China as a Development Model
Before discussing the prospect of a Chinese development model, panelists first considered the evidence for why China would want to shape a new world order. Firstly, China is dissatisfied with the world order’s current distribution of interests. Creating a world order that prioritizes issues China deems important presents itself as an advantageous route. While definitions of the China model vary, most include economic development, especially that which occurs via the BRI, and tight state control as its cornerstones. Throughout his tenure, Xi Jinping has highlighted development as the source of China’s national rejuvenation and now uses this theme to present the PRC as a benign and politically neutral actor abroad.
In many ways, the China model harkens back to policy learning in rural East Asia. Deng Xiaoping observed that other East Asian states had managed to improve their economies without sacrificing political control and sought to emulate these methods. Therefore, when countries cite China as an inspiration for their industrial revolutions, these movements also bear resemblance to similar events in Japan and South Korea.
The panel also noted that there is debate over whether a single China model exists. Whereas a model requires an equilibrium, China has a history of constant change. Panelists noted the contrast between China’s external perception as having organized and comprehensive plans and its messy domestic development. Policies like the BRI are a product of fragmented domestic politics rather than a coordinated and centralized plan. This disparity in perceptions embodies a larger split between elite opinion, which supports China’s involvement in potentially costly activities such as United Nations Peacekeeping operations, and public opinion at large
Regardless of academic perceptions, some countries such as Peru find the coordination in Chinese efforts impressive. Panelists noted that it is easy for foreign countries to boil the China model down to a few characteristics based on their interactions with Beijing, whereas those who study China domestically have access to broader information. For these countries in particular, China’s strategic competitors must craft foreign policy initiatives that can compete with Beijing.
China’s haphazard approach to sharing information presents another challenge in discussing the China model. The Chinese state shares information through multiple soft power outlets such as educational initiatives, trainings for foreign officials, and media endeavors. Some of these activities—particularly training initiatives—have produced legitimate concern that China is attempting to export its own governance model. Although not all participating countries take the lessons from these trainings to heart, the lack of inquiry into these programs legitimizes them.
Finally, panelists discussed how the China model has changed over the years. For example, Chinese firms have noticed that issues around sustainability—both environmental and financial—can draw scrutiny from locals and the international community alike. They also have learned that the optics of their activities matter more abroad than they might at home. In recent years, firms have moved to hire locals and engaged with social responsibility consultants to improve their local perceptions. These steps demonstrate concrete lessons learned and improvements from China’s development model evolution.