Departures Podcast featuring Susan L. Shirk, author of ‘Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise’

Formulated by PRC think tanks in the mid-1990s, China’s official slogan of the “peaceful rise” sought to calm Western fears regarding its blossoming economic, military, and political power as the nation resumed an outsized role in global affairs. However the mood did not last long, as in the later years of President Hu Jintao’s administration, policies hardened into a more aggressive, militaristic stance, and then was continued by the personalistic regime of President Xi Jinping, as China sought to project power abroad to boost popularity of the regime at home.

There are few people more qualified to examine this period than Susan Shirk, a professor at the University of California San Diego and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State in the Bureau of East Asia and Pacific Affairs. In her latest book, “Overreach: How China Derailed Its Peaceful Rise,” Shirk takes apart some of the most common myths and narratives held by observers of China – namely that the “peaceful rise” was a deception instead of an intention, but this was not the case.

Shirk explores the numerous and complex domestic factors guiding of Chinese foreign policy, while rejecting the premise that all decisions stem from the personal whims of Xi Jinping and his agenda for Chinese primacy. Xi does not enjoy any sort of full control over China, Shirk argues, but sits atop a complex, competing system of institutional imperatives, such as weiquan (sovereignty rights defence) and weiwen (stability maintenance).

These imperatives often produce policies at odds with Xi’s preferences, and leave China with a government that shouldn’t be considered a rational unitary actor. In crafting policy responses to China’s growing power and influence, Shirk warns against overreacting in ways that weaken the ability of the US to compete. In other words, stay true to the principles of a free and open market democracy.  

The state behaves in ways that are not directed by and are sometime at odds with the preferences of the leader, particularly in the areas of , or, broadly, international and domestic security.    She takes a contrary view to those who would locate the source of Beijing’s behaviour purely in terms of Xi Jinping’s mission to centre China on the world stage. Instead, she notes that friction over the same issues analysts now frequently associate with Xi began much earlier than his term. These tensions have worsened under Xi, but they are not merely a product of his leadership. Nor, she argues, is Xi totally in control.