Is China socialised in western norms and practices through its engagement with international institutions?

Source: ILO

Written by James Lo

Since Deng’s decision to open up and engage with the international community in 1978, China has increased their interactions with international institutions. Over the past two decades, scholars such as Johnston and Schweller have argued that China can be socialised through their engagements with international institutions and be integrated into the existing liberal international order. However, this essay will argue that China is not socialised in western norms and practices through its engagement with international institutions. I will focus on two case studies – Labour rights and International Labour Organisation (ILO), and the norm of sovereignty & United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping in relation to the UN. I will argue that China is not socialised due to two main reasons. Firstly, China’s engagements with western norms and practices were motivated by a concern for regime stability rather than a desire to be considered as a member of the international liberal order. Secondly, the western norms and practices did not have a significant impact on China’s identity as they did not alter China’s fundamental identity and longstanding suspicion of western norms, practices and international institutions.


Socialisation is the process in which ‘social interactions lead novice states to endorse expected ways of thinking, feeling and acting’. In other words, it attempts to explain how states gain identity, norms and appropriate behaviour in the international sphere. Johnston provided a compelling two-stage analysis of the socialisation process in International Relations, which I will adopt throughout this essay. Stage one of socialisation, also referred to as “teaching”, consists of institutions trying to ‘transmit to new members the predominant norms of the structure’. Stage two looks deeper into why states adopt the norms and practices. Johnston proposed three main reasons – ‘mimicking, persuasion and social influence’. This essay will focus on social influence. Social influence includes several sub-processes that can be used to induce adoption of the norms and practices including ‘back-patting, shaming, social liking and status maximisation’. In particular, actors in the international sphere ‘value image and status as ends in and of themselves’. Fruitful socialisation will therefore manifest as an ‘identity makeover’ where the identity of the state would be reconfigured in the mould of the norms and rules of the community, allowing it to integrate into the international liberal community.

Therefore, if China is socialised, the reforms that China implemented should be distinctly different to what they have always adopted and instead be in line with Western norms and practices. The motivations underlining China’s reforms should be to allow China to integrate into the international liberal order. Furthermore, China can be said to be socialised when the western processes lead to a change in China’s identity and shift it closer to the liberal mould of Western countries. The general consensus among scholars is that socialisation is a two-way process. In this essay, I will focus on whether international institutions socialised China into western norms and practices and altered China’s identity (and not whether China is socialising international institutions).

Case studies: ILO and the UN

The ILO and the UN are the two examples chosen because they are case studies that demonstrated a drastic change in China’s stance after engagement with the respective international institutions. In the ILO, China became more amenable to workers’ rights. In the case of the UN, China changed their peacekeeping stance from ‘No voting, no deployment and no financial assistance’ to one of the largest contributors to the UN peacekeeping fund. Interactions with the UNSC also shifted China’s view on sovereignty.

China and the ILO

The initial stance that China took in the ILO was one of exclusion and deniability. China was suspicious of the standards that ILO espoused, claiming that the standards were too western…and were not realistic goals’. Indeed, by 1994, China had only ratified 17 out of 175 ILO conventions. However, since 1994, China’s stance in the ILO had changed from an emphasis on defence and non-interference to positive cooperation and increasing openness. The change can be seen in the differences in the speeches that China’s representatives gave. In 1989, China’s representative Guan Jinghe stated that ‘it is not possible to meet with the requirement of extensive application of ILO conventions and recommendations’. In 1994, the Chinese representative, contrastingly, emphasised China’s ‘positive cooperation’ attitude and offered more information on the 1993 Chinese labour legislations. Since 1994, new labour laws seemed to be more compliant with ILO standards, introducing concepts such as collective bargaining, compensations to workers and removal of business licenses. The 1995 labour laws stated that ‘trade unions should represent and safeguard the interests of labourers and take part in democratic or consult on equal footing with employment units’, indicating some legislative internalisation of ILO standards. Therefore, China shifted from a defensive stance in the ILO to a more amenable / cooperative one, adopting western practices by introducing ILO conventions into domestic labour laws

Johnston’s model of “social influence” can be seen to be at work here when attempting to explain China’s change in stance, which was motivated by China’s interest in obtaining power within the organisation. In 1990 and 1994, China’s efforts to increase their power at the top of the ILO failed because of China’s defensive attitude and lack of compliance of ILO conventions. This was an example of Johnston’s model where the state failed to accumulate status as it did not ‘act in ways consistent with what the group considers to be highly valued norms of behaviour’. China’s failure to adopt conventions such as freedom of association and organisation deterred other members from supporting China’s push for chairmanship in the ILO governing body. China was punished within the organisation for their lack of conformity with the values and practices that ILO espoused. In hopes for bolster China’s international image and maximise their status within the ILO, China changed their practices and interests in an effort to maximise their social status within their organisation. For example, China tried to bolster its image by ratifying conventions on administration and safety in construction a few months before the 2002 ILO governing body elections. Therefore, China was socialised into western practices of protection of labourers due to their want for more power within ILO.

