Over the last two decades, China has reemerged as a major power. While China increasingly asserts itself in an attempt to regain its centrality in the international system, through various efforts like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and heavy investments into the African continent, President Xi Jinping has also called for more shared control of global governance. In his most recent book, The China Record: An Assessment of the People’s Republic (State University of New York Press, 2023), Professor Fei-Ling Wang examines the Chinese system as an alternative mode of political system and a distinctive model of socioeconomic development.
To learn more about “the China Order” and the implications of the PRC as an emerging superpower, Vera Xiao spoke with Professor Wang, who is Professor of International Affairs at the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, Georgia Institute of Technology (GIT). Professor Wang is a researcher of comparative and international political economy and specialises in U.S.-East Asian relations and Chinese politics. His previous books include The China Order: Centralia, World Empire and the Nature of Chinese Power (State University of New York Press, 2017) and Organizing Through Division and Exclusion: China’s Hukou System (Stanford University Press, 2005).
In your book The China Order, you talk about China’s ancient top-down governance model and the tianxia (天下) worldview. Could you please explain “the China Order”? And how you think such an order has developed and adapted in the context of globalization and nation-states?
In the book The China Order, I try to outline the Chinese tradition of political governance and worldview, the kind of ideology from imperial times. I use the term “the China Order” to describe the unique Chinese world order, the idea of how the world should be organized politically. This particular world order is based on Confucian-Legalism, also known as the Qin-Han Polity, the political system that was created, improved, and perfected by the Qin, Han, and Tang dynasties. It became the dominant, authoritarian, sometimes totalitarian, political system governing the eastern part of the Eurasian continent. We call that part “the China World”, or the Chinese World.
Based on this kind of political system, the world should be united as one, under one authority–– the so-called tianxia yitong (天下一统). This authority is a Confucian-covered Legalist regime or, using today’s language, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, autocracy, or whatever you want to call it. That’s the kind of idea I try to develop in the book.
This kind of political system worked for some time; it’s highly feasible and can govern the whole known world for decades, even centuries. It’s very effective as a governing structure. It can also deliver some kind of temporary, remarkable stability and peace, sometimes even for a few decades. But overall, compared to other kinds of political systems and world orders, the Westphalian system of international relations and the national politics of democratic rule of law, the Qin-Han Polity and the China Order, are considered to be highly suboptimal. It works, but it’s not very good.
Overall, the China Order produces a very long stagnation of society or the whole known world; because it was a worldwide monopoly of everything, from intellectual discourse to technological innovation, migration, and others, stagnation was very long-lasting. I attempt to show that for thousands of years, at least one thousand years, the Chinese world was utterly very un-innovative. People’s living standards were very low and they suffered from periodical huge losses, sometimes up to half or 60% of the population. Overall, it is quite clear to me, and hopefully to my readers, that the China Order was suboptimal and inferior, and I use a very strong language, like “infernal”. You cannot escape from it; it’s endless torture and suffering, but it has the beauty of securing a small group of rulers in power, enjoying a worldwide luxury.
That is, in a nutshell, what my book was all about. Then, I offered a unique way to view Chinese history in the sense that I argue that the best times, or golden eras, of Chinese history were the three major periods when the China Order was largely missing. In other words, when the whole Chinese World was not united. When the world was divided, Chinese people were much better off. So, that’s the pre-Qin era, the Song era, and from the mid-19th century onwards. Those were the three truly golden eras, whereas the Great empires, like the Qin, Han, Tang, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, were much worse off than the three golden eras.
How has China institutionalized the China Order in the modern era?
I traced the evolution of the China Order from the pre-Qin era until today. I see that the Han Dynasty was quite important in improving the system by introducing Confucianism as an exterior, a cover, and an ideology. The Han also inherited the Qin Dynasty’s practice of monopolizing industry and commerce by the state, by the imperial court and then, of course, the Sui-Tang Dynasties improved it further by introducing systems, like the imperial exam, which helped stabilize the system. So, over the years, this system became deeply institutionalized and internalized. People started to view this system as the way to govern, i.e., the way, or dao (道), to govern.
