Earlier in 2019, Jessica Chen Weiss wrote a well-considered article for Foreign Affairs in which she argues that China does not seek to export authoritarianism, but merely wants to make the world safer for itself. There is indeed no National Endowment for Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, nor has Beijing set up a Peaceful Co-existence Radio seeking to help liberate people from the tyranny of political bickering and mediocre economic growth rates. The question whether a rising China is a revisionist power has been debated many times before. People often point to official rhetoric to support the claim that China supports the status quo, and that it benefits from the status quo. But before we can make such definite claims, we first have to establish how ‘revisionism’ is defined in China. When doing so, we cannot ignore the ways the legacies of Marx, Lenin, and Mao continue to shape the thought of those in power. That makes clear that from the CCP’s perspective the status quo is not a snapshot of the current situation frozen in time, but the current historical trend as it is developing over time. Supporting this process is not revisionist. China’s ‘rejuvenation’ is part of the current historical trend. What is revisionist in Beijing’s view is trying to stop this.
In my earlier post on reading that shaped my understanding of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), I highlighted the work of Frank Pieke on the party schools in China. His book is a great introduction into the separate world where party cadres and government officials are periodically socialised into the latest iteration of Maoism-Marxism-Leninism, and now Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era too. This derivation of marxism has to be taken seriously. You can write many long-reads on the nefarious consequences of (state) capitalism in China, or about the way Chinese businesspeople internalise neoliberal world-views attending American business schools. But the people who actually run the country keep saying that China is socialist. In a speech I highlighted in April (and translated in a great article by Tanner Greer), Xi Jinping explicitly states that China is still on the way to communism. When Mormons claim that they are Christian, it will not do to invoke Catholic theology to dismiss them as frauds if you want to understand how they think: you have to take seriously how they view themselves. The same applies to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), no matter how preposterous you may find its leaders’ claims that achieving communism is still their goal. Hannah Arendt described totalitarian movements as consisting of concentric circles of ascending belief in the movement’s alternate reality, the intermediary layers protecting the inner core from facts that would challenge their beliefs while presenting a more believable façade to the outside world. The CCP’s members still study Marx and Mao, its leaders and thinkers say that China is still socialist, its pronouncements are phrased in a peculiar kind of marxism. If this is not enough to take seriously their ideology, then we can ignore the professed beliefs of any politician anywhere.
The isolation from the world by these elites is worsened in part by the belief of many of the so-called Red Nobility—descendants of the first revolutionaries that brought the CCP to power and to which Xi Jinping belongs—that they have the right to run the country their parents fought to control. It is also worsened by an idealised and mythic view of Chinese history that tells a simplistic narrative of supposedly 5000 years of uninterrupted and peaceful history. China’s leaders can point to the Civil War victory of their parents, the supposed glory and richness of ‘Chinese civilisation’, and the post-1978 economic boom to argue that the ‘science’ of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics has proven its merits.
The word ‘revisionism’ is used by International Relations scholars to describe actors seeking to change or overthrow the existing order. But it also has a long and distinguished pedigree in the communist world. One important part of the orthodox marxist worldview was a deterministic approach to history. Revisionism is going against the determined course of development that will lead to communism. If I were to subscribe to cultural essentialism—like too many scholars both inside and outside China unfortunately do—I would all too easily explain Chinese officials’ copious references to the ‘tide of history’ with reference to the tradition of seeing Chinese history as a series of dynastic cycles. But much more important for the leading Party members is the legacy of Marxism’s historical materialism. They think that having scientifically deduced history’s objective forces they can confidently rely on the ‘historical trend’ (历史潮流 lìshǐ cháoliú).
In a simplistic form, orthodox marxism held that the contradictions in each historical stage automatically create the conditions for the next stage to come about. There is a logical succession to how history develops, visible on the macroscopic scale in the supposedly automatic transition from feudalism to capitalism to communism. Whenever Chinese statements talk about the inevitable trend of the the times, this is what they mean: the world is developing into a certain direction and if you can deduce the scientific laws of history, you can learn this ‘objective’ fact. When you have enough trust that you understand the historical trend, you can be confident enough to, for example, dismiss the re-election of Tsai Ing-wen as president of Taiwan as temporary counter-current that is but mere bubbles on the surface of the historical trend (一时之逆流不过是历史浪潮下的泡沫), no matter what empirical evidence will tell you about the reality of Taiwan and its people’s views.
