August 9, 2021 Special Dispatch No. 9487

Renowned Chinese Academic Yan Xuetong: 'China Will Work To Foster An Ideological Environment Conducive To Its Rise, While Opposing Western Values'

August 9, 2021
China | Special Dispatch No. 9487

An essay by Yan Xuetong, dean of Tsinghua University's Institute of Contemporary International Relations and a leading expert on Chinese foreign policy and Sino-U.S. relations, published July 15, 2021 on Guanchazhe (better known as Guancha) was titled "How Should We Make The Voice of Chinese Diplomacy Heard in the New Era?"[1]

Yan wrote in the essay that in the past year there has been a "paradigm shift" in Chinese diplomacy: China believes that its elevated status as a great power gives it the authority to play a new role in international affairs, "one that cannot be reconciled" with American hegemony. The line of Yan's essay seems to follow the Chinese Communist Party's recurring refrain, "the East is rising while the West is declining." He explicitly states that the U.S.-led "unipolar order" is gradually "disintegrating," and that a new "multipolar order" will emerge in its place, "with China and the U.S. at its core."

Noting that China will challenge U.S. hegemony in areas where it has or can gain an advantage instead of escalating the rivalry into a full-fledged Cold War, he added that a "hot war" is not in question unless Taiwan declares independence, in which case China "may have no other option" but to unify with the island by force.

Yan Xuetong (Source: Caixin Global)

Below is Yan Xuetong's essay:

'China Believes That Its Elevated Status As A Great Power Gives It The Authority To Play A New Role In International Affairs'

"A speech by Yang Jiechi, Communist Party of China Central Committee Political Bureau member and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, became a hot topic on Chinese social media back in March. Speaking at the U.S.-China '2+2' high-level meeting in Alaska, Yang Jiechi told U.S. officials that 'the U.S. is not qualified to speak all high-and-mighty to China.'[2]

"Despite the mounting tensions between China and the U.S., Yang Jiechi's statement was unusually harsh, given that he is the highest-ranking official in charge of Chinese diplomacy. The context of his speech is also noteworthy, as it was the first high-level summit between China and the U.S. since Biden entered took over the White House. As a result, the world interpreted Yang Jiechi's remarks as a warning to the Biden administration.

"Yang Jiechi's words were widely circulated on Chinese social media, where they have struck a chord with many; China is finally making its voice heard on the international stage. The international media interpreted his remarks as a sign that China is attempting to become a global leader in the post-COVID era.

"His statements demonstrate a paradigm shift in Chinese diplomacy. China believes that its elevated status as a great power gives it the authority to play a new role in international affairs – a role that cannot be reconciled with the U.S.'s unrivaled dominance. China's initial optimism that the Biden administration would reduce tensions with the country has been dashed. Instead, China perceives the Biden administration as attempting to isolate it, which poses a serious threat to the country.

"Beijing's newfound confidence does not mean that it will go head-to-head with the U.S. in every single domain. China opposes U.S. leadership in some areas, but as a developing country, it has demarcated Sino-U.S. competition to areas where it believes it has an advantage, such as COVID, poverty alleviation, trade, infrastructure development, digital payments, and 5G technology. Overall, China will make its voice heard with greater determination in the post-COVID era and will forcefully oppose any attempts to contain the country."

'The Unipolar Order Led By The U.S. Is Gradually Disintegrating'

 "China has taken to calling itself the world's 'largest developing country,' which used to mean that it was more capable than other developing countries; now, it means that it is second only to the U.S. China's success in fighting the pandemic contrasts sharply with America's failure, with China suffering the least damage of any major country and being the only major economy to achieve positive economic growth in the previous year.

"China's GDP reached 71% of U.S. GDP by the end of 2020, up from 66% in 2019. Furthermore, Chinese policymakers believe that the gap between the U.S. and Chinese economies will continue to close over the next decade. China, in their opinion, has progressed from the 'standing up' and 'getting rich' stages to a stage where it is 'getting stronger.'[3] The unipolar order led by the U.S. is gradually disintegrating, and its demise has been hastened by the rise of China and the U.S.'s relative decline and it will be replaced by a multipolar order, with China and the U.S. at its core.

"A few years ago, China was still optimistic about the period of 'great changes unseen in a century,' envisioning the 'great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.'[4] However, the turbulence in U.S.-China relations during the Trump administration, particularly Washington's decision to label China a 'strategic competitor' in 2017, has dampened Chinese officials' enthusiasm.

"In its 14th Five-Year Plan,[5] the Chinese government takes a more sober tone, listing opportunities in technology and development while warning that 'unilateralism, protectionism, and hegemony' will fuel instability. However, in Beijing's eyes, the underlying principle remains unchanged: China has emerged as a global power capable of standing on equal footing with other powers.