People were either forced or indoctrinated to believe that the world should always be united under one ruler. Otherwise, it’s chaotic and it’s bad. But, I’m actually suggesting that the chaotic times were the best times. The kind of uniform empires actually were overall pretty bad. Then, since the mid-19th century, under foreign influence, under the Westphalian system, China was forced to change for the first time in many, many centuries. During the Republican era, things started to change deeply. The China Order collapsed. The Qin-Han polity was transforming but was not fast nor extensive enough. So, two revolutionary parties, the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), were created and sponsored by the Soviet Union and rebelled in sequence, one after the other. This made Chinese politics to go from bad to worse– and that was unfortunate.
The KMT tried to establish an authoritarian regime. Chiang Kai-shek wanted to be another emperor, but he could not, as he wasn’t very fortunate nor capable. But under Mao Zedong’s leadership, the CCP rose up and reversed the trend. So, my categorization of the PRC is that it was a great leap backward.
The CCP restored the Qin-Han polity. Driven by the same inner logic of the Qin-Han polity, the PRC had to engage in a world reorganization, as the Qin-Han polity has to be a world phenomenon; it cannot be content as a one-country political system. Therefore, you have the Mao Zedong-led world revolution and the slogan of “reforming the world.” And now of course, we’re talking about “the common destiny for humankind.” Different slogans have the same logic. This kind of political system cannot be happy or feel safe when there are other powers that it cannot control. So, it has to unite, or at least try to unite, the whole world. The history of the PRC has basically been defined by this mandate of heaven or mandate of people, or, the word I use is, curse. PRC governance is very suboptimal, the reason being that the ruling group has something other than the Chinese people’s interests in mind. Their main concern has been regime security and power, so the Chinese people’s interests are often sacrificed. That’s why the political governance of the PRC is at best average, suboptimal, or inferior.
Do you think Chinese nationalism is different from, and compatible with, Western (nation-state) nationalism? How does Chinese nationalism affect China’s relations with other countries?
Chinese nationalism, as we see it now, is mainly a political phenomenon. It’s not a spontaneous, natural product of Chinese people’s wishes. It was politically created by Republican leaders, especially the KMT. And then now, of course, the CCP. So, we call this a manufactured ideology, because, China is a multi-national state. But, what is “Chinese nationality”? The Han, Uyghur, or Tibetan? What are we talking about? So, you have the concept of zhonghua minzu (中華民族), or the Chinese nation. Anthropologically speaking, zhonghua minzu is a created item. It’s not real. Either you are Han, or you don’t talk about nationalism, but rather talk about the political regime, the multi-nation empire, which is fine. It’s one way to do it.
So, the nationalism we see today in the PRC is manufactured. It’s an instrument used by the ruling party leadership because they believe that this is a way to galvanize support from, organize, and mobilize people. So, the Chinese people, unfortunately, are led to believe that they have a nationalist pursuit and that whatever the CCP is doing abroad, like reorganizing the world, is to serve the Chinese nation and is for the Chinese national interest. But this is misleading propaganda. What they are interested in is the regime’s interest. According to Chinese and American historians of PRC history who studied, for example, how Chinese government willingly gave away land and benefits just for political interest. The PRC territory has been shrinking, not expanding, under CCP control and that is clearly the sacrifice of Chinese national interests. Then, we see the so-called “showering money all over the place,” like the “Belt and Road Initiative,” and wasting Chinese money, not necessarily for Chinese interests at all. The gain of Chinese people from BRI, for example, is very dubious, if there’s any gain at all. But the CCP spends trillions of dollars, on that. Why would they do that? It’s not for Chinese national interests or for Chinese nationalism. So, the Chinese nationalism of today is manufactured and is utterly incompatible with what the CCP really wants. What the CCP really wants is “world unification.” It’s almost like Nazi Germany using German nationalism in a horrific way. They use nationalism as a tool and that tool is going to cause lots of damage to Chinese national interest and harm the Chinese people.
What do you think is the role and status of Confucian culture in China’s current political system and foreign policy?
