Reconstruction: Assessing ‘Demolition Man’ two decades after Deng Xiaoping’s death

In early 1997, Deng Xiaoping, the greatest of New China’s leaders, died. As Robert MacFarquhar wrote a month later in his definitive obituary of the diminutive man, while Deng’s colleagues would “eulogize him as the ‘chief architect’ of China’s reform program and it’s opening to the outside world,” the reality of Deng’s leadership was quite different. He was, MacFarquhar wrote, a “demolition man,” one who “deconstructed the China he took over: not the traditional China of Confucian values and Taoist cults”—for, indeed, he’d already helped Mao Zedong destroy that one—“but the China of Communist principles and practices.”[1] When Deng died, however, that demolition was incomplete; the remnant structures of Communist China that loomed over the Middle Kingdom still half intact seemed to MacFarquhar twisted, dangerous, and deep-rooted domestically as China entered a new age at the dawn of the 21st century. Now, more than 20 years after the death of MacFarquhar’s demolition man, it is worth revisiting the “myriad domestic problems” faced by the China Deng had left behind, problems MacFarquhar hinted might bring down the People’s Republic “dinosaur” as the country lurched toward “the end of history.”

1) Decentralization

MacFarquhar wrote that, if the central leadership was unable to maintain unity and authority, unrest in the periphery among minority groups might erupt. Erupt the peripheries have. Ethnic tensions have remained roiling in Xinjiang Province since the 1997 article, boiling over on occasion in the form of riots in the provincial capital Urumqi in 2009 and numerous terrorist attacks both inside and outside the province. The most infamous, a mass stabbing in Kunming Railway Station blamed on ethnic Ugyhur persons, left 35 dead and 143 wounded.[2] Decentralization, for the moment at least, is a word of the past, however, as the Chinese Communist Party’s response has shown. As of early 2020, some hundreds of thousands, if not more, ethnic Ughyurs have been detained in mass re-education prison camps throughout the region, draconian measures that seem to have their roots in the de-centralized experimentalist repression of Tibetans on the plateau.[3] Books that MacFarquhar said “celebrate localism or provincial chauvinism” have been replaced with Chairman Xi Jinping’s The Governance of China on the shelves of Beijing bookstores.[4]  The central authorities seem to have brought the restive provinces to heel, at least when it comes to national security, and the specter of decentralization has been banished, for now.

2) Cultural Anarchy

“China’s writers, artists, pop singers and film-makers are difficult to rein in,” MacFarquhar wrote. Alas, they have proven less resilient. The increasing sophistication and authoritarianism of China’s police state under Chairman Xi has seen the virtual—and sometimes literal—disappearance of cultural dissent, its tendrils reaching even so far these days as Hong Kong, where dissident booksellers were kidnapped by regime thugs in 2015.[5] Artists, filmmakers, and journalists face even more intense censorship and repression in the PRC proper. Christianity and religious cults, MacFarquhar’s other agents of cultural anarchy, have been met with a similar welcome in recent years.[6] While some still fret about the Party’s spiritual vacuum, Party leaders are attempting to fill it with a mix of neo-Confucianism, Xi Jinping’s “China Dream,” and a healthy dose of nationalism backed by authoritarianism.[7] Order has been imposed on anarchy.

3) Crime and migrant labor

MacFarquhar’s section on crime and migrant labor could very well be written today. And now, as in then, he would be overestimating their effects. China’s crime rate is notoriously difficult to gauge, untrustworthy are its official crime statistics.[8] Officially, the PRC’s murder rate, for example, is among the lowest in the world, less than 1 per 100,000 people.[9] Even if that rate were double, it would still rate lower than France; triple, about the same as Canada. Crime may be at levels that MacFarquar writes “earlier Communist governments would have considered unacceptable”—a strange metric by which to judge post-Deng China, anyway—but even if the actual crime rate is much, much higher than officially reported, most Chinese citizens have little to worry about, in reality. That crimes are blamed on migrant laborers—and that transient young men are responsible for some significant measure of crime in China—does however points to underlying fissures in Chinese society.[10]

In 1997, MacFarquhar noted that as much as 10 percent of China’s population worked as itinerant laborers in China’s massive cities; today that number is likely closer to 30 percent of the entire working population.[11] The increase in migrant labor is indicative of the uneven development that has occurred as China’s costal commercial cities have grown—and grown rich—while the much poorer interior and hinterlands languish and shrink. China has become a country of a few very rich and many still very poor.[12] That inequality may itself congeal into its own locus for discontent. But for now, the existence of migrant labor points instead to growing prosperity. Migrants are migrating for the economic opportunities that continue to develop in and around China’s eastern cities. The growth of illegal migrant communities is a challenge for municipal governance, and the occasional clearing efforts that take place on the margins of China’s biggest cities continue more than 20 years after MacFarquhar noted them. Migrant communities also create opportunities for civil unrest among a maligned, maltreated, and malcontented population being left behind by urban development. But the existence of migrant laborers in 2020 is more mere management challenge than a dire threat to the CCP.

