How Xi Jinping’s “New Era” Should Have Ended U.S. Debate on Beijing’s Ambitions

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All statements of fact and opinion below are wholly the author’s and do not represent the views of the National Intelligence University, the Department of Defense, any of its components, of the U.S. government, or of CSIS.

This report is adapted from testimony submitted to the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission’s postponed hearing on “A ‘China Model?’ Beijing’s Promotion of Alternative Global Norms and Standards.” The full version of this testimony can be found on the commission’s website here.

Does China seek an alternative global order? What would this order would look like and aim to achieve? How does Beijing see its future role differing from the role the United States enjoys today? What impact does the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) ideology and its invocation of “Chinese culture” play when talking about its ambitions to lead the reform of global governance?1 This essay will address these questions by dissecting the meaning of the “new era for socialism with Chinese characteristics” that Xi Jinping proclaimed at the CCP’s 19th National Congress (afterwards “19th Party Congress”) in October 2017.

Why should we focus on this specific speech? In China’s Leninist-style political system, the report delivered by the incumbent general secretary at a Party Congress once every five years—the same venue selects a new Central Committee, Politburo, Politburo Standing Committee, and the leaders of other high-level party organs—constitutes the most authoritative statement of the party’s aims. It begins by assessing China’s progress in the past five years (or the full tenure in office of the incumbent general secretary if he is stepping down at the Party Congress). Then it evaluates the internal and external environment China faces, adjusts the party’s guiding ideology in light of new conditions, and lays out goals, not only for the next five years, but frequently also much longer-term objectives which are further clarified and adjusted over time. Finally, the report addresses the party’s strategy in nine major policy areas.2

It is an understatement to say that Xi’s report to the 19th Party Congress was more dramatic than most. As China approached an interim set of development targets for 2020 in the “three-step strategic plan for modernization” it has been implementing since 1987, Xi not only moved targets originally expressed for mid-century forward by 15 years to 2035 but also expressed new mid-century goals.3 These included China becoming “a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.”4 Xi further identified China’s recent emergence as the number two economy in the world as a milestone in what he described as the party’s consistent ambition over the course of its rule to “rejuvenate the Chinese nation.”5 He described China as “moving closer to the center of the world stage.”6 In the same speech, Xi further argued that socialism with Chinese characteristics was “blazing a new trail” for other developing countries seeking to modernize and preserve their sovereignty.7 Xi’s address came at a time when the discussion about China here in Washington was already darkening, and yet his words undoubtedly contributed to what many have described as a changed conversation about the U.S.-China strategic rivalry.8 Nevertheless, in the almost two years since Xi’s speech, there has not been a clear explication in English of several key themes that should have both clarified our understanding of Beijing’s ambitions for the global order and caused professional observers of China to reexamine paradigms that have dominated our discussions for decades.9 This essay will argue that, placed in its proper context, Xi’s report should have decisively ended our debate about the nature and scope of Beijing’s strategic intentions. In one of the speech’s most important passages Xi proclaimed:

Chinese socialism’s entrance into a new era is, in the history of the development of the People’s Republic of China and the history of the development of the Chinese nation, of tremendous importance. In the history of the development of international socialism and the history of the development of human society, it is of tremendous importance.10

This essay will briefly address what Xi’s speech tells us about the CCP’s strategy and its ambitions for the global order with respect to each of the three areas he identifies: (1) development designed to change the status of the Chinese nation in the world as the primary aim of the party-state, (2) the role of socialism in the party’s strategy, and (3) the party’s desire to make a specifically Chinese contribution to the future of humanity as a whole (or, in another phrase of Xi’s report, to “keep contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance”).11

I. Developing China into a Global Leader as the Party’s Consistent Aim

For decades, especially in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, external observers have characterized the CCP’s primary aim as simply to stay in power.12 The dominant research program in China studies across several academic disciplines is best described as a “problems-based” agenda. It sees the party’s rule as lurching from crisis to crisis as a result of adopting what historian John W. Garver calls “a deeply dysfunctional political-economic system” from the Soviet Union and discarding the economic system after Mao’s death but retaining the political system, which in this view is not well-equipped to cope with the massive economic and social changes unleashed by market reforms.13 This has produced an image of China’s leaders as besieged and reactive, seeking only to keep economic development going to smooth over a boiling cauldron of domestic problems. China studies has tended to ask: “What are China’s governance problems and how is the party trying and failing to cope with them?” A corollary has further identified China’s foreign policy as driven by these same domestic imperatives of preserving economic growth and political stability.

