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Explaining the globalist dimensions of Chinese nationalism

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Young Chinese women walk past a boutique of Hermes in IFC(International Finance Corporation) mall in Shanghai, China, March 2015 (photo: REUTERS/Zhou Junxiang)

In Brief

Some scholars have argued that China’s economic opening-up was a result of Chinese leaders’ acceptance of neoliberalism. But unlike neoliberal economists who consider economic openness as a goal itself, Chinese leaders treated economic openness as a strategic means to achieve domestic goals.


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It was when the domestic market experienced sluggish demand in the mid-1990s that then-president Jiang Zemin launched the ‘going out strategy’. The strategy encouraged competitive Chinese industries and enterprises to capture a greater share of the global market and to gain access to global capital, technology and know-how.

Before globalisation became a popular narrative in China, at the Third Plenary Session of the 14th Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1993, Jiang had already mentioned the strategic principle of fully utilising the ‘two resources and two markets.’ This principle stressed Chinese enterprises’ penetration into foreign markets and utilisation of foreign resources on the one hand, and relative protection for domestic market and resources on the other. It became the core of the ‘going out strategy.’ That Jiang’s concerns for domestic needs came prior to the arrival of the globalisation narrative in China suggests that he was instrumental to China’s further opening.

China’s pragmatic opening-up has also been reflected in its protectionist measures against foreign business and its selective openness in sectors where China has more to gain from being open. Until the early 2000s, China’s economy was still regarded as a non-market performer that many international organisations refused to embrace. The difficult path China took to join the World Trade Organization and its ongoing trade disputes with other countries are evidence of China’s selective and strategic openness.

China’s selective opening may lead to suspicion regarding the influence of economic liberalism on Chinese leaders. Yet, Chinese leaders’ enthusiastic pursuit of a global China is as real as that of leaders in liberal economies. Like other economic superpowers in modern history — the United States after the Second World War and Japan in the 1970s–80s — China has become an active champion of economic cooperation and free trade. Chinese leaders have become ‘global nationalists’ who imagine the Chinese nation in a global context and aspire to claim China’s leadership at least in the economic sphere, if not in others too. Chinese leaders are true believers in nationalism rather than neoliberalism.

As economic nationalists who aspire to achieve supremacy through economic development, Chinese reformist leaders view globalisation as a battlefield where economic competition determines which countries will be richer and stronger. They link China’s greatness to participation in intensifying global economic competitions. So far, China’s winnings from global competition — ranging from GDP growth to technological innovation — have tremendously boosted national pride and confidence among the Chinese public, and fostered even greater trust in the CCP.

Certainly, participation in globalisation has not always benefitted China. It has often led to economic crises at home. The reason Chinese reformist leaders are still enthusiastic about economic globalisation, according to Min Ye, is that Chinese state leaders find globalisation to be an effective solution to various recurrent domestic economic and political problems. In particular, the nationalist narratives used by the central government to mobilise different sectors and players to participate in their proposed global strategies are effective in solidifying the central government’s authority under China’s fragmented political system.

At different moments of crisis, Chinese reformist leaders have successively launched global strategies, such as the most recent Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). In contrast to previous global strategies like the ‘going out strategy’, the BRI appears to be more proactive, intending to provide alternatives to the existing international system.

Along with the BRI, the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is seen as a gradual modification of Asian financial order. Whether the AIIB can set up a Chinese model for regional or global finance remains an unanswered question. Studies show that the AIIB, together with China’s national development banks, has provided significant complementary finance to areas that have not previously been covered by multinational development banks. The global assets of China’s national development banks have also grown larger than the total global assets of all other development banks in the rest of the world combined.

The launch of the BRI in 2013 was driven by Chinese elites’ dissatisfaction and unmet leadership aspirations under existing international arrangements. The BRI is widely considered a long-term strategy for China to reclaim its global influence. Chinese President Xi Jinping asserts that the BRI will eventually lead to the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

Meanwhile, the ‘Action Plan on the Belt and Road Initiative’ confirms that, with its unprecedented size and influence, the BRI intends to deepen China’s opening-up and lay the ground for new models of international cooperation and global governance. In this sense, China’s recent global strategies are the expressions of Chinese leaders’ nationalist aspirations to restore the country’s place at the centre of the world.

Zeying Wu is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Boston University.

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