4) Unemployment and unrest

If migrant workers are not a major problem, MacFarquar is right to argue that migrant non-workers very well could be. China’s economy continued to enjoy astounding growth in the decades following MacFarquhar’s article, but that growth is slowing. Due to the coronavirus outbreak this year, for first time in half a century China’s economy shrank in the first quarter.[13] While the pandemic is an anomaly, the slowing economy is not, and there could be difficulties ahead for the CCP if China’s economy stalls.

Although official numbers out of Beijing have put unemployment between 4 and 5 percent over the last few decades, just as in1997, those numbers are likely at least double according to many estimates.[14] Labor protests have also been on the rise as workers feel Xi’s “China Dream” slipping out of their grasps.[15] China Labour Bulletin, a Hong Kong-based labor advocacy group, recorded nearly 1,400 labor disputes in 2019, less than the at least 1,700 of 2018, but the numbers have persistently remained above 1,300 per year since they spiked in 2015.[16] The titanic efforts of the Chinese government to keep workers employed during the coronavirus shutdown, meanwhile, should be an indication of just how seriously party leadership takes the threat of unemployment.[17] Widespread unemployment would likely shake the foundations of China’s party-state, which has implicitly promised economic growth and stability in return for power. Although China has made some progress reforming its hulking State-Owned Enterprises,[18] unless China can find other ways to re-rev its economic engine, the potentially existential challenges of unemployment and unrest will only grow in scale. MacFarquhar’s forecast was postponed in 1997 by economic growth, but instability caused by unemployment and economic inefficiency may return with a vengeance.

5) Corruption

When Xi took leadership of China in 2012, he would have agreed with MacFarquhar’s diagnosis that in China “corruption is now prevalent at all levels, and to an extraordinary degree.” Eight years later, that may no longer be so true; millions of “tigers and flies” have been snapped up by Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. Although it remains difficult to untangle the targeting of political rivals from real anti-corruption efforts, more than 1.5 million party officials have been disciplined by Wang Qishan and the CCP’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection.[19] The result has been wide public praise, a less corrupt party-bureaucracy-business apparatus, and consolidated central control for Xi. While the longer-term effects of the anti-corruption drive remain to be seen (they have not, after all, much targeted Xi’s friends and allies), prosecutions of top officials and oligarchs continue. It seems likely that the party has cleaned out a least some of the rot that settled into the party infrastructure as China grew richer.

6) The military

The entrenched People’s Liberation Army has not escaped the anti-corrupt drive unscathed. Dozens of top generals and even some as high as Fang Fenghui, former military chief of staff, are now behind bars—something that seemed unthinkable in past administrations.[20] Corruption investigations have only been one piece of a sustained effort by Xi to reorganize the PLA and consolidate his control over it. Parallel to the anti-corruption drive, Xi also set out to reshuffle the PLA’s structure, to make it leaner, more responsive, and perhaps most importantly, more his own.[21] MacFarquhar noted that in any power struggle, the PLA chiefs would be decisive. Those chiefs now belong to Xi.

7) The secession

Secession issues never publicly materialized as Deng handed the party over to Jiang Zemin. Nor did they as Jiang handed it to Hu Jintao or Hu to Xi. For two decades after Deng, China was ruled by committee and consensus. That is no longer the case. The CCP abolished term limits in 2018, clearing the way for Xi Jinping to remain in power for life.[22] Whether that will happen—and what will come after— remain to be seen. Succession was not a problem in 1997, but it may be in 2022 or beyond.[23]


“Is the People’s Republic a dinosaur—large, powerful, but destined for extinction in some enormous catastrophe? Or can its leaders surf the democratic ‘third wave,’ bypass ‘the end of history,’ and avert the ‘grand failure.’ Is there something invincible about a twenty-century-old “oriental despotism,” which transformed itself into arguably the most thoroughly totalitarian system of the twentieth century, the nation of so-called ‘blue ants?’ Or was the Tiananmen massacre only a Pyrrhic victory as China’s convulsive process of modernization lurches toward the democratic denouement sought by Sun Yat-sen?” MacFaquhar asks these questions to close his essay. Given the challenges he poses at the end of “Demolition Man,” in the heady days of the end of history, it seems MacFaquhar thought he could guess the answer.

As it turns out, there may indeed be something invincible—at least in the near term—about the nation that has now certainly transformed itself into the most thoroughly totalitarian system of the 21st century. Worries of instability seem destined to plague the CCP, but it has, by any measure, taken firm hold of the domestic challenges MacFarquar thought might bring it down. In many ways, China seems to have learned lessons from the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, and not the ones MacFarquar thought it would. Xi Jinping’s China now rules the hinterlands, the artistic commons, the party infrastructure, and the military. Its economy is slowing, to be sure, but if there is anything that has been true about Deng’s China and the China that came after, it has been China’s ability to defy predictions.

