Chinese Books on China and Global Governance

He Yafei, Xuanze: Zhongguo yu quanqiu zhili [Choice: China and Global Governance] (Beijing: Zhongguo renmin daxue chubanshe, 2015)

Tao Jian, Lin Hongyu, Zhongguo jueqi yu quanqiu zhili [The Rise of China and Global Governance] (Beijing: Shijie zhishi chubanshe, 2014)

Zhou Shuchun, Zhongguo de shijie meng he renlei wenming de zhuanxing [China’s World Dream and Human Civilization in Transition] (Beijing: Waiwen chubanshe, 2014)

Current Chinese writings seek to assess China’s role in the world as it pursues a more global foreign policy. Not only did China host APEC in 2014 and will it host the G20 next year, but it also initiated its own Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) this year with the support of 57 members. In September, China displayed its global clout in the postwar order with seventieth anniversary celebrations of the end of WWII, but left in the minds of many observers was the question of whether China is really prepared to take on the responsibilities of global leadership. This is a common question underlying these three books, which look at the relationship between China’s rise and global governance from different perspectives: He Yafei as a career diplomat, Tao Jian and Lin Hongyu as international relations scholars, and Zhou Shuchun as a journalist. Together, they argue that China should, and can, actively lead the transformation of the global governance system, but in the end, their books are less about existing global governance and how China might reshape it than about China’s establishment of a new system of global governance.

Why is global governance an issue of current debate in China? The authors see the 2008 financial crisis as a critical point marking the demise of the US-led liberal international order. Not coincidentally, as He Yafei points out, 2008 was also a turning point in China’s global role, when Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics, coordinated Sichuan earthquake relief efforts, and participated in the G20’s first leaders’ summit. But what exactly does “global governance” mean? The authors define it as a system of universally-accepted rules, recognizing what Tao and Lin identify as the problem of “governance without government,” but more importantly, they identify the current system as one that can no longer serve the international community since it was established by the US-led West seven decades ago. They seek to redefine the system to better reflect changes in structure of power led by China and other emerging actors. He distinguishes global governance from national governance, a distinction that appears even sharper against China’s centralized political system, but, he notes, even “national governance” was a relatively new concept to Chinese until it was explicitly included in the Communist Party of China’s reform agenda in 2013. Like He, Tao and Lin first place their assessment of global governance in this new context of China’s national governance, extending Xi Jinping’s call to strengthen China’s governance capacity at home to the global level. As He indicates, China’s national development requires good governance at both national and global levels.

He Yafei’s argument that China should play an active role in global governance asserts that it already since 2008 has made this “historical choice” to shape the world order and should continue along this path. He traces the transformation of the global institutional architecture from the rise of the G20 as a starting point, demonstrating China’s role in filling the gaps in this architecture through Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, the regionalization of the RMB, and BRICS-led economic reforms. While He focuses primarily on China shaping the international order, Tao and Lin emphasize the dynamic relationship between China’s rise and global governance: international integration facilitates China’s rise, and a stronger China in turn contributes to global governance. They provide the most comprehensive review of China’s global role by functional issue, including the traditional and new security challenges that are largely laid aside in He’s book. Zhou Shuchun extends the analysis to the normative implications of changes in the international power structure, insisting that the shift to multipolarity requires a shift from a “unified world” based on Western values to a more inclusive “harmonious world.” China’s “World Dream” is about the integration of human civilization to accommodate both western and eastern cultures and makes possible a system of joint governance by East and West as envisioned in He’s study. As Tao and Lin indicate, a harmonious world and China’s peaceful rise are mutually interdependent.

While China’s rise and integration into the international system have drawn much scholarly attention, these studies illuminate China’s new capabilities, and political will, to assume global leadership. However, all three books are about, not China’s role within the existing institutional framework, but China’s alternative model of global governance, asserting that it differs in concept by advancing “win-win” cooperation rather than “zero-sum” competition favoring Western powers. In this way, it offers a more feasible alternative based on building consensus rather than imposing universal values. Joined in this effort to reshape the global governance discourse, these authors converge in their presentations of China’s governance model in several aspects.

First, all three books frame their analysis of international relations in terms of Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream,” challenging the Western concept of the world system with interpretations from Chinese philosophy and culture. As He suggests, the post-2008 debate on global governance reform is more fundamentally about the different ideologies underlying that system. For Tao and Lin, the “Chinese Dream” is not just about China becoming rich but also about it contributing to entire humanity, a “World Dream” of advancing human civilization that is most explicitly conveyed in Zhou’s book. He Yafei is more concrete: in diplomacy, this translates to the “democratization of international relations,” the biggest contribution to global governance reform being support for rising powers having a louder voice than allowed by the existing system. Zhou further emphasizes that this system of “global democratic governance” does not mean the democratization of individual countries themselves, but the democratization of global decision-making. Global governance based on values narrowly defined by the West is clearly not conducive to realizing the “Chinese Dream.”

