GIGA Working Paper

China's Changing Relationship with Socialism

China’s rise to global power has required it to redefine its relations with socialist countries. Nele Noesselt analyses what the new Chinese foreign policy looks like and how China is reformulating its role as a socialist nation.

Since the decisions on reform and opening in 1978, China’s economic system has undergone a steady transformation from a centrally planned economy to a hybrid system that integrates elements of both plan and market. Furthermore, China has rejoined the international community and become an active player in multilateral fora and international institutions.

Given China’s domestic restructuring and its new position in world politics, one might be tempted to conclude that the country’s new status has also caused the reformulation of its foreign policy and of the national role conceptions lying behind the decision‐making processes therein. The international academic and policy debate already operates on the premise of an 'assertive' China, and has thus elaborated appropriate measures to cope with China’s new role - based on the assumption that a role change has indeed already taken place. However, if the roles that external observers ascribe to China are not the ones that in reality determine Chinese foreign policy, the scenarios discussed might actually be leading to oversimplifications and even misinterpretations.

Chinese international relations (IR) scholars are currently engaged in rewriting and updating the country’s international relations strategy. They also continue to debate the role that China should play in the future, and to critically evaluate the roles of other relevant actors. In order to come to a more nuanced understanding of the motivations and drivers of Chinese foreign policy, one thus also has to include in the analysis the debates within China’s epistemic communities on ego and alter roles.

Meanwhile, one also has to keep in mind that China’s national ego roles consist of multiple subsets that can, at least in this particular case, combine elements dating from different time periods in the country’s long history. As the symbolic continuation of the past ('using the past as a mirror') is a basic pillar of the party‐ state’s legitimation strategy, there has so far not been any major role change at any point in the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) history. However, given the side effects and spillovers of China’s economic reforms - that is, the rise of the PRC from a passive bystander to one of the world’s new gravitational centres - one might expect that the future will bring a further redefinition of certain subsets within China’s role conceptions.

Among these subsets, China’s self‐imagination as a 'socialist' actor is the one that most obviously no longer fits given its new role as an international (capitalist) economic power. The key puzzle addressed in this paper is thus how China’s socialist identity is, if at all, being reconfigured. Is the rise of a ‘socialist’ power to the level of a major player in the global capitalist system possible without the replacement of socialist role frames? Or is China managing to redefine its socialist role to make it compatible with the other role schemes it adheres to?

The following analysis is divided into three parts: The first develops a theoretical framework that outlines the key assumptions of role theory and combines these with theoretical reflections on China’s national role from publications by Chinese political scientists. The second part sheds light on the official conceptualization of China’s ‘socialist’ role by analysing the ego and alter roles of China and other socialist states (Soviet Union, North Korea, Cuba, Vietnam) outlined in Chinese academic publications. The conclusion summarizes the paper’s findings and discusses what function a redefined socialism serves in Chinese (foreign) policy. [...]

Read more: Nele Noesselt, China and Socialist Countries: Role Change and Role Continuity, GIGA Working Paper, No. 250, August 2014

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