History has returned, and the People’s Republic of China has not yet gone the way of the dinosaurs.

[1] Roderick MacFarquhar, “Demolition Man,” The New York Review of Books (Vol. 44, No. 5, March 27, 1997).
[2] Reuters, “China launches campaign to promote ethnic unity in violence-torn Xinjiang region,” (March 31, 2016).
[3] The Economist, “China’s successful repression in Tibet provides a model for Xinjiang,” (December 10, 2019).
[4] The Economist, “Xi Jinping’s new blockbuster is getting a hard sell,” (April 26, 2018).
[5] Alex Palmer, “The Case of Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers: As Xi Jinping consolidates power, owners of Hong Kong bookstores trafficking in banned books find themselves playing a very dangerous game,” The New York Times (April 3, 2018).
[6] Nectar Gan, “Beijing plans to continue tightening grip on Christianity and Islam as China pushes ahead with the ‘Sinicisation of religion,’” The South China Morning Post (March 6, 2019).
[7] Amy Qin and Javier C. Hernandez, “How China’s Rulers Control Society: Opportunity, Nationalism, Fear,” The New York Times (November 25, 2018).
[8] Christopher Giles, “Reality Check: How safe is it to live in China,” BBC (January 13, 2019).
[9] The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “Global Study on Homicide” (2013).
[10] Wang Huazhong, “Young migrants cause crime wave,” China Daily (Feb. 25, 2011).
[11] China Labour Bulletin “Migrant workers and their children,” (May 2019).
[12] Thomas Piketty, Li Yang, and Gabriel Zucman, “Income inequality is growing fast in China and making it look more like the US,” LSE Business Review (April 1, 2019).
[13] BBC, “China’s virus-hit economy shrinks for first time in decades,” (April 17, 2020).
[14] Christopher Balding, “Bad Jobs Data Could Bite China,” Bloomberg Opinion (Feb. 19, 2019).
[15] Javier C. Hernandez, “Workers’ Activism Rising as Economy Slows. Xi Aims to Rein them In,” The New York Times (Feb. 6, 2019)
[16] China Labour Bulletin, Strike Map (
[17] Laura He “China is really worried about unemployment. Here’s what it’s doing to avoid mass layoffs,” CNN Business (Jan. 13, 2020).
[18] Xi li and Kjeld Erik BrØdsgaard, “SOE Reform in China: Past, Present, and Future”, The Copenhagen Journal of East Asian Studies (Vol. 31, No. 2, May 2014).
[19] Andrew Gilholm, “Xi Jinping’s New Watchdog: An Ever More Powerful Anti-Corruption Tool,” Foreign Affairs (March 6, 2018).
[20] Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers, “Xi Jinping Presses Military Overhaul and Two Generals Disappear,” The New York Times (Oct. 11, 2017).
[21] Kenneth W. Allen, Dennis J. Blasko, John F. Corbett, Jr., “The PLA’s New Organizational Structure: What is known, unknown and speculation,” China Brief (Vol. 16, Issue 3, Feb. 2016).
[22] James Doubek, “China Removes Presidential Term Limits, Enabling Xi to Rule Indefinitely,” National Public Radio (March 11, 2018).
[23] Johnathon Brookfield, “China has New Leaders: What now?” The Diplomat (Oct. 31, 2017).


Domestic Divisions: The strait is not the only dividing line in Taiwan’s politics

It is tempting, from the vantage point of the United States, to view Taiwanese politics solely through the lens of cross-strait relations with mainland China. The tension between the island polity and its much larger sibling to across the narrow ocean, is, after all, one of Asia’s critical inheritances from history—one that has enmeshed the United States in regional geopolitics. “Free China,” although not so free until the 1990s, served as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” for American geostrategic positioning in its decades-long battle with global communism from the end of World War Two onward.[1] Although that political landscape has shifted ceaselessly following the rapprochement with Red China beginning in the 1970s, Taiwan has remained, with some fluctuation, a key ally of American policy makers and erstwhile Cold Warriors in the Pacific.[2] Taiwan remains a thorn in People’s Republic of China even as the Republic of China has evolved into an important and successful democratic partner for the United States and its allies.

But to grant overwhelming centrality to cross-strait relations is to slip into solipsism. Relations with the mainland—and thus with the United States—undoubtedly remain an important factor in Taiwan’s domestic politics, and the heft of the cross-strait relationship has a gravitational pull that affects many of the Taiwan’s internal political issues, especially economic ones. Still, in order to gain a full picture of Taiwanese politics and Taiwanese elections like the recent re-election of President Tsai Ing-wen and her Democratic People’s Party (DPP) over the more conservative and China-friendly Kuomintang (KMT), it’s important to grapple with the other local issues at stake in Taiwan’s flourishing democracy and to understand just what drives Taiwan’s citizens when they turn up to the polls or out into the streets. While these issues interact with mainland and greater Pacific Asian international relations, at heart they are Taiwan’s own issues. And they will continue to play an outsized role in the future of Asia’s political geography.

