Think Tank (4/2023)
Dr Zhao Suisheng
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The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy
27 Jul 2023
Tiong Wei Jie

RSIS hosted a seminar titled “The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy” on 27 July 2023. The seminar was chaired by Dr Li Mingjiang, Associate Professor and Provost’s Chair in International Relations at RSIS. The speaker, Dr Zhao Suisheng, is Professor and Director of the Centre for China-US Cooperation at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver.

Dr Zhao started by giving a brief overview on the dramatic shifts in China’s foreign policy since its founding in 1949 and the key roles played by each transformational leader: Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping. He highlighted how Chinese foreign policies defy conventional International Relations theory such as structural realism and regime type theory. This puzzle, he argued, points to the important role played by transformational leaders.

Dr Zhao then focused on the process of Xi’s power concentration and its implications for Chinese foreign policy. He shared three main triggers for Xi’s power concentration: (i) dissatisfaction among Chinese political elites with Hu Jintao’s leadership style, (ii) a series of high-profile scandals involving Xi’s political rivals, and (iii) rising nationalist aspirations. In this context, Xi obtained elite consensus that China needed a strong and visionary leader. Xi was then able to launch a sweeping anti-corruption campaign and institutionalise a system which concentrated his power. On the latter, Dr Zhao elaborated on how Xi restructured top-level policy coordination bodies and prioritised political loyalty over professionalisation in its foreign policy and military institutions. Three broad implications were shared: (i) changing incentive structure of Chinese diplomat, (ii) elevation of security issues as a top priority as compared to economic development, and (iii) a lack of critical voice among political elites.

During the Q&A session, members of the audience, comprised of academics, students, and members of the public, raised pertinent questions regarding the trajectory of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy approach and China’s international relations. Specifically, the state and prospect of US-China relations were actively discussed. Other issues raised include: the implications of Xi Jinping’s institutional restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the extent to which political debates are stifled under Xi, and whether there are adequate institutional channels for Xi to obtain a clear grasp of ground realities.

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