My reading of the party’s history—in particular, its post-Mao history—suggests exactly the opposite of the incumbent scholarly view. Rather than reactive, defensive, and besieged, the party’s pursuit of modernity, power, and international status for China has been strategic, active, and purposeful. One of the most striking features of Xi’s 19th Party Congress address is its combination of articulating China’s ambitions on an explicitly global scale (a dramatic departure from recent decades) with an assertion of the continuity of the party’s goals throughout its rule. Xi uses long sections of the speech to reframe his signature formulation “the Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation” as the party’s “original aspiration” and “mission.”14 In a nutshell, to read Xi in the context of the speeches of Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and their successors—whose language Xi’s is meant to invoke—is to realize that Beijing’s aim is nothing less than preeminent status within the global order. The party’s consistent focus has been to transform China into a modern, powerful socialist country that delivers a leadership position in the world commensurate with China’s endowments of people, land, and past cultural triumphs.15 Xi (and his predecessors) have continuously underlined the continuity of their goal of developing China to the point where it can, in Mao’s words (language Xi self-consciously echoes), “stand tall in the forest of nations.”16 “National rejuvenation” is an effective political slogan precisely because it represents the common denominator aspiration of Chinese elites since the country’s humiliation in the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars.17 This aspiration is to transform China into not only a modern, powerful country but also a country respected for its achievements across all fields of human endeavor by which great powers measure themselves, from prosperity to military power to cultural influence to scientific discovery.18 Equally crucial, both Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping identified the goal not merely to “catch-up” with “the most advanced countries” but to surpass them.19 The party’s past strategy documents and leadership speeches underscore that it has been pursuing comprehensive modernity for decades via a state-led process of identifying longterm targets, embedding them in plans, making investments, and adjusting and elaborating on targets as it proceeds.20 Under Mao, horrific policy experiments caused millions of deaths, but the party’s leaders today claim credit for taking China from poverty and backwardness to the number two economy (and implicitly, power) in the world in four decades.21

It is surprising that while most observers of China in the West would acknowledge that the party seeks to make the country modern and strong, scholarship in English has largely ignored the party, state, and military target-setting and long-term planning processes. Otherwise excellent textbooks on Chinese politics explore the challenges of day-to-day governance and of crisis response, the mechanisms of domestic control, and the party’s political succession processes but have not provided students and U.S. government officials with a sense of the strategic agency of the party’s leaders.22 This neglect may reflect mirror imaging. Our political system is not designed to take the United States in a specific direction. If anything, it was designed to prevent political whims of the moment from leading to tyranny. For Beijing, by contrast, the purpose of politics is to serve the nationalist project of comprehensively modernizing and developing China. It is about time we paid attention to the ideas and institutional processes that drive this effort. We need an “ends-based” research program on China that studies how Beijing conceives of great power competition in multiple domains, unpacks the theories, targets, and strategies it is adopting, and then evaluates their progress and prospects.23

Here, the central premise of Xi’s address to the 19th Party Congress is that China’s emergence as the number two power requires an integrated set of new domestic and foreign policies for the new set of challenges Beijing faces as it completes its ascent over the next three decades.24 What Xi’s “new era” means is that China is at the threshold—to be crossed in the next three decades—of realizing national rejuvenation. For the party, while China remains a developing country on a per capita basis, as a whole it is catching up with the most advanced countries in many fields. Further, today’s economic, technological, and military competitions offer a rare opportunity to seize the initiative and to participate in setting international norms in emerging domains such as cyber, space, artificial intelligence, the deep oceans, and the arctic, among others.25

We need an “ends-based” research program on China that studies how Beijing conceives of great power competition in multiple domains, unpacks the theories, targets, and strategies it is adopting, and then evaluates their progress and prospects.

What, then, does the party’s desire to assume the leading place in the global order mean for Washington?26 The answer depends on whether Beijing intends to refashion the order and change its fundamental values in ways the United States cannot tolerate. Indeed, for the last several decades, some U.S. theorists of international relations and some U.S. policymakers have explicitly advocated a strategy of both seeking to strengthen the current order and binding China to it as it rises so that, even if the United States experiences relative decline, the nature of the order is preserved.27 Others have argued that the changes Beijing desires do not relate to the order’s most important features and that the threat is primarily to U.S. pride (i.e., Washington’s ability to adjust to a loss of status).28 Still others have warned that historical test cases involving a rising power and a reigning power frequently lead to war.29 These perspectives, concentrating either on China’s status or its level of participation in the order as the key issues, undersell the nature of U.S.-China strategic rivalry, which is driven not only by concerns about changing relative power but also— and more crucially—by competing domestic governance systems with morally incompatible values. The rivalry between these competing systems, moreover, is exacerbated by their contest to define the predominant norms and values governing a single, integrated world. To begin to see why, we need to turn next to the role of socialism in Beijing’s strategy.

