Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China: A Conversation with Annah Lake Zhu

China and the environment often sit in tension—for example, China is a primary polluter while also the key to our global environmental security, and China is both the largest deforester and the largest planter of trees. How might we reconcile demand for resources within China and the country’s efforts to preserve these resources? Can one resource help us rethink global conservation efforts in the twenty-first century and, in turn, the concept of Global China? In her new book, Rosewood: Endangered Species Conservation and the Rise of Global China (Harvard University Press, 2022), Annah Lake Zhu grapples with these questions, offering a rigorous look at China’s growing environmentalism through the boom in rosewood trade between China and Madagascar.

Rosewood is the world’s most trafficked endangered species by value and its supply is declining. Demand is fuelled by China’s 26 billion USD market for traditional furniture as Chinese consumers seek to reclaim a cultural heritage that was condemned as bourgeois during the Cultural Revolution. Much of the timber for rosewood furniture is extracted directly from forests in Africa and Asia, which has led to international restrictions on its trade. Zhu suggests that such environmental responses overlook the economic and cultural dimensions of rosewood demand, with deleterious effects.

She illuminates the drivers of the trade from consumption to conservation and the effects it has within forest communities and the Malagasy state. Key to her analysis is how rosewood is valued from different perspectives, including those of Chinese loggers and traders, residents of northeast Madagascar, and Western conservationists. The extraction of rosewood offers residents access to capital and a means to reclaim forests. Meanwhile, the tree is also perceived as a symbol of cultural identity and sophistication, and of the demise of global biodiversity. More than holding these perspectives in tension, Zhu shows how each is rooted in a preservationist logic that ‘reinvents an idyllic past to meet the needs of the present’ (p. 15).

A mixed forest/rice-farming landscape in central Madagascar. PC: Annah Zhu.

Zhu’s rich ethnography traverses China’s largest rosewood commercial centre and forests and plantations in Madagascar. She begins in China, tracing rosewood’s imperial past and contemporary revival to argue that the current boom in consumption is a product of cultural legacies and financial speculation. In the Malagasy forests, the rosewood boom results in ‘hot money’ spending. Alongside an influx of capital, the rosewood trade offers locals a means to ‘take back’ national parks that they view as being under the influence of Western conservation orthodoxy. Zhu then turns to the evolution of conservation in Madagascar, showing how both military-inspired protectionist and community-based participatory approaches often backfire. For example, rather than stopping the trade, Western ‘rosewood task forces’ penalise those who participate in it, which often increases deforestation as loggers cut more trees in anticipation of fines. Additionally, Western trade bans have increased prices, leading to speculation, and even criminal activity.

While Western rosewood conservation efforts remain protectionist, Zhu finds that the Chinese Government and firms are investing in rosewood preservation through expansive mixed-use agroforests. This sustainable approach, she suggests, offers a Chinese environmentalism that both preserves species and circumvents a Western conservation ethic. By exploring Chinese demand for endangered species alongside differences between Western and Chinese approaches to conservation, divergent global approaches to the environment and biodiversity are abundantly clear. Zhu concludes that what is at stake when we think about contemporary Global China is ‘how the country could rewrite globalization and the environment on its own terms’ (p. 33). She calls for a global environmentalism of the twenty-first century that both reconciles these approaches and decentres the West. As she meticulously demonstrates, this will only be possible through genuine and unbiased understanding of China’s approach to the environment and the local processes and effects of resource extraction.

Logs piled outside of the Furen timber market in Shanghai, China. PC: Annah Zhu.
Loggers transporting rosewood through a village in northeastern Madagascar. PC: Annah Zhu.

Jessica DiCarlo: Your opening vignette is powerful as you describe the theft of six priceless Chinese artworks from the residence of the King of Sweden—one of a series of heists of Chinese artefacts taken by Western powers over the centuries. By viewing these thefts from Western and Chinese perspectives, you raise questions of market versus cultural value and underscore the thin line between repatriation and crime. You push readers to think about how something is valued and by whom. Could you talk about why you started with this vignette, how you landed on it, and what it opens us to in the book?

Annah Lake Zhu: This opening was originally hidden in a chapter deep in the book and my editor suggested I move it towards the beginning. It was a great suggestion because it allowed me to start from a non-environmental place. It gets readers to consider a case that seems to have nothing to do with the environment, where there are stark differences in perspectives—Chinese art ‘thefts’ or ‘repatriations’—depending on different cultural/sociopolitical vantage points. In this sense, it’s an easy example of clear differences in global perspective that does not come with all the discursive baggage and pre-existing biases one may have when discussing the environment. Starting from a non-environmental place, I can show readers how this same type of relativism in fact applies to discussions of the global environment and endangered species. The lines between what is right and wrong, how things should or should not be done, are also not so clear when it comes to environmental actions, but it is harder to see this. The rest of the book is then about revealing these conflicted positions when it comes to endangered species and the environment.

I also liked the idea of starting with the issue of repatriation because it’s a very hot topic now. It’s frequently understood, however, in terms of indigenous peoples and other marginalised groups. But when it comes to the question of China and repatriation, the dynamic changes. Rather than repatriation to a marginalised group, it’s to a strong, powerful counter to the West—which of course many indigenous groups can also be, but here it’s in a different way. It makes you question the drive to repatriate at all and it makes you look at the process of repatriation a little differently, and I really liked to have that in the beginning. Then readers take that example with them throughout the book. What might repatriation look like when it comes to endangered species and the environment? What does it mean to give Malagasy people the ability to protect or use their resources as they see fit? And, perhaps more polemically, where might China fit in this process of environmental repatriation—especially when it comes to the country’s seemingly insatiable demand for rosewood and other endangered species?

JD: I appreciate how you examine globalisation, the rise of China, and global environmentalism through one commodity: Malagasy rosewood. Can you tell us about rosewood in the multiple ways you discuss and think about it in the book: the tree itself, as a highly speculative commodity, a cultural product, and a resource to conserve?

ALZ: From a conservation perspective, rosewood is a group of threatened and endangered tree species that grow throughout the tropics and are particularly imperilled in Madagascar due to a history of logging that dates to before the colonial period. Since 2000, China has overtaken the West as the primary destination of rosewood logs cut from Madagascar. But rosewood in China is valued very differently than in the West. There, it has come to be far more expensive than it ever was in the United States or France because of the wood’s unique cultural history in the country. Rosewood from Madagascar happens to look remarkably like a rosewood variety used in late imperial China that is now commercially extinct. Because of this likeness, the wood is worth exponentially more than it was before. The growing demand has triggered logging booms in the forests of Madagascar and, in response, the deployment of militarised conservation forces in an attempt to stop the logging. Meanwhile, in China, the wood fuels a 26 billion USD market for classical furniture.

Elaborate carvings on rosewood panels at a furniture factory in Shenzhen, China. PC: George Zhu.

