#28 event report: China’s Dilemma: Marching West but Thinking East?

China’s Dilemma: Marching West but Thinking East

September 24, 2013, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Speaker: Prof. WANG Jisi, Professor, School of International Studies, Peking University


In order to fully grasp the very essence of the so-called “China goes West” theory, Professor Wang Jisi emphasized the importance of understanding China’s global identity within the newly globalized context. First of all, China is a socialist country, led by a communist party. According to Prof. Wang Jisi, due to these special political settings, China should not be seen as an ordinary partner in global affairs. Secondly, in terms of its role and attitude within the existing world’s political and economic order, China is a beneficiary, participant and reformer, at the same time. Third, despite belonging to the sphere of developing country, we should also bear in mind that China is probably the most developing country in the world. Lastly, considering China’s global identity within its geo-political and geo-economic context, China is both a maritime and continental power, with its identity ranging from an East Asian country to the bigger sphere of Asian countries.

Moving forward, Prof. Wang Jisi showed the audience two different world maps, explaining the asymmetries between East and West perspectives over geography, while also tracing some important historical linkages between China and the East-West divide. In the first map, the “Chinese map”, China is represented in the middle, the US is then China’s Far East, Japan is the Near East, Europe is China’s Far West and the Middle East now becomes China’s Middle West. In the second map, the one western people tend to be more familiar with, China is located in the very Far East. On one hand, in the ancient times China saw itself as a middle kingdom, although it was not until 1911 that China officially adopted the name of “middle kingdom” (中国). At that time, however, China was already regarded as a Far Eastern country, belonging to the East Asian region. During the Cold War era, China joined the Soviet Union and other East European countries to form the bigger socialist camp. Citing one of Mao Zedong’s remarks, ”The East wind prevails over the West wind” (东风压倒西风), Prof. Wang Jisi also emphasized how China’s first identity as an“Eastern” country does still maintain an influence in today’s academic and political discourses, “East and West relations” (东西方关系). After the escalating friction between China and the Soviet Union during Mao Zedong’s ruling period, and also after Deng Xiaoping’s generation of reforms, China has not been emphasizing anymore its attachment to Eastern countries; conversely, China has been marking its identity as developing country, while some people still refer to China as belonging to third world countries. On the other hand, China has also got great linkages with its own West. Taking a closer look at tha map of Asia, China is still located in the middle. China’s Western provinces result to be extremely different from countries located in the East of China, such as South Korea and Japan. For instance, due to particular geographical and cultural linkages, Tibet Province appers to share many similarities with India, the same can also be said for Yunnan Province and Myanmar, not to mention the significant muslim population settled in the Xinjiang Region. In regards to how the West interacts with China’s identity, Prof. Wang Jisi also mentioned that for many US analysts, politicians and think tanks, China simply belongs to the East Asia sphere. Under this framework, China is put together with Korean, South East Asian countries and Japan, leaving out India from this sphere of influence. This particular standpoint leads to precise policy implications, when the US says they want to go back to Asia, they actually mean East Asia rather than the Middle East. When China talks about its opening to the rest of the world, they are essentialy talking about East Asia and beyond, all the way through the US and Canada. However, Prof. Wang Jisi also explained that along China’s increasing demand for natural resources, its interests are now gradually shifting to the Middle East. Xi Jinping’s recent tour to Central Asia confirms this region’s increasing importance within China’s new geo-political and geo-economical strategy. Prof. Wang Jisi concluded its remarks on the first part of his speech by stating than China is neither simply an “East asian country”, nor simply a “socialist country”, China is at the centre of Asia, a country between the East and the West, that is the Americas and Europe, and at the same time closer to its neighbours in continental Asia, compared to other Asian countries.

