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.
- Blanchard, J. F. (2019). Chinese outward foreign direct investment (COFDI): A primer and assessment of the state of COFDI research. In K. Zeng (Ed.), Handbook on the International Political Economy of China (pp. 67–97). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing. , [Google Scholar]
- Brautigam, D. (2009). The dragon’s gift. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Breslin, S. (2011). The ‘China model’ and the global crisis: From Friedrich List to a Chinese mode of governance? International Affairs, 87(6), 1323–1343. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2346.2011.01039.x , [Google Scholar]
- Breslin, S. (2013). China and the global order: Signaling threat or friendship? International Affairs, 89(3), 615–634. , [Google Scholar]
- Buch-Hansen, H. (2014). Social network analysis and critical realism. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 44(3), 306–325. , [Google Scholar]
- Burris, V. (2005). Interlocking Directorates and Political Cohesion among Corporate Elites. American Journal of Sociology, 3(1), 249–283. doi:10.1086/428817 , [Google Scholar]
- Burris, V. (2008). The interlock structure of the policy-planning network and the right turn in U.S. state policy. Politics and Public Policy, 17, 3–42. , [Google Scholar]
- Cardenas, J. (2015). Are Latin America’s corporate elites transnationally interconnected? A network analysis of interlocking directorates. Global Networks, 15(4), 424–445. , [Google Scholar]
- Carroll, W. K. (2010). The making of a transnational capitalist class: Corporate power in the 21st century. London: Zed Books. , [Google Scholar]
- Carroll, W. K., & Fennema, M. (2002). Is there a transnational business community? International Sociology, 17(3), 393–419. doi:10.1177/0268580902017003003 , [Google Scholar]
- Carroll, W. K., & Sapinski, J. P. (2010). The global corporate elite and the transnational policy-planning network, 1996–2006: A structural analysis. InternationalSociology, 25(4), 501–538. [Google Scholar]
- Carroll, W. K., & Shaw, M. (2001). Consolidating a Neoliberal Policy Bloc in Canada, 1976–1996. Canadian Public Policy, 27(2), 1–23. , [Google Scholar]
- Chen, L., & Naughton, B. (2017). A dynamic China model: The co-evolution of economics and politics in China. Journal of Contemporary China, 26(103), 18–34. doi:10.1080/10670564.2016.1206278 , [Google Scholar]
- Cousin, B., Khan, S., & Mears, A. (2018). Theoretical and methodological pathways for research on elites. Socio-Economic Review, 16(2), 225–249. doi:10.1093/ser/mwy019 , [Google Scholar]
- Dahles, H. (2015). Culture, capitalism and political entrepeneurship: Transnational business ventures of the Singapore-Chinese in China. Culture and Organization, 11(1), 45–58. , [Google Scholar]
- De Graaff, N. (2011). A global energy network? The expansion and integration of non-triad national oil companies. Global Networks, 11(2), 262–283. , [Google Scholar]
- De Graaff, N. (2012). Oil elite networks in a transforming global oil market. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 53(4), 275–297. , [Google Scholar]
- De Graaff, N. (2014). Global networks and the two faces of Chinese national oilcompanies. Perspectives on Global Development and Technology, 13(5–6), 539–563. , [Google Scholar]
- De Graaff, N., & Van Apeldoorn, B. (2018). US–China relations and the liberal world order: Contending elites, colliding visions? International Affairs, 94(1), 113–131. doi:10.1093/ia/iix232 , [Google Scholar]
- De Graaff, N. (2013). Towards a hybrid global energy order. State-owned oil companies, corporate elite networks and governance (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation). VU University, Amsterdam. [Google Scholar]
- Dickson, B. (2008). Wealth into power: The communist party’s embrace of China’s private sector. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. , [Google Scholar]
- Domhoff, W. G. (1967). Who rules America? Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. [Google Scholar]
- Domhoff, W. G. (2014). Who rules America? The triumph of the corporate rich. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. [Google Scholar]
- Drahokouphil, J. (Ed.). (2017). Chinese investment in Europe: Corporate strategies and labour relations. Brussels: European Trade Union Institute. [Google Scholar]
