In this short essay, Baogang He explains why and how Chinese domestic politics, in particular its socialist identities, have constrained its global leadership ambition. Western concerns about Beijing’s global leadership ambition have been highly exaggerated, overlooking the fact that China has poor and inadequate intellectual infrastructure that impedes its leadership capacity. Indeed, it might be said that China’s global leadership project has about as much substance as a bubble, bursting the moment when its leadership ambition encounters problems at an operational or interpersonal level.

The Rise of China’s Global Leadership?

During the early years of the twenty-first century, discussion of China in international relations circles generally revolved around its impending and inevitable economic transition from a developing to a developed country. A common view – very nearly the conventional wisdom – anticipated that the emergence of a Chinese middle class would facilitate the osmosis of liberalism from the economic to the political realm, helped along by Western international engagement and encouragement. But as Beijing channelled its newfound economic power into military modernisation efforts, pundits began to question whether a future Chinese superpower might turn out to be a revisionist, or a new empire. Once China achieved parity with the United States, would it too seek a global leadership role commensurate with its power? And, if so, was it more likely to disrupt or overthrow the existing international order?

Two decades into the ‘Asian Century’, hindsight would suggest that the socialisation narrative was wrong. It is increasingly clear that Beijing, particularly with Xi Jinping at the helm, is dissatisfied not just with China’s place in the US-built international order, but with elements of the order itself. To that end, Beijing has pursued and attained leadership roles in regional and global governance, particularly in the economic sphere, in order to try and shape a different international order. It has set up new institutions, some of which are considered parallel to existing ones, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (in comparison to the Asian Development Bank). China has also exerted its influence in the international norms arena, particularly in seeking to shape human rights discourse at the United Nations Human Rights Council.

There is a discernible pattern whereby Beijing leverages its newfound economic powerbase in order to gradually promote its authoritarian development model internationally. To developing countries looking for investment without Western ‘strings attached’, this can be appealing; so too for other authoritarian regimes looking for moral support. Among liberal democratic countries, however, China’s willingness to advocate such a model elicits concern and provokes resistance. They worry about Beijing’s authoritarianism gaining an international foothold and giving rise to an alternative, parallel China-led order, contributing to international disorder, or both.

Beijing has pursued and attained leadership roles in regional and global governance, particularly in the economic sphere, in order to try and shape a different international order

Such fears are predicated on the assumption that Chinese global leadership is the logical end-result of Chinese strategy and behaviour in pursuit of it. But the evidence suggests that Chinese behaviour and strategy vis-à-vis attaining a global leadership role is neither durable nor amenable to such a goal. Indeed, there are elements of Chinese behaviour and practices that have been decidedly counterproductive in this regard. Ambition should not be conflated with capability, and China’s ability to mobilise considerable resources does not make global leadership inevitable. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is to explore the domestic constraints of China’s global leadership ambitions. Ultimately, the quality of global Chinese leadership is determined by its domestic politics.

The Four Schools of China’s Global Leadership

The degree to which China seeks global leadership has been a source of much conjecture over the preceding decades. For much of the period after China’s ‘opening up’ in the late 1970s, the leadership in Beijing closely toed the famous Deng Xiaoping ‘hide and bide’ line; thus, accurately determining China’s global leadership aspirations – if such a thing existed – was not a clear-cut thing. Indeed, Chinese leaders explicitly eschewed topics such as global leadership and hegemony, and intent in international affairs is notoriously hard to pin down in normal circumstances. As its power grew, however, analysts could hardly ignore the possibility that China might well seek a global leadership role as the power disparity between itself and the United States shrank.

In the 2017 Chinese Communist Party (CCP) National Security Symposium, Xi Jinping pointed out that “it is necessary [for China] to join and guide the international community to shape a more just and reasonable new international order” and “maintain international security”. Xi’s remarks set forth China’s new global leadership ambition and gained momentum at a populist level. A group of fanatical patriots in China saw this as an opportunity to promote “Guan Xue” (“Entry Theory”). This “entry theory” stems from the rise of the Jurchens in the 17th century. After having long endured the oppression of the Ming Dynasty the Jurchens infiltrated the wall through Shanhaiguan Pass to establish the Qing Dynasty. The fanatics believe that China is now ready to “enter a new Pass”, establish a new international order, and soon supplant U.S. dominance as the world’s new rule maker.