As the authors note, Xi’s “Chinese Dream,” understood as the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” defines China’s rise more accurately as a revival of its history. China’s role as a global power goes back over thousands of years, following a cyclical shift from passive to leading player in the world system. The revival of the ancient Silk Road affirms the success of the Chinese growth model, replicating the commercial and cultural exchanges that advanced China’s historical role in global governance. In contrast, the experiences of former Western colonies in Asia and Africa refute the Western notion that liberal democracy promotes development. For He, what makes possible an historic opportunity for China to lead is that Chinese interests in national rejuvenation are aligned with world interests in reforming the global governance system. According to Zhou, China’s promotion of cultural harmony will lead to peaceful outcomes at a time when the current international order has reached such a historic juncture.

Second, the authors identify specific functional areas of global governance where China’s rise is having a real impact. This trend is most evident in global economic governance, especially for He Yafei, who is deeply critical of the ideals and mechanisms of Bretton-Woods institutions. A defining feature of the current global economic governance system according to Zhou is the coexistence of the G20, G7, and BRICS, reflecting a shift from a system designed to avoid war to one aimed to promote development. He Yafei highlights China’s contributions to regional governance in particular, from the continued role of the Chinese diaspora network that was essential to China’s opening after 1978 to the BRICS’ new financial and development initiatives since 2012. Tao and Lin remind us of China’s impressive performance in overseas development assistance, where it has now emerged as a major donor with rich experience as an aid recipient.

Tao and Lin’s assessment of transnational security challenges, however, also draws attention to areas of global governance where China has drawn international reproach. On the longstanding issue of human rights protection, they acknowledge deficiencies in China’s contribution, even proposing political, economic, and social reforms at home to improve human rights education and the rule of law. Yet, they ultimately point to the limitations of existing approaches based on “common values,” namely the danger of placing “human rights above sovereignty.” Similarly, Zhou emphasizes the state sovereignty implications of global intervention as a widespread concern of developing countries in a system that traditionally privileges more powerful states, a claim that also justifies his distinction between global democracy and national democracy. In the newer field of cybersecurity, Tao and Lin identify governance challenges that are largely domestic, including the threats to state authority of political mobilization, and pressures of social media on socialist ideology. Their propositions focus far more on cyberspace governance mechanisms at home rather than the global cybersecurity regime.

Finally, in addition to multilateralism, the authors suggest that relations with the United States remain key to China’s role in global governance. For He in particular, global governance is mainly about cooperation between major powers, with the US-China relationship the most important bilateral relationship in the twenty-first century. This position, however, is challenged by the core framework of his book, which begins with a comparison of the Washington Consensus and Beijing Consensus to underscore the breakdown of the former. Zhou’s envisioned process of cultural integration similarly starts with the economic, social, and environmental dilemmas of Western capitalism. He’s vision for US-China cooperation, however, embodies a “new type of big power relations,” contesting received notions of inevitable conflict between rising and established powers. Cooperation on global issues in particular promotes the mutual trust that has been so difficult to build through US-China bilateral interactions.

The authors’ depiction of the driving forces behind global governance reform, however, reveals this very lack of trust toward the United States. While emerging powers want a more equal voice, Western powers seek to prevent free riding by their less developed counterparts. Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is an example of US-led strategies to change the rules of the game, largely understood as a competition for power between West and East. While He Yafei is careful to repeat the mantra that China’s new regional initiatives are intended to supplement, not replace, existing institutions, he stresses the growing universal appeal of these initiatives as favored alternatives. Chinese mistrust toward the US-led West is even apparent in his interpretations of the “Chinese Dream,” which propose a foreign strategy aimed at security, unlike that preached by the West, which is accused of aiming to maintain the West’s dominant position in the global system.

Drawn from his extensive experience in both China’s multilateral diplomacy and relations with the United States, He Yafei’s Choice shows some of the challenges of global governance in the critical years from 2008, during which he represented China at the G20 as well as UN climate change negotiations. Tao and Lin present a new, more complex phase in China’s opening to the world, where China’s rise is dynamically linked to the structure and processes of global governance. Published by the Foreign Languages Press, Zhou’s World Dream informs a foreign audience, telling us what the Chinese Dream hailed by the current Xi leadership means to the rest of the world. Taken together, these authors seem to respond to John Ikenberry’s Liberal Leviathan four years ago, questioning notions of the future of the US-led liberal order to propose China’s model of global governance. In doing so, they reveal three enduring areas of tension in coming to terms with China’s emergence as a global player.

