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Understanding Chinese Politics in the 21st Century

The Forbidden City, in Beijing [MaoNo]

▲ The Forbidden City, in Beijing [MaoNo]

ESSAYJakub Hodek

To fully grasp the complexities and peculiarities of Chinese domestic and foreign affairs, it is indispensable to dive into the underlying philosophical ideas that shaped how China behaves and understands the world. Perhaps the most important value to the Chinese is stability. Particularly when one considers the share of unpleasant incidents they have fared.

Climatic disasters have resulted in sub-optimal harvest and could also entail the loss of important infrastructure costing thousands of lives. For instance, the unexpected 2008 Sichuan earthquake resulted in approximately 80.000 casualties. Nevertheless, the Chinese have shown resilience and have been able to continue their day-to-day with relative ease.[1] Still, nature was not the only enemy. Various nomadic tribes such as the Xiong Nu presented a constant threat to the early Han Empire, who were forced to reinvent themselves to protect their own. [2]  These struggles only amplified their desire for stability.

All philosophical ideologies rooted in China highlight the benefits of stability over the evil of chaos.[3] In fact, Legalism, Daoism and Confucianism still shape current social and political norms. This is unsurprising as the Chinese interpret stability as harmony and the best mean to achieve development. This affirmation is cultivated from birth and strengthened on all societal levels.

Legalism affirms that “punishment” trumps “rights”. Thus, the interest of few must be sacrificed for the good of the many.[4] This translates to phenomenons present in modern China such as censorship of media outlets, autocratic teachers, and rigorous laws to protect “state secrets”. Daoism attests to the existence of a cosmological order that determines events.[5] Manifestations of this can be seen in fields of Chinese traditional medicine that deals with feng shui or the flows of energy. Confucianism puts stability as an antecedent of a forward momentum and regulates the relationship between the individual and society.[6] From the Confucianism stems a norm of submission to parental expectations, and the subjugation and blind faith to the Communist Party.

It follows that non-Sino readers of Chinese affairs must consider these philosophical roots when analysing current Chinese events. Seen through that lens, actions such as Xi Jinping declaring stability as an “absolute principle that needs to be dealt with using strong hands[7],” initiatives harshly targeting corrupt Party members, increased censorship on media outlets and the widespread reinforcement of nationalism should not come as a surprise. One needs power to maintain stability.

Interestingly, it seems that this level of scrutiny over the daily lives of average Chinese people has not incited negative feelings towards the Communist Party. One of the explanations behind these occurrences might be attributed to the collectivist vision of society that the Chinese individuals possess.  They strongly prefer social harmony over their own individual rights. Therefore, they are willing to trade their privacy to obtain heightened security and homogeneity.  

Of course, this way of living contrasts starkly with developed Western societies who increasingly value their individual rights. Nonetheless, the Chinese in no way fell their values to be inferior to the Western ones. They are prideful and portray a sense of exceptionalism when presenting their socioeconomic developments and societal order to the rest of the world. This is not to say that, on occasion, the Chinese have been known to replicate certain foreign practices in an effort to boost their geopolitical presence and economic results. 

In relation to this subtle sense of superiority shared by the Chinese, it is important to analyse the political conditionality of engaging with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) through economic or diplomatic relations. Although the Chinese government representatives have stated numerous times that, when they establish ties with foreign countries, they do not wish to influence socio-political realities of their recent partner, there are numerous examples that point to the contrary. One only has to look at their One China policy which has led many Latin American countries to sever diplomatic ties with Taiwan. In a way, this is understandable as most countries zealously protect their vision of the world. As such, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) strategically establishes economic ties with countries harbouring resources they need or that are in need of infrastructure that they can provide. The One Belt One Road initiative represents the economic arm of this vision while their recent increased diplomatic activity, especially in Africa and Latin America, the political one. In short, the People’s Republic of China wants to be at the forefront of geopolitics in a multipolar world lacking clear leadership and certainty, at least in the opinion various experts.

One explanation behind this desire for being at the centre stage of international politics hides in the etymology of their own country’s name. The term “Middle Kingdom” refers to the Chinese “Zhongguó”, where the first character “zhong” means “centre” or “middle” and “guó” means “country”, “nation” or “kingdom”.[8] The first record of this term, “Zhongguó,” can be found in the Book of Documents (“Shujing”), which is one of the Five Classics of ancient Chinese literature. It is a piece which describes ancient Chinese figures and, in some measure, serves as a basis of the Chinese political philosophy, especially Confucianism. Although the Book of Documents dates back to 4th Century A.D., it wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th Century when the term “Zhongguó” became the official name of China.[9] While it is true that the Chinese are not the only country that believes they have a higher calling to lead others, China is the only nation whose name uses such a concept.

