From Indifference to Engagement to Dominance? China and International Organizations


Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, its strategy with regard to involvement in international organizations has undergone a complete U-turn. As political and economic international organizations such as the United Nations and the Bretton Woods Institutions developed in the years after WWII, the PRC remained skeptical and suspicious of becoming entrapped in a framework set by external, Western, and ordinarily capitalist powers. Instead, it pursued a policy of non-engagement in multilateral institutions, with very few exceptions. Those it did involve itself with, such as the Non-Aligned Movement, evidenced attempts by China to disassociate itself from the superpower struggle between the US and the Soviet Union. Although this was partly driven by the politics of the Cold War that determined so much of international relations at that time, it also reflected the mistrust felt in China towards such institutions, rooted in the historical sense of injustice felt at its treatment by the League of Nations, which failed completely to arrest the invasion of China by Japan, a League member.

China began to rethink its engagement in international organizations after the success of its economic reform program launched in 1978. As an increasing percentage of its GDP became generated through international trade, and its status as an international power began to rise, China came to determine that engagement with international organizations would be useful in resolving trade disputes, gaining access to markets, promoting its perspectives on the international stage, and assuring established powers that its rise would be peaceful and would happen within the existing international framework. Today, China is not only a member of virtually all relevant international organizations, but it is also a key actor in many of them.

United Nations

Since the creation of the UN in the aftermath of World War II, one of the five permanent seats on the Security Council has been reserved for China. This seat was initially occupied by the Republic of China in Taiwan that was recognized as the government of all of China by most Western powers from 1949-1971. The People’s Republic of China, therefore, had no representation within the UN. This changed in 1971 when a UN General Assembly vote recognized the PRC as the legal government of China, effectively transferring all UN powers to the PRC, including Taiwan’s permanent seat on the Security Council and the veto that comes with it. This was an important step in the gradual global recognition, by international powers, that the PRC was the legitimate government of China. The ROC in Taiwan was expelled from the UN as it was no longer recognized as a state, and has never been readmitted, despite sporadic attempts from within Taiwan for it to be recognized. Thus, its membership in the UN had the immediate effect of facilitating the promotion of the PRC’s ‘one China’ policy, which ensured Taiwanwould never be officially recognized as separate from the PRC.

In its early years in the UN, China was relatively passive in its behavior, ordinarily abstaining in votes on peacekeeping operations (PKOs) and never participating in the operations themselves. During the 1971-1978 period, China voted in favor of roughly 40% of the resolutions that passed. This gradually began to change after 1978 with China increasing the number of motions it put forward. This more participative and assertive behavior continued in the 1990s, particularly from the first Gulf War onwards, when China not only began to vote in favor of peace keeping operations, PKOs, but actually became involved in the operations directly. By 2008, China was contributing approximately 2500 troops to UN PKOs, a similar number to France and significantly more than the US. The record since the turn of the millennium shows that more than 95% of resolutions that pass in the UNSC receive the support of China. This demonstrates both a shift in the behavior of China itself, which has become much more willing to take an active role in the process of international governance, as well as in the attitude of other UNSC members, who have come to see China’s support, as opposed to its passivity, as crucial to the perceived legitimacy of any UN action.

China’s increased willingness to engage in the UN framework has resulted in a slight contradiction in its official policy regarding the sovereignty of nations. While the rhetoric continues to stay on the message of respect for sovereignty and the maintenance of the principle of non-interference, China’s voting pattern suggests that there are circumstances in which it is willing to forgo this principle. Its acquiescence in 2002 on UN resolution 1441 which, ultimately, was used to justify the invasion of Iraq (though it should be noted that a clause on Iraq’s sovereignty and territorial integrity was included partly at China’s behest) exemplified this. An even starker example came in 2011 when resolution 1973 established a no-fly zone and authorized “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. That China saw fit to allow this resolution to pass (both China and Russia abstained) appears to demonstrate the limit of its international defense of the principle of sovereignty. However, such an increased willingness to allow such motions to pass in the UNSC should not be viewed as evidence that China has become a pushover in its dealings with Western powers – rather, it ought to be seen as proof that China has learned how to operate within the institutions of the UN, protecting its own key interests while promoting an image of a responsible world power.

China has positioned itself within the UN as something of a voice for developing nations and frequently counts on the support of these countries in votes in the General Assembly (where the veto it wields on the Security Council cannot be used). This has been particularly useful in avoiding censure over human rights abuses. As by far the largest member of the G77 group of developing nations, China is able to use its influence both to secure support from, and to advance the interests of, a significant bloc of the UN’s membership. Although this makes it a major player in the General Assembly, the most powerful body of the UN remains the Security Council where it continues to have to work with the other permanent members.

China is not only involved in the Security Council and General Assembly, but is also active in most other UN organizations through which it continues to pursue its core national objectives. For instance, even during the 2003 SARS and 2006 Avian Flu epidemics, China maintained its stance of blockingTaiwan’s participation in the World Health Organization, on the grounds that statehood is required for membership and the PRC is the sole legitimate government of China with Taiwan as part of China’s territory. Such an intransigent position was criticized both in Taiwan and by health experts in the organization with some suggesting that lives were lost as a result, though there are no credible statistics to support this claim. What this episode clearly demonstrated was China’s “red line” with regard to its position on Taiwan and the position of strength it now occupies in the UN structure through which it can pursue its objectives.

World Trade Organization

After protracted negotiations China finally gained membership of the WTO on December 11th 2001, a full fifteen years after it originally applied to join, symbolically three weeks before Taiwan – under the name “Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu (Chinese Taipei)” – also accessed. It should be noted that the WTO is an organization that does not require statehood for membership and Hong Kong has been a member since the organization’s inception in 1995. China’s leadership during the long negotiations went to great lengths to ensure China gained its place. Both Jiang Zemin and the then Premier Zhu Rongji invested enormous personal political capital in the process and Zhu, in particular, came under fire for the level of concessions made in order to be eligible for entry, particularly with regard to a commitment that China would open its telecommunications industry to foreign competition. The perception, both within China and among some analysts abroad, was that the requirements for Chinese admission were greater than those asked of other countries. In particular the decision not to bestow “Market Economy” status on China seems to have been politically motivated: the requirements that were laid out for China to achieve this status have been demonstrated by the Financial Times, a respected UK newspaper, to be so stringent as to rule out any member of the WTO from passing the test. The result of this apparently un-passable test is that when China is accused of breaches of WTO rules, the arbitration process measures the validity of such claims against other countries’ economic indices. For example, when China is accused of ‘dumping’ – selling goods into another economic area at below the price they are produced– it is not China’s own labor and raw material costs that are used to determine if this is the case. On occasion, Malaysia has been used despite wages in that country being significantly higher than in China.

Despite popular perceptions of China as a country engaging in unfair practices in global trade, particularly within regard to its apparent currency manipulation and the practice of ‘dumping’, its early years in the WTO were remarkably non-confrontational. In fact, no cases were brought against China in its first two years of membership, and China itself did not bring a case against another member until as recently as 2009. In those cases that have been bought against China, all of which have been by the EU or the US, it has struggled at times to defend itself, winning just one of the dispute cases that have gone through to completion. China also seems to have followed a similar pattern in its behavior in the WTO as it did in the UN, in that it spent its first few years learning how to operate within the WTO system, before attempting to become a major player. China’s increased activity over the last 2 or 3 years, during which time it has gone from bringing no cases against other members to averaging 3 per year (all of which have been against either the US or the EU) is evidence of this. Recently, despite the structural disadvantage that China faces by not being a “market economy”, it has had some success. For example, in 2009 China successfully brought a case against the US to end the ban on its poultry exports that had been in place since the Avian Flu epidemic. Similarly, in 2010 the WTO ruled that the EU’s anti-dumping measures on Chinese sales of fasteners were unfair and too broadly applied. Despite these victories, China’s success rate in successfully resolving WTO disputes remains below the average for the organization.

World Bank and International Monetary Fund

Along with the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), which later became the WTO, the World Bank and the IMF made up the key international financial institutions that came into being in the post-World War II era. China has officially been a member of both the World Bank and the IMF since their founding, although just as with the UN, responsibility for these positions was with the Republic of China on Taiwan until 1980, when the PRC took over control. As with the UN, Taiwan has since been denied participation in both organizations. The PRC has called upon the IMF for financial assistance on only two occasions, both of which occurred during the early period of its post-1978 economic reform and restructuring program, and both loans have since been repaid in full. In recent years, as China’s international standing has continued to grow, China has pushed hard for greater influence for itself and other developing nations within both organizations. It has had only limited success to date. It currently holds 96,000 votes in the IMF, equivalent to 3.81% of the total, making it the sixth largest behind the US (16.76%), Japan (6.24%), Germany (5.81%), France (4.29%) and the UK (4.29%). These figures represent an increase in the voting share for China that came into force in 2008. However, under IMF voting rules, a total of 15% is required to veto any proposal, meaning that the US alone, or a combination of any four of the other G7 countries without the US, has this power. China is a long way from achieving such privilege. By increasing its agreed contribution to the budget of the IMF, China has (along with other developing nations) successfully campaigned for further reform. Thus, another shift in the make-up of these shares has been agreed in principle, but not yet implemented. Although China’s position is likely to improve as a result of these reforms, it is not clear how the final figures will appear once this agreement has been ratified, but a review is currently ongoing and this is expected to be completed in 2013. Voting in the World Bank system is more complex, as it is divided into several organizations, each of which has its own voting allocation. Despite recent reform and reallocation in favor of several developing countries that saw China as the largest beneficiary, China still remains a relatively small player. Since its foundation, the president of the World Bank has always been a US citizen. Similarly, the recent election of Christine Lagarde as the president of the IMF continued the pattern of Western Europeans heading that institution. Still, the appointment of Justin Yifu Lin, a Taiwanese-born citizen of the PRC, as Chief Economist at the World Bank represents a breakthrough of sorts. The domination of Western, developed nations in both of these organizations, however, is likely to continue for some time to come, despite the damage to reputations done by the financial crisis of 2008, a source of some resentment from within China.