JD: You contrast Western conspicuous consumption and cultural capitalism. Can you tell us more about that contrast and explain why, from a Chinese perspective, rosewood is so highly valued?

ALZ: Often we miss how much cultural elements play into everyday Chinese life. In the United States or Europe, people talk about China’s demand for endangered species as a type of conspicuous consumption. Buying and selling endangered species are understood first and foremost as a way to make money and be seen as rich. Many recent texts, especially now with Covid-19, are also trying to understand Chinese demand for wildlife in terms of Chinese tradition—that is, in cultural terms. But these two types of explanations—the cultural versus the economic—are often seen as competing. Which one is it? Which one really matters? Are Chinese people really embracing cultural ideals or are they just trying to make money? But what’s more interesting to examine is the articulation between those economic forces that are very real and affecting China and the cultural dimensions that create a whole separate value system outside the economy—a system for the economic forces to feed off. And it’s precisely this synergy between the economic value and the cultural value that really makes resources such as rosewood boom; it’s what makes them highly speculative commodities. So, what we should be talking about is the intersection between cultural and economic elements and not arguing about whether the demand is based on tradition versus neoliberal or economic. It is truly both. Without one or the other, it would not be nearly as powerful.

Historically, we see this type of hybrid, cultural/economic speculation in Western art: Picassos, Pollocks, and so forth. But now—since the mid 2000s—we see it in distinctly Chinese cultural things as well. It’s the same type of economic speculation feeding off cultural values, but it’s in a totally different cultural milieu and cultural history than that of Western art and antiques. And it has a huge impact on demand for endangered species in China.

JD: I would love to turn to your history chapter. I was impressed by its detail and how you connected it to the present in a way that feels quite approachable to people who perhaps have read very little Chinese history, especially on the imperial legacy of rosewood. You write that the story of rosewood in China began centuries ago; it has been written through the Qing and Ming dynasties and the Cultural Revolution. Can you share why this is so important for your book, and explain how, as you suggest, rosewood reflects a history of China?

ALZ: When I started my research, I was very focused on the Madagascar side of things and only a bit later I began my research in China. I’m not at all a historian, and when I turned to researching China, I knew very little. I learned about Chinese history through learning about the history of rosewood in China and I realised that it was a surprisingly good way to learn about Chinese history because so many pivotal moments are encapsulated in it. In the book, I go through them: the infatuation with rosewood during late imperial China—a time that represents a certain idealised zenith of Chinese traditional culture in the contemporary imagination; then the complete scorn and abandonment of this tradition during the Cultural Revolution; and then the return to it alongside China’s global reintegration. The value of rosewood inverted dramatically throughout these key moments in Chinese history. So, the history of rosewood in China is a really good lens for understanding the history of China generally.

I really must give credit to my husband for this idea of thinking about rosewood in this way. I remember early on, just after returning from Madagascar, I was asking him (he was born in Shanghai and much of his family is still living there, themselves owning rosewood furniture) why he thought the wood was so expensive. It’s not necessarily of a higher quality than other woods that are worth much less. And then he began to explain that it’s not just the wood, that the wood is associated with a specific cultural legacy of a specific type of furniture-making and that’s the value of it: the combination of that wood with this whole cultural legacy. That’s why it’s so valuable. And I was like: ‘Tell me more about that!’ And I just did not know any of these things, because I was approaching it like a conservationist would approach it. I had very little context for what something like the Ming Dynasty means in relation to rosewood. For that matter, I had very little context for what Chinese history writ large means for the present moment in China. Really, to understand Global China today, the history of the country, the history of this ‘civilisation-state’, is immensely important. It was easier for me, and it will be the same for people reading this book, to get into the history by looking at the material and the craft. It’s an easier way to distil a very complex history to understand how it matters for our contemporary world.

Unfinished rosewood chairs at a furniture factory in Shenzhen, China. PC: George Zhu.

JD: You write that rosewood, ‘as a conflicted global resource, tells us exactly what we expect to hear about natural resource extraction and struggles over land: East versus West battling it out in the resource-rich “Third World.” But if we listen very carefully, it also tells us the opposite’ (p. 14). Can you tell us about your process of listening more closely and what was revealed through the rosewood story in Madagascar and China?

ALZ: Rosewood—not in the story I tell, but what you will hear in the media—is your stereotypical endangered species: Europeans wiped out most of it, then they learned better and stopped, and now the Asians are wiping out what is left. This is what we expect to hear about resource extraction and endangered species, especially when it comes to China. I try to tell a different story. And I do this by listening closely to the stories of rosewood that arise outside Western media and outside conservation discourse. Listening to stories about rosewood in China and Madagascar, what you will hear is completely different. In China, it is about the cultural history of the wood and newfound wealth, and in Madagascar it is about fleeting new economic opportunities and loss of control of one’s resources. Listening closely, for me, is one way to decentre our own perspectives, to get outside our comfort zone. We don’t do that nearly enough when it comes to China and environmental problems in Madagascar.

JD: In the book, you note that the term ‘endangered species’ does not translate to plants or trees in Malagasy but only to animals. How do local people talk and think about rosewood? Can you speak about the local readings of the tree?

ALZ: Translating ‘endangered species’ is difficult in Malagasy. One common translation is biby efa ho lany teranaka—‘animals about to become extinct’ or, as someone put it to me, an animal whose generation will soon ‘run out’. Calling rosewood an endangered species in this way will probably make many Malagasy people think you are crazy—first, because it’s not an animal and, second, because the younger (not commercially viable) trees are quite easy to find. So, of course, local people don’t talk about rosewood as an endangered species. Historically, they don’t really talk about rosewood much at all outside colonial logging.

When I started my research, I really wanted to uncover some good stories from Malagasy people about folklore concerning rosewood. But there was very little because, primarily, they do not use the tree very much because it is so heavy. They do not want to lug it from the forest. The most interesting story I came across was someone telling me they overheard another person on a bus insisting that Jesus Christ’s cross was made of rosewood, referring to rosewood from Madagascar specifically. But this is not an old or well-known story; the person who told it to me dismissed it as probably the ravings of a madman (although he was intrigued and wanted to know if I’d ever heard such a thing). These types of stories arise during logging booms. There are also speculations about what rosewood really is used for; why is it so expensive? Some hypothesise it has medicinal qualities (and, here, this is another local use of the tree: people in the area drink water mixed with rosewood sawdust as a remedy for upset stomachs. I tried some and it’s disgusting!). Others just call it a famous tree. But aside from that, the trees do not occupy a huge space in local folklore. It’s mostly considered (alongside vanilla, cloves, and other cash crops of the region) primarily for outsiders and they are not entirely sure what it will be used for once it leaves Madagascar.

JD: In the introduction, you offer the image of two trails running parallel in the forest as a representation of the divergent global demands and values of rosewood. How did you arrive at these paths in your work and trajectory, and how do they help us better understand Global China as a product of tensions?

