A key feature on China’s political landscape over the past decade has been the shift from the “hide and bide” doctrine that had guided China’s foreign policy since the Deng Xiaoping era to a decidedly more aggressive stance under Xi Jinping. While the beginnings of a more confident China had already begun to emerge in 2008, with the Beijing Olympics and the global financial crisis—which China’s leaders interpreted as evidence of the weakness of the US-led economic system—China’s move toward center stage has accelerated since Xi’s rise to power in 2012 and the start of what China calls the “New Era.”
Under Deng Xiaoping, the implicit message was that China was prepared to abide by international norms. Cultural and educational exchanges, as well as dynamic interaction between Chinese and Western governments, along with their respective business communities, served to underscore this understanding and ostensibly strengthen the myriad linkages that would draw China more fully into the existing global system.
Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” envisions a different role for China on the world scene. Xi first used the term in a speech to Politburo members given at the Chinese National Museum shortly after he came to power in 2012. The setting was the “Road to Revival” exhibit, which glorified the Party’s role in bringing China out of the humiliation it suffered at the hands of imperial powers, paving the way for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people. Today China has a once-in-a-hundred-years opportunity to reclaim its role as a great world civilization. Standing in the way of the rising East is the declining West and the prevailing international system, which favors liberal democracy over other forms of government and imposes on China rules and values that run counter to Chinese norms. Closer to home, Xi opposes continued US hegemony in Asia and the ideological incursion of Western ideas into Chinese society.
Xi’s push to lead China onto center stage is playing out in three arenas: the geographical, the legal/institutional, and the rhetorical. While we can expect increasing conflict in all three arenas, there may also be opportunities for Chinese Christians to spread “positive energy” (borrowing a phrase from the Party lexicon) in ways the regime did not anticipate.
Redrawing the Map
During the past decade, Xi Jinping’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has seen a doubling of Chinese investment abroad, making China the world’s number one overseas investor. Key to the BRI has been the desire to head off conflict in the Pacific and the South China Sea by opening up a westward land route to connect with Eurasia and beyond.
“The BRI’s main accomplishment,” says Boston University professor Min Ye, “was to provide a cohesive and permissive environment for state agencies and businesses to search for a way out [of domestic industrial overcapacity and slowing economic growth].”1 BRI investment peaked in 2016. In the years since, projects have aligned more closely with China’s strategic interests, with fewer bridges and railways and more ports, as well as increased attention to the “Digital Silk Road,” China’s investment in the global cyber infrastructure.2
A number of the “corridors” linking China to the rest of the world are strategically tied to regions within China. According to Rafaello Pantucci, author of Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire, investment in the former Soviet bloc countries in Central Asia is an extension of Beijing’s Xinjiang strategy. “It’s really about trying to improve the prosperity in this border region around Xinjiang to help improve its prosperity and stability,” says Pantucci, “If you’re going to make Xinjiang economically prosperous, you’re going to have to find a way of connecting it to the world.”3
Leaders in BRI recipient countries describe China’s approach as distinctly transactional, not tied to a larger transformational vision. The title of Pantucci’s book comes from his observation that “Central Asia is now part of China’s empire,” yet the Chinese have no central plan for the region. China does not see itself as a hegemon. In keeping with China’s longstanding policy of noninterference in other countries’ domestic affairs, the Chinese practice of focusing on tangible investments without criticizing or seeking to alter existing political arrangements makes China an attractive partner.