Some of these issues are economic: Although Taiwan grew at more 3 percent through most of 2018,[3] its growth rate has since dropped, and Taiwanese remain dissatisfied in the face of aging population pressure and greater technological competition with mainland and other foreign companies, as well as with the quality-of-life consequences of recent attempts to improve domestic competitiveness.[4] Others are societal: Taiwanese have been divided by social issues, of which same-sex equality, indigenous rights, and a restart of Taiwan’s nuclear power program are salient and representative.[5] Although the probable death knell of any “one-country, two-systems” unification sounded by the mass protests in Hong Kong throughout 2019 played a major role in incumbent Tsai’s re-election earlier this year, as the impact of the repression in Hong Kong recedes, domestic issues will affect Taiwanese politics and thus ultimately Taiwan’s orientation toward the PRC.[6] In turn, they will reverberate across Pacific Asia to the shores of the United States.

Economic Issues

With its greater than 3 percent growth in the first quarter of 2018, it looked as if Taiwan may finally have begun to shake the slump that had dragged its economy into negative growth through 2016 and 2017.[7] That growth dropped back below 2 percent in 2019, but it is expected to remain at or above 3 percent for much of 2020, still a far cry from the 5-10 percent growth it experienced in the decades before the 2008 economic crisis.[8] Although better growth should ease some of the pressure on Taiwan’s leaders, dissatisfaction with Taiwan’s economic situation remains high. Two factors, one internal and one external, will continue to put downward pressure on Taiwan’s economy, namely increasing competition from mainland Chinese companies (some of them backed by Taiwanese money) and a rapidly aging population.

President Tsai, first elected in 2016, has attempted to diversify Taiwan’s international relations in order to reduce its reliance on Chinese connections for economic growth. To that end, her DPP has tried to tighten relations with the United States, but more significantly, Tsai’s government has worked to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties to South and Southeast Asia as part of her New Southbound Policy. That strategy has been accelerated because of the China-USA trade war that has put clamps on global supply chains targeted by American President Donald Trump’s tariffs.[9] The New Southbound Policy is more than merely supply-chain and trade diversification; it also aims to strengthen cultural ties with Asia’s southern region to boost tourism and academic exchange to add fuel to Taiwan’s domestic economy.[10]

These internationalist economic changes are taking place against a background of domestic financial crisis. Taiwan’s rapidly aging population means a burgeoning retired population and an extreme financial burden on Taiwan’s government, especially if Taiwan’s low economic growth cannot be brought to an end.[11] To cope with the rising deficit required to maintain its pension program, Tsai has promised to take on a reform of the financial system. Those efforts began with two major reforms in 2016, first the introduction of amendments to Labor Standards Act aimed at making seven Taiwanese industries more competitive in the global market and boosting growth.[12] The Labor Standards reforms reduced the amount of mandatory time off and increased the amount of allowable overtime work.[13]  Those amendments have been accompanied by a set of reforms to the pension system, including reduction of pensions for Taiwan’s military, civil servants, and public school teachers.[14] Although the reductions were coupled with an increase in the monthly minimum wage by 10 percent and civil servant pay by 3 percent, despite significant public support, both reforms efforts have been deeply unpopular in some quarters, leading to mass protests, some of which turned violent.[15] It remains to be seen what effect the reforms will have on Taiwan’s economic situation, but these twin issues—competitiveness and a near-bankrupt pension system—will continue to be significant in Taiwanese politics as the population grows older.

Social Issues

Tsai was first elected upon a upswell of social activism that has continued to pressure her government to enact sweeping social reforms.[16] Although not fully onboard with many of the activist demands, Tsai’s DPP found itself in a de facto alliance with activist organizations in order to defeat the opposition nationalist Kuomintang party in 2016.[17] Tsai has made progress on some of these issues, but they are a deeply divisive in Taiwanese society, and she’s been met with anger from both activists, who say her administration has moved too tentatively on social reforms. Conservatives, meanwhile, vigorously oppose many of the changes she has promised in her campaigns.

First among them is same-sex marriage equality. During her 2016 election, Tsai became the first Taiwan presidential candidate to support same-sex marriage equality.[18] A May 2017 ruling by Taiwan’s Constitutional Court that existing laws banning same-sex equality were unconstitutional demanded a marriage equality law. Tsai’s subsequent proposed constitutional change to enshrine marriage equality, however, was pilloried from all sides.[19] The social activists who helped bring her into office decried the proposal as too slow and too conservative, while conservatives in the polity resisted the move as too radical. As the deadline for a new law approached in 2019, the DPP expedited legislation to legalize marriage equality, and Taiwan became the first Asian administration to legalize same-sex marriage. [20] Although the law’s passage won praise from activists, the fight over it demonstrates the deep fault lines through Taiwanese society regarding social issues, fault lines that will not disappear in the years ahead as activists push for new, progressive frontiers and conservatives resist.