The G20, established in 1999 in recognition of the need to involve some of the larger developing nations in summits similar to those held by the G7 or G8, consists of 19 countries plus the EU. Since its inception, it has grown in significance, in no small part because of the inclusion of China, along with other major developing forces in global political and economic circles such as India and Brazil. These countries have pushed hard to make the G20 summit that takes place annually the premier event for global economic discussions and, consequently, to limit the importance of the G7 and G8 summits. While there has been some resistance to this, particularly from Japan which treasures its role in the G7 as a surrogate for its yearned-for but out-of-reach permanent place on the UN Security Council, the growing economic clout of China has meant this is, increasingly, the reality. Sideline summits have also given China a tremendous opportunity to promote symbols of its increased power on the world stage and one of the annual events of the G20 is the so-called G2 meeting that involves only China and the US. The existence of the G20, as opposed to an expanded G8, indicates China’s unwillingness to be enmeshed into yet another existent structure dominated by Western powers and, instead, to create a new system that incorporates other countries with potentially similar goals to its own, with whom it can form powerful alliances to overcome Western dominance.

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

Until very recently the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) received little attention in the West, but it has been a significant part of the PRC’s foreign policy since the mid 1990s. Formed as grouping of five countries – China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – at a meeting in Shanghai in 1996, its initial objective was to foster greater military trust between central Asian neighbors. After its inception the group began to meet annually and became dubbed ‘the Shanghai Five’. The addition of Uzbekistan and a more formalized structure to the grouping saw it renamed as the SCO in 2001. Since then, several states in the region have expressed an interest in joining a group which has been mooted as an Asian rival to NATO – though this language is never used by the countries involved. Those expressing serious interest in joining the SCO include Pakistan and Iran who, along with India, Mongolia and Afghanistan, have observer status. In 2012, Turkey was granted ‘Dialogue Partner’ status, becoming the first NATO country to have official ties with the organization.

The SCO has expanded military cooperation between its member states to levels that could not have been achieved without it. Annual joint practice operations in various fields of conflict have increased to include a total of more than 5000 participants from all six member states. The majority of these come from the two largest militaries in the group – China and Russia – and the closer military and strategic ties between these two states is one of the most significant outcomes of the SCO’s development. However, the most important potential impact of the SCO is the creation of a multilateral framework of military alliances that does not include any Western power, and which has China as its assumed leader. Clearly China and Russia are the lynchpins of this organization, but the enthusiasm of the other four members, as well as the level of interest from Pakistan and Iran, makes the SCO a potentially significant actor in future international relations.

Future Trends

China’s policies on International Organizations are unrecognizable from those that were pursued prior to the Reform Era. China now seeks engagement and involvement, as its many international organization memberships and its active participation within the organizations testify. However, as a relative latecomer to virtually all organizations, China has a structural disadvantage in that it has to learn how to play by the rules that have already been set by others, which are not always to its advantage. While it has had some success promoting its objectives within these pre-existing power structures, being hampered by Western-originated frameworks remains a continued source of frustration for the Chinese leadership. China has tried to address this frustration by creating alliances with developing nations within the organizations to give it greater negotiating power. The instigation of the SCO and the promotion of the G20 are examples of how China can combat this, by instigating new institutions which place itself at the heart. It is also used its rising economic and political power to gain greater leverage in the international organizations, as when it demonstrated a willingness to increase financial contributions to the World Bank and the IMF in exchange for a greater share of the voting rights.

To date, China’s increased involvement in International Organizations has, for the most part, been consistent with its proclaimed world view: that of respect for sovereignty, non-interference in the internal affairs of other nations, opposition to hegemony or unilateralism, and the promotion of multilateralism. As China’s own stake in global political, economic, and security affairs continues to grow, it will be interesting to watch how firmly it can stick to such principles. There are already signs that it is willing to compromise on the reality of non-interference, even if the rhetoric continues unabated. China has, however, been utterly uncompromising in its insistence that any organization that requires statehood for membership must exclude Taiwan. Thus, Taiwan has been progressively and near-comprehensively marginalized in the international arena, allowed to participate in only limited ways in limited organizations. Despite numerous attempts to rejoin the UN, Taiwan will not, under any name, be able to do so. This represents a clear example of how China has used its involvement in international organizations to achieve one of its key domestic and foreign policy objectives.

Donald Trump and Xi Jinping

Defining the 21st Century: the Sino-US Relationship


The Sino-US relationship is, without question, the most important bilateral relationship in the international system today, and is likely to define the twenty-first century. At stake will be whether China and the US can become “strategic partners”, as Bill Clinton argued they ought to be, or whether they will remain the “strategic rivals” as they were characterized by George W. Bush. In other words, can the two develop a working relationship that serves the core interest of both parties as well as the stability of the international system, or are they destined to clash over key interests? The answer will depend on careful management by both sides of the many tensions that exist between the two powers. In truth, given the complexity of the Sino-US relationship, it is unsatisfactory to characterize the relationship in such simplistic partner-rival terms; a productive and stable relationship between the world’s two greatest powers will surely have to encompass elements of both partnership and competition. A constructive Sino-US relationship will be one in which the partnership element is at the fore.

The Cold War and Normalization

After the end of the Second World War, the international system in general, and US bilateral relations in particular, came to be defined by the dichotomy between Communist and non-Communist nations. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) fell firmly into the Communist camp, while the US was at the head of those opposing communism. US relations with China were further complicated by the existence of the Republic of China (ROC) on Taiwan, which was an ally of the US and still recognized as the legitimate government of the whole of China by most countries in the non-Communist bloc. Additionally, the ROC held China’s UN Security Council seat. The two sides actually fought an armed conflict in the Korean War, which resulted in the deaths of nearly two hundred thousand Chinese soldiers and over thirty thousand Americans.

The first steps towards Sino-US reconciliation came somewhat out-of-the-blue in the early 1970s, although, with hindsight, there was clear motivation for wanting rapprochement on both sides. The US was mired in the Vietnam War and still feared the “domino effect” of communism toppling state after state across the world. The US leadership felt that they needed a breakthrough to split the most powerful country within that bloc (the USSR) from other significant players. This coincided with a Sino-Soviet rift of the 1960s that had, by the end of the decade, become a serious threat to the PRC’s own perception of its national security, exemplified by a series of border skirmishes that occurred between the two former allies at that time.

In the autumn of 1969, there existed no official channel of exchange between the People’s Republic of China and the United States, so that when Nixon wanted to indicate to China his willingness to create conduits of communication between the two countries, he had to relay the message through the Pakistani and Romanian leaders who then communicated with China. Having received no reply from China, Nixon tried again in December 1969. The US ambassador to Poland approached his Chinese counterpart at a function in Warsaw. This time China responded, albeit in a circuitous manner through the two countries’ respective ambassadors to Pakistan, indicating that the two respective ambassadors to Poland might meet in Warsaw in January 1970. In this meeting, the US expressed willingness to send an envoy to China. In a second meeting China communicated that if the Americans wished to upgrade their diplomatic relations with China, they would need to recognize that Taiwan was a part of China and to withdraw all US forces from the Taiwan area. Nixon again pushed to establish a direct channel of communication with Beijing so that the two countries could more effectively discuss Taiwan and other issues. However, events in Southeast Asia complicated the process, with the US deeply entrenched in the war in Vietnam and China involved in a power struggle with the Soviet Union involving both Cambodia and Vietnam.

An acceleration in the Sino-US reconciliation came in March 1971 when the US and Chinese ping pong teams met in Japan, during which the Chinese invited the American team to visit China. The visit of the American ping pong team to China received prominent coverage in Chinese media. During the visit, the American team met with Premier Zhou Enlai at the Great Hall of the People, where he declared that the Americans’ visit had “opened a new chapter in the history of the relations between the Chinese and the American people.” This “ping pong diplomacy” paved the way for Henry Kissinger’s clandestine visit to China in July 1971, which laid the groundwork for Nixon himself to make his historic visit to Beijing in February 1972. The famous image of Nixon walking down the steps of the plane with his hand extended came about because Kissinger had caused great offence by refusing to shake hands with Zhou Enlai on his own visit. Nixon’s gesture was appreciated by the Chinese who considered it a restoration of ‘face’. During the visit, President Nixon agreed to withdraw US forces from Taiwan, and to publicly recognize that there was only “one China” as Taiwan was part of Chinese territory. Although it paved the way for a normalization of diplomatic relations between China and the US, thus driving a wedge between the two major Communist powers of the Soviet Union and China, the ‘one-China’ concession was viewed as highly controversial, with many in the US as it was considered an abandonment of a long-term ally. This controversy, along with the disruption caused by the deaths of both Mao and Zhou Enlai in China, meant that it took a further seven years before diplomatic relations were finally established between the US and the PRC, causing the US to cut official ties with Taipei in the process. In order that agreement could be reached within the US, the Taiwan Relations Act was passed. Under the terms of the Act, the US allows Taiwan to be treated as a normal state in its relations in everything but name and, even more significantly, it legally obliges the US to “provide Taiwan with arms of a defensive character”. These provisions were essential to the acceptance of the switch of diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing, allowing the two countries to formalize their diplomatic relations. Yet these provisions also created the greatest source of current tension between the two countries.


The status of Taiwan cannot be ignored in any aspect of China’s international relations; it is impossible for any state in the international system to have diplomatic relations with Beijing without recognizing the PRC’s sovereignty over the island. This is especially pronounced in the relationship with the US, and in almost every high level political meeting it is incumbent on the representatives of the US to reiterate their support for the “one-China policy”. The special relationship that exists between the US and Taiwan is at the root of this sensitivity, but it is more serious than a linguistic exercise in diplomacy. The US has, on several occasions, demonstrated its willingness to defend Taiwan should it be subject to an unprovoked attack from the PRC. This was evidenced in the 1996 deployment of warships to the Taiwan Strait in response to PRC missile testing in the region. Additionally, the US has continued to meet its legal obligation to provide Taiwan with defensive arms which provokes strongly worded protests from Beijing on each occasion. Since 1990, according to a US Congressional report, Taiwan has made major purchases in every calendar year except for 2006 and 2009. The most recent purchase, agreed in January 2010, included 114 PAC-3 defense missiles and 60 Black Hawk helicopters in a deal worth almost $6.4 billion; one of the largest ever agreed. In 2011, the US reached a decision to refurbish Taiwan’s fleet of F-16s, stopping short of approving the sale of new planes, but going far enough to anger China. While there are now some calls among American academics to rethink this alliance, it is unlikely to alter in the near future.