It’s almost like in the traditional Qin-Han polity, Confucianism is just a decoration. It is a tool, again. During the first part of PRC history, Confucianism was criticized and trashed for decades under Mao Zedong. And now it’s being re-enshrined or re-used. Part of it, I call “mutilating Confucianism”. The leadership is trying to use everything possible to improve its legitimacy and strengthen itself. So, Confucianism is just a decoration and it’s mutilated. So, in my second book, my sequel to The China Order, I describe in detail how today’s Chinese people suffer from losing traditional morals, the traditional ethics without a new one. So, Chinese society is now plagued by widespread corruption, meaningless crime, and all kinds of silly things, because people’s moral standards have been ruined. On one hand, traditional moral ethics have been discarded and scorned for decades. On the other hand, the Western set of moral standards, based on the market economy and democracy, was also rejected. Then, the communist ethics that were imported from the Soviet Union, became increasingly hypocritical and so people don’t believe it anymore. So, that’s what many people are calling a moral vacuum in China now. Chinese people are as moral and ethical as anybody, but now in people’s minds, there’s great confusion. The traditional ones are tossed out and the imported one is bad as it is Western influence, and then the communist one is fake. So, people started to have the problem of having no moral compass, or multiple moral compasses. That’s the problem. Therefore, Confucianism in China today is basically no more than a cheap and mutilated tool, a decoration.
How would you interpret the narrative of China assuming great power responsibilities within the framework of the China Order?
That’s the wish, the “China dream,” that the world should be reorganized. In what shape? In my shape, according to my image. My image is the Qin-Han polity with a decoration of imported Stalinism, Leninism, some Marxism, and now resurrected Confucianism. So, it’s a patchwork. If you look at the Chinese Communist Party’s official ideology, it’s a patchwork, meaning it’s a mosaic and everything’s there. It has nothing really. If you have everything in your ideology, it means that you believe in nothing. The idea is that just let us (the CCP) be in charge forever. That’s the dream. Onto the China Order framework, I hope people will see better what the rising Chinese power represents, what it is seeking, and what it means to have a Chinese leadership of the world, which is possible. China could lead the world, but without a fundamental transformation at home – in terms of the political system, political ideology, and worldview – the Chinese leadership of the world, in my humble opinion, would be suboptimal, inferior, and even disastrous for everybody, including the Chinese people.
How do you think Sino-U.S. relations will evolve under the influence of the China Order?
The China Order is my ambitious book, my kind of immodest plan. I try to have a trilogy and that’s the first one in the trilogy. My second volume which just came out in March, in both Chinese and English, called The China Record, in which I assess what this all means, namely the Chinese performance. And in the last volume of the trilogy, which is now under contract to be published soon, I will argue “what to do”. So, Sino-U.S. relations are a critical part of “what to do.” The rise of China and the China dream, the idea of a “world unification,” can basically be boiled down, or narrowed down, to the U.S.-PRC competition, because the U.S. is now the main obstacle in the way. Without the U.S., the CCP would have had a much easier time accomplishing its objectives. The Americans are different and very powerful. Therefore, it is the competition between the PRC and the USA. That’s the key part of these new international relations.
The Chinese political reform, or ideological reform, must take place. Otherwise, the U.S. would either have to give up, surrender, or fight against it. Fifteen years ago, I wrote articles in The New York Times already arguing that the rising Chinese power, without socio-political reform – without ideological reform, without letting Chinese people read their own history truthfully – would be a danger to the world and to the Chinese people. Now, I’m more convinced that is the case. The U.S. is a pluralist democracy and, by definition, appears chaotic, messy, and disorganized. But the U.S. is pulling itself together. Bipartisan support is there, so the U.S. is moving up and strengthening its effort to address the rising power of the PRC. You could call it a new Cold War, or containment, or decoupling, whatever– but something is happening.
