PhD student Kacie Miura on the domestic roots of Chinese assertiveness

  • Spring 2019
The domestic roots of Chinese assertiveness

Kacie Miura explores China's initial shift to a more assertive foreign policy, which started under the leadership of Hu Jintao, and which Xi continues today.

SPRING 2019 : précis Student Feature
Kacie Miura
May 14, 2019

Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China's international behavior is widely seen as growing more "assertive," especially with projects like its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative and massive land reclamation projects on disputed features in the South China Sea.1 However, while Xi has accelerated China's turn toward a more muscular foreign policy, this trend in China's international behavior predates his leadership by half a decade. What explains China's initial shift to a more assertive foreign policy, which started under the leadership of Hu Jintao, and which Xi continues today? As US-China relations have deteriorated, it has become all too easy to attribute China's foreign policy behavior to hostile or revisionist intentions. Doing so, however, risks exacerbating spiral dynamics that cut to the core of the security dilemma between the two states.2

The conventional wisdom among the "China-watching" community is that, following the 2008-09 financial crisis, Beijing jettisoned its status quo-oriented foreign policy in favor of an approach that would better reflect its rise and the US's decline.3 However, this explanation raises the question of why a sudden acceleration in China's relative rise would lead Beijing to adopt a more strident foreign policy. The answer can be found in simultaneous changes in China's domestic politics. Under Hu Jintao, a left-leaning coalition gained prominence, as did bureaucratic actors who championed this coalition’s nationalist and populist policy preferences. This shift in coalitional politics continues to contribute to China's foreign policy assertiveness today.

A coalitional shift in power

When Hu Jintao took power in 2002, elite politics were dominated by an internationalist coalition that had risen under Hu's predecessor, Jiang Zemin. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect behind the opening and reform policies of the 1980s, handpicked Jiang to succeed him on the condition that Jiang continue China's liberal economic reforms.4 Jiang consolidated his power in the early 1990s by appointing loyal technocrats from his home base of Shanghai, including many who had expertise in trade and foreign affairs.5 Chief among these technocrats was Premier Zhu Rongji, the former Shanghai party secretary. Zhu's appearance at MIT in April 1999 encapsulates the foreign policy program of the internationalist coalition: acknowledging "disturbances"; in US-China relations, but emphasizing the importance of a "friendly cooperative relationship"; and promising that China would "never be a threat to the United States."6 Zhu's remarks reflected the Chinese leadership's emphasis on a stable external environment and positive relations with the United States in order to fuel China's rapid economic growth.

During Hu Jintao's presidency, from 2002 to 2012, the coalitional balance of power tilted noticeably leftward. This shift, however, did not happen overnight. Hu inherited a Politburo Standing Committee stacked with Jiang’s acolytes.7 To counterbalance Jiang's influence, Hu drew support from the emerging nationalist-populist coalition, which blamed China';s rising income inequality and other social ills on the liberal market reforms of the Deng and Jiang eras.8 Although Hu refrained from aligning entirely with the leftist coalition, he selectively catered to their concerns. Most notably, he promoted a doctrine based on building "a socialist harmonious society."9 For Hu, aligning with the left on key issues made sense, given that he and his closest associates rose through the ranks of the Communist Youth League, which tends to produce cadres who specialize in party affairs and who have work experience in China's poorer, inland provinces.10

Hu's coalition, which received a boost when Jiang’s faction was sidelined at the 17th Party Congress in 2007, became even more influential following the 2008-09 financial crisis.11 "New Left" scholars, who provided the intellectual basis for the leftist coalition, triumphantly pointed to the financial crisis as an example of the follies of market capitalism.12 They instead praised the virtues of the "Chongqing model" of heavy-handed state interventions in the local economy spearheaded by municipal party boss Bo Xilai.13 As Cheng Li observed in the wake of the crisis, although factional competition has long been a feature of Chinese politics, "for the first time we now see a situation in which two factions, or coalitions, share power and influence."14

Foreign policy under pressure from the left

The leftist coalition's growing influence in elite politics under Hu Jintao's leadership had important implications for China's foreign policy. Leftist voices thrived as the breadth of bureaucratic actors involved in China's foreign policy process expanded. Inward-oriented actors like the energy sector became increasingly active participants in China's diplomatic affairs, opposing Western-led efforts to impose multilateral sanctions against certain oil-rich regimes.15 The rising influence of non-traditional foreign policy actors came at the expense of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has long sought to guard China's international image and promote cooperative relations with the US and regional countries.16

During this period, the Chinese public sphere also became substantially more vibrant, with commercial and social media playing an unprecedented role in shaping public opinion, including on foreign policy issues. Leftist nationalists took to criticizing the strategic concept of "peaceful rise," which Hu endorsed early on. They also raised opposition to China's long-held foreign policy doctrine of "keeping a low profile," which they regarded as overly accommodating to the United States.17 Vocal military hawks similarly deployed the language of nationalism in the public sphere to advance their parochial interests.18 As Da Wei, a leading Beijing-based foreign policy expert observed, under "this pressure from public opinion, or perhaps 'imagined public opinion,' government departments refuse to be seen as too soft when making policy decisions"19

This more nationalistic, leftist turn in domestic politics heightened the risks for the Hu administration of appearing weak in interactions with the United States. The leftists had helped Hu by serving as a counterweight to the internationalist technocrats loyal to Jiang Zemin. Yet toward the end of Hu’s time in office, it became clear that the leftists enjoyed support from powerful new rivals to Hu, such as Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai.20

Continued assertiveness under Xi Jinping

In October 2012, Xi Jinping inherited a party divided by a major scandal that culminated in the purge of Bo Xilai under the pretense of corruption charges.21 Xi moved quickly to rid the party of threats to his leadership, launching an anti-corruption campaign that has since ensnared multiple senior officials.22 Xi also took measures to recentralize China’s foreign policy-making process.23 The bold measures that Xi has taken to consolidate power have contributed to his reputation as a strong leader who is fully in control of China’s domestic and foreign policies.24 Despite the appearance of strength, Xi cannot afford to ignore the interests of China’s competing coalitions any more than Hu could before him. Through his expansive anti-corruption campaign, Xi has created enemies among both the internationalists and the leftists, raising the stakes of satisfying the demands of each. 