Another such issue will be transitional justice for Taiwan’s indigenous peoples, who have suffered inequity at the hands of successive administrations including imperial Japan and the KMT-aligned mainlanders fleeing the communist consolidation of the mainland. Tsai’s DPP has made transitional justice a key theme of its political alignment. In 2016, it passed legislation to deal with KMT party assets built upon indigenous property, and in August of that year Tsai became the first Taiwanese president to offer an apology for the historical treatment of the islands’ indigenous peoples. [21] Still, like marriage equality, many social activists believe Tsai’s administration is less than interested in material progress, and some of the largest protests against her administration have come from activist quarters that supported her 2016 election.[22] Land reform to compensate indigenous communities is likely to continue to be a hot and dividing issue between activists, governments, and the conservatives in the KMT.

Finally, in response to blackouts in 2017, Tsai’s administration restarted nuclear reactors after promising on the campaign trail to phase out nuclear power.[23] Anti-nuclear activism has been a key component of Taiwan’s social activism since Japan’s Fukushima disaster.[24] And so, while the go-ahead to restart won support from Taiwan’s business community, it outraged activists.[25] With climate change looming and energy solutions limited, the fight over nuclear will grow in importance in Taiwanese politics. It illustrates the fissures not just between progressives and conservatives, but environmentalists and the business community.


Despite Tsai Ing-wen’s 2020 electoral victory and its repudiation of China’s heavy-handed tactics in its ethnic borderlands, Taiwanese politics do not revolve solely around cross-strait relations. Taiwan’s economic and financial situation, while tightly tied up with mainland businesses, comes with its own set of difficult domestic problems that will be central challenges—and campaign issues—for Tsai, her successor and her competitors. Economics are further complicated by energy and environmental issues such as nuclear power development that divide society along environmental- and business-biased lines. Those spheres are further fractured by divisive social faults—faults that divide progressives from conservatives, young from old, and put pressure on politicians and governments, DPP and KMT alike. Although the PRC-ROC situation dominates United States foreign policy thinking when it comes to Taiwan, these inward-facing issues will continue play an important role in Taiwanese politics. They will play a part in determining the fate of relations across the strait.

[1] Robert Green, “The Unsinkable Aircraft Carrier,” The Taiwan Review (May 1, 2005).
[2] Shelly Rigger, Why Taiwan Matters.
[3] Republic of China, Bureau of National Statistics.
[4] Pengqiao Lu, “Taiwan’s Biggest Problems are at Home (Not Across the Strait)”, The Diplomat (November 17, 2016).
[5] Sheryn Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On,” The East Asia Forum (December 25, 2018).
[6] The Economist Explains, “What’s at Stake in the Taiwan Election,” The Economist (January 10, 2020).
[7] Republic of China, Bureau of National Statistics.
[8] Republic of China, Bureau of National Statistics.
[9] Paul Huang, “‘New Southbound Policy’ Insulates Taiwan from US-China Trade War,” The Epoch Times (July 15, 2018).
[10] Dafydd Fell, “History: Taiwan,” Europa World Online (London: Routledge, 2020).
[11] Chien-Tsun Chen, “Taiwan’s Pension Crisis,” Economic and Political Weekly (Vol. LIII, No. 50: December 22, 2018).
[12] Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On.”
[13] Keoni Everington, “Changes to Taiwan’s labor law go into effect today,” Taiwan News (March 01, 2018).
[14] Agence France-Presse “Taiwan Passes Bill to Cut Veterans Pensions that Sparked Violent Protests,” The South China Morning Post (June 21, 2018).
[15] Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On.”
[16] Fell, “History: Taiwan.”
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Ben Wescott and Angus Watson, “‘A great divide’: Inside the battle to stop same-sex marriage in Taiwan,” CNN (November 24, 2018).
[20] Julia Hollingsworth, “Taiwan legalizes same-sex marriage in historic first for Asia,” CNN (May 17, 2019).
[21] Fell, “History: Taiwan.”
[22] Thomas Reuters Foundation, “Taiwan’s indigenous people take land rights fight to the heart of the capital,” South China Morning Post (June 11, 2018).
[23] “In the Dark: A massive blackout prompts questions about Taiwan’s energy policy,” The Economist (August 17, 2017).
[24] Lee, “Taiwanese Democracy Powers On.”
[25] Ibid.

Parallel Networks

China’s dual strategy to usurp the American-led order

China is a revisionist state of a hybrid sort, balanced between two webs.

Revisionists, John Ikenberry tells us, are states that challenge the global order made up of “settled rules and arrangements between states that define and guide their interactions.”[1] Powerful states create and maintain those rules and arrangements to “take advantage of their elite status and establish rules, institutions, and privileges that primarily benefit themselves.”[2] Once an order is established, the state at the top—the “status quo” power— does what it can to maintain the system it created. Great Britain, which established the system of rules and arrangements that tied together the world in the 18th and 19th centuries, was one such “status quo” state. The United States in the current day is another.