II. The Role of Marxist-Leninist Socialism in the Party’s Strategy

While Xi’s report makes clear that national rejuvenation is the CCP’s consistent, overarching aim, it also underlines the central role of “socialism”—specifically the party’s particular brand of Marxism-Leninism, “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Western observers often think about socialism in terms of specific ideological commitments or ideas about how the economy and society should be organized and governed. Among the images the word conjures are a planned economy, state ownership of the economy, or a European-style social welfare state. The CCP, however, has consistently seen socialism as a holistic instrument to realize the nationalist aims of sovereignty, development, modernity, and power. Indeed, Beijing believes socialism is the only vehicle capable of restoring China’s status as a leading power. In his first speech to a Politburo group study session as general secretary in November 2012, Xi Jinping echoed each of his post-Mao predecessors in insisting: “Only socialism can save China, and only Chinese socialism can lead our country to development.”30

Today, the party defines “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as comprising a path (道路), a theory (理论体系, literally, “theory system”), a system of institutions (制度) incorporating both China’s political and economic systems, and a culture (文化).31 While the party has tinkered with its definition of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” since 1982, all four of the current themes are consistent with how it understood socialism under Mao and with the story the party has repeatedly told itself and the Chinese people about its right to rule.32

From Mao to Xi, party leaders have argued that other Chinese patriots tried to revive China in the twentieth century but failed. Capitalist democracy proved too weak in 1919, when at the Paris Peace Conference, Germany’s colonial privileges in China were given to Imperial Japan. By contrast, the party maintains that only the path of socialism (i.e., the party’s dictatorship) could restore China’s sovereignty by expelling the imperial powers after 1949 and protecting China’s security in the decades since.33

The party’s case for its theory system as an instrument of national salvation is Marxism-Leninism’s historical materialist claim to be able to make “scientific judgments” about the world and build policies in line with those judgments.34 In major domains of competition, from culture to the military, Beijing bases its strategy and planning on theories it meticulously builds.

The consistent argument the party makes for its system of institutions includes the case that socialism is better at marshaling collective effort for development, a claim Xi frequently invokes today. Indeed, Beijing has even claimed its system’s ability to mobilize effort makes it better capable of fighting Covid-19.35 The party also maintains that a dominant role for public ownership of the economy is necessary because China’s pre-1949 society suffered from a form of capitalism that was mixed with exploitation by the imperial powers and retarded China’s modernization and development, a condition that could return if China fully privatized its economy.36

Finally, socialism’s promise to deliver what Mao called an “advanced culture” by which China could become modern and internationally respected—over and against what many Chinese intellectuals then regarded as the superstition and corruption of traditional Chinese culture—remains a core component of the party’s militantly secular, modernist faith. This can be seen in high-level party discussions of culture down to this day, even as Beijing now also seeks at once to appropriate the prestige of those parts of China’s traditional culture it does not find threatening and use them to ward off the influence of Western political values that could challenge its governance system.37

The party’s commitment to its version of Marxist-Leninist socialism I have just outlined has two implications that compel it to seek changes in the global order.

First, the current order does not provide security for its political system. Beijing has consistently seen “the West” as seeking to overturn China’s socialist system via “peaceful evolution” and has worried about “hostile Western forces” combining with forces within China to “split” the country and change its political system.38 Xi has repeatedly echoed these views and at the 19th Party Congress employed several phrases designed to invoke them, including the Chinese proverb “consider danger in times of peace” (a euphemism for the collapse of the Soviet Union).39 As a result of these fears, China’s top leaders for decades have asserted that a new international economic and political order ought to be built on the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.” These principles, which date to 1953-1954 negotiations with India, are the following: “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and cooperation for mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence.”40 At their heart is the inviolable sovereignty of states.41 For Beijing, an order built on the Five Principles would do away with both the norm of democratization and the global and regional system of U.S. security alliances and partnerships that endow that norm with coercive potential. The party alleges these U.S. security alliances are based on a “Cold War mentality” and constitute a threat to international security.42 Hence, Xi, at the 19th Party Congress, called for building international relations on partnerships rather than alliances.43