Belgrade Embassy Bombing and Hainan Spy Plane Incident

At both the political and popular levels, the reputation of the US in China has suffered greatly in recent years for a number of reasons. The most notable incidents were the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by US forces in 1999, and the collision of a US spy plane with a Chinese fighter jet close to Chinese territory two years later. The embassy bombing, which resulted in the deaths of three Chinese staff, occurred during the action against Slobodan Milosevic’s regime. It was blamed by the US on outdated maps that failed to identify the building as the Chinese embassy, despite the fact that it had been in that location for three years. This version of events has never been fully accepted by the Chinese. The reaction in China was one of anger and outrage. Popular protests in Chinese cities culminated with an attack on the US embassy by a mob of protesters who threw stones and other projectiles, and tried to set fire to the building with the US ambassador still inside. A similar reaction occurred in 2001 when a US spy plane was intercepted by Chinese jets and ultimately collided with one of them, killing its pilot and causing the US plane to make an emergency landing on Hainan. Its 24 crew were captured and held by the Chinese authorities, who refused to release them until an apology was issued by the US government, though the eventual apology was deliberately ambiguous and designed to allow both sides to claim a moral victory.

Economic Interdependence

Trade relations and the growing level of economic interdependence that exists between both countries cannot be ignored in any assessment of the bilateral relationship. The level of trade is a cause of concern for some in the US, both because of its exceptionally high trade deficit with China and because of the belief that this deficit is caused in large part by the PRC’s policy of maintaining a debased RMB. The high level of trade dependence, while viewed by some as a sign of US weakness, is in fact seen by many as a reason for optimism. Some scholars argue that high levels of economic interdependence lead to stable and peaceful relations between states due to the resulting greater levels of bilateral interaction and the increased costs to both sides of conflict. There are concerns in the US that Chinese ownership of US debt puts the US in a position of weakness vis-à-vis China; in theory, if China decided to sell its debt and its other holdings of US currency en mass, it could trigger a collapse in the value of the dollar and an economic crisis in the US. However, the result of such an action would be catastrophic for China as well given that any collapse in the value of the dollar would diminish the value of their huge reserves, as well as triggering a global economic downturn that would unquestionably affect China detrimentally. Indeed, recent Chinese criticism aimed at the US about its debt ceiling management indicates that China understands fully how much it has invested in the prudent management of the US economy and its currency. Thus, it seems well argued that the economic relationship is mostly beneficial to the overall condition of the political relationship between the two states.

Human Rights

On the agenda at every high-level meeting between almost any Western nation and China is the issue of human rights and political reform. In no Chinese international relationship is this more prominent than with the US. While many in the US consider this to be an important issue that their leaders have a moral responsibility to tackle with China, the issue of human rights is perceived by the CCP leadership as, at best, an irritation and, at worst, a hypocritical infringement of China’s sovereignty. The annual report issued by the US State Department on China’s human rights record is frequently critical of the lack of, among other issues, freedom of religious expression, the failure to liberalize politically, and the practice of detention without trial. In 1998, in direct response to this criticism, China began to publish its own annual report on the US record on human rights. In 2004, for example, this report highlighted the abuses of Iraqi prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib. While this report is not taken seriously in the US, it is designed to reveal what many on the Chinese side view as double-standards from the US over this issue.

Perhaps the most prominent ongoing issue of human rights in China that concerns the US government and many of its citizens alike is the issue of Tibet. Although the US explicitly recognizes Tibet to be sovereign Chinese territory, it frequently expresses concern over apparent human rights abuses in the region. The position of the Dalai Lama, dismissed in Beijing as a “splittist”, is a constant thorn in Sino-US relations. Every US president since George Bush Senior has met with the Dalai Lama – though, with the exception of George W. Bush’s presentation of the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tibetan leader in 2007, these meetings are never in public – and, on each occasion, Beijing reacts with venomous language. In 2010, a Chinese official issued a veiled threat over President Obama’s planned meeting, calling it both “irrational and harmful” and warning that China “will take necessary measures to help them realize this (US mistake)”. However, such rhetoric has yet to sway any president from a planned meeting with the Dalai Lama, though the US continues to give limited publicity to such meetings; just a single photo of Obama’s meeting was released.

China’s Military Development

A key concern in the US regarding China’s increasing power in the international system pertains to its military development. There is a widespread perception that China’s rapidly developing military capacity and its year-on-year double-digit increase in expenditure has positioned it as a military rival to the US. Such views, however, are not accurate. While it is true that China’s military expenditure has grown by significant amounts in recent decades, it is important to put this into some kind of perspective. According to figures from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the most widely-respected research organization that reports on such matters and one that uses educated estimates to include military spending that is not declared in official statistics, China’s military expenditure as a proportion of GDP has actually fallen from 2.5% in 1990 to 2.2% in 2009. For comparison, the figures for the US show military expenditures were at 4.7% of GDP in 2009. More significantly, despite the sharp increase in absolute terms, and even using the higher estimate provided by SIPRI, China’s military budget remains less than one fifth of that of the US, whose own expenditure exceeds the combined total of the next 17 largest military budgets. Similarly, apparent advances in military technology, while unquestionably real, appear to have been exaggerated. The reports of the testing of a new Chinese Stealth fighter earlier this year were, in some quarters, treated as proof that US superiority is being eroded. Yet this seems premature; conservative estimates suggest that even if the testing was successful, and there is no evidence in the public domain that it was, then it will likely be at least seven years until the technology is battle-ready. Given the consistent levels of investment in military technology in the US, it is improbable that its own arsenal would stand still over this period and, in any case, it already has in excess of 130 stealth fighters that are ready for military deployment.

Future Trends

As with most bilateral interaction in the international system, there are causes for both optimism and pessimism in the Sino-US relationship. There are signs of both the rivalry

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and partnership that Presidents Bush and Clinton identified. The economic interdependence has two principle benefits that ought to aid relations. Firstly, the increased mutual reliance on each other’s economies raises the cost of any potential conflict for both parties, which ought to at least alleviate some tensions. Secondly, the higher amount of interaction at a societal level that results from the natural course of trade should foster a greater understanding between the two peoples, and go some way towards mitigating the mistrust that has developed over recent decades. As demonstrated above, the oft-cited military build-up is not as great a threat to the balance of power as is sometimes suggested. Additionally, the number of contacts between the two militaries is reason for cautious optimism.

Nevertheless, there are other issues that may come to the fore which, if not handled sensitively on both sides, may cause Sino-US relations to deteriorate. For instance, as China’s involvement in, and financial contribution to, major international organizations such as the World Bank and IMF has increased, it has also jockeyed for more influence within the organizations still dominated by the US and Europe; in 2008, Justin Yifu Lin, a Chinese citizen who was born in Taiwan but defected to the PRC, was appointed as Vice-President at the World bank. The US has been reluctant to weaken its positions of prominence and this has caused resentment in China. In some cases, this resentment has contributed to China’s decision to work outside of existing frameworks. For example, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, in which China plays the leading role, has been termed as a potential competitor to NATO. China decided to work within the G77 instead of joining a G9 so that its interests would not be overwhelmed by the other Western-oriented members. China’s creation of rival international frameworks not only frustrates a US accustomed to global control, but it also creates concerns about China’s ultimate aims and intentions.

Similarly, as China’s economy expands, it will be a fiercer competitor with the US for natural resources and basic commodities around the globe. This affects the Sino-US relationship in three ways. Firstly, as natural resources are finite, there may become a time when there will not be enough resources to go around and China’s acquisition of resources may be at the expense of the US. Secondly, rising global demand, much of which has been driven by China’s booming economy, has sent global prices for commodities to record levels. In April 2011, the IMF raised its global inflation forecast from 3.7% to 4.5% due to these commodity price gains. Similarly, the IMF revised its 2011 US inflation forecast to 2.2% in 2011 up from 1% in 2010 due to higher food and energy prices. If inflation continues to increase, the US may feel pressured to raise interest rates to curb its rise, thus putting at risk the already weak Western recoveries. Finally, China’s eagerness to secure supplies of natural resources has led it to form alliances with countries which Western powers have tried to ostracize. Such Chinese alliances directly conflict with US policies in the region, and can inflame citizen passions on both sides. Mia Farrow, for instance, led protests against Beijing’s “genocide Olympics”, so-called because of China’s continued support of the Sudanese regime despite its actions in Darfur. The Chinese reject such claims out of hand, and viewed Western attempts to meddle with the Olympics as insulting and an attack on its national honor. China maintains that it does not interfere in internal affairs of other countries. This position stems from China’s own experiences of occupation and meddling in its affairs by Western powers during the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as the brief, but unsuccessful, period in the early years of the PRC when Maoist policies were exported to other countries. It is certainly observable that the no-strings attached approach to infrastructure investment in Africa has had some significant benefits for China in terms of promoting itself there.

Yet despite these many issues of concern between the two countries, some form of which will undoubtedly remain between the two powers as the US adjusts to a more vocal and powerful China in the international arena, outright conflict between the two powers is highly unlikely. Instead, current and future issues between the two countries will continue to be resolved, or at least mitigated, through negotiation and diplomacy.

The wildcards in this prediction are Taiwan and the ongoing dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands with Japan. The special relationship that exists between the US and Taiwan, and the US’s own legal obligations to defend the island should it be attacked, render the possibility of military conflict between China and the US over Taiwan a possibility, however unlikely. Vigilance on both sides – and in Taiwan – is essential in order to avoid a conflict that would be to nobody’s benefit. Similarly, the US is committed to defending Japan, its closest ally in Asia, should it be attacked. The simmering tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands that boiled over in 2012 continue to cause concern for US policy-makers. The US will continue to push for diplomatic resolution on this issue but an outside chance of a low-level military conflict cannot be ruled out.