China and the UN – UN peacekeeping / Responsibility to Protect (R2P and sovereignty

China’s interactions with the UN led to a change in China’s stance on UN peacekeeping and norm of sovereignty. In the late 20th century, China adopted a traditional view on sovereignty, focusing on the protection of its own sovereign borders and adopting a foreign policy of non-interference. This view of sovereignty influenced China’s policy on UN peacekeeping – ‘no voting, no deployment and no financial assistance’. However, since 1999, China has increasingly adopted the norm of R2P and endorsed UN peacekeeping. A senior PLA officer outlined the ideological shift in China, stating that they used to think UN peacekeeping was ‘meddling in other’s business, but not anymore’. Since then, China has become more active in UN peacekeeping efforts. China currently supplies the most UN peacekeeping troops out of the UN Security Council (UNSC) permanent members and ranks second in contributions to the UN peacekeeping budget at 15.21%.

Johnston’s “social influence” model outlined the motivation for the shift in China’s UN peacekeeping policy. Chinese officials increasingly reported back to Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that UN peacekeeping was the ‘right thing to do’ for a country of China’s size and military influence. A senior PLA official recommended to the CCP to increase Chinese efforts after being constantly questioned by members of the UN why China contributed so little to UN peacekeeping. Johnston believed that the ‘mere self-categorisation as a member of a particular group generates strong incentives to conform to the group’s norms and practices’. As a ‘self-proclaimed great power’, China therefore shifted their UN peacekeeping policy to be in line with other great powers such as the US and UK. China also recognised that ‘getting approval from existing club (UN) members was unavoidable’. Therefore, participation in UN peacekeeping was part of China’s plan to upgrade to a “premium” club member. By acting in accordance to what the international society expects of a great power, China desires to be ‘viewed as a highly valued member of the in-group’. The “social influence” model socialised China by gearing China to be more accepting of the Western practices of peacekeeping and R2P through the idea of status maximisation.

Moreover, the “social influence” model can help explain why China took a more flexible view on their long-held principle of sovereignty and non-interference. China’s engagement with the UNSC and the pressure they faced within the UNSC prompted the change. In the Darfur crisis, China was pressured by Costa Rica, France and the UK in the UNSC to introduce an ICC referral and support intervention in Darfur. Hoping to hold onto their principle of consent, China actively lobbied Sudan for its consent. This was different from usual scenarios where China voted on peacekeeping operations based on the consent of the host nations because, in this scenario, China ‘went far beyond what they were predisposed to’ and acted proactively rather than reactively. Moreover, in the Libyan crisis, the ‘P3 and the various Middle East and African regional players all advocated for an International Criminal Court referral’ and China chose to abstain rather than veto due to ‘status concerns’. Both scenarios were clear examples of Johnston’s model where ‘the actor’s conformity with the position advocated by a group was the result of real or imagined group pressure’. In the Syrian crisis, it was ‘easier for China to hide behind a consensus than to vote individually’. In the Libyan crisis, China did not want to ‘dissent alone…after the Russian position shifted’. Therefore, the pressures that China faced within the international institutions can be seen to have socialised China into adopting a stance closer to the western norm of R2P rather than China’s traditional notion of sovereignty and non-interference.

Differing motivations – Overarching goal of economic growth to maintain regime stability

However, China’s adoptions of Western norms and practices might not be signs of socialisation. As stated before, for reforms to count as part of a “socialisation” effort, China’s reforms should be motivated by a desire to fit into the international liberal order. However, China’s actions take on a different light when we take into account China’s grand strategy and overarching goal. China’s fundamental goal in foreign policy is to maintain regime stability and the dominance of the CCP. The party state, dubbed the ‘impenetrable Great Wall’ by Yang, ‘fiercely rebuffs any foreign attempts it deems to undermine regime stability’. If we study the case studies, China’s actions in ILO and UN were motivated by concerns of regime stability rather than attempting to integrate into the international liberal order.

