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China Rises—But Does It Know What It Wants?

Ryo Takahashi, Editor-in-Chief

An ancient civilization restores its “rightful” place in the world, but where does it belong? Ryo Takahashi (MBA ’20) talks with Professor Meg Rithmire.

China’s transformation from a rural, agrarian society to an economy second only to that of the United States feels less like a successful growth story and more like a miracle.

Underlying this, some claim, is China’s long-term, visionary thinking.

Indeed, the Belt and Road Initiative seems to be swinging the geopolitical center of gravity increasingly towards China, and new initiatives, such as Made in China 2025, are underway.

Crossing the ocean by feeling for stones

Yet it is not clear whether China truly has a blueprint for growth, or indeed whether its various interests are part of a grand plan.

“China is not certain of what it wants,” says Professor Meg Rithmire of Harvard Business School.

“There are these books on ‘China’s 50 year plan,’ but basically there’s no evidence that makes any sense,” she says.

“In the words of Deng Xiaoping, China is ‘crossing the ocean by feeling for stones’—their approach is more open-ended and experimental. It is not true that every overseas investment by Chinese companies is part of some large, grand plan.”

Deng’s message, therefore, is for China to take small, solid, incremental steps based on experimentation and, perhaps most importantly, being flexible.

Some view China’s rise with unease. Public discourse increasingly asks whether China’s ambitions are antithetical to “Western” values, and whether China and the United States are headed for a Thucydides Trap.

Yet such views may be overly alarmist. They are also misguided.

China has followed more of a non-confrontational approach in its foreign relations, instead choosing to adopt a policy of “bide time, hide your brightness, keep your head low, and do some things” (韬光养晦,不当头,有所作为 [Tāoguāngyǎnghuì, bù dāngtóu, yǒu suǒ zuòwéi]).

“While it’s true that China has strategic objectives—say in energy or in security—there is no evidence that China has a global vision that is inconsonant with our global affairs,” says Rithmire.

Cleaning up the house

Internally, China under Xi is much more assertive. One of Xi’s first agendas since assuming office in 2012/2013 was to launch an anti-corruption campaign, a large-scale effort to reduce corruption, increase the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and retain One Party rule.

“The Party has circulated videos of the fall of the Soviet Union and what that looks like. Decay within the party leads to territorial disintegration, social chaos, and upheaval,” says Rithmire.

“Their bottom line is to maintain political authority in China. In fact, China’s spending on internal security exceeds its spending on external security,” she says.

“Today, the high tide of the anti-corruption campaign is over. The Central Committee on Discipline Inspection remains, so in that sense it’s not really over.

“Yet you don’t have a rule of law, so instead of finding every corrupt person, there is enforcement through the fear of getting caught.”

Getting along and getting ahead

Last year, Xi Jinping made headlines when it became clear term limits would be removed and he would not step down after the customary two five-year terms. Some have questioned whether this was a regressive step for the health of China’s institutions.

“It is difficult to run a survey, but it seems Chinese people were unpleasantly surprised by the removal of term limits,” says Rithmire.

“At the same time, we can’t tell if Chinese people want multiparty democracy. There are certainly some who do, but that doesn’t seem to be a major source of agitation.”

For the most part, the response of Chinese citizens seems to bear a resemblance to Deng Xiaoping’s experimental approach.

“Chinese citizens are very adept at ‘getting along and getting ahead’ in China,” says Rithmire.

“People in China are good at figuring out what the Party’s agenda is, and how that can align with their own agenda. They’re aware of the tempo of things and they go along with it.”

Perhaps, then, the Chinese are biding their time and keeping their heads down, just as China does on a global stage.

When, if ever, will they pivot? Time will tell. Until then, there are stones to be grasped.

The author would like to thank Professor Meg Rithmire for her input and comments on this article. Meg Rithmire is F. Warren McFarlan Associate Professor in the Business, Government, and International Economy Unit at Harvard Business School. She holds a PhD in Government from Harvard University, and her primary expertise is in the comparative political economy of development with a focus on China and Asia.


Ryo Takahashi (MBA ’20), originally from Japan, is a management consultant and writer. Prior to Harvard Business School, he worked as a Project Manager at the World Economic Forum (WEF) and was a Senior Associate at McKinsey & Company. Prior to these roles he worked at the Economist and the Japan Times. His writing has appeared in Time magazine, the Economist, the Japan Times, and the World Economic Forum, among other outlets. He received his B.A. in Economics (with Distinction) from The University of Tokyo and was also a Rotary Scholar to the London School of Economics.

May 10, 2019

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