|Mapping China’s Global Governance Ambitions
Democracies Still Have Leverage to Shape Beijing’s Reform
Agenda (Part 1 of 2)
By Melanie Hart and Blaine Johnson
that can be spun many different ways, such as his frequent claim that China aims to make the global governance system more democratic in order to “build a
community of shared future for mankind.” Yet when viewed through President Xi’s domestic messaging and the actions Beijing has taken thus far to
implement its global agenda, a clearer picture emerges. The current global governance system is rules-based, and it privileges liberal democratic values and
standards; Beijing’s alternative vision is a system based on authoritarian governance principles in which nations negotiate issues bilaterally instead of
following common rules and standards. From a liberal democratic perspective, if Beijing succeeds in bringing about that vision, the world will be less free,
less prosperous, and less safe.
This report aims to provide a deeper and more nuanced perspective on China’s real global governance intentions by mapping what President Xi and other
Chinese leaders are saying to their domestic audience and how Chinese foreign policy scholars interpret those statements. In the Chinese political system,
internal leadership statements are particularly revealing because they convey Beijing’s intentions to officials throughout the Chinese Communist Party and
government hierarchy. This report will analyze that internal messaging alongside the empirical pattern of actions Beijing has taken thus far in order to assess
the risks and opportunities that China’s new activism presents for the current liberal order.
Deeper analysis indicates that there is ample reason for concern. China’s stated goals include watering down liberal democratic principles and either
replacing or augmenting them with authoritarian ones. At the same time, this analysis also reveals that liberal democracies have powerful levers for shaping
China’s actions in the global governance space. Using those levers, however, will require liberal democracies to figure out what they stand for, what they
want the global order to look like over the coming decades, and how to create more space within the international governance system for China and other
developing nations without ceding ground on fundamental principles. China’s reform ambitions may actually provide the impetus democracies have been
waiting for to kick-start that process.
Putting China’s ambitions in context: U.S. retreat provides a strategic opportunity
Chinese analysts view the global governance system as a direct outcome of the distribution of power among nations. According to the Chinese view, powerful
nations design global institutions, rules, and norms to reflect and further their own national interests. Since the United States and other Western developed
nations designed many of today’s institutions in an era when China was a much weaker power, Beijing assumes that the current system benefits Western
nations at China’s expense. Now that China is becoming a rival power center, Beijing expects the global governance system to increasingly reflect Chinese
interests. That expectation is a legitimate one, but as this report will illustrate, some of China’s national interests conflict with broader global interests,
particularly liberal democratic interests.
Chinese observers view the 2008–2009 global financial crisis as the first major shift in global power from the United States to China. China’s state-directed
economy weathered that crisis better than market economies in the United States and Europe, convincing many in Beijing that the Chinese model is superior to
the Western one. When the dust settled, the predominant Chinese view was that the United States was declining, China was ascendant, and the global power
balance had just passed a major tipping point. In a 2016 article for a leading Chinese foreign policy journal affiliated with the Ministry of State Security, Cui
Liru, senior adviser to the China Institutes for Contemporary International Relations, noted the shift in the international power dynamic. He described the post-
crisis era as a new world order in which the United States was “no longer able to easily exercise hegemonic authority like it did in the post-Cold War era” and
power was more evenly distributed among nations with “different power centers competing and cooperating at different levels according to their own
superiority and characteristics.” At the time, Chinese leaders were more cautious; they still viewed the world as a unipolar one with the United States at its
center, but they saw it shifting toward a new multipolar configuration at an accelerating rate.
After the financial crisis, Chinese leaders began to lean in and play a stronger role on global governance issues—particularly transnational issues such as
global climate change—but they were careful to avoid leaning in too far. In Beijing’s view, it was time for China to have a louder voice, but that voice should
be part of a broader international chorus. In 2009, at the 11th Ambassadorial Conference, then-President Hu Jintao and other senior Chinese leaders called on
the Chinese foreign policy establishment to increase the nation’s influence on global governance issues, but also stated that China should not take the lead.