Second, the kind of order Beijing desires is not one where its socialism system is merely secure but also triumphant. Xi’s aim is not simply to make “a world safe for autocracy,” to borrow from the colorful phrase popular with some Western scholars.44 Rather, the party seeks an order in which China’s achievements as a great power are not only recognized but also credited to its particular brand of socialism and lauded as a moral triumph both for socialism and for the Chinese nation.45 Here, Chinese diplomats’ frequent exhortation to the United States to respect China’s “social system and development path” is not just a call for tolerance but also for moral recognition.46

In Xi’s address to the 19th Party Congress, his discussion of the meaning of the new era proceeds immediately from the change in China’s development status to the implications for the prestige of Chinese socialism:

It means that scientific socialism is full of vitality in 21st century China, and that the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics is now flying high and proud for all to see. It means that the path, the theory, the system, and the culture of socialism with Chinese characteristics have kept developing, blazing a new trail for other developing countries to achieve modernization. It offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence; and it offers Chinese wisdom and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.47

Many observers have taken note of Xi’s assertion that Chinese socialism is “blazing a new trail for other developing countries” who “want to speed up their development while preserving independence.” This claim to have identified an alternative to the liberal democratic capitalist path to modernity is of immense significance. For decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Beijing simply insisted that socialism was right for China’s specific “national conditions.”48 It reflects, as many others have noted, a growing confidence in the party’s governance system, owing both to the record of China’s growing wealth and power and to the party leadership’s perception that the developed West is stumbling in the wake of the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.49

Yet, if the public confidence is new, party history shows that Beijing’s goal in this area has been consistent. Even while the foreign policy guideline Deng Xiaoping outlined and Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao implemented that China should “bide its time and hide its capabilities” in consideration of its then weakness and socialism’s status “at a low ebb” in the wake of the Soviet collapse held sway, every post-Mao leader also vowed the party would ultimately prove “the superiority” of socialism.50 This, not convergence with the West as some hoped, has always been the purpose of the “reform” component of Deng’s “reform and opening” that remains part of the party’s “basic line.”51 At the dawn of his first-term in office, Xi Jinping maintained, in a speech whose full text was not published until March 2019:

For a fairly long time yet, socialism in its primary stage will exist alongside a more productive and developed capitalist system. In this long period of cooperation and conflict, socialism must learn from the boons that capitalism has brought to civilization. We must face the reality that people will use the strengths of developed, Western countries to denounce our country’s socialist development. Here we must have a great strategic determination, resolutely rejecting all false arguments that we should abandon socialism. We must consciously correct the various ideas that do not accord with our current stage. Most importantly, we must concentrate our efforts on bettering our own affairs, continually broadening our comprehensive national power, improving the lives of our people, building a socialism that is superior to capitalism, and laying the foundation for a future where we will win the initiative and have the dominant position.52 [Emphasis added]

If Beijing’s explicit objective is to become a global leader in terms of international influence by mid-century, it is premature to conclude in 2020 that Beijing will not export its model.53 For comparison, the party articulated modernization goals in the late-1980s and early-1990s in multiple domains.54 They may not have made much headway had we evaluated their progress in 1993 or 1995, but China’s accomplishments in the past few decades make it unwise to dismiss this expression of strategic intent outlined at a Party Congress.55

To conclude this discussion of the role of socialism in the party’s strategy, the above ought to make clear that our strategic rivalry with China is an ideological competition rather than a simple contest for power for two reasons.

First, the party’s values—rooted in Marxism-Leninism—offer a view of politics incompatible with the values of the United States and its allies. In the free world today, we see individual people as ends and believe liberty is worth prioritizing, even if it makes political decisions more difficult and costly and even if it at times works against our collective security or well-being. Leninism, by contrast, makes individuals into means toward the achievement of collective ends.56 For Beijing, as for Lenin, collective material welfare (“common prosperity” in the party’s contemporary official lexicon) rather than political freedom is the criterion by which it judges success.57 “The comprehensive national power of the socialist state” is an additional criterion, which is in keeping both with Marxism-Leninism’s focus on collective rather than individual aims and with the ultimately nationalist project of the Chinese revolution, whose “original aspiration,” as we have seen, was “to make the people prosperous and the country strong and rejuvenate the Chinese nation.”58 For Beijing, individual human rights, including freedom of speech, assembly, and religion are to be subjugated in the name of the collective ends of security, development, and the Chinese nation’s status in the world.59