I see that the U.S. and China are going to be big competitors for some time. Whether this competition leads to another Cold War, or even a hot war, we don’t know. There are lots of random factors, but the pattern is clear. Many friends are hoping, and I’m actually applauding, for that kind of hope to return to a “normal” U.S.-China relationship. It’s a good wish and I like it too. But it’s not going to happen now, not without some key changes. The most important key change is going to be for China to have a socio-political transformation, to do away with or reduce the Qin-Han polity, to abandon the China order dream, and allow the Chinese people to reread their own history truthfully. Even just to open up and let people talk. That’s one potential change. Another change could be that the U.S. suddenly collapses. The third possibility is that the U.S. puts up a fight and that fight would be very significant. Chinese society is highly Westernized now, people know what is going on outside in the world. The Chinese economy is closely related to the West, as China relies on imports of high-technology products and raw materials for food and production. If a decoupling developed further, or even a Cold War, the Chinese people will suffer again. And will the Chinese people “eat bitterness” （吃苦）forever? I don’t know. I think Chinese people are just like any other people–they want a good life, right? All bets could be off and the worst scenario would be a hot war or a Chinese civil war. I hope that it’s not going to go in that direction and I hope for the ideal solution, which is for China to change. We almost did that in the 1930s and 1940s.
Do you think it is possible for China and the United States to achieve win-win cooperation? How should the U.S. respond to the China Order?
My honest answer is that I don’t see that possibility of the so-called win-win of US-China cooperation without fundamental changes in the PRC. Because if there is one, that means that the U.S. must capitulate. But, in Washington, things have forever changed. In the U.S., there’s a saying: If I fell for it for the first time, your bad. But if I do it again, that’s my bad. In Washington, and the entire West, the general feeling is that the CCP lied too many times to its own people and to the outside world. Now, we see these lies and we see how the CCP system is different from ours and is also not that great. We don’t like that system. Now they have power and have access to Western technology, they do all kinds of crazy things. If Chinese people had a chance just to read their own history, to think in their own ways, and to speak their minds, they will do the right things and will live much, much better than they do now.
You analyzed the perceptions of China in Africa in your paper that was published in 2014, and you concluded that African perception of China had ranged from love to suspicion. How would you evaluate this perception now? Is China viewed with more love or suspicion in Africa now? What do you think are the crucial factors that influence Sino-Africa relations?
The PRC has invested heavily in Africa. China is now number one or two in terms of trade and investment in Africa. China has also given a huge amount of free aid to Afric and is now building infrastructure projects in Africa, including railroads, highways, airports, and so on. That’s a very impressive effort. So why would China do that, even if when the Chinese people are still living in a developing country living standard, right? Out of 1.4 billion people, maybe 200 million people are actually living middle-class lifestyles. The rest of the 1 billion-plus Chinese people are actually poor. Why would you spend all that money on Africa to help them? It’s not much in Chinese national interest, it’s driven by CCP’s political interest. In the old days, Africa was viewed by Beijing as a global countryside, the party was dreaming to duplicate its success at home, encircling the cities from the rural areas to fan revolution and gain influence. Worldwide, the countryside is Africa, Latin America, and so on; the cities are America, Europe, the Soviet Union, and so on. That’s old days kind of thinking. Now, in the new days, I think the CCP needs Africa’s political support in United Nations, and on the world stage, and also the CCP just want to make the West look bad.
PRC activities in Africa may advance a little bit Chinese influence and Chinese national interest there. For the Chinese national influence, you could say sometimes it is the same as the influence of the CCP. But for Chinese national interest, there’s very little gain since the return on investment there is terrible. You could have spent money in other ways and had a much better return than investing in railroads in Africa. So, now on the surface, it looks like China is doing significant charity work in Africa. And then they also created some kind of suspicion in the West, saying that China is creating a debt trap in Africa. I think the whole thing is indeed a debt trap, not trapping the Africans, though, but the Chinese people.
Chinese people paid all the money, and when Africana don’t pay back, what are they going to do? Write off because the Chinese military cannot really invade and take back this railroad. For example, the railroad’s already built, and the local government, like Kenya, said, “Hey, I’m not going to pay now,” or “I couldn’t pay.” Are you going to send the Chinese navy to go there to take out the railroad and ship it home? What are you going to do? You cannot do much. Therefore, it’s a trap for the Chinese people. And many African leaders are getting a lot of kickbacks from infrastructure projects. Chinese officials, or their friends, contractors, are making a lot of money too. Those contractors and middlemen are often just the CCP’s officials’ “white gloves.” And who’s paying the bill? The Chinese people. And the CCP also gained some political influence and support. Xi Jinping in Africa enjoys great popularity. People like him. Well, yeah, good money. So, if there is a debt trap, it is the Chinese people, who pay all the money, who got trapped.
