Webinar on “How to Understand China: Civilization or Socialism?”

In this webinar, Professor William A. Callahan examines how Socialism guides policy-making in China, and considers how it impacts China’s view of Southeast Asia,


Tuesday, 13 April 2021 – In a webinar at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute titled “How to Understand China: Civilization or Socialism?”, Professor William A. Callahan discussed how China sees itself and its role in the world order. A professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, Professor Callahan is currently a Taiwan Foundation for Democracy Fellow at the National Taiwan University.

Professor William Callahan
Professor William Callahan explained that Chinese exceptionalism does not merely imply that China is different, but that it is also superior. Mr Lye Liang Fook moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Professor Callahan began by describing the popular trend among many China observers of trying to understand the country’s foreign policy in terms of classical Chinese ideas, including the notion of ancient China as a “peaceful civilisation”. However, Professor Callahan argued that such an approach ignores the violence occurring in ancient Chinese polities and assumes an unbroken continuity between ancient Chinese thought and contemporary developments. Instead, he suggested that neo-socialism—and particularly China’s “messy experience” with the ideology in the 20th century—is the tradition that guides the country’s foreign policy.  

Professor Callahan clarified that neo-socialism, which is predicated on having a capitalist economy under a socialist mode of governance, is not a pure ideological distillation of socialism, but rather “a way of doing things” that has been shaped by the lived experiences of the Chinese leadership and concepts such as the importance of collectivism, loyalty, discipline and having a strong state led by strong party. More significantly, under neo-socialism, everything is seen as a struggle between friends and enemies, which also informs China’s view of the world. This means that Chinese leaders conceive global politics as an existential struggle, in which the rise of China will require the fall of the United States in particular and the West in general. 

Professor Callahan also explained that Chinese exceptionalism, grounded in the perception that China is an “exemplary socialist state”, does not merely imply that China is different, but that it is also superior. This contributes to the belief that the “China solution” provides the blueprint for addressing global problems and that China’s unique experiences should shape global governance norms and institutions. 

As such, Professor Callahan contended that it was important to understand Chinese foreign policy through China’s lived experiences in the 20th century, rather than looking at ancient Chinese ideas of peace and harmony. In particular, scholars and observers should recognise that China fundamentally views global politics in terms of “a perpetual struggle for dominance”.

Professor Callahan also briefly discussed China’s “shallow understanding” of the politics, history and culture of Southeast Asia. The region is “a site for [China’s] united front work” due to the presence of the overseas Chinese, but China ultimately fails to recognise that ethnic Chinese residents of the region are able to distinguish between their cultural identities and national loyalties. Furthermore, China has a tendency to view Southeast Asian countries as “pawns” in its great power competition with the United States. 

Professor Callahan later addressed questions from the audience, such as how China balances its domestic priorities with its global leadership aspirations, whether China’s “neo-socialism” will outlast President Xi Jinping as well as the role of Han chauvinism, Confucianism and developmentalism in Chinese foreign policy thinking. The webinar was attended by 137 participants from Singapore and abroad.

Almost 140 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)