Negotiating Dominance: China in the 21st Century

Will China Dominate the 21st Century? By Jonathan Fenby.

Polity Press, 2014, 139 pp.

In Will China Dominate the 21st Century? author Jonathan Fenby seeks to dispel myths about China’s economic and strategic rise as it relates to the United States and the international order. He does not understate the significance of the rise of China, but rather calls it the “most important event since the end of the Cold War” (5). He attempts to renegotiate the reader’s understanding of China’s history and its foreign policy ambitions. While Fenby provides examples to support claims about China’s foreign policy direction, his evidence is selective and promotes an inflexible view of China. Fenby determines that, while China has and will continue to become a formidable state with economic and strategic potential, its lack of soft power compared to the United States will have negative implications for alliance-building and its relationship with international institutions. Fenby frames the discussion by explicating the political, economic and social constraints that will hamper China’s ability to “dominate” the 21st century. Importantly, the factors which helped China to rise – primarily the centralized nature of governance – will now stand in the way of its progress and speed, and will inevitably lead China to focus on internal structural issues.

In the opening pages, Fenby sets out to debunk myths that he sees as central to the international community’s understanding of the foreign policy. First, Beijing perpetuates the ideas of Chinese unity and continuous Han rule. Fenby disputes these myths by pointing to periods of division in Chinese history and the rule of non-Han including the Manchus and Mongols. Second, Fenby confronts the myth that Confucianism is China’s guiding ideology. This perception of China downplays the “doctrine of legalism, which uses the law to cow citizens into submission” (4). Fenby’s biggest quarrel concerns the myth that China is re-emerging as a global power. He argues that Imperial China “did not play a global role in the way of European empires” (4). However, his approach to contemporary China conflates re-emergence with soft power, or “global influence,” while downplaying the relation to China’s economic clout. Fenby has two reasons to attempt to debunk these myths. First, he seeks to discredit the myths that “China breeds” in order to delegitimize the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and its authority. From the outset, he instills a perception of Beijing and the CCP as deceptive and manipulative and suggests that the leadership’s ultimate goal is to secure their position. Second, the book is a sharp response to those, primarily Western, authors who promote the concept of Chinese dominance.

Domestic Impediments: Political, Economic and Social Factors

For Fenby, domestic politics are the main reason why China will not dominate international affairs. Foremost in the political sphere, domestic structural factors prevent China’s political machine from evolving into a state capable of matching its economic progress. The CCP is central to all official affairs including business and infrastructure and both local leaders and leaders in Beijing bring their personal interests, historical inheritance related to Party membership and biases to decision making. Further, the centrality of state enterprises means that political and business leaders have an interest in maintaining the status quo. Membership in the CCP presents itself as integral to financial success, and the Party maintains a tight and embedded control with propaganda campaigns warning against foreign influence and flaunting the CCP as the single and ultimate choice for rule. Reforms are always planned in such a way that they maintain one-party rule.

Fenby claims that a central aim of Chinese leadership is to maintain power. He illustrates his claim that maintaining power is “more important than the necessary maturing of the nation,” for the CCP leadership through a comparison between Bo Xilai and Xi Jinping (52). Bo used populist policies in an attempt to create his own power center free of constraints and to pressure Beijing’s new leadership. Becoming a “crowd-pleaser” in his local role in Chongqing, Bo challenged the standard way of managing affairs in Beijing; for this he was removed and “brought down as the result of a murky affair” (39). On one hand, this example shows that the model of embedded control has become more difficult to maintain in an evolving society that includes more vocal interests and divergent stakeholders (51). On the other, Beijing’s purge of Bo and others that are not faithful to its patron-client system confirms Fenby’s argument that leaders seek tightly managed governance and are threatened by challenges to their authority.

In contrast to Bo, Xi Jinping insists on the maintenance of CCP’s hold on power. A recurring question given the economic progress of China has been “why should China change?” According to Fenby, this reluctance to change will constrain China’s ability to succeed on the international stage. However, changing public expectations about what the government should provide raise questions about the longevity of China’s single-party rule. Fenby presents a paradox whereby individuals support the regime and its benevolent rulers, but lack faith in the system. He contends that “it is the bureaucrats with whom people come into contact in their everyday lives who are seen as the villains” (48). However, Fenby’s emphasis on wholesale change to a Western style democracy is implausible and no analyst should expect such change to occur overnight. Further, he does not consider the gradual and grassroots-level transitions which include the increasing authority given to local governments and localized democracy. His focus on the top-down approach for change is consonant with his emphasis on the power of Beijing, but neglects other realities.