President Xi Jinping followed a similar script after he came to power in 2012. In his November 2014 speech at the Central Conference on Work Relating to
Foreign Affairs, Xi stated that China would “work to reform the international system and global governance” but carefully avoided calling for China to play a
Beijing perceived another major power shift in 2016 and 2017 when the United Kingdom voted to exit the European Union (EU) and Donald Trump became the U.
S. president. Chinese observers viewed both the Brexit referendum and the Trump administration’s isolationist foreign policy as evidence that the world’s
oldest and most powerful democracies were beginning to stumble, creating an opening for China to play a stronger role on global governance issues.
President Trump’s first two years in office provided ample evidence to support that conclusion. He pulled the United States out of the Iran deal, the U.N. Human
Rights Council, and negotiations for the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration. Furthermore, Trump announced his intent to withdraw the
United States from the Paris climate agreement and the U.N. Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Chinese scholars began to argue that
U.S. withdrawal was creating a shortfall in global governance, making it harder to address common challenges and generating rising demand for China to step
up and fill the gap. Chen Xiangyang, deputy director of the Institute of World Politics at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, described
the new dynamic as one in which “US selfishness has caused the world to turn to China to play a greater role,” saying: “US withdrawal has led to greater
confidence in and respect for China’s role, enabling China to move closer to the center of the world stage through participating in global governance and
expanding its clout and voice in the world.”
In June 2018—immediately following Trump administration withdrawals from the Iran nuclear deal and the U.N. Human Rights Council—President Xi delivered
a major foreign policy speech in which he stated that China would “lead the reform of the global governance system.” That speech marked Beijing’s first
official deviation from the “never claim leadership” principle Deng Xiaoping established in 1989 when laying out the regime’s post-Tiananmen survival
strategy.10 The global governance actions China has taken thus far—which are outlined in this report—largely predate Xi’s June 2018 speech. Going forward,
the international community should expect China’s ambitions and activities to increase substantially, particularly if the United States continues to disengage
from the multilateral arena and provide maximum maneuvering room.
China’s strategic intent: Discerning Beijing’s ultimate aim
When President Xi and other Chinese leaders outline their global governance vision for an international audience, they do not provide much detail. That is
partly to avoid triggering international concern and partly because there are divergent views in Beijing regarding where the current system benefits China,
where it disadvantages China, and how and where Beijing should push for reform. Although debates continue at the margins, three key macro-level themes
are emerging in China’s internal discussions, and those themes are increasingly reflected in Chinese foreign policy.
Beijing intends to weaken liberal democratic principles and augment or replace them with authoritarian governance principles
Chinese leaders recognize that in order to continue advancing economically, they cannot wall off China’s economy or society from the global community.
However, integrating with a global system that values liberal principles over authoritarian ones brings sizable risk, because it exposes Chinese citizens to a
set of ideals, standards, and benefits their current leaders do not intend to meet or provide. To address this risk, Chinese leaders are seeking to make the
international system more like China. This is the opposite of what Western nations intended when they brought China into that system.
In the United States and other Western nations, there is a tendency to avoid framing disputes with China in ideological terms, which is generally viewed as
veering toward dangerous Cold War thinking. On the Chinese side, however, Chinese leaders frequently claim that their nation is fighting an ideological battle
against Western values—particularly freedom, democracy, and human rights—which, from a Western perspective, are universal values that should apply
equally to all citizens. As a repressive authoritarian regime, Beijing does not want Chinese citizens to judge their own leaders using those standards. Where
those standards exist in the global governance system, Beijing views them as a fundamental security threat.
President Xi outlined those fears at the 2013 National Propaganda and Ideological Work Conference in Beijing when he described Western nations as “hanging
up a sheep’s head while selling dog meat.” By that, he was intimating that Western nations were engaging in false advertisement, making self-righteous
claims about promoting universal values for the sake of humanity when their real purpose was, in his words, “to fight with us for positions, fight over the will
of the people, fight over the masses, and ultimately overthrow the leadership of the Communist Party of China.” A few years later, at a 2015 work conference at
the Chinese Communist Party Central Party School, President Xi warned that among nations who fall for the universal values trap, “some have been tormented
beyond recognition, some have split up into pieces, some have been enveloped in flames of war, some are noisy and in disarray all day.” He pointed to Syria,
Libya, and Iraq as prime examples.
