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China and the new International Order

By Tim Rühlig

1 October 2017

“China is making a path for other nations around the world who are trying to figure out not simply how to develop their countries, but also how to fit into the international order in a way that allows them to be truly independent, to protect their way of life and political choices in a world with a single massively powerful centre of gravity.”

This quotation from Joshua Cooper Ramo’s “Beijing Consensus” summarizes what many politicians, scientists and “ordinary” citizens in the “West” seem to fear: For a long time, the “Western” path to long-lasting prosperity consisting out of a double liberalization of the economy and the society, i.e. a market-economy alongside democracy, was seen as the one and only successful developmental path. However, the Chinese success-story has taken place within an autocratic regime combined with a partial and selective liberalization of the Chinese economy from the state’s direct influence. In other words, China’s rise is being perceived as a threat to the “liberal” political and economic model that has been traditionally supported by Europe and the United States (though Donald Trump seems not to subscribe to this vision).

From this follows the widely asked question: Is there a “Chinese Model” that will be imitated by other countries around the world fundamentally reshaping the political and economic order?

Regardless of tremendous efforts by social scientists, journalists and politicians both domestically in China and internationally to come up with a “China Model”, “Beijing Consensus” or “Chinese School of International Relations” no narrative has prevailed and successfully dominates the discourse. While the US is associated with its aspiration to promote “freedom and democracy”, China’s normative agenda remains unclear.

Whether we consider Ramo’s, John Williamson’s, Stefan Halper’s “Beijing Consensus”, Zhang Weiwei’s, Zhao Suisheng’s, Daniel Bell’s “China Model” or core concepts of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) including “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”, “harmonious world” or the “Chinese Dream”, they all face three core challenges:

Firstly, these concepts lack a unifying core. What we find is not a singular “Beijing Consensus” but a plurality of “China models” and “Chinese schools of International Relations”.

Secondly, most of the concepts remain inherently vague. In fact, some even describe context sensitivity and pragmatism as a distinctive characteristic of China’s success. The phrase “with Chinese characteristics” that the CCP adds to many of its core concepts aims to terminologically grasp this flexibility. The problem is, however, that flexibility is a very broad and vague guideline to be included into a model that could be imitated by other states.

Thirdly, empirical analysis of the existing “China Model” literature has raised serious doubt of its empirical validity. For example, Kennedy has demonstrated comprehensively that the core characteristics of Ramo’s famous “Beijing Consensus”, namely innovation and experimentation, economic growth and sustainability, and self-determination, do not empirically characterize China’s recent rise.

The main reason of these challenges is not a misunderstanding of China’s success or deficient research. Instead, Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening up” policy, implemented after 1978, brought success to China by allowing the coastal provinces to rapidly develop while the landlocked western regions remained underdeveloped. In addition, the Chinese leadership under Deng actively decided to promote local experimentation with economic and – to a lesser extent – political reforms. Most prominently, the germ cell of China’s economic rise lies in special economic zones providing international investors favorable investment conditions.  Experiments that proofed to be successful where applied in other parts of the country if not nationwide. Other experiments remained in place only locally. The result is a political economic hotchpotch that has empowered local state authorities as well as economic entrepreneurs which form – in close alliance with the CCP cadres – a new economic elite after decades of Mao Zedong’s planned economy.

Given the size, the diversity and the fragmentation of the country, the possibility of a “one size fits all” model to rule China not to mention its transferability to other countries can be questioned for good reason. In short, it was China’s willingness not to follow a model but to adhere to pragmatic problem-solving that enables local divergences which caused the People’s Republic’s enormous economic success story since the late 1970s. Although many “China Model” conceptions do recognize this importance of pragmatism, they do not reflect that the very notion of a unitary “model”, “consensus” or “school” is misleading – unless we reduce the idea of a China model to the conclusion that one should not follow a model.

In light of China’s rise, however, the search for a “China Model” that others could imitate has never disappeared. Quite to the contrary it has gained political impact domestically and never faded away internationally. The reason for this paradox is very simple: As long as there exists a strong political “demand” both domestically and internationally for a “China model”, it will remain politically influential regardless of its empirical inadequacy.

Internationally, authoritarian developing countries welcome the existence of an alternative path to development that does not draw on (full) economic and political liberalization. Furthermore, China undermines established principles of good governance by providing lending and investment without political conditions in contrast to the International Monetary Fund. Notably, interest in China’s rise and how it achieved it is not limited to small autocracies: The African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party, has built up a cooperation with the CCP including regular inter-party workshops which provide ANC party officials the opportunity to learn from their Chinese counterpart.

Domestically, the “China Model” discourse boosts the CCP’s legitimacy in times of lowering growth rates (“new normal”): Signs of a state’s rising international importance are something every leadership likes to see. But China’s power-conscious leader Xi Jinping who keeps emphasizing national rejuvenation and the “Chinese Dream“ seems to be particularly amenable to it. Consequently, China has picked up the idea of a “China model” after initial irritation for domestic reasons: The international talking about a “China model” and “Beijing Consensus” symbolizes the country’s success under CCP-rule. All this ties in with the belief of the CCP leaders that “world leadership demands an ideology to order the globe symbolically” (Callahan) and does not only rest on material power.

Accordingly, the idea of an emerging “China Model” will remain virulent and politically influential in the foreseeable future. Observers should not abandon the “China Model” idea in the first place but treat it as what it is: not a tool to analytically explain and understand China’s economic success but as a political program that aims to boost China’s standing in the world and the CCP’s domestic legitimacy.

In fact, though the Chinese success is best explained by diversity and pragmatic context sensitive problem-solving, the very existence of and desire for a unitary “China Model” may very well shape China’s future.

This carries important questions: How does the idea of a “unitary model” and the existing empirical diversity impact one another? Will the “China Model” discourse help to unify a country that might be in need of more centralization and if yes, to what extent is it able to contribute to such a “unification process”? And how will China integrate “diversity” into a “China Model” that provides more guidance to other countries than the mere recommendation “do whatever is needed”?

Tim Rühlig is a Research Associate at the University of Frankfurt/Germany. 

This is a shortened version of an academic article entitled “How Does China Impact the Future International Political Order? Conceptual Reflections of the “China Model” in Light of China's Fragmented Polity”, in: International Relations and Diplomacy (2016) 4:1, pp. 48-59. The full article is online available: