A critical assessment of the nature of China’s foreign policy, as reflected by its military development/strategy since 2010.

China’s foreign policy is influenced by its economic priorities, nationalism and its external environment. All three interact with one another, over time evolving and developing the state’s foreign policy. If one of these catalysts changes, China’s foreign policy is also likely to change. In 2010, all three were undergoing multiple changes. Economically, China had become the 2nd richest country on the planet, but from 2010 the growth of its economy also began to decelerate. Nationalistically, a significant majority of the Chinese population and political class began to advocate a more assertive foreign policy that pressed China’s territorial and sovereignty claims. And externally, China’s regional environment underwent changes as the US began to shift its focus away from its traditional European focus to East Asia. This essay will critically evaluate these three foreign policies ‘drivers’ and reflect upon on how they relate to changes in China military development/strategy since 2010. The first section will assess the influence of Chinese nationalism, as a manifestation of China’s pride and ambition for its economic miracle and growth. This section will also discuss how an emboldened, economically ambitious China responded to a reinvigorated sense of national belief by pursuing a more assertive foreign policy, reflected in the modernisation of China’s Navy and an increased willingness to use coercive methods to influence its neighbours. The second section will consider the impact of the US’s Pivot to Asia, and how it has driven a policy of ‘anti-containment’ in Chinese foreign policy. This section will analyse how Chinese foreign policy has tried to counterbalance US influence in the region as reflected by the development of its military technological capabilities. And in the final section the essay will evaluate the impact of economic priorities on Chinese foreign policy. It will examine foreign policy initiatives like the Belt and Road, concluding that the need to protect China’s economic security abroad and at home is reflected by the development of non-combat capability and a Blue Water navy. This essay will conclude that there is clear linkage between China’s military development since 2010 and their foreign policy, with identifiable inflection points and catalysts that shaped this evolution.

The First Foreign and Defence Policy Driver – Chinese Nationalism and Developing Coercive Influence through Naval Power 

The first driver of China’s foreign policy since 2010 has been the connection between increased nationalism and increased economic growth. While Chinese foreign policy has always been nationalistic, its regional and global ambitions have been constrained by a lack of material resources (Xinbo 2001: 294). China had what Wu Xinbo described in 2001 as a ‘dual identity’ (ibid: 293). One identity viewed itself as a great nation ‘for its long unbroken history’ and ‘its contributions to the progress of civilisation’ (ibid). The second identified itself as a poor country whose ‘economic development and technological prowess’ lagged ‘far behind those of Western countries and some of its Asian neighbours’ (ibid). This dual identity would however diminish throughout the 2000s. By 2010, China had moved passed the major economies of Europe and the economic power of Japan, to become the 2nd richest nation with on Earth with a GDP of $6.101 trillion (World Bank 2017). China had achieved its economic miracle while the major economies of the world remained crippled from the 2008 financial crisis (Zhao 2013: 543). Available economic resources meant that China was able to pursue its ambitions and better defend its national interests. By 2010, China’s domestic environment had altered this policy. China’s population took nationalist pride in the fact that their economy had grown through the 2008 Global Financial Crisis while other major economies floundered; this was taken as evidence that the balance of power was tipping in its favour (ibid: 545). By 2010, a debate regarding China’s new role as an international power hit the mainstream media (ibid: 544). Amongst the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Generals openly called for China to assert itself more strongly, both regionally and internationally (Ibid: 543). For instance, in his 2010 book ‘The China Dream’, Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu ‘called for China to abandon modest foreign policy and build the world’s strongest military to deter the wary US from challenging China’s rise’ (Ibid). This intensification of nationalism emboldened China’s foreign policy as ‘increasing numbers of people in powerful positions in the state found themselves sharing the views of popular nationalism that the global balance of power was tilting in its favour’ (ibid: 545). The change in China’s domestic environment hastened a departure from Deng Xiaoping’s foreign policy rule of ‘hiding one’s capacity and keeping a low profile’ (Zhang 2016: 770). China’s foreign policy ‘steadily included more controversial issues in the expanding list of China’s core interests and reoriented foreign policy in a more assertive direction, reacting stridently to all perceived slights to its national pride and interests’ (Zhao 2013: 546). 

