How China seeks to change the world order: economic power, relativization of human rights and ties with the global south

After decades of growth with a pace and characteristics unparalleled in history, China today is unquestionably a global power. As stated in the US national security strategy, published this week by the Joe Biden administration, the Asian giant “is the only country with the intention of reconfiguring the international order and, increasingly, the power economic, diplomatic, military and technological to further that goal.”

The congress of the Communist Party of China (PCCh) that is being held starting this Sunday will thus perpetuate Xi Jinping at the head of a 21st century superpower and will pave the way for deepening the most assertive strategy in the international arena with respect to previous stages that this leader has sponsored in the last decade.

The general framework is clear. The official narrative itself, although generally cautious and elliptical, offers revealing clues to the underlying intentions, such as the idea of ​​collective “rejuvenation” that allows the country to recover its historical place, sometimes associated with the concept of the Middle Kingdom, of core power. Or like the joint declaration signed with Russia in February, in which an explicit rejection of the Western bloc’s action is expressed and a relativization of the concepts of democracy and human rights is promoted.

What kind of world order does China want? How do you project your influence on a global scale? How far has it come and what are the limits of its international action? And finally, the most important question, but impossible to answer: will it pursue its objectives with restrained international reformism, or will it eventually opt for confrontation? The answers to these questions concern the citizens of every country in the world, with an intensity that will become more and more tangible in the coming decades. Here are some keys to guide you in a matter of extraordinary complexity, which covers practically all aspects of modern life.

What world order does Beijing want?

“The CCP has a very ingrained vision, which is not specific to Xi, and that is to return China to the status of a superpower, a global power, that it had in the past,” says Helena Legarda, a senior analyst at the Mercator Institute for Research. on China and a specialist in Beijing’s foreign and defense policy. “In parallel to this repositioning, Beijing wants to lead a reform of the global order, as Xi has said on many occasions. An order that is now perceived as based on Western principles and dominated by the West”, continues the expert. It is in contrast to this perceived Western unilateralism that Beijing’s constant invocation of a fair multilateralism without interference in internal affairs must be read.

Many experts consider that a central key to the interpretation of the change that Beijing seeks is to crystallize an international political order in which human rights and individual freedoms are marginalized or relativized, in favor of a system focused on the relationship between States, based on the right of the nations. Legarda shares that reading.

“The universal nature of human rights must be seen through the prism of the real situation in each specific country, and human rights must be protected in accordance with the specific situation of each country and the needs of its population,” states the aforementioned Xi and Putin’s February statement. “There is no single model to guide countries in establishing democracy. A country can choose the forms and methods of putting democracy into practice that best suit its particular situation,” the text maintains in another passage.

Another thing is the economic order. In this section, Beijing is much more continuous. “China is a pillar of global capitalism,” says Nicholas Loubere, a professor at Lund University specializing in the global projection of the Asian giant. “He sees its development through the lens of further integration into that system. Therefore, in this section, it is not in any way a revisionist force, rather the opposite: it pushes to advance on that path. That said, naturally the fact that it does not seek to subvert the global economic order does not mean that there is no potential for conflict or even war in the future,” says Loubere, co-author of the book Global China as Method (Cambridge University Press).

Closing ceremony of the XIX Congress of the CCP, held in Beijing in October 2017, with Xi Jinping in the center.

Closing ceremony of the 19th CPC Congress, held in Beijing 

How do you project your influence on a global scale?

This is an undertaking as gigantic and multifaceted as the country that carries it out. In it, without a doubt, the great lever of forging relationships or projection of influence through pure economic power stands out.

On the one hand, there is the much discussed instrument of incentives. A scheme whose emblem is the Belt and Road Initiative [or new Silk Road], which promotes a huge range of investments and infrastructure projects in other countries (ports, railways, highways, but also fiber optics, mines), especially in the global south. In the Chinese strategy, this allows closer ties with those countries, offers opportunities for economic activity to their own companies, cements China’s projection in key infrastructures, as well as access to strategic raw materials.

The reverse of this lever is the coercive facet. The use of the dominant position in the manufacturing sector, the processing of many raw materials, or in certain technological sectors, to get other countries to do, or not do, things. This is the case of the commercial pressure applied against Lithuania after the Baltic country’s decision to expand diplomatic relations with Taiwan. China’s growing strength, not only in the traditional manufacturing sector, but in cutting-edge technological sectors such as artificial intelligence, 5G, quantum computing or green technologies can reinforce this vector.

All this is becoming more explicit. Legarda recalls how a government spokesman quoted an old Chinese song, which reads: “For friends we have good wine, and for wolves we have shotguns.”

On a more strictly political level, Beijing acts on different levels. Within international institutions, it moves to acquire a better position in them and “reformulate the definition of key concepts in global governance”, according to Loubere. “An example is the attempt to redefine human rights to include the right to development, which may allow China to position itself as a champion of human rights despite everything they do in contravention of their current definition.”

It also acts to set standards and norms in sectors where they are not yet well defined, for example, cyberspace, outer space, etc. But then there is a plan external to international institutions, which addresses the creation of new relationship networks. Legarda outlines two levels in this sector.

