Asia Rising: What Hu Won’t Say in Washington

The hoopla over Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington next week has begun. Beijing’s pre-game warm-up for Sino-U.S. presidential summits almost always includes buying a few Boeing aircraft (in this case, some 80 737’s), releasing political prisoners (a Tibetan nun, so far), and dispatching Chinese officials and executives to snarf up American goods. Already a 200-person foreign trade delegation—the largest that the mainland has ever sent abroad—is fanning out to more than a dozen U.S. states to sign $15 billion in new deals.

The centerpiece of this diplomatic apparatus, however are words—in particular, the carefully engineered catchphrases that distill the hopes, ambitions and national interests of China for world consumption. Among the hundreds of Chinese diplomats, entrepreneurs, sherpas, translators, cooks and security guards that will alight on American’s shores in the next few days, the man who has arguably done more than anyone to articulate China’s dreams to the world before the coming talks—which are expected to touch on everything from China’s currency to America’s trade deficit to Iran’s nuclear industry—is the country’s chief wordsmith, Zheng Bijian. Zheng, a tall, stately man with a piercing gaze, is a former propaganda minister and was Hu’s deputy when he headed Beijing’s elite Central Party School. Zheng remains an influential adviser to China’s leadership, and heads a think tank called China Reform Forum. Zheng’s biggest recent contribution to China’s foreign policy came as the architect of the phrase “peaceful rise,” which is an attempt to characterize China’s quick rise in world affairs in recent years in a tone that’s at the same time optimistic and unthreatening. “Peaceful rise” will be on the minds of many China-watchers when Hu meets U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House on April 20. Zheng officially launched the “peaceful rise” concept during a trip to the United States in late 2002. He contrasted China’s trajectory to the road taken by Japan and Germany between the two world wars, as well as to the Leonid Brezhnev-era Soviet Union. He concluded that China needed to transcend the old models of industrialization, old means of social control and “the traditional ways in which great powers have emerged.” Based on dozens of case studies, his researchers agreed that rising powers that pursued a path of “aggression and expansion” were doomed. In charting China’s rise, Zheng takes the long view. He believes China’s watershed year was 1979, when Moscow invaded Afghanistan “under the banner of world revolution that was a dead end.” That was also the year Deng Xiaoping opened the doors of China’s economy to market forces. The respective fates of these onetime socialist comrades are self-evident; the Soviet Union is gone, while China’s quarter-century of nearly double-digit economic growth is the envy of the world. Still, Zheng predicts, “It will take another 45 years to gauge the outcome of China’s ‘peaceful rise.’” Zheng’s phrase-making has helped shape China’s trajectory. When Zheng met Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, in the United States in 2002, she asked how China intends to use its influence in the future. Rice was wondering if Beijing would follow the Soviet path of aggressive expansion. In response, Zheng gave her two books: one was a collection of Deng’s writings, the other was “The Analects” attributed to Confucius, the ancient sage whose elaborate code of ethics is being revived by Hu’s government today. According to the Confucian view of the world, the use of force is a last resort because it symbolizes the bankruptcy of statecraft. One icon of this traditional strategic thinking is the Great Wall of China, a purely defensive fortification. The gesture was meant to reassure Rice that China’s foreign-policy would remain pacifist and defensive. When Bush and Hu meet next week, however, neither one is likely to utter the words “peaceful rise.” Since entering China’s foreign-policy lexicon in late 2003, the phrase has triggered intense internal debate. Hawks, especially those within the People’s Liberation Army, didn’t like the word “peaceful.” They worried it would give Taiwan’s independence-minded President Chen Shuibian the green light to go his separatist way. Beijing considers Taiwan a maverick province that must eventually be reunited with the mainland—by force if necessary—even though both sides have been governed separately since 1949. By the same token, China’s doves—many in the Foreign Ministry—didn’t like the word “rise.” It sounded too aggressive, too threatening, they thought. (In Chinese the phrase is heping jueqi , which translates literally as “emerging precipitously in a peaceful manner.”) This faction is concerned about reviving what China’s America-watchers call the “China threat” lobby in the United States—mainly neo-cons who thought Beijing should replace Moscow as the next strategic enemy—who have been somewhat restrained since 9/11. To satisfy both factions, Beijing’s policy wonks settled on a blander alternative—“peaceful development”—and Chinese officials no longer mention “peaceful rise”. More recently Hu has added a new wrinkle: in addition to “peaceful development,” he stresses that “harmony” both at home and abroad is one of China’s goals. U.S. phrase-makers are also peddling their own slogans for China. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick in a major “whither China?” speech last September, launched the phrase “responsible stakeholder” to describe the role the United States preferred China to assume in world affairs. (Even that phrase went through different iterations on the U.S. side during the drafting of Zoellick’s speech. An early draft mentioned only “stakeholder”; the word “responsible” was added later, apparently at the behest of wordsmiths at the White House, to make it a tad more skeptical of Beijing’s intentions.) “Many countries hope China will pursue a ‘peaceful rise,’” said Zoellick, “but none will bet their future on it.” Beijing’s combination of opaque military policies and some of its diplomatic ventures—especially China’s hunger for energy contracts—is perceived as “mercantilist.” By “responsible stakeholder,” U.S. diplomats want China to be less aggressive about pursuing its own interests and more active in cooperating for the greater good—for instance, helping reform repressive regimes or counter nuclear proliferation. The central question Zoellick posed was: How does China plan to act on its newfound clout? Chinese authorities have not yet offered a decisive response to Zoellick’s question. Zheng, however, is undeterred. Before Zoellick’s speech, he penned an article for Foreign Affairs magazine, published late last year, called “‘Peacefully Rising’ to Great Power Status.” (Later, he wrote a front-page People’s Daily commentary that was largely positive about Zoellick’s speech and stressed that China threatened no other nations. But he also suggested that some of Zoellick’s comments reflected “ideological prejudices.” Peaceful rise, peaceful development, “I don’t see a difference. Both refer to a process that China has undergone since 1979,” Zheng said during a dinner last year to NEWSWEEK. “This is the road that the Soviet Union never took, that Marx never took. Nor Lenin, nor Mao.” As far as Zheng is concerned, “peaceful rise” is still China’s path. Even if no one says so.