To avoid that fate, President Xi has called, and continues to call, on China to use its own “discourse power” to push back against universal values in the
global governance space.Still, at first glance, some of President Xi’s international statements appear to support liberal values. For example, in a 2017 speech
to the United Nations, Xi claimed that China’s aim is to “build an open and inclusive world” and that Beijing believes “diversity of human civilizations …
drives progress of mankind.”1What Western observers need to understand, however, is that when Chinese foreign policy experts unpack that statement, they
view it as a call for political diversity where authoritarian systems and values have global status equal to liberal democratic ones. For example, writing on
internet freedom, People’s Liberation Army Major General Hao Yeli writes that the global system should “avoid the excessive pursuit of unregulated openness,
in order not to cross a tipping point beyond which global cultural diversity is subordinated to a single dominant culture.” Similarly, Han Zhen, secretary of the
Beijing Foreign Studies University Chinese Communist Party Committee, calls for a global pivot away from “Western centrism,” which he defines as a form of
“cultural absolutism” that seeks to hold China and other nations accountable to Western liberal democratic standards. Echoing President Xi’s call for diversity,
Han writes: “It is imperative to make more people realize the ‘universal values’ that have long been lauded by Western societies are actually a duplication of
Western political, economic, social, and cultural models … human society should extricate itself from the vicious circle of Western-centrism and build a
system of values that is characterized by mutual learning and mixing between diverse groups.”
Xi’s oft-stated call for a “community of common destiny for mankind” is part of this effort to give authoritarian principles more sway in the global governance
system. In a liberal democratic order, individuals have inalienable rights that the state cannot take away. In China’s preferred authoritarian order, collective
rights and interests—so-called mankind—are more important than individual rights and interests, and the state speaks on the collective’s behalf to determine
its interests. Beijing is trying to convince the global community that authoritarian systems are better than democracies in this regard. Zhang Weiwei, dean of
the China Institute at Fudan University, lays out that argument in the Chinese Communist Party political journal Qiushi, writing:
The biggest difference between the institutional arrangements of China and Western countries is that the former has a political force representing the people’s
collective interest and the latter do not. In the West, different political parties represent the interest of different social groups. As a result, national policies are
constantly wavering, political parties and interest groups are frequently engaged in bigger conflict with each other, and national development easily loses
direction. In contrast, the CPC is a political party dedicated to serving the people wholeheartedly, and one that has played the role of leader, regulator, and
coordinator throughout China’s modernization drive.
Moreover, Zhang argues that the same dynamic applies at a global level: The Chinese model can effectively address complex problems that a democratic
policymaking process cannot. Since he views the Chinese model as superior, Zhang calls on China to put forward “a series of Chinese solutions to difficult
issues in global governance.” When President Xi calls for a “community of common destiny for mankind,” he is pushing a new vision for global governance in
which the state, not the individual, is always the ultimate authority.
Beijing aims to reduce U.S. dominance and give developing nations a stronger voice
Beijing’s primary complaint about the prevailing global governance system is the fact that, in its view, the system was designed by and for the United States.
In a 2017 article in The Diplomat, Fu Ying, China’s former vice minister of foreign affairs, lays out that perspective, stating, “After emerging victorious at the
end of the Cold War, the United States crowned itself as the world leader and has tried to extend the Western order to be the new world order.” She describes
the U.S.-led global order as one in which the United States “seeks to transform non-Western countries to a Western political system and set of values with
evangelical zeal” and is solely “focused on pursuing their own interests.” Fu continues, saying that when the U.S.-dominated approach was used to address
global challenges, it sometimes resulted in unilateral military action, which “led to a succession of blunders, leaving ensuing turbulence for the rest of the
world to deal with.”
In contrast, Chinese officials and scholars claim that China will take a more egalitarian and benevolent approach, using its rise to bring about a more balanced
system in which no single nation’s interests predominate. Beijing describes its approach as U.N.-centric: avoiding unilateral action, giving all nations a seat at
the table regardless of their size, and making decisions by consensus.
