China declares super power role


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

December 9, 2006

China, Shy Giant, Shows Signs of Shedding Its False Modesty

BEIJING, Dec. 8 ‹ China¹s Communist Party has a new agenda: it is encouraging 
people to discuss what it means to be a major world power and has largely 
stopped denying that China intends to become one soon.

In the past several weeks China Central Television has broadcast a 12-part 
series describing the reasons nine nations rose to become great powers. The 
series was based on research by a team of elite Chinese historians, who also 
briefed the ruling Politburo about their findings.

Until recently China¹s rising power remained a delicate topic, and largely 
unspoken, inside China. Beijing has long followed a dictum laid down by Deng 
Xiaoping, the paramount leader who died in 1997: ³tao guang yang hui,² literally
to hide its ambitions and disguise its claws.

The prescription was generally taken to mean that China needed to devote its 
energy to developing economically and should not seek to play a leadership role 

President Hu Jintao set off an internal squabble two years ago when he began 
using the term ³peaceful rise² to describe his foreign policy goals. He dropped 
the term in favor of the tamer-sounding ³peaceful development.²

His use of ³rise² risked stoking fears of a ³China threat,² especially in Japan 
and the United States, people told about the high-level debate said. Rise 
implies that others must decline, at least in a relative sense, while 
development suggests that China¹s advance can bring others along.

Yet this tradition of modesty has begun to fade, replaced by a growing 
confidence that China¹s rise is not fleeting and that the country needs to do 
more to define its objectives.

With its $1 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, surging military spending and
diplomatic initiatives in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Beijing has begun 
asserting its interests far beyond its borders. Chinese party leaders are acting
as if they intend to start exercising more power abroad rather than just 
protecting their political power at home.

³Like it or not, China¹s rise is becoming a reality,² says Jia Qingguo, 
associate dean of the Beijing University School of International Studies. 
³Wherever Chinese leaders go these days, people pay attention. And they can¹t 
just say, ŒI don¹t want to get involved.¹ ²

Itself a major recipient of foreign aid until recently, China this year promised
to provide well over $10 billion in low-interest loans and debt relief to Asian,
African and Latin American countries over the next two years. It invited 48 
African countries to Beijing last month to a conference aimed at promoting 
closer cooperation and trade.

Beijing agreed to send 1,000 peacekeepers to Lebanon, its first such action in 
the Middle East. It has sought to become a more substantial player in a region 
where the United States traditionally holds far more sway.

At the United Nations Security Council, China cast aside its longstanding policy
of opposing sanctions against other nations. It voted to impose penalties on 
North Korea, its neighbor and onetime ally, for testing nuclear weapons.

Officials and leading scholars are becoming a bit less hesitant to discuss what 
this all might mean. The documentary, on China¹s main national network, uses the
word rise constantly, including its title, ³Rise of the Great Powers.² It 
endorses the idea that China should study the experiences of nations and empires
it once condemned as aggressors bent on exploitation.

³Our China, the Chinese people, the Chinese race has become revitalized and is 
again stepping onto the world stage,² Qian Chengdan, a professor at Beijing 
University and the intellectual father of the television series, said in an 
online dialogue about the documentary on, a leading Web site.

³It is extremely important for today¹s China to be able to draw some lessons 
from the experiences of others,² he said.

The series, which took three years to make, emanated from a Politburo study 
session in 2003. It is not a jingoistic call to arms. It mentions China only in 
passing, and it never explicitly addresses the reality that China has already 
become a big power.

Yet its version of history, which partly tracks the work done by Paul Kennedy in
his 1980s bestseller, ³The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers,² differs markedly 
from that of the textbooks still in use in many schools.

Its stentorian narrator and epic soundtrack present the emergence of the nine 
countries, from Portugal in the 15th century to the United States in the 20th, 
and cites numerous achievements worthy of emulation: Spain had a risk-taking 
queen; Britain¹s nimble navy secured vital commodities overseas; the United 
States regulated markets and fought for national unity.

The documentary also emphasizes historical themes that coincide with policies 
Chinese leaders promote at home. Social stability, industrial investment, 
peaceful foreign relations and national unity are presented as more vital than, 
say, military strength, political liberalization or the rule of law.

In the 90 minutes devoted to examining the rise of the United States, Lincoln is
accorded a prominent part for his efforts to ³preserve national unity² during 
the Civil War. China has made reunification with Taiwan a top national priority.
Franklin D. Roosevelt wins praise for creating a bigger role for the government 
in managing the market economy but gets less attention for his wartime 

Government officials minimize the importance of the series. He Yafei, an 
assistant foreign minister, said in an interview that he had watched only ³one 
or two episodes.² He said the documentary should not signal changes in China¹s 
thinking about projecting power, saying that colonialism and exploitation ³would
go nowhere in today¹s world.²

But Mr. He also hinted at a shifting official line. He emphasized China¹s status
as a developing country. But he allowed that others may see things differently.

³Whether a country is a regional or a world power, it is not for that country to
decide alone,² he said. ³If you say we are a big power, then we are. But we are 
a responsible big country. We are a maintainer and builder of the international 

China has in fact emerged as a major power without disrupting the international 
order, at least so far. It has accepted an invitation by the Bush administration
to discuss becoming a ³responsible stakeholder² in the American-dominated 
international system.

Beijing places importance on many world institutions, especially the United 
Nations, where it holds a veto in the Security Council. It professes a strong 
commitment to enforcing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Last month Margaret Chan of Hong Kong became the first Chinese to head a major 
United Nations agency, the World Health Organization. She vowed to build a 
³harmonious health world,² echoing the slogan of harmony promoted by President 

Yet critics say China is prepared to emerge in a less amicable fashion, if 
necessary. The Central Intelligence Agency says that China¹s military spending 
may be two or three times higher than it acknowledges and that it allocates more
to its military than any other country except the United States.

Beijing has cultivated close ties to countries that provide it with commodities 
and raw materials, regardless of their human rights records. Sudan, Myanmar and 
Zimbabwe have all escaped international sanctions in large part because of 
Chinese protection.

China¹s increasing international engagement has also stimulated a more robust 
academic discussion about its global role and the potential for tensions with 
the United States.

Yan Xuetong, a foreign affairs specialist at Qinghua University in Beijing, 
argued in a scholarly journal this summer that China had already surpassed 
Japan, Russia, Britain, France, Germany and India in measures of its economic, 
military and political power. That leaves it second only to the United States, 
he said.

While the military gap between China and the United States may remain for some 
time, he argued, China¹s faster economic growth and increasing political 
strength may whittle down America¹s overall advantage.

³China will enjoy the status of a semi-superpower between the United States and 
the other major powers,² Mr. Yan predicted in the article, which appeared in the
China Journal of International Politics.

He added, ³China¹s fast growth in political and economic power will dramatically
narrow its power gap with the United States.²

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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