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“If China Ruled” — A Thought Experiment


Below follows the text upon which Dr. Ford based his remarks on August 16, 2013, at a workshop in Washington, D.C., entitled “If China Ruled.”   Several other U.S. China scholars and strategists also participated.

The topic for our discussions at this workshop today – “If China Ruled” – is a fascinating and important one. Naturally, this is just a thought experiment, and it is a big jump from speculating about what the world would look like if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were the dominant player therein to assuming that this will actually occur. As any modern China Watcher would probably tell you, there sometimes seem to be as many experts who expect a PRC collapse as expect it to continue upon its current path of increasing power and assertiveness in the world.  Will China “rule” even East Asia, let alone dominate the international system?  Beats me.  But for all the unknowability – even improbability – that characterizes such discussions, however, it is nonetheless useful, as an intriguing gedankenexperiment, to think about what Chinese “rule” might look like.

Let me start by saying that in this context I imagine a world that would emphatically not feel like the benign, “win-win” world of prosperous harmony that the PRC’s official narrative of international affairs seems intended to lead us to expect from Chinese primacy. For the last ten years, Party-State officials have promoted themes related to the idea of “peaceful rising” – a slogan first developed in order to help ease American fears of an ever more powerful China, and thus to dissuade us from countervailing mobilization.

Today, one hears endless talk from PRC diplomats and government-backed scholars about peaceful, “harmonious,” and “win-win” solutions to international dilemmas. PRC propaganda, in fact, is richly saturated with a sort of “Chinese exceptionalism” that tries to depict China’s “return” to preeminence within the system of world-order as something that ought to be a happy event for everyone – an era of global peace, prosperity, stability, and justice quite unlike what the “imperialist” European powers of the 19th Century made of the world-system they dominated.

But it’s worth peeling back the mask of the PRC’s globalist ideology, and I would argue that there is much we can learn from China’s past about what former President Hu Jintao’s “harmonious world” and current President Xi Jinping’s “Chinese Dream” of national “rejuvenation” and “return” to systemic primacy would mean in practice. Ultimately, a look both at China’s Sinocentric past and what its present-day propagandists have begun to say about their vision of the future suggests that the world of a fully “returned” China – at least if it remains under the rule of Chinese Communist Party (CCP), at any rate – would likely be rather less idyllic a place than Beijing’s official narrative would have us believe.

I.          Aspirations of Primacy

To begin with, it seems very clear that it is indeed the PRC regime’s intention to shape the world-system in its image. In conducting research for my forthcoming book, it became very clear to me that a growing number of Chinese writers have been willing – and, not insignificantly, are being permitted – to express the view that China needs to lead the way in modifying, or even replacing, the Western-led international order.

The emergent “China Model” narrative has meant varying things to different users, but the general thrust is consistently clear. The PRC regards itself as having devised a better organizational mode for human affairs, both at home and abroad, and seems increasingly willing to offer this system as an alternative – and a replacement – for the order-system forced upon the world by European imperialism and sustained for the last few decades by the United States. Others use a range of similar terms, such as “China in ascendance,” “the China path,” “the China experience,” “the China pace,” and “the China miracle.” Collectively, such phrasings suggest the development of a new “discourse of [Chinese] greatness.”

Especially in the wake of the U.S. financial crisis of 2008-09, there has been increasing use of the idea of a “China Model,” not merely in financial and economic terms but in political ones. Ultimately, America’s contemporary problems are chalked up not to a iniquitous economic system as so often alleged in days of greater Communist orthodoxy – for how could modern China, with its staggering inequality and rampant, environmentally-rapacious crony-capitalist brutality, make such a claim? – but to political dysfunction. The problem, in effect, is said to be that America lacks the “harmoniously” non-competitive single-party system China has.

Significantly, such thinking has also had its international dimensions. Chinese scholars and officials tend to assume that (a) the United States and other Western countries have dictated the normative agenda of the international system, (b) this is unfair, and (c) this will change as China’s power grows, resulting in a world-system the rules and operational code of which increasingly reflect the PRC’s values and priorities. The priority of China’s diplomacy and international posture, in fact, is apparently to speed this dynamic along, increasing Beijing’s ability to set the agenda in international affairs and in international institutions, and thus gradually reshaping the system of global order into forms more congenial to the PRC’s way of looking at things.

For one thing, despite the rhetoric of “peaceful rise” and mutually-beneficial “win-win” outcomes, this agenda is very much about power. As I emphasize repeatedly in my forthcoming book, the idea of China’s “return” has been something of a pole star for Chinese politics and policy for many decades: a means of organizing and prioritizing issues and policies according to the degree to which they contribute to the great mission of the country’s “national rejuvenation.”