ALZ: This image was something one of my interviewees shared with me. He made it very clear for me to understand: there are two trails in the park he worked in. One he goes on with the tourists. Another is for the loggers. They don’t mix them up; he can’t take the tourists on the logging trails and the loggers can’t come looking for trees on the tourist trails. I thought about it metaphorically when he told me and got very inspired, but he insisted to me it was quite literal. In the book, I try to extend the metaphor and reflect on it personally. I initially approached the case of rosewood from a conservation perspective. I was very much on the tourist trail, both figuratively and (at least once) literally. But after I started my PhD and went back to do my research, I began seeing things from the logging perspective and jumping over to that trail. This inevitably led me to China and the whole investigation on the demand side. And at that point I realised that before I was looking at the issue from just one perspective, and so are many others. And that to a certain extent explains why we are where we are with the tree, why conservation has not been a success when it comes to rosewood. Why people in Madagascar are not particularly gung-ho about conserving it. And, certainly, why people in China have other plans for rosewood and are a bit wary of Western efforts to conserve it. So, this was all very much personal. I was seeing my own ignorance and it was fascinating. I really wanted to share that in the book.

JD: How did you experience and see the rosewood boom in Madagascar? Who are the loggers and how are they connected to the global trade?

ALZ: I interviewed a lot of loggers and traders and I saw some of the logs in transit. But more than that, I saw the impacts of the logging boom on the villages and cities nearby. New houses were being built, with people claiming the money all came from rosewood. Small parties were frequently held on the streets by the rosewood bosses. Any tall concrete fences that were built were rumoured to be hiding rosewood on the other side. The trade caused a lot of inflation in the region and those not involved were fed up with it. The local bus stopped running and was allegedly repurposed into a rosewood transport vehicle. Teachers left their posts to join the trade. It had all the hallmarks—the positives and negatives—of any resource boom. This includes the vastly uneven structure, where loggers on the ground make relatively little (although still a lot, given the lack of other economic opportunities), the mid-level traders make a sizeable portion more, and the bosses who have ties to China become multimillionaires, some potentially billionaires.

A craftsman saws a rosewood branch in northeastern Madagascar. PC: George Zhu.

JD: China’s approaches to endangered species and reforestation provide alternative ecological visions that could appeal to people who do not share a Western fixation with conservation or preservation. It struck me that China’s rosewood plantations seem to be highly desirable to people in Madagascar, as opposed to more protectionist or militarised forms of conservation. At the same time, Western conservation efforts are still very much at play. How do local people reconcile and/or engage with the two? Did communities end up adopting any of the imported perspectives (for example, conservation or working with companies on extraction)?

ALZ: Like the two trails—the tourist trails and the logging trails—both are at play in Madagascar. We see both conservation and logging right next to each other. Rosewood plantations are an interesting third element, a type of hybrid between the two. It’s sort of conservation and it’s sort of logging. Not all the trees planted will be logged and there is an idea of sustainability (at least in the sense of longevity) behind it. But there are not enough rosewood plantations in Madagascar—only a few private plantations established by rich Chinese-Malagasy people. Instead, a lot of people work on both the conservation and the logging sides. One of my main interlocutors had worked as both a conservation worker (as an ecotourist guide) and a logger. And he would joke that he was bad at both! He said that as a guide he could never find the animals for the tourists to see. And as a logger he was scrawny, so not particularly good at that either.

In general, I found two perspectives on conservation from people in the region. The first was from those who are wary of the whole conservation drive from Western donors. Some think it is entirely made up. One of my friends said that the whole endangered species concept was just created to control Malagasy people and prevent them from using their own resources. But then there is another perspective coming from the region, mostly those who work more closely with the conservation organisations, and they genuinely believe in it. They affirm that we need to protect species and that it is good for their country and their communities. So, both are there, although the first is probably more prevalent.

JD: I really enjoyed your chapter on ‘hot money’. Can you tell us more about the impacts of this phenomenon, the influx of capital, and the boom-and-bust cycles in the region?

ALZ: Rosewood—and also vanilla, the other major export crop of the region—is a highly volatile economy. There are periods of huge influxes of cash and then it all dries up. The volatility is also relatively new. When rosewood was logged during the colonial period and after it was a bit more stable. The booms since 2000 are much more volatile, not only because of volatile speculative markets but also because of selective/inconsistent military deployment to uphold logging bans. So, with these boom-and-bust cycles, we get this phenomenon that Malagasy people call ‘hot money’ (or vola mafana). It’s when workers spend all their earnings in one egregious spree. These can be conventional: trips to the bars, bidding on women, and so forth, but also more creative, like pasting money to chameleons or boiling it up and eating it as soup.

On some level, hot money in Madagascar is a Global China story; it’s about Chinese traders coming out and buying wood from Madagascar in large quantities for large sums of cash, and the reverberations of this demand outside China. It’s interesting that all this excess capital fuelling the rosewood boom in China is also called ‘hot money’. This is hot money in the global financial sense: excess capital flows being channelled quickly from one market to another to exploit variable rates of return. Hot money in Madagascar shows the other side of this global financial speculation, how it manifests in places where paper money is still the default and banks are days away and not really used anyway. Hot money in China and hot money in Madagascar are two sides of the same coin.

JD: How do you think about using ethnography to study Global China at this moment and why is it an important method?

ALZ: In popular discourse when you’re talking about China and our connections with China, it’s primarily economic and geopolitical: trade, finance, security. That is how the West is tied to China, while on the cultural level there’s a huge disconnect—a remarkable disconnect for how economically connected we are. But Global China is both cultural and economic. We need to understand it through both dimensions, which means, of course, we have to do ethnography. And I think specifically how Anna Tsing defines ethnography—thinking about an issue with your informants, with your interlocutors—is great for this type of problem. This cultural disconnect between China and the West, where economically we are so connected and culturally so disconnected, can be eased a bit by doing this type of ethnography. For rosewood, we can see how the same material reality is considered so differently from different perspectives.

JD: Trying to straddle multiple places and study a global phenomenon on the ground are not straightforward tasks. Something I love about this book is that your ethnography takes place in Madagascar and in China. Why did you feel that going to China was an important part of your work?

ALZ: It was essential for this story. Maybe some other Global China stories might not need this. But for understanding rosewood and what it means to different people, going to China, talking to people living and working in China, were essential. Also, it really helped to be married to a Chinese person, especially one who is very blunt about pointing out my own ignorance and limited perspective.

But I also have to emphasise that the story I tell in the book is not what a Chinese or Malagasy person would tell about rosewood. It’s very much about a Western person coming to understand different points of view concerning the same topic, the same material thing. It’s about trying to convey that and, in the process, decentring or destabilising the Western perspective a bit. The ultimate goal is to have my audience, which is no doubt largely Western, reflect on their own positionality.