I think this is a classic case of a massive CCP-style diplomacy to serve the party first and foremost, and serve the country maybe, but definitely not serving Chinese people well at all. It’s a terrible, lousy deal for the Chinese people, in terms of return. You put billions, billions into Africa, but you gain very, very little in return. But you actually gained a lot of credit for the CCP to enjoy. That’s what really matters to them.
How do you think Sino-Africa relations would affect Sino-U.S. relations?
It is marginally affecting because whatever China does in Africa, whenever Xi Jinping is visiting Africa, that only marginally worries the West. The West knew where the main game is. So, the reaction of the West, especially the U.S., is also marginal. But they are improving now. I mean, Washington now sees Africa as a battleground, as it is a global competition between the PRC and the US. It’s almost like during the Cold War when the U.S. and Soviet Union competed for everything at every corner. Whether they matter or not, just do it, since it has a symbolic meaning. So, it only affects Sino-U.S. relations to the extent that the U.S. is now increasingly suspicious about why China is doing this. Even though the Chinese people unwillingly and unintentionally pay for big charity projects in Africa, the U.S., and the West, they think that this is not really a good charity, since it only serves the party to compete with the West.
In many cases, we actually collect evidence that in many places, the Chinese money really is driving good money away because they create corruption and stop some kind of civil society projects. The Carter Center projects, for example, are actually facing competition now, because the people have easy money from the Chinese donors, and they don’t come to your program anymore. Therefore, the charity is good, but the money is actually overall not that good, so the West is not appreciating Chinese effort. The West actually has become suspicious of the Chinese effort.
What do you think is the future of China-Africa relations?
I think that the BRI is receding and will become another unfinished project, or lanwei gongcheng (烂尾工程). The billions of dollars they promised for Africa, as well as other places, are going to dry up shortly because the Chinese economy is not doing well and the government is currently dealing with a huge deficit. Also, foreign trade is not doing well. I do see that the Chinese influence in Africa has probably peaked, or is about to peak. In other words, it will be going down.
Once the “free money” is no longer flowing, the Africans’ favorable feelings toward the PRC will likely recede as well. So, I do not see the PRC gaining ever more now in Africa. They can probably sustain it for a while, but it’s not going to increase. Most African countries are not democracies, but African leaders are not stupid. Once there’s free money, they are nice to you. When the free money dries up, what is there for the PRC to be attractive to them? Does the PRC have much soft power in Africa? It’s very minimal. Does the PRC have any leadership beyond free money in Africa? Again, very minimal. In fact, I documented that the Africans take Chinese money but treat Chinese people mostly still as second-class foreigners. They don’t treat Chinese people in the same way as they do Westerners, even though Chinese free money is much bigger than Western free money. So, in a nutshell, I think China-African relations are also in need of great transformation, to be on a real footing, not this artificial friendship purchased with people’s money.
Chinese private entrepreneurs and workers in Africa should do most of that work, not the Chinese government who uses Chinese people’s money unrestrictedly. That’s not the way to do this kind of business. African people took Chinese money and so they think that the Chinese are kind of generous. When Chinese people go to Africa, they’re treated well. But, if they’re in private, they tend to look down upon Chinese leaders. They think that Chinese leaders are not good leaders for Chinese people, because they spend Chinese people’s money crazily. I mean, what kind of leader can spend people’s money without question, and is still a good leader? Very few. This is greatly ironic. You give me free money, but mistreat your own children? So, that explains why, in Africa, the Chinese people are often treated as second-class foreigners. It’s like, you robbed the Chinese people, and you give that money to me. I take it, but I still think that you are a robber. So, that’s the irony. You spend a huge amount of money, but only get skin-deep influence.