Does China seek to change the ‘international system’? I want to use two essays (re-)published in September 2019 on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the PRC to look at this problem. My core argument comes down to the claim that, from the Chinese perspective, ‘revisionism’ is trying to go against the historical trend of its rise. According to this view, China’s ‘peaceful development’ (和平发展 hépíng fāzhǎn) is the inevitable historical trend of our times, a goal expressed in the cumbersome full-length formulation of the much-discussed Chinese Dream, namely ‘the Chinese Dream of the Grand Rejuvenation of the Chinese Volk’ (中华民族伟大复兴的中国梦). Therefore, seeking to stop China’s rise is ‘revisionist’, whereas adapting the international system to make sure China fits in is not ‘change’, but part of the natural development of the world.
The first article is ‘China and the World Amidst Profound Change: written during the 70th anniversary of the founding of New China’ (‘大变局中的中国与世界——写在新中国成立70周年之际’), originally published in the People’s Daily under the Guo Jiping (国纪平) byline used for important commentary on national matters and later republished in the CCP’s theoretical journal Qiushi. The second is the white book China and the World in the New Era (《新时代的中国与世界》白皮书), published by the State Council Information Office in Mandarin as well as several foreign languages.
The two pieces do not contain anything shocking. Articles and white papers like this usually merely sum up what has been said before in different places. As a consequence, they provide useful a distillation of common views as approved by the CCP. Their main theme is that China and the world face a ‘level of profound change that has not been seen in a hundred years’ (百年未有之大变局 bǎinián wèi yǒu zhī dà biànjú). China’s solution is summarised as the ‘community of common destiny for humanity’ or, in the current official translation, ‘a global community of shared future’ (⼈类命运共同体 rénlèi mìngyùn gòngtóngtǐ).
If they don’t bring up (without citation) Chinese statistics or quotes, the two papers predominantly rely on Western sources and experts to back up claims, as if they have greater legitimacy. These are often the usual suspects from consultancy and international organisation world. The papers measure China’s contribution by the extent to which they make the relevant indicators go up. The white paper spends a lot of time obliquely critiquing Donald Trump’s America and its treatment of treaties and international norms, thereby highlighting what a responsible international citizen China is.
The Guo Jiping article explains how China’s example offers new choices to countries and nations that hope to quickly develop while maintaining their independence (给那些既希望加快发展又希望保持自身独立性的国家和民族提供了全新选择). It tries to integrate change and stability: ‘Facing the epochal question “What’s up with the world, what are we to do?”, China—in tune with the historical trend—shoulders the responsibility of a great power; steadfastly acts as a builder of world peace, a contributor to global development, a protector of the global order; and becomes an unchanging force for stability amid the Profound Change.’ (面对“世界怎么了，我们怎么办”的时代之问，中国顺应历史潮流，肩负大国责任，坚定做世界和平的建设者、全球发展的贡献者、国际秩序的维护者，成为大变局中不变的稳定力量。)
The paper argues that China’s success demonstrates that there is an alternative to ‘the West’, so other countries do not have to follow ‘the West’ either. Yet, intriguingly, besides Xi Jinping, the article is only explicitly quotes foreigners to back up its claims, most of whom are Westerners or Japanese.
The white paper has been given more publicity and was distributed more widely, in part thanks to the fact that it was translated. It is not afraid to ascribe support for Xi Jinping’s policies to the whole world: ‘Building a community of common destiny for humanity and building a better world is the common aspiration of all peoples.’ (构建⼈类命运共同体，建设更加美好的世界，是各国⼈民的共同愿望。) It also indirectly argues against the never-mentioned enemy of liberal democracy’s claims to universalism: ‘The greatest inspiration from China’s development is: what kind of path a country takes should be based on the experience of other countries, but more importantly on its own reality, and should be decided by its own people in accordance with its own history, cultural traditions, and level of economic and social development.’ (中国发展的最⼤启⽰，就是⼀个国家⾛什么样的发展道路，既要借鉴别国经验， 更要⽴⾜本国实际，依据⾃⼰的历史传承、⽂化传统、经济社会发展⽔平，由这个国家的⼈民来决定。)
In fact, the Profound Change does require change to solve the international order’s contradictions and deficits. This includes the ‘deep remoulding of the relations between great powers, the international order, regional security, the trends of social thought, and the global governance system’ (大国关系、国际秩序、地区安全、社会思潮、全球治理深刻重塑). The white paper argues that there actually is a trend towards multilateralism, seemingly indicating that a reduced role for the hegemonic US is a return to how the international system should be. The ending clarion call for the community of common destiny for mankind makes it clear that Beijing has the design for solving this problem.