In addition to differing on the goals of politics, however, Leninism has a very different view of the political process. Lenin saw democratic institutions as mere tools of oppressive class interests and the democratic process as a mask for the class interests of the group in power. He advocated instead for rule by a single party governing on the basis of its scientific deduction of the laws of history.60 Beijing today continues to argue that the party, representing the Chinese people’s interests as a whole, is a bulwark against the particular interests that capture the political process in liberal democracies.61 For the party’s leaders, the dictatorship remains justified by the need to repress the enemies of the Chinese people’s collective interests.62 Further, since Leninism defines the party’s ideas and decisions as “scientific” and “correct,” for Beijing, dissent is not the legitimate expression of individual interests or those of a specific sub-group but rather sabotage of the party’s collective, nation-building effort.63 It is not political participation but state subversion. These are precisely the ideas that characterize Xi Jinping’s “holistic concept of national security” and the increasingly stringent laws and institutions promulgated during his tenure under its banner.64 In the last few years, moreover, China’s diplomats have taken this approach global, seeking to stifle criticism of Beijing abroad as well as at home.65

The U.S.-China relationship could tolerate these different views of politics so long as Beijing’s international posture was defensive: selectively joining international institutions and participating in economic globalization but lacking the comprehensive power to contend with the United States on the basis of confidence in the demonstrated superiority of its values. The “new era” is different.

As scholars have noted and discussed in greater detail, Beijing seeks to push for norms and standards (or generate new ones where none prevail) compatible with its political values both for defensive reasons (to eliminate threats to its governing system) and for nationalist reasons (to demonstrate China’s influence and moral preeminence).66 The party’s efforts to redefine human rights away from political rights and toward “the right to develop” (material well-being rather than political expression) and to establish a norm of “internet sovereignty” are two well documented cases.67

Indeed, this leads to my second point about how the role of socialism in the party’s strategy implies ideological competition with Washington and not simply a contest for power. Here, a common argument some observers deploy to maintain that the contest is not particularly ideological suggests the exact opposite.

The standard claim is that the very success of China’s integration into the global economy, international institutions, international higher education, and many other forms of ties with both the United States and our allies and partners implies that separate rival camps are not tenable. The implication (not always spelled out) is that this must mean lower stakes. What this point captures correctly is that U.S.-China rivalry is not (at least for now) a contest between separate blocks or camps as in the Cold War—with each trying to flip individual countries—but over an integrated, globalized world. Yet this raises the stakes over values because we do not have the luxury of retreating to separate worlds and simply comparing which system can generate more human flourishing. This is no longer a Robert Frost-style “good fences make good neighbors” globe for either side. Indeed, the party identifies deepening the world’s interdependence and integration in multiple domains as essential to its continued development and to the realization of national rejuvenation.68

III. A China-centric, Integrated Global Order in the New Era

The idea of a single, integrated global order whose interconnectedness is underpinned by China’s standards and “wisdom” is central to Xi Jinping’s vision of “A Community of Common Destiny for Mankind” outlined to the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, included in the party’s constitution as revised at the 19th Party Congress and in Xi’s report to the congress.69 China’s official translation of the term has changed several times—it is now “Community with a Shared Future for Humanity”—but “Common Destiny” better captures the Chinese “共同命运.” As a component of the party’s official foreign relations theory system, this proposal for a Community of Common Destiny is rooted in assessments both about world trends and about China’s status. These include the view that economic globalization, the information technology revolution, and China’s growing comprehensive national power are making China’s development and the world’s development more interdependent in a way that constitutes both a vulnerability for China and a source of potential influence.70 In a frequently quoted passage of his 2016 New Year address, Xi Jinping proclaimed: “The world is so big, the problems so many, the international community wants to hear China’s voice, China’s plan. China cannot afford to be absent.”71

A Community of Common Destiny is the party’s answer to the question of how to fashion a vision of the global order that will permit national rejuvenation on the basis of socialism in light of these assessments. It self-consciously draws upon the experience of Beijing’s diplomacy since 1949 but also explicitly draws upon concepts credited to traditional Chinese philosophy and statecraft.72

While some scholars have noted that Xi did not invent the term “Community of Common Destiny” and that he originally articulated it in a regional rather than global context, and that many of its underpinning principles derive from the party’s long-standing positions, the vision it offers is nevertheless a major departure from Hu Jintao’s “Harmonious World” concept.73 Hu had outlined his vision in a speech almost precisely a decade before Xi’s, and in the same venue. Both superficially offer a Chinese cultural frame: the philosophical-sounding idea of “harmony” in Hu’s case; the recitation that “since ancient times, the Chinese have believed all under Heaven belong to one family” in Xi’s.74