Not only do potential reforms face political obduracy, but they will lead to subsequent problems. Despite its unprecedented growth over the past decade, China faces many economic challenges. Fenby uses Wen Jiabao’s “four uns” to argue that Beijing leaders understand the troubled state of its economy and potential harm that sustaining the status quo could instill: unsustainable, uncoordinated, unbalanced and unstable. First, China’s economy is unsustainable because of its heavy reliance on imported raw materials, and could become reliant upon food imports if faced with droughts or other environmental disasters. Second, China has a heavy reliance on exports and construction projects for growth; export profits proceed to the central government, often leaving fewer funds available for local authorities, leading the economy to be uncoordinated. Third, the economy is unbalanced because it focuses on special economic zones, coastal and eastern areas. Fourth, social unrest due to income inequality causes the economy to be unstable. As head of the government for a decade and promoter of China’s economic policy Wen Jiabao proves to be on the right side of Fenby’s arguments; he grasps the difficulties ahead for Beijing and contradictions of the status quo.

Fenby belabors the point that inefficient state-owned enterprises, like Party officials, have been cushioned for too long; reform then is a double-edged sword for China’s economy and state institutions. For example improving benefits for migrant workers in the face of the hukou system would improve workers’ bargaining power, which would spell trouble for factories and hence conflict with market principles. Internationally, China’s model as the world’s factory is being challenged; other countries including developed states increasingly compete with China’s labor force as the country attempts to move up the value chain.  Ultimately, Fenby states that China’s economic problems are normal for a state its size and at its development stage. He purports that China’s economic challenges necessitate a “degree of realism” concerning its “prospects for dominating the globe given the systemic risks” (76). Nevertheless, China’s economy has continued to grow in the face of the global downturn, without the market reforms insisted on by Western commentators like Fenby.

Fenby recounts anecdotes of attempts at market-oriented reforms by Wen Jiabao and Li Keqiang in the face of Party opposition. Wen and Li put forth the goals of market reform but inevitably those enlisted to pursue reforms hesitated to pursue policy which would weaken the regime (63). Fenby, like many China skeptics, advises Beijing to release its tight grip on the Chinese economy, from agricultural land policy to currency and capital accounts. He supports a preconceived notion of how China should implement market reforms. However, Western market reforms run counter to CCP ideology of state control which means that top-down proposals come up against political and systemic forces seeking to maintain the status quo.

In the chapter “Behind the Dream,” Fenby details how an increasingly transaction-based economy has infused a capitalist mentality into society and perpetuated corruption and mistrust of officials, creating a conflict with state ideology; greed and individualism are concepts which the CCP set out to remove from society. While some commentators claim that Confucian principles helped to thrust China into global dominance, Fenby argues that Confucianism’s disdain for money-making runs counter to Beijing’s focus on economic growth. In Chinese politics, career potential is tied to delivering economic growth. In some instances this breeds corruption; for example, officials have turned a blind eye to factories that pollute as long as GDP figures improve. For the public, an emphasis on material prosperity results in criticism of the wealth gap and the loss of moral standards among public officials. This conflict identified by Fenby is important in the public and private spheres in China and contributes to debates about China’s foreign policy motivations.

Beijing remains aware of popular sentiment through frequent public opinion surveys; however, Fenby reiterates that there is a separation between the Party and citizens due to the grandiose nature of the PRC combined “with the omnipotent claims of its ruling apparatus and lack of space for adaptation of the basic structure” (99-100). To demonstrate his claim that there is a popular disapproval of officials, Fenby mentions several times in the book that annually there are between 150,000 and 180,000 protests in China. In light of protests, the government budget for internal security continues to increase while, to keep the peace, it cancels controversial construction projects that may be unsettling or harmful for communities. Alongside this, Fenby justifiably raises the issue of “where politics stops in China” (99). Consultation with the public does not occur effectively, because meetings with protestors occur after the Party decides to begin a project.

According to Fenby, the public’s discontent with Beijing poses a threat to the CCP’s rule and raises a number of questions. He asks, “Why has the priority been so overwhelmingly on building hardware rather than improving the quality of life?” (52) Why can the state not provide basic necessities to everyone and why are corners cut? Fenby remarks that traditionally Chinese popular reverence for the state “is based on the bargain that the state will act as a protector, and the PRC has not been doing a great job in this respect” (79). Whereas previously people relied on an “iron rice bowl” to provide a minimum level of comfort, now they find support outside of the Party system, in religions and belief systems such as Christianity, Daoism, Buddhism and even feng shui and Falun Gong. China’s social problems have a distinct impact on foreign policy and its national priorities. With each food scandal, corruption case, pollution incident and other events that garner negative publicity in the global media, respect for CCP leadership wanes (99-100). Fenby argues that Beijing’s ability to control internal social dynamics impact its ability to manage its image both domestically and internationally and may even impede its capacity to act in the international arena.

