The End of the ‘Peaceful Rise’?

Even China's elites don't know where it's headed.


For all the breathless headlines, there is no real clarity as to what kind of global power China will become over the next critical decade. But if the international community is in the dark about China’s 21st-century trajectory, it is likely because there is no real consensus among the Chinese themselves.

Throughout the first decades of the reform era, China under Deng Xiaoping quietly and gradually sought to join a wide range of international organizations and regimes. Top policy advisors such as economist Wu Jinglian — who eventually earned the moniker "Mr. Market" — openly favored market reform and integration with the global economy. At the same time, Deng retained earlier elements of Chinese strategy, such as the "Four Modernizations" (agriculture, industry, national defense, and science and technology) aimed at transforming China into a self-reliant power by the early 21st century; and military strategists like Adm. Liu Huaqing, who led the Chinese navy during the 1980s, were laying out a vision for a seafaring force that would be the equal of the United States by the mid-21st century.

The result of Deng’s blending of old and new was the emergence of a global power that nonetheless maintained a low political and military profile. Chinese foreign policy hewed closely to one of Deng’s guiding principles — "hide brightness and cherish obscurity."

Yet the consensus of the Deng era began to fray over the past decade. As China’s economy continued to grow and the country’s presence overseas expanded deep into Southeast Asia, Latin America, and Africa, Deng’s dictum became out of sync with reality. With some outsiders beginning to envision a newly empowered China posing a threat to the West, senior Communist Party official Zheng Bijian sought to explain China’s growing power and influence to the rest of the world. Arriving at the notion of "peaceful rise," which he started using in 2003 and popularized in a 2005 Foreign Affairs article, Zheng argued that unlike other former great powers, China’s rise would not be based on the exploitation of others. Rather, the theory — some might say marketing slogan — stressed that China’s rise would benefit the Chinese people and the rest of the world.

Most of China’s top leaders quickly came out in support of the motto. But the debate over it was instructive: Some Chinese scholars worried that the word "rise" was too provocative for foreigners, while others didn’t like the word "peace," arguing it wouldn’t allow for China to be aggressive if the need arose, for instance should Taiwan suddenly declare independence. As Yan Xuetong, a professor at Tsinghua University, argued at the time, "All peace strategies that would prevent China’s rise must be excluded." In official circles, the term soon morphed into the more soporific "peaceful development."

Today, without Beijing’s clear guidance, a great debate has arisen among China’s intelligentsia over the country’s role in the world. Some are clearly ready to see China assert itself as a global power. At the height of the financial crisis, for example, China’s central bank governor Zhou Xiaochuan suggested the time was ripe for the world to move away from the dollar as the reserve currency. International relations scholars such as Fudan University’s Shen Dingli openly tout China’s right to establish military bases to protect its overseas interests. But other Chinese officials and thinkers just as clearly sense danger in such boldness. "I don’t think China should become another U.S. in global politics, and it couldn’t even if it wanted to," scholar Wang Jisi has opined.

This debate about how China can advance its interests in the world is not simply a choice between seizing the moment and staying the course. Some Chinese officials have called on their government to shoulder more international responsibilities. Premier Wen Jiabao, for example, said in an April speech that China would step up its contributions to international efforts in such areas as education, medical care, and debt reduction because it is "the aspiration of the international community and in China’s own interest, too." Others, such as reporter Wang Di, have written of the need for large Chinese companies operating abroad to consider corporate social responsibility, lest they be labeled forces of "arrogant capital expansion."

Perhaps the most profound challenge, as several Chinese thinkers now articulate, is not any external threat, but rather the changing political culture inside China. "Three decades of reform have led to a rapid increase of wealth in China, and this in turn has also made the Chinese people arrogant," Ye Hailin, research fellow with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, wrote in a stinging critique of current Chinese sensibilities. "The Chinese people are no longer tolerant of criticisms." 

How this debate will shape China’s future remains an open question. But perhaps the most important point is that it is taking place at all — not simply behind the famously closed doors of Zhongnanhai, but before the Chinese people and the rest of the world.

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