Revisionists like China, meanwhile, attempt to redraft the rules by which relations among nations function, especially as they rise through the global hierarchy. Revisionists do not have identical goals or identical methods, and most international relations scholars argue that revisionists come in two varieties: limited-aims revisionists and revolutionary revisionists.[3] Limited aims revisionists do not seek to overturn the entire established order but instead hope to alter the existing order in limited ways that improve their position in it. Revolutionary revisionists, on the other hand, challenge the system itself.[4] They do not merely attempt to revise the distribution of resources or power and prestige within the system, they try to create an entirely new order in which they author the rules and define the arrangements.

Since its inception in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been revisionist state. It has waffled back and forth between revolutionary revision and limited-aims revision. During its first decades of existence, Red China sought to undermine the American-led, capitalist world order through revolutionary revision. It failed. Then, beginning with its Reform and Opening in the late 1970s, China shifted tack and became a limited-aims revisionist. Since, it has worked within existing international institutions to grow rich and improve its position in the global order. It has been hugely successful, rocketing up the ranks of the international hierarchy as it transformed from backwater to potential great power.

Still, China today has nowhere near enough economic or military hard power to directly challenge the American-led order.[5] It doesn’t have to. China is now both a limited-aims revisionist and a revolutionary revisionist. Rather than thinking of China as a rising red star, it is helpful to think it as a giant spider at the intersection of two webs. One of those webs, spun mostly by the United States which still sits near the center, links much of the world in a network of states and non-state actors tied together by trade and ideas. This web we call the liberal world order. The other web is newer, smaller, and weaker. It is a work in progress. China spins it parallel to the liberal world order, and it is largely tied off from American power. China—one of the few actors with strong ties to both webs—sits between these two parallel networks. It builds new ties and strengthens old ones in the liberal world order, while continuing simultaneously to build the new web of its own. In this way, China reaps the benefits of the liberal world order’s institutions and can edit the established system in ways that give it greater prestige and greater resources. At the same time, it builds an alternative, revolutionary world order, one in which it writes the rules and one with which, if the time comes, it might usurp the American-led order. By leveraging its position in two global networks, China is slowly remaking the future.

China’s Network Power

The international system is a network. Networks—the spiderwebs described above—are defined by their links (relationships) among nodes (actors).[6] In international relations, those nodes are predominantly states, but they might also include others such as corporations, militant groups, or multinational organizations. The links between actors allow the transmission of both material and nonmaterial goods, including money, guns, information, and ideas. These links “have both form and content: they include ‘real’ material transactions, such as alliances and trade transactions, as well as ideational relations, such as narratives and repertoires that define appropriate behavior, legitimate authority, and give meaning to behavior in world politics”[7] And more than just simply modes of organization, networks are “structures that can constrain and enable individual agents and influence international outcomes.” [8] In other words networks grant power.

The beliefs and actions of actors in the international system are never independent, and “structural relations are as important as, if not more important than, attributes of individual units.”[9] That is because the position of an actor in a network and the strength of its ties to other nodes can have a significant effect on both the power and prestige of an actor in an international order. Networks provide states with influence, affect their ability to mobilize alliances, augment or inhibit the resources they can muster, and provide or deny ideological and cultural capital to justify either maintaining or transforming the existing order.[10]

Network position, then, is of particular importance for would-be revisionists like China. Stacie Goddard defines two types of network position that shape a state’s revisionist tendencies: “access” positions and “brokerage” positions. Access is “the extent to which a revisionist is integrated into the dominant network. … With access, a state can leverage material and ideational ties to give it influence within the existing institutional system.”[11] Access to the dominant network provides China with social capital that allows it to demand changes to the existing order, especially through the multilateral organizations in which it participates. The greater access, the greater power a state has to frame agendas and debates and to push for edits to the rules of the international system. A brokerage position, on the other hand, allows an actor to fill gaps in the international framework or bridge divides between one network and another. A broker “might have ties with great powers in the dominant institutional order, but also hold exclusive ties with another cohesive subgroup in the international system.”[12] By sitting in a brokerage position in a Chinese-made subgroup, China can draw on significant resources that are excluded from the liberal world order, “mobilize new allies from outside dominant institutions,” and if China “faces sanctions from status quo actors, they can offset costs through closer economic ties with other states.” [13] Within its subgroups, China can also begin writing new rules, norms, and arrangements that circumvent or subvert the existing international order.

States invest in relationships that maximize their strategic interests and network positioning. Revisionists, especially, try to build ties that “increase their power and influence relative to status quo states. … They may seek alliances with other powers or attempt to wedge apart existing alliances. They may pursue economic ties that maximize wealth, and diplomatic relations that strengthen their spheres of influence.”[14] China pursues all of the above strategies from a position in the international networks that gives it both high access and brokerage. It is from this uniquely efficacious position that China seeks to both benefit from and challenge the America-led liberal world order.