A litany of analysis resulted in four ‘schools’: the ‘partial power’ school, the ‘replacement’ school, the ‘shared leadership’ school, and the ‘new Cold War’ school. David Shambaugh’s 2013 book, China Goes Global, examined six dimensions of Chinese global power, he nevertheless still saw Beijing as a ‘confused and conflicted rising power’, a “partial power” at most [1]1 — Shambaugh, D. (2013), China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Nova York: Oxford University Press, p. 252. . Hugh White epitomises the replacement school. In his 2017 Quarterly Essay, Without America, White declared that ‘America will lose, and China will win. America will cease to play a major strategic role in Asia, and China will take its place as the dominant power’ [2]2 — White, H. (2017), Without America: Australia in the New Asia, Melbourne: Black Inc., p. 1. .

Alternatively, there is a third school that advocates a cooperative G2 in which the US and China “agree to share leadership” [3]3 — Bergsten, C. F. (2018), “China and the United States: the contest for global economic leadership”, a: China & World Economy, 26(005), 12-37. . The new Cold War school is somewhat similar to the shared leadership school, insofar as neither the US nor China are the sole global leader. But instead of the positive-sum, or at least non-zero-sum result of partial cooperation and interest convergence between the two, as the name implies, the new Cold War school envisions a frosty era of competition.

China’s leadership capacity at an operational level

The above schools on China’s global leadership do their analysis at a macro-level, and they are using a “telescope” to locate China’s ultimate objective of leadership ambition and vision. Methodologically, the analyses are based on aggregative approaches to the assessment of China’s global power. While they are, in this respect, valuable sources of analysis and information, the micro mechanisms pertaining to the operational capacity of China’s global leadership project are overlooked. In this essay, I take an intramural approach, focusing on various aspects of Chinese domestic politics and how these interact with and affect elements of China’s aspirations of global leadership.

Answers to what shape China’s leadership will take do not lie out in the flux of world politics – rather they emanate from within China itself. The intramural approach likes using a “microscope” to diagnose the problems associated with the implementation process of China’s leadership ambitions. Essentially non-aggregative in nature, it asks how, or even if, individual leaders in China – in the form of diplomats, officials, scholars, etc. – exercise their roles as leaders in their field (This sort of question is particularly pertinent given that leaders in other parts of the world are often recognized as trailblazers in their field).

My starting point is that good leadership takes shape at an interpersonal level through forums, conferences, workshops, or meetings. If China is to be global leader it is here that the personal attributes of its leaders across any field are to be built. The attraction, persuasion, or charisma of a true leader is in one respect a result of their ability to gain followers or supporters through the standards they set and their capacity to articulate good argument. Leaders who fail to gain followers or supporters ordinarily should mean that their leadership role is brought into question. The absence of leadership qualities on an interpersonal level is precisely where Chinese leadership on a global scale is most weak, and this is largely due to the poor and inadequate intellectual infrastructure.

China’s rise is rapid, but its lack of individual leadership expertise and its lack of intellectual infrastructure to support it cannot meet such a demand

China’s rise is rapid, but its lack of individual leadership expertise and its lack of intellectual infrastructure to support it, cannot meet such a demand; leaders in China often have poor foreign language skills and analytical ability owing largely to an absence of innovative theoretical and systematic explanations to rely on in the first place. Even though China has established hundreds of think tanks to address the shortage of intellectual infrastructure, there are still inherent problems that impede the capacity building of Chinese global leadership.

Hill’s identified the capabilities-expectations gap in the European global leadership aspiration. He argues that EC’s global leadership ambitions were unachievable in practice due to insufficient capacities in the three key areas of resources, instruments, and policy cohesiveness [4]4 — Hill, C. (1993), “The capability‐expectations gap, or conceptualizing Europe’s international role”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 31:1, p. 305-328. . In the contemporary Chinese context, a capabilities-expectations gap also exists. China, in contrast to EU, possesses the requisite resources (derived from its economic power), instruments (in the form of economic statecraft) and policy cohesiveness (stemming from its centralised political system) to overcome the European style of ‘capabilities-expectation gap’. In spite of this, however, Beijing has yet to realise its global leadership ambitions. What explains this? China’s capacity problems stem from micro mechanisms at the sub-executive operational and policy implementation levels, and the dearth of institutional and intellectual infrastructure required to propagate and nurture a durable global leadership project.

