How Could the World Understand China

Cui Tiankai

Some narratives about China in the world today, particularly in certain Western countries, are quite misleading. Some are due to the lack of knowledge, but others are on purpose. All in all, they prevent people from forming the right perception of China’s development strategies and domestic and foreign policies. Here, based on my work experience, I would like to give a few examples of false narratives about China’s foreign policy.

First, narrative about China’s strategic intention.

One narrative argues that China’s goal is to challenge the United States and replace it as the dominant power. This is serious misunderstanding and misjudgment, and also highly misleading. The difficulties confronting China-U.S. relations in recent years are closely related to the U.S. misperception of China. China’s development goal and vision for the world are no secret, and we have nothing to hide. The Chinese leadership has explained this to the world in clear-cut terms long before. As General Secretary Xi Jinping pointed out in the Report to the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), our goal is to meet the people’s aspirations for a better life, realize Chinese modernization and achieve the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.

The report summed up the five fundamental features of Chinese modernization, which are all rooted in China’s national conditions. One of them is peaceful development. China does not seek supremacy or hegemony, nor does it invade or plunder others. It pursues modernization through peaceful development. China will never become the United States, because the two countries have different cultural and historical traditions, and their ruling parties have different governance philosophies. The very nature of the two countries and the needs of their peoples are not the same, either. Last November, in his speech at the welcome dinner hosted by U.S. friendly organizations in San Francisco, President Xi pointed out that in pursuing modernization, China will never revert to the beaten path of war, colonization, plundering or coercion. Whatever stage of development it may reach, China will never pursue hegemony or expansion, and will never impose its will on others. China does not seek spheres of influence, and does not want to fight a cold war or a hot war with anyone.

China’s foreign policy goals are to uphold world peace, promote common development, and build a community with a shared future for mankind. To this end, China has pushed for Belt and Road cooperation, and put forward the Global Development Initiative, the Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative. What’s more, China is opposed to hegemonism, and we never believe that the world should be dominated or even ruled by one or two countries or a small bloc of countries. This has been, and will continue to be, our position. By opposing hegemonism, we are not linking it with any specific country, nor do we intend to pursue hegemony ourselves. What we are opposed to is hegemony of all kinds, wherever and whomever it comes from. For the same reason, China will do what is necessary to protect its legitimate national interests and development rights, and reject any attempt to hold back or suppress its development, wherever and whomever it comes from.

China has stated its position with transparency and clarity. The principle of peaceful development has been written into the Chinese Constitution and the Constitution of the Communist Party of China. But why do some people still manufacture and promote the false narrative that China is vying for dominance with the United States? If this is because they don’t know much of China’s history and culture, the nature of the Chinese state and China’s policy goals, then I kindly ask them to know more about China, hear more of China’s views and make more visits to China. If the reason is that they speculate on China’s goals based on their own intentions and thus believe that what they did in the past will inevitably be repeated, then I advise them to put aside their biased profiling, look at today’s world from a new perspective, and appreciate the trend of history and the will of the world’s people. To borrow a catchphrase in China, what they need is to remold their outlook on the world.

Second, narrative about China’s neighborhood diplomacy.

In recent years, China has often been accused of taking a more aggressive foreign policy, coercing and bullying other countries. This is a completely false narrative. China’s approach to neighborhood diplomacy has been consistent, which boils down to the four principles put forth by President Xi Jinping — amity, sincerity, mutual benefit, and inclusiveness. Its aim is to cultivate friendship and partnership with neighboring countries. As a matter of fact, China has been deepening its friendly and cooperative relations with many neighboring countries. Thanks to the continuous efforts of all parties, the Asia-Pacific region has been stable on the whole, and regional cooperation has made steady advances. The region has become one of the main drivers of global growth. These are all facts for the whole world to see.

That said, due to both historical and practical factors, China has outstanding issues left over from history with some neighboring countries. Nevertheless, China and the relevant countries have a common understanding that good neighborliness, friendship and cooperation meet their shared interests. It is the bigger picture that all should uphold. Differences and problems can be managed, controlled and gradually resolved through consultations on the basis of equality and mutual respect, and they should not affect the bigger picture. This common understanding is consistent with the basic norms of international relations. It reflects Asian wisdom and has produced good outcomes over the years. Had it not been for the more and more frequent interventions of external forces, the situation would have developed along the positive direction.
In this regard, the South China Sea is a typical case in point. China’s proposition is well-grounded and has been affirmed in the long course of history. After some countries put forward their claims, China, while upholding its proposition, has opted for consultations and negotiations to resolve relevant issues and exercised restraint through the years. With the joint efforts, China and the relevant countries have succeeded in adopting the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and are now in consultations over a code of conduct (COC). The DOC clearly stipulates that territorial and jurisdictional disputes should be resolved by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned.

What is happening now, however, is that external countries which are not directly concerned have forcibly intervened in the South China Sea. They are disrupting the friendly consultations and negotiations among countries directly concerned, and making threats of force with increased military presence. Along with this, some truth-distorting narratives have begun to spread. Some countries quote the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and accuse others of violating this Convention. They have even advocated the so-called arbitration, although it falls outside the mandate of the UNCLOS and has no legal basis. The country that made the loudest noise, however, has not ratified the UNCLOS itself. These countries couldn’t care less about the restrictions of the Convention, yet they try to put other countries in a strait jacket. This is a typical example of double standards. Some countries accuse China of militarizing the South China Sea. But what China did was no more than the construction of defense facilities on its own islands and reefs.