In his speech to a Chinese Communist Party convening of political parties in December 2017, President Xi promised that China will move the global
governance system “in a more just and reasonable direction.” Similarly, in his report to the 19th Party Congress, he stated that Beijing “supports the efforts of
other developing countries to increase and strengthen their voice.” He used similar language in his 2017 speech to the United Nations, stating: “All countries
should jointly shape the future of the world, write international rules, [and] manage global affairs. … Big countries should treat smaller ones as equals instead
of acting as a hegemon imposing their will on others.”
Chen Xiangyang contrasts China’s egalitarian approach with the U.S. model, stating that “China will not follow the example of some Western powers that have
flaunted their wealth but not shown benevolence or generosity.” Similarly, Fu Ying describes Beijing’s aim as a system that “respects the legitimate interests
and values of nations, regardless of their social systems or their levels of development.”
Yet despite these lofty promises, in practice—as the empirical examples in this report will demonstrate—China’s behavior often leans more dictatorial than
egalitarian, reflecting the same hegemonic behavior China’s scholars associate with U.S. leadership.
Beijing wants the global governance system to effectively address global challenges
As the largest global economy, China is heavily dependent on the global system. Therefore, it is in China’s national interest to work collaboratively with other
nations to address challenges that threaten global safety and prosperity. On issues such as climate change, terrorism, pandemic disease, nuclear proliferation
and global financial crises, China shares common interests with other nations, and that is something Western nations should not forget as they assess China’s
global governance ambitions. Where there are common interests, China’s growing capabilities can present more opportunity than risk.
On global climate change, for example, China’s National Development and Reform Commission describes the nation as “a country vulnerable to the adverse
effects of climate change,” citing domestic risks, including “economic security, energy security, ecological security, food security, and people’s lives and
property.” To be sure, when negotiating in multilateral forums, Chinese diplomats will try to find solutions that are particularly good for China. That is to say,
they will try to make commitments that do not exceed what other nations put forward and will be relatively easy for Beijing to meet. However, Beijing
understands that no global action would be worse for China than action that requires it to move beyond its comfort zone.
China’s empirical record in the global governance arena
China’s economic might is its primary lever for global governance reform. Other nations want access to China’s domestic market or outbound investment, and
Beijing can provide or withhold that access to exert leverage over other nations. China’s development success provides additional political capital. Leaders
in other developing nations—particularly those that do not want to pursue liberal reform—seek to emulate the China model. Under Xi Jinping’s leadership,
China is augmenting those positive drivers with coercive power: extending its military and security services overseas to apply targeted pressure against
nations or individuals who, in Beijing’s view, undermine Chinese interests. Beijing mixes these capabilities—economic, political, and coercive—to pursue its
national interests in the global governance space. Those actions cover six key categories: (1) shaping multilateral action; (2) disrupting international legal
regimes; (3) shifting international norms; (4) co-opting international organizations; (5) creating new international institutions; and (6) building a China-centric
platform for international cooperation.
1. Shaping multilateral action on global challenges
From a U.S. perspective, China has a mixed record on global challenges. On transnational challenges that do not emerge within a single nation, China often
plays a positive role. When the global financial crisis struck in 2008, China worked collaboratively with the United States and other G-20 nations to take
coordinated action that prevented global economic collapse. From 2014 to 2015, China worked collaboratively with the United States to forge a new global
climate agreement for the post-2020 era. As Ebola outbreaks continue in Africa, China is sending medical personnel and financial aid to support international
response efforts and is helping the region establish a new Africa Center for Disease Prevention and Control.
When individual nation-states create global challenges, China is more likely to play a spoiler role. Responding to those challenges often requires the
multilateral community to impose pressure on the offending nation, and Beijing fears that if China faces another massive social movement such as the 1989
Tiananmen crisis, it could once again find itself on the receiving end of multilateral pressure. To reduce that risk, China leverages its role in multilateral forums
such as the U.N. Security Council to push a Chinese principle of “non-interference in other nations’ internal affairs.” Chinese officials and scholars apply this
term broadly, using it as a rationale to oppose activities ranging from U.S. military action in Iraq and Libya to Japan hosting a World Uyghur Congress meeting
to British efforts to investigate whether Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong violated the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Within the United Nations, China has
blocked, among other things, six U.N. resolutions on Syria’s humanitarian crisis and other resolutions on Zimbabwean government violence toward its
political opposition; Myanmar military use of force against ethnic minority regions; and a peace process for Guatemala.