When studying China’s actions in ILO, it is crucial to note that Li was facing domestic workers unrest in the 1990s. There were more than a dozen dissident workers’ organisations in Beijing alone in 1991. These groups were causing a considerable amount of concern to Li and the possibility of this crisis spreading across China. As China continued to modernise, the number of dissents from workers continued to rise. Therefore, in order to maintain regime stability, China continued to deny workers to right to establish organisations of their own choosing as such organisations can challenge the authority of the CCP. Indeed, out of the eight ILO fundamental conventions, China refused to endorse the freedom of association for workers and the right to organise. This further strengthens the argument that China’s adoption of ILO conventions was merely for pragmatic reasons to secure their domestic stability, rather than attempting to fit into the international liberal order.

In UN peacekeeping, China recognised that peacekeeping missions are powerful tools in diplomacy. China used peacekeeping missions to ‘persuade countries to switch recognitions from Taiwan to China’, in order to deprive Taiwan of diplomatic allies and further pursue its One-China policy. For example, China vetoed a peacekeeping mission to Macedonia two weeks after Macedonia established ties with Taipei in 1999. Within months, Macedonia switched allegiances to Beijing. Peacekeeping missions can also be used to bolster relations with countries that are vital to China’s economic growth and impact regime stability. 10% of China’s pledge of funds in 2015 was earmarked for the African union. China sent troops, instead of observers, to Congo, Liberia, Sudan, Lebanon and Cambodia – countries of geopolitical significance and have abundant natural resources. Therefore, China’s change in stance regarding UN peacekeeping was to ensure economic growth and to pursue the One-China policy.

The flexible outlook of sovereignty can also be seen to be concerned with regime stability. Firstly, China’s flexible view on sovereignty can also be due to their desire to ‘preserve an external environment conducive to its own internal development’. This can be seen in China’s evolving Belt and Road initiative where China invested extensively in Africa and the Middle East. China recognised that instability can reduce the benefits of these investments including resource transfers, thus lowering economic growth and hampering regime stability. China’s more flexible conception of sovereignty allows China to secure their interests overseas. Moreover, the shift in China’s view of sovereignty does not apply to China itself. China supported the flexible notion of sovereignty ‘as long as the idea that a single sovereignty resides in Beijing is not fundamentally challenged’. In regard to its own sovereignty, China retained a traditional notion of sovereignty and stresses the need to ‘counter any attempt by external forces to meddle in China’s internal affairs’. Regime stability was therefore the underlying reason China decided to shift into a more flexible notion of external sovereignty – it allows China to pursue a more favourable external environment for national development. Therefore, China’s actions in the ILO and UN were motivated by concerns of regime stability rather than to shift its identity.

On a broader level, it is difficult to envisage a scenario where China is socialised by Western norms and practices. This is because ‘the success of international socialisation depends on stable structural conditions under which the states to be socialised value the benefits of international legitimacy more than the costs of adaptation’. As stated above, China’s fundamental goal is to ensure the survival of the CCP. Therefore, internalisation of western norms and practices and the completion of “socialisation” will be very unlikely as the “costs of adaption”, for China, will likely be the fall of the CCP. This is not to say that China will not adopt Western norms and practices. The aforementioned case studies showed that China was willing to engage with such processes. However, when new western ideas were brought in, they were translated in ways to cater for the Chinese culture and identity – ‘Chinese learning should remain the essence, but Western learning can be used for practical development’. For example, China has developed an alternative model for the human rights norm, which emphasised economic development over the individual civil and political rights. Ultimately, the adoption of these western norms and practices would be prefaced by one key principle – not to undermine CCP’s dominance in domestic and external affairs.

The recent trends of China’s actions also suggested that China, despite increasing engagement with the international community and western norms and practices, is not shifting its identity towards a politically liberal identity. As stated before, China can be seen to be socialised if China’s identity shifted closer to the western liberal mould. However, China has become distinctly less liberal. Internet censorship and surveillance has reached new height, with the implementation of the 2017 Cybersecurity laws using advances in technology to further reduce online freedom. China has also continued its persecution of predominantly Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang, with Chinese diplomats and leadership deflecting any criticisms of China’s human right records. The inherent suspicion of western norms, practices and institutions in the Chinese identity remains, with China remaining cautious of international norms such as the R2P and the western-centric workings of international organisations. Xi has also created a personalistic centralisation of power through the removal of two-term limits on presidents. These actions show that engagement with international institutions have not changed China’s identity to a more liberal mould; instead, China has drifted further away from the international liberal order.


In conclusion, China is not socialised in western norms and practices through its engagement with international institutions. This is because China’s adoption of western norms and practices were motivated by concerns for regime stability rather than a desire to integrate itself in the international liberal order. Moreover, the western norms and practices have not led to an identity shift, with China’s fundamental identity remaining intact. Looking to the future, China is not likely to be socialised due to its fierce protection of identity and longstanding suspicion of western norms, practices and institutions.


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