Review: China's New Governing Party Paradigm

Review: China's New Governing Party Paradigm
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China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit  of National Rejuvenation

by Timothy R. Heath

Published by Ashgate, Burlington, VT (2014) 270 pages

While the United States is spending most of its money, time, and attention on Middle East issues, China has burst on the stage as a possible peer competitor. As many have recently discovered, China presents a clear and present threat to surpass the United States in economic might, to challenge it in military might, and to replace it as leader of East and Southeast Asia. The bulk of the world’s population already resides there and, within the foreseeable future, the bulk of the world’s wealth also will. We can thus assess that the world’s political and economic centers of gravity will shift there, too.

It would be no real exaggeration to say that few in the U.S. government or intelligence agencies would have expected this, and most were caught a bit off balance by the suddenness and obviousness as well as the scope of China’s entrance onto the stage. Who would have predicted the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) or the military occupation of the South China Sea?  Who is not impressed by their brazenness and imaginativeness? Who is not impressed by the scope of the One Belt and One Road programs and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank?  And, more troubling, who was not surprised by these events?

How could so many have been caught off guard by such momentous events? How could so many have failed to anticipate the arrival of a tipping point in China-U.S. relations?1 So great was the failure that a whole publishing industry has emerged, explaining persuasively how we got China wrong for so long and offering suggestions for how we can get it “right tonight.”2 In addition, reams of articles offer policy advice for restructuring U.S.-China relations.3 

Why is it that, despite the broad knowledge of China’s economic growth and military modernization and the nonnegotiable nature of China’s current goals, most analysts tended to doubt that there was trouble brewing because most thought that China could be domesticated by and become a responsible stakeholder in the current (U.S.-administered) international order?4 But why would we have assumed this? Why did we believe our own newspaper clippings? Why did we lack imagination?5 We had no definitive answer to the most basic question: What does China want?6   Lacking this, it was easy to answer by our own prejudices. It was simply too easy to assume that China had no grand strategy and that it treated issues on a case-by-case basis.

The issue was more than simple complacency. Determining what China wants and the nature of its grand strategy is a difficult undertaking. Some have turned to international relations theories7 or to studies of China’s strategic culture,8 while others try to read the tea leaves of China’s history.  It appears that we all might be in the position Michael Swaine of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace attributes to those who conclude that China is really up to no good:

Those who view China as an aspiring hegemon . . .. almost without exception base their argument on shaky theoretical postulates and faulty historical analogies or on the decidedly non-authoritative views of a few Chinese analysts, not on current, hard evidence regarding either Chinese strategies and doctrines or Chinese behavior, past and present.9

But can the same not be said about every approach to the question? Even about those who do not view China as an aspiring hegemon? Surely Swaine’s rivals could say the same about his approach or that his hard evidence is available to many and that they simply interpret it or weigh it differently than he does, but no less validly. In other words, we are groping in the dark unless there is a demonstrable method that lays out precisely what we should look at (what counts as “hard evidence”) and what method we should use to explain or interpret the evidence, and that also permits actual empirical testing (of a sort) of the accuracy of the approach.

It appears that, in China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation, RAND analyst Timothy Heath has developed and explained that sought-after method and has employed it in a manner that permits testing of its accuracy. Heath argues that China does tell about its grand strategy and its intermediate goals as well as the steps it is taking in order to achieve those goals. In fact, it gives periodic updates on just how things are proceeding as well as about minor and major revisions of the intermediate means and goals. The revisions are based on careful assessments of the success of those means and the way China’s behavior has shaped its environment, to which China must then adjust. In other words, it is likely that the answer has been there under our noses all along, but we chose to dismiss the evidence as merely political rhetoric somewhat akin to an American party platform or a campaign stump speech (or, perhaps that we chose not to devote the 15 years to developing/ discovering it that Heath devoted). Those peculiar terms and phrases actually meant something specific and important; the only problem was that it has taken years and years of dedicated work to finally break the code.

Heath contends that in the early 2000s, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began to transform itself into a governing party that sought to rationalize the whole governing process. But instead of beginning a process of transferring policy and planning to the bureaus of experts in the government and away from the CCP, the Party did not intend to wither away but rather to play a more specific role in strategic leadership.

