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The writer is on leave as a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and author of ‘The World According to China’
China has repeatedly caught the world off-guard. Its Belt and Road Initiative launched in 2013, its management of Covid at home and abroad and, most recently, its emergence as the world’s biggest auto exporter and leader in electric vehicles have all surprised large segments of the international community.
Typically, the element of surprise in international politics relies on a determined effort to deceive or do the unexpected. But the Chinese government has perfected the art of surprise by default. The opacity of its system enables China to routinely shock the rest of the world and force others to spend time, energy and money adjusting their expectations and policies in response.
There is no way to avoid all surprise, but we improve the odds by adopting a comprehensive framework for understanding China: one that pays attention not only to its on-the-ground reality, but also its long-term ambition; not only to Chinese leaders, but also to Chinese society; not only to the view from outside China, but also to that from within.
Chinese policy reflects a mix of both on-the ground reality and long-term ambition. The startling rise of China’s EV sector, for example, was not an overnight miracle. It was a long-term national strategic priority.
In 1999, China put in motion targets, timetables, and a range of central and local government actions that supported domestic clean vehicle production and complicated efforts for foreign manufacturers.
Progress was, at times, grim. Top-down mandates yielded electric buses without seats and cars without batteries. As late as 2020, China missed its goal of 5mn units by several million. But, last year, China produced 5.8mn EVs. Now, as China prepares to unleash its cars on the rest of the world, automakers — particularly in Europe, where the economic barrier to Chinese EV imports is low — are left struggling to respond.
But ambition does not always translate into reality. Beijing planned 1,000 Confucius Institutes to promote Chinese language and culture in universities worldwide by 2020, but there are just over half that number. Its Thousand Talents programme did recruit 8,000 scientists and engineers to China from overseas during 2008-2018, but few were top-tier — and only 390 were born outside China.
And, of course, Belt and Road has been a complicated mix of success and failure — cementing China’s economic, political, and strategic influence in some countries, while prompting significant popular backlashes in others.
For the international community, though, there is also a price to pay for overestimating China’s success.
Its government’s support for Russia is evident: presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in 2020 declared that the “friendship between the two states has no limits”. But we must not assume there is no discourse or dissent within Chinese society. A number of academics have publicly denounced Beijing’s strong support for Moscow.
And, as Russia’s internal challenges and external failings mount, internal pressure on Beijing to modify its position may increase. The Chinese government’s Covid U-turn demonstrated how even a seemingly unshakeable policy can be shaken given the right domestic pressures.
Spending time in China is essential to avoid surprises. Its political environment may not be as welcoming to foreigners as previously, but that means more, not fewer, foreigners should travel there. Analysts, journalists, businesspeople and students need to be in China to plumb the complexity and nuances of the country and its politics.
As travel to China opens up, leaders in the US and elsewhere are taking the opportunity to engage with their Chinese counterparts and witness how the country works. No good coach would actively ignore the opportunity for a first-hand look at the mindset and playbook of a top competitor.
President Xi has set out an array of grand-scale initiatives to promote China on the global stage. Some will come to fruition, some will not. But, by looking at China through a range of lenses, the international community has the best chance of avoiding missed opportunities and costly surprise.