CFR Asia Studies Director Dr. Elizabeth Economy. Photo Credit: Council on Foreign Relations
By: Olivia Letts, Reporter
At what marked the last of the Council on Foreign Relations’ Academic Conference Call series lineup for 2018, Chinese policy expert and CFR Asia Studies Director Dr. Elizabeth Economy expounded on how President Xi Jinping is shaping China’s international power trajectory, as well as its domestic style of governance. Eight Georgetown SSP students gathered in the Mortara Center for International Studies with SSP Associate Director Rebecca Patterson, who gave them each the chance to formulate their own questions for Dr. Economy.
To prepare for the event, participating students were encouraged to read several relevant articles and essays regarding key Chinese strategies and the power dynamics of the Chinese Communist Party and the president.
Before students were given the chance to phone in with their questions as Dr. Patterson connected to the live conference call, the interactive forum began with Dr. Economy giving a thorough introduction to what she perceives as some of the main drivers of China’s current politics and foreign policy under President Xi Jinping. Dr. Economy recently wrote The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State, from which she drew her framework for understanding the current Chinese administration. She explained how President Xi has been implementing major strategic shifts away from the prior administration – a “third revolution.”
Dr. Economy sees this “third revolution” as comprising four major changes. The first of these transitions is China reversing its President Xiaoping-era move toward more collective authority and reform, and re-adopting a more Maoist, authoritarian system of politics since Xi Jinping’s rise to power in 2012. She cited the example of China’s removal of the two-term limit on the presidency, and recalled a line spoken by President Xi in his 2017 Communist Party General Secretary reacceptance speech as illustrating his own understanding of China’s ambitions and his role as China’s leader: “China has stood up, grown rich, has become strong, and is moving towards center stage.”
Secondly, Dr. Economy notes that President Xi has rendered the Communist Party more active in the Chinese economy as well as the day-to-day lives of Chinese citizens. Some of the most notable and controversial components of this policy shift include increased camera surveillance and the more intrusive role of Communist Party committees in directing the investments of seemingly private companies. There has also been the development of the Social Credit System, which, according to Dr. Economy, will be “evaluating each Chinese individual on the basis of their behavior, behavior types such as have you repaid your loans, or do you jaywalk, or did you participate in a protest?” and thus contribute to a social credit score that impacts personal freedoms.
The third shift characterizing the new state of Chinese politics is the increase in restrictions on what can come in and out of China, another shift from Xiaoping-era policy. An example of this is the 2017 Foreign NGO Law, which labels foreign NGOS as potential security threats and makes it harder for them to operate in China. Such limitations hinder Chinese civil society.
Finally, Dr. Economy underscored President Xi Jinping’s “expansive” foreign policy, more assertive than that of his predecessor. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connecting China to 70 countries through various infrastructure projects is one of the highlights of this transition, along with Chinese actions in the South China Sea, and Chinese reshaping global institutions and governance norms.
After Dr. Economy outlined this framework, listeners raced to dial in to ask questions, as per the nature of the conference call protocol. Georgetown got the first slot for a question, with an SSP student asking about how China’s views on human rights and its increasing influence in countries prone to ethnic and civil wars could destabilize geopolitics. Dr. Economy responded by emphasizing that China generally avoids taking an active role in areas with ongoing conflict, but that it may export its authoritarian model abroad to some degree. She argued that the current Chinese administration is not focused on helping other countries achieve long-term stability, but that this could change in the future.
In answering the questions, Dr. Economy touched on important issues regarding President Xi Jinping’s leadership, such as the difference between his institutional control and political support. She believes that his presidency has indeed been supported by a feeling shared by many Chinese people that past leaders did not truly embrace China’s imminent rise. However, the economy has slowed and the tech revolution is expected to put people out of work, while discontent has emerged among entrepreneurs, progressive liberals, and repressed groups in China – all factors that could undermine Xi Jinping’s political support even as his institutional control grows.
Furthermore, there has been global backlash against President Xi’s expansionist policies such as the BRI. Dr. Economy has observed a consensus among European and American officials that the West should push back against China when it comes to some of its controversial policies, such as repression of the Uyghur population or the ‘Made in China 2025’ plan to compete with American manufacturing.
Dr. Economy does not see the future of the Chinese relationship with America as entirely bleak. For instance, after being asked if she thinks President Xi Jinping will continue China’s trade war with the U.S., she said that she is “cautiously optimistic,” noting that China has signaled a willingness to buy more American goods, crack down on intellectual property rights violations in international business, and negotiate trade and tariff agreements. Regarding other encroachments of Chinese influence in the United States, Dr. Economy believes in addressing them so that America can defend its core values like free speech, but she also thinks that people should not let fear about Chinese involvement get unnecessarily blown out of proportion.
The materials recommended by CFR for reading prior to the event would be helpful for anyone interested in learning more about China’s future under Xi Jinping:
Kelly Hammond, Rian Thum, and Jeffrey Wasserstrom, “China’s Bad Old Days Are Back: Why Xi Jinping is Ramping Up Repression,” Foreign Affairs, October 30, 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-10-30/chinas-bad-old-days-are-back
Jonathan E. Hillman, “China’s Belt and Road is Full of Holes,” CSIS Briefs, September 4, 2018. https://www.csis.org/analysis/chinas-belt-and-road-full-holes
Elizabeth C. Economy, “China’s New Revolution: The Reign of Xi Jinping,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2018. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2018-04-17/chinas-new-revolution
“The Chinese Communist Party,” Backgrounder, Council on Foreign Relations, March 14, 2018. https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinese-communist-party
Elizabeth C. Economy, “History With Chinese Characteristics: How China’s Imagined Past Shapes its Present,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 2017. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2017-06-13/history-chinese-characteristics
You can also listen to a recording of Dr. Economy’s CFR Academic Conference Call or read the transcript here: https://www.cfr.org/conference-calls/xi-jinping-power-profile