- Fewsmith, J. (2001). Elite politics in contemporary China. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe. [Google Scholar]
- Gonzalez-Vicente, R. (2017). South–South relations under world market capitalism: The state and the elusive promise of national development in the China–Ecuador resource-development nexus. Review of International Political Economy, 24(5), 881–903. , [Google Scholar]
- Heemskerk, E. M. (2013). The rise of the European corporate elite: Evidence from the network of interlocking directorates in 2005 and 2010. Economy and Society, 42(1), 74–101. doi:10.1080/03085147.2012.686720 , [Google Scholar]
- Heemskerk, E. M., & Takes, F. W. (2016). The corporate elite community structure of global capitalism. New Political Economy, 21(1), 90–118. , [Google Scholar]
- Holslag, J. (2017). How China’s new silk road threatens European trade. The International Spectator, 52(1), 46–60. , [Google Scholar]
- Huang, Y. (2008). Capitalism with Chinese characteristics: Entrepreneurship and the state. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. , [Google Scholar]
- Hung, H. (2010). Uncertainty in the enclave. New Left Review, 66(11–12), 55–77. [Google Scholar]
- Jenkins, R. (2018). How China is reshaping the global economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. , [Google Scholar]
- Jones, L., & Zou, Y. (2017). Rethinking the role of state-owned enterprises in China’s rise. New Political Economy, 22(6), 743–760. , [Google Scholar]
- Keller, F. (2016). Moving beyond factions: Using social network analysis to uncover patronage networks among Chinese elites. Journal of East Asian Studies, 16(1), 17–41. doi:10.1017/jea.2015.3 , [Google Scholar]
- Kentor, J., & Jang, Y. S. (2004). Yes, there is a (growing) transnational business community. A study of global interlocking directorates 1983–1998. International Sociology, 19(3), 355–368. , [Google Scholar]
- Klassen, J., & Carroll, W. K. (2011). Transnational class formation? Globalization and the Canadian corporate network. Journal of World-Systems Research, 17(2), 379–402. doi:10.5195/JWSR.2011.418 , [Google Scholar]
- Lee, C. K. (2017). The specter of global China. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. , [Google Scholar]
- Leutert, W. (2018). The political mobility of China’s central state-owned enterprise leaders. The China Quarterly, 233, 1–21. , [Google Scholar]
- Li, C. (2010). Shaping China’s foreign policy: The paradoxical role of foreign-educated returnees. Asia Policy, 10(1), 65–85. , [Google Scholar]
- Li, C. (2013). A biographical and factional analysis of the post-2012 politburo. China Leadership Monitor, 41, 1–17. [Google Scholar]
- Li, C. (2016). Chinese politics in the Xi Jinping era: Reassessing collective leadership. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press. [Google Scholar]
- Ma, Y., & Overbeek, H. (2015). Chinese foreign direct investment in the European Union: Explaining changing patterns. Global Affairs, 1(4–5), 441–454. doi:10.1080/23340460.2015.1113796 , [Google Scholar]
- McGregor, R. (2010). The party. The secret world of China’s communist rulers. London: Penguin Books. [Google Scholar]
- McNally, C. A. (2002). Strange bedfellows: Communist party institutions and new governance mechanisms in Chinese state holding corporations. Business and Politics, 4(1), 91–115. , [Google Scholar]
- McNally, C. A. (2012). Sino-capitalism: China’s reemergence and the international political economy. World Politics, 64(4), 741–776. , [Google Scholar]
- Meunier, S. (2019). Chinese direct investment in Europe: Economic opportunities and political challenges. In K. Zeng (Ed.). Handbook on the International Political Economy of China (pp. 98–112). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar Publishing. , [Google Scholar]
- Mizruchi, M. S. (1996). What do interlocks do? An analysis, critique, and assessment of research on interlocking directorates. Annual Review of Sociology, 22(1), 271–298. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.22.1.271 , [Google Scholar]
- Nölke, A., Ten Brink, T., Claar, S., & May, C. (2015). Domestic structures, foreign economic policies and global economic order: Implications from the rise of large emerging economies. European Journal of International Relations, 21(3), 538–567. , [Google Scholar]