China and the European Union: Principles and Pragmatism


One of the fundamental difficulties with assessing the relationship between China and the EU is one that is inherent in all analyses of the EU: that it is not a single entity. Constituted of 28 member states (since Croatia joined in 2013) ranging in size from Malta (with fewer than half a million inhabitants) to Germany (home to over 80 million people), the EU is linguistically, economically, culturally, and demographically incredibly diverse. While there has been a much increased pooling of sovereignty within the EU in recent years, each member state retains the right and ability to conduct its own external affairs. However, the EU has worked hard to increase its unity on the international stage. For example, in 2009 the EU appointed a President of the EU Council in order that its external relations are managed more coherently. Even before then, the EU negotiated numerous treaties with key partners in the international arena. These treaties play major roles in the relationships between these international partners and both the EU has a whole, as well as its constituent member states. Additionally, any state wishing to conduct high levels of trade with individual EU member states cannot realistically do so without dealing directly with the EU, alongside its dealings with the states in question. For these reasons, it is valid to speak of the relationship between China and the EU, though with the caveat that the China-EU relationship does not always supersede China’s bilateral dealings with particular EU member states.


Without question, the single most important factor of the China-EU relationship is trade. The EU, taken as a whole, is China’s largest trading partner accounting for more bilateral trade than even the US or Japan. It is the largest market for China’s exports and has been a significant source of China’s economic growth in the reform era. The importance of the relationship is not just one-sided; China matters to the EU just as much and it is its second largest trading partner after the US, and would be its largest if trade with Hong Kong were to be included in the figures.

As with the China-US relationship, there is tension within this economic success story, particularly in the form of a considerable trade deficit. In 2010, the total value of two-way trade reached its highest point to date at $527 billion, but this resulted in the EU stomaching a deficit of almost $225 billion. Preliminary figures for 2012 show a drop in trade of around 4%, probably driven by Europe’s economic travails, but the overall deficit remains fairly constant. While this represents a significant amount, it also demonstrates that the imbalance in the trading relationship is not as severe as exists in China-US trade; although the figures for absolute deficit are fairly similar (the figure for the US in the same period was equivalent to approximately $236 billion) the EU deficit was generated from a two-way trade figure that was more than one third larger than that of China-US trade, meaning it was proportionately much smaller. It is also important to consider that although this deficit is high, it is relatively stable as both exports and imports continue to grow at a similar pace. Thus, whereas the trade deficit in 2007 was $222 billion, only fractionally lower than it was in 2010, this represented more than half of the overall two-way trade for that year. In fact, across the last five years exports to China from the EU have grown at an average of 15% per year, making China Europe’s fastest growing market by some margin, while imports grew at just below 10%. A continuance of this trajectory will see the trade imbalance become even less of an obstacle to relations in the future.

There is, of course, imbalance within the EU regarding the importance of China as a trading partner. As outlined earlier in this article, while the EU often negotiates as a single entity on the international stage, it is an organisation that has 27 member states, each of which retains its sovereignty. The result of this is that the figures on two-way trade above perhaps give a skewed outlook on the relationship. Of the $527 billion in two-way trade in 2010, fully one third was between Germany and China, and the majority of the trade is with the EU’s four largest states (Germany, UK, Italy and France). When separated out this way and placed into the context of the global economy, the figures are not entirely surprising. It is to be expected that Germany is China’s largest European trading partner, both because of the size of its economy and the level of complementarity, as the majority of trade with Europe is in industry and machinery, sectors in which the German economy is strong. However, the significance of even smaller countries within the EU lies in the collective negotiating position that the EU has, allowing them to be part of a much larger negotiating team in dealings with China; this has the twin effect of increasing these countries’ relative leverage as well as to enhance the EU as a whole vis-à-vis China.

vpix / Shutterstock.comChina has taken on an even greater significance to the EU and its member states since the economic crisis of 2008 and the subsequent debt crises that have emerged in Europe, particularly in those countries that use the Euro. There have been some quite naked attempts from within Europe to woo the Chinese into buying up bonds to ease this situation. China has vested interests in ensuring the stability of the European market on which it relies so heavily for exports, prompting the leadership to issue broad statements of support and pledges to invest in Eurozone debt, especially from Italy, one of the countries most heavily in debt. However, these statements and pledges have also been augmented by warnings from China that Europe must do more to put its own problems right in this area and, most importantly, to protect Chinese investments in the EU. While it is clear that China holds most of the cards in this predicament – the Europeans cannot realistically solve the debt crises without Chinese investment – it is not in China’s own interests to exacerbate the situation and assistance is, therefore, likely to be forthcoming.

The European Debt Crisis

In order to join the European Union, potential member states had to sign the Maastricht Treaty which was to bind them into limiting their deficit spending and debt levels. Some European Union member states, Italy and Greece for instance, dodged this obligation by hiding their debt and deficit levels through the use of complex currency and credit derivative structures. Having entered the Eurozone, Greece and several other EU countries continued to run large deficits through the 2000s. In the early part of the decade, these deficits were less problematic as they were supported by economic growth. In Greece, this growth was driven by its shipping and tourism industries. With the 2008 financial crisis and the accompanying slowdown of the world economy, however, Greece’s debt, and that of other EU countries, began to rapidly build-up.

As government budget deficits and sovereign debts have increased sharply, a crisis of confidence has emerged which has resulted in Italy, Greece, Spain and Portugal’s credit ratings being downgraded, and in increased borrowing costs for those countries. These sovereign debt issues have become a perceived problem for the Eurozone as a whole, not the least because many of the struggling southern euro countries have received bank loans from France, Germany and other more solvent Eurozone members. France’s banks in particular have extensively lent to southern European governments. In September 2011, two of France’s largest banks, Societe General and Credit Agricole, were downgraded because of their exposure.

By April 2010, the EU and IMF agreed to an initial bailout package of €45 billion for Greece. In May 2010, austerity measures were proposed to reduce Greece’s deficit, as the country’s slow growth meant that it would be unable to repay its debt without significant cuts in spending. Many Greek citizens were unhappy with the severe austerity measures and have held national strikes in protest. A protest on 5th May 2010, for instance, was widespread and became violent, resulting in three deaths. Nevertheless, in the same month the IMF and the euro zone countries approved a €110 billion loan for Greece, conditional on the implementation of measures to reduce government spending. The Greek loan was followed by a loan of €85 billion for Ireland in November, and a €78 billion rescue package for Portugal in May 2011.

In May 2010, the 27 member states of the European Union agreed to create a €440 million European Financial Stability Facility, a legal instrument designed to maintain financial stability in Europe by being able to provide rapid financial assistance to European governments in need. These funds were to be made available in conjunction with €250 billion from the IMF. In January 2011, the European Union designed the European Financial Stabilization Mechanism, a €60 billion emergency lending program backed by all 27 European Union members. The idea is that EFSF and EFSM are to be replaced by the European Stability Mechanism due to be launched in mid-2013.

In order for Greece to be eligible for the next tranche of its bailout loan, in May 2011, the IMF proposed spending cuts amounting to €28 billion over five years. Greek citizens again took to the streets in protest. In October 2011, leaders of the 17 year zone countries met in Brussels to discuss a package aimed at addressing the crisis. A deal was reached in which it was recommended to write-down by 50% the Greek sovereign debt held by banks, to enlarge the European Financial Stability Facility to €1 trillion, to increase the mandatory level of bank capitalization, to ensure that Italy would make commitments to reduce its national debt, and to pledged €35 billion in credit enhancements to offset losses incurred by European banks. The package has yet to be put into effect, however, as Greek citizen resistance to continued austerity first caused Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to propose a referendum on the package, then to withdraw the referendum, and eventually, to step down as the Greek Prime Minister. The Greek political situation currently remains unclear with voters apparently unwilling to sanction to agreement to slash public spending on which its bailout money depends.

Currently, the situation remains unresolved. Borrowing costs in Spain, Italy, Portugal, France and Greece have continued to rise up to the point where their debt levels could become unsustainable. In fact, bailouts for Irish and Spanish banks were issued in 2012. Part of the issue has been that the weaker economies of southern Europe have not been able to devalue their currencies in order to remain competitive as they surely would have done if they were single, sovereign entities, while Germany has enjoyed an artificially depressed currency allowing their exports to rapidly grow. Individually, the southern European countries could have more easily preserved their competitiveness through greater tolerance for inflation and corresponding regular devaluations. They would have had the ability to keep interest rates low and to engage in quantitative-easing and fiscal stimulus. They could have supported job-targeting economic policies, instead of introducing inflation- targeting policies as they are required under their current commitments.

This inability to make competitive adjustments through currency variations has created an imbalance of payments in the southern European countries. To correct this imbalance, without the ability to individually raise interest rates or to impose capital controls, the southern European countries have been borrowing to fund their deficits. As their deficits have reached unsustainable levels, they are now being asked to reduce their consumption in order to hike their savings rate and to reduce the capital outflows. This has come at a time when slower GDP growth rates have led to slower growth in tax revenues and higher social security spending, increasing deficits and debt levels further. The French May 2012 election of Francois Holland may mark a shift toward EU economic policies that emphasize growth instead of just austerity; certainly there has been a big upsurge in calls for simulative economic policies. In what form these policies take shape is still under negotiation.

Ultimately, the long-term sustainability of the Eurozone will require a common fiscal policy in addition to a common economic policy. Whether sovereign countries will be willing to let outsiders dictate their tax and government spending policies is yet to be seen. European economies, with high wages, large government social services and subsidies, and complex regulations and taxes are becoming increasingly uncompetitive in the global economy. These factors have been aggravated by Europe’s aging population, the growing use of technology to replace skilled labor, and globalization which has caused European manufacturing and services to relocate to lower-cost production centers.

What China’s role will be in the debt crisis remains to be seen. In the short term, Europe’s debt crisis is likely to be stabilized through financing from the EFSF, the IMF’s use of special drawing rights, or a combination of the two. Exactly how of if China contributes funds to this process is still an open question. Europe is China’s largest export market. If Europe derails, it also will drag down the global economy, which will negatively impact China’s own economic expansion. Although it is not known for certain, it is estimated that a quarter of China’s approximate $3.2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves are denominated in euros, so China has a vested interest in maintaining their value. China continues to need to diversify its foreign reserve holdings and Europe represents one potentially viable area for investing excess Chinese funds; China can only invest so much in its domestic economy without worsening inflation, creating asset bubbles or mal-investing. Playing a more active role in the European crisis might help solidify China’s positioning as a responsible power and enhance its clout on the global stage. It may also boost Beijing’s leverage with Brussels on issues such as gaining “market economy” status, increasing its role in international organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank, and on getting the US to stop pressuring it to ease its foreign currency controls.