JD: You write: ‘There is a growing environmentalism in China, but it is not the environmentalism of the West’ (p. 24). There has been mounting pressure on Chinese leaders to address environmental problems. On one hand, environmental reforms in China frequently are used to pursue a political agenda or bolster political legitimacy. On the other, there is an earnest attempt to push environmental agendas. How do you understand China’s emerging environmentalism and how, in your experience, does it vary domestically versus internationally?

ALZ: This is tough. There is, like you say, precisely this environmental turn in China. However, for most people, I’d say there is surprisingly little awareness of this. When I ask students, for example, ‘When you think about China and the environment, what comes to mind?’, almost nothing is positive. So, the audience that sees China’s environmental turn is still surprisingly small … Then, among those people who do see it, it’s often framed as having ulterior motives: environmentalism as a guise for political control. This may be true, but it’s not just that, it’s not all just for political control. There is a sincere desire from Chinese people to clean up the environment. The government is responding to the demands of the people (and, yes, sure, consolidating further control where possible). So, it’s not even that Chinese leadership deeply ‘cares’ about the environment, but they are responding to legitimate demands from the people who are calling for a cleanup. And that’s fine. That’s a government remaining accountable to a people. I tend to be wary of questions and critiques that arise, like: ‘But do they truly care about the environment?’ What that question insinuates is: ‘Do they have the same particular type of romanticised view of the environment as I do?’ And this view is quite Western. So likely, no, most Chinese people do not have the same romanticised view of the environment, but they have some other environmentalism that is emerging and needs to be understood in its own right.

But, again, going back to your question, it’s tough—and very controversial—to enumerate in any definitive way what one might call ‘Chinese environmentalism’. In the book, I try to point readers in a few directions that really are clear differences between how China and the West approach the environment. The most important one I have found is the valuation of pristine, human-less nature. Ideas of wilderness and untouched nature are very powerful to Western audiences and simply do not have the same allure in China. This is a consequence of much larger philosophical differences that I discuss more in the book. China’s approach to the environment is historically rooted not in the Western nature/culture opposition but rather in a philosophical tradition that does not so sharply delineate nature from culture. This has impacts for how Chinese people think about the environment and how the government implements environmental policies domestically and abroad.

Last, just to touch on the question of differences between China’s domestic and China’s international approaches to the environment, they are very different, for several reasons, one of which is how China runs its foreign relations. A big debate about Chinese environmentalism is that domestically they are beginning to have strong environmental policies, but overseas projects barely see it. The Chinese Government did pledge to stop funding coal projects overseas, which was a big deal. I was a bit surprised about that. But that aside, there are clear critiques that the Chinese Government has strong environmental regulations domestically but not abroad. This is largely true, but we also need to understand that a lot of this has to do with, first, China’s lack of capacity to regulate overseas activities and, second, the country’s longstanding approach of non-intervention in foreign diplomacy. This non-interventionist approach is a defining difference between Chinese and Western diplomacy and China really prides itself on this distinction. The Chinese Government really showcases this distinction, especially in Africa, as evidence of why they are preferable partners to the West. It’s how the Chinese Government distinguishes how they do aid from the West—in their eyes, in a very positive way because it is less paternalistic, and they are not going to get rid of that anytime soon.

JD: You analyse rosewood as a socionature to cut through the nature/culture divide that you mentioned and which dominates global imaginaries of rosewood. First, the frame ‘socionatures’ could be unfamiliar to some readers; can you explain what you mean by it? How does this help us understand Global China and shifting global environmentalism?

ALZ: What’s powerful about the socionature concept is that it challenges and multiplies our understanding of rosewood. Stepping back, anything can be a socionature. It’s really an approach to analysing a particular resource, meaning that you’re going to analyse it not as a natural object, nor as a social object, but really where those two elements come together and how that impacts how the resource is governed, used, and valued. When it comes to rosewood, the wood is a rich text socionaturally speaking. It’s a rich meeting point of so-called natural understandings of conservation and endangered species, and then cultural understandings of Chinese history. In this you see that the natural understandings of the environment are not really ‘natural’; they are in fact quite cultural. By taking a socionatural approach, we can remove the arbitrary binary between approaching something as natural versus social or cultural and this is very important as we try to have some semblance of an environmentalism at the global level that is not just predominantly Western.

JD: You mention that you do not want to legitimate the rosewood trade. This makes me think of the challenges of how to study Global China and tack between China and other sites, while sharing multiple perspectives and experiences. I wonder, in telling multiple sides to the rosewood story, if you have been pushed to ‘take a harder stance on China’. And if so, how you navigate such critiques?

ALZ: Oh, I get that all the time: ‘You’re pro-China.’ And I’m like: ‘You don’t know what pro-China looks like.’ Having some glimpses of what pro-China looks like myself, I would say I’m far from it. But I am quite sympathetic to Chinese perspectives that support rosewood craftsmanship, for example, or that support the Chinese Government and its environmental actions—or at least I am actively trying to be sympathetic to these perspectives. When you’re trying to understand where a whole other group is coming from, you really need to cast judgements aside. You have to try as much as possible to come at it with an open mind. But even then, it can be very limited. I am a very Western person. I grew up in the United States in the 1990s, and I’m like the extreme American in some ways. So, trying to see it from another perspective is difficult and, as I said, the story I tell about rosewood is still very Western, but it attempts a type of decentring. So, yes, I get the being soft on China criticism a lot.

It did help looking at Madagascar, because it made my approach less East versus West and instead more about different perspectives coalescing around this particular tree. And when trying to see things from the Malagasy perspective, you get glimpses of how bizarre and annoying they must find the Western approach to conservation. The drive to protect nature apart from humans is in many ways uniquely Western and is being imposed on people who do not share those views or beliefs. There is value in decentring this perspective, not just a comparison between China and the West, but having a more pluralised account. And then you see the peculiarities that arise around Western approaches to the environment from multiple perspectives.

JD: Your conclusion brilliantly reflects on the broader stakes of China’s global rise. How do you conceptualise Global China and how should we go about, in your words, ‘discovering Global China’? Finally, who do you hope will read your book and understand these more nuanced perspectives?

ALZ: China, as a global actor, is fascinating to me because it is the first time in the past two centuries we see a non-Western actor with global aspirations that arguably surpass those of the West. And what this does is it makes us reflect on what it really means to be global. For as long as I’ve lived, to be global in effect meant to be Western. No-one ever said it like that, but there was a kind of tacit conflation between the Western and the global. We don’t necessarily realise that we conflate them, but in fact, we do. I like to think of the example of the Bretton Woods institutions—the most global institutions one could imagine. And yet we forget their provincial origins in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire—a small resort town in East Coast America during an unprecedented postwar period when the United States and, to a lesser extent, war-torn Europe basically set the global agenda.