Let us now examine a few examples from this author’s own involvement in China’s conferences in the last five years. In a conference that I attended in 2016 in Guangxi on China and ASEAN relations, I was amazed that the Chinese organiser had held special dinner to please Chinese national and local leaders, but had organised a separate and simple dinner for ASEAN participants, which made the guests feel unwelcomed and even angry. In a conference on China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Yunan, in 2018, most of the speakers praised the success of the BRI, projecting the win- win outcomes for the recipient countries, but none dared to criticise or raise the real problems China’s BRI faced.

When Chinese scholars cannot even openly address the existing problems associated with the BRI in an intellectual climate such as this, China’s leadership in the recipient countries will likely to be damaged. In a conference on Pacific countries in Sanya, in 2019, the Chinese participants did not even address the theme of conference, which was, how Australia and China could develop and promote cooperation. Instead, they read from pre-approved papers promoting China’s outreach to Pacific nations. When asked why, participants had privately told us that they didn’t want to make any mistake in their presentation.

Under such ideological control, how is it possible for Chinese scholars to express themselves in a personal leadership capacity at international conferences? In all the above examples, Chinese scholars or scholar-officials failed on a personal level to exercise their influence. Those who attend international meetings, forums, and conferences organised by the Chinese, whether they be foreign diplomats, business CEOs, scholars, journalists, or lay citizens, will unlikely offer any support for Chinese leadership in global matters. In all the above events attended by this author scepticism over China’s leadership roles was rife among the non-Chinese participants. Attendees looked upon the general behaviour of the Chinese organisers with a mix of dismay and humour. The conferences were a dismal failure in achieving China’s global leadership role.

The case of Myanmar military coup

On 1 February 2021, Myanmar’s military chief General Min Aung Hlaing led a military coup and detained the elected political leaders. This effectively stopped the parliament from convening and military personnel were re-appointed as the heads of the various government departments. China’s Global Times has called it a “cabinet reshuffle”. The lack of moral principles in China’s position on the Myanmar military coup is one of the reasons that has further contributed to the Myanmar people’s perception of China, that it always supports the Myanmar military and opposes democratisation. Myanmar scholars and officials whom I know are very unhappy with China’s description of the military coup as a cabinet reshuffle.

If China wants to become a regional or global leader in the world, both China as a whole and its leaders must forge a new global identity and need to exercise more moral courage in any given field. It must openly and decisively say “no” in its response to the recent Myanmar military coup; this would be a bold start to realizing China’s new global identity. In the 21st century, relying on power alone to overthrow a democratically elected government is a lack of morality. If China deals with a military regime that lacks morality and lacks legitimacy, it will only damage China’s moral image and is not conducive to the development of China’s soft power. The idea of taking advantage of the opportunity to make a profit may get some convenience, but it is ultimately not conducive to China’s long-term development. Looking to the world, military regimes in Africa and Asia have collapsed one after another.

If China wants to become a regional or global leader in the world, both China as a whole and its leaders must forge a new global identity and need to exercise more moral courage in any given field. Beijing must rethink its policy on the military regime in Myanmar and explore new countermeasures

  Beijing must rethink its policy on the military regime in Myanmar, explore new countermeasures in the new era, and develop the new idea that China’s peaceful rise has its historical mission of ending the military regime in Myanmar. This requires a new ethics and the formulation of a new foreign policy. Notably, China has begun adjusting its so-called “non-interference in internal affairs” policy. And within China’s think tanks there is a growing variety of voices, some of which argue that Beijing should publicly condemn the military regime, provide a practical solution, and even work with Western countries to find a compromising solution. However, alternative voices in China rarely reach an international audience given they are silenced by official censorship. One striking feature of the think tanks in China is that independent scholars wishing to submit policy alternatives to China’s top leaders, are often prevented from doing so because of the politics of the think tanks themselves. Essentially, it is China’s national interest and its national identity that have prevailed in Beijing’s Myanmar policy.

How Socialist Identities Constrain China’s Global Leadership?

China’s global leadership vision requires a new global identity formed by and developed through the provision of global public goods and concrete practices that address and help solve global issues. It must be internalized among Chinese leaders, officials, scholars, and citizens. Clearly, Beijing’s lack of ability to address and/or manage a transition from the old socialist identity to this new global identity has constrained its global leadership ambition.

Currently China’s socialist ideology cannot provide a workable principle to deal with North Korea and Vietnam, because each promote their own version of socialism and do not recognize China’s ideational leadership in global governance. It follows that China’s socialist ideology runs into more trouble in terms of exercising global leadership when it engages non-socialist countries. Unfortunately, China’s socialist identity is deeply rooted in the ranks of leadership seducing them into finding solutions through the renewal of its socialist ideology and ideological control.