That said, it is likely that bailing-out Europe would prove unpopular at home. On a per capita basis, China is much poorer than Europe; bailing-out Europe would give the impression that China is supporting rich foreigners at the expense of its citizens, especially given the widespread sentiment in China that Europe is in crisis in the first place because of its own profligate spending. The safety of EFSF issued bonds is also a concern for China. On numerous occasions, China has insisted that it cannot consider investing until Europe’s financial house is in order. Also, as China rises, disquiet in the West about China’s intentions intensifies. Depending on how China handles it, its efforts at assistance could be misconstrued as opportunistic mercantilism, especially if it invests in industries that it could later use as a springboard for further market penetration, as opposed restricting its investment to buying bonds.

Human Rights

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The EU describes its core interests in the relationship with China as going beyond trade to incorporate matters of human rights and political reform. The way in which the EU seeks to alter China’s actions in this area is governed, as the rest of the relationship is, by the 1985 EC-China Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). Although originally negotiated by a European Community that consisted of just 9 states, the TCA has since been updated and remains the bedrock of EU-China relations today. Under the terms of the TCA, the EU commits itself to engagement with China, particularly with regard to trade, in order that it may encourage the liberalization of China both politically and economically. The EU’s China policy, therefore, rests on a fundamental assumption that engagement is good and will encourage liberalization in China.

As part of the agreement the two sides hold regular summits on specific issues, including a biennial “Human Rights Dialogue” during which representatives of the EU offer assessments on the extent to which China has fulfilled previous human rights commitments and has the opportunity to raise individual cases of concern with their Chinese counterparts. This process is not entirely one-sided; the Chinese side frequently uses these meetings to point out what it considers to be issue of discrimination against people of Chinese origin within the EU, though the evidence produced for this is ordinarily quite unconvincing. The Europeans point to some limited successes from these dialogues, particularly in the release of political prisoners, such as Tibetan activists, ostensibly at the request of EU representatives. However, examination of the reports of these dialogues released by the EU shows that frequently the same cases are repeatedly raised, usually without any concrete action resulting. On the occasions where cases have been resolved there is little evidence that this has happened as a direct result of EU concern. However, it can be argued that a success of the EU’s approach is that it has institutionalized China’s acceptance of the discourse on human rights, allowing regular reporting to take place on its record in this area by an external party. Critics may see this as paying lip service to the idea, but others argue that this is just one stage in a long-term process of norm development.

The gulf in perceptions of human rights between Europe and China came to the fore in the run up to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Following the series of protests that occurred in Tibetan regions of China in March of that year, and the concomitant crackdown by Chinese authorities, many groups in Europe sought to register their anger and protest by targeting the Olympic torch relay as it passed through Europe. The reaction was strongest in France, where several protestors tried to grab, or even extinguish, the flame, while numerous pro-Tibet banners and flags lined the route. These scenes were mirrored in other EU countries, including the UK, and caused serious disquiet amongst both Chinese politicians and the general public, many of whom considered it to be an undeserved sleight on the Chinese nation. What followed was a period of particularly frosty relations, especially between France and China. A fairly widespread internet campaign, for example, urged the boycott of Carrefour, a French supermarket chain that has almost 200 stores in mainland China. After much speculation that he would boycott the opening ceremony of the games, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy appeared to back down and made public his intention to be present. This calmed the atmosphere at the political level, and the controversy now appears to have had no serious lasting impact on either Franco-Chinese or EU-China relations.

Arms Embargo

The biggest and longest running issue in China-EU relations, however, remains an arms embargo that was put into force in 1989 following the Tiananmen Incident. The embargo was the centerpiece of the European response to the crackdown which had been widely condemned among Western countries. It remains the only sanction imposed during that time not to have been lifted. What it means in practice is that no EU member state may sell weaponry to the PRC and this includes a responsibility to ensure that no third country acts as an intermediary. During a period of rapid modernization in the Chinese military, this has been a source of concern both to the Chinese government, who would like the freedom to purchase advanced military technology from EU suppliers, and also to some in the defense industry in Europe, which considers China to be a massive untapped market. It is an item that is on virtually every agenda at summits between the EU and China, but there is currently no realistic prospect of it being lifted. A groundswell of opinion did begin to form around lifting the embargo in the early years of the twenty-first century, with the then French president, Jacques Chirac, chief among those calling for at least a limited amount of arms sales to be permitted. While some countries supported this idea, it was opposed strongly by the US, a crucial ally of the EU. In direct response to US concerns BAE Systems, a British firm which is the largest manufacturer of arms in the EU, stated publicly that it would not countenance selling weapons to China even if the embargo were lifted. The debate came to an end in 2005 when China passed its Anti-Secession law, explicitly authorizing the use of force to regain sovereignty over Taiwan. Following this, even the most pro-Chinese European leaders realized that ending the embargo was a political impossibility. The question of lifting the embargo continues to be raised within Europe from time to time, most recently by the Spanish in 2010, but the prospects of it being lifted seem distant and unlikely. This is a continuing cause of irritation in China, where it is viewed, probably correctly, as more of a strategic decision than a statement on its human rights record.

Future Trends

All relationships that involve the EU are complicated by the fact that it is both a single entity and a diverse collection of 28 sovereign states. The diversity of the EU brings with it an incoherence in its strategy towards China. While all states value the increased and increasing levels of two-way trade and understand the centrality of China to future European economic growth, other aspects of the relationship are not dealt with in such a unified manner. The trajectory of economic expansion seems set to continue and the growth of exports to China within this expansion mean that any tensions that are caused as a result of the trade deficit will not be of great significance to the relationship. While the EU continues to define the issues of human rights and political liberalization as core to its China strategy, it could be argued that it is now taking a much more pragmatic approach in this respect. The policy of engaging with China in order to promote these aims rests on the fundamental principle that such engagement will help to bring about the desired changes in China, but this is not really borne out by the evidence. It seems unlikely that the EU will make serious inroads into its human rights and political reform agenda in China and, for their part, the Chinese seem willing to engage discursively in this process while continuing to place economic growth at the center of their strategy. With the core interests of both sides seemingly converging around trade, the issue of human rights seems likely to take more of a back seat. The exception to this will continue to be the arms embargo which is likely to remain in place for the foreseeable future, though this has now taken on more of a strategic importance, both to states within the EU as well as to key allies such as the US, rather than genuinely seeking to address issues of liberty in China.

In terms of the Eurozone debt crisis, it is hard to predict future outcomes given the incredible volatility of the current situation. Given all that China has at stake in Europe, it is unlikely that it will remain categorically on the sidelines. Given a choice, China has expressed a preference to buy European assets as opposed to government bonds, although it anticipates that Europeans may likely be more resistant to this idea. In such a case, it is likely that China will be more willing to provide funds for Europe through the IMF, especially if it’s increased funding buys it a greater voice in IMF policy making. Gaining greater clout in international organizations is a Chinese objective. Additionally, supporting the IMF will be easier to sell at home than investing in a strictly European-based financing mechanism. The IMF’s authority and experience at restructuring countries struggling with their finances will also provide China with additional comfort that its investments will not be squandered.


Sino-US Trade: Mutual Benefit, Mutual Problems



The US has run a trade deficit with China since 1973. The deficit increased from $10 billion in 1990 to $266 billion in 2008. It dropped to $227 billion in 2009, and then grew to $295 billion in 2011 but dropped again in 2012 to $262 billion. The Sino-US trade deficit consistently accounts for more than 40% of the US’ overall deficit in its global trade.

Some in the US argue that this large deficit with China is caused by the competitive advantages China gains from practices such as keeping its currency artificially depreciated, having lax environmental and health and safety legislation, poorly protecting intellectual property rights, not comprehensively implementing WTO obligations, and widely employing industrial policies and discriminatory government procurement practices which work to subsidize and protect domestic Chinese firms at the expense of their foreign competitors. Critics argue that these practices have in turn caused the US to unfairly lose manufacturing and other jobs to China.

Others have argued that Chinese economic policies, which have enabled China’s GDP to grow 9% annually over the last two decades, have provided many advantages to the United States. For instance, China’s rapid economic growth has generated significant demand for US exports. For the last 10 years, China has been the US’ fastest growing export market. In the future, this market is expected to further expand as China’s domestic demand develops, as the living standards of its citizens improve, and as a sizable Chinese middle class emerges.

US consumers have also benefited from cheap Chinese imports, both because they increase US consumer purchasing power, and because they act to keep inflation low. US firms have profited from China’s competitive workforce, either by using China as a low-cost assembler of its manufacturing components or as a source of inexpensive components to be assembled in the United States. As importantly, by purchasing US treasury securities – nearly $1.2 trillion as of September 2012 – China helps keep US interest rates low, which in turn spurs domestic US economic activity.

Since the financial crisis of 2008, trade relations between the US and China have come under greater scrutiny by government and business leaders from both countries. Some members of the US Congress have recently ratcheted up their complaints about what they consider to be China’s distorted trade policies, given the US’s persistently slow US GDP growth and high unemployment. This trade friction is likely to intensify as the current sovereign debt crisis faced by Western countries places a new spotlight on US debt levels.

US Exports to China

The US exported $90 billion of merchandise to China in 2012, down from $104 billion in 2011 but still more than 30% higher than 2009 levels. US exports to China account for around 7% of total US exports, up from to 2.1% in 2000. The largest exports to China included oilseeds and grains, waste and scrap, semiconductors and electronic components, aircraft and parts, and resins and synthetic rubber and fibers. It is expected that US exports to China should continue to grow rapidly in the future. This export growth will be driven by factors such as the continuing modernization of Chinese infrastructure, by increasing domestic demand from its growing numbers of middle-class and affluent consumers, by the growth of its transportation industries, particularly its rising need for airplanes, trucks and cars, and by its increased imports of food products.

China’s Exports to the US

Yet, despite the success the US has made in increasing exports to China over the last decade, Chinese exports to the US still dwarf US sales to China. In 2012 China’s exports to the US were worth $351 billion, which was down from $399 billion from the previous year. The top 2010 Chinese exports to the US were apparel, manufactured goods such as toys and games, computers and communications equipment and parts, and audio and video equipment. The mix of Chinese exports to the US is shifting. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the majority of US imports from China were low-value, labor-intensive products such as textiles and toys. Increasingly, however, more of US imports from China are comprised of advanced technology products, reflecting China’s growing international competitiveness in the assembly and manufacture of high-technology.

