Within the debate of China’s rise and its implications for the liberal order this research focuses on China’s global posture through its transnationalizing firms and capital. On the basis of a detailed and systematic mapping and network analysis of a novel database on China’s largest firms, across a variety of sectors and ownership types, and their boards of directors, the study assesses if and how China is engaging with existing transnational business communities at the heart of the liberal international order. The article finds substantial transnational linkages between the globalizing Chinese business elite and the corporate elite networks of Western globalized capitalism – through corporate affiliations and policy-planning affiliations. At the same time the analysis reveals the strong ties of the Chinese state-business elites to the party-state. Rather than presenting an outright threat to the liberal order and the corporate elite networks at its core, or indicating a co-optation scenario, the article finds evidence for a more hybrid scenario in which China as a corporate actor within the liberal world reveals its two faces: partially and pragmatically integrating and adapting to the liberal modes of networking, while simultaneously holding on to its distinctive state-directed capitalism and the (Party) direction this entails.


The much debated question of the implications of China’s ascent and its interaction with the liberal world order – as shaped by Western powers over the last centuries – has recently gained renewed urgency. The liberal order is challenged not only by increasingly assertive emerging powers – China upfront – but also from within, as exemplified by in particular the American pluto-populist president Donald Trump. In this context, questions on China’s global posture and in particular the extent to which it is rejecting or adapting to the liberal order’s foundation have become increasingly salient.

Going beyond the state-centrism of the traditional debate this study starts from the premise that a comprehensive understanding of China’s rise and its implications for the liberal world order requires an approach that takes into account the domestic and social sources of state behavior and foreign policy. The latter are moreover taken to be rooted in a domestic political economy that is interlinked with an evolving global political economy and – as also argued elsewhere (e.g. De Graaff & Van Apeldoorn, 2018) – crucially mediated by elite networks and elite strategies. States, as well as other political actors such as large corporations, are not seen as actors in their own right, but as always acting through people—of which the top is made up of governing elites. Governing elites in turn are embedded in wider social networks, relating them to broader social structures within society, that shape their interests, ideas and world-views, and hence influence their governance and policy-making (De Graaff & Van Apeldoorn, 2018, p. 116).

Within the broader theme of the forum, the present article will therefore take the business elites at the frontline of China’s global posturing as its focus. It aims to analyze how leading Chinese transnationalizing business elites relate to and interact with Western corporate elite networks – which are argued to constitute an important socially networked elite foundation of the liberal international order – while simultaneously being linked to domestic state-business networks and elite power structures ‘at home’.

Starting with the ‘going out’ initiative around the turn of the millennium, Chinese firms have increasingly ‘gone global’ and in spite of a recent global slowdown of Chinese outward investment China is now the second largest outward investor in the world (UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade & Development), 2019, p. 6). Chinese outward investments – while initially concentrated mostly in the ‘developing’ world – have been increasingly directed towards the Western ‘developed’ world, i.e. Europe and the US (e.g. Blanchard, 2019; Drahokouphil, 2017; Ma & Overbeek, 2015; Meunier, 2019; Wu & Frøystadvåg, 2016).

With this ongoing transnationalization of Chinese capital and corporations, this article argues that China’s business elites also encounter incumbent power structures, formed by transnational elite networks situated at the core of the liberal order, to which they have to relate and vice versa. As documented by a longstanding tradition of power structure research (e.g. Domhoff, 1967, 2014 ) directors of Western corporations have, in the wake of globalization, increasingly formed transnational corporate elite networks alongside the national corporate networks in which they are embedded (Burris, 2005; Carroll & Fennema, 2002; Carroll & Sapinski, 2010; Heemskerk, 2013; Kentor & Jang, 2004). These national and transnational elite networks of overlapping ties in the corporate world through so called interlocking directorates, and of ties to elite policy planning groups, according to this literature have become central power structures of the liberal order, in which intra-elite consensus is formed around the (neo)liberal rules of the game (e.g. Carroll, 2010; Van Apeldoorn & De Graaff, 2016).

This extensive scholarship has so far just begun to systematically map and integrate the rise of non-Western corporate and political elite networks and how these are related to the existing elite power structures (Cardenas, 2015; De Graaff, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014; Heemskerk & Takes, 2016). In light of the current transition of the liberal order and the shift in the center of gravity in terms of economic and political power towards China, this gap urgently needs to be addressed. The present study contributes to this aim by focusing on the business elites at the helm of China’s globalizing transnational corporations (TNCs).

More particularly, the article aims to analyze a) the ways in which Chinese leading business elites are networking and transnationalizing; b) whether and how they are integrating into Western corporate elite networks as shaped and dominated by American and European business elites; c) whether they adopt similar patterns of elite formation as the former, or form distinctive networking patterns; and d) investigate the way in which the Chinese business elite is domestically linked to elite power structures in the domains of politics, the corporate world and policy planning.

Employing biographical mapping and social network analysis the paper will present findings of the globalizing networks of a sample of the boards of China’s largest TNCs (a total of 190 directors) from a variety of sectors and different ownership types (ranging from wholly state-owned to private ownership). A newly constructed database containing the biographical data of this sample of the top segment of the Chinese globalizing business elite, serves as the basis for these analyses, which will be complemented with qualitative data from interviews and document analysis.

