In consideration of The Elements of the China Challenge, Policy Planning Staff, U.S. Department of State
Whenever I’m asked if Beijing is exporting the “China model,” I reply with a simple question: Could Indonesia or Pakistan, to take two countries with close ties to China, have an Organization Department sitting at the heart of their governments?
The Central Organization Department, to give it its full name, is the ruling Communist Party’s personnel arm. It has oversight over all key appointments in China, from government to state companies, academia, the law, and the media. Along with other party ministries that control the media and anti-corruption investigations, the Organization Department forms the core of the sprawling, catch-all governing system ultimately directed at the top by the Politburo and its chief, President Xi Jinping.
It goes without saying that neither Pakistan nor Indonesia could replicate such a system. Neither could Beijing impose it on them as a governing model.
A lot of sloppy analysis about China “exporting its model” misses this point—that the China model, which combines a centuries-old bureaucratic culture with a Leninist structure imported from the Soviet Union, is neither replicable elsewhere nor fit for purpose in other countries. But neither is China trying to “export its model.” Beijing is self-aware enough to know that other countries cannot structure their governments along its exact lines.
There are possible exceptions with countries like Vietnam and Cuba. But these don’t need to import anything from China as they have long had communist states of their own design, which are captive to their own histories and personalities.
Just as democracy in the United States looks very different from other democracies, China’s authoritarian system does not fit neatly within the administrations of other non-democratic states.
But if China can’t export its model lock, stock, and barrel, can it export segments of it in ways that extend its influence? Under Xi, Beijing has been doing just that, promoting what it calls the “China Solution.” The China Solution markets elements of the party-state system and its concept of governance as an alternative to powerful and established Western conceptions of political and economic organization. “China’s opening drive is not a one-man show. Rather, it is an invitation open to all,” Xi told world leaders at a G20 keynote speech in 2016. “It supports the common development of all countries, not just China’s own sphere of influence. It is meant to build not China’s own backyard garden, but a garden shared by all countries.”
China’s refusal to disavow Russia and Vladimir Putin over the invasion of Ukraine is consistent with this idea. What Xi describes as a “garden shared by all” is in fact a determined effort to build an alternative to the notion that democratic governance, and democracies, represent the best path for development.
While a petro-state like Russia has no lessons to offer, China does have a compelling story to tell. China’s success in achieving near-nonstop strong growth since the late 1970s is reason enough to study the policies that have underpinned that achievement. Even if China was starting from a low base when market reforms were first introduced, few developing countries can match its record.
Other East Asian “economic miracles” have long been used as textbook development models in the wake of their own rise. Each had its own distinct features.
Japan had a vertically integrated industrial system along with strong state planning. South Korea refined this idea further, with its sprawling industrial groups, or chaebol, directly supported by the government. Taiwan took a different path, with its success driven by small firms.
During Japan’s rise beginning in the 1960s, there were many Western critics of its supposedly mercantilist model. Some of Japan’s critics, most of all in the United States, used racist and orientalist tropes to suggest that the country’s model was alien and threatening. But at the same time, there was widespread study of, and much praise for, many aspects of the Japanese model that had helped propel the country into first-world status from out of the ashes of war.
Japanese organizational and industrial innovation would eventually become part of textbooks the world over on how to run a modern economy. Factories that empowered workers; just-in-time manufacturing; a focus on quality; long-term time horizons; and investment in design and technology—Japan was pivotal in remaking and reimagining 20th-century management and industrial systems.
If the world could learn from Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan, and in Europe from postwar Germany, then surely China’s reform-era takeoff offers lessons on a global scale as well. As much as anyone may dislike China’s ruling Communist Party, its market economy reforms, launched in the late 1970s, have been undeniably successful.
But with major-power status at hand, the first problem is defining with precision what China has to offer. Does the China Solution embody the principles and lessons drawn from Beijing’s own rise? What is distinctive about China’s political economy? Which parts of it might be worth emulating and, indeed, are capable of being emulated by other countries?
Is it local policy experimentation? Government investment in technology? Infrastructure-led development? Urbanization? Meritocracy in the choice and elevation of government officials? Or is the China Solution simply a rhetorical cloak for Chinese political influence in its contest with the West? Beijing itself says that the one essential element of its own development has been a strong party, or, put another way, a strong state, with capable and empowered officials.
Let’s take just one aspect of Chinese policy—the way in which the central government experiments with reforms in various localities—to see if it works and how it can be fine-tuned. As sensible as it appears, and as successful as it has been, this in fact only works in systems with a strong central government with both the confidence to allow such experimentation and the ability to process its lessons.
Another aspect of the China Solution is embodied in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), launched by Xi in Kazakhstan in 2013. The BRI is a platform to promote Chinese trade and business and technology standards. Huawei’s “Smart Cities” is a good example of the BRI and its spinoffs—it is simultaneously a valuable technology export and a vector to influence foreign countries in any geopolitical competition.
The sales pitch for Smart Cities has another dimension—it strengthens ruling elites by enhancing their ability to track and maintain surveillance on their own citizens. While this is an aspect of Smart Cities that Beijing doesn’t overtly promote, it is true nonetheless.
A critical next question is: Who is buying what China is selling?
The answer to this question is twofold. First, many countries are trying to learn from China, primarily in Africa and Central Asia. Additionally, after missteps of different kinds, Beijing is also getting smarter at selling its services and at being more responsive to local conditions and demands.
In Central Asia, to take one area where Chinese firms have been active—with the backing of the party-state—a recent report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace details their changed their approach:
They have steadily increased their proportions of local hires by training Central Asian workers both onsite and in China to address skills shortages. They have tried to engage local communities to earn a social license for their overseas operations.… The Chinese government is now following suit. It is developing more formal cooperation agreements on industrialization and upskilling in addition to pre-existing, ad-hoc arrangements by individual companies.
To summarize, then, the China Solution has at its core an unsurprising aim—to lift Chinese influence around the world and sell more Chinese products. But it is not a singular, off-the-shelf product. Rather, it is a supermarket that Beijing has packed with all manner of products to suit a diverse array of potential customers. Not only is there a range of options to choose from, but the evidence suggests that the quality is getting better all the time.
Richard McGregor is a senior fellow for East Asia at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, and author of numerous books on Chinese politics and foreign policy.
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