U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the conclusion of the Sixth Strategic and Economic Dialogue between the two nations, 10 July 2014
Since the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit last November, supporters of liberalism have observed with excitement that China has demonstrated her willingness to further integrate into the existing liberal international order. The historic climate change agreement between China and the US, along with the two countries’ commitment to regulate their air and maritime encounters in the West Pacific, have been viewed as indications that China is supportive of the US-led world order. However, in the ensuing months after the APEC Summit, China has taken assertive steps to regulate many aspects of its society, such as the Internet and the market. Together, these new developments should serve as a warning to those liberals who think that China is committed to upholding the existing international order.
Recently, the Chinese government upgraded its “Great Firewall (GFW),” the Internet censor infrastructure that blocks certain foreign websites, such as Facebook and Google. This upgrade severely affected the Virtual Private Network (VPN) services, which many Chinese “netizens” use to access foreign websites or to simply use Gmail and Google+. In justifying this action, a Chinese cyber security expert said that it was necessary to strengthen China’s control over its “cyberspace sovereignty.”
Such a notion is in direct contrast to the Internet’s status in Western liberalism, which holds that the Internet is without borders and that citizens should be able to browse whatever websites they wish without infringement from the government, except in cases of national security or criminal activities. Moreover, one op-ed in Global Times, the semi-official Chinese newspaper, hailed the achievements of China’s GFW. It claimed that it has successfully protected the Chinese cyber industry from being dominated by Google, Facebook, or Yahoo, and that it has made Chinese netizens accustomed to obtaining information from domestic channels. At best, this argument is championing cyber-industrial protectionism. At worst, it is taking pride in limiting the free flow of the Internet. But does either of these practices exist in the liberal international order?
Take China’s efforts to combat climate change as another example. On December 29, 2014, the government of Shenzhen, the third largest city in China, suddenly issued a ban on all automobile trade. The municipal government described its action as a necessary measure to ameliorate the traffic jam in the city and to reduce CO2 emissions in order to combat climate change. In place of the regular automobile market, the government implemented an annual quota system. Immediately after the announcement, law enforcement personnel swarmed into automobile shops to halt any ongoing transactions.
One can argue that the Shenzhen government’s primary motive was not combating climate change (which is likely true), but nonetheless this event demonstrated that China is willing to conduct illiberal practices in order to contribute to one of the goals of the liberal world order. However, it is unthinkable that any country genuinely devoted to upholding the liberal international order would resort to a ban on market activities — a violation of a core principle of the liberal order — in order to combat climate change.
There is certainly an abundance of evidence suggesting that China is not ready to embrace the liberal world order: Chinese nationalism, which has a strong anti-Western undertone, has shown no sign of moderation; American firms are reporting growing anti-foreign sentiment in Chinese markets; the Chinese state is also stressing its right to exert more influence in China’s academic and spiritual world.
Of course, these signs do not mean that China is seeking to subvert the current liberal world order and establish an illiberal one. China has profited handsomely from many aspects of the liberal world order, such as international financial and trade institutions, but China’s current political system has determined that China will not fully integrate into the world order created and dominated by the West, let alone become its next leader. Instead, China will uphold some parts of it, pay lip service to other parts, and when the order is not in line with her interests, remain on the outside. The illusion that China will uphold the liberal world order is both naive and dangerous. It fails to take China’s domestic political circumstances into consideration. But more importantly, it will create disappointment on the part of the West and then initiate mutual distrust when this chimera is eventually replaced by reality.
Zihao Liu is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in History as part of the College Scholar Program.