At the same time, China’s “no-limits” partnership with Russia, along with the Global Development Initiative (GDI) and Global Strategic Initiative (GSI), signals its goal of creating an alternative to the existing unipolar Western-led international order.4
The Xi regime seeks to challenge the dominance of global norms and institutions. The expansive GSI vision of “common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable” global security introduced by Xi at the April 2022 Boao Forum includes not only military capability but also environmental security and freedom from threats of terrorism and religious fundamentalism.5 At the heart of the GSI is the concept of “indivisible security,” namely that no nation can strengthen its security at the expense of others.6 The Global Development Initiative, proposed by Xi to the UN General Assembly in 2021 and billed as an “expansion” of the BRI, seeks to support the UN’s 2030 sustainable development agenda by invoking “Chinese wisdom” to protect individual economic rights, improve global governance, and promote “greener and healthier global development.”7,8 The latter is an area where China is already leading the world through its advances in renewable energy and electric vehicles.9
Xi’s extensive mention of “national security” in his political report at the 20th Party Congress underscores the priority placed on mitigating global threats to the regime.10 Notwithstanding the magnanimous rhetoric contained in the GDI and GSI, it remains to be seen whether China is proposing a new order that can attract global support or whether it will be seen as merely seeking to create a world in which China and other authoritarian regimes can pursue their own interests unhindered.11
Telling China’s Story Well
Among the Chinese leadership, the longstanding narrative of China being bullied by the world is being replaced by a new narrative that says China is misunderstood. Built on the conviction that “whoever rules the words rules the world,” Chinese foreign policy and media organs seek to develop and wield their discourse power, or huayuquan, to challenge the existing international architecture and build a new understanding of China’s place in the world.12 This more aggressive posture is seen in China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy” and in its outward facing media. Chinese media have internationalized, and increasingly sophisticated market analysis is used to target specific audiences using both state and nonstate actors.13
Described as a “magic weapon,” the Party’s United Front Work Department is responsible for winning hearts and minds through soft power operations abroad. Following Xi’s pronouncement in 2015 that the entire party should be involved in united front work, the department’s status has been elevated, resulting in more aggressive efforts to win friends among overseas Chinese, academics, and China-friendly politicians abroad, while utilizing these relationships to marginalize anti-China elements.14 While popular social media such as Facebook and Twitter are banned in China, armies of wumao (“50 cent”) commentators and unpaid highly nationalistic “little pinks” aggressively patrol these and other platforms, defending China’s position on sensitive issues and calling out businesses, high-profile athletes, and celebrities for inadvertently “hurting China’s feelings.”15
Navigating a Changing World
For Christians in China and globally, the country’s repositioning presents new opportunities. Peter Bryant has written about the potential synergy between China’s BRI strategy and the Chinese church’s emerging mission movement. The tragic execution of two Chinese missionaries in Pakistan in 2018 highlights some of the challenges. This high-profile incident raised Chinese government concern that such missionary activity could negatively impact the BRI, resulting in greater scrutiny on Christians both inside and outside China.16 Nevertheless, the desire of people in many parts of the world to learn Chinese, and the openness of countries to foreign investment from China, provide potential paths for Chinese Christians serving cross-culturally.
The Party’s attempts to challenge international norms and institutions invite a thoughtful Christian response. Diaspora Chinese Christians in leadership positions in business, academia, media, government, and other sectors have an important role to play in interpreting and mediating the cultural interplay taking place. A thorough biblical critique would fully support neither the liberal values of the current Western-led system nor the socialist alternative promoted by China’s leaders. Rather than defaulting instinctively to their respective cultural positions, Chinese and non-Chinese Christians have the opportunity to instead come together and formulate an alternative approach.
Finally, as China’s leaders engage in a battle of words, it is all the more important to seek out and listen to the stories of China’s Christians, as well as those of foreign believers who have firsthand knowledge of China. These are the China stories that can bring an eternal perspective to the drama playing out on the world scene as China continues moving toward center stage.
- Min Ye. “Ten Years of the Belt and Road: Reflections and Recent Trends.” Global Development Policy Center, September 6, 2022. Accessed October 24, 2022. https://www.bu.edu/gdp/2022/09/06/ten-years-of-the-belt-and-road-reflections-and-recent-trends/?utm_content=220278315&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter&hss_channel=tw-905477617775771654.
