In the contemporary global power structure, China’s role has surged in significance, driven by its economic ascendancy with a GDP exceeding $14.7 trillion (IMF, 2023), which is dynamically reconfiguring global economies and geopolitics. The evolving interplay between the U.S. and China, a complex tapestry of interdependence, rivalry, and conflict, underscores the shifting balance of power while also highlighting the critical economic ties binding the two nations. Simultaneously, China’s intricate relationships with Russia and the EU manifest its multifaceted role in global politics, showcasing its potential as a strategic partner fostering mutual economic cooperation while also challenging the dominant Western-centric global order (Kaczmarski, 2017).
This backdrop frames the neo-Gramscian perspective, inspired by Antonio Gramsci’s theories, where counter-hegemony — premised on ideological and cultural contestation — is vital in scrutinizing China’s role on the global stage. Counter-hegemony, in this context, represents a challenge to the dominant hegemonic order, offering alternative narratives and power structures, and encouraging a more equitable global system. As China’s influence swells in the Global South politically, economically, and culturally, the neo-Gramscian lens becomes invaluable in critically analyzing its potential to disrupt the established global power structure by creating a neo-Gramscian counter-hegemony (Gramsci, 1971).
China’s economic activities in the Global South are incredibly significant, characterized by investments, a robust corporate presence, and a flow of profits back to China. Data from the China Africa Research Initiative shows that between 2000 and 2022, China extended loans amounting to $153 billion to African governments and state-owned enterprises. These are primarily directed at sectors like infrastructure and natural resource extraction, often bypassing the traditional Western-oriented financial institutions like the IMF (Mohan & Tan-Mullins, 2019).
China’s corporate presence is also palpable in the Global South. Chinese companies are often involved in projects funded by Chinese investments, ensuring a portion of the profit flows back to China. In Zambia, for instance, Chinese firms control more than half of the country’s copper industry, a critical national resource. This kind of economic dominance goes beyond investment capital and extends to the control of resources and profits, manifesting an unequal economic relationship. The unequal nature of the economic relationship becomes more apparent when examining the terms of loans and deals. Several Chinese loan agreements include a clause that, in the event of a default, allows China to take possession of assets within the recipient country.
This occurred in Sri Lanka, where China took a 99-year lease on the Hambantota Port after Sri Lanka defaulted on its loans. Furthermore, as of 2023, China is the largest trading partner of 130 countries, many in the Global South, surpassing the U.S. (World Trade Organization, 2023). However, trade imbalances are common, with the value of Chinese exports often significantly exceeding that of imports from these countries.
From a neo-Gramscian viewpoint, these economic activities represent China’s efforts to challenge the prevailing Western-oriented global order. The unequal relationships can be seen as part of China’s strategy to build a counter-hegemony, expanding its global influence through economic dominance. Yet, Antonio Gramsci’s theory of counter-hegemony goes beyond economic control; it involves achieving intellectual and moral leadership, accomplished by fostering consent among subordinated groups. This implies a more nuanced approach to global influence, blending economic dominance with cultural and ideological persuasion (Bo, 2018).
However, the inequality and potential dependency embedded in China’s economic engagements paradoxically reinforces a cycle of hegemonic influence, contradicting Gramsci’s vision of counter-hegemony, where subaltern groups actively participate in constructing a more balanced and equitable world system. Thus, while China challenges one form of hegemony, there is a risk it might inadvertently establish another, contradicting the principles of Gramsci.
China has consistently positioned itself as an advocate for the Global South, fostering South-South cooperation and promoting an image as an alternative leader distinct from Western powers. This is a strategic narrative designed to challenge the existing global power structures and thus can be analyzed through the lens of neo-Gramscian counter-hegemony.
One of the most striking examples of China’s effort to cement its leadership role in the Global South is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Launched in 2013 by President Xi Jinping, the BRI is a vast transcontinental development strategy involving infrastructure development and investments in seventy countries. The Initiative, often seen as a new Silk Road, aims to create a network of trade routes with China at its center, offering an alternative to Western-led global trade networks. The BRI presents China’s vision for a more interconnected world, reinforcing its influence over the participating nations and challenging the dominant global order (Huang, 2016).
In addition to the BRI, China has been instrumental in forming alternative international institutions such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB). Founded in 2015, the AIIB, with China as its largest shareholder, aims to support the building of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region, providing an alternative to Western-led institutions such as the World Bank. The NDB, often referred to as the BRICS Bank, established by Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, provides another platform for China to exert its influence. These institutions underscore China’s willingness to construct new frameworks of global governance that diverge from Western norms (Yu, 2017).