Indeed, I would argue that China is unique among major modern states in the degree to which its conception of national identity and its national security strategy seem to be premised upon a sense of “mission” in the form of acquiring greater power in the world. Since 2002, every PRC official has reportedly taken an oath of office that includes the pledge to “struggle for the prosperity and empowerment of the motherland.” The 2002 Defense White Paper published by authorities in Beijing echoes this idea, declaring that “[t]he fundamental basis for the formulation of China’s national defense policy” includes “unremittingly enhancing the overall national strength.”

China, therefore, is in a sense inescapably revisionist, even revanchist, in its approach to the rest of the world: its self-conceived national mission is to make itself ever more powerful vis-à-vis everyone else. And as I have argued elsewhere, Beijing’s vision of the world is starkly hierarchic, to the extent that its most sophisticated thinkers sometimes seem to have a hard time understanding international affairs at all if the major players therein cannot be rank-ordered up and down a status-hierarchical totem pole – e.g., on the basis of “comprehensive national power” – that defines the roles and relationships between them in ways reminiscent of classical Confucian ethics. This is, in effect, a cousin of the traditional “rectification of names”: the “rectification of rank” in the system of social order.

The central focus of PRC policy is thus about power-maximization insofar as this entails status-maximization, and thus also the solidification of a global guiding role for China at the center of all human affairs. Chinese officials are remarkably candid about this. “Countries with powerful cultural values,” it is said, “… export these to the whole world, which countries with poor cultural appeal have to accept.”

And as China’s power grows, it is expected that Beijing will speak with ever greater authority in the world, and will use this authority to fashion the “harmonious world” it desires. Chinese officials have set it as their aim to “control the discourse” in the international arena by pushing their own “message- and agenda-setting” agenda in global affairs, winning for the PRC what they have called “discourse control” for the whole human community as a component of China’s long-anticipated “return” to greatness. As a Chinese ambassador reportedly exclaimed during accession negotiations for the World Trade Organization, it is anticipated that at some point in the not-so-far-distant future, it will be China that sets the rules for the world system.

II.         "Harmony" and Order

In some sense, therefore, one could thus argue that the PRC indeed desires to “rule” the world.  Naturally, one should not sensationalize the point.  (The title of this workshop is, of course, deliberately provocative.  The invitation certainly got my attention.)  As part of our thought experiment, however, let us explore what a very powerful China acting on such desires might mean.  For one, to say that Beijing has such aspirations in no way necessarily implies direct dominion in the European imperialist mold.  Indeed, many Chinese thinkers would probably be appalled by the suggestion, as wedded as they seem to be to the CCP’s ideological trope that Chinese primacy would distinguish itself from European hegemonic practices by its policies of righteous benevolence.

Let us thus peek beneath the surface of such idealized pretensions, in asking how things might more plausibly work. In this regard, we should remember that Chinese officials have explained their plan for the future international environment as being a plan for a “harmonious world.” This, indeed, is said to be “the goal of China’s new global strategy at the beginning of a new era,” and indeed to have very ancient conceptual antecedents. No less a party official than the deputy director of the CCP’s Compilation and Translation Bureau, for instance, has proclaimed “harmonious world” theory to be “a new facet of the ancient Chinese dream of ‘great harmony in the world’ (Tianxia datong).”

Indeed, they have explicitly offered the PRC’s own domestic politics as a model for understanding what such a “harmonious world” would be like, arguing as Yu does that “[t]he idea of a harmonious world is to some extent the extension of the domestic idea of a harmonious society.” The foreign observer, then, is not just able but in fact encouraged to look to the Party-State’s domestic order for an example of the kind of “harmony” it hopes will characterize a Chinese-led international order.

Remarkably, in fact, some Chinese experts even cite the Party-State’s treatment of minority populations like the Tibetans and Uighurs as examples of how a “harmonious world” will integrate and harmonize its participants. This point has been made in print, for instance, by Yu Yingli, director of the Department of China’s Foreign Affairs at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies, and by Renmin University philosophy professor Zhang Jian, who have both suggested that the PRC’s domestic “harmony” is the model for global “harmony.”

As for the meaning of this “harmony,” since at least the time of Liang Qichao in the early 20th Century, Chinese conceptions of legitimate political order have tended to assume away the possibility that any real conflicts of interest can exist within a properly-run society. This view assumes that if only people see things correctly – e.g., after having been prodded toward correct views by a sternly benevolent ruler – the entire population will agree on the important issues and act together harmoniously. In this Confucio-totalitarian theory, the harmoniousness of the whole is felt to flow from the fact that its parts – “different” though they may be one from the next– carefully stick to the roles prescribed for them in a sharply-defined and role-ascribed hierarchy.

This is, then, an ideology order in which unit-level components are expected to conform to the roles and expectations implicit in their assignment to a position in a status-hierarchy in which a benevolent and paternalistic Chinese state occupies the preeminent position.