Recently, we often hear talks about the right to self-defense for all countries. As a matter of fact, by building necessary and limited defense facilities, China is precisely exercising its right to self-defense. But indeed, some countries are truly engaged in militarization. Some country, with the most powerful military forces in the world, continues to send warships and military aircraft across oceans to the South China Sea, even to the proximity of China’s territorial sea and exclusive economic zone. It also established and strengthened numerous military bases in China’s surrounding region and formed military alliances. These are clearly acts of militarization. With its increased military presence, this major country, which is outside of the region, is acting aggressively in the South China Sea. This fully exposes its attempt to coerce and interfere with the affairs of other countries. It is naive to think that these actions and narratives are a challenge and threat to China alone and will not have a long-term negative impact on other countries and regions. Allegedly they seek to shape China’s strategic environment, but in fact it is China’s neighboring countries that will be shaped.

Third, narrative about Taiwan.

First of all, it must be pointed out that the Taiwan question is an internal affair of China, a question that concerns China’s national reunification and territorial integrity. That is why it is the core of the core interests of China. The Taiwan question has often been a subject of démarches lodged by Chinese diplomats, and it is also the most important and most sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations. This is entirely because the United States keeps interfering in China’s internal affairs and obstructs China’s reunification process. By raising our concerns to the United States on Taiwan as the most important and sensitive issue, we are simply asking the United States to change its wrong policies and undo their negative impacts. This does not suggest in any way that the United States can dominate the question. The United States might have important influence on the situation in the Taiwan Strait, but China’s reunification must and will be realized. This is a process that no one, not even the United States, can reverse.

In the three China-U.S. joint communiqués that constitute the basic framework of China-U.S. relations, the most crucial is the one-China principle. However, there are always some in the United States that attempt to change the narrative. When referring to the three joint communiqués, U.S. official announcements would include unilateral legislation that clearly violates the commitments made between sovereign countries, as well as privately made assurances that are never supposedly to see the light of day. Its objective is to weaken, hollow out and offset the principle established by the three joint communiqués. The United States always claims what it cares most about is peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question. For the Chinese, whether the country is reunified or divided, enjoys territorial integrity or suffers disintegration determines if the 1.4 billion-plus Chinese people and their children, and children’s children, can enjoy a peaceful life. How can lasting peace be secured without reunification? If the United States truly cares about peace, then peaceful reunification of China should be the most ideal and logical result. The United States has never been willing to publicly express its support for China’s peaceful reunification. It has always been dodging or avoiding such statements. Is it reluctant to see China’s reunification? Does it have reservations about peace? The United States likes to say that the situation in the Taiwan Strait affects regional stability. But only when China is reunified can we fundamentally eliminate factors of instability in the Taiwan Strait.

Fourth, narrative about China’s diplomatic style. In recent years, there have been frequent discussions about China’s diplomatic style. Many of them are friendly encouragements and well-intended hopes. But there are also some specious narratives which are either biased or focus only on the superficial but fail to grasp the essence of China’s diplomacy. Diplomatic style is the reflection of the defining character of a country’s foreign policy. What China pursues, in a word, is an independent foreign policy of peace, which includes an unwavering commitment to independence and unremitting pursuit of world peace. The changes in circumstances or adjustments in strategies will not alter the goal of foreign policy. In other words, no matter how the policy is practiced, its fundamentals would always remain unchanged. Under this premise, the style and approach of conducting diplomacy cannot and should not follow a monotonous pattern. They must be diverse in forms, applied with flexibility, and determined based on the situation on the ground. With the changes in situation, rising demands of the people and higher expectations of the international community, China’s diplomacy should also keep pace with the times. In this sense, no one can claim perfect in doing diplomatic work and there is always room for improvement. Those engaged in and observe diplomacy should both view the evolution of China’s diplomatic style from a comprehensive, developing and changing perspective.

It is now very popular to define things with figurative images, because images are vivid and easy to spread. That said, an image is often just an analogy, not a science-based, accurate or all-encompassing definition. Its purpose is to highlight the most prominent features of the subject. If we must visualize China’s diplomatic style, I would choose Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, in the Journey to the West. The image comes from Chinese classical literature and carries the imprints of Chinese culture. Sun Wukong is loyal, determined, and capable, and has a clear sense of good and evil. He is a household name in China. The Chinese people, from state leaders to ordinary people, from the elderly to children, all love him, and he is also famous around the world. In the early 1960s, Chairman Mao Zedong wrote a poem of praise to Sun Wukong --

“The Monkey swung his fabulous wand for a sweep;
The jade-like dome cleared of all dust wide and deep.
We hail the ever-victorious Monkey King today,
For the mist-veiled Spirit is again on his way.”
The poem was written over 60 years ago, but it is very relevant in today’s world. 

I have raised the issue of narrative in particular because it reflects perception, determines attitudes, and affects behaviors. In recent years, false narratives have misled public opinions, provoked confrontation and created tensions. They have severely disrupted the international landscape, undermined state-to-state relations and hindered the further progress of humanity’s cause. This deserves our high vigilance. In the last paragraph of his masterpiece On China, Dr. Henry Kissinger, whom I greatly respect, said, “what a culmination if the United States and China could merge their efforts not to shake the world, but to build it.” I sincerely hope that his ardent expectation can become the common narrative and be translated into concerted efforts of China and the United States, so that the two countries will be able to, as President Xi Jinping advised, find the right way to get along with each other.
Cui Tiankai is Adviser to the Council of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs and Former Chinese Ambassador to the United States.