In the long term, China"s one-party state may well collapse. However, in the medium term, the regime seems to be developing increasingly sophisticated techniques to prolong its survival and pre-empt discontent. China has already changed the terms of the debate about globalisation by proving that authoritarian regimes can deliver economic growth. In the future, its model of deliberative dictatorship could prove that one-party states can deliver a degree of popular legitimacy as well. And if China"s experiments with public consultation work, dictatorships around the world will take heart from a model that allows one-party states to survive in an era of globalisation and mass communications.
China scholars in the west argue over whether the country is actively promoting autocracy, or whether it is just single-mindedly pursuing its national interest. Either way, China has emerged as the biggest global champion of authoritarianism. The pressure group Human Rights Watch complains that "China"s growing foreign aid programme creates new options for dictators who were previously dependent on those who insisted on human rights progress."
China"s foray into international politics should not, however, be reduced to its support for African dictators. It is trying to redefine the meaning of power on the world stage. Indeed, measuring "CNP"¡ªcomprehensive national power¡ªhas become a national hobby-horse. Each of the major foreign policy think tanks has devised its own index to give a numerical value to every nation"s power¡ªeconomic, political, military and cultural. And in this era of globalisation and universal norms, the most striking thing about Chinese strategists is their unashamed focus on "national" power. The idea of recapturing sovereignty from global economic forces, companies and even individuals is central to the Chinese worldview.
Yang Yi is a military man, a rear admiral in the navy and the head of China"s leading military think tank. He is one of the tough guys of the Chinese foreign policy establishment, but his ideas on power go far beyond assessments of the latest weapons systems. He argues that the US has created a "strategic siege" around China by assuming the "moral height" in international relations. Every time the People"s Republic tries to assert itself in diplomatic terms, to modernise its military or to open relationships with other countries, the US presents it as a threat. And the rest of the world, Yang Yi complains, all too often takes its lead from the hyperpower: "The US has the final say on the making and revising of the international rules of the game. They have dominated international discourse¡ the US says, "Only we can do this; you can"t do this.""
One of the buzzwords in Chinese foreign policy circles is ruan quanli¡ªthe Chinese term for "soft power." This idea was invented by the American political scientist Joseph Nye in 1990, but it is being promoted with far more zeal in Beijing than in Washington DC. In April 2006, a conference was organised in Beijing to launch the "China dream"¡ªChina"s answer to the American dream. It was an attempt to associate the People"s Republic with three powerful ideas: economic development, political sovereignty and international law. Whereas American diplomats talk about regime change, their Chinese counterparts talk about respect for sovereignty and the diversity of civilisations. Whereas US foreign policy uses sanctions and isolation to back up its political objectives, the Chinese offer aid and trade with no strings. Whereas America imposes its preferences on reluctant allies, China makes a virtue of at least appearing to listen to other countries.
But while all Chinese thinkers want to strengthen national power, they disagree on their country"s long-term goals. On the one hand, liberal internationalists like Zheng Bijian like to talk about China"s "peaceful rise" and how it has rejoined the world; adapting to global norms and learning to make a positive contribution to global order. In recent years, Beijing has been working through the six-party talks to solve the North Korean nuclear problem; working with the EU, Russia and the US on Iran; adopting a conciliatory position on climate change at an international conference in Montreal in 2005; and sending 4,000 peacekeepers to take part in UN missions. Even on issues where China is at odds with the west¡ªsuch as humanitarian intervention¡ªthe Chinese position is becoming more nuanced. When the west intervened over Kosovo, China opposed it on the grounds that it contravened the "principle of non-intervention." On Iraq, it abstained. And on Darfur, in 2006 it finally voted for a UN mandate for peacekeepers¡ªalthough Beijing is still under fire for its close ties to the Sudanese government.