- “The World According to China with Elizabeth Economy.” China in the World Podcast, January 28, 2022. Accessed September 20, 2022. https://soundcloud.com/chinafile/the-world-according-to-china-with-elizabeth-economy.
- “The New Great Game: How China Replaced Russia in Kazakhstan and Beyond.” Chinese Whispers, August 22, 2022. Accessed September 20,2022. https://player.fm/series/chinese-whispers/the-new-great-game-how-china-replaced-russia-in-kazakhstan-and-beyond.
- Amitrajeet A. Batabayal. “China Has a New Global Development Initiative, but Who Will Actually Benefit from It?” The Conversation, August 4, 2022. Accessed October 24, 2022. https://theconversation.com/china-has-a-new-global-development-initiative-but-who-will-actually-benefit-from-it-187561.
- Chu Daye, Zhao Juecheng, and Liu Xin. “Xi Proposes Global Security Initiative at Boao Forum, ‘Sends Signal of Peace, Stability amid Global Turmoil’.” Global Times, April 21, 2022. Accessed September 23, 2022. https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202204/1259907.shtml.
- Ovigue Eguegu. “Will China’s ‘Global Security Initiative’ Catch On?” The Diplomat, June 8, 2022. Accessed October 25, 2022. https://thediplomat.com/2022/06/will-chinas-global-security-initiative-catch-on/.
- “China’s Global Development Initiative Is Not as Innocent as It Sounds.” The Economist, June 9, 2022. Accessed October 25, 2022. https://www.economist.com/china/2022/06/09/chinas-global-development-initiative-is-not-as-innocent-as-it-sounds.
- AFM Editorial Office. “China Is Leading in Renewable Energy Investments.” Asia Fund Managers, September 1, 2022. Accessed October 25, 2022. https://www.asiafundmanagers.com/us/china-is-leading-in-renewable-energy-investments/.
- “National security” appeared 60 percent more often in the 2022 report as compared to 2017. See David Bandurski. “Buzzword Babble.” China Media Project, October 21, 2022. Accessed October 25, 2022. https://chinamediaproject.org/2022/10/21/buzzword-babble/.
- Michael Schuman. “How China Wants to Replace the U.S. Order.” The Atlantic, July 13, 2022. Accessed October 25, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2022/07/china-xi-jinping-global-security-initiative/670504/.
- Nadège Rolland. “China’s Vision for a New World Order.” NBR Special Report #83 (Washington, DC: The National Bureau of Asian Research, January 2020), 7, 9-10. Accessed September 23, 2022. https://www.nbr.org/wp-content/uploads/pdfs/publications/sr83_chinasvision_jan2020.pdf.
- “1 Key for 1 Lock: The Chinese Communist Party’s Strategy for Targeted Propaganda.” Insikt Group, September 28, 2022. Accessed October 25, 2022. https://www.recordedfuture.com/1-key-for-1-lock-chinese-communist-party-strategy-targeted-propaganda.
- James Kynge, Lucy Hornby, and Jamil Anderlini. “Inside China’s Secret ‘Magic Weapon’ for Worldwide Influence.” Financial Times, October 25, 2017. Accessed October 24, 2022. https://www.ft.com/content/fb2b3934-b004-11e7-beba-5521c713abf4.
- Linda Jaivin. “Little Pinks and Their Achy Breaky Hearts.” Inside Story, December 3, 2021. Accessed October 24, 2022. https://insidestory.org.au/little-pinks-and-their-achy-breaky-hearts/.
- Peter Bryant. “Chinese Missions Along the Belt and Road.” ChinaSource Quarterly, Summer 2020. Accessed October 24, 2022. https://www.chinasource.org/resource-library/articles/chinese-missions-along-the-belt-and-road/.
Brent Fulton is the founder of ChinaSource. Dr. Fulton served as the first president of ChinaSource until 2019. Prior to his service with ChinaSource, he served from 1995 to 2000 as the managing director of the Institute for Chinese Studies at Wheaton College. From 1987 to 1995 he served as founding …View Full Bio