BUSINESS OF ASIA: Five personalities of China

Jason Yat-sen Li on how China’s identity and actions can be understood through five paradigms

By Louise Mao, Asia Society Australia

November 6, 2015 - SYDNEY

At a luncheon briefing with the Asia Society corporate members, Jason Yatsen-Li, Chairman of Vantage Group Asia and Director of China Policy, presented a multi-faceted approach to understanding China’s rise as a superpower and the implications for Australia.

China’s identity and actions can be understood through a framework of five paradigms, ‘personalities’ or ‘flavours’ which exert themselves in different context, often in combination.

  1. First and foremost, China is the ‘self-sufficient civilization’, which draws on ideas of exceptionalism and holds that China’s civilisational power means it is the creator of its own norms, rather than subject to international norms. It is this narrative that underpins China’s position on sovereignty issues including Taiwan, Tibet and the South China Sea.
  2. Secondly, China is the ‘sovereign survivor’, a communist regime where previous ones have crumbled that places political stability and the continuing supremacy of the Communist Party at the apex of its national interests.
  3. In fact, as in recent years, Western democracies and economies have struggled, China began to see itself, and to be seen as the “Last Man Standing”, the source of a seemingly more successful governance model delivering political stability and economic growth.
  4. In a similar vein, China may also be seen as the ‘leader of the developing world’, a role that encapsulates its investments in building the infrastructure and markets of developing countries, but also alignment with those countries in multilateral forums, such as the Copenhagen Climate Conference in 2010.
  5. China’s fifth personality, the ‘herald of the high frontier’ alludes to China as a responsible stakeholder and assuming a genuine leadership role in the global community; China as a provider of international public goods. Indeed, China has recently attempted to characterized its island-building in the South China sea as an attempt to provide international public goods in the form of a base for disaster and humanitarian relief; whereas skeptics are more likely to see those activities as an assertion of Chinese historical sovereignty (Self Sufficient Civilisation).

However, the clash of some realities with these stylised ‘personalities’ can undermine the state as it navigates its future. One such tension is the need for economic liberalisation, even as the Chinese leadership tightens its political control and cracks down on dissenters. The Chinese preference for Western goods, which are perceived to be higher in quality, also undermines the narrative of the ‘self-sufficient civilization’. Furthermore, the trust deficit between different groups in society, between the Chinese people and their government, and between China and other international actors is a pervasive problem.

In this sense, the genuine building of trust should be the foundation for Australia’s and Australian political and business engagement with China, an engagement where Australian organizations would we well advised to make better use of a most valuable resource that is readily available to them: Australians of Chinese background.

This Asia Society briefing was proudly hosted by Deloitte as part of our ‘Business of Asia’ series, which connects members with entrepreneurs and leaders of some of Australia and Asia’s major enterprises, who share unique insights on their companies’ successes and challenges in the Asian Century.