Such deep-rooted concepts as “Zhongguó”, strongly resonates within the social fabric of Chinese modern society and implies a vision of the world order where China is at the centre and leading countries both to the East and West. This vision is embodied in Xi Jinping, the designated “core” leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), who is decisively dictating the tempo of China’s effort to direct the country on the path of national rejuvenation. In fact, at the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2017, Xi Jinping’s speech was centered around the need for national rejuvenation. An objective and a date were set out: “By 2049, China’s comprehensive national power and international influence will be at the forefront.”[10] In other words, China aims to restore its status as the Middle Kingdom by the year 2049 and become a leading world power.

The full-fleshed grand strategy can be found in “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era,” a document that is now part of China’s constitution and it’s as important of a doctrine as Mao Zedong’s political theories or anything the CCP’s has previously put forth. The Chinese are approaching these objectives promptly and efficiently and, as they have proven in the past, they are capable of great achievements when resources are available. Sure enough, the world is already experiencing Xi Jinping’s policies. Recently, Beijing has opted to invest in increased international presence to exert their influence and vision. Starting with continued emphasis on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), massive modernization of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and aggressive foreign policy.

The migration and political crisis in Europe and Trump’s isolationism have given China sufficient space to jump on the international stage and set in motion a new global order, albeit without the will to dynamite the existing one. Xi Jinping managed to renew a large part of the members of CCP’s executive bodies and left the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China notably reinforced. He did everything possible to have political capital to push the economic and diplomatic reforms to drive China to the promised land.

Another issue that is given China an opportunity to steal the spotlight is climate change. Especially, after the United States pulled out from the Paris Agreement in June 2017. Last January, Xi Jinping chose the Davos World Economic Forum to show that his country is a solid and reliable partner. Leaning on an economy with clear signs of stability and growth of around 6.7%, many who had predicted its spiralling fall had to listen as the President presented himself as a champion of free trade and the fight against global warming. After expressing its full support for the agreements reached against the emissions of gases at the climate summit held in Paris in 2016, Xi announced the will of “the Middle Kingdom” to guide the new economic globalization.

President Xi plans to achieve his vision with a two-pronged approach. First, a wide-ranging promotion abroad of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era.” This is an unknown strategy to the Chinese as there is no precedent of the CCP’s ideas being promoted abroad. However, Xi views Western liberal democracy as an impediment to China’s rise and wants to offer an alternative in the form of Chinese socialism, which he perceives as practically and theoretically superior. The Chinese model of governing provides a way to catch up with the developed nations and avoid the regression to modern age colonialism.[11] This could turn out to be an attractive proposal to developing nations who might just be lured by China’s “benevolent” governance and “generosity” in the form of low-interest loans. Second, Xi wants to further develop and modernize the PLA so that it is capable to ensure national security and maintain Chinese positions in areas where their foreign policy has become more assertive (not to say aggressive) such as in the South China Sea.[12] Confirming that both strong military and economic sustainability are essential to achieve the strategic goal of becoming the centre of their proposed global order by 2049.

If one desires to understand China today, one must look carefully at its origin. What started off as an isolated nation turned out to be a dormant giant that was only waiting to get its home affairs in order before it went for the rest of the world. If there is any lesson behind recent Chinese actions across the political and socioeconomical spectrum is that they want to live up to their name and be at the forefront of the world. This is not to say that they wish an implosion of the current world order although it is clear they are willing to use force if need be. It merely implies that they believe their philosophical ideologies to be at least as good as those shared in Western societies while not forgoing what they find useful from them: free trade, service-based economy, developed financial markets, among other things. As things stand, China is sure to make some friends along the way. Especially in developing regions that might be tempted by their tremendous economic success in the last decades and offers of help “with no strings attached.” These realities imply that we live in a multipolar which is increasingly heterogenous in connection to values and references that rule it. Therefore, understanding Chinese mentality will prove essential to understand the future of geopolitics.  


[1] Daniell, James. “Sichuan 2008: A Disaster on an Immense Scale.” BBC News, BBC, 9 May 2013, www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-22398684.

[2] The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica. “Xiongnu.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Sept. 2017, www.britannica.com/topic/Xiongnu.

[3] Creel, Herrlee Glessner. "Chinese thought, from Confucius to Mao Tse-tung." (1953).

[4] Hsiao, Kung-chuan. "Legalism and autocracy in traditional China." Chinese Studies in History 10.1-2 (1976)

[5] Kohn, Livia. Daoism and Chinese culture. Lulu Press, Inc, 2017

[6] Yao, Xinzhong. An introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge University Press, 2000.

[7] Blanchard, Ben. “China's Xi Demands 'Strong Hands' to Maintain Stability Ahead of Congr.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 19 Sept. 2017.

[8] Diccionario conciso español-chino, chino español. Beijing, China: Shangwu Yinshuguan. 2007. 

[9] Nylan, Michael (2001), The Five Confucian Classics, Yale University Press.

[10] Tuan N. Pham. “China in 2018: What to Expect.” The Diplomat, 11 Jan. 2018.

[11]Li, Xiaojun. "Does Conditionality Still Work? China’s Development Assistance and Democracy in Africa." Chinese Political Science Review 2.2 (2017): 201-220.

[12] Chase, Michael S. "PLA Rocket Force Modernization and China’s Military Reforms." (2018).

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