China’s Dilemma: Providing a Global Blueprint or Retaining Chinese Characteristics?


China claims its Sino-Marxist system to be superior to Western, liberal, constitutionalist, and / or federal countries. The ongoing coronavirus crisis has fomented China’s claims to superiority. Whether China’s COVID-19 management really proves supreme in a holistic perspective – which includes not only the pandemic prevalence (i. e., absolute case numbers) but also the respect of the rights and freedoms of individuals in locked-down areas –, I have examined elsewhere. What is crucial here is only that the claims to supremacy have created a dilemma for Chinese party and state leaders.


China as a new global model providing the universal “new normal”?

Chinese party and state leaders consider COVID-19 management to be part of the “China Model”. Originally, this term narrowly described the economic model of China’s reform and opening-up since 1978, as a synonym to the “Beijing Consensus”. Now, it represents China’s whole party–state, central–local, and political–legal system, which is claimed to provide an alternative model to Western, liberal, constitutionalist, and/or federal systems. For example, the “China Standards 2035” plan tries to establish Chinese industry standards as global standards for emerging technologies like 5G internet and artificial intelligence. Particularly the United States, e. g., the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, warily monitors China’s “promotion of alternative global norms and standards”.

However, not least due to the United States’ own flaws of pandemic management, COVID-19 has fomented the question of whether China’s norms and standards could turn into a global “new normal”. Firstly, a new normal is prevailing during the coronavirus crisis. Obviously, COVID-19 is temporarily altering the ways people live around the globe. Several countries have emulated China’s strict initial COVID-19 measures “in a domino-like fashion” (the University of Oxford’s “COVID-19 Government Response Stringency Index” rates changing COVID-19 policies in every country on a daily basis). The World Health Organization even praises China as “setting a new standard for outbreak response”. Moreover, many observers worldwide predict and/or demand a new normality also for the future after the coronavirus crisis. They consider it impossible to return to the status quo ante in economics, politics, work, social life, health care, etc. Some of these authors argue that China offers a “blueprint for what this new normal will look like after the pandemic”.


China as a paragon retaining its exclusive Chinese characteristics?

However, these hopes of some and fears of others might mistake the intentions of Chinese party and state leaders. In China, the “new normal” is not at all new. It has constituted the official mantra since 2014, as an important element of Xi Jinping “new era”. Therefore, Xi’s claims for a new normal, originally related to economic development, now expand to various areas of Chinese governance, including the political and legal system. However, these claims focus on a national new normal inside China instead of a global new normal for the whole world.

Moreover, regarding COVID-19 management, Chinese party and state leaders do not aim to provide globally applicable public health standards. Rather, they consider China to be a “paragon” with “outstanding capabilities that cannot be achieved by other countries”. Also, Chinese leaders argue that these capabilities result from the supposed “Chinese characteristics” of China’s current system. Policymakers and scholars characterize virtually all aspects and elements of the party–state, central–local, and political–legal system as “characteristically Chinese”. They also ascribe Chinese characteristics to the public health and emergency management, and to COVID-19 governance in particular.


The dilemma for China as a (potential) superpower

Claiming such Chinese characteristics serves China’s party and state leaders for various purposes, e.g., to create a special Chinese identity, to guarantee the “correct political orientation”, or to justify harsh policies (e.g., COVID-19 measures) because they are specifically Chinese. However, the topos of a special China also causes specific problems. It not only foments Sinocentric and (self-)Orientalist Chinese exceptionalism, but also creates a dilemma for Chinese leaders: If China wants to be special, how can it provide a new global standard? And if China wants to be the new global standard, how can it stay special?

Let me explain this further. On the one hand, if China performs well, other countries will try and emulate its (most) successful features. Even the liberal New York Times – failing to consider the background of China’s political and legal system – concludes that China’s COVID-19 management “has made its model seem attractive” for other countries. On the other hand, Chinese leaders themselves seem convinced that their party–state, central–local, and political–legal model to make China stronger than competing countries. Therefore, they will try and secure China’s supposed advantage by designing its (most) successful features exclusive to the Chinese context, or by not even revealing them to the world.

This dilemma aggravates if Chinese leaders intend to create a “global empire 2.0”, as influential scholars demand. On the one hand, in order to reshape the world order, China must actively suggest its model as a valid solution for (a sufficient amount of) other countries. On the other hand, in order to obtain and preserve the status of an outstanding superpower, China must make sure that (a sufficient amount of) these characteristics remain exclusive to China.

Most probably, China will try to resolve this dilemma as (potential) superpowers like the U.S. tend to do: by navigating between the two poles of universalism and particularism, that is, between global leadership and exceptionalism.

Photo by Benjamin Chris on Unsplash