China has a serious problem with inflation. No, I’m not talking about inflationary pressures on the economy, though those numbers have been up. I’m talking about inflation of the national ego. The country, encouraged by relentless state propaganda, has grown full of itself — and this may dangerously diminish its basic capacity for self-reflection.
This, in any case, is the concern being voiced by a number of influencers inside China in recent weeks. And it may be the concern, as the South China Morning Post reports, driving the reshuffle at the top of the State Council Information Office, which is responsible for the country’s overseas messaging.
But these reservations about the dangers of over-confidence have been brewing for some months, particularly in light of growing evidence that China’s more aggressive foreign policy stance, and its grandly stated ambitions to lead the world in areas ranging from technology and innovation to economic and political systems, has spooked many countries. For some in China, trade tensions with the United States are a much-needed wake-up call — even, perhaps, a reminder of the genius of the Deng Xiaoping injunction to “hide our strengths and bide our time.”
Back in September of last year, weeks ahead of the 19th National Congress, where Xi Jinping’s stature was politically inflated to an extent that we have not seen since perhaps the Mao era, Luo Jianbo (罗建波), head of the China Foreign Policy Center at the Central Party School, wrote a clear warning about the prematurity of China’s coming of age as a global power.
Luo’s article, in which he suggests that China is its own worst enemy, is still trending on WeChat. We offer a quick translation.
The curtains have closed on the Belt and Road Forum hosted by China. This is certainly the first time up to now that China’s call has received such widespread attention internationally. Chinese people have reason to be proud and encouraged. But the blanket praise by domestic media and scholars, and the feelings of conceit being expressed online, are cause for concern.
I still recall when the G20 meeting was held in Hangzhou in 2016 and everyone, whether officials or scholars, were saying that China had the “medicine” to cure the world of its economic woes. I remember feeling that everyone was drunk and we were alone, that all nations were in decline and we were rising.
At this Belt and Road Forum some went even further, starting off on this drunken dream about how China now has a “world leader” status. Some even wrote about how China is now the “saviour” of the world.
Whether at the Hangzhou International Conference Center or at Yanqi Lake near Beijing, every time foreign leaders walk down that 50-meter stretch of red carpet and shake hands with Chinese leaders, many of us are overcome with excitement. And this precocious yet definitely immature sense of national greatness is still perhaps undergoing rapid inflation.
This premature sense of national greatness is shown not only in the Great Leap Forward mentality of “surpassing Britain and America,” and in blind optimism about our own development achievements. It can also be seen in the explosion of narrow-minded nationalism and exclusionism that has followed recent frustrations and difficulties in our foreign relations. And again it is expressed in disdain, contempt and superciliousness towards certain smaller nations. In fact, these attitudes actually show a deficiency of true confidence among our people and an immature sense of national greatness.
My goal in writing this is not to disparage China itself, but rather to explain that in the process of progressing toward status as a world power, Chinese people must develop a sense of maturity, broad-mindedness and the mentality of a big stable nation.
Chinese people should recognise with confidence that China is a developing nation, but that it is by its nature a big nation. In times of insufficient national strength, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping and other leaders of the older generation never viewed our nation as a small country or a weak country.
Chinese must also see that a national spirit with patriotism at the core is necessary to the achievement of national development and rejuvenation. A certain degree of national pride, confidence and responsibility is also prerequisite in fostering national unity and in stimulating national growth.
Therefore, fostering a mature sense of national strength is necessary. It is about confidence without arrogance, pride without conceit.
We cannot forget. It was just a few years ago that people were still discussing how to understand the [Deng Xiaoping] injunction to “hide our strengths and bide our time, doing what we can.” But recently this has become a thing of the past. Concerning China’s development and the history of its foreign relations with Chinese characteristics, some are already dissatisfied with this incremental approach and want to push more forcefully. However, it is still my view that we need to have a clear understanding of our own development and our place in the world.
What does it mean to be a great world power?
Being a major world power is not just about having a massive economy and market, but requires also strong production capacity in terms of science and innovation and knowledge. It means having a global military presence as well as strong cultural influence, and it means having a voice that is heard in international institutions.
In terms of being a major world power, it is extremely important to do your part to contribute to the global economy, but you also need to play a vital role in solving major world problems like global warming, and that you be a driving force in building a global consensus and even provide direction for international development.
