The announcement of China’s far-reaching military reform package on 1 January 2016 set off an avalanche of news reports and scholarly debate. Amid disagreements over the motivations behind the reform initiative and its possible consequences, a dominant narrative quickly took shape: the structural changes to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) amount to a radical break with the past.
The world is in turmoil. Islamist terrorist attacks hit France, Indonesia, Somalia, Burkina Faso; the Syrian civil war continues unabated; North Korea tests another nuclear bomb. The United States can and will no longer lead the way in solving all these crises, and the consequences of this void are not exactly reassuring, especially not for China. Rather than transitioning from a Pax Americana to the much-touted Chinese vision of a multipolar world, the global order seems to be falling apart.
The results of China’s changing R&D profile are evident in high-profile state-led projects such as China’s space, fast rail and commercial airliner programs, which admittedly face their share of obstacles.
Weaning China off dependence on foreign knowledge is a long-standing goal of China’s leadership, embodied in successive policies to promote technology transfer, research output and patent filings. China’s president Xi Jinping recently declared that “the situation of our nation being under others' control in core technologies of key fields has not changed fundamentally, and the country's S&T foundation remains weak.”
We’ve tended to view Chinese policy and politics through the prism of guanxi (connections) and factions—somewhat specialized “China” categories that help us make sense of the black box of Chinese leadership politics. But are we relying too heavily on terms like “guanxi” and “factions,” preventing us from thinking about Chinese politics in a more cross-cutting, relevant way?