Controversial Identity of a Rising China - By CWP Alumni Xiaoyu Pu

Tuesday, Sep 26, 2017
by dsuchens

How a rising power adapts to its new status is an important challenge in international relations. Since the global financial crisis, Chinese scholars have hotly debated China’s international positioning. The ongoing debate reveals a high level of uncertainty about China’s position in the world. While the notion of the ‘revival of the Chinese nation’ implies the clear goal of ‘making China great again’, China’s ultimate place on the global stage is unclear. Many Chinese scholars might want China to become richer and stronger, but disagree on whether or not China should eventually seek superpower status. Regarding strategies, Chinese scholars also debate whether China should maintain a low profile or strive for greater achievements in global affairs. This article takes a ‘status signalling’ approach to explain why Chinese scholars take various positions in this debate. Status signalling aims either to change or maintain a special type of ‘status belief’ among relevant political actors. China must manage its conflicting roles in ways that advance its interests but do not engender dangerous misperceptions. In particular, China must balance the competing incentives between resolve and reassurance, status and responsibilities, and the domestic and international audience. These competing incentives have shaped the Chinese debate on international positioning.


Shortly after Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he made a speech about his new slogan, the ‘Chinese Dream’, which means realization of ‘the great renewal of the Chinese nation’.1 Xi also laid out the ‘two centenary goals’, which are to complete the building of a moderately prosperous society by 2020, and to realize the great renewal of the Chinese nation by the middle of the century.2 The idea of ‘rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ has been a major theme promoted by several generations of Chinese leaders. Any political leader aiming to maintain legitimacy in modern China must redress the problem of the ‘century of humiliation’ and restore China’s rightful place in the world as a powerful nation.3 Thus, the ‘Chinese Dream’ slogan has the important political function of mobilizing domestic support. However, the slogan’s international implications are subject to different interpretations. Does the ‘revival of the Chinese nation’ mean that China should become a hegemonic power in Asia as well as the world? For some, the ‘Chinese Dream’ sends a clear message. For Yan Xuetong, the national rejuvenation of China means that China should restore its historical international status, achieved during the Tang dynasty, as the world’s most advanced state. Thus, China’s comprehensive national power must catch up with that of the United States.4 Liu Mingfu holds that China and the United States will pursue an Olympic-style competition for global leadership.5Michael Pillsbury, a former Pentagon official, claims that China has a ‘secret strategy’ to replace the United States as the leading world power.6 These interpretations imply that China wants to become another superpower, or even the world’s most powerful nation.

But does it? There are several reasons why the answer is not that clear. First of all, Chinese officials have a long tradition of opposing superpower status. In his first speech at the United Nations in 1974 Deng Xiaoping said, ‘China is not a superpower, nor will it ever seek to be one. If one day China should change its colour and turn into a superpower … the people of the world should expose it, oppose it and work together with the Chinese people to overthrow it.’7 Deng made this speech in the 1970s, when China was ideologically radical, economically weak, and diplomatically isolated. In the current ‘opening and reform’ era, China has become the world’s second-largest economy, with an expanding global presence. However, Chinese officials still avoid describing China as a potential superpower. They associate superpower status with hegemony, which has a negative connotation in the Chinese context. Secondly, while the international audience increasingly views China as an emerging superpower that should take a leadership role, many among the Chinese elite and general public still emphasize that China is a developing country, and should not be eager to take a leadership role in global affairs.8Thirdly, Chinese intellectuals and policymakers are ill prepared for China’s sudden high profile in global affairs, and some continue to downplay China’s high profile. For instance, according to Chinese senior diplomat Cui Tiankai, ‘We have been elevated in the eyes of others against our will. We have no intention to compete for global leadership.’9 While scholars such as Yan Xuetong think China should replace the United States as the world’s number one nation,10 others, such as Wang Jisi and Zhang Ruizhuang, suggest that even a number two status might be too high for China.11

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, Chinese scholars and policymakers have heatedly debated China’s status and role in the world.12 The ongoing scholarly and policy debate reveals a high level of uncertainty about China’s position on the global stage. As Henry Kissinger pointed out, a fundamental question about China is that of ‘the nature of its place in the world’.13 While the notion of the ‘revival of the Chinese nation’ implies the clear goal of ‘making China great again’, China’s ultimate place on the global stage is unclear. Will a rising China seek to challenge or even to replace the United States as the new superpower? Is China a challenger or a supporter of the existing global order? Should China primarily position itself as an emerging superpower or as a developing country?

It is critical to investigate how and why the Chinese are debating China’s international positioning on the world stage. First of all, China’s international positioning relates to the fundamental relationship between China and the existing international order. The nature and content of the international system in the coming decades will partially depend upon what roles the emerging powers, especially China, decide to play.14 Secondly, the debate shapes how China deals with a range of international issues. For instance, should China primarily position itself in climate change negotiations as a developing country or a responsible great power? China’s complex roles in the international arena led to inconsistencies that plagued its position during the Copenhagen climate negotiations.15 Finally, China’s international positioning also shapes how the established powers might respond to the rise of China. For instance, if China were seeking to grow within the existing liberal order, the Sino–American relationship might not be a zero-sum game, and the United States could be largely willing to accommodate China’s rise.16However, if China were seeking to replace the United States as a new superpower, a Sino–American conflict might be inevitable.17 In recent years, China’s more assertive posturing has partially contributed to the rethinking of US strategy towards China.18

This article will proceed as follows. The first section discusses the conceptualization of international positioning. The second section explains the origin and context of the debate, and in particular analyses why international positioning is becoming such an important Chinese foreign policy issue. The third section identifies the consensuses and differences among Chinese scholars, and the fourth section provides a theoretical model to explain the differences among Chinese scholars. The conclusion summarizes the article’s findings and their implications.

The Chinese Journal of International Politics, Volume 10, Issue 2, 1 June 2017, Pages 131–149,


29 May 2017

Xiaoyu Pu