China’s Rise Will Be Peaceful
Zheng Bijian is a close associate and adviser to Chinese President Hu Jintao. When Hu was director of the Central Party School, where many of the Communist Party’s ideas are shaped, just before becoming China’s president, Zheng was vice director. Since Hu came to power, Zheng has headed the China Reform Forum, a government-affiliated think tank. He spoke to Jehangir S. Pocha, NPQ’s Beijing correspondent, in Beijing.
NPQ | You’re known for saying China’s rise will be completely peaceful, but how can you assure the world it will be so?
Zheng Bijian | By 2030 or 2040, China will have more than 1.5 billion people. Given our need to develop and give these people a decent life, we need a wise strategy, in line with the values of the times. To ensure China’s peaceful rise, we’re pursuing three strategies aimed at overcoming three challenges.
The challenges are: getting access to resources and energy; managing and maintaining our environment and ecology; and ensuring “harmonious development,” not class or social or regional conflict, as the economy grows.
The strategies we’re adopting to deal with these are, first, to transition from the old industrial ways and build new sunrise businesses. That’s why scientific development is a key thing for us. Also, we want to continue opening up, connect with the global economy, develop international cooperation, realize win-win situations. And lastly we want to surpass the unreasonable, old-fashioned model of society to construct a more cultured, harmonious society. All this will take 30 to 50 years and our population will be 1.5 billion by then. So we just don’t have the time or interest to develop hegemonistic tendencies—not now, not in the future.
NPQ | If this happens, it will be the first time in the history that such a big nation has risen peacefully.
Zheng | We’re totally different from Japan or Germany or the Soviet Union, whose rise led to war. The reason that we can design and plan our way differently is because we live in new times and conditions. As a nation, we also have different goals and character. I just can’t see a major war happening in the future now. To develop China, we realize we have to be part of the global system, not subvert it with violence as Germany or Japan did. If we have some differences, we’ll use the way of reform, negotiation and discussion. That way we can develop our socialism with Chinese characteristics independently, but without creating trouble for other countries. That’ll realize double benefits, with all winning and developing together.
NPQ | Yet China, as United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld likes to point out, is spending up to $70 billion on its military every year. And though it’s true China has been a mature player in the world, on some issues it has pursued its own interests quite callously. For example, China resisted United Nations sanctions against a Sudanese government that was committing genocide in the Darfur region because of its oil interests.
Zheng | If you look at China’s involvement in the international system, you’ll see our attitude from 1979 onward has generally benefited the global system.
About the defense issue...well, we are a big country, with 1.3 billion people and a long border. Our desire to upgrade our basic defense abilities is very natural, particularly when globally military technology is changing so rapidly. With other countries spending so much more than us on defense, shouldn’t we improve ourselves? Should we just give up our own defense?
The concept for our military force is to focus on maintaining peace with other countries, even with Taiwan across the straits. We have no goal to catch up with other big countries that are spending so much more than us militarily or become a threatening or hegemonistic power. We only want to make sure of our right to exist as a nation and our development rights.
It is true that global military technology and equipment have been undergoing a revolutionary change, but this isn’t driven by China, but by America. It’s America that is pushing improvements in military technology and equipment. Its level of sophistication is so high that China can’t compete with that. Under such a situation, as I just mentioned, our goal is only to obtain the basic defenses needed to protect our population and border.
Look at the nuclear situation in North Korea. China’s attitude is very clear and China is working hard alongside the US to try to realize a nuclear-free Korea. That’s been recognized by all countries, including America.
NPQ | But it is now a matter of public record that China has proliferated nuclear technology to Pakistan and North Korea as recently as 1996, and the CIA says it still cannot confirm this has stopped. So perhaps your idea of China’s “peaceful rise” has not been totally accepted by the Chinese government.
Zheng | I think my view is the same as the national strategy. Events that have happened in the past have happened. I won’t comment on them. Now the crucial issue is to ensure North Korea does not go nuclear. On this point, our goal is very clear and our hard work has been recognized by the international community. Today if there is any country in the world that does not support spreading nuclear weapons, it’s China, and I think that’s good.
NPQ | Perhaps China does face some excessive criticism over its military modernization and its rising nationalism. After all, India just overtook China to become the world’s largest arms importer and even Japan has a rising nationalism. Why do you think this is so?
Zheng | This is where we say there is a double standard. I think this double standard comes from Cold War thinking, and as you know this thinking was not started by China. In fact, we’re the victims of this thinking. Obviously, that’s not good for developing healthy international cooperation, development and understanding. We would like to communicate with and be better understood by other countries, which is part of the idea of a peaceful rise.
NPQ | Do you think people worry more about China because it lacks transparency and is not democratic?
Zheng | I think people don’t clearly understand China. Because we’re a Communist Party, people look at us like they looked at the Soviet Union. This view is not fair, as the Communist parties are very different. In 1979, both parties made a big decision related to their destiny. The Chinese party shaped our destiny by reforming and opening up. But the Soviet Union made the decision to send its troops into Afghanistan.
On the other hand, our system is also different from the Western democratic system. So when you try to explain China, it’s hard. Yet if you pay attention to the changes of these last 25 years, you will see the democratic lifestyle is progressively expanding here. We have more private newspapers today than party papers. We have hundreds of millions of people with access to the Internet. The freedom of free speech is improving. People can get involved in the making of national issues. At some levels of government, people are chosen through popular mandate. The judiciary is improving. All these are positive changes.
