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Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong: “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes”

February 21st, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Tsinghua University Professor, Yan Xuetong, published an essay in the Journal of Contemporary China in 2001 entitled, “The Rise of China in Chinese Eyes.” It is rare to find something in the English language that articulates so well the Chinese perspective on such a big topic.   He addressed all key concerns related to this rise.  He also offers a view from the Chinese leaders.  China has a very long history and has developed a lot of wisdom, and Professor Yan also explains for us how a rising China with the Chinese way of looking at things could benefit the world.  This essay is a must read.  I have highlighted some some excerpts:

Regaining a lost status

First, the Chinese regard their rise as regaining China’s lost international status rather than as obtaining something new.  This psychological feeling results in the Chinese being continuously dissatisfied with their economic achievements until China resumes its superpower status.  Second, the Chinese consider the rise of China as a restoration of fairness rather than as gaining advantages over others.  With this concept, the Chinese people take the rise of their nation for granted.  They never concern themselves with the question of why China should be more advanced than other nations, but rather frequently ask themselves the question of why China is not the number one nation in the world.

Furthermore, since the Opium Wars until the end of WW2, Chinese peoples lives were miserable because of foreign aggression.  They see a strong China as the only way to guard against foreign aggression and misery.

Leadership with longer term view

The Chinese Government developed not only five-year development plans but also plans for 20 years. At the 12th Party Congress of 1982, and at the 15th Party Congress of 1995, the Chinese Government suggested two, 20-year development plans.  At the 13th Party Congress of 1987, Chinese leaders even suggested a 63-year plan for modernization.

These long-term development plans illustrate both Chinese rationality and their patience about the rejuvenation of their nation. Deng Xiaoping frequently told the Chinese people to be very cautious and modest like a dog with its tail between its legs.  Chinese leaders no longer expected to see China as a superpower within their lifetimes. Rather, they did their work to lay a better foundation for future generations to achieve that target.  Since the rise of China is known as a long-term process, China has adopted a moderate foreign policy.  Deng told Chinese leaders that it was a national policy not to be the leader of the Third World.

In my view, this is a tremendous benefit that China enjoys.  Comparing to the USA where the President is voted into office every four years, China can achieve goals that require a time-line longer than four years.  In the U.S., for longer term projects for the nation, the chance of success is actually slim.  With the Democrats and Republicans constantly at each other’s throats, politics actually rise above national priority.

Ordinary citizens see the advantages of Open Door Policy

Ordinary Chinese people, including politicians, may not be able to fully articulate the relationship between an open social system and economic achievements, but they are nevertheless convinced by China’s differing economic achievements before and after 1978.  The closed system ruled by Mao Zedong severely impeded China’s growth, while the open policy adopted by Deng Xiaoping brought a long-term booming economy.

The population and the government are basically aligned in China’s quest to normalize relations with all countries on this planet.

China wants to avoid confrontation with the U.S.

Concerning its relations with the United States, most Chinese people do not anticipate that China and the United States will be very close but do expect that they can coexist peacefully. They are not looking to share international leadership with the United States, but rather hope to see less US intervention into their domestic affairs. The Chinese understand that the United States is the most powerful state, and is able to make difficulties for China’s modernization programs.  For the sake of their national rejuvenation, the Chinese want to avoid confrontation with the United States.

Chinese values will help bring peace

The rise of China will make the world more civilized. Chinese written civilization is more than 4,000 years old, and its culture is so rich that it is admired by people all over the world. The core of Confucianism is ‘benevolence’ [ren].  This concept encourages Chinese rulers to adopt benevolent governance [wangdao] rather than hegemonic governance [badao]. In terms of foreign relations, Chinese strategists aspire to ‘associate with benevolent gentlemen and befriend good neighbors’ [qinren shanlin]. In the last two centuries, Western countries took the leading role in world affairs. The strength and advance of Western countries created a political culture that emphasized power rather than morality, which has had a worldwide impact. As China rises, its economic achievement will make its political culture popular throughout the world. The Chinese concept of ‘benevolence’ will influence international norms and make international society more civilized.

George Kennan, architect of U.S.’s strategy of containment against the Soviet Union had something to say about China

The practice of new interventionism after the Cold War strengthened power politics and caused many military conflicts.  During an interview this year, George Kennan reminded people: ‘[I]t really is in ill grace for us to be talking down to them [Chinese] and saying, by implication, that “you ought to learn to govern yourselves as we do”. … But purely military power, even in its greatest dimensions of superiority, can produce only short-term successes … I can say without hesitation that this planet is never going to be ruled from any single political center, whatever its military power’.