III.         Idiosyncrasies of Control

Sensing the hierarchic and Sinocentric predispositions of the Chinese cultural model – and their congruity with the PRC’s official propaganda message in the present day – some have thus hypothesized a possible return to the ancient Chinese “tribute system” that characterized the Qing Dynasty’s relationships with non-Chinese peoples around its periphery before the Middle Kingdom’s painful encounter with European power in the 19th Century.

This may overstate the case. For my part, I find it hard to imagine the revival of tributary relations in anything like this classic imperial form. Nevertheless, it may well be the case that the Party-State and its scholarly apologists and enthusiasts envision for China some modernized analogue. Alternatively, a future “harmonious world” may find inspiration in even more antique sources. The Springs and Autumns period of China’s ancient past, for example – the period of quasi-feudal relationships predating the Qin unification in 221 B.C.E. – might provide a plausible model for an updated approach that combines Sinocentric deference with respect for the notional independence and autonomy of national governments.

In such a system, the component states retain their basic sovereignty and would not, in theory, be coerced into anything. Yet they would be expected – voluntarily – to comply with the dictates of Sinocentric righteousness all the same. (That, after all, is how Confucian political order is felt to work: virtue attracts and compels all of its own. The civilized man knows what is right, and conforms himself to it.) As Yu Yingli of the Shanghai Institute of International Studies puts it, “the proposal and dissemination of the ‘China ‘Model’” in the world is supposed to be “a passive and natural process.”

In effect, once they had grasped the “conceptual superiority of [China’s] civilization,” other players would be expected “spontaneously” to “choose” affiliation with and deference to the Sinic core state in ways loosely analogous to how the de facto independent kingdoms of the Springs and Autumn Period tipped their hats to the Zhou king as the virtue-pole of the Chinese world even while acting largely independently. Scholars such as Yang Qianru, Yu Yingli, Yan Xuetong, and the Tsinghua University “meritocracy” theorist Daniel Bell have all endorsed these ideas, seeing the possibility of a future world in which functional independence coexists with symbolic and political fealty to the monopole. (Yang actually describes the states in such a system as “politically behaved bodies” rather than fully independent “states,” making the basic point even more clear.) Upon its fully-realized “return” to greatness, China in this conception would expect everyone else to show it status-deference, and to accord Beijing the right to set the norms and dictate the dominant political “discourse” of the international system.

China already demands symbolic indicia of respect and deference from foreigners in multiple ways – e.g., when the Chinese Consulate General in San Francisco angrily demanded that the small town of Corvallis, Oregon, remove from a private local building a mural depicting Chinese brutality in Tibet and supporting Taiwanese independence – and it is not hard to imagine that Beijing would ask more, especially of its neighbors, as its power grows. Such demands, a prominent Chinese general explained to me at a conference in Beijing last year, are not “interference” in the affairs of others, because China’s interests are affected by such things. They merely represent what the PRC has a right to expect: control over how others approach dealing with, and apparently even speaking and thinking about, China itself.

In recent years, we have seen PRC leaders expand considerably their definition of what counts as Chinese “security.” As Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan put it in 2002, “security is no longer a purely military concern. It has permeated politics, economics, finance, science, technology, culture, and many other areas.” Where events overseas – or public statements, or even attitudes – affect China’s “security” through this prism, Beijing increasingly feels obliged to denounce such deviance and demand a return to proper behavior. Such is the price of “harmony.”

In imagining a “harmonious world,” therefore, Chinese thinkers thus tend to imagine China at its center, once again the Middle Kingdom at least in its insistence upon status-deference and the dominant role in overall political agenda-setting. Just as in traditional domestic governance the central government’s influence is expected to be “pervasive because the government sets the moral framework for the entire society,” so it seems to be expected that China will set the tone globally. As Wang Rihua explains it, the leading player in a system is expected to use “moral influence” to “win over the people’s minds and thus accomplish a th[o]rough submission.”

To be sure, the mechanism for bringing about the “thorough submission” of other countries is assumed to be, in the first instance, merely persuasive – that is, they would be expected not to have to be forced to comply, but rather spontaneously to choose to take their place within the status-hierarchy under the benevolent guidance of the virtuous leader. But what happens if they don’t?

IV.          "Harmony" and Force

The idea of China in a “father” role vis-à-vis other participants in the international community reveals much, for the role of father is a critical one in a Confucian system that has for thousands of years emphasized the centrality of filial piety and absolute deference to such a figure. After all, a father has the right, and indeed the duty, to chastise unruly children, not because he wants to or feels any animus, but indeed precisely out of love and benevolent responsibility – punishing wrongdoers in order to reform their behavior, acting for their own good, for the good of the family, and for the sake of society as a whole.

