China’s Vision for World Order

Xi Jinping Wants China to Shape Other Countries’ Sense of Themselves

In October, in front of leaders from Asia, Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, Xi Jinping stood triumphant in a celebratory keynote address celebrating the tenth birthday of his Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The speech, delivered at the BRI Forum, championed the initiative’s successes and charted a path toward a version 2.0 that will be smaller, greener, and more focused on diplomacy. The speech depicted China as an alternative standards-setter for the developing world in artificial intelligence, climate resilience, and attainable modernization.

A white paper released in the run-up to the Forum more explicitly explains the Party’s read on the state of the world—and its origins. The paper distinguishes the BRI from the “old colonial path” taken by rich countries over much of the last century. The BRI, the white paper says, “will not transfer problems, use neighbors as beggars, or harm others to benefit itself.” Instead, it will create “win-win” opportunities and liberate developing countries from operating within the global system the Party sees as a creation of the U.S.

That leaders from more than 20 developing nations attended the celebration suggests they are at least somewhat wary of the U.S.-led global affairs status quo. That skepticism creates convenient space for China, a country that has long since retired its “hide and bide” approach to international relations, reframing itself as the leader of the developing world.

China’s leader Xi Jinping’s Global Civilization Initiative (GCI) is the most recent in a line of global development and outreach proposals, including the BRI as well as the Global Security and Development Initiatives. The GCI demonstrates that Xi wants China to lead not only in implementing global governance, but in conceptualizing why and how it should exist.

The GCI makes a direct argument against maintaining the current global power distribution by condemning the history behind it and the universal values it espouses. If “the West” won the original communist-capitalist battle for influence, more recently, frustration and mistrust toward institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and developed countries’ governments have created a reliability gap China can try to fill. Historically, Beijing has tried to do so practically, largely by providing solutions to development bottlenecks. The GCI’s emergence shows the same effort now taking on the more amorphous project of civilization-building.

Xi introduced the GCI in March, at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Dialogue with World Political Parties, which gathered more than 500 international representatives to discuss the role of political parties in development. He made a case for deference to “national conditions” and self-rule, arguing China should “uphold the principle of independence and explore diversified paths towards modernization,” and that a country’s people should decide what kind of modernization works for them.

Xi’s position is that countries should be able to draw on their own historical experiences in assessing the U.S.-led liberal world order that blossomed after World War II. 20th century colonial subjugation, China’s leaders hope, is enough to ally developing countries today.

A claim of shared oppressive pasts and significant spending have been part of China’s global south strategy for the better part of the last 70 years. Over this period of time, China’s diplomatic goals for the developing world have not fundamentally changed. As Rana Mitter has written, “Looking out for a radical shift in the way that China defines the international order is unlikely to be fruitful; understanding how key terms are reimagined and reappropriated is far likelier to illuminate the nature of the Chinese project to adapt international order.” The People’s Republic of China (PRC) wants to offer itself as an option, an undeniable power, but not a replacement for or inheritor of America’s boundless global role.

The GCI seeks to promote China from sympathetic financier to civilizational conceptualizer. The initiative attempts to create a common understanding of civilization that leaves room for sovereign, distinct application. Its aim is to spur unity between China and global south nations based on the argument that they are all developing. No one knows better than the CCP how quickly a consequential switch in economic output and, resultantly, geopolitical positioning can unfold. Future development will likely be driven by the world’s biggest and most populous economies, many of which are in developing countries. China does not want to miss the boat.

But Xi is contending with a formidable alternative: the United States’ leadership in international development, featuring the requirement that nations uphold Washington’s values, upon which foreign aid is often contingent. The U.S. Congressional Research Service describes foreign aid as a “particularly flexible tool” that can “act as both carrot and stick, and is a means of influencing events, solving specific problems, and projecting U.S. values.” The GCI eschews that quid-pro-quo by keeping its goals exclusively conceptual and rerouting tangible development aid through other projects like the BRI and Global Development Initiative (GDI).