Professor Jia Qinguo, from Peking University, submitted a letter of petition to the National People’s Congress in March 2021. In it, he made four points about China’s tightening its ideological control. First, he identified where the Ministry of Education in 2001 had, as pilot projects, granted certain approval rights to six key universities, including Peking University, to hold international conferences in China. However, he noted that, since 2007, the Ministry of Education once again had sole responsibility to approve international conferences, taking away the rights of the six universities. Second, he made mention of fact that universities had endeavoured to strengthen their own approval requirements for experts and scholars to participate in international conferences. And now, after the outbreak of COVID-19, online participation must also go through the approval procedure.

Third, he pointed out that the scope of approval for the external exchanges of experts and scholars has been expanded, requiring experts and scholars to apply for approval when meeting and communicating with foreign counterparts and overseas media. The fourth point he made was the raising of the threshold for the cost of foreign exchanges between experts and scholars. When such meetings occur, it is stipulated that more than two Chinese scholars must accompany one foreigner. Afterwards, a detailed record of the meeting must be submitted. Furthermore, he notes, it is stipulated that the scholar or expert involved must not meet with the same foreigner more than twice a year [5]5 — Jia Qinguo (2021), “Proposal on improving the management of foreign exchanges between experts and scholars”. Available online. .

Such China’s socialist identity and ideological control have impacted the quality of its implementation strategy for its global leadership project. Ideological control makes it difficult for Chinese officials and citizens to catch up with the latest developments in the world, while also affecting the quality of experts and scholars’ analyses of international issues and subsequent policy recommendations.

Consider the school of Marxism, which is ubiquitous in China’s universities, receiving special funding from the government. Marxist scholars often organize international workshops or forums to promote and discuss their research on the Chinese theory of Marxism. However, the reality is that this in fact damages Chinese soft power because the scholars perpetuate an outdated Marxist class analysis of world politics, which is a product of Cold War mentality and is antithetical to the kind of global leadership it needed. It also damages the intellectual integrity of the scholars on the global stage, especially when they deliberately display the CCP flag in international conferences. Yet the same scholars are likely to be praised domestically and even granted more funding by their leaders.

More broadly, the social sciences in general in Chinese universities, due to ideological control, do not have any global evaluation system; it is a closed system not subject to an independent evaluation from an outsider expert. Therefore, those within the system freely seek funding by pleasing political leaders. Because there is a dearth of competitiveness in a closed system such as this there is little incentive for cultivating any leadership skills, let alone to play a leadership role.

Some scholar-officials recognise the growing tensions between those who cultivate newly acquired global identities and those who are caught up in old socialist identities, but in dealing with the sorts of problems and contradictions scholar-officials strategically lean to maintaining the CCP’s ideology and socialist identities. The real function of China’s global leadership project is to offer a legitimate justification for the rule of the CCP, as Beijing can make spurious claims about its global leadership, and to satisfy a deep psychological need of China to imagine itself as the future rightful world leader. Unfortunately, the real question of its capacity to be a global leader is regarded as a second-class issue.

  • References

    1 —

    Shambaugh, D. (2013), China Goes Global: The Partial Power, Nova York: Oxford University Press, p. 252.

    2 —

    White, H. (2017), Without America: Australia in the New Asia, Melbourne: Black Inc., p. 1.

    3 —

    Bergsten, C. F. (2018), “China and the United States: the contest for global economic leadership”, a: China & World Economy, 26(005), 12-37.

    4 —

    Hill, C. (1993), “The capability‐expectations gap, or conceptualizing Europe’s international role”, Journal of Common Market Studies, 31:1, p. 305-328.

    5 —

    Jia Qinguo (2021), “Proposal on improving the management of foreign exchanges between experts and scholars”. Available online.

Baogang He

Baogang He is Chair in International Relations and Alfred Deakin Professor, at Deakin University, Australia. Graduated with a PhD in Political Science from Australian National University He is widely known for his work in Chinese democratization and politics, in particular the deliberative politics in China. Throughout his career Throughout his career he has published 10 books, 15 book chapters and more than sixty academic articles in English and Chinese, which have appeared in several prestigious international journals such as the British Journal of Political Science, Journal of Peace Research, Political Theory, Chinese Journal of Philosophy y Perspectives on Politics, among others. Baogang He has also been a researcher and visiting professor at centers such as Stanford University, Cambridge University, Columbia University, Leiden, and the University of Sussex.