This nationalist driver of China’s foreign policy has been reflected by several developments and strategic changes since 2010. One of the main consequences of increased economic growth and nationalism has been that China used its resources to press and better defend its national interests.  Since 2010, China has been ‘uncompromising, and sometimes aggressive’ in claiming what the Chinese see as sovereign territory and part of its exclusive economic zone; this area in the South and East China seas is called the ‘Nine-Dash Line’ (Zhang 2016: 770). The Nine-Dash lines refers to a map dating back to the Republic of China in 1947, which the PRC has embellished with a narrative of ‘loose historical descriptions of activities by Chinese fisherman and naval craft in the South China Sea covering a period of more than 2,000 years’ (Yahuda 2013:457). In February 1992 China ‘unilaterally declared the Spratlys, Diaoyu/Senkaku, and the Paracels as the PRC’s sovereign territory’; these are islands and archipelagos that are also claimed by other Southeast Asian countries (Zhao 2013: 548).  Though the Nine-Dash Line remained an important national interest, in the decades prior to 2010, China’s regional maritime strategy adhered to the ‘good neighbour’ policy meaning it avoided pressing it claims (Zhang 2016: 770). The PLA Navy (PLAN) strategy has shifted to a more aggressive and confrontational posture asserting China’s sovereignty over its maritime territories (ibid). This shift in strategy has included ‘deploying more personal and installing new equipment to carry out regular sea patrols and law enforcement more frequently in the South and East China Seas’ (Zhao 2013: 547). The PLAN’s strategy has been unafraid of heightening regional tensions and unease when directly confronting its neighbours (Zhang 2016: 770). This aggressive strategy has been illustrated in a number of incidents. Suisheng Zhao for instance describes how the PLAN have routinely clashed with Vietnamese and Philippine vessels for patrolling and exploring for gas in Chinese-claimed territory (Zhao 2013: 547). Following an inspection of a Chinese vessel in April 2012 by the Philippine Navy in disputed waters, China sent its ‘largest and most advanced… fisheries patrol and enforcement ships’, with one Chinese general Luo Yuan threatening ‘decisive action’ and ‘war at all costs’ if the Philippine Navy encroached into the waters claimed by China again (ibid: 549-550).  China’s rejection of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which provides the framework for maritime sovereignty issues to be settled, means that China’s neighbours are left largely overwhelmed by China’s stance and its superior navy (Yahuda 2013: 547-8). 

Through these actions, China has created ‘an image of an ‘assertive’ China that has used its improving great power capabilities and its international status to coerce other countries to change their established policies to suit China’s interests’ (Ross 2013: 83). This has been reflected in its development of a ‘Blue Water’ PLAN since 2010. It is a part of what Robert Ross refers to as ‘prestige strategies’, in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seeks to bolster domestic popularity and ‘greater prestige by developing defence policies and acquiring weaponry that does not provoke war but nonetheless destabilise great power relations’ (Ross 2009: 50). A Blue-Water navy is associated with great, globally capable powers. From the British Empire in the 19th century to the United States today, an advanced Blue-Water navy capability is a central source of prestige and respect (ibid: 65). Chinese historians attribute the lack of a Blue Water navy as an important factor in its subjugation by imperial powers and Japan during its ‘century of humiliation’ (ibid: 66). Thus, leaders in the PLAN ‘maintain that the realization of China’s historical destiny depends on possession of a carrier-based navy’ (Ibid: 67). Since 2010, China’s aircraft carrier programme has become a high-profile nationalist project, a means to ‘stimulate national spirit’ and thus further legitimise the CCP’s rule (Pu and Schweller 2014: 157-159). In a congratulatory letter from the CCP when the carrier began development in 2013, the CCP ‘highlighted three implications of the aircraft carrier: first, it is the milestone of China’s military modernisation; second, it is the symbol of comprehensive national power; and third, it could stimulate national spirit’ (Ibid: 159). Regionally, a Blue Water navy assists China’s ‘ability to defend regional interests in contingencies not involving the United States by strengthening ‘China’s bargaining leverage in these disputes’ (ibid: 157). China’s development of a Blue Water navy clearly links to its foreign policy and its ambitions as a globally influential ‘Great Power.’ 

