China’s ‘New world order’? What Xi Jinping actually said about guiding international affairs

Quartz reported yesterday that Chinese President “Xi Jinping has vowed for the first time that China should take the lead in shaping the ‘new world order.’” While Xi’s speech is worthy of attention, this eye-catching framing of his remarks and some of the online discussion among observers may have gone too far.

Xi spoke at a seminar on national security, and Quartz points to a typical Xinhua paraphrased summary of the speech and a commentary on a Central Party School-linked website that includes direct quotes.

Taken as a whole, the documents do not so far indicate a strong statement that China’s government has decided to attempt leadership of a “new world order.”

First, the connotation of a new world order in English has a radical character that is not necessarily present in the Chinese 国际新秩序, which could more soberly be translated as “new international order.” (Tangentially, here’s an aging compilation of People’s Daily forum posts on “China’s rise and a new international order.”)

Second, Xi did not unambiguously say China would lead the new international order, but instead said it must “guide international society to collectively shape a more just and rational new international order.” While the Chinese term  引导 can be translated as “lead,” there are several other words Xi could have used if that meaning were really intended; thus as Quartz also translates it elsewhere in the article, “guide” is probably more appropriate.

Third, Xi’s other reported remarks significantly clarify his intended meaning. In the following quote (with my translation) from the commentary, he explicitly echoes the Chinese government’s standard position that its goal is not to replace the existing order but instead to affect its reform and development:

关于国际秩序,习近平指出:“改革和完善现行国际体系,不意味着另起炉灶,而是要推动它朝着更加公正合理的方向发展。中国提出的‘一带一路’、亚洲基础设施投资银行倡议,都是开放、透明、包容的,有利于有关国家发展经济,增加就业,减少贫困,欢迎包括美方在内的有关各方积极参与。”
About the international order, Xi Jinping said: “Reforming and perfecting the existing international system does not mean starting over. It means pushing it to develop in a more just and rational direction. China’s Belt and Road and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiatives are both open, transparent, inclusive, and beneficial to relevant countries’ economic development, employment, and poverty alleviation. And they welcome positive participation by other parties including the United States.

None of this is to say China’s government will not seek to increase its international status and comparative leadership power. The Quartz article was also right to draw attention to these remarks, including the new “two guides” formulation (see below). Still, Xi Jinping’s remarks and actions so far during this period of deep uncertainty about U.S. policy and the fate of the European Union, while worthy of close attention, do not constitute a declaration of China’s intention to reshape the international system.

Although the polished words of top leaders by no means reveal every level of a government’s intentions, “the two guides” in fact suggest a mixed role for China: participant, defender (especially in international security), and proactive reformer in the existing international system:

2月17日,习近平在国家安全工作座谈会上指出,“要引导国际社会共同塑造更加公正合理的国际新秩序” “引导国际社会共同维护国际安全”。
On February 17, at a seminar on national security work, Xi Jinping said: “[China] must guide international society to collectively shape a more just and rational new international order” and “guide international society to collectively safeguard international security.”

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My hasty translations of the other direct quotes in the commentary follow:

习近平指出:“中国是现行国际体系的参与者、建设者、贡献者,同时也是受益者。
Xi Jinping said: “China is a current participant in, builder of, and contributor to the international system, of which it is also a beneficiary.”

习近平指出:“当今世界是一个变革的世界,是一个新机遇新挑战层出不穷的世界,是一个国际体系和国际秩序深度调整的世界,是一个国际力量对比深刻变化并朝着有利于和平与发展方向变化的世界。”
Xi Jinping said: “Today’s world is a changing world, a world of constantly emerging new opportunities and new challenges, a world of profound adjustments in the international system and international order, a world of profound changes in comparative power among countries, a world changing toward beneficial peace and development.”

习近平指出:“人类正处在大发展大变革大调整时期,也正处在一个挑战层出不穷、风险日益增多的时代。回首过去100多年的历史,全人类的共同愿望,就是和平与发展。宇宙只有一个地球,人类共有一个家园。让和平的薪火代代相传,让发展的动力源源不断,让文明的光芒熠熠生辉,是各国人民的期待,也是我们这一代政治家应有的担当。中国方案是:构建人类命运共同体,实现共赢共享。”
Xi Jinping said: “Humanity stands at a moment of great development, great change, and great changes, an era of constantly emerging challenges and multiplying risks. Looking back at the past 100 years of history, the common wish of humanity has been peace and development. The universe has only one Earth, and humanity has only one home. It is every people’s hope and the charge of statesmen of our time to pass the torch of peace from one generation to the next, to ensure the steady flow of development, and to let the radiant light of civilization shine. China’s project is to construct a human community of common destiny and achieve common gain and common enjoyment.”