China now has more and more “presence” in the world as a major power, but it lacks international influence and voice in a full sense. Some foreign experts refer to China as a “partial power” — and while this may not be music to some people’s ears, there is a lot of sense in it.
To accurately understand China’s basic national circumstances and its stage of development, we need pay close attention to the dialectical relationship between three things that haven’t changed, and three things that are unprecedented.
The report to the 18th National Congress of the [Chinese Communist Party] emphasised that “our country is still for the long-term in the primary stages of socialism, this basic national situation has not changed, and the daily increasingly material and cultural demands of the people remain in tension with social production, so the international status of our country as the world’s largest developing country has not changed.”
On this basis, the General Secretary of the [CCP] pointed out that “we are approaching the centre of the world stage at a rate that is unprecedented, we are approaching the realisation of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people to an extent that is unprecedented, and we have capacity and confidence to reach this goal to a degree that is unprecedented.
These three unchanged situations demand that we observe our own inadequacies, that we maintain strategically fixed and historically patient. The three unprecedented situations should motivate us to maintain optimism and confidence while we break new ground and stride ahead.
China has never realized the great rejuvenation of its people, has never become a major world power in the full sense. At this critical stage, maintaining an appropriately low profile (低调) has clear meaning for our long-term development goals.
The genius of “hiding our strengths and biding our time” was in avoiding the major barbs and tensions in the world, enabling us to avoid becoming the focus of tensions in the world. In the world before, this was essentially about remaining modest and guarding against pride and impatience, working to resolve our own problems and build up our core national competitiveness. At the same time, it means actively developing our relationships with the outside world, preserving and extending strategic opportunities for Chinese development.
Previously, we would declare earnestly to Americans time and again that empires faded because of the over-extension of the strength. But we must constantly remind ourselves that it is even more crucial for a major nation that is rising to conceal its strengths and bide its time, gathering strength. The recklessness and impetuousness of Germany, Japan and the Soviet Union in the 20th century are all classic examples.
If we take a fact-based attitude, we discover that America took a calm and unhurried approach in its rise as a major power that perhaps we should learn from. The GDP of the United States in 1900 had already surpassed that of Great Britain, but it was only at mid-century that it fully took on its role as world leader. In the midst of several major crises in the 20th century, including the Great Depression of the 1930s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s, the United States was able to reconsolidate its national power through strategic adjustments. Beginning with the Obama presidency, and continuing with a strengthening of an American-style “hide our strengths and bide our time” under Trump, we are seeing another instance of America making strategic adjustments to deal with a set of difficulties. At this time, as the US is more focused on domestic development and applying its strengths to create hard power, there is important practical meaning [for China] in the strategic thinking of “hiding one’s strengths and biding one’s time.”
From the standpoint of overseas relationships, China must be practical and steady in advancing its strategies internationally, including the “Belt and Road” construction that is so heatedly debated right now. As a call for cooperation, “Belt and Road” without a doubt helps promote China’s rejuvenation and global development, and could be called a representative practice and innovation of major nation foreign relations with Chinese characteristics (中国特色大国外交). However, in the actual implementation there have been substantial concerns such as “premature advance” (战略冒进), “rejoicing in grandiose deeds” (好大喜功) and “having too great an appetite” (贪大求全). If we are more cautious (低调), we might envision “Belt and Road” as a comprehensive elevation of China’s opening to the outside world, its significance in mutual connections and communication, production cooperation and human-to-human interaction — all to promote the transition of China’s development and its full moving out into the world . . .
However, relevant [government and Party] organs have placed such a degree of priority on the program and its strategic unpacking by experts that “Belt and Road” has been portrayed as a major strategy (大战略) — [ie., as more of a movement]. The repeated declarations by China’s government, and the anxiousness of relevant departments to see an “early harvest [of results]” (早期收获)”, in particular the full-fledged rush into the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor without a consideration of costs, has given people outside China a sense that China is too impatient in the building of its “Belt and Road,” and this has fed a sense of concern internationally.
As a call for cooperation, of course the advancement of “Belt and Road” cannot be separated from government direction, but its focus should be on enterprises, social organisations and public initiatives, and it should advance in an orderly way, with full consultation and comprehensive assessment processes — prudently and dependably. But the implementation of “Belt and Road” has come with a degree of disorder and messiness, with various departments and regions and industries all fighting to be first to the door, to become advance soldiers on the beachhead of “Belt and Road.”