The Second Foreign and Defence Policy Driver – US Pivot to Asia   

The nationalist drivers of Chinese foreign policy since 2010, must be understood in the context of the changed regional environment that China’s foreign policy had to contend with. In January 2010, the US directly interfered with a Chinese territorial issue by selling arms to Taiwan, and in September 2010 they launched a major naval exercise in the Yellow Sea in response to the sinking of a SK Submarine by North Korea (Ross 2013: 73-74). The exercise occurred in close chronological proximity to the Pentagon’s announcement of its ‘Air Sea Battle’ doctrine, which was interpreted by China as a strategy to exploit China’s maritime weakness during a future war (Etzioni 2013). And then, shortly thereafter came Obama’s 2011 announcement of the US’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ (Raine and Le Miere 2013: 153). This foreign policy move ‘outlined American intentions to intensify a focus on the Asia-Pacific’ with the intent ‘to bolster the US presence in the region’ while ‘also warning China away from any temptation, resulting from its growing capabilities, to employ more heavy-handed tactics in pursuit of its national interests’ (ibid). The US’s pivot to Asia both contributed to and was caused by China’s increased assertiveness.  Since 2010, China’s foreign policy has been driven by the need to combat what China sees as a US attempt to contain it in the East Asia region. The CCP recognised that China could not guarantee the protection of its national interests from US encroachment until it had a military that had been modernised and was capable of fighting a modern, technically based war (Gupta 2012: 812). While the PLA had quantity, it was characterised by a lack of quality (ibid: 814). At the root of this was an inefficient defence industry that was too dependent on foreign military technology and know-how, and that had, until recently, lacked the resources and structure to commission coherent, advanced technology research and development (R&D) programmes (Mulvenon and Tyroler-Cooper 2009: 38, 52, 69). Reliance on foreign technology is not a viable long-term plan if the People’s Republic of China (PRC) wants to assure sovereign industrial capacity and operational advantage to defend its interests abroad and at home. As the United States $717 billion defence budget (2018) illustrates, maintaining a globally capable military is expensive (Department of Defence 2018).  However, China’s economic rise now provided the resources to modernise its military and to build a sovereign defence industrial base, founded on ever greater technological sophistication. Its sizeable $175 billion defence budget means that the PLA can increasingly modernise and improve the operational capacity of its military domestically, rather than acquiring military hardware from abroad (Godement, Kratz, Lafferty and Puig 2013: 1). For China, procuring domestically has the added advantage of generating far greater ‘bang-for-buck’ as costs of manufacture in China are a fraction of foreign defence manufacturer’s cost bases.

Despite its large budget, ‘China’s defence innovation system lags behind that of most advanced countries because of the absence of incentives for communication and cooperation between civilian and defence industries’ (ibid: 4). This has meant that while ‘China has good military design and production capacities’ it is has been unable to collaborate meaningfully with industry ‘to pursue dynamic indigenous innovation’ (ibid). Without domestic innovation, the PLA would be unable to keep up with the ‘Revolution in Military Affairs’ (State Council Information Office 2015: 8) As is recognised in the 2015 Chinese Military Strategy Report, the aim of the CCP is ‘building an informationized military and winning informationized wars’ (ibid: 14). Without a defence industry capable of large-scale innovation and technological execution, this goal is simply unattainable. The central issue is that the defence and civilian sectors have traditionally been separate in the Chinese economy, meaning that there have not been any working linkages that would accelerate the creation of advanced strategic technologies and enable technology to be militarily commoditised (Godement et al 2013: 4). The solution to this issue has been the initiative of ‘Civilian-Military Integration’ (CM1), what Leo Lin calls China’s answer to the US Military Industrial Complex (Lin 2017). The integration of the industrial and military complex in China has delivered greater cost effectiveness of the defence budget and facilitated military technological innovation (Godement et al 2013: 4). For instance, ‘integrating civilian expertise into the military sector would help China to develop cyber warfare capabilities and train next generation-cyber and space expert’ (Lin 2017). With faster development in sectors like Cyberspace, the CCP will be more rapidly able to create a comprehensive system capable of defending attacks on its interests and infrastructure, as well as creating a modern military that can symbolise China’s progress and modernisation. There are a range of capabilities that China is developing:Quantum, Stealth, Space, Robotics, Autonomy, Artificial Intelligence.  With an advanced domestic technological capability, China will be ever more able to achieve its foreign policy goal of ‘fighting and winning’ localised wars in defence of China’s core national interests (Department of Defence 2018). Instead of aiming for large battlefield victories, the strategy of the PLA is focused on confrontations of limited scale and duration that aim to restore the status quo rather achieving absolute victory (Ji 2014: 244). 