  1. Dragan
    February 28th, 2010 at 01:59 | #1

    Just to congratulate on a very strong start with the new website!

    Though I haven’t yet read the whole article, the excerpts you have chosen are really representative of the official Chinese thinking on these topics…

    The issue I have is:

    The rise of China will make world more civilized????? Benevolence, morality….C’mon – this is the same crap as alleged american pursue of world democracy. Unfortunately, we cannot see lot of these in political practice in China – just think of all the irregularities – one instance, corruption – internally, or “no strings attached” pureluy business approach or territorial disputes – in her foreign policy. And that is ok, these are the rules of the game, there is no too much space for moral in the daily (geo)politics….so please let’s not bullshit about benevolence and moral, ok? No one will buy that

  2. February 28th, 2010 at 14:02 | #2


    Just to congratulate on a very strong start with the new website!

    Thank you.

    The rise of China will make world more civilized????? Benevolence, morality….C’mon – this is the same crap as alleged american pursue of world democracy.

    That’s a really good point. I personally wonder about that myself. What Professor Yan said about the West:

    “The strength and advance of Western countries created a political culture that emphasized power rather than morality, which has had a worldwide impact.”

    Of course we will have to ignore what people say, and rather, see what they do. On actions, I do believe the Western dominated world thus far has had a healthy dosage of power over morality. If China is able to bring this type of behavior down a notch or two on the world stage, then I believe China’s rise could indeed help make our world more civilized. Again, this is my personal opinion.

    If some day China becomes a soul superpower like the U.S. is today, it is absolutely fair to say, who knows! But perhaps there is more to what Professor Yan is saying, and I hope to be able to ask him some day.

  3. Dragan
    February 28th, 2010 at 22:36 | #3

    Hi yinyang,

    I also believe China is sincerely committed to peace and would behave better than US & West in the hypothetical case of being a sole world superpower.

    But that does not mean her behavior would be shaped according to the principle on benevolence. “Chinese strategists aspire to ‘associate with benevolent gentlemen and befriend good neighbors’ ” – I mean, really professor, you can do better than this… This sort of things make professor’s article less credible….

    Re: ” I do believe the Western dominated world thus far has had a healthy dosage of power over morality. ”

    Indeed, but it does so on the pretext of morality; bringing the democracy and good governance (and generally “advanced” western socioeconomic model) to the world or simply – making the world more civilized.

    China will likely not be policing world as US is doing today but her political practice, especially home, is far from being reassuring.

    On the world stage, things stand better and China seems as a benevolent alternative to US indeed. But there are controversies there as well and “benevolence” is not the first word you think of when you say China’s foreign policy. And since the rules in world politics have never been based around morality but around self-interest there is nothing to blame China for -there is no incentive to behave according to high moral rules when everyone is playing dirty. China, like any other country, needs to protect her interests first and for that she cannot draw on Confucian concepts such as ren.

    And that is ok. That world works like this is well known and understood.

    So the fact that China has a need to frame her engagement with the world with this “morality / making world more civilized” rhetoric – that obviously goes against common sense – is disturbing rather than assuring, making her real intentions that much more suspicious. Just look at how US has advanced her own interest on the pretext of changing the world for better.

  4. March 1st, 2010 at 12:03 | #4

    Hi Dragan,

    Great points and well said. Professor Yan is just one voice and this essay was written in 2001. I wonder what he would say in response to you today.

    Share with us if you find more views on this topic. I’ll do the same.

  5. Wukailong
    March 1st, 2010 at 18:33 | #5

    Interesting that this article was published back in 2001. I read a book by the same author that was published at the time, and it was much less concerned with Chinese values and more with the geopolitical game:


  6. March 2nd, 2010 at 10:19 | #6


    Thx for the link. Have time to do a quick synopsis and your take on it?

  7. Wukailong
    March 3rd, 2010 at 18:44 | #7

    I just downloaded a PDF of the book (the original is in my parent’s home in Sweden) and it’s quite a good read, but the PDF looks like a photocopy so it’s a bit of a strain on the eyes. 🙂

    The book was published in 2001 but apparently written in the year 2000. Mr. Yan seems to have begun this work quite soon after NATO bombed China’s embassy in Yugoslavia, so that might account for the different tone. Of course, 2001 was no great year for Sino-American relations either, especially with the spy plane incident.

    Another way to see it is that the book is more about what China need to do to make sure its interests are not threatened, whereas the article is about why China isn’t a threat to the world.

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