China the Accessor

China’s access power has increased as it integrated into the liberal world order. It is more integrated than ever before. China holds a permanent seat on the UN security council and has been ever more involved in multilateral peacekeeping operations (especially near its investments in Africa). It ascended to the International Monetary Fund in the early 2000s and participates in the World Bank. Chinese officials increasingly fill spots in a variety of international organizations and have signed onto international pacts to deal with climate change, nuclear proliferation, laws of the sea, and more, taking a greater leadership role in setting global rules and norms.[15] From those involvements, it has gained prestige as a participant in global good governance and has reaped the benefits of its inclusion in the world’s trade and legal systems, which were built on liberal principles.

Those commitments demonstrate China’s top priority in the current world order: “a liberal economic order built on free trade.”[16] China’s rise from the 1980s on was powered by exports as Chinese manufacturing slowly climbed the value chain until its products (mobile technology, software, and artificial intelligence, especially) began to compete with the advanced industrial economies. “Now as then, these exports are the lifeblood of the Chinese economy: they ensure a consistent trade surplus, and the jobs they create are a vital engine of domestic social stability. There is no indication this will change in the coming decade.”[17]

China, then, has a critical vested interest in maintaining its access position in the international order. It has an interest in promoting multilateralism that keeps goods flowing across the world’s ocean highways. By participating in the international bodies responsible for setting the rules of trade, Beijing can ensure that it has access to the markets that make its export economy possible. Furthermore, because it “relies on a global network of trade ties,” China the limited-aims revisionist has no desire to risk confrontation with the United States, which might hamper or destroy its access to those trade networks and markets. This is also why China will continue to deepen its engagement in organizations that maintain the current order, assist in antipiracy and antiterrorism efforts, and otherwise maintaining the freedom of most global commons—whatever keeps global commerce running smoothly.

The more integrated into this system China becomes, the less likely it is to directly challenge it. “Access changes the costs and benefits of revisionist behavior … access may provide influence, but over time it can make revisionist behavior costly. Revisionists [like China] with access are likely to reap significant benefits from the existing international order. Challenging the system thus carries serious costs,” Goddard writes.[18] China, therefore, is pursuing a different strategy.

China the Broker

Instead of challenging the system, China is simply building a new, non-threatening one. Although the web of the liberal world order reaches into many corners of the world, it does not reach all of them. Some of that has been intentional, liberal states excluding certain authoritarians, sponsors of terrorism, communists, and other unsavory or illiberal regimes. Over time, the constraints of the established web have also left many of its nodes feeling used or discontented. It’s among these nodes—the alienated, the disgruntled, and the excluded—that China spins its new web.

China’s power increases when it “possesses exclusive ties to otherwise marginalized or weakly connected nodes or groups of nodes.”[19] China has many of these kinds of connections. Some of them are ideological holdovers from China’s original revolutionary days—Cuba, Cambodia, and North Korea come to mind—while others are longer term, strategic friendships like Pakistan and Myanmar. Most of them, however, are relatively new.

China came late to the globalization game and found few regions left for easy investment or resource exploitation. As a result, China at first had to turn to dangerous, unstable, or otherwise undesirable places for friendship and trade. Since the 1990s, China has been building its links to countries like Sudan, Zimbabwe, Venezuela, and Kazakhstan as it sought out alternative partners for development and friendship.[20] What began as a smattering of partnerships with the estranged has morphed into something new as more and more nodes joined China’s network. Chinese aid, investments, and workers have poured into these countries and materials have poured back into China. Unlike the liberal world order, Chinese money (or guns) doesn’t come with strings attached, and rather than an ideology of democracy and humanitarianism, China promises a world of mutual non-interference in internal affairs.[21] What you do in your border is your business, China says; let’s get richer together. By 2013, those partnerships and projects dotted across the world got a new brand: the One Belt, One Road project, now called the Belt and Road Initiative. Originally envisioned as a “new silk road” of railways, energy pipelines, and highways running from Southeast Asia and China, through the former Soviet Republics to Europe, BRI has grown and transformed over time. BRI now how infrastructure, trade, and investment links with 65 other countries that collectively account for 30 percent of global GDP, 65 percent of world population, and 75 percent of known energy reserves.[22] As China has demonstrated its willingness and ability to provide an alternative to the liberal world order, states, especially globalization’s “losers” in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, have eagerly wrapped themselves into China’s web.

Additionally, Beijing has begun to build parallel institutions to those in the liberal world order, including the New Development Bank (formerly the BRICS Development Bank), the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Trade Agreement, and the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, through which many of China’s BRI projects are financed.[23] It is also involved in building a series of ports linking China to East Africa and to the oil-producing Middle East. With those ports in can enhance its investments, protect its trade routes, and contest the very United States’ maritime preeminence under which China has risen to global power.[24]

The result is a growing, parallel, Chinese-dominated order from which China can mobilize resources, call upon allies, and within which it can restrict United States influence. The resources it draws from this parallel network will be even more important. If China’s bet pays off and African and Latin American countries take over from China as the next “factory of the world,”[25] they will produce cheap goods for China’s domestic consumption, provide attractive outlets for Chinese investment, and power not only China’s economy but also the economies of important partners throughout the Chinese-built international web. Everyone will get richer together, especially China. Because “brokerage positions decrease the cost of acting outside the system,” [26] if Chinese links to Africa and Latin America bear economic enough fruit, China will be able to challenge the liberal world order from both within and without.