Hu’s vision, however, places its emphasis on the Confucian idea that harmony is possible “while reserving differences.”75 In other words, countries may cooperate on mutual interests while preserving not only their diverse “social systems and development paths” but also, implicitly, a certain reserve and separation. Xi’s Community of Common Destiny, by contrast, while it repeats this claim about reserving differences, places more emphasis on harmony and peace as an outgrowth of a more integrated world with deeper connectivity.76 This implies convergence in some areas occurring organically as connectivity deepens, though not convergence on the terms envisioned by the West. The premises of a Community of Common Destiny, moreover, include not only that China’s growing strength presents an opportunity for it to offer other countries the chance to “hitch themselves to China’s development train” as a means of building influence for China’s preferences but also that China must begin shaping international norms and rules precisely because its growing integration with the world constitutes a vulnerability as long as those norms are the liberal democratic ones favored by the West.77 In the party’s vision, Beijing’s standards on everything from technology to domestic policing will not only exceed Western ones in influence but also constitute the sinews of an even more deeply interconnected world where the benefits of the “Community of Common Destiny” are so attractive that no country wants to be excluded from it.

What makes this consequential and marks Xi’s “new era” as a major departure from the past is that, while Hu’s “Harmonious World” had no vehicle for realizing it in concrete terms, the Community of Common Destiny has the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI or “一带一路,” originally translated “One Belt, One Road”), which seeks to build “policy, infrastructure, trade, financial, and people-to-people connectivity” linking China and maritime and continental Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania, Latin America, and the Arctic.78 Indeed, though Beijing has been more cautious about acknowledging it, the party envisions a sixth link of security ties.79 That the infrastructure component includes both cyber (“The Digital Silk Road”) and space assets, however, further underscores how the BRI is designed to rewire global connectivity through Beijing.80 The BRI is, to be sure, only one platform for the realization of Xi’s vision. As Nadège Rolland and other scholars have noted, Beijing has both sought to capture influence within existing international multilateral institutions and, in recent decades, steadily constructed its own set of regional institutions in multiple parts of the globe.81

Given that the Community of Common Destiny is designed to offer “Chinese wisdom for solving the problems of humankind” and an alternative global governance approach to what Politburo member Yang Jiechi has derided as the “Western-centric” approach of the current global governance system, how does Beijing believe its proposal will deliver, and what role does it envision for China compared with the role the United States currently plays?82

Here, the language Xi has used to promote the Community of Common Destiny appears designed to resonate with calls by Chinese philosophers and international relations theorists to draw upon what they refer to as traditional ideas and practices for “global governance” inspired by the ancient Chinese elites’ concept of tianxia (天下) or “all under Heaven.” Admittedly, as expressed by individual scholars without the party’s official imprimatur, these tianxia visions exhibit considerable diversity, and there is also debate among Chinese scholars about whether their invocations of ancient China’s historical practice are accurate.83 Further, while a growing body of this literature has been translated into English, much more research is necessary on the intellectual transmission belt between these ideas and those contained in the Community of Common Destiny and other parts of Beijing’s official foreign relations theory. With those caveats out of the way, however, I think a few preliminary observations are relevant here.

Although, as Nadège Rolland notes, “Xi Jinping has come close to candidly framing his vision for a new world order under China’s helm as a 21st-century version of the tianxia model,” the Community of Common Destiny does not baldly proclaim a China-centric order extending to “all under Heaven.”84 Yet the principles it articulates for how the order should be built and how it should operate look very similar to those identified in this body of Chinese academic writing. Further, Xi Jinping, both in the concluding page of his 19th Party Congress report, and in each of his major speeches on the Community of Common Destiny, quotes from a signature passage from the Chinese classic Book of Rites: “When the great way prevails, all under Heaven belongs to the people (大道之行也,天下為公),” which is the frequently cited cultural lodestone for thinking about how the concept of tianxia might be used by contemporary Chinese diplomats.85

Xi is certainly addressing multiple audiences in these speeches, and it is hard to imagine his conjuring this quotation is accidental.