The second part of Prof. Wang Jisi’s speech focused on the identity of China in regards to the North and South paradigm. This dimension lies more on geo-economic basis: the South usually refers to less developed regions, such as Latin America, Africa and South East Asia. Geographically, China belongs to the North countries’ category. However, in political terms China still defines itself as belonging to the developing world. According to Prof. Wang Jisi, China is a very special developing country in three main aspects: its economic size and potential (its GDP is even larger than the four BRICS countries’ economies put together, Russia, South Africa, Brazil and India and it is expected to become the biggest world economy in the next decade); its demographic strength (China has been experiencing a significant slow-down in population growth, this will lead China to avoid labour force surplus in the future); its reliance on manufacturing industry rather than exports of natural resources (China does not export many natural resources, but uses them to cater its manufacturing production and urbanization process, something not typical for developing countries). China is going to serve as the bridge between developing countries and developed countries. In 1978, right after the cultural revolution, during the period of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms, China set as the main national objective the modernization of the society. According to the CCP national objective, China will become a modernized socialist country by the 2040, right 100 years after the establishment of CCP. If we accept the concept of modernization, China is now half way through this process, that is in between pre-modern societies and post-modern societies.

Prof. Wang Jisi concluded its speech by pointing out that China is neither East nor West, neither North nor South, China is in the middle. Under this framework, as the country’s geo-political and geo-economic influence grows larger, China should also look beyond its sphere of interest in Asia and rebalance its strategy towards the West, just like the US has done towards East through the asian pivot strategy. Although today East Asia is still of vital importance, China is not only part of Asia, China should therefore pay more strategic attention to the West, at the same time, exploiting the great potential for cooperation with other countries that also share interests in those areas. In terms of China’s role in the North-South relations, Prof. Wang Jisi also stressed the importance for China in enhancing the cooperation with developing countries while also increasing its interests with developed countries.


The presentation was followed by a very fruitful discussion which saw students from different cultural and academic background interacting with Prof. Wang Jisi.

Many of the issue raised revolved around the role of China’s cooperation with its neighbouring countries in the achievement of China’s global interests.

As far as China and Nepal relations are concerned, on one hand, China should very mindful of the fact that some of its Western regions share some of their cultural traits with neighbouring countries; on the other hand, as Nepal is geographically located between two big countries, that is China and India, China should respect Nepal’s own identity along with its cultural and political sensitiveness. Prof. Wang Jisi, despite highlighting the importance of marching towards West for China, remains very conscious of the fact that the most important region to China is represented by its neighbouring countries. Prof. Wang Jisi does neither believe in a bipolar world nor does he hope for a multipolar world. Conversely, China should share the leadership with other countries, assuming at the same time, a more responsible role in world’s affairs.

For what concerns potential frictions between China and Russia, due to China’s economic expansion in areas that have been regarded for many years as Russia’s backyards, Prof. Wang Jisi believes that all countries should be allowed to engage in economic competition in these areas. In today’s world there is no country that can claim another territory to be its own backyard as it refers to old notions of colonialism.

Despite economic relations between China and African countries have been improving during the last few decades, Prof. Wang Jisi pointed out that China should still be more careful with dealing with certain issues in those countries, especially for what concerns fair-trade, labor rights and environmental protection. At the state level, China has managed to build up solid political foundations with many African countries that have also fostered economic cooperation. However, at the micro level, that is individual behaviour of chinese people abroad, China should has a long way to go in terms of improving its image.

Another interesting questions pointed out the possibility of a shift in China’s foreign policy towards a more interventionist approach, in response to the country’s increasing need for natural resources to cater its production supply chain. Prof. Wang Jisi reframed the explanation, stressing China’s approach and policy for non-interference and non-intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs. However, according to Prof. Wang Jisi, China’s role should be expanded into a deeper involvement and understanding of other countries’ domestic affairs as they directly influence the sustainability of China’s development. Prof. For anyone interested in this specific academic discourse, we also suggest Wang Yizhou’s theory of “creative involvement” (创造性介入).

(report by Gianluca Luisi)