The point I try to make in concluding the book is that Global China challenges this tacit conflation we have made all along that Western is global and global is Western. And so, we have to rethink what it really means to be global. This destabilisation or disruption—dissociating the Western and the global—also allows for a sort of self-reflection. It’s not even necessarily about better understanding China, but it’s about shedding light on the hidden structures that shape Western thinking about the world and provincialising them. It’s about realising what we may take as universal is in fact not at all. So, in discovering what this thing called Global China is, we simultaneously discover that how we in the West conceptualise the global (or health, or science, or the environment, or nature) is after all not as universal as we thought. So, I want to destabilise our understanding and then reflect on what is the ‘global’ really? Are these things we call ‘global’ really global or are they actually just very provincial and Western?

With this in mind, there are two audiences I would like to read this book, one of which may not like it at all. First, I would like the conservation groups and global conservation people—really the people who work on global protected areas—to read it. But I’m also a bit afraid of that, because I think they will like it least, especially the parts of the book that discuss the unintended consequences of global conservation efforts—how they can sometimes really do more harm than good. They likely won’t agree with several points, but it will be food for thought. The other audience is simply anyone who is thinking about China or stories about China and might be amenable to looking at the country from a different perspective than we usually hear. People who are perhaps a bit tired of the same stories about China pillaging the environment and the world, or at least who want a different perspective on this phenomenon.

JD: I would like to conclude by reflecting on global environmentalism given China’s rise. What implications can we glean from the case of rosewood about the future of environmentalism? How do you think global environmentalism and conservation will and should be re-envisioned?

ALZ: Here we can go back to the repatriation issue. What would it mean for environmental protection in a place like Madagascar to be repatriated? What would a type of repatriated conservation look like? We’ve seen conservation discourse change a lot already and become more community-based or ‘people-centred’. And this is sort of a step in that direction. But with that, conservationists need to think not just about how to include people but also about how to change conservation goals in response to that inclusion. For it to be truly community-based, the very goals of biodiversity conservation and protected areas need to be on the table for revision—maybe these goals change altogether. This possibility is of course difficult for large nongovernmental organisations that have biodiversity conservation as their primary mission. Hence my wariness towards such organisations and my doubts of any type of ‘real’ repatriation.

Then of course there is the even thornier issue of repatriation when it comes to China. As I say in the book, it’s one thing to repatriate conservation efforts to marginalised Malagasy people but quite another to repatriate in the context of a strong, powerful China. We can all feel warm and fuzzy about repatriation to Madagascar, but the sentiment changes when it comes to China. And here it might help to think more in terms of cooperation. How to cooperate with China—a country which some find to be authoritarian, illiberal, even genocidal? This is the challenge of twenty-first-century global environmentalism because there is simply no tackling the environmental problems of our century without collaborating with China. It’s simply not possible. But at the same time, the possibility of global collaboration, even as I say it now, sounds painfully naive. So, this is where we are. We are stuck doubling down on our own isolated positions. My hope is that the book can help us decentre our positions just a little. Decentring here means seeing how, from a Western perspective, the idea of valuing untouched wilderness—the ‘nature needs half’ movement to cordon off half the world as protected areas that can’t be developed, and so forth—is not universally appealing or desirable, but highly situated. And we need to be much more decentred and open-minded and willing to accept that the world we in the West romanticise is not the world other cultures romanticise and, frankly, not likely to be our future world. Our future world is going to be much more pluralised and built through sobering compromise rather than romantic ideals. Decentring a Western perspective is perhaps our best shot at realising these radical compromises necessary for avoiding global environmental catastrophe.

Clash of Empires: A Conversation with Ho-fung Hung

The rise of ‘Global China’ is the result of sustained economic globalisation in the past decades, undergirded by a generally positive relationship between China and the United States. Since the watershed moment of China’s entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, the Chinese and US economies have become increasingly interdependent, which used to be a reason for optimism in managing the various conflicts that arose between the two countries. This, however, has been called into question following the tumultuous years of the Trump administration seeking to redress the trade imbalance with China, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic, the disruption of which to the global order is yet to be fully revealed.

In his newly published book, Clash of Empires: From ‘Chimerica’ to the ‘New Cold War’ (Cambridge University Press, 2022), Ho-fung Hung offers an analysis of the changing US–China relationship and a critique of the global political economy. Challenging ideological arguments, Hung contends that the United States’ facilitation of China’s integration into the global economy in the 1990s and 2000s was primarily driven by its own corporate interests seeking to benefit from access to the Chinese market and cheap labour. These interests ultimately turned away when they were harmed by China’s policies since the late 2000s of promoting indigenous industries. China’s integration into the global economy fuelled uneven development in both China and the United States, creating deep structural interdependence between the two economies. As both capitalist economies encountered a crisis of overaccumulation, their ‘inter-imperial’ rivalry in the world economy overtook the interdependence of their relationship.

With the two economic constituencies being driven apart, the geopolitical rivalry between the countries also became more difficult to conciliate. In this view, the fundamental source of the ‘New Cold War’ is the ‘intercapitalist competition’ between China and the United States, rather than ideological differences. While Hung’s Marxian approach to US foreign policy is likely to receive pushback from those looking through different analytical lenses, his dissection of the global political economy calls for a radical rethinking of what kind of global economic order could help prevent future conflicts.

Hong Zhang: Your book provides great insights into the changing relations between the US and Chinese corporate sectors, which you argue underlie the changing political relations between the two states. What motivated you to develop this analysis and what received wisdom do you seek to challenge?

Ho-fung Hung: Many popular accounts of the deteriorating US–China relationship attribute the deterioration to ideological differences between democratic and authoritarian systems. These accounts are convenient justifications for politicians’ actions and policies. But we, as scholars, have the responsibility to look deeper beyond this obviously flawed account. If it is really only about the clash between democracy and authoritarianism, why were democratic America and authoritarian China in such a harmonious relationship in the 1990s and 2000s? Some would say Xi Jinping is much more dictatorial than his predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, so the difference has become more pronounced now. But is he? Deng Xiaoping mobilised the army to shoot protesting citizens and kept the Chinese Communist Party in power with tanks. Yet, the United States and the democratic world at large did not see Deng as too dictatorial to do business with. Throughout history, capitalist democratic countries have never shied away from doing business with and allying with dictators. The difference between democracy and authoritarianism never stands in the way. Why does this difference suddenly matter in US–China relations? Something deeper must be going on. My research and the book look for an answer to this question. To explore the plausible scenarios of US–China relations and look at what can be done to prevent the deteriorating relationship from becoming a catastrophe, we first need to figure out the underlying forces that bring us to the current state of affairs.

HZ: You made the point that the clash between the United States and China is one between two ‘empires’ and it is an ‘inter-imperial rivalry’. How do you understand the nature of the two ‘empires’? Given that China was a critical enabler of US empire-making while it also grew under the US-led system, as your analysis makes clear, how far can China go in its challenge to the US empire? Or, are they locked in a symbiotic relationship? Can decoupling happen?