Skewed Accounting of International Trade


One of the principal drivers of the US trade deficit with China is the worldwide increase in global production sharing, from which China has benefited enormously. Many products that used to be entirely made in such places as Japan, Taiwan and Hong Kong, are now being made or assembled in China as those countries have shifted all or parts of their production to China in order to take advantage of its low-cost labor. For instance, the US International Trade Commission estimated that in 2002, 99% of computer exports to the US from China were sold by foreign firms manufacturing in China. Taiwan, a world leader in information technology manufacturing, now produces over 90% of its information hardware equipment in China. Similarly, many US technology companies outsource their manufacturing to Taiwan, which in turn outsources this production to its facilities in China. Yet, these exports, even if they are commissioned by US firms, are credited against China when calculating the US trade deficit as China is the place from which the products were shipped to the US. To illustrate this, it is worth considering that while US imports of computer equipment from China rose 620.5% between 2000 and 2010, the total value of US imports of computers worldwide rose only 41.9%.

Similarly, China now has more than 40% of all international processing or assembling trade. The iPod, for example, is assembled in China by the Taiwanese firm Foxconn, from parts produced globally. A 2005 study by the University of California estimated that it costs approximately $144 to make each iPod unit, yet only about $4 of the total cost is generated by the Chinese workers who assemble it. Yet, when China ships the iPod to the US, it increases the Sino-US trade deficit by the full $144 cost of the unit, not by the $4 of value that China earned assembling the different components. In similar fashion, the iPhone trade has increased the US-Sino 2009 deficit by $1.9 billion. Yet, if the trade were measured through value added in China, the US trade deficit would have decreased by $48 million. Likewise, each unit of the iPad 2 increases the deficit by approximately $250. On the day of its release, the iPad 2 was estimated to have contributed $130 million to the Sino-US trade shortfall.

As shown with the Apple example, international trade data struggles to accurately account for component processing. In its trade numbers, China is credited with the full value of the finished exported goods, regardless of the origin of the component parts. For example, if Japan supplies the original components to China and then China does nothing but assembles the components and then ships the finished product to the US, Japan’s US trade balance is unaffected, but the US’s trade deficit with China increases by the full cost of the finished good. This distorts trade data, giving a skewed impression of the total value of the goods originating from China. As China’s trade has increasingly shifted away from the production of textiles and other primary products to the manufacture and assembly of technology goods, this skewing has increased.

The services trade is also equally difficult to quantify. Most trade data does not take account of the value added to a product by services, such as IT, financial, or management consultancy services. As the largest supplier of these services worldwide, the US generates income by effectively employing its advantage of human capital. The incomplete accounting of these services in world trade data means that the overall US deficit appears larger than it is in actuality.

An Undervalued RMB?


Another important driver of the trade imbalance between the US and China is Beijing’s pegging of the RMB to the dollar at what is deemed by many to be a substantially discounted rate. While many agree that the RMB is undervalued, few concur on the actual level of distortion with estimates ranging from 15% to as much as 50%. The depreciated currency increases the competitiveness of Chinese exports, leading many US companies to import from China over domestic or other international suppliers. China’s currency has not always been undervalued. In the early 1980s, for instance, it was greatly overvalued, with 1.5 RMB per USD, a rate set to allow China more easily import the goods it needed to develop its economy. There have been numerous revaluations of the RMB-dollar exchange rate since the 1980s. Between 1994 and 2005, the rate remained stable at around 8.3 RMB per USD. Though generally resistant to international pressure, particularly regarding key domestic interests, the CCP has since allowed the RMB to appreciate, albeit very gradually. The most significant appreciation occurred between 2005 and 2008 when the rate shifted from 8.27 RMB to 6.81 RMB per USD, an appreciation in value of the Chinese currency of almost 18%. However, it remained at or around that rate for another two years, before a further gradual appreciation was allowed to begin in 2010. By June 2012, it was valued at 6.36 RMB to the USD. China is able to maintain this low rate of exchange through vast purchases of US treasuries, which helps keep the dollar strong; as of November 2011, China held approximately $1.3 trillion dollars in reserves, equating to around 40% of its enormous foreign reserves.

This implicit subsidy to Chinese exporters has meant that US manufacturers have struggled to compete against Chinese products, causing US manufacturing industries to suffer and US unemployment to increase. Some estimates have put the number of additional US unemployed because of China’s devalued exchange rate at 2.4 million between the years of 2001 and 2008. Yet, what is often forgotten in debates on US unemployment figures is that the average US citizen has benefited from cheaper consumer products and, consequently, a greater disposable income. Recent estimates suggest that the average American household is $625 per year better off as a result of low-cost Chinese trade.

Beijing insists that its foreign exchange policy is vital to domestic economic security; the stability of its society and its monopoly on power is very much dependent on its ability to provide economic prosperity to its people. Additionally, an appreciation in the RMB also means that its US dollar holdings will buy less in its own currency. For example, an appreciation of the RMB by 41% would result in a value of $672 billion effectively being wiped off China’s US securities’ holdings in terms of what those holdings would be able to purchase if converted into its domestic currency.

Implications of China’s Large US Dollar Holdings

Some US analysts contend that China’s holdings of US debt give it a potentially powerful tool which it can use as leverage against the United States. Yet, China’s economic reliance on the US economy as an export market and its substantial holdings of US securities means that any effort to sell large volumes of dollars would likely hurt China as much as it would damage the US. A large sell-off of dollars would cause the currency to sharply depreciate against global currencies, diminishing the value of China’s remaining dollar holdings. Additionally, as long as China continues to pursue a depreciated currency policy, it has no choice but to purchase US dollars, thus making the likelihood of a large Chinese sell-off of the currency highly unlikely.

China has its own concerns about its large US dollar holdings. It fears that high levels of US debt, and the potential implementation of expansionary monetary policies by the US government could spark inflation in the United States which would result in a sharp depreciation of the dollar. To offset this risk, China has argued for the creation of an alternative reserve currency, such as through the International Monetary Fund’s special drawing rights system. Yet, most expect that the creation of an alternative reserve currency is not likely not to occur in the near future. In the absence of such a solution, China has sought to diversify its foreign currency reserves, notably through purchases of Japanese yen and Euros.

China and the World Trade Organization


China became a WTO member in December 2001. US policymakers supported China’s accession as they believed WTO membership would spur deeper market reforms, encourage the rule of law, diminish the government’s role within the Chinese economy, further assimilate China into the world economy, and enable the United States to use the WTO dispute resolution mechanism to resolve trade disputes between the two countries. In the first years after China’s accession to the WTO, it made great strides in opening its economy to both trade and FDI. Its ratio of imports to GDP – a common measure of how open an economy is – has now surpassed 30%, which is twice the level of the United States and three times that of Japan.

Yet, by 2008, government and business officials had begun to note that Chinese efforts to liberalize its markets appeared to have slowed. With the tougher global economic environment many argue that China relies more on state intervention in markets to gain China a competitive advantage. This has caused some friction between the two within the WTO. As of January 2013, the United States has brought 16 trade complaints against China whereas China has brought 8 cases against the US. Of these 24 disputes, 5 were raised in 2012 making it the most fractious year to date.

A key area of WTO complaints by the US has been the violation of intellectual property rights within China, and the US has brought two cases against China over this issue. The US International Trade Commission estimated that US firms with significant intellectual property interests lost $48.2 billion in sales, royalties and license fees in 2009 because of international property rights violations in China. The International Intellectual Property Alliance estimated that business software piracy in China alone cost US forms $3.4 billion in lost trade in 2009. However, these figures have been questioned by some economists who point out that the calculations are based on an assumption that genuine products would be purchased if all counterfeit goods were eliminated. Given that the price in China for a counterfeit DVD is usually around $1.50, compared with in excess of $12 for an authorized version, it is highly unlikely that an elimination of counterfeit products would have no impact on the overall sales figures of these products. It may not be possible to give a wholly accurate figure for the losses that the widespread IPR-infringements cause. US critics feel that, even when IPR enforcement is in place, fines and punishments for IPR infringements are often not sufficiently punitive to deter Chinese companies from piracy. Some estimates suggest that between 15% and 20% of all products made in China are counterfeit, equal to about 8% of China’s total annual domestic product. Under pressure from the US, in late 2010, China launched a six month campaign against IPR abuse and counterfeit goods.

Future Trends

Although it is understandable that Beijing is somewhat protectionist in its exchange rate policy, a revaluation of the RMB is essential if current imbalances are to be eased. China cannot continue to purchase US securities indefinitely – indeed it has already shown that would prefer to diversify away from its overwhelming reliance on the dollar – and the US cannot continue to get deeper and deeper into debt to foreign creditors. To resolve the situation, China needs to stimulate domestic consumption and allow its exchange rate to appreciate. A key to increasing Chinese domestic consumption will be shoring up its healthcare and pension systems that were largely dismantled when the Chinese privatized large sections of its state-owned industries. A stronger currency will decrease the international competitiveness of Chinese products, but will reduce pressure on the US, China’s largest trading partner. This will lead to greater global economic stability, which is ultimately in China’s interests. Thus while China’s manipulation of the RMB is expected to continue, in the long-run, a slow appreciation of the RMB would be expected as a more balanced trade environment is in the interests of both China and the US. In fact, between September 2010 and December 2012, China allowed the RMB to appreciate 7.4% against the dollar. Though China needs to take action on this issue, 2012 Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney’s vow to declare China a “currency manipulator” on his first day in office had he win the election, is not the sort of tactic that should be employed. Such a move would have made it politically more difficult for the Chinese to act in the way that the US would like them to do.

At the same time, in order to reduce its trade deficit, the US needs to stimulate domestic manufacturing and become more internationally competitive. Investment in infrastructure, education and the creation of a national industrial policy with taxes and other incentives to spur the development of strategic industries would enhance the ability of the US to continue to design and produce products that would be in demand internationally. The challenge for the US is that the increasingly divergent views of its two main political parties has made it progressively more difficult for it to take the necessary legislative steps to invest in economic competitiveness.

While both the US and China have benefited substantially through closer economic ties, the trade imbalance has increasingly become a political concern. To date, no concrete plan has been formulated to bring the deficit back into balance. However, some steps have been taken to increase economic cooperation between the two nations. The annual US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), established in April 2009, is intended as a forum to discuss “long-term strategic challenges”. However, in the 2011 session there was no consensus as to the future of the trade imbalance between the two countries and it received mixed reviews from American business leaders and government officials.

