China’s Expansive Strategy

by Enzo Reale (May 2020)




In general, however, the necessary consideration of the differences between political regimes continues to be lacking in the political debate and, consequently, in the strategies of democratic nations. If communism is no longer the ghost that wanders Europe, ideology continues to influence the basic choices of countries in the 21st century, especially those governed by illiberal systems. The underestimation of the role of ideology, the nature of regimes, leads to enormous misunderstandings in the context of international relations, because of the tendency to deal with any interlocutor only in a “realist” (or presumed such) perspective, renouncing to ponder the internal dynamics that actually drive its global projection. It’s impossible to understand China’s vision of the world if we don’t analyze how China sees itself. At the same time, attempts by much of the Western press to conceal or relativize repression, the absence of the rule of law, the denial of fundamental freedoms, the imprisonment of entire ethnic groups for political reasons, to provide the image of a superpower too complex to be judged, condition not only public debate but also the actions of politics. The results are there for all to see: China becomes not only a “normal country” but even a potential ally, while the danger of the expansion of its authoritarian model on a global level is taken as a mere detail of the history. History is stubborn.

article by David Bandurski, published last year, which analyzes the implications of this declaration of intent of the Chinese regime, defined by the official press “the flag under which China is guiding human civilization in the direction of progress.” A universal mission, therefore. It is essential to understand what this mission consists of. Bandurski explains, with generosity of arguments, that the message conveyed by the slogan “a shared destiny (or future) for mankind” is actually the updated version of the doublespeak China has accustomed us to in these decades. The reading that we would be tempted to give, based on our democratic traditions, implies the overcoming of national egoisms in a perspective of global integration, starting from the free will of association of individuals. It is the transnational discourse we grew up with since the end of WWII. But it would be a mistaken reading. In Beijing, the concept takes on exactly the opposite meaning—that is, the reaffirmation of the principles of national interest and non-interference in internal affairs for the purpose of legitimizing its political structure. To perform this reversal of meaning, the official ideology uses an abstract concept of Chinese nation, which is based not on the constant renewal of the consensus by the individuals who assemble it (Renan), but on a rigid idea of sovereignty that surpasses and overwhelms the will of the people and puts the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at center stage. When China declares to pursue a “community with a shared Destiny,” it is referring to a notion of a national state whose objectives must always prevail over individual rights, to be interpreted exclusively according to the political, economic and social context in which they are framed. So far nothing particularly new, to be honest. It is the defensive approach always followed by authoritarian states to justify violations of fundamental freedoms in the name of a “national way to development.” The novelty introduced by Xi Jinping’s “thought,” through his insistence on the concepts of “community” and “shared destiny,” consists in the attempt to export the state-centric vision of the Chinese communist tradition: his mandate represents the transition from the defensive phase to an offensive one, from the legitimization of the domestic approach to its affirmation on a global scale, from the consolidation of internal stability to the international promotion of the Chinese system. Authoritarianism as a development model, based on the repudiation of individualism and the prevalence of state power over every other aspect of society.


reiterated in his recent visit to Shaanxi, the basis of the social pact that so far has guaranteed its survival in exchange for development. Again, a strong and feared China beyond its borders is functional to maintain this delicate internal balance, allowing the party-state to present itself to the national community with an apparent message of cohesion: We have the situation under control, we are a model for the whole world, you can trust us. But insecurity hides behind the mask of ambition, and fear of instability behind superpower projects.


  • new era,” to the “thought of Xi Jinping for a socialism with Chinese characteristics“;
  • it’s total control of the media, the Internet police, state censorship, the blocking of unauthorized online communication platforms.

    but efficient” model that the CCP would like to promote. Also, in the Chinese perspective of a world divided between complacent friends and ungrateful enemies, the possibility that less powerful nations will oppose its agenda and hinder its interests is not contemplated. While Hong Kong is the mirror of its internal contradictions, Taiwan is the reflection of its external ones.


    There’s no reason to think that China’s course will become somewhat milder in the near future. The route is now drawn and, even if in Zhongnanhai they try to conceal their real intentions with slogans that refer to universal brotherhood, it would be unforgivable to continue to underestimate the real extent of the challenge that the CCP dictatorship is launching to the liberal system. The pandemic, a (supposedly) involuntary weapon in weakening the opponents, has been used by the regime to conquer ground and present itself as a superior alternative to the Western model of electoral democracy and civil rights. As the Belt and Road Initiative intends to place China at the center of trade routes by creating an economic clientelist network, the new system of political alliances that the CCP is building in parallel has the objective of occupying the traditional role of the United States at the center of the international landscape. In the absence of a coherent strategy by Washington, Europe and the democratic nations, we will witness an increasing assertiveness from Beijing and a progressive shift of world balances in its favor. The answer must take into account the nature of the regime we’re facing with the objective of promoting internal changes, without which it will be difficult to curb the spread of its authoritarian model. The cost of inaction, in terms of democratic quality, civil and economic freedoms and political dependence, would be far greater than the health emergency which, starting from China, brought the planet to its knees.


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    Enzo Reale is an Italian journalist living in Barcelona who writes about international politics. His articles have appeared in Atlantico Quotidiano, New English Review, L’Opinione, and Il Foglio and he is the author of 1972 (I posti della ragione erano tutti occupati). You can follow him on Twitter at @1972book.

    NER on Twitter @NERIconoclast