“On the one hand, there is the promotion of alternative organizations that China has promoted or in any case dominates, such as the BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the constitution of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank”, argues the expert. “On the other, there are initiatives of a global nature, with diffuse features, such as the Belt and Road Initiative, the Global Development Initiative, and the Global Security Initiative.”

This strategy is part of what Legarda defines as China’s aversion to formal alliances. “Except to some extent with North Korea, they don’t have structured alliances as the West understands them, because they don’t want them, because they’re afraid of being exposed to complicated compromises,” he says.

All this political projection has the Global South as its development axis. “This is very much in tune with the Maoist ideology of China as the leader of the third world. It is an ambition to lead and at the same time to be a model”, says Loubere. There, then, is a fundamental part of that geopolitical conflict with the West. What world order proposal will the many countries in that part of the world prefer? The interpretation of relations, democracy and human rights of the West or the one promoted by China, with Russia, and others? This is a highly relevant political battlefield.

There are other planes in which China cultivates its global projection, although probably less significant than the previous ones. In the military, for example, its contribution to peacekeeping missions has greatly increased. In the so-called soft power, it has tried, for example, to take advantage of the pandemic and certain bad reflexes of the West at the beginning to present itself as a power willing to provide health or humanitarian aid. At the diplomatic level, Beijing is promoting a shift in behavior with much more aggressive activity by its envoys than in the past, expressing more explicitly its distaste for issues that are not in line with its interests.

What are the limits of this projection?

China’s advances on the global stage in recent decades have been enormous. However, this does not mean that it does not continue to face clear difficulties in fully achieving its objectives.

On the one hand, the current circumstances show the great distance between the gas networks cultivated by China and the formal alliances of the West, which have shown a high degree of unity. Beijing’s commitment to closing ranks with Moscow, sealed in the aforementioned joint declaration, which advocated a “limitless” relationship, is possibly proving more of a problem than an asset. The other circles of action do not reach in any case the level of authentic strategic coordination. Thus, although China continues to grow, the combined weight of this cohesive West continues to be considerably greater.

On the other hand, the strategy of using its economic strength as leverage also has limits. Precisely what happened with Russia has opened the eyes of dozens of Western countries about the risks of having excessive dependence on a country that is a strategic adversary.

As Loubere points out, “China is too much at the heart of the global economic system to consider decoupling.” But a reduction in dependency is possible, a reorientation of supply chains towards “friendly countries”, in Janet Yellen’s terminology. The European Commission, for example, has recently launched an initiative to reduce dependence on strategic raw materials. And Washington is moving resolutely in a battle to limit Chinese companies’ access to key technologies, as the recent new restrictive measure on chips demonstrates.

Also the facet of investments, credits, infrastructure construction shows some limits. “The promised economic benefits are not always generated, there are problems of governance, of standards – for example, environmental – of debt sustainability,” says Legarda. Sometimes rejection arises towards some local elites considered captive and/or plunderers of the benefits linked to the relationship with China.

In military terms, China is a long way from having a global projection capacity like the US has. It has opened a base in Djibouti, but apart from that it is practically a force that only has its national platforms.

Furthermore, as far as the soft power aspect is concerned, the appeal of a model that lifts hundreds of millions of people out of poverty is undoubtedly clouded by various factors, from the difficulties in definitively controlling the pandemic that force brutal measures of confinement, to an increasingly stark repression that will doubtless generate admiration. In the cultural and entertainment field, China’s global penetration is still limited.

A child was playing yesterday in a square in the Chinese city of Yan'an.

A child was playing yesterday in a square in the Chinese city of Yan’an. 


The Chinese rise has had two phases. The first, marked by Deng Xiaoping’s philosophy of hiding and buying time. The second, from the Xi era, with a more assertive role, but, even so, contained, especially in comparison with the frontal assault on the international order perpetrated by the Vladimir Putin regime. It remains to be seen what course Xi will choose in the new phase of his period of command, enthroned beyond the ten-year period that had been customary and placing himself in some way at the political height of Mao.

Some analysts believe that it is possible for China to remain on a path of reformism of the world order without extremes of confrontation. In an interesting article published earlier this year in Foreign Affairs, Elizabeth Economy summed up the arguments of those who doubt this moderate perspective as follows: “That look does not capture the scope of Xi’s vision. Her understanding of China’s centrality means more than just ensuring that the relative weight of her country’s voice or influence in the existing international system is adequately represented. That vision supposes a radically transformed international order”.

Even if it faces difficulties, such as the current economic slowdown, and even if it chooses to avoid a stark confrontation, there is little doubt that China will exert a gigantic push to alter global balances, in a way that will be favorable neither to democracy nor to human rights as understood in the West.

How to respond to this challenge, whether with a front of democracies in a bipolar logic, or with a dynamic of relations between democracies that is close, but not monolithic, and that establishes its own approaches to the Chinese challenge – from the US, the EU, the Asian neighbors – is one of the biggest political dilemmas of our time. A considerable part of the future of the citizens of the entire planet depends on its resolution.

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