A Bridging Revolutionary

With its unique position between the liberal world order network and its growing, parallel Chinese-led network, China is becoming what Goddard calls a “bridging revisionist,” a state with both high access power and high brokerage power. It is deeply embedded in the existing international order, while also developing strong and largely exclusive relations within its own network. As a limited-revisionist with high access power in the liberal world order, China can benefit from existing trade networks and draw on social capital to legitimate its challenges to existing international rules and arrangements. As a revolutionary revisionist, on the other hand, China can use its brokerage power in its alternative network to get “access to new allies, alternative economic ties, and diverse cultural resources, all of which the revisionist can mobilize in support of its revisionist goals.”[27]

The result will probably be a slow-moving “rule-based revolution.”[28] It will likely be decades, if not longer, before China has the hard power to directly challenge the United States in a hegemonic transition.[29] Instead, because of its bridging network position, China will be able to simultaneously edit and create global rules to pursue its revisionist aims. “Bridging positions lower the costs, and may even increase the benefits, of challenging the institutional order,” Goddard writes. “Bridging positions open up new opportunities for mobilization outside of the system.” As a bridge, China can pursue both limited-aims revisionism and revolutionary revisionism, whichever works best to achieve a given goal. The United States can no longer afford to exclude China from the world order because of its importance to the global economic system, so China’s limited-aims revisionism will continue rewrite the rules of the liberal world order to its own advantage. At the same time, the United States no longer has the power to tightly bind China to existing rules because China has a whole new network of ties to actors it can mobilize to “slip the leash” of the liberal world order. As that network grows and strengthens, it will empower China’s revolutionary revisionist aims and provide an increasingly attractive alternative—not only to marginalized states but even to key members of the liberal world order.[30] If a global calamity like the 2008 financial crisis shakes the liberal world order again, a solid, Chinese-built order might just take its place.

China is rising, to be sure. As importantly, it is branching out.

[1] John Ikenberry Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis, and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton University Press, Princeton: 2011).
[2] David Rapkin and William R. Thompson “Power Transition, Challenge, and the (Re)Emergence of China” in International Interactions, 29:4 (2003), 317.
[3] Randall Schweller “Managing the Rise of Great Powers” in Engaging China: The Management of an Emerging Power edited by Alistair Ian Johnson and Robert S. Ross (Routledge: New York, 2003)
[4] Ibid.
[5] Stephen G. Brooks and William C. Wohlforth, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century: China’s Rise and the Fate of America’s Global Position,” International Security 40 (Winter 2015/16): 7-53
[6] Emilie M. Hafner-Burton, Miles Kahler, and Alexandra H. Montgomery, “Network Analysis for International Relations” International Organization 63 (Summer 2009), 561.
[7] Stacie Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism:  Networks, Institutions, and Challenges to World Order.”  International Organization 72 (Fall 2018):  767.
[8] Hafner-Burton, Kahler, and Montgomery, “Network Analysis for International Relations,” 574.
[9] Ibid, 561.
[10] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism,” 768.
[11] Ibid, 769-772.
[12] Ibid, 771.
[13] Ibid, 771.
[14] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism,” 768.
[15] John Ikenberry and Darren Lim, “China’s Emerging Institutional Statecraft: The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the prospects for counter-hegemony” (Brookings Institute, April 2017).
[16] Yan Xuetong, “The Age of Uneasy Peace: Chinese Power in a Divided World.” Foreign Affairs 98 (January/February 2019), 40-46.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism,” 770.
[19] Hafner-Burton, Kahler, and Montgomery, “Network Analysis for International Relations,” 574.
[20] The Diplomat, “Sudan: China’s Original Foothold in Africa,” (June 14, 2017).
[21] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, “China’s Initiation of the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”,, (, accessed March 27, 2019)
[22] The World Bank, “The Belt and Road Initiative” ( accessed April 29, 2019.
[23] Ikenberry and Lim, “China’s Emerging Institutional Statecraft.”
[24] Li Jiachiang “Developing China’s Indian Ocean Strategy” in China Quarterly of International Strategic Studies, Vol. 3, No. 4 (2017), 481–497.
[25] Irene Yuan Sun, The Next Factory of the World: How Chinese Investment is Reshaping Africa (Harvard Business Review Press: Brighton, Massachusetts, 2017).
[26] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism,” 771.
[27] Ibid, 773-774.
[28] Ibid, 765.
[29] Brooks and Wohlforth, “The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers in the Twenty-First Century,” 7-53.
[30] Goddard, “Embedded Revisionism” 774.