The paper is structured as follows: Below I will first present a brief conceptual framework of studying elite networks with Chinese characteristics based on a discussion of existing scholarship. I will then introduce the data set and describe in more detail the methods employed for this study. Subsequently, the key findings will be presented, starting with an analysis of the nature and composition of the boards of the chosen sample of Chinese TNCs, to then map and interpret the configuration and properties of the corporate networks, the policy planning networks, and the state-business networks to which they connect, since these are three key domains of elite power as established by the aforementioned power structure research literature (see also below). The concluding section relates the findings of the globalizing networks of China’s state-business elites to the central theme of this forum and the larger question of China’s interplay with the liberal world order, ending with a research agenda.

Studying elite networks with Chinese characteristics

The emerging body of International Political Economy (IPE) literature on the transnationalization of China’s political economy (e.g. Breslin, 2011, 2013; McNally, 2012; Nölke, Ten Brink, Claar, & May, 2015; Ten Brink, 2019) takes account of the importance of elite agency and networks in China’s distinctive form of capitalism. The conceptualizations suggested in this literature offer promising frameworks of analysis for the Chinese state-business ties and their distinctive transnationalizing dynamics (see also McNally in this forum). Yet, this body of research has so far not empirically investigated these social ties and the elite backgrounds in a systematic fashion, nor analyzed how the Chinese leading state-business elite networks are transnationalizing, which is what the present study sets out to do.

With regard to elite formation inside China there is a large and empirically rich body of (mostly sociological) scholarship available (Fewsmith, 2001; Li, 2013; Pye, 1995; Shih, 2008). The focus of this literature, however, lies primarily on domestic intra-elite dynamics, predominantly in the political domain (e.g. factional dynamics and the role of guanxi, family, and birthplace, Li, 2016, Keller, 2016; Shih, Shan, & Liu, 2010; Shih, Adolph, & Liu, 2012 ). While of potential relevance for the ties that bind the transnationalizing business elite to the state and the party elite, this literature has so far barely investigated the internationalizing top of the Chinese business elite,1 nor is it aimed at a deeper understanding of how these elite power structures are related to the political economy and its dynamic interaction with the global political economy.

A third body of literature to which the present study aims to contribute is the by now vast scholarship on the activities of Chinese firms and business elites in the developing world (Brautigam, 2009; Gonzalez-Vicente, 2017; Jenkins, 2018; Lee, 2017; Nyíri, 2013; Strauss & Saavedra, 2010), as well as the extensive literature on (South) East Asian transnational networks, such as created by ‘overseas Chinese’ investors (e.g. Dahles, 2015; Nyiri & Tan, 2016; Todeva, 2007). The recent decades of Chinese major firms ‘going global’ have presumably generated a novel group of Chinese business elites; a globalizing Chinese business class that can be expected to engage in different (transnational) networking modes. They also arguably constitute a novel kind of relationship, which can be conceptualized as South-North relations, as distinctive from the much studied South-South relations. This phenomenon has however hardly been investigated yet in a systematic fashion. The present analysis will therefore focus on the directors of China’s leading TNCs and the social networks they establish, taking the aforementioned power structure research (PSR) as its conceptual starting point.

From the PSR literature two elite networking modes (both national and transnational) can be distilled as key analytical focal points: networks established through corporate affiliations (in this literature usually interlocking directorates, i.e. directors holding multiple board positions simultaneously); and so-called policy planning networks, wherein corporate directors, intellectuals and policy makers convene to devise corporate strategies and policy directions. These two types of networks are seen (e.g. Carroll, 2010; Useem, 1984) as important platforms for intra-elite cohesion and will hence be included in the analysis in order to assess the extent and nature of transnationalization of Chinese business elites, as well as their interaction with these existing elite power structures at the top of the Western corporate world – or the lack thereof.

Given China’s unique political economy and its distinctive contradictory dynamics (Chen & Naughton, 2017; Van Apeldoorn, De Graaff, & Overbeek, 2012; Jones & Zou, 2017), as well as the intricate relationship of business organizations in China with the party-state (Dickson, 2008; Huang, 2008; McNally, 2002; Ten Brink, 2013, 2019), affiliations to the party-state will be the third key dimension of analysis in the present study. Hence a third mode of networking is added here: interlinkages between the corporate boards and the state, through overlapping, subsequent, or recurrent ties (e.g. revolving door ties). This party-state-business nexus will be analyzed primarily through the personal affiliations of corporate directors to the party-state; but will also be inferred through the inclusion of state-ownership structures.

In sum, three modes of networking of China’s transnationalizing business elite will be analyzed: through corporate affiliations, through policy planning ties, and via the party-state. Below, I will operationalize these analytical categories further and elaborate on the methods employed and data collected.

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China Inc. goes global. Transnational and national networks of China’s globalizing business elite

Author(s): Nana de Graaff

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Rusdin Tahir

Senior Lecturer [study on leaves] Department of Business Administration Science Faculty of Social and Political Science UNIVERSITY OF PADJADJARAN Jalan Raya Bandung-Sumedang KM 21 Jatinangor 45363, West Java, Indonesia Ph: +62 22 7792647,7796416 Fax: +62 22 7792647 Mobile: +62 81 123 9491; 822 919 356 65 Email:;; Web: Web: Web: Web: Web:

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