"China's global reach still has its limits, and despite being a major power, it also considers itself a developing country – and rightly so, considering that its GDP per capita still lags far behind that of developed economies.

"According to the International Monetary Fund, China's GDP per capita in 2020 was only $10,484, while Japan's was $40,146, Germany's $45,733, and the U.S.'s $63,416.

"The term 'developing country' also refers to Beijing's geopolitical orientation: Even as China catches up economically with the West, it will remain firmly in the ranks of the developing world. As Chinese President Xi Jinping stated in 2018, China will 'always be a member of the family of developing nations.'"

'As A Major Power, China Will Not Follow The U.S.'S Lead; On Some Issues, Competition Between The U.S. And China Is Unavoidable'

"In the post-pandemic era, China's foreign policy will be influenced by this dual identity in all dimensions. As a developing country, China still lacks the resources required to be a true global leader and assume global responsibility, particularly in the military domain. However, as a major power, China will not follow the U.S.'s lead. On some issues, competition between the U.S. and China is unavoidable.

"Take ideological competition, for example. On the one hand, China is keen to avoid framing its relationship with the West as a new Cold War. Chinese leaders believe that Soviet-style ideological expansionism could spark a backlash that would impede China's sustained economic growth, and they do not expect their ideology to spread around the world the way Western liberalism has. They stress that China is a developing country with 'Chinese characteristics,' implying that other countries cannot simply replicate its political system and governance model.

"On the other hand, China will work to foster an ideological environment conducive to its rise while opposing Western values. For example, in the U.S., democracy and freedom are defined in terms of electoral politics and individual expression, whereas in China, democracy and freedom are defined in terms of social security and economic development. Rather than imposing its own views, Washington should embrace these differences of opinion.

"The same conviction will guide China's post-pandemic diplomatic strategy. Contrary to popular belief in the West, China does not actually oppose multilateral rules and institutions; rather, it resents the U.S. establishing rules without consulting China. The goal of China is for international norms to be founded on inclusive multilateralism. This is what the Chinese government truly believes when it establishes multilateral forums with a wide range of countries and regions, such as China's separate cooperation forums with African, Arab, Latin American, Pacific Islands, and Southeast Asian nations.

"At the same time, as evidenced by China's tough retaliatory sanctions strategy, China wants to be treated by other powers on more than equality and mutual respect. When the Trump administration sanctioned 14 senior Chinese officials for disqualifying some Hong Kong legislators, China sanctioned 28 U.S. officials, including then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Similarly, Beijing was quick to retaliate against the United Kingdom and the European Union for sanctions imposed on Xinjiang. The Chinese government considers any sanctions or criticism to be an interference in its internal affairs.

"China's economic policies are changing as well. COVID has highlighted the vulnerability of global supply chains as the U.S. attempts to decouple economically from China. Protectionism, the global economic downturn, and shrinking global markets, according to the Chinese government, will outweigh the negative effects of this global pandemic.

"Thus, in May 2020, China announced a new 'dual circulation' strategy aimed at reducing China's reliance on foreign markets, strengthening China's large internal market, and building robust domestic supply, distribution, and consumption chains, thereby reducing China's vulnerability to exogenous shocks, particularly those from the U.S. Science and technology will be central to the 'dual circulation' strategy, laying the groundwork for future expansion. The Chinese government hopes that the resulting domestic prosperity will improve economic relations with other countries and aid in the recovery of the global economy.

"Beijing will also seek to mitigate the impact of U.S. financial sanctions, including by promoting the internationalization of the yuan in foreign trade and outbound investment. In 2020, China began testing the digital yuan in a few major cities, an innovation that could one day allow China and its business partners to conduct currency transactions outside of the U.S.-controlled SWIFT system, which is currently its key geopolitical lever.

"Of course, China will not turn completely inward, and it will continue to promote the Belt and Road Initiative, despite the fact that progress in it has been slow during the COVID-19 pandemic. Given that the 'dual-circulation' strategy focuses China's efforts on the domestic market rather than the global market, future Belt and Road projects will be driven by market demand instead of political considerations. China will also continue to seek technological cooperation with other countries as long as they can withstand U.S. pressure.

"China's military strategy, on the other hand, will remain largely unchanged in the post-pandemic era. Beijing wants to transform the People's Liberation Army (PLA) into a world-class fighting force that is ready for war, emphasizing quality over quantity, cyber warfare capabilities over conventional capabilities, and AI-based weapon systems over individual combat capabilities. That being said, the PLA's mission will remain one of deterrence rather than foreign expansion.

"China's military budget for 2021, while larger than that of other major powers, is less than one-third that of the U.S. Aside from the budget gap, China's military lacks combat experience. As a result, Beijing is wary of direct military conflict and will continue to reject military alliances that could drag it into a pointless war. For the same reason, China has avoided escalation of conflicts in the South China Sea and along the Sino-Indian border."