Chinese leaders are willing to take a flexible approach on noninterference when they begin to suspect that by blocking multilateral action, China is increasing
the risk that other nations will form military coalitions or take unilateral military action to address the crisis. In this respect, Beijing is more flexible on
noninterference than on issues relating to universal values. During the Obama administration, China shifted its position on Iran’s nuclear program, eventually
supporting strong sanctions designed to bring Iran to the negotiation table. Beijing feared that strong sanctions could destabilize the Iranian regime but also
had deep economic interests in the region and feared that, if Iran continued down the nuclear path, other nations—particularly the United States and Israel—
were likely to react militarily, threatening China’s economic interests. China demonstrated a similar pattern on North Korea in 2017, backing stronger
multilateral sanctions once it perceived a growing risk that the United States would respond militarily.
2. Disrupting international legal regimes
In the Chinese political system, there is no authority higher than the Chinese Communist Party. The party constitution describes China’s legal system as a
“socialist system of laws with Chinese characteristics,” and calls for the party to “fully advance the law-based governance of China.” In practice, the party is
always above the law and can interpret or ignore laws as it sees fit. President Xi is currently working to reinforce that dynamic with a new initiative to
“strengthen Chinese Communist Party leadership over law-based governance”—particularly China’s legislative apparatus, law enforcement agencies, and
This approach clashes with the international legal system. When nation-states sign treaties and other forms of binding international law, they are expected to
abide by them, even when doing so conflicts with certain national interests. The United States and other Western nations agree to be bound by international law
because doing so enables them to exist within a stable, secure, and predictable international environment. China has demonstrated a concerning pattern
whereby it reaps benefits from that environment but flouts laws that go against China’s national interests. Unlike democratic norms, China is generally content
to leave international legal regimes in place, but China sometimes violates those regimes in ways that undermine them from within.
China’s compliance with the World Trade Organization (WTO) is one prominent example. When China signed its WTO accession agreement, Beijing made
multiple commitments—many of which are still unmet nearly two decades later. For example, China has refused to file WTO-required subsidy reports and
continues to force foreign firms to hand over core technology as a prerequisite for Chinese market entry, despite the fact that it is the only WTO member with
instructions to eliminate and cease enforcement of “technology transfer requirements” in its accession agreement. When foreign firms try to use WTO dispute
resolution procedures, Beijing threatens to kick them out of its markets entirely. Many firms are so fearful of Chinese economic retaliation that they never even
bring complaints to the WTO. China also waters down domestic regulations in order to make it harder for foreign firms to use them as evidence of WTO-illegal
action. For example, after multiple nations complained about forced technology transfer, Beijing revised those rules to make transfers voluntary but, in
practice, still made transfer a mandatory requirement for market access. That pattern of action undermines the entire rules-based trading system.
When other nations confront China, Beijing either denies violating the rules, argues that the rules are unfair, or claims that the rules should not apply to China.
For example, in current discussions regarding WTO reform, Beijing is calling for reforms to be “jointly formulated by the international community, not dictated
by a small number of members”—a clear dig against the current system. Last fall, Wang Shouwen, China’s deputy international trade representative spoke at a
Ministry of Commerce press briefing, declaring that, “China is willing to assume its obligations in the WTO according to its own level of development and
capabilities and does not allow other members to deprive China of the developing member special and differential treatment it ought to enjoy.” In other words,
China wants to enjoy the same global market access as everyone else, but it does not want to be held accountable to the same rules and standards.
In the security arena, China is deploying a similar strategy to undermine the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The
convention states that when there is a dispute among signatories regarding how the convention should be applied in a specific case,
either party can bring that dispute to a U.N. tribunal, and the tribunal’s ruling will be legally binding. In 2013, the Philippines used that
mechanism to challenge Chinese maritime claims in disputed areas of the South China Sea. China first responded by arguing—contrary to
conventional international law—that the dispute was a bilateral matter, and as such, the UNCLOS tribunal did not have legal authority to
issue a binding ruling. China’s national cabinet called the Philippines use of established legal practice a “wanton abuse of the UNCLOS
dispute settlement procedures” and stated that the Philippines was engaging in an “invasion and illegal occupation” of Chinese territory.