In Venezuela and other countries, hefty loans from China have put them in a real bind. In Myanmar, Thailand, Sudan and elsewhere, problems arising from development loans, and the lack of clear business gains from China-invested enterprises in many countries, have long ago sounded warning bells.
At an economic level, the focus with “Belt and Road” is on “going out” [into global markets], but the real difficulty is in coming back — meaning to find real capital growth, or the enrichment of experience and technology.
Many of the glories [of “Belt and Road”] are just not real. To give just a small example, over the past few years, in order to meet the needs of relevant government departments, many works of classical literature, or works on political governance by Chinese scholars, have flowed out of China’s gates on a massive scale. Behind this push is a vast expenditure of state resources, but no real demand from the international market. This sort of clamour and enthusiasm is not based on any market logic, and it cannot continue indefinitely.
So what exactly is “Belt and Road”? If we define it was an economic cooperation platform and a channel for the interaction of cultures, its meaning is already important, and the work that has been done is already substantial. But if we impatiently see it instead as a major “global governance” platform, seeking not only to resolve development challenges facing the world, but also to resolve the even more complex questions about governance globally, this is clearly too much too fast — and it might give us a great deal more responsibility than we are capable of handling. So-called global governance is about coordinating the strong and consoling the weak, and at its core it is a matter of the redistribution of global responsibilities and obligations.
. . .
We must recognise that China has very little knowledge or experience in its history of “going out.” The voyage of Zheng He in the 15th century, while it raised prestige and made friends, bringing visits to China for a time, was a major drag on national power for 30 years until it came to a sudden end, leaving scarcely a mark on the history of sea navigation. Nor did it have much influence on China’s development or its consciousness of sea power.
In the 1950s and 1960s, China’s reached out to countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, and while there were clear gains in its foreign relations, the emphasis was only on political cooperation, overlooking economic interests. The accounts were only political. And in the 1980s there were major policy adjustments on this front. Today, as China is a major overseas investor, we face another era of massive “going out.” The big questions now are how to achieve sustainable development, and how to advance our own interests while attending to the interests of others. “Belt and Road” must draw on the lessons of history.
The Chinese have long cherished the notions of datong (大同), or Great Harmony, and tianxia(天下), or All Under Heaven. At the same time, Chinese culture cares greatly about the “middle way” (中庸之道), or maintaining balance and harmony . . . about introversion and self-examination. . .
Most important, perhaps, is that we should work to resolve our own internal development issues. Over the past few decades, China has achieved rapid economic development and amassed many experiences and ideas that deserve consideration. Scholars at home are busiest trying to work out the secret of China’s development model, or describing its experience managing state affairs. But we have, intentionally or unintentionally, overlooked the fact that we have not yet worked our way through the “middle-income trap” (中等收入陷阱), for which we might look to countries that in their development successfully achieved political transition (like South Korea), or countries that successfully achieved good governance (like Singapore).
As China faces the “middle-income trap,” Chinese must not indulge in blind optimism. We need to sincerely and practically consider how we might resolve challenges and problems emerging in the course of our development. In fact, we can do our best to refute the idea of a “China threat,” or to line up evidence against the argument that China is a “fragile superpower.” But if we think about things cooly, we realise that the extreme difficulty of such problems as the gap between rich and poor, social tensions, environmental pollution, slow-moving economic structural reforms and political reform, all point to the fact that domestic problems are where China must put its fullest focus, and expend its energy.
The hopes of ordinary Chinese are generally very simple. They want a more harmonious society, a fairer social order, and more prosperous lives. We must actively work to answer these desires, and this is the basic precondition of all of our internal work and foreign affairs.
I recall a topic hotly debated online by young internet users: Who is really China’s enemy? Is it America? Japan? Russia?
If we think about things cooly, perhaps none of them are. China’s enemy is itself.
If China’s economy continues to develop, if people’s lives improve, if our style of governance grows clearer, society more harmonious, the environment more beautiful, and if on this foundation China’s national strength steadily grows, we could certainly see China’s international image improving and its prestige gaining, and the realization of the Chinese dream of rejuvenation will happen. I eagerly await the arrival of that day.