Both countries employ moralistic tones and betray a sense of national exceptionalism. American exceptionalism comes from a push to get other countries to sign on to U.S. values and the institutions furthering them. The logic of American exceptionalism does not create a contradiction; instead, it projects a clear and moralistic offering to the world: “we have the best values and everyone should live by them.” In China’s case, merging global leadership with national superiority is more immediately paradoxical. This is epitomized by the GCI. “They’re tying themselves in knots to say ‘We reject universal values,’ but there are common values,” Robert Daly, director of the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute, said recently on the Sinica Podcast.

The GCI can be read as an attempt to “cash in” on the last decade of investment and labor China has put into global development projects. It’s difficult to directly compare the United States’ and China’s development spending, in part because China does not always label its contributions as “aid.” Rather, it prefers to frame such financing as “win-win.” Beijing takes that second “win” seriously. As Marina Rudyak, a Sinologist at the University of Heidelberg, noted in a report on the China International Development Cooperation Agency, “The Chinese aid model combines aid with commercially oriented trade and investment ventures. This approach is rooted in the idea that since China is (by definition) a developing country, its aid spending should be ‘mutually beneficial’ . . . ” This style may be gaining traction, partly due to the fact that it is distinct from the U.S. model of development financing based on altruism and value alignment. Researchers Salvador Santino F. Regilme and Obert Hodzi argue that “China’s combined aid and investment programs are becoming the new normal, challenging traditional [Official Development Aid] and offering a new model for development assistance.”

More than 140 countries have signed on to BRI projects, though the initiative’s popularity has waned over time: some countries, like Italy, have withdrawn from the BRI. The GDI, however, is steadily growing. According to the 2023 update from the Center for International Knowledge on Development, a Chinese think tank, the GDI has new ongoing or completed projects in areas such as food production, e-commerce, medicine, green energy, and vocational education, among many others.

Now that Beijing has proved to be a deep-pocketed investor, Xi wants to cultivate higher-level support for China’s concept of civilization. In the GCI’s framing, every country has its own version of civilization, and diversity in governance systems should be protected and encouraged. The pitch builds on the Party-state’s more than half-century-long effort to come up with a diplomatic framework that defends sovereignty yet empowers China as a leader among developing countries.

The GCI’s emphasis on self-determination is the stronger selling point. Smaller countries’ reactions to great power competition demonstrate it is dangerous for policymakers in the U.S. or China to assume nations are interested in picking—or mimicking—either side. In a 2019 speech defending ASEAN’s interests amid great power competition, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong noted that it would be unrealistic (and unreasonable) to expect every country “to adopt the same cultural values and political system.” But the GCI’s appeal hinges on whether world leaders believe that signing onto it does not override their own autonomy—and doesn’t necessarily represent “choosing” China between the two superpowers. Neither the U.S. nor China has made a strong case for why any third country would be interested in auditioning for what they both frame as a two-man show.

From Bandung to BRICS

China’s first premier, Mao’s foreign policy guru Zhou Enlai, prioritized developing countries as part of China’s 20th-century pitch for global Maoism. Zhou learned on the job that China had to gain the trust of developing countries before he could hope to influence their politics.

In the mid-20th century, Beijing showed growing interest in pursuing diplomacy without developed countries, most concretely epitomized by the 1955 Bandung Conference, which convened Asian and African states in Indonesia. Many participating nations had just exited colonial rule.

According to its Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China’s goal in attending the gathering was “to expand the united front for peace, to promote the national independence movement, [and] to create conditions for the establishment and enhancement of relations between China and some other Asian and African countries.” When some countries criticized communism, Zhou Enlai ditched his prepared remarks and took a more independence-oriented approach: “There exists common ground among the Asian and African countries the basis of which is that . . . their peoples have suffered and are still suffering from the calamities of colonialism.”

These 68-year-old comments echo today’s language. Li Xi, a Standing Committee member and secretary of the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, explicitly mentioned Bandung in a speech he delivered at the G77 gathering in September. He said developing countries had carried the “Bandung spirit”—a phrase that appears in many similar speeches, including a 2015 commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference. He added that China “will always be part of the developing world.”

