Plenary Session II

China’s Domestic Politics and Engagement With the World

At its core, China’s domestic politics and engagement with the world consider how we study China and its global policy implications. There are three groups of scholars within this subject. The first group consists of those who seek to understand grand strategy in Chinese policy. The second group studies how Chinese policies such as the Belt and Road Initiative and Made in China 2025 affect the world. Finally, the last group studies how foreign policy affects domestic Chinese politics.

Panelists noted that most sensible international relations scholars know domestic Chinese politics are extremely influential in policy outcomes, therefore rejecting the assertion that China is a black box. For example, China’s domestic nationalist agenda has supported the country’s aspiring role in the international sphere. Furthermore, individual political leaders matter in determining China’s international engagement. Xi Jinping, for example, is distinctive in his approach to China and its global interactions.

The panel members also discussed what the academic community stands to lose in examining China’s international behavior without considering its domestic politics. Notably, this approach cannot account for the origins and effects of policy decisions. However, discounting China’s international behavior in understanding its domestic context causes one to lose insight on state pathologies. Panelists suggested that scholars consider taking a domestic versus international approach based on whether their phenomena of interest are systematic, international, or domestic. They also supported professors co-teaching courses that involve multiple subspecialties to better capture nuances in these fields.

The BRI is perhaps the most discussed policy in conversations on China’s global engagement. However, this dialogue often suffers from misperceptions that the policy is purely a military-strategic initiative. Given China’s status as a rising world power with heavy state control in its economy, Western countries often draw a cohesive and strategic image of the BRI. In contrast, many Chinese officials viewed the BRI opportunistically, making the policy’s implementation rather fragmented. Panelists suggested that scholars pursue grassroots research with open-ended questions to examine individual projects rather than focusing on select high-profile cases. They also recommended that students research the BRI and other manifestations of Chinese politics abroad should they encounter issues studying Chinese politics domestically.

China’s global engagement carries parallel consequences for subnational actors in China and around the world. As foreign firms enter domestic environments, they create differences in local labor markets and incentives. Even after years of operation, foreign companies in China often lack a comprehensive understanding of the Chinese government, perhaps contributing to their frequent loss of market access. Therefore, the academic community should explore foreign markets and their effects on the state and society.