The Third Foreign and Defence Policy Driver – The Belt and Road Initiative 

The CCP rests its legitimacy on the continued development of the Chinese economy and on bringing its once poverty-stricken population out of poverty and into prosperity. Since 2010, the growth of the Chinese economy has slowed; conversely, nationalism and anti-containment become more popular and relevant to discourse (Trading Economics 2018). In 2013, to reinvigorate the Chinese economy and solidify its growth into the future, Xi Jinping announced the ‘China Dream’ (State Council Information Office 2015: 8).  China Dream is a complex road map setting out the path toward ‘the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ (ibid). It aims to ‘complete the building of a moderately prosperous society in all respects by 2021 when the CCP celebrates its centenary; and the building of a modern socialist country that is prosperous, strong, democratic, culturally advanced and harmonious by 2049 when the PRC marks its centenary’ (Ibid: 7). The China Dream is a blend of the nationalist and anti-containment drivers in Chinese foreign policy. In this ‘China Dream’ a strong military is essential for protecting China’s economic growth as ‘without a strong military, a country can neither be safe nor strong’ (ibid). Its goal is to ‘provide a strong guarantee for achieving the national strategic goal of the ‘two centenaries’ and for achieving the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ (ibid: 3). The main foreign policy objective in the China Dream is the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ (BRI), a massive economic project to connect China by sea and land with multiple countries and markets around the world. Closely connected to China’s militarisation of the South China Sea, the BRI is a means to invest in China’s global sphere of influence to counterbalance US pressure (Wang 2016: 458). The project is largely motivated by the length and strategic vulnerability of China’s sea lines of communication (SLOCs) (ibid: 460). The domestic health of the PRC relies upon its continued, easy access to its SLOCs across the world (State Council Information Office 2015: 5-6). Via ship, China imports energy resources needed for the continued economic growth of the country (Wang 2016: 460). Without safe passage through the Indo-Pacific SLOCs, Chinese industry would not be able to function (Yu 2006: 20). Via ship, China exports the majority of its trade to global markets (Fravel 2011: 188). Without access to international markets the Chinese economy would be crippled, and unemployment rife (ibid). Chinese leaders have recognised China’s maritime vulnerability for some time. Hu Jintao, leader from 2002-2012, talked about the ‘Malacca Dilemma’, a reference to China’s reliance on 80% of its energy imports passing through the chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca (ibid). China’s foreign policy is directly aimed at counteracting these vulnerabilities as demonstrated by the development of missile defence systems and a modern navy capable of better protecting Chinese SLOCs from potential attack or blockade. 