HH: As I define in the book, ‘empire’ refers to any state with the ambition and capability to project its political and military power beyond its sovereign space. The United States as an established empire is mostly an ‘informal empire’ without as many formal colonies as the old British and French empires had. China is a junior, informal empire on the rise, and its official intellectuals have been ever more open in manifesting their imperial ambitions—using ‘empire’ as a positive word.

Socioeconomic integration between two empires would not prevent inter-imperial rivalry from happening and escalating. For this, a comparison with the UK–German rivalry in the early twentieth century is useful. In June 1914, a British economist made a keynote speech at the Royal Statistical Society, saying all the economic statistics suggested the British and German empires were intertwined in trade, investment, and everything else (Crammond 1914). He predicted that the United Kingdom and Germany would maintain this reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship, with Germany as a junior, up-and-coming partner, and that the two countries would not be embroiled in conflict. And we all know what happened just a few months later. In fact, the integration between the United Kingdom and Germany at that time was much deeper than the US–China integration today. The ruling elites of the two countries intermarried. The royal family of the British Empire, the House of Windsor (House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha before World War I), was half-German. The mother of the monarch of the German Empire, Wilhelm II, was British and was the eldest child of Queen Victoria. So, the ruling classes of the two countries on the eve of World War I were as integrated as if, say, a son of [US President Joe] Biden or [former president Donald] Trump was married to the daughter of Xi Jinping. Great Britain was also the biggest destination and source of German exports and imports on the eve of the Great War. But that level of integration did not prevent the two empires from going to war. The crushing weight of the imperatives of geopolitics and capital accumulation is simply too strong.

But there is a reason for optimism. Compared with turn-of-twentieth-century Germany, China today, though increasingly militarised and aggressive, is still far less militaristic than Germany back then (and less than Russia today, for that matter). Unlike nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germany, which had been frequently at war, China has not mobilised its army for a serious military conflict since its war with Vietnam in 1979. The last serious military mobilisation was 1989, when the People’s Liberation Army was used to quell domestic unrest. If the Party-State elite is rational (an increasingly big if, though), they should be very cautious in avoiding any serious military conflict with the United States. This becomes all the more obvious as Beijing watches Moscow’s military adventure in Ukraine devolving into a disaster for Russia. So, I stay optimistic that though the US–China rivalry is set to deteriorate, there is a fairly good chance it could be channeled to competition in global governing institutions, such as the World Health Organization, WTO, United Nations, etcetera, instead of a direct military conflict.

HZ: I notice that you approached the Chinese and US states differently. On the Chinese side, you have given the Party-State significant autonomy, as seen in your analysis of its cooptation of US corporate interests in the 1990s and its industrial policies and pursuit of a geopolitical agenda in the 2010s, which alienated US corporate actors. On the US side, however, you place the primary agency on the corporate actors; it is the aggregated preference of the corporate sector that ultimately determines US foreign policy orientation, while those forces based on geopolitical or ideological considerations are secondary in this picture. In a way, your portrait of the Chinese state is more Weberian and that of the US state more Marxian. Why such asymmetry?

HH: Yes. Every state has components that are more autonomous vis-a-vis corporations and components that are influenced or even captured by corporations or other dominant social groups. The relative prevalence of the two components varies from state to state.

Theda Skocpol (1985), in her introduction to the classic Bringing the State Back In (a book that brings the Weberian perspective of the state to North American social sciences), points out it was not an accident that the Weberian state-centric approach developed in Germany. It has something to do with the strong hand of the centralised state in Germany’s state formation, war-making, and industrial development process since Bismarck’s time. In contrast, the society-centric approach to the state—including the Marxian approach emphasising class and the pluralist approach (à la Robert Dahl) emphasising interest groups—has been dominant in the UK and US academia because the political systems there provide many access points for social groups to shape policy. The dominance of the society-centered approach in the United States and United Kingdom leads scholars to forget that certain key components of the state are highly autonomous and function along with a Weberian logic. The foreign policy apparatus is one such component of the state in the case of the United States, according to Skocpol.

The differences in the US and Chinese political systems resemble those in the US/UK–Germany contexts. The analysis of US–Chinese policy formation in Clash of Empires is not exactly Marxian, but Marxian–Weberian to be more precise. Following the Weberian imperative of sustaining US global power and prestige, the US foreign policy elite have set their sights on China as a geopolitical rival since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. But the other parts of the state that are central to the formation of economic policy—including the Treasury, the National Economic Council, and Congress—are more open to the influences of big corporations. In the 1990s and 2000s, US corporations influenced those components of the state to keep the confrontation tendency in the foreign policy establishment at bay. Only in the 2010s, when the corporate and geopolitical interests of the state aligned in favour of a confrontational posture toward China, did the United States’ China policy shift fully to confrontation.

In contrast, in China’s Party-State capitalist system, the economic and foreign policymaking process is highly centralised in the top echelon of the Party-State elite. Economic growth and profitability of enterprises are among the many considerations of the Party-State elite in their policymaking, but these considerations are all subjugated under the imperative of maintaining and expanding the power of the Party-State in China and in the world. Corporations, however well-connected politically, are at the disposal of the Party-State. Nothing is more illustrative of this than the development of China’s big-tech companies. The state cultivated them and helped them monopolise the Chinese market. But when the state feels they are a threat, it cracks down on them relentlessly. Corporate autonomous leverage on the state in China is simply incomparable with US corporate power vis-a-vis the state. This feature of the Chinese political economy, in which all imperatives are subjugated to the grand strategy of the Party-State, is meticulously analysed in Rush Doshi’s The Long Game (2021). But I did not have a chance to read the book until after I finished The Clash of Empires; otherwise, it would have been included in the references.

HZ: While your analysis has focused on corporate interests and other structural explanations, you seem to try to avoid structural determinism, as you allow room for political manoeuvres and circumstantial contingencies. Looking back on the past three decades, could you imagine an alternative history of US–China relations? In hindsight, were there better policy choices that could have been made?

HH: In my view, President Bill Clinton’s reversal of the policy that linked Chinese goods’ low tariff access to the US market to China’s human rights condition in 1994 was a mistake. It was not inevitable. As documented in the book, the Clinton administration was split on the issue, with the State Department and many congressional Democrats vowing to maintain the link, while the head of the newly created National Economic Council, Robert Rubin from Wall Street, was committed to severing the link. Also documented in the book is that major corporations in the United States at that time did not see China as a huge market yet. When the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect in 1994, globalisation at the time was much more about growing NAFTA into an all-American free-trade arrangement. It was the corporations mobilised by Beijing that lobbied keenly for the delinking. And Beijing won. Suppose the linkage had been maintained throughout the 1990s. In that case, it could have created larger pressure for Beijing to adopt more liberal changes at a time when there was a more liberal-leaning elite within the party and Beijing felt more vulnerable and was more open to outside influences. The opening of China, and hence US outsourcing to China, would have been more gradual, and China’s impact on the American working class would have been moderated. It is the path not taken.