China further claimed that the Philippines had “concocted a pack of lies” to convince an UNCLOS tribunal to hear the case. When the
tribunal ruled against China, Beijing stated that China believes “the will of sovereign states should not be violated” in international dispute
settlement, and “on issues concerning territory and maritime delimitation, China does not accept any means of dispute settlement
imposed on it.” In other words: The Chinese state is not bound by international law and will not respect international rulings that violate its
Since the UNCLOS ruling, Beijing has sought to use its economic, military, and diplomatic power to shift how the ruling is implemented in
the region. Economically, China promised to invest $24 billion in the Philippines based on the understanding that, in return, the Philippines
would not push to enforce the UNCLOS tribunal ruling. Militarily, China ramped up its presence in the South China Sea to deter other
nations from pressing their own claims. On the diplomatic front, Chinese scholars called on Beijing to use its “discourse power” to shape
the way other nations viewed the ruling and avoid facing similar crises in the future. Writing in the Global Times, National Defense
University professor Qiao Liang claimed that one of the key lessons Beijing should draw from the arbitration case is that, just as China
must increase its military capability, it must also “increase the construction of discourse capability [because] the previous discourse
system is clearly insufficient” for protecting China’s interests. Chinese Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily featured Wuhan
University China Institute of Boundary and Ocean Studies associate professor Huang Wei’s view on the crisis. Professor Huang stated
that, instead of viewing the legal ruling as the ultimate conclusion to the conflict—which, from an international perspective, is exactly how
China should view it—Beijing should instead view it as a “turning point.” He argued:
If China can seize this opportunity to promote relevant country implementation [of the ruling] to develop in a direction favorable to China,
and to unite more countries to support China’s practices and attract more countries to adopt similar approaches, then, there is every
reason to believe that, when dealing with issues similar to South China Sea arbitration in future, China will have greater advantages in law
or jurisprudence, thereby gaining more maneuvering space for diplomatic struggle.
The common thread throughout both the WTO and UNCLOS examples is that China enjoys the benefits of being a part of international legal
regimes, but when those regimes rule against China or seek to constrain Chinese actions, Beijing does not accept constraints on its own
behavior, which, in turn, undermines the entire system.
3. Shifting international norms
International norms pose unique challenges for China, particularly those that promote universal values such as freedom, human rights, and democracy. The
very existence of those norms is a problem for the Chinese Communist Party because they set governance standards the party does not intend to meet. Beijing
is particularly concerned about norms relating to human rights and internet freedom. On both fronts, Chinese leaders are working to modify those norms by
promoting a more authoritarian interpretation that balances individual interests with state interests, which, in China’s case, is primarily the desire to maintain
single-party political control. China is convening its own multilateral forums to promote that shift, as well as working within existing multilateral institutions.
In 2017, Chinese leaders brought together 50 developing nations to attend China’s first South-South Human Rights Forum in Beijing, which articulated a
Chinese alternative on human rights. President Xi outlined that alternative in his opening letter to the forum, which defined human rights as having both
“universality and particularity,” stating that “human rights must and can only be promoted in light of specific national conditions.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi
echoed this messaging in his address, stating that China follows a “human rights development path with Chinese characteristics” that, unlike the Western
version, has a more balanced “combination of universality and particularity.” Forum participants adopted a Beijing declaration, which gives states the
authority to balance human rights against other needs, particularly public order. The declaration states that national governments can legitimately violate
human rights—or, as the declaration puts it, impose “restrictions on the exercise of human rights”—as long as the measures they take to do so “meet the
legitimate needs of national security, public order, public health, public safety, public morals and the general welfare of the people.” In other words, human
rights with Chinese characteristics are privileges that a state can provide or deny.