Pressures in International Relations

On several fronts, Fenby offers hope for those fearful of China’s rise and a counterweight for American declinists. Foremost, Fenby suggests that China’s rise must “be kept in perspective” (102). By comparing factors of China’s domestic and international situation with that of the United States, Fenby frames the debate in terms of competition. China still has a long way to go before it will catch up to the United States in economic, strategic and international political realms. The author reiterates China’s problems with corruption, safety standards, pollution, and “a weak record in innovation” (104). Meanwhile, in part due to its legal system and economic policies, the US remains top destination for FDI. Fenby contrasts the hard power of the U.S. with China, pointing out that the U.S. maintains 39% of global military spending. With China’s military spending still only one quarter of U.S. spending, any comparison of military power is overwhelmingly skewed toward U.S. dominance. The US also maintains an unparalleled global cultural appeal. For instance, compared to U.S. companies, Chinese companies do not have the same brand recognition or global reach, which Fenby deems important for dominance. All of these factors are mobilized by Fenby to dispel myths that China is at the doorstep of the U.S. However, by keeping China clearly in the rearview mirror of the U.S., Fenby acknowledges some degree of competition. He briefly mentions that the world is not dominated by a single power, while simultaneously asserting factors contributing to U.S. dominance and minimizing multilateral institutions.

China lacks several factors required to be a global power. Notably for Fenby, the Beijing Consensus is not replicable, and there are scant states that seek to model themselves after it. In part this is due to China’s perceived avoidance of major conflicts and dispute resolution and influence of its Sino-centric history. He disapproves China’s deference to state sovereignty as a guiding principle. Further, China’s close political and strategic relationship is with North Korea, an autarkic state and volatile state, is viewed with suspicion and disdain by the international community. China does not maintain alliances which Fenby believes are important for global dominance. He contrasts U.S. alliance networks, for example Japan and NATO countries, with China’s fluid international relations. In examining soft power, Fenby goes so far as to state that “There is scant evidence for the thesis that the world will become more Chinese” (114). English remains the dominant language globally and the West has a dominant influence on global culture. Chinese people continue to move or travel abroad and bring back international influences. Furthermore, in international public opinion polls “warmth for China seems to be somewhat on the wane” (115-116). Despite its economic clout and membership status in institutions such as the UN Security Council, Fenby believes that China has yet to become a geo-political stakeholder, least of all a responsible one (105).

Fenby argues that China should have no interest in disrupting the status quo because it is a dependent power. The international order facilitates China’s rise and provides advantages for its ability to “trade and to exclude external influences” (106). China’s neighbors meanwhile rely on the U.S for security and continue to elude falling under China’s protection. China’s economy relies on foreign investment and imported energy and technology. Further, compared to the US, China has a more limited cultural influence. With international affairs as with international business, the global trust deficit continues outside of China’s small sphere of influence because of its history of corruption, food scandals and low environmental standards.

Fenby waits until late in the book to address the global ‘rules of the game,’ that have been set by the West and any challenge to these rules that China may pose. China’s strategic influence has remained reasonably localized. For instance, it has exacerbated tensions with neighbors Vietnam and Japan through territorial disputes, while simultaneously holding “back from assuming a global role,” (124). Fenby contends that China resents not being able to reframe set the rules that Western powers have established for the global system and that it is short-sighted to believe that China will quietly adhere to these rules. He claims that China risks placing itself as an outsider to “a world system it has joined and needs” but where it has not fully engaged (125). But, it is naïve for Fenby to preclude changes in the rules given shifts in economic power toward the global South. Further, the author denies the potential of a cooperative, ‘G-2’ model between the United States and China; he views events such as the U.S. pivot to the Pacific and Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement which currently excludes China as features of containment. Fenby’s skepticism about China-U.S. relations and China’s role in international institutions doesn’t account for the CCP’s concept of a “peaceful rise” and U.S. public diplomacy efforts of welcoming China into the international sphere.

Conclusion

Throughout the book Fenby paints a picture of a troubled China, struggling to cope with domestic challenges. He cautions the reader “against being swept away by Sinomania based on a combination of ancient civilizational claims and crude GDP numbers” (102). For Fenby, China is a revisionist power, but domestic political, economic and social constraints will hamper any capacity for China to threaten U.S. hegemony. Fenby encourages Beijing to implement political and economic reforms as a way to “rule more effectively,” but he is aware that his proposed market reforms are not in the short term interests of Party officials (121).

While Fenby provides a concise contribution to debates surrounding the rise of China, his approach is framed by a limited definition of “domination” that predetermines his answer to the question “will China dominate the 21st century.” Fenby’s implicit definition of domination, as an active role in multinational institutions and influence in shaping the rules of the system differs considerably from the goals of the CCP and tends to downplay China’s impressive economic growth. In fact, the concept of dominance may be losing its descriptive power in the current state of international relations. At the end of the text in “Further Reading” Fenby engages with others in the debate on China’s rise and presents his account as an argument against those who believe an ameliorative change will arise from China’s domestic development and increasing participation in multinational institutions. Fenby advises that “The scale and momentum of the mainland’s growth should not blind us to the strengths of the rest of the world” (113). However, Fenby’s critiques of China should not blind us to a potential reorganization of international affairs in light of a more capable and influential China and global South.

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