matter what happens: 'Sometimes it's impossible to do so on a domestic level, so [China] must take it at an international level, and therefore this burden is too heavy.'* 

Posturing as a major power shows immaturity

Our final case study comes from Luo Jianbo, research fellow at the Central Party School's Institute for International Strategic Studies.

Still less inhibited than the previous two writers, Luo urges in an essay published offshore but widely circulated in domestic social media that instead of posturing as 'saviour of the world', China should concentrate on its own development issues. Chinese feel rightfully excited and proud of the PRC's recent rise in global standing. But some, warns Luo, are deeply disturbed at the triumphalism of domestic media and scholars, as well as at conceit expressed on the internet. China had written a 'prescription for the long-term health of the global economy', claimed officials and scholars attending the Hangzhou G20 summit (September 2016). Luo deems this 'posturing', using colloquial expressions such as 'everyone's deluded but us' and 'all nations but ours are in decline'. This stance, he says, went further at the Belt and Road Summit Forum (14-15 May 2017), with dreams of China's 'world leader' status, and even articles claiming that China has become a 'world saviour'.

Both at the Hangzhou International Expo Centre and at Beijing's Yanqi Lake, there were scenes of foreign politicians walking a 50-metre red carpet one-by-one to shake hands with Chinese leaders, notes Luo, which many found exciting. For Luo, the nation's 'precocious' but 'immature' major power mentality is rapidly expanding.

According to Luo, this mentality recapitulated 1950s Great Leap Forward boasts of surpassing the UK and catching up with the US in development, accompanied by complacency and blind optimism regarding actual achievements. Such short-term outbreaks of narrow nationalist sentiments and near-fanatical xenophobia in the face of diplomatic unhappiness or setbacks, along with displays of disdain, contempt or condescension toward some small- and medium-sized countries, reflect, says Luo, a lack of self-confidence and immature major power mentality.

The purpose of his article, Luo contends, was not to derogate China, but to show that in the process of advancing to major world power status, the nation must cultivate a mature, stable major power mentality and aspiration. His lengthy text makes many other observations, echoing the previous writers' sense that while China has legitimate offerings to make in terms of global public goods, it is not at all well-placed to offer play a 'salvation' role, and has serious issues to address on the domestic front.


Expressions of triumphalism have not diminished in leadership circles, and in fact show signs of redoubling. Foreign observers would, however, be unwise to take them at face value. They should at the very least be encouraged to view Beijing's claims of incipient world leadership and of world salvation through 'Chinese wisdom' or a 'China Solution', against a background of domestic politics and policy dilemmas. The dramatic course of anti-corruption in the finance sector, including the Guo Wengui case among others, reveals a world potentially differing in form rather than substance from Russia and other plutocratic regimes. This may well prove a manageable set of rapids, through which the ship of state will pass safely. But the disorder China sees in the US, the EU and the Middle East gives it, as the University of Chicago's Yang Dali wrote shortly after Trump's election, no cause to gloat – the factors setting the scene for those events are present in China as well.

The pushback seen in the cases examined above is only partial, drawing attention in virtue of its sharp contrast to the mainstream. The authors are by no means dissidents, not even a liberal camp. What should be discerned in their comments, however, is a realism that clings to the Deng Xiaoping strategy of 'hiding one's light and biding one's time' as the most sustainable big power strategy in the current situation. Fudan University's Zhang Weiwei recently stated that to Fukuyama's triad of institutions supporting the modern state (the effective state, accountability and the rule of law) China was adding something of its own – 'wisdom'. Fukuyama would surely reply that rather than an innovation, this is no more than a reversion to caesaropapism, a political system in which 'the head of the state is also the head of the church and supreme judge in religious matters'. The writers under consideration here would very likely agree with Fukuyama.

*Translation provided by Lowy Institute Research Associate Frances Kitt.

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