Within the United Nations, Beijing is blocking efforts to criticize its human rights record and is working to water down accountability mechanisms.56 China
recently put forward two resolutions at the U.N. Human Rights Council: a June 2017 resolution suggesting that human rights must be balanced with economic
development needs, and a March 2018 resolution that calls for nations to address human rights problems through “mutually beneficial cooperation.”57 The
March 2018 resolution further states that when assessing a nation’s responsibilities in the human rights domain, “the significance of national and regional
particularities and various historical, cultural and religious backgrounds must be borne in mind.” Both resolutions passed, thus baking Chinese-style norms—
which give states leeway to abuse human rights in their pursuit of other interests—into the U.N. system.
China is pursuing a similar normative shift in the digital space. Beijing has long suspected that the United States seeks to foster domestic unrest in China via
the internet. President Xi laid out these suspicions in a speech at the 2013 National Propaganda and Ideological Work Conference, claiming that, “Western anti-
China forces have been trying to use the internet to pull down China … On the battlefield of the internet, whether we can stand and stay upright, fight and win,
is directly related to China’s ideological security and political security.” Although Western observers are generally aware of China’s internet firewall, many do
not realize that Beijing also views a free and open global internet as a national security threat. A 2015 article in Qiushi claimed that Western nations “use
foreign policy such as ‘cyberfreedom’ to insinuate and attack us for lack of ‘freedom of speech’ … It makes people feel that online freedom is restricted, and
they want to break through this bondage to get the so-called true ‘freedom’” that they are missing out on under Chinese Communist Party rule.
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. In his speech to China’s second World Internet Conference in 2015, President Xi pushed a set of principles for global internet
governance reform that included “respect for cyber sovereignty,” “maintenance of peace and security,” and “cultivation of good order.” President Xi stated:
“We should respect the right of individual countries to independently choose their own path of cyber development, model of cyber regulation and Internet public
policies … No country should pursue cyber hegemony, interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or engage in, connive at or support cyber activities that
undermine other countries’ national security.” In other words, states have the right to control internet activity within their borders, and other nations should
respect that right.
China is pushing these concepts in existing international institutions as well. For example, China participated in all five rounds of a U.N. Group of
Governmental Experts (GGE) process established to study cyberspace—the latter rounds of which the U.N. General Assembly directed to determine how
international law should apply to nation-state behavior in cyberspace. In the fourth round, China added “state sovereignty” to the GGE list of governance
principles, a move that effectively blocked the group’s ability to establish how international law should apply in the cyber domain. The fifth round failed to
produce a report, reportedly because China—along with Russia and Cuba—objected to principles put forward by other nations, including the right to respond to
internationally wrongful acts. After this logjam, the process split into two groups: one spearheaded by the United States and other democracies that will
continue to focus on international law, and another, organized by authoritarian regimes such as China, Russia, North Korea, and Venezuela, that describes
itself as an alternative “open-ended working group acting on a consensus basis.”
China’s normative push in the internet domain is a particular concern because it has an infrastructure component: Beijing is building digital infrastructure in
developing nations and providing regulatory training as part of the package. China’s Belt and Road Initiative includes a “Digital Silk Road” that brings officials
from Belt and Road nations to China for workshops on information and communication technology (ICT) policy, including internet control. Some of these nations
are applying those lessons at home. (See text box below) If China successfully expands the set of countries following its approach to the internet, there will be
a growing base of support for China’s “cyber sovereignty” principles in global governance forums.
Chinese President Xi Jinping attends the Belt and Road Forum for
International Cooperation at Yanqi Lake International Conference Center
in Beijing, May 15, 2017.
Introduction and summary
Chinese leaders are ramping up their ambitions for the global order. Chinese President
Xi Jinping is calling for his nation to “lead the reform of the global governance
system,” which is the set of international rules, institutions, and enforcement
mechanisms the global community uses to solve common problems. As the largest
global economy—China has surpassed the United States in purchasing power parity—
it is natural for China to seek a stronger voice on global governance issues. However,
the problem is that, within China, President Xi is rolling out new systems to strengthen
authoritarian control, raising concerns that Beijing seeks to make the international
system more authoritarian as well.
The United States and other democratic nations need to understand Beijing’s vision for
the global governance system and how that vision differs from the prevailing liberal
democratic order, which recognizes limits to state authority, such as binding
international law and unalienable individual rights. It is difficult to map China’s true
intentions based on Xi Jinping’s international speeches, which make fuzzy promises