The shadow of military power, and the possibility of the use of force, thus looms large over the ostensibly benevolent virtuocracy of Sinocentric power. And indeed Chinese conceptions of a “harmonious world” seem to allow for the use of military force to chastise and correct those who refuse to accept the natural order of things and to live “harmoniously” in this new system.

In the modern PRC’s official narrative, military muscularity offers the power to harmonize by threat, with People’s Liberation Army (PLA) literature stressing the utility of military capabilities in overawing adversaries and creating the political conditions for victory without fighting. Such literature suggests that in order to take proper advantage of “the awe created by military strength” the PLA will need to ensure the PRC’s possession of essentially unchallengeable martial power.

Nor, despite the widespread myth – encouraged by PRC authorities themselves as part of the propaganda discourse of “peaceful rise” – that Confucian culture abhors the use of military force, is there anything inappropriate about attacking the unrighteous in order to restore social harmony. After all, as Confucius himself noted, “[w]hen good government prevails in the empire, ceremonies, music, and punitive military expeditions proceed from the Son of Heaven.” Ancient Chinese political theory, in fact, what sometimes looks like a riff on Augustinian “just war theory,” providing justifications – or perhaps more commonly, simply rationalizations – for the use of physical coercion against the uncivilized or those who disrupt proper order. Punitive violence in the international arena is quite acceptable in order to “bring about global peace and humane government.”

Indeed, as Ralph Sawyer’s discussion of archaeological and textual evidence about Hsia and Shang dynasty practices in the dimly-remembered era of China’s mythologized Sage Kings, Alistair Ian Johnston’s study of Ming Dynasty geopolitics, and Michael Swaine and Ashley Tellis’ work on Chinese strategy in the 20th Century have suggested, Chinese practice over the centuries has been in no way averse to using force whenever “chastisement” of wayward foreign rulers was felt necessary.

There is nothing particularly unusual in China’s behavior in this regard, but neither – despite the virtuous pretensions of regime after regime over several millennia – is there anything particularly virtuous. In Johnston’s characterization, “the determining factor in weighing strategic choices” was not any a priori rule against the use of force but instead simply “whether [China was] capable of defeating the adversary.” Wherever and whenever it proves expeditious, force has apparently always been found entirely appropriate, even if one must sometimes wrap it in the gauze of virtuocratic rectitude.

And here it is useful to remember the often-invoked model of Zheng He’s famous voyages of the early Ming period – the supposedly peaceful and “harmonious” example, it is sometimes said, of what China will do in the 21st Century with global power-projection capabilities of the first order. On these famous voyages, the aim was – in Geoffrey Wade’s description – “to display the might of the Ming, bring the known polities [of the world] to demonstrated submission to the Ming and thereby achieve a Pax Ming throughout the known world.”

Violence may not necessarily have been sought in itself, but Zheng He’s grand mission of enforced Sinocentric harmony did involve intimidation, the seizure by force of various staging posts and supply depots along the way, naval patrols to control trade routes and shipping lanes, and sometimes even major military actions and involvements in other lands. In one scholar’s summing-up,

“[d]uring these voyages, Zheng’s fleet subjugated a misbehaving Chinese enclave in Sumatra; intervened in a civil war in Java; invaded Sri Lanka and took its captured ruler to China; and wiped out bandits in Sumatra. Even where no swords were unsheathed, Zheng’s armadas were a political triumph, scaring the wits out of every foreign leader who saw them.”

Reasoning by analogy, therefore, one might conclude that one possible world in which “China rules” would be a system in which a reinvigorated Middle Kingdom remains relatively uninterested in direct control of other countries – conceivably with the exception of a handful of immediate periphery states – but insists upon political deference and support from other key players in the international arena. This China, moreover, would organize fierce politico-economic campaigns against those who offend against Sinocentric “harmony,” even to the point of being willing to mount punitive military expeditions to enforce its prerogatives and/or intervene in internal affairs where its interests, broadly construed, stand to be affected by the outcome.

If others understood their roles in this system of norms established by Beijing and played their parts accordingly, everything would run smoothly, as any traditional Asian family should, and China’s “return” would indeed prove peaceful. Offenses against the propriety of this new order, however, would be dealt with sternly as the benevolent civilizational monopole moved to restore harmony and systemic peace.

V.          Conclusion

Not being a prophet, of course, I have no idea whether such a scenario will actually transpire, and indeed I very much hope it won’t. With the caveat that this is only one possibility in what is surely a very broad landscape of alternative futures, however, I would argue that if China ends up with the preeminent power, status, and influence its ruling regime apparently hopes to have in the world of the mid- or late-21st Century, such a world of heavy-handedly moralistic Sinocentric primacy is a plausible one. As such, it is a scenario we should be planning against, in a sense, as a possible world in which it will be the responsibility of U.S. policy scholars and public servants to continue to safeguard and advance our interests and our national security even vis-à-vis the dominant player in the world-system.

I am looking forward to our discussions.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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