'Moscow Could Become An Important Partner For Beijing In Opposing The Politicization Of Human Rights Issues'

"Initially, Biden's victory sparked optimism in Beijing and the Chinese media, which predicted a fundamental rethinking of Washington's China policy. But that optimism was short-lived. To date, Biden's China policy has largely replicated Trump's confrontational approach. As a result, future U.S.-China relations are unlikely to be less tense or competitive than they were during Trump's presidency.

"The Biden administration's efforts to adopt exclusive multilateralism and form alliances to confront or compete with China in areas such as technology and human rights will undoubtedly be a source of friction in U.S.-China relations for years to come. China sees this as the most severe external threat to its political security and the most significant impediment to its national rejuvenation.

"An anti-China technological alliance led by the U.S. is an impediment to China's technological edge, while a similar ideological alliance would encourage separatists in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. Both involve China's core interests, and the Chinese government cannot afford to make concessions.

"In response to the U.S.'s efforts to form such alliances, Beijing has begun to strengthen bilateral strategic partnerships. Just weeks after the public spat between senior U.S. and Chinese diplomats at the Alaska summit, Beijing has launched an extensive diplomatic campaign, with Defense Minister Wei Fenghe visiting the Balkans and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visiting the Middle East, where he signed a 25-year strategic cooperation agreement with Iran and pledged $400 billion in Chinese investment.

"At home, China hosted foreign ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and South Korea, and signed a joint statement with Russia that omitted the usual commitment that Russian-Chinese cooperation would not target any third party. Moscow could become an important partner for Beijing in opposing the politicization of human rights issues and promoting democratic alternatives and non-ideological multilateralism in the coming years. Xi also sent a message to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, expressing his willingness to strengthen China-DPRK relations further."

'The U.S. And China Would Be Wise To View The Competition As A Race Rather Than A Boxing Match'

"China remains hopeful that it can limit U.S.-China tensions to the economic sphere and avoid escalation into a military conflict. However, the risk of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait is increasing. The Chinese government's recently released 14th Five-Year Plan reaffirms its commitment to pursuing peace and prosperity across the Taiwan Strait, a policy that has long prevented the possibility of a war between the U.S. and China.

"Although China has not yet abandoned the principle of peaceful reunification, it may have no other option but to do so if Taiwan declares independence. The more countries that support Taiwan's independence, the more the Chinese People's Liberation Army will feel compelled to conduct military drills to deter Taiwan. At the same time, China hopes to reach a tacit understanding with the U.S. that maintaining peace in the Taiwan Strait is in both China's and the U.S.'s best interests.

"This is not to say that cooperation between the U.S. and China is impossible. China has stated its willingness to play an active role in reforming the global governance system, assisting the global economy's recovery, and collaborating with the U.S. to address transnational challenges. Xie Zhenhua, China's special envoy on climate change affairs, met with John Kerry, the U.S. president's special envoy on climate change affairs.

"Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that China does not oppose the Biden administration's return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal; and U.S. and Chinese diplomats have begun discussing mutual recognition programs for COVID vaccines for overseas travel. At the same time, China is open to negotiations on the basis of the first phase of the Sino-U.S. trade negotiations signed in 2020. Some U.S. officials, such as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, have also stated that China has kept its end of the bargain.

"The U.S. and China would be wise to view the competition as a race rather than a boxing match,[6] in which each side wants to lead but neither intends to destroy or permanently maim the other. In 2019, Kurt Campbell (the Biden administration's top NSC official for Asia) and Jack Sullivan (Biden's national security adviser) saw it the same way.

"'The basic mistake of engagement,' they wrote, 'was to assume that it could bring about fundamental changes to China's political system, economy, and foreign policy.' A more realistic goal, was to a seek 'a steady state of clear-eyed coexistence on terms favorable to U.S. interests and values.'[7]

"This viewpoint is consistent with Wang Yi's remarks, in which he stated that China and the U.S. should promote 'healthy competition' on a 'fair and just basis for the purpose of self-improvement and mutual enhancement, rather than finger-pointing or zero-sum competition.'[8] If China and the U.S. do not intend to conquer each other, their rivalry, while still fierce, will be milder than the U.S.-Soviet rivalry of the twentieth century."

'China And The U.S. Will Form Rival Clubs, And Other Countries Will Decide Which Club To Join On A Case-by-Case Basis'

"In practice, how will this competition play out? For starters, it will be fought on new battlefields, particularly in cyberspace. As people become more reliant on technology, cyber-security will become more important than territorial security. The digital economy is already rapidly expanding as a share of large countries' GDP, making it an important source of national wealth. The race for 5G and 6G leadership is expected to intensify, and for the time being, China appears to be in the lead.

