In the Eye of the Beholder: The China Model as a discourse

Maria Adele Carrai is a Harvard-Princeton China and the World Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Her research examines how China’s legal history affects the country’s foreign policy.

The idea of a “China Model,” referring to the People Republic of China’s (PRC) distinctive developmental path as a fast track to economic growth, continues to attract attention from both the public and scholars. More recently, the term has been used to channel general anxiety in the West about China’s global rise and its possible negative implications for the liberal order.

Xi Jinping at the World Economic Forum in January 2017. Image: (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

In the past decade, China appears to have become the main advocate of globalization, even though Beijing does not share the liberal values that usually accompany globalization’s proponents. Despite its integration with the global economy, China’s attitude towards established international institutions and practices appears ambivalent, and for various authors and policy makers the emergence of an authoritarian China Model is a challenge to the rule of law, democracy, and human rights.

Discussions of the China Model can be disorienting, however, as they can refer to disparate aspects rather than a single, coherent concept. This is not surprising, as what constitutes the China Model is largely in the eye of the beholder, and it can perhaps be better explained as a form of constructed discourse.

Even if a China Model does not really exist, however, how it is characterized can shape and potentially limit the interpretation of Chinese foreign policy and the available policy options. This is why it is important to understand the origins and motivations behind current discourses of the China Model.

Origins of the China Model

He Kongde (何孔德), 1965, September, “The struggle of all the people in the world against American imperialism will be victorious!” Publisher: 人民美术出版社

The China Model discourse (中国模式, also known as the Bejing consensus 北京共识, Chinese experience 中国经验, Chinese Way 中国道路, or Chinese example 中国例子) finds its origin in the 1960s Chinese Revolutionary Model, when the PRC actively attempted to export socialism and support domestic politics in guerrilla movements in Africa.

In the 1980s and in the 1990s, the China model — broadly understood as Maoism — lost its appeal, and it was only in the 2000s, with the publication of Joshua Cooper Ramo’s The Beijing Consensus (2008) that the term has gained new momentum. As reform and opening up replaced the Maoist socialist ideology of the proletarian revolution, the new China Model discourse likewise began to be associated with the Dengist economic reforms that transformed the Chinese socialist-planned economy into a socialist-market one, as well as with the country’s political authoritarian system.

The China Model as Discourse

Discourse about the China Model emerged mostly from outside of China, but were promptly appropriated by Chinese scholars, especially after the financial crisis of 2008 (see graph).

The Chinese government seems to have limited the discussion of the China model, a synonym for the more ideologically inspired, ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics,’ to China’s national context. In this sense the China Model is foremost a model for China itself and its domestic system. Indeed, there is not yet an official position about the China Model and the academic discourse in China appears quite fragmented. Neither President Hu Jintao nor Premier Wen Jiabao have used the phrase in official statements, and the closest that Xi Jinping has come was in 2014 when he mentioned that China could become an example (fang’an 方案) for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.

“Advance Resolutely Along the Way of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics.” Image: ImagineChina

But the China example, plan, or answer is far from a cohesive model ready for export. Instead, it seems to be driven by Deng Xiaoping’s appeal to ‘Cross the river by feeling the stones,’ that is pragmatism, which by definition is not a behavior governed by values or constitutive principles. Even the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy that most resembles a China Model, is flexible and context specific. Moreover, when one puts the China model in a historical context, as some critics have pointed out, one can see that it is not uniquely China’s position, with other historical similarities (such as Meiji-era Japan, late nineteenth-century Mexico) or other countries like Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore also exhibiting aspects of a supposedly Chinese approach to foreign relations. Indeed, the model’s lack of clear definition has led scholars such as Scott Kennedy to dismiss the China Model or “Beijing Consensus” as a myth.

China’s Foreign Policy and Illiberal Spillovers

Even in countries that receive financing and aid from China, the reception of the China Model seems quite contested, with politicians in recipient countries often distinguishing between economic lessons that come from China and the political lessons that are said to be home grown or originate from other models.

Nevertheless, the China Model has captivated the leaders of many developing countries who, without necessarily opposing the West, do not share the same liberal values and political system, or simply refuse the conditionality of Western environmental or human rights standards in return for aid or financing. This has raised concerns about China’s negative impact on political and economic liberalism, with Stefan Halper’s Beijing Consensus probably offering the strongest critique to Joshua Cooper Ramo’s 2008 work.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping

Beijing’s loose definition as to what is included in the China Model, however, complicates calls from critics who argue that China is actively trying to change the political systems of other countries and spread its own brand of authoritarianism. In principle, China’s foreign policy is still designed in accordance to the principle of sovereignty and non-interference, and so far there is no direct correlation between China foreign policy and the rise of authoritarianism.

While there is not a specified model that China is plotting to spread, however, there are “illiberal spillovers” that affect the voting of countries in the UN, or incentivize self-censorship toward sensitive issues such as Tibet, South China Sea and Taiwan. But each concern should be distinguished, and not aggregated into a dysfunctional meme of a ‘China Model’ that aggrandizes the sense of a China threat that reduces China to a single incommensurate issue. The problem is therefore not ‘China’ per se or its model, but rather differing aspects of Chinese engagement with other countries. Policies toward China should be defined accordingly, tackling different time specific issues, rather than tackling an impossible entity.

Countries, moreover, follow the ‘China Model’ that they want to see, and the China Model ultimately rests in the eye of the beholder. In this sense the China Model is not either failing or succeeding, instead what can fail or succeed are its discursive constructs.

Maria Adele Carrai is a Harvard-Princeton China and the World Postdoctoral Fellow and Visiting Scholar at the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies. Her research focuses on China’s legal history and how it affects the country’s foreign policy. As a fellow at the China and the World Program, she looks at China as a normative actor and its impact on the international economic and legal order.