Daniel W. Drezner

The sounds of Chinese boilerplate

My conference in Beijing closed with Le Yucheng — the Chinese equivalent of the State Department’s director of policy planning — giving a talk and then taking questions from the academics and policy wonks around the table.  Based on what I heard and the consensus reaction of the old China hands around the table, Le’s ...

My conference in Beijing closed with Le Yucheng — the Chinese equivalent of the State Department’s director of policy planning — giving a talk and then taking questions from the academics and policy wonks around the table. 

Based on what I heard and the consensus reaction of the old China hands around the table, Le’s talk was pretty much boilerplate.  That’s a term of art for policy mandarins —  it translates into "nothing new was said, just a recycling of old talking points and approved language."  However, for those of us who are not old China hands, even boilerplate can be somewhat revealing.  Here were the talking points that stood out for me: 

1)  "To be frank, people don’t understand China."  Le provided a long litany of development problems and challenges facing China.  He found it hypocritical that the rest of the world complained about China not buying enough cars or airplanes from the rest of the world, but also about buying too much oil.  He provided a long spiel about how hard China is working to promote its economic development and overcome massive poverty.  This is code for, "do not expect us to be chipping in all that much for global public goods anytime soon." 

2)  "China is always a humble, modest nation."  This was, easily, the most jarring part of his talk.  Le claimed that since the founding of the People’s Republic, China had not attacked any of her foreign neighbors.  I suspect that diplomats from India, Russia, South Korea, and Vietnam would have some strenuous disagreements with that assertion, but I was told that this is a standard talking point for Chinese diplomats (If you ask me, they’d be better off stating than China has had peaceful relations with the rest of the world in the post-Maoist era and — unlike some other great powers that will go unmentioned — has not averaged a military intervention every 18 months or so). 

This section was also jarring because it primarily consisted of backdoor brags.  Le claimed that China learned much from everyone else, and that he personally works so hard that he never goes on vacation and doesn’t leave the office until 10 PM.  He then talked about how China had solved the Hong Kong problem, the rural development problem, and so forth. 

This sectiion ended with a small rant on how China was very, very different from, just to pick a country out of a hat, Norway.  Because Norway has less than 1% of China’s population while having 100 times China’s resources, Norway should apparently not offer advice to China on, well, anything.  Or, as Le put it, Norway is like a mini-car to China’s bullet train.  Note to Norway:  I think China is still touchy about this

3)  "There is no Beijing Consensus."  This was a point that Le hammered home repeatedly.  He insisted that China had no original development model, and that Beijing certainly wasn’t trying to recommend its model to nany other country.  As Le put it, "There is no best model in the world."  This part of Le’s talk was also the most convincing, as the rest of the assembled Chinese academics made a similar point.  As one academic pithily noted, "both the Washington Consensus and the Beijing Consensus were invented in Washington!"

4)  China will not challenge the global order — in other words, "we are not the USSR."  In a mild contradiction of his first point, Le listed the myriad ways in which China contributed to global order — promoting domestic economic growth to stabilize the regional economy, contributions to UN peacekeeping, anti-terrorism cooperation, anti-piracy, purchasing European and American debt instruments, and — an oldie but a goodie — not devaluing the yuan during the Asian financial crisis.  Le stressed how much China benefitted from the existing order, and that while reforms might be needed, a wholesale change was not needed. 

5)  If you think the PRC government is bad, read our Internet chat boards.  This was interesting, as Le tried to stress that China’s population was far more nationalist and hawkish on the foreign policy front than the PRC government.  He’s not eactly wrong on this point, but it should be pointed out that given the various restrictions on what can be said on the Chinese internet, assertive nationalism is the only approved way of venting for the Chinese public. 

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