The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

China’s true ambitions, and what they mean for the U.S.

Office towers in Beijing. China uses access to its market as leverage over foreign corporations — a form of sharp power, Elizabeth C. Economy writes. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
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That China’s rise poses a deep challenge to the United States is a belief now widely shared among policymakers and the public, with roughly 9 in 10 Americans viewing the country as a threat or a competitor, according to a recent Pew survey. Too often what is lacking, however, is the “why,” with China portrayed as a one-dimensional villain out to eat our lunch, a framing all too common in Washington these days. That simplistic characterization ignores a much more complicated reality in which both countries’ economies and societies are deeply entwined, and it avoids considering what drives Beijing’s deeply ambitious leaders and what they hope to achieve. That is an obstacle to effective policymaking.

The World According to China,” a new book by Elizabeth C. Economy, goes a long way toward addressing that problem. By carefully examining Chinese leaders’ economic, political and military goals and explaining how they aim to displace the United States from its ascendant status, Economy has written a guidebook to understanding and dealing with this rising superpower.

Economy, on leave from Stanford University’s Hoover Institution while she serves as a senior adviser at the Commerce Department, makes it painfully clear that the earlier policy of strategic engagement, which was behind the decision to welcome China into the World Trade Organization in 2001, is badly outdated. Inevitably, Washington and Beijing will increasingly butt heads over global leadership, with President Xi Jinping aiming for no less than the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” as he has put it. “The world according to China — one which celebrates Chinese centrality as a geographic, as well as political and economic construct — is one that leaves little room for the United States, its allies, and the values and norms they support,” Economy writes.

As China pushes to expand its influence around the world, Economy distinguishes among its uses of three kinds of power. Soft power is seen in Beijing’s efforts to boost its international reputation by presenting its authoritarian governing style as a model for dealing with the pandemic, including by providing vaccines to countries around the world, and in the expansion of its state-owned media outlets to reach new audiences in Africa and Latin America. Hard power is on display in its ongoing military intimidation of Taiwan and the squelching of Hong Kong democracy, as well as the construction of airstrips on reefs in the contested South China Sea and the opening of its first overseas military logistics base, in Djibouti. In one of many instances where Economy describes her interactions with key actors in the rise of China, something that makes her book even more convincing, she recounts talking to two military scholars in Beijing who casually tell her that their country eventually should have just as many military bases around the world as the United States does.

Economy does a masterful job of explaining China’s use of sharp power, which “centers on distraction and manipulation,” as the Journal of Democracy put it in a 2018 report describing the new concept. Sharp power is increasingly on display as Beijing uses access to China’s vast market as leverage over multinational corporations. When, for example, international airlines’ websites seemed to suggest that Taiwan was separate from China, and when global brands publicly stated their concern about human rights abuses against the Muslim ethnic minority in Xinjiang, consumer boycotts organized on China’s tightly controlled Internet were wielded to ensure that those companies quickly reversed course and toed the party’s line. Similarly, the longtime practice of “coerced” technology transfer, or demanding that multinationals transfer technology as the price of doing business in China’s enticing market, falls into this category.

Economy devotes a chapter to two of China’s most important goals: promoting its own technology so that it can rule international markets and pushing Chinese technology standards to eventually replace U.S.-dominated ones, as with 5G. This would allow Beijing to stop paying royalties and start earning them, as well as provide leverage over companies and countries. As with many of its national priorities, Beijing has set a date — 2035 — to achieve this second goal and has begun promoting its officials to top leadership positions in standards-setting bodies, including the International Telecommunication Union and the International Organization for Standardization. This too meshes with Beijing’s desire to have much more influence in global governance, which would allow it to “legitimize China’s notion of state-determined rights as opposed to inalienable and innate rights of the individual, and of economic and social rights as opposed to civil and political rights,” a top priority for Beijing, Economy notes.

None of this will be easy. Countries that have been the largest recipients of Chinese-funded and -built infrastructure through its massive Belt and Road Initiative are no more likely to favor China. In the Czech Republic, which has drawn large Chinese investment, only about 10 percent of people say they trust China, according to a 2020 opinion poll by the Central European Institute of Asian Studies. And in Kazakhstan, a survey by the Eurasian Development Bank found that only 1 in 6 see it as a “friendly country.”

Meanwhile, Beijing’s growing authoritarian push has created a backlash around the world. Private technology companies like Huawei and TikTok parent ByteDance are facing sanctions, and Confucius Institutes, seen as “agents of Chinese propaganda,” are being forced to close on university campuses. “China’s future ability to achieve its broader foreign policy objectives is thus increasingly compromised by its insistence that it control both state and non-state actors,” Economy writes.

One thing this book does not delve into is how China’s huge domestic challenges, including rising inequality, deep regional imbalances and a fast-aging population, could block its leaders from achieving their grand plans. Those internal constraints could even prevent its economy from ever surpassing that of the United States, some economists now believe. But that is not the aim of this book, which instead effectively shines a light on the nature and drivers of Xi’s lofty ambitions to “reorder the world order,” as Economy puts it.

Economy finishes with useful policy suggestions for “reasserting US leadership.” Those include a “renewed commitment to immigration,” essential for maintaining U.S. technological competitiveness, and expanding the “tent” to include new “like-minded allies” while continuing to cooperate with China on climate change and global health. From her extensive knowledge of China policymaking and many years interacting with the country’s elites, Economy has written a deeply informed book that serves as a wake-up call to the United States and the world.

Dexter Roberts, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Asia Security Initiative, is the author of “The Myth of Chinese Capitalism: The Worker, the Factory, and the Future of the World.”

The World According to China

By Elizabeth C. Economy

Polity. 292 pp. $29.95