The “China story” defies easy categorization. Is it fundamentally about economic development, trade, and the complexities of the global economy? Or is it about clashing value systems? Or Beijing’s bid to become the world’s foremost technological powerhouse?
Most accurately, it’s all of the above. As China deploys an ambitious new strategy to bring about what its leader Xi Jinping calls “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” an aspiration Xi unveiled in 2012 as he vowed to restore China’s past glory, it is actively building leverage and cementing influence in realms as disparate as territorial claims, cyberspace, global supply chains, and international organizations like the UN.
Beijing’s aim, and the fundamental challenge it poses, is to recast the values and norms that define the current rules-based international order shaped by the US over nearly 80 years so that they more closely align with its own authoritarian system. Consider its use of hostage diplomacy, its disregard for international law and treaties, and its use of economic coercion in a potential breach of global trade rules.
That’s the picture that Elizabeth Economy, currently senior advisor for China to the US Secretary of Commerce while on leave from her position as senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, paints in detail in her new book, The World According to China, published by Polity Books.
Economy examines official Chinese discourse and China’s actions to analyze Beijing’s strategic ambitions, what changes it’s pursuing globally to realize those goals, and the successes and pitfalls it encounters—for example, when it carries out economic boycotts against companies and countries.
Below is an interview with the author, edited and condensed for clarity.
Quartz: The title of your book is “The World According to China.” Could you describe what Beijing envisions that world to be like?
Elizabeth Economy: Domestically, it’s really about having a robust Chinese Communist Party at the forefront of the political system. It’s about having a People’s Liberation Army that…can fight and win wars. And it’s about the transformation of China from a manufacturing center of the world to an innovation center of the world. And, improving the livelihood of the Chinese people, doubling their incomes. Xi has a number of objectives, but in many respects, it’s that domestic transformation that is at the core of the ambition for the great rejuvenation, because that also is what enables him to pursue his international agenda.
In terms of the global agenda, what we see is that Xi is not a system maintainer or a system reformer, but a system transformer. And we see that across five different dimensions.
First, and most central to his notion of the world according to China, is his ambition to reclaim territory that he considers to be China’s sovereign territory. We saw China pursue military assertiveness within the first six to nine months of the pandemic. I think that surprised many people.
The second dimension is for China to be the dominant power in the Asia-Pacific…It’s about supplanting the US as the dominant military power in the region.
Moving out from there, I think Xi’s desire is to embed Chinese policy preferences, values, and interests globally. And the best manifestation of this is the Belt and Road Initiative. That has transformed from a primarily hard infrastructure project to something much more to include digital infrastructure, Polar Silk Road, but also the export of Chinese values and norms, as well as an element of military-security interest with the establishment of the first military logistics base in Djibouti, which is really quite fundamentally different from anything that China has done before.
The fourth dimension is about China’s economy, a vision for how to develop a Chinese economy that is far more self-reliant but still engaged in the global economy. Programs like Made in China 2025 and dual circulation are really about ensuring a much greater degree of economic self-sufficiency for China. Yes, still engaging with the global economy, but very much engaging on China’s own terms.
The last dimension is China’s efforts, as Xi Jinping puts it, to lead in the reform of the global governance system. This is about changing norms and values, reforming institutions, international institutions in ways that will align them with Chinese values and preferences.
For many years, there’s been this presupposition that China would maintain the international system because it’s benefited so much from it. But I think that fails to recognize that over the past 40 years, China has changed and China’s interests are no longer the same as they were 40 years ago.
Quartz: That’s a very comprehensive picture. Do you think that differs from the US government’s perception of what a world according to China looks like? Put another way, is “the world according to China,” as Beijing sees it, different from the world according to China, as the US sees it?
Economy: I don’t know whether there is one US perspective on what China is about and even China’s ambitions and how it’s going about realizing them and whether it’s going to succeed.
Frankly, that’s part of the reason I wrote the book is that I think those issues are still very much under debate in the US. You can find a good segment of the US scholarly analytical community that believes that much of what China is doing is defensive. Or you find people that think that Xi is not that different from previous Chinese leaders. Or that this was always in the cards.
Quartz: Would it be strategically advantageous for the US to have more of a unified view of what China is about? Or would that be painting with too broad a brush?
Economy: I think there should always be healthy debate around how the U.S. should respond to perceived challenges, and there should always be new inputs coming in to understand better what China is doing and whether there are modifications in China’s policy along the way.
Even if you understand a grand ambition, that ambition can be realized in the timeframe of three years, five years, 20 years, 50 years. Those shifts in time frame allow for changes in China’s policy that can be very important, and would need to be considered in the US.
So it’s not unhelpful to have a unified view, if that unified view is accounting for what Xi Jinping is saying and what’s transpiring on the ground in a reasonable way, and is open to adjustments all along the way.