His efforts to play to both camps are reflected by his simultaneous promotion of two very different strategic concepts. On the one hand, Xi has promoted a “new model of great power relations,” a formulation that advances internationalist preferences for limiting detrimental competition and promoting cooperation with the United States.25 On the other hand, Xi has championed the “China dream,” which plays to leftist calls for national rejuvenation and less deference to the West. We can thus expect a continuation of assertive foreign policy behavior paired with compensatory efforts to keep China’s foreign relations with the West stable. Chinese assertiveness is in many ways an outgrowth of internal political pressures, and not necessarily due to hostile or revisionist intentions. If the US persists in basing China policy on shaky assumptions about Beijing’s intentions, it risks adopting foreign policies that will only exacerbate the spiraling competition that now characterizes US-China relations. 

1 Andrew Chatzky and James McBride, “China’s Massive Belt and Road Initiative,” Council on Foreign Relations, February 21, 2019,; “Xi Jinping Promises More Assertive Chinese Foreign Policy,” Financial Times, March 20, 2018.

2 For more on how bureaucratic politics in the US and China interact in ways that exacerbate the security dilemma, see: Kacie Miura and Rachel Esplin Odell, The Second Image Squared: The Interactive Effects of Bureaucratic Politics in US-China Relations, 2009-2016,” Working Paper (2019). For more on spiral dynamics between the US and China in the South China Sea, see: M. Taylor Fravel and Kacie Miura, “Stormy Seas: The South China Sea in US-China Relations,” Working Paper (2019).

3 Thomas Christensen, “The Advantages of an Assertive China,” Foreign Affairs, February 21, 2011,

4 Ezra Vogel, Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China (Harvard University Press, 2011), p. 669.

5 Cheng Li and Lynn White, “The Fifteenth Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party: Full-Fledged Technocratic Leadership,” Asian Survey (1998), Vol. 38, No. 3.

6 “Transcript of Premier Zhu Rongji’s Speech at MIT,” MIT News, April 15, 1999,

7 Wang Zhengxu, “Hu Jintao’s Power Consolidation: Groups, Institutions, and Power,” Issues & Studies (2006), Vol. 42, No. 4, p. 99.

8 Susan Shirk, China: Fragile Superpower (Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 51-2. Shirk describes this reasoning for Hu’s tilt to the left as the “dominant theory,” but acknowledges that “no one can point to any visible evidence of this challenge.”

9 CPC Session Concludes, Elevating Social Harmony,” Xinhua, October 11, 2006, accessed at:

10 Cheng Li, “Hu’s Policy Shift and the Tuanpai’s Coming-of-Age,” Cheng Li, China Leadership Monitor (2005), No. 15.

11 Bo Zhiyue and Chen Gang, “Ascendance of China’s New Left Amidst the Global Financial Crisis,” Zheng Yongnian and Sarah Yueting Tong, eds., China and the Global Economic Crisis (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing, 2010), p. 241.

12 Charles W. Freeman III and Wen Jin Yuan, “China’s New Leftists and the China Model Debate after the Financial Crisis,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 2011.

13 Joseph Fewsmith, “Bo Xilai and Reform: What Will Be the Impact of His Removal?” China Leadership Monitor (2012), No. 38.   

14 “One Party, Two Coalitions in China’s Politics,” Brookings Institute, August 16, 2009,

15 Richard McGregor, “Chinese Diplomacy ‘Hijacked’ by Big Companies, Financial Times, March 16, 2008,

16 Jing Sun, “Growing Diplomacy, Retreating Diplomats – How the Chinese Foreign Ministry has been Marginalized in Foreign Policymaking,” Journal of Contemporary China (2017), Vol. 26, No. 105.

17 Robert Suettinger “The Rise and Descent of ‘Peaceful Rise’,” China Leadership Monitor (2004), No. 12; Yan Xuetong, “From Keeping a Low Profile to Striving for Achievement,” The Chinese Journal of International Politics (2014), Vol. 7, No. 2.

18 Andrew Scobell and Scott W. Harold, “An ‘Assertive’ China? Insights from Interviews,” Asian Survey (2013), Vol. 9, No. 2, p. 117; Michael Swaine, “China’s Assertive Behavior Part Three: The Role of the Military in Foreign Policy,” China Leadership Monitor (2012), No. 36. 

19 Da Wei, “Has China Really Become Tough?” China Security (2011), Vol. 6, No. 3.

20 Joseph Fewsmith, “Bo Xilai and Reform: What Will Be the Impact of His Removal?”

21 For more on the political motivations for and implications of Bo’s removal, see Ibid

22 “Charting China’s ‘Great Purge’ Under Xi,” BBC, October 23, 2017,

23 “Xi Stresses Centralized, Unified Leadership of CPC Central Committee over Foreign Affairs,” Xinhua, May 15, 2018,

24 In 2018, Forbes even named Xi Jinping the “world’s most powerful person.” “The World’s Most Powerful People 2018,” Forbes, May 8, 2018, 2018/05/08/the-worlds-most-powerful-people-2018/#8fcafc76c472.

25 Yuan Peng, “Guanyu Goujian ZhongMei Xinxing Daguo Guanxi de Zhanlue Sikao,” Xiandai Guoji Guanxi (2012), No. 5, p. 5.