From a neo-Gramscian standpoint, these initiatives, including creating alternative trade networks and financial institutions, can be seen again as strategic efforts to construct a counter-hegemonic order, altering the Western-dominated global structures and norms. Once more, it is crucial to scrutinize whether these actions foster equitable relationships or merely transplant one form of hegemony with another. Given the concentration of power in institutions like the AIIB and projects like the BRI, the risk of reinforcing a new hegemony exists. For China’s engagement with the Global South to resonate with counter-hegemonic principles, these endeavors should address not only China’s national interests but also the aspirations of the Global South, pushing towards a more balanced and inclusive world order (Gramsci, 1971).
The neo-Gramscian perspective proposes that counter-hegemonic forces can challenge the status quo not only through economic and political means but also by contesting the ideological and normative dimensions of power. As such, understanding China’s potential to create a counter-hegemony requires an examination of its normative influence, particularly how it disseminates its cultural values and norms on a global scale.
In terms of cultural dissemination, China has leveraged institutions such as Confucius Institutes to export its cultural values and language. Launched in 2004 by the Chinese government, Confucius Institutes are non-profit public educational organizations aimed at promoting Chinese language and culture abroad. As of 2023, there are over five hundred Confucius Institutes in more than 162 countries, facilitating cultural exchanges and fostering an appreciation for Chinese culture worldwide. These institutes serve as a platform for China to disseminate its norms and ideas globally, thereby amplifying its soft power (Hartig, 2012).
China has also capitalized on its rich history and the universal appeal of its traditional philosophies, notably Confucian values. Confucianism, with its emphasis on harmony, balance, moral virtues, and respect for authority, underpins China’s social fabric and influences its approach to governance and diplomacy. By promoting Confucian values abroad, China offers an alternative normative framework that contrasts with Western liberal democratic ideals. Moreover, China’s film industry, pop culture, and digital technology companies play a significant role in the global spread of Chinese cultural norms. With the increasing international popularity of Chinese cinema and pop culture, coupled with the global presence of Chinese tech companies like Tencent and Alibaba, China’s cultural footprint is expanding, subtly infusing global perceptions with Chinese norms and values (Paradise, 2009).
Gramsci’s theory posits that cultural hegemony is maintained not only through coercive means but also by winning the ‚consent‘ of subaltern groups, effectively normalizing the hegemon’s values. China’s cultural initiatives pursue a similar strategy, working to shape global perceptions in a way that normalizes and legitimates China’s norms and values. However, the potential for these initiatives to construct a counter-hegemony also depends on their acceptance and resonance in the Global South and the wider international community. While China’s cultural influence is undeniably growing, it is not clear to what extent non-Chinese societies genuinely embrace these norms, rather than merely acknowledging them. A truly counter-hegemonic force, as envisioned by Gramsci, would not only propagate its norms but also ensure these norms resonate and are internalized by subaltern groups, leading to a more equitable and inclusive world order. Therefore, the effectiveness of China’s normative power in creating a counter-hegemony remains an open and complex question (Bates, 1975).
While China’s efforts to establish a neo-Gramscian counter-hegemony are evident, various challenges and limitations may impede this process. Domestically, China’s economic growth has been slowing down, a trend that has been linked to its ageing population, rising labor costs, and environmental constraints. The IMF forecasted a drop in China’s annual growth rate to 5.6% in 2023, down from double digits in the previous decade. This slowdown may limit China’s ability to maintain the prominent levels of overseas investment required to sustain initiatives like the BRI.
Politically, the Chinese Communist Party’s one-party system, while providing stability, raises concerns about human rights and democratic values. Incidents like the handling of protests in Hong Kong and the treatment of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang have drawn international criticism, potentially undermining China’s image as a potential global leader. Internationally, resistance from other major powers presents a significant obstacle. The U.S., along with several European countries, has raised concerns about the lack of transparency and potential debt-trap diplomacy associated with the BRI. The Quad alliance of the U.S., Japan, India, and Australia represents a concerted effort to counter China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific region (Brown, 2017).
Finally, the neo-Gramscian theory underlines the importance of achieving cultural and ideological dominance alongside economic and political power. While China has made strides in extending its cultural influence, achieving global acceptance of its political ideology and model of governance may prove to be a formidable challenge. While China’s potential to establish a neo-Gramscian counter-hegemony is evident, numerous domestic and international challenges could limit its success in reshaping the global power structure (Bo, 2018).