Quartz: In the conclusion of your book, you argue that strategic thinking on US policy toward China should be reframed to move beyond the bilateral US-China competition perspective. Could you elaborate on that?
Economy: There’s always been a natural tendency within the United States to frame it as a bilateral competition, because we have been the dominant power globally and China has been a rising power with ambitions. And so for international relations theorists, that feeds into all sorts of traditional models of understanding of great power relations and transition.
I think in China, the narrative [of bilateral US-China competition] has been convenient because it allows China to say that any negative reaction to its behavior is the result of the United States being fearful of China’s rise, trying to contain China’s rise. So it narrows the aperture in terms of the necessity for China of taking in international feedback and then having to adjust its position in response.
Quartz: So it sounds like narrowing the framework down to just US versus China creates blind spots, but also helps China’s case by boiling everything down to US opposition.
Economy: Right. And from the US perspective, it’s frankly detrimental. Speaking as an American, it’s detrimental to the narrative because as the dominant power, what happens is the media frames issues in a way that translates any gain for China into something that redounds negatively to the US status. So everything is framed in this US-China bilateral competition. And that means whether we’re talking about China’s gains in clean energy vehicles, which on the face of it should be a very positive thing— all these things then become part of the competition, which I think is very unhelpful.
Quartz: As you note in the book, one of the most pressing challenges that China poses is its use of coercive economic diplomacy. We’re watching this play out right now with how Beijing has retaliated against Lithuania. What can individual countries and organizations like the EU do to better counter Beijing’s coercive economic statecraft?
Economy: I think it’s important to distinguish between Beijing’s efforts to coerce individual economic actors like companies and multinationals, and its efforts to coerce countries.
What I found in my research is that Beijing has a lot of success when it comes to coercing individual economic actors. For example, when it insisted that the airlines and hotels not recognize Taiwan as a separate entity on their websites, most airlines and hotels accommodated Beijing’s wish.
What you find with countries—and you can look back to the boycott of the Philippines beginning around 2012 on South China Sea issues, the boycott of South Korea around the THAAD missile defense system, the boycott of Australia because of its call to investigate the origins of Covid—is that these countries don’t change their position as a result of the economic boycott. They are surprisingly resilient.
I think that most people expect that this kind of economic coercion [against nations] will work, especially when you’re dealing with such a major economy. And in many cases, China is the largest trading partner for these countries, like the case of Australia. And I think what happens is that in some cases, the extent of the economic boycott is somewhat less than people initially assume. And in other cases, [the targeted countries] just find other markets. And so it’s an interesting dichotomy between the ability of China to shape the behavior of multinationals, but really not to change the behavior of countries.
Beyond that, I think the reputational damage to China is significant. If I were in Xi’s shoes, I would probably rethink some of this economic coercion.
Quartz: So if Beijing has had much more success boycotting firms than with coercing countries, why do you reckon they’re still doing it with countries? Is it because it plays to their domestic audience, as you say? Or is it a strategic miscalculation on their part?
Economy: It’s both. It’s one of the few levers that a country has, especially such powerful economy as China has to try to exert influence. I think the temptation is overwhelming. What other tools does China have? And because China doesn’t play in the military space as much yet in terms of alliances, this coercive economic element is essentially, it believes, the strongest lever that it has. And it sends a message to the domestic audience that, yes, we are doing something. It gets the bump in domestic support that it wants without anyone paying too close attention to the fact that it doesn’t yield the result in terms of foreign policy that Beijing has laid out.
Quartz: One last question. What are some key misconceptions of China’s strategic ambitions, and what aspects of China’s geopolitical strategy isn’t getting enough attention?
Economy: The aspect that doesn’t get enough attention is Xi Jinping has been in power now for almost a decade, and has laid out a pretty significant set of foreign policy initiatives. What’s missing from the discourse is the extent to which some of those initiatives have faltered over time. Yes, we need to respond to the ambition, but we should also pay closer attention to the outcomes.
For example, in the case of the Confucius Institutes, where China set a goal of a thousand Confucius Institutes by 2020 but actually had in place about 540. Or what’s going on with the Thousand Talents program—there’s some international outcry against that. How effective is that actually now? Or even the Belt and Road Initiative? Yes, an enormous amount of upfront attention, grand-scale ambition, some significant investment dollars, and very significant lending by China to other countries for infrastructure. But I think we’ve all seen that the Belt and Road has become bumpy. What does it mean that there are popular protests in virtually every Belt and Road country around the projects? It’s China’s export of its model in many respects, but it brings along all the same attendant externalities that China experienced.
People don’t pay enough attention to what happens to these initiatives over time. And that’s something that we need to be looking at more closely because it should shape our understanding of the actual challenge that China presents. It should help us right size the China challenge.