Interview and Lecture with Professor Li Xing about China and the BRICS

On March 13th, 2019, the BRICS Policy Center hosted Professor Li Xing of Denmark’s Aalborg University and his lecture about “The International Political Economy of the BRICS.” He holds a Ph.D. in Development and International Relations and is Aalborg’s Director of the Research Center on Development and International Relations, Honorary Director of Jianxing University’s Institute for Regional Soft Power Studies and Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of China and International Relations.

Professor Li began his presentation covering some aspects of the historical evolution of the BRICS and key features of BRICS economies, indicating the platform is not challenging the liberal system ­– instead, it benefits from it and the current global order – and is not composed of equal powers, looking more like a “China with partners” group, though also serving as a political alliance which tries to overcome individual limits.

Afterward, he compared the New Development Bank (NDB) with the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), stating the latter challenges the financial order and the Bretton Woods system and explaining its principles and its focus on infrastructure – according to a Chinese saying, the professor remembers, “if you want to be rich, build roads”.

Finally, Professor Li cites some intra-BRICS complications and establishes some theoretical foundations to analyze China and the BRICS, including a comparison between Gramscian and Neo-Gramscian theories and his theory of interdependent hegemony. In his concluding remarks, Li indicates China has multiple positions in global affairs, as it still perceives itself as a developing country and dislikes the idea of being a hegemon while some Western countries see it as a threat to world order.

Prior to the lecture, Pedro Steenhagen, who recently graduated from IRI/PUC-Rio’s Master in Analysis and Management of International Politics (MAPI) and is a former research assistant at BPC’s Laboratory of International Development Cooperation and Financing (LACID), was able to interview Professor Li. Check the full interview below.


Pedro Steenhagen: First of all, thanks for this interview and congratulations on your most recent book, The International Political Economy of the BRICS (Routledge, 2019). It is a great honor to welcome you to the BRICS Policy Center for a lecture about such an important topic in international studies. The primary goal with this conversation is to explore some of the possibilities that lay ahead for China, the BRICS and international cooperation, considering the challenges presented by international society. How would you describe the relationship between China’s foreign policy and international cooperation initiatives? What do you expect from the recently launched China International Development Cooperation Agency (CIDCA) in the next five years and how do you think it will relate to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI)?

Li Xing: Chinese development initiatives are very recent. If you look at the Belt and Road launched by Xi Jinping in 2013, it has got only five years, and a lot has happened since then. That is because China’s economy has reached such a level that makes the country aware of the fact that it has to consider the world. When China started its economic reforms forty years ago, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping said to the Chinese people that “it does not matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”, because, during the Cold War,  no one knew who would be the leader of the Third World, so China decided to concentrate in its development. That is how we can see China for an extended period: very concentrated on itself. However, now, China faces a reality in which its development is linked with the rest of the world. It is linked with Latin America, Africa, and Asia. Today, China has technology and money, but at the same time, it lacks resources. Brazil and Latin America, in turn, have many resources, so you may understand why China had to consider the cost and benefits of its previous position, as Chinese development cannot avoid the participation and also the recognition of other countries, especially during this trade war with Trump. In this respect, China’s development policies and initiatives, such as One Belt, One Road (OBOR), have a tremendous impact on our world. Even though Latin America and Brazil are not geographically part of the BRI, the success of the BRI may be an excellent example to the world that China’s development is based on a win-win situation. This is the message China wants to promote. However, some people challenge this notion of win-win, because, if you look at China in the BRICS, it is not a symmetrical group; actually, it is a very asymmetrical one. After all, China is much more dominant in comparison with other BRICS countries.



Pedro Steenhagen: Considering the growing number of actors that have engaged in international cooperation in recent years, particularly those from the global South, and the differences in their approach in comparison to traditional donors, do you think China has something unique to offer now? Is it possible to say China will change traditional aid assistance and development cooperation?

Li Xing: Of course, if you talk about China in connection with international aid, first you have to understand what the international aid institution is, what are its norms and values, which are the rules of the game embedded in the international aid system as well as the power relations at play. The traditional donor countries have shaped the institutions of the aid system for decades, but, when China became one of the biggest donors, the Chinese way of doing things was entirely different, because China wanted to do things with Chinese characteristics. I will give you some examples to show that the Chinese way is unique. First, if you are a recipient country, how many choices do you have? At least you have two: you may choose to receive aid either from a traditional donor or from a new donor, right? This means developing countries do not have to stick to economic power anymore, because if it does not treat you well, you can move to another donor. Second, Chinese aid has no attachment or political conditionality. This is extremely important because many recipient countries suffer from conditionalities; for instance, you have to be democratic, you have to be good in human rights, and many other conditionalities attached to you that do not make your life easy. Third, China has individual preferences when they give money to countries, as it must be used to promote economic development, instead of the so-called soft power. China preferences are roads, airports, ports, trains, infrastructures. These are very much important to economic development, but the West has a different understanding. Commodities need to go out, people need to come in, and then money is earned. If commodities cannot go out and people cannot come to your country, you will not earn money, even if you are good at promoting democracy and human rights. Democracy and human rights are soft powers, so they are not capable of promoting economic development by themselves. Fourth, China regards itself as a Third World country, as a developing country. Today, international society has difficulties in recognizing China as a developing country, but China sees itself as the largest developing country, claiming equality between developing countries and promoting South-South cooperation and win-win situations.


Pedro Steenhagen: How can the BRICS benefit from China’s rise and play a more prominent role in the global political economy? Considering the BRICS both as a coordinated group and as individual countries with diverse interests and asymmetrical power capacities, what are its challenges and opportunities in the international stage?

Li Xing: I think that, within its framework, BRICS is a group that does not deal with equal powers, since China is much more dominant than the others. Moreover, while China is the largest or one of the largest trading partners to all BRICS countries, in general, they are not among China’s most significant partners. Additionally, it is good to note the Chinese GDP alone makes about 55% of BRICS countries’ GDP. So, as you can see, it is asymmetric, and China’s rise has created opportunities and challenges. Some scholars from Britain and Argentina, for example, are very critical, because they extensively look at the challenges or the “constraints side,” and I agree with them, but I also try to remind them there are many opportunities from China’s rise. For instance, Brazil sells many commodities to China and earns a considerable amount of money, and this is the opportunity, but this situation made Brazil become a primary commodity provider to China, resulting in a de-industrialization process that has become a challenge for the country. Many scholars blame China for de-industrializing Brazil, but China is not using guns to force this. Instead, it is Brazil choice.


Pedro Steenhagen: Thank you for your time and consideration, Professor Li, and congratulations once more for your most recent book!