This means, in essence, the formulation, development, implementation and enforcement of strategic policy directives that can unerringly deliver sound governance and guide the development of a modern, prosperous, politically stable, powerful China by the centennial of the founding of the PRC in 2049, an end state the CCP calls the “rejuvenation of the Chinese people.”10

The Party itself does not make laws, rules, or regulations but leaves these functions to the various bureaucracies of government. Instead, the Party issues strategic and policy directives to which the laws and policies must adhere. Heath contends that “[t]his process consists of a dense array of political, intellectual, and theoretical work to formulate and direct the implementation of strategies and polices in a manner that enhances the authority of the ruling CCP and that promotes the party’s strategic objectives.”11   One can find those directives in Party work reports, speeches, white papers, and authoritative editorials in periodicals closely identified with the Party.  Careful study of these documents, combined with careful observation of the related changes in policy, will demonstrate that, in my words, the CCP acts much as the Board of Directors of a major corporation. It makes major policy decisions and monitors their implementation, making timely modifications as the policies succeed or fail and as the general business environment changes.  Whereas the ultimate corporate goal may vary, the ultimate, overriding goal of the Party always remains the same—the rejuvenation of China.12

After he provides the general model, Heath describes how it illuminates the Party—military relations, core interests and sovereignty disputes, and international relations—in an entirely convincing manner. But, at least in this reviewer’s opinion, the most fascinating part of this book is how it defines the specialized vocabulary involved in these activities. As many China analysts have always suspected, these terms and phrases have exact meanings and are interrelated logically into a maddeningly consistent web that demonstrates how policies in all areas are related to or are logically consistent with polices in all other areas. And, to make it even more complicated, the whole network continuously evolves as it adapts to China’s changing, primarily strategic, situation, with many of the changes being a result of China’s continuous growth and success. In fact, the relatively new interpenetrating relationship to its environment is key to understanding China’s new foreign and military policies and the major shifts that have occurred over the last 5 or 10 years.13 Heath’s method is the only one that withstands empirical verification. In articles and blogs he regularly explains major and minor changes and redirections in China’s policy by interpreting recent official policy pronouncements. To see the results, we may consult three of Heath’s recent articles in which he explains China’s recent strategic behavior.14

Commenting on the 2015 defense white paper, Heath observes that China’s strategic goal remains what it has been for decades: complete the building of “a moderately prosperous society” by 2021 and of a “modern socialist country” by 2049.15 This strategic goal is also called the rejuvenation of China and, more recently, the “China Dream.” But recently, with the need for a new development model, China introduced the “Holistic Security Concept,” in which China has expanded the definition of security to include virtually any and all policy fields and has centralized decision making in all security fields (“top down design”) in order to be able to overcome any obstacle to achieving its development goal. As President Xi said, “development depends on security” and “security requires development.”16 In this light, China has introduced a new major strategic concept, the “Four Comprehensives,” and a new security concept, the “New Asian Security Concept.”

Heath says that the introduction of the Four Comprehensives, although their full meaning has not yet become fully manifest, indicates that the Party has reached a consensus regarding the theoretical interpretation of a major contradiction. The issue or contradiction here is that in 2010 China concluded that the “period of strategic opportunity” that was introduced in 2000 and held that China faced a 10-20 year window in which conditions would be very favorable for China to grow its comprehensive national strength without the threat of war might be coming to an end.  Although the window is not completely closing, maintaining the window now would require more activist foreign policies because the West has begun to initiate policies designed to restrain China’s rise.  Therefore, China will have to pursue reform of the world governance system, the international financial system, and international economic rules. As Heath says, “China’s economists assess that future growth will depend heavily on the degree of the Asia-Pacific region’s integration with China’s economy, as well as issues related to global economic governance and global international trade rules.”17 But, the integration of the Asian regional economy, with China as its core, faces a security obstacle: The U.S. security alliance system. Therefore, China must change the very foundation of security in the Asia region.

As Heath observes, “China continues to require regional stability to maintain its focus on national development. However, a powerful and regionally integrated China is increasingly finding its security and development needs at odds with the current security order.”18 This is connected to the 2013 replacement of the United States by the periphery as the “priority direction” in China’s diplomacy. Thus, China’s new security policy for the region is to put an end to the U.S.-led system of alliances as the basis of regional security. This is the meaning of Xi’s call at the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia Conference this year for an Asian security order managed by Asians with, of course, China as the core. In other words, although China’s peaceful development has until recently depended on the international stability provided by the U.S.-led international order, now that China has reached a certain level of development and power, its new development needs put it into conflict with that security order. Those development needs have driven it to begin the task of ushering the United States out as its services are no longer required. Thus China’s policy now becomes riskier and more dependent on the PLA. This represents a profound shift in Security policy.  As Heath says, “Adoption of the holistic security concept now means that anything Chinese authorities deem an impediment to the realization of the country’s development objectives—regardless of whether it is economic, political, or another category— may now be deemed a security threat.”19  

In this reviewer’s eyes, Heath is the most original, exciting, insightful, empirical and bold analyst of China’s strategic policies and actions on the scene today.  And even better, he can and does cite his sources and invites you to examine them yourself and judge the validity of his conclusions. In addition, he provides and periodically updates the framework by which to explain the present and anticipate the future. 