- Nyíri, P. (2013). Chinese investors, labour discipline and developmental cosmopolitanism. Development and Change, 44(6), 1387–1405. , [Google Scholar]
- Nyíri, P., & Tan, D. (Eds.). (2016). Chinese encounters in Southeast Asia. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press. [Google Scholar]
- Parmar, I. (2004). Think tanks and power in foreign policy: A comparative study of the role and influence of the council onAn exception is Leutert 2018, who provides foreign relations and the royal institute of international affairs, 1939–1945. London: Palgrave Macmillan. , [Google Scholar]
- Parmar, I. (2012). Foundations of the American century. The Fort, Carnegie, & Rockefeller foundations in the Rise of American Power. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. , [Google Scholar]
- Pye, L. (1995). Factions and the politics of guanxi: Paradoxes in Chinese administrative and political behaviour. The China Journal, 35, 35–53. doi:10.2307/2950132 , [Google Scholar]
- Scott, J. (2008). Modes of power and the re-conceptualization of elites. The Sociological Review, 56(1_suppl), 25–34. , [Google Scholar]
- Scott, J., & Carrington, P. J. (Eds.). (2011). The Sage handbook of social network analysis. London: Sage. , [Google Scholar]
- Shih, V. (2008). Factions and finance in China: Elite conflict and inflation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Shih, V., Adolph, C., & Liu, M. (2012). Getting ahead in the communist party: Explaining the advancement of central committee members in China. American Political Science Review, 106(1), 166–187. , [Google Scholar]
- Shih, V., Shan, W., & Liu, M. (2010). Gauging the elite political equilibrium in the CCP: A quantitative approach using biographical data. The China Quarterly, 201, 79–103. doi:10.1017/S0305741009991081 , [Google Scholar]
- Strauss, J., & Saavedra, M. (2010). China and Africa. Emerging patterns in globalization and development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Stuart, S. (2017). Boards around the world. Spencer Stuart. Retrieved from https://www.spencerstuart.com/research-and-insight/boards-around-the-world [Google Scholar]
- Ten Brink, T. (2013). Paradoxes of prosperity in China’s new capitalism. Journal of Current Chinese Affairs, 42(4), 17–44. , [Google Scholar]
- Ten Brink, T. (2019). China’s capitalism. A paradoxical route to economic prosperity. (C Weiss Trans.). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. , [Google Scholar]
- Todeva, E. (2007). Business networks in China: Legacies and practice. In S. Clegg, K. Wang, & M. Berrell (Eds.), Business networks and strategic alliances in China (pp. 252–271). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. [Google Scholar]
- UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development). (2019). World investment report 2019. New York, NY: United Nations Publications. , [Google Scholar]
- Useem, M. (1984). The inner circle. Large corporations and the rise of business political activity in the U.S. and the U.K. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. [Google Scholar]
- Van Apeldoorn, B., & De Graaff, N. (2016). American grand strategy and corporate elite networks: The Open Door since the end of the Cold War. London: Routledge. [Google Scholar]
- Van Apeldoorn, B., De Graaff, N., & Overbeek, H. (2012). The reconfiguration of the global state–capital nexus. Globalizations, 9(4), 471–486. doi:10.1080/14747731.2012.699915 , [Google Scholar]
- Van der Pijl, K. (1984). The making of the Atlantic ruling class. London: Verso. [Google Scholar]
- Van Der Pijl, K. (2014). The discipline of western supremacy. Modes of foreign relations and political economy. London: Pluto Press. [Google Scholar]
- Wasserman, S., & Faust, K. (1994). Social network analysis: Methods and applications. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. , [Google Scholar]
- Wu, F., & Frøystadvåg, A. B. (2016). China Investment Corporation’s Forays into Europe and the United States: Explaining the different receptions. Journal of Contemporary China, 25(97), 91–111. , [Google Scholar]
China Inc. goes global. Transnational and national networks of China’s globalizing business elite
Author(s): Nana de Graaff