We Need To Understand China’s Domestic Politics


We Need To Understand China’s Domestic Politics

Aug 18th, 2021 5 min read
Michael Cunningham

Visiting Fellow, Asian Studies Center

Michael Cunningham is a visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center.
Chinese President Xi Jinping waves as he attends a performance celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Founding of the Communist Party of China on June 28, 2021 in Beijing, China. Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

This is a call for U.S. officials to study and understand the full range of interests and concerns driving Beijing’s policymaking.

U.S. policymaking, on the other hand, appears to take little account of China’s domestic politics.

If history is an accurate guide, China will likely become even more aggressive internationally in Xi’s third term.

Former U.S. House Speaker Tip O’Neill was referring to American politics when he quipped that “all politics is local.” However, his famous observation also applies to China.

As U.S. officials develop their strategy for managing China’s rise, they would do well to keep O’Neill’s words in mind. They will be able to develop more targeted, effective strategies for dealing with an increasingly powerful and assertive China if they account for the political interests driving their Chinese counterparts. 

This is not a plea for leniency toward Beijing or for a return to failed engagement policies. Rather, it is a call for U.S. officials to study and understand the full range of interests and concerns driving Beijing’s policymaking. They are not all matters of grand strategy, ideology or economic performance. The traditional view of U.S.-China relations as a geopolitical competition between a dominant power and a dissatisfied rising power pursuing their respective rational self-interest is incomplete for two reasons. First, self-interest is not always rational from a foreign policy perspective. Further, the “selves” pursuing these interests are often disparate groups of policy elites, rather than unified state actors.

This is widely acknowledged to be the case in the United States, where competition among elected officials and their appointees is out in the open. Indeed, Beijing studies the competing interests that drive U.S. policymaking and tries to use them to its advantage. It applies pressure and enticements in an effort to persuade U.S. politicians to act in ways that benefit China. Its efforts to turn up the heat on sectors key to a politician’s re-election bid and to employ U.S. businesses to lobby the federal government on its behalf are two common examples of this phenomenon.

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U.S. policymaking, on the other hand, appears to take little account of China’s domestic politics. This is unfortunate. Although competing political interests in China are not out in the open like they are in the United States, they are integral to the country’s political system and its domestic developments.

Indeed, Beijing’s decades-long policy continuity rests on management of a complex interplay of factors. The Chinese Communist Party and the government it controls consist of huge bureaucracies with overlapping, sometimes conflicting, interests among different government bodies. Beneath the surface, China’s political system and culture engender cut-throat competition among government officials and their affiliated relationship networks. The difficulties officials face in trying to advance through this system cause intense competition between government bodies and among officials, who look for every opportunity to promote their achievements and discredit anyone who might stand in their way. Adding to the complication are the nongovernmental stakeholders—such as Chinese businesses and an increasingly vocal nationalistic public. The Communist Party seeks to placate these in order to head off challenges to its authority.

Domestic politics often outranks other considerations in China, and this was the case long before Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic in 1949. Mao’s reign was characterized by a series of domestic political struggles, ultimately culminating in the infamous Cultural Revolution. While Mao talked big on the international stage and even fought the United States in Korea, his main focus was domestic politics, and China’s national interests were shaped far more by internal than external considerations.

The Xi era is not much different in this regard. While Xi is more active on the world stage than his predecessors, the main thrust of his policymaking remains domestic. This is true even of some of the signature foreign policy behaviors of Xi’s regime—such as “wolf warrior diplomacy” and harsh retaliation against countries that dare defy Beijing’s commands. Such behavior may appear irrational and counterproductive when viewed through the lens of international politics but makes perfect sense from the context of China’s domestic politics. Indeed, no Chinese official can afford to look weak in a system where a nationalistic public demands a strong response to perceived international slights, and when opponents within the party will seek to amplify his every mistake. This imperative of looking strong for internal audiences is one of the central motivators of Chinese behavior.

In developing a strategy for confronting China’s challenge to the U.S.-led global order, Washington needs to study—in addition to geopolitics—the details of China’s domestic politics at the national, local, and individual levels. Much of this information is available to be examined in open-source literature, as well as by careful monitoring of Chinese social media and interactions with Chinese interlocutors. What is needed is a persistent, systematic examination of these sources by policymakers, analysts, business leaders, news media, and citizens in general. An informed public debate among all the American stakeholders will go far in producing a more effective and nuanced strategic approach to the PRC.  

In addition to using this information to prevent the blunders that arise when policy drivers are not properly understood, officials should take a page from China’s playbook and use this information to assess how various policy options will affect key Chinese decisionmakers. Officials should understand what kinds of pressure and enticements they can use to better manage their counterparts in Beijing.

This is an ideal time to start taking this approach. Between now and the party congress expected to occur in fall 2022, domestic politics will occupy the minds of China’s policy elite to an extent seen only once every five years. Official turnover will be high in the lead-up to and during the party congress, and due to the cut-throat nature of Chinese politics, even officials slated to retire will be preoccupied with how it turns out. 

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This is even more so for Xi, who is expected to seek a precedent-breaking third term at the party’s helm. While Xi is almost certain to retain power, he does not want to take any chances and will be hyper-focused avoiding mistakes. Xi has faced criticism within the party for his handling of U.S.-China relations, so avoiding further deterioration in that relationship will probably be a top foreign-policy priority ahead of the party congress. Xi will likely seek some symbolic victories, such as securing a high-level meeting or agreement of some sort. U.S. policymakers should recognize these efforts for what they are and use Xi’s vulnerability to make him really work for even the most trivial symbolic achievement.

This does not mean Beijing’s overall tone will be softened. Given the emphasis on not looking weak, most of Xi’s aggressive international posturing—“wolf warrior diplomacy” and regular intrusions across the Taiwan Strait midline, for example—is likely to continue. There is also a possibility that any pressure to avoid excessive escalation of U.S.-China tensions will be eclipsed by a clash of interests, resulting in an even more aggressive stance against the United States and China’s various neighbors. In such a case, American leaders will need to recognize the domestic factors influencing Beijing’s actions and seek to defuse tensions in ways that are politically viable in China. 

If history is an accurate guide, China will likely become even more aggressive internationally in Xi’s third term. This will make it more important than ever that U.S. policymakers understand the domestic political environment and the interests and concerns driving Beijing’s decisionmakers. Insight into why China behaves as it does will give Washington leverage, enabling the United States to truly confront China from a position of strength.

This piece originally appeared in Real Clear World