The recent Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans all goods made in the Xinjiang region unless the exporters can prove no forced labour is used, is going back to the principle of Clinton’s China trade policy in 1993—that is, to link Chinese goods’ access to the US market to China’s human rights condition. But it is too late to create significant pressure to change China’s direction. Its most likely outcome will be an accelerating division of the world economy into two competing blocks—a process that many people call decoupling.

HZ: In the book you also express doubt about the ‘constructive engagement’ argument presented by the Clinton administration when it decided not to link the most-favoured nation status to China’s human rights conditions, arguing that by integrating China into the global trade system, it could also lead to the liberalisation of China’s political system. This has, of course, turned out to be a false hope, but do you think it was not even a genuine aspiration, but rather a cover for the policy driven by corporate interests?

HH: The idea that participation in the global trade system could automatically lead to political liberalisation is perhaps the most disingenuous pretext in modern political discourse. Throughout postwar history, so many dictatorships have thrived under the regime’s participation in global trade. From Pinochet’s Chile to Saudi Arabia, market capitalism never eroded the authoritarian system but helped sustain it. Market capitalism is perfectly adaptable to, if not favourable to, authoritarianism. The idea that economic engagement with China could promote political liberalisation is no more than a transparent attempt to cover for the Clinton administration’s 180-degree shift in its China policy in 1993–94 that Clash of Empires details (and mentioned above). In Clinton’s first year, the administration linked low tariff access of Chinese goods to the US market to China’s human rights conditions. After intense business lobbying, Clinton dropped the policy in 1994. Then the theory about the causal relation between free trade and political liberalisation was hastily cooked up to justify this drastic shift. The theory aims to make the shift look less like surrendering to corporate blackmail and more like a well-thought-out policy for the world’s good.

Most ironically, we did see this kind of ‘constructive engagement’ argument before, during the American Civil War. Many free-trade advocates and big businesses in the United Kingdom sympathised with the rebellious South and wanted to have continuous access to cheap cotton from the slave labour there. Their intellectual representatives of the time, including The Economist magazine and many liberal thinkers, devised the argument that if the UK supported the South and fought Abraham Lincoln—portrayed by many in the United Kingdom as a dictatorial anti–free-trade monster—then the United Kingdom would be able to persuade the independent Confederacy to abolish slavery gradually and peacefully. In retrospect, we all know that the argument was just a hypocritical cover for those British interests’ demand for cheap products from slave labour. It is a nineteenth-century version of the ‘constructive engagement’ theory.

HZ: While you believe the US–China rivalry will intensify in the years to come, at the end of the book, you still place hopes for averting a fatal conflict on the mediating role of global governing institutions and on the rebalancing of the Chinese and US economies. Are you hopeful that such rebalancing can happen? In China, we do start to hear more about redistribution or even ‘third distribution’, which might have been sidelined by mid 2022 as the urgent matter becomes maintaining growth in China’s economy, which has been crippled by Covid-19 lockdowns. In the United States, we also see the urge to bring back manufacturing jobs and to invest more in infrastructure, welfare, and the green economy. Do you think there are self-corrective mechanisms in each of the countries, and are they strong enough?

HH: As I discussed above, the fact that China has been much less militaristic than Germany a century ago is a reason for optimism. It is possible that intensifying US–China rivalry could be constricted to competition between the two countries in global governing institutions. But I am less optimistic about the internal rebalancing part. The Chinese Government has been talking about rebalancing the economy by boosting domestic household consumption through redistribution since at least the late 1990s. Zhu Rongji (Prime Minister from 1998 to 2003) talked about it in the aftermath of the 1997–98 Asian Financial Crisis, and Wen Jiabao (Prime Minister from 2003 to 2013) talked about it after the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The pattern is that whenever the economy runs into a global economic headwind, Beijing has tried to initiate a redistributive response and boost domestic household consumption. But redistribution did not happen each time, and the government eventually relied on the old trick of stimulating investment with more loans to prop up economic growth, as is happening now. This path wards off a temporary economic downturn but aggravates inequality and the imbalance of the economy in the long run. The recurrent stillbirth of redistributive policy is a result of the lack of institutional representation of workers and peasants in the policymaking process in China. Over the past two decades, one big developing country that achieved significant redistributive reform is Brazil under the presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–11), under the internationally acclaimed Bolsa Familia direct cash transfer program. It was instituted by a government elected by and representing the poor. Once in place, the program was so popular that even Jair Bolsonaro, who became President of Brazil in 2019, could not undo it. Compared with the political process in Brazil, you could not see many reasons why the Chinese Party-State elite, who were more connected to state-owned enterprises or politically well-connected private enterprises addicted to the borrow-and-invest model of expansion, would pursue any genuine redistributive reform seriously.

I am equally pessimistic about the rebalancing in the United States through the reshoring of industries. Manufacturing in the United States has enjoyed outsized profits by relying on foreign cheap labour for decades. With the trade war and Washington’s call for decoupling from China—and the decoupling is certainly going to accelerate after foreign enterprises experience China’s zero-Covid policy—will motivate US enterprises to reduce exposure to China. Most of them are not likely to come back to the United States. There may be some exceptions in the sectors deemed strategically so important that Washington would be willing to subsidise their coming back. Microchips and rare-earth mining could be two examples. But for the majority of the enterprises, decoupling from China would only mean relocation to other low-wage countries in Southeast and South Asia or other places in the developing world. So, as the imbalances in both the United States and China are not likely to subside, the urge to export capital and the intercapitalist competition between the two will only rise, resulting in the inevitable intensification of geopolitical rivalry in the years to come.

Chinese Soft Power: A Conversation with Maria Repnikova

Maria Repnikova’s new book, Chinese Soft Power (Cambridge University Press, 2022), examines China’s visions and practices of soft power. Repnikova starts by analysing Chinese academic writing and official speeches about soft power to grasp whether and how this concept has been transformed in the Chinese context. She then examines its practical implementation by focusing on key channels of China’s public diplomacy, including Confucius Institutes and Classrooms, global media expansion, education and training, and public diplomacy spectacles. In engaging with each of these soft-power mechanisms, Repnikova traces the official motivations behind them, as well as how they operate across global contexts. In particular, she argues that soft power carries different meanings in China, and further suggests that its application should not be seen through a binary lens of success or failure. Instead, we should treat Chinese initiatives as at once ambitious in scale and adaptive to local contexts, but also as contested or perceived with mixed credibility by global audiences.

Nicholas Loubere: Let’s start with the basics. What is soft power, where did it come from, and what is it about this arguably US-centric concept that has proven so attractive—or at least intriguing—to Chinese scholars and policymakers?