In the accounts of several tianxia advocates, the central country (China) provides an example of successful and morally correct governance and then nations on the periphery voluntarily join the order and conform themselves to it owing to the benefits of connection with it. The Chinese Academy of Social Science’s philosopher Zhao Tingyang—one of the most prominent advocates of adapting ideas from the “all under Heaven” concept to use as specifically Chinese contributions to global governance—has called this China’s “whirlpool formula.”86 For Xi, meanwhile, the BRI’s role underpinning global connectivity

as a platform for building the Community of Common Destiny is supposed to function in precisely this way. Xi has maintained that the “pattern of global governance depends upon the balance of power, and the transformation of the global governance system originates from changes in the balance of power” and yet that China must seek to build consensus for changing the system “by following the principles of extensive consultation, joint development, and shared benefits.”87

While some observers continue to imply that China seeks primarily a regional sphere of influence, both Xi’s Community of Common Destiny and the tianxia theorists are explicit about the global reach of their proposals. Zhao Tingyang criticizes Western international relations theory as built on the concepts of individual states (thus leading to conflict) over and against China’s “all under Heaven” concept of considering the world as a whole and further argues that contemporary problems cannot be solved without a political concept that encompasses the whole world.88 Xi’s descriptions of the Community of Common Destiny maintain that:

Today, mankind has become a close-knit community of common destiny. Our interests are highly convergent and we are all mutually dependent on one another. While all countries enjoy the right to development, they should view their own interests in a broader context and refrain from pursuing them at the expense of others.89


Building a community of common destiny for mankind will require the universal participation of the people of all countries. We should advance this great undertaking together by building consensus among people of different nations, different beliefs, different cultures, and different regions.90

Indeed, at a gathering of world political parties convened in Beijing shortly after the 19th Party Congress, Xi maintained:

It is this idea of all under Heaven being one family that should guide the world’s people so that we can embrace each other with open arms, come to understand each other, and create common ground while setting aside our differences. Together, we should strive to build a community of common destiny for mankind.91

These statements draw an implicit contrast to the United States and its allies conditioning relationships on democracy and other standards of domestic governance. Beijing maintains that the Community of Common Destiny is to be “inclusive” in that China is willing to enter partnerships with countries regardless of their social system or development status.92 Yet this begs the question of whether there is a contradiction between this preservation of diversity according to “harmony while reserving differences” and the parallel vision of harmony via organic unity as a commonality of practice via the BRI that radiates from Beijing. One answer is that the party appears to believe that focusing on economic development is a panacea for all global problems.93 The Community of Common Destiny envisions that by boosting global connectivity and interdependence such that countries benefit much more from joining the order Beijing is building rather than being left out, they will be motivated to shelve disputes (either with China or among themselves) and bury any criticisms of China in favor of the benefits of common development. In time, deeper connections will produce both “mutual learning” and some convergence. Common development will allow other countries to benefit from China’s emergence as a leading country, and the global network Beijing builds, running on the party’s standards, will cement the country’s leadership, radiating harmony to the globe.

For Washington, these visions ought to underscore that the trope that Beijing’s ambitions are largely regional—either out of a culturally rooted aspiration to restore the status of imperial China or because the country has so many disputes and problems along its periphery that it cannot become more ambitious until these are resolved—is a woeful misreading of the contest. The challenge Beijing represents is not to Washington’s status in Asia but to the nature of the global order’s predominant values, and the vehicle for that challenge is an effort to build both the physical and intellectual infrastructure underpinning the next phases of globalization. China is not exporting violent revolution as in the period of high Maoism. Rather, it is seeking to rewire the global order from a position of connectedness to it.

Should Beijing succeed in realizing its vision of a China-centric order, how will it behave? Here, there appears to be some naivete in the party’s vision of morality and harmony emanating from the globalization it fosters. Zhao, in a recent concise statement of his argument published in English in 2019 but written in 2017, made what now looks—in light of the massive, sustained protest movement in Hong Kong that erupted in June 2019 and continues as of this writing—like a mistake. He used the phrase “one country, multiple systems,” which cannot be heard as other than a reference to Beijing’s contemporary “one country, two systems” formula for managing Hong Kong, when describing tianxia’s successful approach to managing political and cultural diversity on ancient China’s periphery.94 In this, there may be a parallel to tianxia’s inability to cope with genuinely incompatible values that cannot be papered over by economic development and Leninism’s similar intolerance for dissent as sabotage. At China’s present level of relative comprehensive national power, we already have an emerging record about how Beijing reacts when it receives criticism abroad or when international institutions or international public opinion or ethnically Chinese people abroad seek to check or counter what the regime perceives as its interests. Obviously, this has been a major contributor to darkening strategic perceptions of China in Washington and in capitals all around the world since the early-2010s.