The evidence suggests that China is in the process of establishing a new historical bloc, a concept drawn from Gramsci’s theory, which describes a social group that exercises leadership over allied groups to achieve and maintain power. This is evident through China’s expanding economic, political, and cultural influence in the Global South and other regions, often characterized by the creation of alternative power structures and narratives that challenge Western hegemony.
However, according to neo-Gramscian thought, the creation of a new historical bloc is not just about achieving dominance in these areas, but also about fostering more equitable relationships and consensus among the allied groups. While China’s economic investments and political alliances in the Global South seem to indicate an attempt to create a new historical bloc, the quality and equity of these relationships remain in question. Also, the degree to which China has been able to disseminate its cultural norms and values globally and gain acceptance of its ideological narratives is still under scrutiny. If China’s activities lead to a mere substitution of Western hegemony with a Chinese one, it might fall short of creating a true counter-hegemonic bloc.
The creation of a new historical bloc implies not just the assertion of economic, political, and cultural power but also the construction of a new consensus where all parties involved benefit and consent to the new order. Thus, while China is undoubtedly a global player seeking to reshape the world order, it is unlikely that its influence will manifest into a new, inclusive historical bloc as envisaged in the neo-Gramscian model.
Author: Rron Dragidella
Bates, T. R. (1975, June). Gramsci and the Theory of Hegemony. JSTOR, 351-366. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/2708933?searchText=gramsci+cultural+hegemony&searchUri=%2Faction%2FdoBasicSearch%3FQuery%3Dgramsci%2Bcultural%2Bhegemony&ab_segments=0%2Fbasic_search_gsv2%2Fcontrol&refreqid=fastly-default%3A158ed777d08600f815ae0526aadf8a1f
Bo, P. (2018). China, Global Governance, and Hegemony: Neo-Gramscian Perspective in the World Order. Journal of China and International Relations. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://journals.aau.dk/index.php/jcir/article/view/2363/1878
Brown, K. (2017). The Communist Party of China and Ideology. Brill, 797-815. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://brill.com/display/book/edcoll/9789004302488/B9789004302488_029.xml
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections From the Prison Notebooks (1st ed.). (Q. Hoare, & G. N. Smith, Eds.) New York: International Publishers. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://ia800503.us.archive.org/17/items/AntonioGramsciSelectionsFromThePrisonNotebooks/Antonio-Gramsci-Selections-from-the-Prison-Notebooks.pdf
Hartig, F. (2012). Confucius Institutes and the Rise of China. Journal of Chinese Political Science. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11366-011-9178-7
Huang, Y. (2016, July 30). Understanding China’s Belt & Road Initiative: Motivation, framework and assessment. China Economic Review. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://pdf.sciencedirectassets.com/272074/1-s2.0-S1043951X16X00041/1-s2.0-S1043951X16300785/main.pdf?X-Amz-Security-Token=IQoJb3JpZ2luX2VjECUaCXVzLWVhc3QtMSJHMEUCIE5sj1co8URoBz5SPkuVwqbr%2BEMs6%2Bv2Peu15gKCt2QZAiEAtl%2FbE2lFTfkjrjdpJuz8mm7SmWHIndxXij2w5c
Kaczmarski, M. (2017). Russia-China Relations and the West. Working Papers. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from http://archive.transatlanticrelations.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/01/ch10_Kaczamarski.pdf
Mohan, G., & Tan-Mullins, M. (2019). South, The geopolitics of South–South infrastructure development: Chinese-financed energy projects in the global. SAGE. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0042098018794351?casa_token=i8NjdoaWsqYAAAAA:1kM9mYlsAM2Qr2SPXlJJpuAVJ1_xOy5a_bYx-BleOOaToc_Ji6CXzQv9Nnq3SIND3R8qmqH_39yV
Paradise, J. F. (2009, August). China and International Harmony: The Role of Confucius Institutes in Bolstering Beijing’s Soft Power. JSTOR, 49. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/as.2009.49.4.647?casa_token=0Q9MDW_WG8kAAAAA%3AW5tJRVjlBuZomG3XTmLW6naCEDazu9txGevkC4mbX9MdLYiZLVp6alzuzPzD-yBUOMmlhHAzZW6HG9YNWlUb7YoGECORfedI8ZFhug2QlWjB3bblDYI
Yu, H. (2017). Motivation behind China’s One Belt, One Road Initiatives and Establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Routledge; Taylor & Francis Group. Retrieved December 26, 2023, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/epdf/10.1080/10670564.2016.1245894?needAccess=true&role=button