By way of background, over a hundred years ago, legal reformers in the Qing dynasty, such as Shen Jiaben or “Grand Shen” (1840—1913) sought to modernize Qing law in light of Western powers’ extraterritoriality, often predicated on the perceived inferiority of Chinese law. Shen and his colleagues led experiments in legal reform aimed at establishing modern legislation and an independent judiciary. They looked to Japan and through Japan’s legal modernization to Germany, France, and other European states to create a constitutional framework. Shen’s efforts failed with the fall of the empire, but periodically, in the history of the People’s Republic of China (“China” or the “PRC”), there have been subsequent moments of vibrant experimentation, creativity, and opening.
Fast forward to the 2008 global financial crisis, and China has emerged as a powerful presence in international political economy. No longer is China subjected to concessions by Western hegemons, rather, China leads the world in terms of multinational corporations, financial assistance to fragile countries, and development projects (including, building ports) throughout the global South. China’s position as an emergent superpower occurs against the backdrop of a weakened Western liberal order, one riven by xenophobia, trade barriers, and economic nationalism. One initial issue, then, is the relationship between international orders: European colonialism, an American-led globalization and international governance system in the post-World War II period, and, currently, China’s emergence. While scholars have argued for an inheritance between European colonialism and the birth of international law, the relationship between the Americanization of international law and China’s rise is still uncertain.
What is clear at this point is China’s position in these successive (or overlapping) stages: in the first stage of European colonialism, Chinese sovereignty was infringed upon (e.g., the Unequal Treaties and the 99-year lease of Hong Kong to Great Britain), in the second stage, China benefitted from the liberal order (e.g., FDI from the U.S. and accession into the WTO), and, presently, in the third stage, for the first time, China is a decision-maker. As to the question of the relationship between the first and third stages, the popular media has made much of China’s signing a 99-year least for the port in Hambantota, Sri Lanka, an arrangement with strong echoes of Hong Kong’s past. These dynamics have initiated a global debate about China as a “neo-colonial” power versus China as offering an alternative “Asian model” of economic development. There is, however, an information gap, and, in particular, a lack of reliable data and analysis on the effects of Chinese capital on emergent economies.