China’s Global Identity: Considering the Responsibilities of Great Power

| September 9, 2019
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China’s Global Identity: Considering the Responsibilities of Great Power, Hoo Tiang Boon (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2018), 197 pp., $98.95 cloth, $32.95 paper, $32.95 eBook.

That China is a global power today is indisputable. What kind of global power China wishes to be and is becoming, however, are open-ended questions, the answers to which are deeply contentious. A timely intervention in the current debate, China’s Global Identity seeks to understand how and why the responsible great power (RGP) identity “has become a key motif in Chinese foreign policy lexicon and discourse” (p. xiv); and, importantly, why such discursive construction of this particular identity matters in understanding China as a rising global power.

A study of China’s evolving imagination of its role and identification as a RGP, Hoo argues, can help not only to explain empirical complexities and contradictions in Chinese foreign policy behavior but also to chart future trajectories of China as a global power in international society. Mobilizing power and responsibility as two key analytical concepts in addressing China’s emerging identity as a global power sets this book apart from the existing literature.

In the first chapter, Hoo makes a conscious effort to historicize contemporary China’s understanding of power and responsibility by tracing the origin of its great power identity back to the traditional notion of China as a “Central Kingdom,” as well as to the ideas of three twentieth-century Chinese leaders, namely, Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, and Mao Zedong. The remaining four chapters are divided chronologically into four periods, offering a sustained inquiry into the evolutionary processes of China’s RGP identity construction after China’s economic opening and reform starting in 1978. Through a methodical investigation of a wealth of Chinese language materials, these chapters provide a highly original account of the domestic elites’ changing perceptions and complex narratives about China’s rising great power status and its global role.

Chapter 2 traces what Hoo calls China’s “incipient identification as a responsible great power” in the period between 1978 and 1996. Two main drivers for such identification, he argues, are instrumental functionality and social enhancement. Chapter 3 offers an endogenous account of the expansion and proliferation of RGP discourse in China between 1997 and 2004. This period, Hoo notes, saw a “greater diversity and density to the discursive flow” surrounding such ideas as the new security concept, peaceful rise/development, and soft power (p. 83). At an intellectual level, this diversity of thought contributed further to China’s identity construction as an RGP.

It was, however, former U.S. deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick’s call in September 2005 for China to become a “responsible stakeholder” of the international system that “added new impetus to continuing Chinese identity discourses about China’s great-power role and responsibilities” (p. 97). Chapter 4 argues that this inspired China’s self-conscious pursuit of a role imagination as a responsible power in international society at both the official and intellectual level between 2005 and 2012. Discussions surrounding the three contending schools of thought in this chapter—the internationalist, the developmental, and the skeptical—demonstrate effectively how different ideas and identifications coexist, interact, and compete in the burgeoning elite debates about China’s special responsibility as a rising power. Chapter 5 then charts what is arguably the most contentious iteration of China’s RGP identity under President Xi Jinping, providing a contrasting analysis and narrative to the assertive China meme in the existing literature.

Whatever structural merits Hoo’s account may have, it sounds strikingly, and unnervingly, linear: the incipient identification of China as a RGP from 1978 to 1996; the expansion of the RGP narrative from 1997 to 2004; the sharpening of debate from 2005 to 2012; and the post-responsibility stance of Xi’s China since 2013.

Such an approach does not and cannot capture, for example, the dynamics of the transformation of China’s identity as a revolutionary power outside international society under Mao to a reformist state actively seeking integration into that society under Deng. What explains why “Deng’s China was a substantially different actor from the earlier Maoist version,” one that was “no longer seeking to be a disruptive international influence” (p. 163)? Such linearity also sits uncomfortably with the discursive practices of a more assertive China under Xi today, in which China’s self-asserted RGP identity is fiercely contested.

The United States is presented as “the significant Other” in this account, which, it is argued, has played a central role “as the key external source of role ideas” in shaping the evolution of China’s RGP identity (p. 169). Hoo provides ample evidence to show that from Clinton to Obama, the engagement policy of successive U.S. administrations has consistently urged China to act more responsibly, while fostering the Chinese understanding that power exacts responsibility. And it is true that Robert Zoellick’s call for China to become a “responsible stakeholder” became a key reference point in the debates among the three contending schools of thought mentioned above, contributing to the further entrenchment of the Chinese discourse of power and responsibility. This American role is from time to time overstated, however. It is one thing to state that “American beliefs, ideas, and practices have had a bearing on Chinese RGP discussions” (p. 169). It is quite another to claim that the story of China’s evolving RGP identity “tells of a China that is changed in part by American ideas” (p. 176).

Hoo sees the United States as the main adjudicator of China’s global responsibility, but at the same time he is unequivocal that “Washington has never explicitly spelled out what it thought these obligations should be” (p. 174). This purposeful ambiguity makes “responsibility” a term that contains a multiplicity of standards that can be used by the adjudicator. Questions then arise as to how the United States forms and passes judgment on a particular Chinese behavior as being responsible or irresponsible.

Hoo talks about whether and how Chinese cooperative behavior “squares with,” “fully addresses,” or “fully converges to” American expectations, but he is reticent about the subjective nature of American judgment, which involves political, strategic, and ethical considerations. Not surprisingly, perhaps, discussions of the way different understandings of responsibility in Chinese and American discourses contest one another are relatively muted. The problem is that what is a responsible behavior in the eyes of the Chinese may be considered irresponsible by the United States—the adjudicator. The Belt and Road Initiative is a case in point. Such subjective judgment becomes even more problematic as the adjudicator is widely viewed as a “great irresponsible” in international society, given the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement and other international agreements under President Donald Trump.

The aim of his book, Hoo repeatedly states, is not to argue or prove that China is becoming more responsible in international society. Rather, he claims, it is to show that China has increasingly assumed an RGP identity, which does not in itself necessarily map onto actual responsible behavior. This then raises the question of why China’s changing identity matters in explaining and understanding Chinese foreign policy behavior. He is right to be skeptical, though, about whether China’s RGP identity has been accepted by others in international society, particularly the United States. After all, any social identity has to be conferred or recognized by others, not simply assumed or asserted by oneself. Given recent discourse in the United States that ominously portrays a rising China as defying a turn toward democratic change, one wonders whether an authoritarian China will ever be regarded by its significant (democratic) other as a responsible great power.

All things considered, China’s Global Identity provides a rich and refreshing account of changing perceptions and ongoing debates in Chinese thinking about power and responsibility. It offers valuable insight into how these internal discourses in China construct and constitute its emerging RGP identity, which remains contested from both within and without. And it demonstrates clearly the potential and promise of an analytical inquiry that takes identity seriously in explaining and understanding what kind of global power China wishes to be—and what kind is likely to be accepted—in international society.


—Yongjin Zhang

Yongjin Zhang is professor of international politics at the University of Bristol. He is the co-editor of Contesting International Society in East Asia (2014, 2018 paperback edition) and Constructing a Chinese School of International Relations (2016, 2018 paperback edition).

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Category: Book Review, Issue 33.3

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