Regionally this has been reflected by the Chinese militarisation of the South China Sea. China has invested a large amount of resources in its military around its ‘area periphery to counterbalance the US’ and its control of choke points like the Straits of Malacca (Wang 2016: 458). Since 2013 China has begun militarising the land it had reclaimed within the Nine-Dash line, to deter the US from encroaching into sovereign Chinese waters (Zhang 2016: 770). To counterbalance the superior US navy, the Chinese have constructed ‘airbases, detection systems and weapons delivery systems’ including Anti-access/Area-Denial systems (Burgers and Romaniuk 2019). By raising its defensive capabilities in the maritime region, the Chinese are raising the costs for the US of challenging China’s SLOCs in the South China Sea. Addressing the challenges of the BRI, China’s foreign policy has been reflected by the development of an armed forces that is capable of protecting Chinese foreign policy interests abroad. China’s investment in a Blue-Water navy is not only rooted in the nationalist driver but also the need to respond to potential challenges in areas where it has invested as part of the BRI. China has, for instance, injected massive investments in the Hambantota Port in Sir Lanka, which due to a debt-agreement was leased to China for 99 years in July 2017 (Abi-Habib 2018). For China, the port is an essential strategic and commercial link to the markets of Europe and Asia. With an expansion of the facilities it has the potential to be the largest port in South Asia and a bastion for Chinese trade (ibid). Without a Blue-Water navy however, such investments would be under-threat firstly from state-aggressors and secondly from regional instability. In a country like Sir Lanka, with a history of political instability, it is essential for the PLAN to be able to respond rapidly to threats and project its power. The central piece of equipment in this drive to build a Blue-Water navy has been the PLAN’s development of a Chinese-made aircraft carrier. In 2012 China acquired an ex-Soviet aircraft carrier ‘Lianoning’ and in April 2017 launched its first Chinese-made carrier, the Type 001A (DU 2017).

The ‘road’ part of the BRI has also compelled land-force transformation, to account for the varied combat and non-combat threats that China’s military strategy now needs to mitigate. Since 2010, there has been a shift in the land force capability strategy of the PLA to deliver ‘non-combat operations’ (Fravel 2011: 181-182). Non-combat operations would include peacekeeping, disaster relief, evacuation, counter piracy, and counter narcotics; capabilities that benefit Chinese foreign policy in several ways (ibid). Its contributions to peacekeeping allow it to assume a great role in global leadership while also presenting a positive image of China’s intent internationally, while it also allows China to have forces allocated in areas where it has commercial or strategic investments. Much like with the Blue-Water navy, non-combat capabilities enable China to ‘show the flag’ in regions where it has interests and a ‘ensure that its interests are considered in these regions during period of instability’ (ibid:182). These strategies and developments reflect the primacy of continued economic development in Chinese foreign policy.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is clear that since the formation of the Chinese Communist Party,  China’s world view has extended from a policy whose central objective sought to preserve and protect Moa’s vision, and where China’s modest foreign policy aims could be directly ascribed to that goal, to a far more nuanced and interwoven set of policies that, whilst seeking to preserve the centrality of the CCP, now sees a route to China’s establishment as The Super Power of the 21st Century (influence, economic, military). Since 2010, China’s key strategic aims and objectives have  coalesced around a quartet of mutually supporting and interrelated themes: (1) domestic stability and maintenance of the CCP vision; (2) sustained economic growth (3) a global foreign policy purview; (4) a domestic and international defence and security policy that directly supports the first three themes. And whilst this essay reflected upon China’s military development as it relates to foreign policy, it also identified the complimentary and reinforcing linkages between the four themes. In particular, how China’s military has responded to the rapidly emergent requirement for global reach, and how an increasingly sophisticated, technology and skills based economy has enabled China to transform its military capabilities and industrial base, through an increased ability to develop sovereign capability, whilst reducing reliance on 3rd party imports. This essay contends that since 2010, there have been three main Chinese Foreign Policy ‘drivers’ that have directly impacted the development of their military, from a force based on mass and quantity, into a force that is increasingly sophisticated and based upon Chinese derived technology and global strategic need. The first driver is the manifestation of China’s Pride and ambition following the Global Economic Crisis, and how an emboldened, economically ambitious and globally minded China responded to a reinvigorated sense of national belief, but with an absolute commitment to the preservation of the CCP and domestic stability. The second driver is China’s strategic response to the US’s Asia Pivot in 2010 and how it responded to meet the challenge. And the third driver is China’s military response to its own Belt and Road initiative, and how this demanded new capabilities, structures and development. This essay concludes that there is clear linkage between China’s military development since 2010 and their foreign policy, with identifiable inflection points and catalysts that shaped this evolution. Furthermore, this essay identifies the interdependence of domestic stability and the sustainment of the CCP, and the revolution in China’s economic growth and industrial sophistication as being linked and essential components of China’s military development. 

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