IV. Conclusion and Recommendations for the U.S. Congress

The ambitions articulated by Xi Jinping at the 19th Party Congress underscore that Washington and its allies face a global, strategic rivalry driven as much by ideology and values embodied in competing domestic governance systems as by perceptions of changing power dynamics. While this rivalry differs in many respects from the Cold War, one of the most important differences is that it is a competition to define the rules and norms that will govern an integrated, deeply connected world rather than a world divided into competing camps.

Many U.S. observers’ reflections on “the China challenge” begin or end with the need to “get our own house in order.” Washington, they intone, must better manage its fiscal policy, make better investments in the infrastructure and education that will allow the United States to compete in the twenty-first century, improve our innovation base, fix our justice system, and more. These are necessary, and to win a global systems contest, the U.S. system must continue to deliver demonstrably better human flourishing. Addressing America’s ills, however, is insufficient, and focusing our energies on domestic improvement ignores the way the entire CCP-state system, aimed at building comprehensive national power, is ruthlessly competing. We need not only to improve our system but also to actively learn about and respond to Beijing’s system while avoiding copying its methods. More specifically, we should undertake the following actions:

  1. Ensure the United States has comprehensive, grounded information about its rival. As the U.S. government and society seek to improve professional understanding of China and of Beijing’s strategy, it is imperative to build new subject matter expertise rooted in the empirical record of what the CCP says about its intentions and the policies it is executing. A danger in seeking to ramp-up “expertise on China” quickly is that we may inadvertently build on the misplaced intellectual foundations that have led us to downplay the nature and scale of strategic rivalry for
    • Here, a key area where Congress could help is to scrutinize and boost U.S. government efforts to translate party, state, military, official media, and academic (frequently government-sponsored) documents published in China. In my judgement, these are woefully inadequate to the scale of the competition and have waned over the course of my career despite growing policymaker focus on China.

    • A related area is that Congress could seek to boost Americans’ understanding of Marxism-Leninism and how it contrasts with our The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation established by Congress in 1993 is a tremendous example of this kind of work. We need it on a vast scale.

  2. Retool our national security institutions and joint force for systems rivalry. In the face of past rivalries—and at times after disaster has already struck—the United States has reordered its foreign affairs and national security institutions—or built new ones. The structures in place today reflect successive waves of such reforms after World War II. The 1947 National Security Act built the structures that prosecuted the Cold The Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986 launched the U.S. military’s road to becoming a truly joint force in the wake of the Vietnam War and the failed Iranian hostage rescue of 1980. Intelligence reforms in the wake of 9/11 retooled the U.S. national security establishment to cope with violent extremist groups.95 Are our present institutions built for twenty-first century global rivalry with the China of Xi Jinping’s new era? The joint force and the U.S. intelligence enterprise have been oriented for almost two decades toward combating violent extremist groups, not an adversary that is the number two economy in the world and the number two military (aspiring to be number one in both categories), whose economy and institutions are intertwined with our own, and whose leaders purport to offer an alternative route to modernity.

  3. Defend the current international order based on coalitions of shared values. In prior decades, my impression is that the United States refrained from taking more stridently competitive positions toward China owing to concerns that our allies and partners would be reluctant to “choose ” Over the last few years, however, Beijing’s ham-fisted actions domestically and internationally have made the contrast in values clearer and the dangers to our allies’ and partners’ interests of their adopting a naïve view of the party’s intentions more evident. In some cases—New Zealand and Australia on the issue of Beijing’s influence operations—our allies have led first. The United States must continue to take bold action where warranted. We also need to both build broad coalitions of countries in “the free world” that share our values and interests and to compare notes and coordinate actions. Instead of echoing Beijing’s frame of “the United States vs. China,” we should emphasize that it is the CCP that is imposing a “systemic rivalry” on the free world by contesting its values and pushing for alternatives in multiple domains.96 The way to win is not for each democracy to compete or negotiate with Beijing alone. Defending the post-Cold War preeminence of democratic values in the international order is a team sport. Congress can play a huge role here in outreach, education, and exchanges with legislatures in our allies and partners that are seeking to defend and stand up for our common values.

Daniel Tobin is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. and a faculty member in China Studies at the National Intelligence University in Bethesda, MD.

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This report is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Daniel Tobin
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Freeman Chair in China Studies