This compilation thesis is the result of a public sector industrial PhD project made in collaboration between the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) and Aalborg University. Part of GEUS’ task is to produce knowledge about China’s mineral interests and its effects on the Danish realm for the use of Denmark’s central administration. The foundation for this task includes understanding the machinations behind Chinese decisions on what and where to mine. Prior to this PhD project, GEUS had a solid understanding of potential economic and strategic incentives for China’s engagement in mining and mineral exploration projects. This thesis adds to this understanding by studying how political framing in the Chinese state system plays out and how this framing along with a number of already well-known factors affect the decisions of state and semi-state-owned enterprises to engage in projects outside China, especially in the Arctic.
Chinese interest in minerals overseas has raised concerns, not least in Western countries. Fears have ranged from state-backed Chinese companies taking control over overseas mining operations to Chinese demand driving up commodity prices globally. There have also been concerns that Chinese state and private firms act not only as profit-seeking businesses but also to accomplish the long-term geopolitical goals of the Chinese Communist Party. This is especially the case in the Arctic, where Chinese companies’ engagement in Arctic mining operations are often viewed through the prism of Arctic geopolitics and China’s growing Arctic ambitions.
However, while scholars tend to agree that China has both a strategy for securing supply of mineral raw materials and a regional foreign policy strategy for the Arctic, there is a lack of qualified knowledge about the precise relationship between Chinese state policies and priorities and on-the-ground activities of Chinese companies in the Arctic. This compilation thesis, which consists of four freestanding papers, contributes to filling this research gap, specifically departing from Arctic mining and mineral exploration projects. Hence, the overarching research aim is to improve the understanding of the complex relations between, on the one hand, the Chinese central state’s foreign policy and industrial development priorities and, on the other hand, the decisions and approaches of state and semi-state enterprises and other actors.
Drawing extensively on Chinese-language policy and planning documents and academic articles, as well as field research in China and Greenland, the four papers explore this problématique through a focus on hierarchies of territories – defined and bargained as part of China foreign policy – and of minerals – defined and bargained as part of China’s mineral policy. They take a view of categorization and hierarchies as “performative,” meaning that actors construct and use them to achieve things. In the fragmented authoritarian context, companies, academics, and bureaucratic bodies, who all compete over political attention and limited state resources, not only interpret and adjust to official categories and hierarchies – they also participate in their construction and use them strategically to elevate the political priority of issues in which they have a vested interest or stake.
Based on the approach of fragmented authoritarianism (FA), the thesis viewed Chinese mining companies, mineral resource experts, and foreign policy scholars as part of a state bureaucracy and thus capable of acting as what Andrew Mertha calls “policy entrepreneurs” – or at least as sufficiently close to a bureaucracy to take on such a role. Unlike what is usually found when applying an FA approach, it argues that these policy entrepreneurs not only frame their activities in ways that address the policy frameworks or classification schemes most useful for them, but they also contribute to constructing or at least shaping some of the political language that becomes part of their framing. They do this, not only as FA has told us, by using categorization strategically to add political priority to issues and areas in which they are engaged or seek to engage, but they might also, earlier in the policy process, shape the labelling and content of political categories. In this way, they not only shape policies made at the center, as FA has found, but also to some degree contribute to shaping the state agenda. The thesis thereby also challenges the often-held assumption among China scholars that political language in China is produced by a narrow political elite and used as a tool for discourse control over lower-level cadres, intellectuals, and the masses.