China’s peaceful slogans are replaced by dark thoughts

Tanner Greer
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Seen from the eagle’s eye, China appears to be a country of resounding strengths. Its $18 trillion dollar economy is second only to the United States. Even under lockdown the PRC remained the largest trading partner of more than 120 countries. Its economic centrality is highlighted by the Belt and Road Initiative, which some 150 countries and international organizations have formally joined. It seems therefore that China’s leaders can face the future with confidence, sure that China’s return to the center place of human civilization—which they often describe as “the national rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”—is secure and inevitable.

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Confidence in China’s rising position in world affairs is only re-inforced by its success in climbing the higher rungs of the strategic ladder. Chinese technologists pose the only serious competitor to Silicon Valley. Its industrial capacity has no peers. 30 percent of the world’s manufacturing output and 50 percent of the world’s shipbuilding capacity lies in Chinese ports. The PRC also fields the world’s largest army, navy, and missile inventory—what is more, its missile technology is the world’s most sophisticated.

This is often how observers outside of China, awed by its gargantuan scale, industrial might, and undisguised ambition, speak about China’s rise. At times this is how the PRC’s own leaders speak about their country and its future. But only at times.

Pay close attention to the messages that Chinese Communist Party leaders have been giving to their own cadres and a very different picture emerges. Internal speeches, planning documents, and doctrinal manuals depict a Party beset by an unprecedent set of existential risks. They insist that vigilance on the part of party cadres is all that stands in the narrow space between national greatness and national collapse. Very little in Chinese politics or foreign policy makes sense without a clear understanding of this perception of vulnerability and threat.

Official party dictates about the trajectory of history are one way to track these perceptions. The Constitution of the Communist Party of China declares that party policies are grounded in a programmatic assessment of the “laws governing the development of the history of human society.” This is not idle rhetoric: In Leninist political systems innovations in policy are, as a rule, predicated on official judgements about the material forces at work in the world in any given historical moment. Xi Jinping explains this policy process as an existential imperative:

“The tide of history is mighty. Those who follow it will prosper, while those who resist it will perish.” The role of the General Secretary is to assure that the CPC rides the tides of history that less farsighted leaders vainly try to swim against.

Deng Xiaoping’s reform program flowed from this sort of historical judgement; to entrench his favored policies, Deng famously declared that “the theme of the times” was no longer war or revolution, but “peace and development.” Deng understood that many elements of Maoist policy—the decision to concentrate industrial development in China’s mountainous hinterlands, diplomatic estrangement from the wider world, revolutionary agitation both at home and abroad—flowed from Mao’s conviction that the Party “had to take the possibility of coming under attack as the starting point of all work.” To reform the socialist economy and open China up to the world, Deng had to reverse Mao’s assessment. A world trending towards peaceful integration was the only world in which China could afford for security policy to take back seat to economic development.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stands next to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing, China, February 14, 2023. (File photo: Reuters)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi stands next to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing, China, February 14, 2023. (File photo: Reuters)

Deng’s verdict on the trajectory of global politics soon solidified into an official slogan. Variations of this slogan were repeated at the podium of every Party Congress between 1987 and 2017. Party leaders trotted out an even more fulsome riff on the peace-and-development theme shortly after China joined the WTO, when Jiang Zemin declared that “for our country the first two decades of the 21st century are a period of important strategic opportunities, which we must seize tightly and which offer bright prospects.”

Like Deng’s statement, Jiang’s formulation was repeated verbatim by two generations of CPC secretaries, PLA generals, and state diplomats. This “period of strategic opportunity” phrasing served as a short-hand for a much broader judgement: Globalization was not only an inevitable historical force, the Party maintained, but a force that would propel China’s emergence as a great power while at the same time tempering opposition to its rise. In this period neither military force nor ideological power would yield great returns; the currency of the “period of strategic opportunity” was simply currency itself.

It might seem odd to lavish attention on slogans like “period of strategic opportunity” or “peace and development are the theme of the times.” But for a party with more than 96 million members, phrases like these—which are repeated at each rung of the government and recycled through the propaganda system—are an important coordination tool. It is hard to get 96 million people to work together, especially when they are embedded in a political system as diffuse and decentralized as China’s.

The party lexicon is one solution to this problem of coordination. It provides Chinese diplomats, defense strategists, and economic planners with the shared vocabulary they need to work in concert. China’s insiders have learned to pay fastidious attention to the slogans that party leaders use—as well as those they don’t.

“Peace and development” is a phrase that Xi Jinping has notably dropped from his vocabulary. Consider his report to the 20th Congress, delivered last October. Political reports are the most important documents in the CPC’s policy process. As the result of months of negotiation between party bigwigs, occurring only once in every five years, they represent a broad consensus within the leadership; they are the highest-level guidance that is binding on the entire party. The most recent political report was the first since 1987 that did not label “peace and development” the theme of the times. The phrase “period of strategic opportunity” was also missing.

Xi replaced the old judgements with a darker assessment of humanity’s historical trajectory. He told his fellow party members that:

“Our country has entered a period of development in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising… We must therefore be more mindful of potential dangers, be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios, and be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms.”

The wording of Xi’s formulation was carefully chosen. He does not endorse the old Maoist view that revolution and war were defining and inevitable features of China’s position in world politics. He does suggest, however, that in this new era the security of Communist rule faces perilous challenges.

In Xi’s thought, the Party faces both hidden risks and open dangers. The threat they pose is serious enough to derail China’s return to greatness. In face of these hazards, the strategy the Communist Party of China used to secure its rule at home and achieve its objectives abroad in the period of opportunity is no longer sufficient. China must prepare itself for an insecure future.

So what are the threats that Xi fears so dearly? In future columns I will examine three. In each of these domains old approaches are—from the perspective of the CPC’s central leadership—no longer adequate. The first will examine the Party’s fear that ideological subversion might undermine or overthrow their rule. The second will look at the failure of the Belt and Road Initiative to create the political outcomes Chinese leaders hoped would flow from economic interdependence, and how this interdependence has instead been weaponized against China. The final column in this series will turn to the failure of both ideology and economics to tie Taiwan closer to the mainland.

A serious setback in any of these three areas would pose a crisis of political legitimacy for the Party. China has received setbacks on all three fronts over the last four years—setbacks serious enough to shake old assumptions that peace and development will provide a sure foundation for China’s rise.

Tanner Greer is the director of the Center for Strategic Translation, where he oversees the translation and analysis of texts that shed light on the history, strategy, and politics of modern China. He can be followed at @Scholars_Stage.

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