SINOGRAPH Too many cooks spoil foreign-policy stew
By Francesco Sisci
BEIJING - In just a few days, the presidents of the United States and China,
Barack Obama and Hu Jintao, will meet in Washington for a summit that's bound
to be labeled "historic", as the two will try to mend fences after a year of
stormy relations. They are the final decision-makers, the ones who call the
shots over their countries' foreign policies.
Still, in authoritarian China, despite all the clout Hu might have, foreign
policy - unlike finance, industry, coal mining, etc - is not a brief with
clear-cut responsibilities and decisions do not depend on the ultimate nod of
The Foreign Ministry is involved in decisions on foreign policy, but
everybody knows that the military's perspective counts for more. The People's
Liberation Army (PLA) is not just a ministry; it is a state within the state
with sprawling interests at home and abroad.
Furthermore, there is the intelligence apparatus, the fearsome Ministry of
State Security (Anquan Bu), whose brand-new offices symbolically tower over the
east side of Tiananmen Square, China's political heart. Moreover, there is the
Party Foreign Department (Zhonglian Bu), once an institution bigger than the
Foreign Ministry that was dedicated to relations with other communist parties,
and now surviving with confused and confusing assignments - yet it can't be
ignored. Nor can the United Front be ignored: with responsibilities related to
ethnic Chinese abroad and religions, issues like ties with the Holy See and
Taiwan fall into its lap.
There was once an easy, traditional and institutional non-division of labor
regarding foreign policy, but then globalization brought up the interests of
other formerly inward-looking ministries. There is the Ministry of Commerce,
presiding over the huge interest group of surplus traders, whose gigantic
earnings gain them huge clout in domestic decision-making. There is also the
Central Bank, whose effort to fight off revaluation and to sterilize trillions
of dollars make it a big player in policy decisions. The Ministry of Finance,
tied with the two previous ministries, can't be ignored, and the Ministry of
Environment has gained global attention as China exports pollution as well as
Following these institutional interests, there is concern from dozens of large
and small companies with investments abroad. State oil companies, presided over
by deputy ministers and pumping in billions of yuan in profits for themselves
and for China, can't be ignored as they represent a crucial hub of energy
security for the country. Neither can all other companies, trying to find a
place in the world, be neglected.
Last but not least, information and propaganda is also an integral part of
foreign policy, and the crucial Publicity Department projects China's image
abroad. Under this, more or less loosely, fall the increasingly divergent
voices of Chinese intellectuals, some hawks and some doves, who also push the
Chinese boat in one direction or another.
In sum, among the nine members of the politburo standing committee, all nine
have a voice and a particular stake in foreign policy. Zhou Yongkang, in charge
of security, is fundamental in it. Li Changchun is in charge of propaganda, so
has a say in China's foreign policy. Li Keqiang, sitting over finance and
industry, can't ignore foreign affairs. Xi Jinping, vice chairman of the PLA
commission, has a hand in it, too, as does Jia Qinglin, ultimately responsible
for religion and Taiwan. Wen Jiabao, presiding over the whole economy, is also
an important part of the game. When everybody else is involved how can He
Guoqiang, chief of party discipline, and Wu Bangguo, head of the parliament,
not utter their opinions?
In fact, China's economic size, population and speed of change are such that
all its domestic decisions have global relevance. Everything domestic is by
itself important to the rest of the world, and it will be even more so as its
economic and political size grows in the future. China can no longer think of
its domestic issues as only its own concern.
When last year in Mexico Vice President Xi Jinping said that China's great
contribution to the world was to take care of over one-fifth of the world's
population without allowing its problems to spill abroad, in fact he was
revealing another side, too: anything decided by this population - more or less
houses, more or less cars, more or less meat or grain for food - has a global
impact that the world can't ignore.
So, as with domestic policies, Hu is the coordinator and the most important man
in the field, but in the Chinese style of division of powers and
responsibilities, he is not the only decision-maker. Most likely, he has to
negotiate every decision with all the other major players.
These broad responsibilities in foreign policy are not something new to China
after the demise of paramount leaders like Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. The
scattered accountability worked well when China was out of the limelight of
global foreign politics. Every sector looked after its own interests with some
kind of loose coordination and then reacted to inputs.
Long-term policies were decided and carried out by the president but were not
subject to constant pressure and daily challenges with different, diverging
requests from all over the world. Loosely reacting to daily disputes and
holding the long-term helm steady was enough. And it was enough to concentrate
and react once in a while to sudden shocks, like the 2001 landing of the US
surveillance plane EP3 on Hainan Island.
All of this changed when China became the number-two global economy, and
foreigners and Chinese alike braved the idea of a Group of 2 with America. Then
everything in China came under greater scrutiny, and the country gained special
weight in the world.
China had sentenced dissidents in the past - not just Liu Xiaobo, who was later
awarded a Nobel Peace Prize; it had had many controversies about the Internet -
not only with Google. It dragged its feet on the environment earlier, and it
shielded North Korea before without being singled out and burned at the stake
But China's new size and status, coupled with the drop in global attention to
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, made some Chinese behavior, which in the past was
almost ordinary, now much less acceptable. China in the future can no longer
behave like some second-rate country, just as when a big, grown-up man yells it
is scary and objectively dangerous, while a kid screaming can be just a
However, there are many difficulties given China's present situation.
In big countries like America, official decisions and public opinion are
separated. Official decisions are very cautious and public voices can be loud
and strident. In the Chinese "comprehensive" system, conversely, there is
little difference between the official central government opinion and voices
uttered by government-controlled newspapers.
This is a further complication of foreign affairs in the Chinese system: there
are too many opinions and too many people involved in the foreign affairs
decision-making process and far too many constituencies to be considered, while
on the outside there is only one voice. This voice then is bound to be the
least controversial, the most traditional, and the least innovative for the
domestic constituency - the most conservative available.
Yet, China can no longer simply react to foreign actions and pushes. It has to
be proactive. Because of its new global role and position, it is required to
have new high profile with positive, imaginative, and nimble initiatives, but
its system can't cope with it.
Nobody can make sudden decisions and move fast on challenges coming from all
over the world. Some things can wait but some need immediate responses, and
looming challenges should be met before they have time to gain momentum and
become too big to be dealt with. The cumbersome Chinese unaccountability system
makes it impossible to have a proactive decision-making process.
Then, the question is, how much leeway will Hu have in talks with Obama? How
free will Hu be in talks with his American colleague to impress or be
Here there are two separate issues: one is the general reform of the
decision-making process in China's foreign affairs to make it more efficient,
and the other is the leeway the Chinese president has or should have in China.
The short-term solution for the present quandary with the Obama summit, is
great preparation. Beijing will possibly try to prepare very well and very
comprehensively to make sure the meeting will be a success. The structural
changes of Chinese policy will have to wait, as they might be part of some of
the urgent broader political reforms China is awaiting in the next few years.
Francesco Sisci is the Asia Editor of La Stampa. His e-mail is