Officials, then, are proposing that the categories of “developed” and “developing” are stagnant, bringing them closer to historical and geographical typologies like “non-colonial” and “non-Western”—and farther from evolving economic conditions. Invocations of Bandung complement the GCI, specifically in its attempt to redefine “development”—a term with a clear meaning and set of connotations—so that it aligns with Mao’s Three World Theory (which positioned China as part of the “third world”). Deng Xiaoping carried the torch; in 1974 he told the UN General Assembly that China belonged to the third world and would never become a superpower.

Upholding the CCP’s rule for 74 uninterrupted years in a changing China necessitates working through many contradictions. Grand narratives about China’s place in the world offer a useful, legitimizing consistency: China is and will be developing because, at the right moment during decolonization and global modernization, it was.

Colonialism’s value, meanwhile, is evergreen: “In history,” Zhang Jun, Chinese Ambassador to the UN, said in June, “colonial conquests and plundering driven by civilizational superiority and white supremacy wreaked such devastation in Asia, Africa, and Latin America . . . Today, interference, intervention, provocation, and incitement under the banner of ‘universal values’ are creating new conflicts and new confrontations.”

Communist Party leaders, then, condemn the notion of “universal values” even as the GCI touts its own “common values”: peace, development, fairness, justice, democracy, and freedom. Those sound a lot like China’s domestic-facing “socialist core values,” which attempt to make terms like “democracy” compatible with China’s one-party system. The Party does not consider these values “the exclusive hallmark of a liberal democracy,” write Delia Lin and Susan Trevaskes. But what might at first glance appear to be simple doublespeak carries consequences for the GCI.

The fact that the socialist core values include the same words as the “Western” universal values—but with different definitions—betrays Party leaders’ belief that the CCP can cultivate a globally available other option, provided by a fellow developing country rather than a member of the historically oppressive developed nation group. “This requires establishing the moral legitimacy of an authoritarian ‘China Model’ as an alternative to liberal democracy,” write Lin and Trevaskes.

Leveling Up: From Infrastructure to Civilization

When China in 1965 offered to finance the Tan-Zam Railway, which would run from copper mines in Zambia to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, “[it] was far more than a massive infrastructure project; it was also an integral part of the struggle for decolonization,” Julia Lovell writes in Maoism: A Global History. Lovell notes that, among international observers, “rumors began to circulate that the railway would be made of bamboo.” Comments like that were testament to the fact that developed countries were clearly not yet accustomed to powerful, public displays of solidarity among poorer countries.

PRC leaders are right to detect that world “power” is more complex—and dispersed—than it was in the last century. In a globalized economy, developing nations hold much more collective sway than they did in the Bandung era. American foreign policymakers, then, should internally acknowledge the significance, historical roots, and potential of the GCI. Washington needs an appeal that is somewhere between America’s “do it our way” approach and China’s convoluted, if superficially empowering, argument that historical conditions singlehandedly enable contemporary friendships.

For China, the GCI is ultimately a low-stakes gamble. Even if developing countries don’t totally buy it, they are unlikely to sever ties with China over what can be written off as a propaganda exercise. Lower-level diplomats will be motivated to promote the GCI to appear responsive to Xi’s calling; for example, in May, Chinese Ambassador to Dominica Lin Xianjiang published an article on the GCI. “China believes that delicious soup is cooked by combining different ingredients,” he wrote. “We need to stay inclusive and always seek nourishment from other civilizations.”

Until the United States has a plan that grapples with these dynamics, it will have to contend with China as both a development and conceptual competitor in most realms of its global south policy. The Global Civilization Initiative is the latest framework through which Chinese leaders have tried to revamp, if not entirely reimagine, their country’s status as a development leader. Meanwhile, China is itself still developing (and apparently, at least officially, always will be). Even if the strategy hasn’t changed since the Mao era, geopolitical and economic conditions have. That might be enough to tilt the scale in China’s favor.