Both papers show that the problem this China faces is that, from its perspective, maintaining the international system requires changing it so that it will be ‘fair’ for the PRC (and other developing countries). This is how it solves the seeming paradox of asking for changes to the system while claiming not to be revisionist: the ‘remoulding’ of the international system is the natural product of maintenance needed to fit the historical trend. It should be clear from the haughtiness of the party-state’s diplomats and Beijing’s bullying behaviour towards its Asian neighbours that China’s leaders believe that their country’s ‘natural’ place in the world is that of a great power. The inevitable historical trend is the ‘Grand Rejuvenation’ of China and its restoration to its traditional dominant role, dominant at least in East Asia. International Relations scholars such as Yan Xuetong argue that China’s supposedly peaceful history allows to pick the ‘just’ way (王道) of being a leading power, as opposed to that of the hegemon (霸道). That the international system changes as China takes up its place is only natural, and certainly not the result of revisionism. What China regards as revisionism is trying to stop this development: a development can be part of the natural historical trend. A status quo is not a snapshot of the world frozen in time, but the status quo is the direction of development determined by the current configuration of material factors: the historical trend. This leads to the conclusion that as far as Beijing is concerned development is not change. What is change is trying to redirect the course of history. It is the US that is the revisionist power when it tries to stop or revise the historical trend that will lead to the Grand Rejuvenation by containing China.
This leaves the question of behaviour. China does provide support and coverage for some of the world’s most unpalatable regimes, such as Assad’s Syria, and has close cooperation with other enemies of liberal democracy, like Russia. But Chen Weiss is correct to point out that if support for authoritarian regimes should be taken as a guide, the Cold War-era US would also count as a supporter of authoritarianism. However, that did not stop Washington from holding itself up as a liberal democratic model and other countries from trying to implement what they thought had brought the United States such impressive material success. The history of ‘American Empire’ is complicated and—although it may provide lessons that can help us understand contemporary China—a different story. The model China is presenting is a clear alternative to liberal democracy. And Beijing does actively try to promote it.
China’s efforts may not have taken on the distinctive missionary form of the United States, but Elizabeth Economy points out that China is quite busy providing ‘lessons’ to those interested in its ‘wisdom’, even when it says that it does not want to force its model on others. A recent Macro Polo report outlines the various briefings for foreign political parties the CCP’s International Liaison Department undertook after the 19th Party Congress of October 2017. The ILD claimed to have briefed politicians from almost 80 countries, either by inviting them to China or by sending its own teams abroad. As the Covid-19 pandemic ravages the world, Chinese diplomats have taken to Twitter to lambast the obviously disastrous American response and spread conspiracy theories that lie about the likely origin of SARS-CoV-2 in Wuhan. They spin China’s eventual success of apparently containing the coronavirus as an example of the party-state’s strength, ignoring its disastrous suppression of warnings in the early weeks and the more complicated image that would arise out of a fair appraisal of Beijing’s response. Its donations and sales of supplies to various stricken countries around the world meanwhile contribute to a more positive image.
To use a Dutch expression, nothing human is alien to China. The rapid growth of the country’s prosperity combines with nationalism into making the Party believe it has found an exceptional solution to the Profound Change. However, at the same time and like many other capitals, the Party often does not face the world as it is but rather as it wish it were. The CCP’s historical materialism feels hopelessly outdates to anyone with better empirical understanding of the world. Presenting China’s Great Rejuvenation as inevitable serves political ends. The two papers above make clear that Beijing defines what it thinks the international system should look like and then attacks deviations as problems. It argues that solving those problems would not be revisionist, it would merely restore the international order. No matter that steering the world towards authoritarianism would be an innovation after decades of global democratisation: in the Party’s eye is attempting to stop the historical trend of China’s rise that would be revisionist.
In the end, though, we are too obsessed with looking for a smoking gun. Perhaps some people will only be convinced of China’s global ambition if they hear Xi Jinping himself state that he wants to take over the world. Even then I suspect some might still plead to not harm the reformers’ chances by breaking off ‘engagement’. But the United States—even though it might be more explicitly evangelical about its system—also does not state that it wants to reshape the whole world in its image, regardless of its hang-ups with certain individual countries. Washington will also argue that it only seeks a fair international order. Yet, we have truckloads full of critical analysis of ‘American Empire’, including how it sought to naturalise its attempts to change the world. Now Beijing is dressing up its far-reaching attempts to make the world hospitable to its regime as inevitable. The two papers provide more than enough evidence to start writing on China too.