Compared with the other emerging powers in the so-called BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), China has under-participated in global governance. The low supply of China’s contributions results from the limited interest of the Chinese authorities and limited capacity of both the government and society, according to the University of Waterloo’s Hongying Wang and Syracuse University’s Erik French.
The U.S. and other external actors can encourage and enable China to play a bigger role in providing global public goods by promoting the growth of Chinese civil society and more fully embracing China as a member of the international community, they write in the latest issue of Asia Policy.
China has maintained a low profile in global governance, despite its growing economic power and the rhetoric of being a responsible great power, and there is little evidence that it will seek international leadership. Contrary to concerns over China’s imminent takeover of the U.S. role in the world, Beijing appears to have limited interest in and capacity for greater involvement in global governance.
Because the domestic and international sources of this relative passivity in global governance are rooted in the Chinese political system, political reform in China would likely increase its capacity and status as an international leader.
Another reason China has not developed many proposals or taken clear positions on controversial issues in global governance may be found in its multiple identities and ambiguous status in the international system. The Chinese government used to portray China as a victim of Western imperialism, a bastion of revolution, a third-world nation, and a socialist country. In recent decades, however, the leadership has emphasized China’s position as a stakeholder in the international system, a reformer, and a responsible great power.
A survey of China’s foreign-policy community reveals a wide spectrum of international identities that overlap and conflict with one another. These identities prescribe different courses of action. Some oblige China to speak on behalf of developing countries, whereas others place China in the same camp as the dominant powers. Thus, it is impossible for China to take a simple stand on global governance.
In addition to a lack of clear ideas, China’s domestic governance structure also undermines the country’s capability for participating in some aspects of global governance. In particular, the weakness of Chinese NGOs is an obstacle for the PRC’s effective involvement in global civil society.
With the onset of economic reforms in the late 1970s, the CCP has loosened its control of the Chinese economy and society to some degree, creating space for social organizations to develop. By the end of 2008, over 415,000 NGOs had registered with the Ministry of Civil Affairs, including about 230,000 social organizations, 183,000 noncommercial organizations, and 1,597 foundations.
However, many of these NGOs are closely tied to the government and lack autonomy. In 1996 a high official in the Ministry of Civil Affairs admitted that less than 50% of social organizations are self-organized, self-supported, and self-governed. More recently, a prominent Chinese expert on social organizations observed that, according to Western standards, very few Chinese social organizations can be considered NGOs.
In general, all NGOs in China are subject to the control of the government. This is especially true for organizations working on sensitive issues, such as foreign policy. As a result, China’s foreign relations largely remain the exclusive domain of state policy and are managed through official interactions with other governments. To the extent that Chinese foreign policymakers have played up the importance of nongovernmental relationships, or what they call people-to-people diplomacy, the organizations that carry out such unofficial diplomacy function like branches of the Chinese government.
Some of them have long served as organs of the government, such as the All-China Women’s Federation, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, the Chinese Communist Youth League, and the Chinese People’s Association for Friendships with Foreign Countries, including all of its subordinate associations. Some groups have been newly established in the reform era, but most of them also maintain close ties with the government and follow its guidance. The China Environmental Protection Foundation and the Boao Forum for Asia are such examples. As discussed in the last section, Chinese NGOs have had minimal presence at global summits organized by the UN in recent years, and only a handful of Chinese NGOs, including the All-China Women’s Federation, the China Society for Human Rights Studies, and the China Disabled Persons’ Federation, have consultative status with the UN.
Not surprisingly, then, Chinese NGOs have not been a source of influential ideas and proposals for global governance, in sharp contrast with the NGOs in many other countries. For instance, a former politician in Canada was the source of the notion of the group of twenty (G-20), a province in Brazil inspired the idea for the World Social Forum, an intellectual in Bangladesh pioneered the institution of Grameen Bank, and an American teacher began and led the movement to ban landmines. One is hard pressed to think of such innovative and effective contributions to global governance originating from China. Both Chinese analysts and observers of China have made the point that the weakness of its civil society is a major handicap for the country’s foreign policy and ability to participate effectively in global governance.