Last week I took part in a debate at CSIS on the topic of whether China seeks to export its development model. For me, the answer to this question is self-evident: of course it does. Yet as I prepared for the debate, I quickly realized that many thoughtful colleagues have argued the opposite. So, in the interest of spurring further discussion and debate, I thought I would lay out in written form the why’s and wherefore’s of my case. (There is significant disagreement around what, precisely, constitutes the China model, but in this debate, the China model was broadly understood as a variant of authoritarian capitalism.)
To begin with, China seeks to export its development model because Xi Jinping wants to do so. In numerous speeches, beginning at least at the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Xi has reiterated his belief that “[China] offers a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence.” While Xi did backtrack temporarily in the face of international backlash, once stating that China was not seeking to export its model, he quickly reverted to form with more statements to the effect that China has a model worthy of emulation.
Then there is the issue of how Beijing exports its model. Much of the export of the model occurs through the training of foreign officials—both in and outside China. Just last month, Zhejiang province hosted a forum called “The Significance of China’s Social Governance to the World,” which was attended by more than 200 experts from 20 countries. The Xinhua tagline from the conference was “China can provide wisdom to a world that is in need of new governance models.” In Guangxi province, there is a beautiful new leadership academy established in 2017 to train officials from ASEAN on China’s governance and economic development model. Subjects taught at the academy include how government officials can guide online public opinion, alleviate poverty, and develop a stronger grassroots presence. There are also highly targeted efforts by Chinese officials to export their model. My colleague Josh Kurlantzick has documented the many ways in which Chinese officials train their counterparts in Cambodia, for example, on what tools to use to suppress dissent and how to encourage foreign investment, while at the same time accessing and retaining foreign technology and skills. Stimson Center expert Yun Sun has similarly illuminated Chinese training efforts in Ethiopia and Sudan, around issues such as party organizational structure, propaganda, guiding and managing public opinion, and poverty alleviation.
On the political front, much of the effort is devoted to exporting elements of the model dedicated to state control over civil society. Beijing hosts two to three-week seminars on how to conduct online censorship and surveillance for officials from other countries, such as the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Thailand. After a joint China-Tanzania roundtable on new media, the Tanzanian deputy Minister of Communications Edwin Ngonyani discussed collaborating with China on social media censorship, noting “Our Chinese friends have managed to block such media in their country and replaced them with homegrown sites that are safe, constructive and popular. We aren’t there yet, but while we are still using these platforms we should guard against their misuse.” Tanzania, Zimbabwe, and Vietnam have all reportedly modelled their cybersecurity laws after that of China.
China, moreover, is a full-service provider. In addition to offering the legal and institutional framework to enhance state control over society, it is also providing the technology to support it. At least 50 countries are developing Huawei-supported surveillance systems. While surveillance technologies can be important aids in reducing crime, it is also the case, as Latin America scholar R. Evan Ellis has noted, that these technologies will give authoritarian regimes “something that they have only dreamed about: a massive ability to sanction persons who engage in political or social behaviors the government disapproves.”
China also exports the economic elements of its development model. Some efforts are intentional: for example, there are extensive training seminars on China’s poverty alleviation strategy, and Beijing has worked with many governments, particularly in Africa, to establish Chinese-inspired special economic zones to encourage manufacturing and exports (with mixed success). More broadly, however, both China’s 1999 go-out strategy to acquire natural resources and its current Belt and Road Initiative in effect reflect the wholesale export of China’s infrastructure-led economic growth model. Even the externalities of China’s development model are replicated: significant increases in infrastructure-induced government debt, a lack of transparency and engagement with civil society, corruption, and significant popular protest. In some cases, the China model merely reinforces similar proclivities in Belt and Road countries; in others, it introduces fundamentally new challenges and opportunities. In all cases, however, China exports its economic development model as part and parcel of how it does business and engages globally.
While the most visible impacts of China’s efforts to export its model occur within other countries, Beijing also exports its model via multilateral regimes and institutions, seeking to bring international norms and practices more in line with those of China. Center for American Progress scholar Melanie Hart has brilliantly delineated Beijing’s efforts in this regard in international regimes around human rights and Internet governance. As she notes, “China is seeking to devalue those external freedoms by pushing authoritarian principles in global internet governance forums. Just as China is convening its own human rights forums, it is also hosting World Internet Conferences that bring in representatives from other nations—including major U.S. companies—to legitimize Chinese norms.”
Finally, there are cases where Beijing adopts a more coercive approach to try to persuade actors in other countries to conform to its model. For example, in 2015, the Chinese government kidnapped several booksellers from Hong Kong, including a Swedish citizen, to pressure them to stop selling books critical of the Chinese government. More recently, this past October, we witnessed the case of the Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey, who tweeted, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” In response, Chinese companies cancelled all licensing deals for Rockets merchandise, and the Chinese government banned all CCTV broadcasts of NBA games and reportedly called on the NBA to fire Morey. Of course, China has on many occasions attempted to use economic leverage to force countries, companies, and individuals to align their political statements and actions with those of China. What is particularly revealing in this instance, however, is not the effort to use economic leverage to pressure the Houston Rockets and the NBA, but rather the statement by state-owned CCTV that “any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability are not within the scope of freedom of speech.” There could not be a clearer demonstration that China seeks to export its political model than a statement to the effect that China has the right to apply the same standards of free speech it practices at home to actors abroad.
During part of the Mao-era, in the late 1950s and 1960s, China promoted its revolution as a model for other third world countries. But it is not until now that the Chinese leadership has once again sought to export its model. Whether the export of this model is welcomed by others or not, whether it succeeds or fails, and whether we believe the impact to be benign or malign are second order questions. What matters in the first instance is that we recognize and acknowledge that China’s leaders believe they have a model worth exporting and are seeking to do so.