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The World China Wants

Author:
Rana Mitter

Chinese power today is a protean, dynamic force formed by the nexus of authoritarianism, consumerism, global ambitions, and technology. Call it the ACGT model: with the same initials as the nucleotides in DNA, these strands of Chinese power combine and recombine to form China’s modern political identity and approach to the rest of the world. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wants to firm up its grip on Chinese society, encourage consumerism at home and abroad, expand its global influence, and develop and export China’s own advanced technology. China’s current standing and future prospects cannot be understood without seeing all four of those goals together.

The strongman leadership of Chinese President Xi Jinping is important in understanding China today and its likely trajectory, as is the country’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the four ACGT forces have a significance that extends beyond any one leader or crisis. They shape Beijing’s idea of its place in a reconstituted world order, in which China would take a preeminent role in Asia and export its model of economic investment, which draws on communitarian ideas of development and is indifferent to liberal norms (although not always actively hostile to them). To legitimize its approach, China often turns to history, invoking its premodern past, for example, or reinterpreting the events of World War II. China’s increasingly authoritarian direction under Xi offers only one possible future for the country. To understand where China could be headed, observers must pay attention to the major elements of Chinese power and the frameworks through which that power is both expressed and imagined. 

Chinese leaders don’t simply want to consolidate their rule at home. Their ambitions are global. This is not wholly new: the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and his Communist counterpart, Mao Zedong, both had visions of a major international role for their country in the 1940s and 1960s, respectively. Xi’s China, however, has combined international ambitions with economic, military, and technological power to achieve a genuinely global reach, from port facilities in Athens to a naval base in Djibouti to the rollout of 5G technology across the world. Xi declared in a 2017 speech to the 19th Party Congress that China would move unerringly closer to the “center stage” of world affairs.

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