"As of February 2021, Chinese companies, including technology powerhouse Huawei, accounted for 38% of approved 5G patents, while US companies accounted for approximately 17%. In other areas, U.S. digital platforms continue to outperform their Chinese counterparts, accounting for roughly 68% of the global digital economy in terms of market capitalization, while Chinese firms account for only 22%.

"At the same time, international cooperation will increasingly take the form of issue-specific coalitions rather than truly international (or even regional) bodies. When it comes to the non-proliferation of cyber weapons and certain artificial intelligence tools, China and the U.S. may occasionally join the same clubs.

"In the long run, these digital superpowers may have a shared interest in establishing and enforcing some international tax regulations to protect their own businesses from being overtaxed by other countries. However, in most cases, China and the U.S. will form rival clubs, and other countries will decide which club to join on a case-by-case basis, based on which arrangement best serves their national interests. Most governments will welcome this trend, as they have adopted a hedging strategy to avoid picking sides between the two powers.

'China's Post-Pandemic Foreign Policy Is Just Beginning To Take Shape'

"Of course, a club-based international system gets tricky: a country that joins a U.S.-led alliance and a Chinese-led alliance, respectively, will not be a reliable partner for either China or the U.S. Members of the same alliance may punish each other for joining a second alliance while behaving in accordance with the first alliance, and this mutual punishment among members of the same alliance may become a common phenomenon.

"For example, Australia and China are both members of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), but recent disputes over human rights led Australia to cancel its Belt and Road Agreement with China, and China responded by suspending economic dialogue between the two countries.

"Similarly, Eastern European countries frequently inform Chinese diplomats that their EU membership forces them to oppose China on political issues. And yet, these countries risk violating EU regulations by collaborating with China on infrastructure investment and technology, citing their participation in China's 16+1 Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries (China-CEEC).

"In the coming decade, such conflicts may exacerbate political instability and accelerate anti-globalization trends, but this is preferable to hardline fragmented geopolitical blocs. It is not in the best interests of any individual country to align itself with only one side while remaining a member of two clubs at the same time. This bipolar pattern will cause some tension, but it is far safer than full-fledged Cold War-style competition.

"China's post-pandemic foreign policy is just beginning to take shape. The Chinese government has always adjusted its policies to changing domestic and foreign conditions, following Deng Xiaoping's practice of 'crossing the river by feeling the stones.' The future is no different. However, the context for these adjustments will be a fundamentally altered global landscape in which U.S. unilateral decisions, as well as the various alliances and issue-specific coalitions it leads, will no longer be as viable as they once were."


[1], July 15, 2021. Foreign Affairs July/August 2021 published a translated version of Yan Xuetong's essay that differs from this MEMRI translation in subtle ways. For example, what was translated here from Chinese as "China will work to foster an ideological environment conducive to its rise while opposing Western values" was less direct in tone in the Foreign Affairs English version, in which it was translated as "China will try to shape an ideological environment favorable to its rise, pushing back against the notion that Western political values have universal appeal and validity." June 22, 2021.

[3] The Communist Party of China's contemporary historiography divides the party's first hundred years into four historical stages:

1) During the first period of the Democratic Revolution (1921-1949), from establishing the Party, through Mao Zedong taking the helm since the Zunyi Conference, and ending in the establishing of the People's Republic of China in 1949, at which "the Chinese people ceased to be victims of bullying and slaughter" and "stood up".

2) The second period of Mao Zedong's socialist revolution and its construction (1949-1976), during which the Chinese people "built a new socialist world."

3) The third period of Reform and Opening to the world under Deng Xiaoping and his successors (1978-2012), during which China "closed the gap with the times" and "got rich."

4) The fourth period of Chinese socialism in the new era under Xi Jinping (2012-present), in which China ushered in "a great leap from standing up, becoming rich, to becoming strong", "realizing the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation" in an "irreversible historical trend"., July 10, 2021.

[4] Since January 2017, the key Xi Jinping phrase, "great changes unseen in a century", has been used extensively in leadership speeches and policy papers. It refers to the confluence of two global trends: a rising China (East) and a declining U.S. (West), a period of great uncertainty and risk, but also a sense of urgency and opportunity for China to rise to the occasion and influence global governance, realizing by 2049 the second centennial goal of "great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation", a hundred years after the establishment of the People's Republic of China.


[6] This is a reference to Chinese President Xi Jinping's speech at the World Economic Forum's Davos Agenda Virtual Event on January 25, 2021: "We should advocate fair competition, like competing with each other for excellence in a racing field, not beating each other on a wrestling arena.", January 25, 2021.

[7], September/October 2019.

[8] Quoted from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi's meeting with the foreign press on the margins Fourth Session of the 13th National People's Congress (NPC)., March 7, 2021.

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