Beida students: should China be a responsible stakeholder?

Tony was telling me the other day some thoughts he and his classmates at Peking University have been having about China’s role outside of China. He’s been kind enough to write them up as a guest post for Six.


Right after the National Holidays, I launched and chaired one of the weekly student seminars in Beida, entitled “Becoming a responsible stakeholder? – a Chinese perspective”. Four years ago, when Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick first developed such a concept as a response to China’s “peaceful rise”, the Chinese were confused. Simply put, there is no exact translation of the word “stakeholder” in our language and the term is not widely used among the Chinese youth. Though my peers may be unfamiliar with this concept, the past four years has made almost all of us realise China’s rising global impact, ranging from UN peacekeeping to nuclear proliferation, and from expanding global markets to managing the economic crisis.

But the question is always there. A recent article in the Economist raised the issue again by explicitly pointing out that “China’s own world view has failed to keep pace with its growing weight. It is a big power with a medium-power mindset, and a small-power chip on its shoulder.” To many Chinese who care passionately about our national image, such a comment is unacceptable. “The Western list that outlines the requirements in becoming a responsible stakeholder has gone too far”, one friend said to me before the discussion.

Then how to define China’s responsibility? What are the limits of it? After several years of silence from the Chinese side, it is time to hear some responses from Beida students. From time to time, the university has played a key role in the country’s ideological shifts; and to date, an unsure China is witnessing changes in all walks of life.

If Beida students are not so familiar with Robert Zoellick or the English term “stakeholder”, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a general expectation for China’s future. During the seminar, a large number of students expressed that China needs to step out and take more global responsibilities. Western countries want China to not only accept and benefit the contemporary world system but also to sustain and nurture it. “Of course such an idea was made according to their own interests, but the identity as a responsible stakeholder is also good for our national development,” commented by a junior student from the School of International Studies. It seems undeniable that the past thirty years has helped China become a contributor to, rather than a spoiler of, the international system built mainly by Western countries. And the reasons which led to that change were decided by many students as simply being “our rational choice based on national interests”. Such interests include alleviating counterbalances against China’s rise and creating a proper regional and international environment for domestic development. This is almost the same as what Mr. Zoellick said in his article in 2005.

Some students further pointed out that China can hardly become a stakeholder if it keeps on pursuing narrow interests in a self-centered way. When students heard that some Party officials defined China’s major foreign policy concerns as “Three NOs” (no arms sale to Taiwan, no meetings with the Dalai Lama and no meetings with Rebia Kadeer), they claimed that the country’s mindset is still not broad enough and it fails to pay enough attention to issues such as global climate change, energy security and anti-terrorism. Some of them also brought up China’s sensitivity towards sovereignty and Chinese citizens’ general distrust of the international system.

However, this is not to say that Beida students are allured by the US and conform to the American definition of a responsible stakeholder. When I moved on and raised the question “should China keep a tacit attitude and accept the American definition”, the answers were diversified. A few participants held the view that by accepting it, China will have to meet the Western criteria and thus be restricted by those countries. “While China needs to develop a broader mindset to become more responsible in global environmental protection and regional security, we have our own pursuits derived from China’s global identity and cultural tradition. The US requires China to impose sanctions on DPRK, Iran and Sudan. It runs against our ways of behavior, our principle of non-intervention, and even the Chinese character,” claimed one student. When I asked him whether non-intervention has become an obstacle for China’s growing global influence, he said it is a principle written in the UN Charter and a diplomatic tradition of PRC. “We should not abandon it, but there could be many flexible approaches and adjustments.”

To my surprise, the issue of Darfur and Iran were seldom mentioned on the floor. They seemed “too far away” from the students as well as normal Chinese citizens. But it was domestic political reform and promoting democracy that raised heated discussion in the end. Mr. Zoellick once made the link between China’s political reform and the stability of the international system directly to Congress. He said that if China cannot deal with its problems democratically, its domestic issues will affect the sustainability of the entire international system. The Beida discussion was less system-oriented than focusing on the future of China. Whereas our participants were not human rights or political activists, they were well aware that these issues are in both individual and national interests. One of the speakers mentioned that “China should be more transparent in human rights issues. The country is now undergoing vast changes, a situation similar to the German Empire in late 1800s, when nationalism and a civil society were on the rise, imposing stronger influence on the government. However, we must bear in mind the history of great powers. Those that had achieved economic development but failed to alleviate domestic tensions were doomed to vanish. A more democratic China will be a healthier China and that is in our own interests.”

After all these discussions, how to describe the way Chinese looks at the word “responsible”? I remember in 2007, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had a debate. At that time, the Americans said China will define responsible stakeholder in terms of promoting multilateralism, taking an internationally democratic approach and following international consensus. In contrast, the Beida students’ points of view may be summarised as follows: in becoming a global stakeholder, China should have a broader pursuit of its national interests; it should be more closely knitted with the international community; meanwhile, a more responsible China means to preserve Chinese traditions and the national character. If I may add one more thing at the end, I was assured again by the discussion that China wants to shape the world by changing itself. Slowly but steadily, the young generation of Chinese are now motivating the country to change and answering the question “whither China?”.

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