Maria Repnikova: Soft power is a concept originally coined by Joseph Nye, a Harvard professor and political scientist. He came up with it at the tail end of the Cold War as a way of reimagining the United States’ power in the international system. Unlike some scholars who argued at the time that the United States’ dominance in the international system was depleted during the Cold War, Nye called attention to what he saw as an untapped facet of American power—that of attractiveness rather than of military coercion or economic prowess. The resources of this ‘attractiveness’ that Nye articulated in his later work include foreign policy, values, and culture.

While the idea of soft power has gone through its ups and downs in the Washington establishment, it became associated with persisting US hegemony by its competitors, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, and of course, China. Most of these countries have also incorporated some version of soft power into their foreign policy strategy. China, I would argue, has been one of the most enthusiastic adopters. Over the past two decades, over 7,000 articles have been published on this topic in Chinese academic and policy journals, and the concept—along with its many Chinese variations like ‘discourse power’(话语权), ‘big power image’ (大国形象), and ‘cultural soft power’ (文化软实力)—is frequently invoked by the top Chinese leadership, including President Xi Jinping himself. This idea has been intriguing to Chinese scholars and policymakers for several reasons. First, soft power is associated with great-power status. A number of Chinese writings I have analysed for this book emphasise that, without soft power, China cannot fully realise its rise as a great power. Other than seeing it as intrinsic to reaching its global status and competing with the United States, soft power is seen as conducive to expanding China’s economic power—by softening the edge of its economic expansion or making it more palatable to global publics.

NL: How have Chinese thinkers adapted soft power for their own context and purposes? Can you give an example or two of how soft power has been operationalised in Chinese foreign policy?

MR: Chinese thinkers adapted or reinvented the concept of soft power in terms of the motivations or target audiences and the sources deployed in improving China’s image. First, unlike Nye’s original concept that primarily focuses on repairing and bolstering the United States’ image globally, and especially in specific regions where it has been hampered by US-led wars and military operations, in the Chinese context, soft power is aimed at both external and domestic audiences. Other than shaping a more favourable image of China, soft power is meant to facilitate cultural cohesiveness and pride within the country. Some Chinese writings invoke Xi Jinping’s term ‘cultural security’ (文化安全) in arguing that the Chinese public needs more protection or immunity from Western cultural influences. By witnessing China attain respect and admiration internationally, it is thought that the Chinese public will rally around Chinese culture and values, and thereby also inadvertently support the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

The second important distinction in how soft power is interpreted in China versus the West concerns the understanding of resources or the process of soft-power implementation. In Nye’s conceptual framing, as noted earlier, soft power is strictly distinguished from hard power or economic and military resources. Chinese thinkers, in contrast, critique the notion of strict boundaries between hard and soft power, and generally tend to see soft power as encompassing a wider range of instruments, including China’s traditional culture, values, and ideology, but also China’s governance model, political capacity, technological innovation, and more. Though the cultural soft-power school is dominant in Chinese academic literature, even the concept of culture is quite fluid, implicitly invoking politics or China’s political system.

NL: Through the lens of soft power, how do you think high-level Chinese policymakers perceive the inherently bottom-up and chaotic nature—or at least outside direct state control—of so much of China’s engagements with the world? For instance, irregular migration to Africa for resource extraction or entrepreneurialism that sometimes creates clashes with local populations.

MR: Ironically, Chinese scholars and officials often blame these irregular movements and actors for inhibiting China’s soft-power potential or for hurting China’s image. When asked why Chinese soft power faces pushback in certain countries in Africa and more broadly in the Global South, the responsibility is often attributed to nonstate actors who are behaving in an opportunistic manner and who are difficult to control. How Chinese embassies engage with nonstate actors and activities on the ground is a fertile area for future research. In my experience, I found that there was a sentiment of mutual suspicion between them whereby private companies (and individuals) would also distance themselves from the embassy, shying away from what they see as unnecessary and at times unhelpful attention from Chinese officials.

NL: How do we understand Chinese soft-power efforts that are seemingly ineffective or even counterproductive—such as the Confucius Institutes that have been involved in numerous scandals? What is the internal logic of these kinds of initiatives and who are the main targets of their attempt to garner soft power?

MR: With regard to Confucius Institute scandals, part of the problem is less to do with China … and more to do with pre-existing deep-seated suspicions of China and CCP-sponsored education initiatives in the West. Hubbert (2019) writes about this convincingly in her book: the fact that even apolitical narratives in Confucius Institutes in America would be seen as political or as forms of self-censorship by American students, or as China attempting to hide something. We see more China-inflicted soft-power scandals in the domain of assertive digital diplomacy—now commonly referred to as ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy. Chinese diplomats, including spokespeople for the Foreign Ministry, increasingly make brazen remarks about the West, at times spreading disinformation, as in the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine. Chinese officials like Zhao Lijian, for instance, spread Russia-invoked theories about American biolabs in Ukraine and cast doubt on the widely documented massacre carried out by Russian forces in Bucha. When it comes to these offensive statements, they appear to target primarily domestic audiences: the leaders within the bureaucratic system, but also the larger public that often gets access to these statements through translated posts disseminated on Weibo (often via state media outlets like the Global Times). Offensive digital diplomacy, in my view, best encapsulates the friction between the dual audiences of Chinese soft power: as the Chinese officials appear to speak to domestic audiences via global communication platforms, they are also alienating international publics, especially in Western countries.

NL: You highlight the way that ‘the spectacle’ of high-profile events plays a key role in China’s attempts to construct its national image. How is spectacle conceived of in the Chinese context and what can we learn from the most recent spectacle of the Winter Olympics?

MR: The spectacle in the Chinese context in some ways is conceived of as a grand, state-orchestrated, and meticulously implemented event that is meant to boost the image of China and the CCP internationally and domestically. In observing large-scale events like the Olympics, but also smaller-scale trade fares and Global South forums, it is notable how these spectacles tend to blur China’s cultural and material power. They at once showcase China’s traditional culture and ancient civilisation, while also highlighting China’s modernity, as well as economic and technological prowess. The audiences of these spectacles are as much global as local. It was fascinating to visit the China–Africa Trade Forum in Hunan Province in 2019—the first forum of this kind to take place in China and an event that was widely advertised by Hunan officials during their visit to Ethiopia in spring 2019. The event was promoted to Africans as an opportunity to explore China’s market and as China’s attempt at equalising trade flows between China and Africa. In attending the trade forum, I found African national booths placed alongside China’s provincial booths largely frequented by Changsha residents. The provincial booths advertised China’s economic development projects, as well as provincial cultural heritage. In the context of the Winter Olympics, the biggest audience was also that of Chinese nationals, even though the event was broadcast around the world.

Though these major spectacles, especially on the scale of the Olympics, require major investments from the Chinese Government, their implications for China’s international image are ambiguous. After the 2008 Olympics, for instance, the favourability of China in major industrialised democracies has declined. I don’t expect major spikes in China’s popularity after these recent Games. If anything, the Olympics now feel far away in the context of Russia’s brutal war in Ukraine—a war in which China is criticised for being on the ‘wrong side of history’.


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