1 David M. Lampton, “A Tipping Point in U.S.-China Relations Is Upon Us,” US- China Perception Monitor, May 11, 2015; Ryan Pickrell, “The Tipping Point: Has the U.S.-China Relationship Passed the Point of No Return?” The National  Interest, October 26, 2015.

2 Arthur Waldron, “The Asia Mess: How Things Did Not Turn Out as Planned,” Orbis Spring 2015; Michael Pillsbury, The Hundred Year Marathon (Henry Holt and Company, 2015); Christopher Ford, “The Death of the Liberal Myth in U.S. China Policy” (speech delivered at the Hudson Institute, November, 20, 2014).

3 Kevin Rudd, Summary Report: U.S.-China 21. The Future of U.S.-China Relations Under Xi Jinping: Toward a New Framework of Constructive Realism for a Common Purpose, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, April 2015; Robert D. Blackwill and Ashley J. Tellis, Revising U.S. Grand Strategy Toward China, Council on Foreign Relations, March 2015; Michael D. Swaine, Beyond American Predominance in the Western Pacific: The Need for a Stable U.S.-China Balance of Power (Carnegie Endowment For International Peace, April 20, 2015).   

4 Charles Freeman, “Memorandum to President Hu Jintao,” CSIS, January 2010; Thomas Fingar, “China’s Vision of World Order,” in Strategic Asia 2012-3: China’s Military Challenge, ed. Tellis and Tanner (2012), 341, fn 6.

5 Christopher Walker, “The West’s Failure of Imagination,” Wall Street Journal, August 3, 2015.

6 Timothy Heath, “What Does China Want? Discerning the PRC’s National Strategy,” Asian Security 8, no.1 (2012).

7 G. John Ikenberry, “The Rise of China and the Future of the West,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2008; John J. Mearsheimer, “Can China Rise Peacefully,” The National Interest, October 24, 2014.

8 Iain Johnston, Cultural Realism and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton University Press, 1998); Andrew Scobell, “China’s Real Strategic Culture: A Great Wall of the Imagination,” Contemporary Policy, 2014.

9 Michael D. Swaine, Beyond American Predominance in the Western Pacific: The Need for a Stable U.S.-China Balance of Power (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 20, 2015).   

10 Timothy H. Heath, China’s New Governing Party Paradigm: Political Renewal and the Pursuit of National Rejuvenation (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 5.

11 Ibid., 57.

12 Ibid., 57-71.

13 Related to this, see Heath’s discussion of “core interests” in China’s New Governing Party Paradigm, 99-110.

14 “Asian Economic Integration Fuels PRC Frustration With U.S. Alliances,” China Brief,, vol 14, issue 12; “Xi’s Bold foreign Policy Agenda: Beijing’s Pursuit  of Global Influence and the Growing risk of Sino-U.S. Rivalry,” China Brief, Jamestown. org, vol 15, issue 6; and, “The ‘Holistic Security Concept:’ The Securitization of Policy and Increasing Risk of Militarized Crisis,” China Brief,, vol 15, issue 12.

15 See Chapter 5 of China’s New Governing Party Paradigm, for a complete description of the components of a “modern socialist country.”

16 Heath, Timothy, “The ‘Holistic Security Concept’: The Securitization of Policy and  Increasing Risk of Militarized Crisis,” in China Brief, 15, no 12 (June 19, 2015).

17 Heath, Timothy, “Xi’s Bold Foreign Policy Agenda: Beijing’s Pursuit of Global Influence and the Growing Risk of Sino-U.S. Rivalry,” China Brief 15, no 6 (March 19, 2015).

18 Ibid.

19 Heath, Timothy, “The ‘Holistic Security Concept’: The Securitization of Policy and Increasing Risk of Militarized Crisis,” in China Brief 15, no 12 (June 19, 2015).

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