The issue of the amount of US sovereign debt held by China is of huge political significance. On a positive note, China’s extension of credit has helped decrease US inflation and, hence, to maintain domestic economic stability. Yet US indebtedness to China is seen by many American thinkers to be a real risk; China and the US only formally resumed diplomatic relations in 1979, having been at ideological loggerheads since the founding of the PRC in 1949. Even today, the US and China disagree on many international issues. There are numerous domestic political ramifications of your largest creditor also being traditionally perceived as an ideological competitor. The amount of US debt held by China means that it would be incredibly difficult to offload all at once, and would trigger a huge devaluation in its remaining holdings. Such a situation is unlikely and would be particularly unwise, but shows the extent of the economic power China holds over the US. Yet China is increasingly using that economic power it holds over the US as leverage over contentious political issues, such as Taiwan and its human rights record. This trend should be expected to continue.

The reality is that the fates of the economies of China and the US are closely entwined, each reliant on the health of the other. China has been recording a substantial trade surplus with the US over the past 20 years and there has been a considerable decline in the US manufacturing sector. We have seen, however, that China’s trade surplus with the US is more a product of the system of trade-data collection than of a mercantilist strategy to undermine US manufacturers. The imbalance is, of course, a concern for both countries, but it is in neither country’s interests for the other’s economy to fail. The deficit must be addressed through mutual cooperation and dialogue in order for both countries to prosper and will, in turn, lead to a more balanced and secure global economy.

China’s New Leaders: The Fifth Generation



In the autumn of 2012 Beijing will host the 18th National Congress of the People’s Republic of China. Held every five years, it is here that the new members of the Central Politburo Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China (PSC) will officially be chosen. These new leaders will spend serve a maximum of two five-year terms at the heart of China’s policy-making process.

The Politburo is China’s highest and most important decision-making body, which determines domestic and international policy at a strategic level. As is widely documented, those chosen for leadership are not directly elected by the Chinese people, but by those in the Party Congress itself – over 2,000 people. However, even these 2,000 people do not have an entirely free vote on the matter, with outcomes ordinarily predetermined through negotiation and compromise long prior to any vote. It is for this reason that factions are of particular importance in Chinese politics, as the journey to the Politburo requires decades of allegiance forming and political jockeying. The two major groups in Chinese politics are commonly thought to be the Beijing and the Shanghai factions, with the traditional powerbase of the former being the Communist Youth League, and that of the latter being the South, i.e. the area below the Huai River.

Within the 25-member Politburo, power is concentrated in the 9-member Standing Committee (originally a five-member committee it has had several different forms, with the most recent expansion to nine members occurring in 2002). Although the exact process in which decisions within the committee are taken is not well-documented, a general consensus is normally sought rather than relying on a majority vote for any decision to be confirmed. The Standing Committee of the Politburo is therefore of the utmost importance both to Chinese domestic policy and on the international arena; these nine individuals – who have been exclusively male since the inception of the Standing Committee – will shape the policy of the world’s most populous country over the next five years.

This highest echelon of power is based in Beijing and meets weekly to direct domestic and international governmental policy. Election to the committee officially takes place at the Party Congress, which meets every five years. Realistically, most of those elected to the PSC will serve two terms, meaning that those newly-elected in November 2012 will likely rule the country until 2023.

The Fifth Generation

China’s leaderships have generally been referred to in ‘generations’, with each generation associated with the particular leader of their era. Thus, the outgoing leadership under Hu Jintao is considered to be the fourth generation, following Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin (though China has had three other leaders since 1949 – Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang – they were not in power for long and have been largely airbrushed out of official Chinese history). This Fifth Generation of leaders is exceptional in that it is the first generation in which there has been no clear successor groomed for leadership by one powerful individual, but rather will be a consensus decision amongst party leaders. Whilst the stage has been readied for Xi Jinping to ascend to the presidency for the past five years, this is more a product of his political maneuvering than his being personally groomed for the role by his predecessor. Indeed, it is widely believed that Hu Jintao would have preferred Li Keqiang to take the role.

The PSC has become increasingly important over the past 30 years, as the Chinese decision making process has moved away from the Maoist era concentration of power in the hands of one powerful leader towards a situation in which a consensus needs to be reached amongst a group of powerful politicians. During his tenure as president, Hu has been an advocate of ‘intra-party democracy’, and the recent downfall of Bo Xilai is testament to the view that the party is now always bigger than the individual.

It is expected that seven of the nine current members will step down from the Standing Committee as they will be over the age of 67, the age at which members are required to retire from the PSC. The highest echelon of the Chinese Communist Party will, therefore, welcome seven new faces, making this the biggest change in make-up of the committee since the founding of the PRC in 1949.

In this article, ChinaFolio takes a look at some of China’s leaders, potential and all-but confirmed, for the next half-decade, and analyses how each would shape the future of East Asia’s most powerful nation. It is worth noting that the positions each member might expect to be appointed to carry differing levels of importance but none officially guarantees Standing Committee participation.

Xi Jinping

Current Position: Vice President, Vice Chairman of the Military

Potential position in 2013: President


An engineering graduate of Beijing’s famous Tsinghua University, Xi Jinping looks certain to take the top spot during the leadership transition next year. Having been promoted to the Standing Committee in 2007 and named vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission in October 2010, it would appear that he is being groomed to follow the same path taken by Hu Jintao.

Son of Xi Zhongxun, a veteran of the Long March and a founder of the Communist guerrilla movement, he is part of China’s generation of ‘Princelings’ – sons or daughters of leading CCP cadres. Having held provincial leadership roles, his route to the top was aided by his appointment as party boss of Shanghai, allowing him to align himself with the traditional power base that helped launch Jiang Zemin to power in 1989. Xi’s almost inevitable victory can thus be seen as a victory for the Jiang faction over the Hu faction, as Hu hasn’t managed to endorse a protégé capable of securing the support needed to replace him.

Although not much is known about Mr Xi’s political views, it is said that he chose to survive by becoming ‘redder than red’, gaining a first degree in Marxism and a second in Chemical Engineering. He has kept his political cards close to his chest, and little is known of his foreign policy sympathies. In an unguarded moment in 2009, however, he was reported to have condemned “foreigners who have stuffed their bellies and have nothing to do but point fingers” – a thinly disguised swipe at Washington policymakers. He has been seen on several foreign trips in recent years, including a visit to the US in February 2012 where he met with President Obama.

Xi was previously overshadowed by his wife Peng Liyuan, one of China’s best loved opera singers, who has an official civilian rank within the PLA equivalent of Major General. Xi’s association with Peng has led some to suspect that he has more character to him than the famously dour Hu. This being said, as a career politician and a disciple of Jiang, it seems unlikely that Xi will rock the boat. Instead, he is predicted to continue Hu’s policy of China’s ‘peaceful development’ and hold to his predecessor’s mantra of stability as paramount.

Li Keqiang

Current Position: Vice Premier and Deputy Party Secretary of the State Council

Potential position in 2013: Premier


Previously a favorite for the top spot, but now ranked lower than Xi when they were both promoted to the Standing Committee in 2007, Li Keqiang now looks destined to succeed Wen Jiabao as Chinese Premier. Unlike some other members of this list, as the son of a low-level official from Anhui, Li comes from a humble background. Having been ‘sent down’ (i.e. sent to the countryside to ‘learn from the peasants’) in the Cultural Revolution, he became one of famous ‘Class of 77 – the first group of students to enter university after the end of the Cultural Revolution– when he won a place to study law at Peking University.

A popular figure on campus, he was interested in discussion of western political ideas and theories, mingling with future leaders of dissident circles. Although these democratic sympathies may have hampered his route to power, his intellect and political nous has ensured that he overcame the challenge of Wang Qishan for the vice-premiership. He holds a PhD in Economics, and was given the task of presenting China’s economic vision to international onlookers at the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2010, and also during a European tour in January 2011.

Li appears dedicated to combat corruption, and was revealed in Wikileaks cables to be skeptical of government economic data. He has a very tough act to follow in ‘Grandpa Wen’, the popular prime minister who comforted the victims of the 2008 earthquake, yet he appears to have the intellectual and political clout to rise to the challenge.

Wang Qishan

Current Position: Vice Premier in charge of Financial Affairs

Potential position in 2013: Chairman of National People’s Congress (NPC) or Executive Vice Premier


Having seemingly lost out to Li Keqiang in the struggle for the premiership, Wang, a history graduate of China’s North Western University and an ex-governor of China Construction Bank, seems set for either the Chair of the NPC or the wide-ranging role of Executive Vice-Premier. He was highly praised for successfully steering China through the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, and is described by US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson as, “decisive and inquisitive”, as well as having a “wicked sense of humor”.

His economic credentials are impeccable and ought to point to a position that makes use of these skills, yet his political connections – boosted by his tenure as Mayor of Beijing from 2004-2007 – may see him rewarded in the more influential position at the head of the NPC. The position of Chairman of the NPC is particularly important, as it is the holder of this position that steps in for the president, should he fall ill or be deemed politically unsuitable for leadership, as happened with Zhao Ziyang following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. It should be noted, however, that such an occurrence is extremely unlikely, given that no one individual holds supreme power and influence comparable to Mao, Deng or Jiang – the decision making revolves around a far more collective process. Whether it is as the helmsman of Chinese macroeconomic policy or at the centre of the party itself, there is little doubt that Wang will have a pivotal role in China’s next standing committee.

Zhang Dejiang

Current Position: Vice Premier of the State Council

Potential position in 2013: Chairman of NPC or Executive Vice Premier


A fluent Korean speaker and an economics graduate of Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang, Zhang’s links with North Korea may prove to be of strategic importance during the potentially difficult period following the leadership transition in the rogue state. Zhang is in direct competition with Wang Qishan for the NPC chairmanship with the runner-up likely to receive the position of Executive Vice Premier.

Zhang is another member of the Jiang Zemin faction, and held strategic provincial roles in Jilin, Zhejiang, and later Guangdong. During this last post, his decision to clamp down on the circulation of information during the SARS epidemic in 2002 which allowed the disease to spread to Hong Kong and then abroad was widely criticized in China. yet by and large he has recovered from this embarrassment.