NPQ | There may be significant improvements compared to the 1980s, but over the last two or three years there has been a rollback in personal and political freedoms.
Zheng | Overall, I think we’ll keep moving forward for sure. During these years people have become richer, they’re more conscious and get more involved in national events. Recently, the China Construction Bank has gone public and raised $8 billion, which is the largest amount raised in China. Even the Bank of America has put $2.5 billion in this deal, and it has even appointed a US vice president to the bank, as well as 50 high-level managers. This issue is not simply about buying or selling stock in a company. But behind the exchange of money, there are the changes taking place in the system—new ways of managing and finding talent.
NPQ | I’m sure China’s economic reforms will continue. I was referring more to the personal and political changes. In fact, if China continues its state-controlled capitalism and limits its political changes, it will soon look like a fascist state.
Zheng | The long-term goal of our political reform is democratic politics. Democratic politics and peaceful development are the two big concepts we will pursue in the next 25 years.
NPQ | Many Americans are worried that China’s economic growth will challenge America’s status or at least lower it. Do you think America will be mature enough to accept China’s rise and accommodate it on the world stage?
Zheng | This is an issue we should all be concerned about. But we also need to be prepared to face the disputes and conflicts that are likely to arise as we do that. Both China and the US need to be calm about how to deal with this. For example, there is talk about how Chinese textiles are causing American people to lose their jobs. We need to analyze this and ask if high-paid American workers can compete with low-cost Chinese textiles. To do that, America needs to upgrade its textile industry instead of reject imports. Also, American customers are benefiting from the cheap products that come from China, for that keeps inflation down. Please also notice that China has spent a lot of money (about $400 billion) buying America’s national debt.
NPQ | But there’s no doubt China is trying to intrude into areas of political influence that America considers its own domain. For example, at the East Asia Summit, where the architecture for a possible Asian Union is being formed, America has not been invited.
zheng | China is mainly interested in minding its own business. As I mentioned in the beginning, China is developing independently. We are not thinking of taking a leading role in East Asia, or Northeast Asia, or Southeast Asia, or the Asian Union. We don’t have the ability to do that. In Asia, we respect the leadership of the Asian Union and we also think America plays an important role in the region. China is not challenging the existence of America and we don’t even have the strength to do that. What we’d really like is to develop constructive, cooperative relations with America. This peaceful and stable approach to development is good for China as well as the Asia-Pacific area.
NPQ | China is not only acquiring “hard” power, but also “soft” power—the power to influence world thought with its cultures, world organizations such as the WTO and the UN with its arguments. How will this affect the world?
Zheng | On soft power, I’d like to emphasize that part of the goal of the peaceful rise of China is to realize a civilizational blooming and revival—to combine the best Chinese tradition with new thought and technology from around the world. If we realize this, it will be a great thing.
However, whether talking about hard or soft power, our basic concern is to develop constructive cooperation with America. If there are conflicts of interest with America or anyone else, we can always negotiate. People today talk about China always cooperating in the energy field with “bad countries,” like Iran, Sudan and Venezuela. But not long ago, we wanted to cooperate with America (a Chinese company, China National Offshore Oil Co., wanted to buy the US oil giant, Unocal). But the US rejected us. So where are we supposed to go? Working through all these issues will take patience.
NPQ | You’re close to President Hu, whom you’ve worked with before. We don’t know much about him, so can you tell us how to understand him as a leader?
Zheng | He’s spent many years working in the party as well as some of the toughest provinces in China, such as Tibet and Guizhou. These experiences are important. We worked together in the Central Party university for five years, from 1997 to 2002, when he was president and I was the executive vice president. I think he has an open-minded and practical style. For example, he was very supportive of my reforming the teaching there and he thinks officials need to keep an open view. Together we started five “modern world” courses there, on the modern world economy, modern world technology, modern world politics and law, modern world military and modern world thinking. He thinks that officials who don’t open up their view can’t confront the 21st century, which is an important and valuable thing.
NPQ | Yet when people ask for new rights and new approaches, such as creating independent trade unions (which are banned in China), their views are not welcome. Do you think with all this talk of new thought there can be independent unions in China under Hu?
Zheng | We have a variety of ways to satisfy people’s requirements and benefits. We always try to understand, reflect or represent everyone’s views. Now we still have lots of problems that come out in the development process, and we should resolve them in a gradual way. This has been proved through 25 years of experience. A gradual approach is always more successful and it’s good for everyone. All the other ways will be not good to our people in the end.
NPQ | In other words, you think free trade unions are not a good idea for China right now?
Zheng | I’m talking about the principle, what we’ve learned from our 20 years’ experience with reforms. We’re working in a practical way. We develop a market economy as well as democratic politics. And to be practical, we pay a lot of attention to social pensions, social insurance, the rights of the weakest groups of people. We’re very carefully doing our job and thinking about the different ideas and ways in which we can work out a negotiation system to resolve any conflicts.
I want to emphasize that in the next 10, 20, 30 years, there will be three big trends that will never change.
1. We’ll face the 1.5 billion population. The core for our work is to face this situation, one never faced by any other country in the world. So we’ll need to continuously develop our productive forces.
2. We need to be connected with the global economy and continue opening up to create our goal of socialism with Chinese characteristics. We’ll never try to expand as a hegemon, but will cooperate with the world.
3. Our peaceful rise necessitates a “cultural revival,” improvements in the quality of our peoples, democratic politics and the creation of a gently harmonious society.
We still have 45 years, until the middle of the 21st century, to work on this. Let this time and our actions prove what I say.