First is the tension between China’s “hard” power and “soft” power. All the authors approach global governance from a cultural perspective, contrasting Chinese worldviews to Western alternatives. The turning point in global governance for Zhou in particular is the move from a traditional power-based view of the international order to one that incorporates values. Tao and Lin emphasize the global cultural influence of a rising China, whose “Chinese Dream” embodies its growing confidence in narrowing the ideational gaps produced by globalization. He Yafei concludes that China’s soft power, as rooted in its culture and ideology, is key to achieving its global governance objectives. What matters in the end for global leadership is not just material forces but the power of ideas. Yet, the authors identify pressures for institutional reform arising primarily from changes in the balance of economic power. Their claims are largely limited to the scope of global economic governance. Despite their inclusion of a host of political and security issues, this economic-centered view of the international power structure is most apparent in Tao and Lin’s study. To indicate a narrowing gap between China’s economic strength and global governance capacity, the authors present extensive data on G7 and BRICS economies in terms of GDP, foreign exchange reserves, and voting power in the IMF and World Bank. They begin by proposing a Chinese cultural concept of global governance, but go on to assess change in the international order based on traditional theories of power transition in American scholarship. Even Zhou, who argues that values can positively shape the interaction of national interests, concludes with the implications for promoting China’s economic development rather than global cultural integration. This disconnect between emphasis on culture and soft power as decisive and arguments steeped in economic evidence exposes the common problem of rejecting universal values without being willing to acknowledge the actual authoritarian values being advocated.

A second area of tension lies between China’s two identities as a great power and a developing economy. The authors conceptualize China’s global governance based on its historical role as a great power, demanding a greater voice in current institutions in line with its reemergence. However, they measure China’s provision of global public goods based on its status as a developing economy. As He Yafei argues, China has a historical responsibility to supply global public goods, but based on its current status as a developing country. The authors identify China as a major power alongside the United States, but also a developing economy aligned with BRICS counterparts. This duality is masked by specifying China as a “new type” of major power, which claims global responsibilities as such, but assumes that role in practice as a developing country. On the one hand, China demands a voice comparable to that of the United States as an indispensable great power in facing global and regional challenges. On the other, it hides behind the identity of a developing state to deny responsibility for actually dealing with these problems.

Third, these books reveal tensions between China’s domestic and global interests. Its global governance model, as presented by He Yafei, assumes alignment not just between China’s development strategy and those of foreign partners, but also between state and societal interests at home. The autonomy of the state further distinguishes China’s governance approach from that of the West, where state interests are often complemented by those of individuals, businesses, NGOs, and other non-state forces. Tao and Lin conceptualize a global economic governance structure in which national governments are at the top of a triangular relationship between states, multinational corporations, and civil society; however, while the authors see China as a disadvantaged player in current international institutions, they overlook the domestic pressures facing the state from China’s own losers from globalization and any possibility that any voices within China are entitled to a distinct role in the current or future system of global governance.

As the authors recognize, China’s integration into the liberal economic order, especially after joining the WTO in 2001, has facilitated its rise as a global power, allowing it to build a network of partnerships based on common interests. At China’s parliamentary session last March, Foreign Minister Wang Yi identified this global network of “partnerships,” rather than “alliances,” as China’s biggest diplomatic success. But despite common interests in peace, security, and economic stability, China’s model of global governance presented here has not really produced any tangible results in providing such public goods. Having dedicated a large portion of their book to assessing China’s relative capacities in various functional issues, Tao and Lin do not reach any conclusions on where and how exactly China can contribute its distinct strengths. He Yafei makes clear China’s contributions to global economic governance, but pays less attention to China’s role in collective security institutions, particularly as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Beyond China’s material capabilities, Zhou provides limited evidence of the global reach of Chinese soft power. To proceed further, authors would be compelled to explain what about the current global governance structure they support—at odds with the emphasis on replacing it—or what features of a new system China endorses, beyond the usual platitudes.

The biggest gap between China’s national power and global governance capacity lies in the very cultural realm that the authors see as key to leadership, which seems to stem from widening deviations from the global ideals in China’s approach to national governance as China further projects its cultural power to the world. How will Xi Jinping promote “innovation of the masses” in an environment that restricts Internet exchange and eliminates political opposition? How will the “Chinese Dream” promote democratization in global governance if there are no equal rights at home? These matters aroused heightened global concern when China showcased its global image at the 2008 Olympics, and resurfaced this year with China’s commemorations of world history. The September 3 military parade on Tiananmen Square accompanied by a one-sided narrative about the end of WWII did not enhance China’s cultural power as part of the existing international community, but hinted at a clashing worldview in support of a China-led order.

These books present timely assessments of China’s global orientation as it prepares to again host foreign leaders at the G20. They provide interpretations of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy rhetoric to address the important question of what global role China seeks to play and how that role will impact the world. The world is only slowly becoming familiar with the meaning of the “Chinese Dream.” The authors claim China’s continued quest for a “harmonious world” as raised by Hu Jintao in 2005, underscoring continued priority on ensuring that its rise is peaceful not just for the world but, most importantly, for China. Yet, they are vague about converting vague rhetoric into concrete arguments. While China’s global cooperation a decade ago largely responded to US-led calls for China to be a “responsible stakeholder,” i.e., to act in support of institutions that already provide public goods and contribute to global governance, a key difference now is that China has more resources and is more willing to share them, while insisting that this must occur on the basis of changing institutions that translate China’s economic power into global political power and cultural appeal. As the authors seem to realize, even if China is willing to lead, others must also be persuaded to follow China’s leadership, but while they claim to show what a strong China can do for the world, they draw a blank in explaining how a different world system, on Chinese terms, is winning the support of other states. Claims about the merits of the leader do not suffice without evidence on why China’s ideals for global governance appeal to followers.