Zhang’s fortune has been greatly aided by the downfall of Bo, as he was made interim mayor of Chongqing. Evidently he was seen as a steady pair of hands by party elders, and an antidote to the boat-rocking Bo.

Relatively little is known about him personally, but his appointment in Chongqing would indicate that he is regarded as an effective leader who will tow the party line. Regarding his North Korean experience, it would seem unlikely that these connections will alter Beijing’s stance regarding its petulant ally, though his ability to communicate with counterparts in Pyongyang effectively could be enormously beneficial to China in the coming years.

Liu Yandong

Current Position: Vice Chairman of Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), Head of United Front Work Department

Potential position in 2013: Chairman CPPCC


Liu is the most powerful woman in the CCP and seems destined to be the first female member of the Standing Committee in its history, a feat that passed by even the hugely influential Wu Yi, who retired from the Politburo in 2008. Liu is a graduate of Tsinghua University and a close ally of outgoing President Hu, which has led some to believe that her sympathies lie with a more progressive or reformist route.

Her future position as Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (ostensibly an advisory and consultative body that is composed of representatives from various parts of Chinese society, but which has very little real power over the decision making process) is strengthened by two decades of experience at the United Front Work Department, during which she also received a Masters in Sociology and a Doctorate in Political Science.

It will no doubt be interesting to see how the Tsinghua clique, of which Liu is a part, interacts with a politburo set to be led by a majority of ‘princelings’.

Liu Yunshan

Current Position: Director of Publicity Department (formerly named ‘Propaganda Department)

Potential position in 2013: Head of the Publicity Department


A graduate of the CCP Central Committee Party School, Liu has spent a large proportion of his career in Inner Mongolia. Having been ‘sent down’ in his early 20s, he was later a reporter for Xinhua, the state run news agency, where he became a specialist in public relations. After gaining an expert knowledge of the official state news agency, he became party secretary for Inner Mongolia in the late 1980s.

He is a close ally of Li Changchun, the outgoing propaganda and ideology tsar who was cited in a Wikileaks cable as overseeing the 2009 cyber attack on Google, and is consequently viewed with suspicion by many international observers. The increasing number of internet users in China will complicate Liu’s task. As information circulates more freely, it is Liu that will oversee the upkeep of China’s internet security measures, ‘The Great Firewall’. This is an increasingly controversial issue both in China and abroad, making his position potentially more important than it might previously have been.

Though not a ‘princeling’ himself, Liu is grooming the next generation for wealth, if not power; his son, Liu Lefei runs the CITIC private equity fund which has capital of around 9 billion RMB ($1.4 billion). As head of the propaganda department, Liu Yunshan follows in the steps of Xi Zhongxun, Xi Jinping’s father, though exactly how close he is to the president-elect is unclear.

Li Yuanchao

Current Position: Head of CCP Central Organization Department

Potential position in 2013: Executive Secretary or Head of Central Discipline Inspection Commission


Once considered a potential candidate for the presidency, rival only to Li Keqiang, Li Yuanchao now looks like a candidate to take a lower-ranking position. Having graduated from Shanghai’s Fudan University in Mathematics, he later received a Masters degree from Peking University in Economic Management, and a Doctorate in Law from the Central Party School.

Li is another of China’s fifth generation of ‘princelings’, as both his parents were revolutionary leaders. But he has indeed shown a remarkable knack at ingratiating himself with the Communist Youth League (CYL), and is indeed popular within both camps.

He spent his early career as a teacher, and later became a favorite of Hu Jintao’s in the CYL. Hu’s endorsement is believed to have fast-tracked Li to becoming party secretary of the booming coastal province Jiangsu where he made his name. His political capital was particularly enhanced by China’s export boom in the 1990s.

Though he may have lost out in the race to the presidency, as executive secretary Li would still has the opportunity to be a very important figure in China’s next Politburo Standing Committee.

Meng Jianzhu

Current Position: Vice-Premier of Public Security

Potential position in 2013: Head of Political and Legislative Committee. Internal Security


A graduate of Shanghai Mechanical Engineering Institute as well as a capable economist, Meng looks poised to take over the role currently occupied by the highly contentious Zhou Yongkang.

His power is firmly rooted in the South, having held multiple roles in Shanghai before becoming party chief of Jiangxi – a promotion that was aided by his connection with Jiang’s close ally and former vice-president, Zeng Qinghong.

Meng’s résumé boasts harsh criticism of the Tibetan uprisings, which he called “the Dalai Lama clique’s intentional and secret efforts to separate the motherland and undermine Tibet’s harmony and stability”. With Meng in charge, it seems unlikely that China’s internal security policy will undergo any significant changes in the years to come.

Wang Yang

Current Position: Party Secretary of Guangdong

Potential position in 2013: Vice Premier and Deputy Party Secretary of the State Council


Having previously held Bo Xilai’s post as party secretary of Chongqing, Wang transferred to Guangdong in 2007. He is known to favor economic and financial liberalization, and has encouraged greater reliance on market forces rather than the state in Guangdong province. This move away from the planned economy has earned him the title of ‘young Marshall’ amongst his supporters, referring to his tendency to challenge the status quo. Wang has also developed a reputation for political liberalization, most notably in his response to the protests of 2011 in the village of Wukan; after a ten day standoff with villagers a resolution was reached under which the village was permitted to hold direct elections in March 2012.

Wang holds political clout as a particular favorite of both Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, who will no doubt seek to ensure that their supporters are rewarded with positions of power in the next generation. Enjoying wide public appeal owing to his charisma and empathy, Wang appeared to be in direct competition with Bo Xilai for a place on the standing committee. Though he embraces media outlets to a greater extent than most Chinese politicians, Wang kept a lower profile than his rival. The relationship between the two was in many ways the most interesting of any two in this list, as these rivals came to praise each other’s very different leadership style, with Bo saying that he was ‘brimming over with true feelings’ after meeting with Wang in 2010. Wang didn’t go as far as his rival, but did express his strong admiration for Bo’s implicit role in continuing Chongqing’s modernization process.

In March 2012, when Bo’s fate was finally sealed, it looked like Wang had won the battle between the two. With Bo’s attempt to foster a cult of personality in tatters, it now seems evident that to future political aspirants that attempting to become bigger than the party is ultimately a self-destructive ambition. Wang’s decision to focus on economic development over political rhetoric appears to have been one of the deciding factors in his success, though Bo’s downfall was at least as much of his own making. With the ‘Guangdong Model’ having seemingly triumphed over the ‘Chongqing Model’, Wang may well be rewarded with a position as Chairman of the NPC.

Bo Xilai – The one that got away?

Current Position: none

Previous position: Party Secretary of Chongqing


The son of Bo Yibo, a former CCP revolutionary leader, Bo Xilai was once hailed as China’s first political rock star. Since the death of his father in 2007, after which he lost much political clout, he embarked on a widespread crackdown of organized crime along with a promotion of Maoist ideology in his jurisdiction of Chongqing. Residents received so-called ‘red texts’ – quotations from Mao Zedong sent directly to their mobile phones – and television commercials were replaced with revolutionary soap operas.

His apparent revolutionary sympathy received no comment from the highest-ranking members of the CCP, Hu and Wen, who do not court the media, and favor a more bureaucratic approach. Xi Jinping, however, did praise Bo’s tenure in Chongqing, which led some to suggest that Xi was trying to form his own clique composed strongly of ‘princelings’, the self-professed legitimate heirs to CCP leadership. Bo was popular in Chongqing where the reduction in the crime rate was widely acknowledged to be his biggest achievement.

As we have seen, his great ambition proved to be his downfall. As this smooth-talking showman tried to become bigger than the party, forces within Beijing worked to bring him crashing down. On March 15th 2012 he was formally dismissed from his post as mayor of Chongqing, and he is now implicated through his wife, Gu Kailai, in the apparent-murder of the British businessman Neil Heywood.

His ‘Red Revival’, once much praised in China, is now seen to have been nothing but a ploy to get a seat on the PSC. The entire episode has sent shockwaves through the Chinese political decision-making process, and with loyalty to the party now paramount it seems impossible that Bo will ever reach a position of political power again. Whether or not Xi himself has been damaged by the limited association he had with Bo remains to be seen, but Bo’s downfall is certainly the result of a behind-the-scenes power struggle that Xi would no doubt have preferred to have avoided at this crucial time.


The very nature of Chinese politics makes it incredibly hard to predict how the next generation of leaders will affect Chinese domestic and international policy; the only way to get to the top, as the Bo episode has demonstrated, is to tow the party line and keep your cards close to your chest. However, it seems reasonable to posit that the next generation of Chinese leaders will continue China’s modernization and economic liberalization process, and will continue to keep the focus on a balance of economic growth and domestic stability.

Although his wife may be one of China’s best-loved entertainers, Xi appears to be quite happy out of the limelight, and is more focused on delivering results than political rhetoric. With Bo gone there appears little chance of a return to personality politics, and the Chinese political system appears to be progressing towards the intra-party democracy advocated by Hu. If the transition is relatively stable, it will cement the process by which a leader serves for a decade before handing over the reins to the next generation. While this model is a long way from any form of democracy that those in the West would recognize, it would be a stable and formalized system that prevents a return to Mao-style one-man dictatorship. An interesting contrast is in nominally democratic Russia, where Vladimir Putin has returned to the presidency after four years as prime minister; if he serves the full twelve years he is now constitutionally entitled to he will be in power after Xi Jinping leaves office and his reign will have coincided with four ‘generations’ of Chinese leaders.

A crucial aspect of this progression towards a stable transition process will be whether or not the Chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC) is handed over from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping at the same time as the presidency and position of General Secretary of the CCP. When Hu succeeded Jiang Zemin, he did not gain the chairmanship of the CMC until more than twelve months later as Jiang sought to retain some influence and power. As themilitary is not directly controlled by the state, but is actually answerable to the party, this post is crucial for any leader to consolidate their position.

With the next 5-year plan already in place, the first years of China’s new leadership will see a continuation of the policies already put in place by their predecessors, but the contents of the next 5 year plan, to be decided by this new generation and implemented in 2016, will depend on multiple external and internal factors.

Towing the party line and peaceful development are likely to be two of the key themes of this generation, but as the Bo episode has illustrated, the wind can very quickly change in the Chinese political field.