The "Peaceful Development" of China

Frank Ching | 26 Dec 2020

As 2006 draws to a close, China’s continuing rise is a fact that none can dispute. For 28 years, the country has been devoting itself single-mindedly to economic growth and it has chalked up remarkable successes.

In 1978, when Deng Xiaoping made the decision to abandon the Maoist goal of class struggle, China accounted for less than one percent of the world economy and its foreign trade was insignificant. Today, it accounts for four percent of the world economy and is the world’s third biggest foreign trader, with foreign reserves of US$1 trillion.

This dramatic growth has, not surprisingly, engendered apprehension and fear about China’s intentions when, as expected, it becomes the world’s largest economy in the second half of this century. Economists expect China’s gross domestic product to catch up with that of the United States in three more decades.

Zheng Bijian, chair of the China Reform Forum, which is associated with the Central Party School and is a long-time associate of President Hu Jintao, is quick to put the situation into perspective.

“We are still a developing country,” Mr. Zheng said in a recent interview in Beijing. Even though hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, more than 135 million still live below the dollar-a-day poverty line. “Even by the middle of the 21st century, we will only be a mid-level developed country,” he said.

Moreover, given China’s huge population of 1.3 billion—a number that is expected to rise to 1.5 billion by 2030—the country’s per capita GDP is still ranked at about 100th in the world.

Mr. Zheng is best known for advocating the theory of China’s “peaceful rise,” a phrase that was initially adopted by the Chinese leadership and was used by Premier Wen Jiabao when he visited the United States in 2003. At the time, Mr. Wen explained that the essence of China’s peaceful rise lay in relying on its own efforts for development.

However, use of this term by the country’s leaders did not last long. Last December, when Mr. Wen delivered a speech at the inaugural session of the East Asia Summit, it was titled “China’s Peaceful Development: An opportunity for East Asia.” The term “peaceful rise” had given way to “peaceful development.”

President Hu reportedly spent some time discussing the issue with Mr. Zheng before deciding to abandon the term. Apparently, China’s leaders felt that even the term “peaceful rise” sounded threatening, since rise inevitably meant greater power and influence. Development, on the other hand, is something that no country is against.

So cautious is the Chinese leadership and so keen to appear non-threatening that there is even talk now of changing the national symbol of China in the world—the dragon.

There is concern that Westerners’ understanding of the dragon is different from that of the Chinese. The Western dragon, it is pointed out, is a fire-breathing monster that devours human beings and, according to the People’s Daily website, has “an air of belligerency” and is “domineering.”

The traditional Chinese dragon, on the other hand, is a mythical, snake-like creature with numerous claws that symbolizes the emperor and is associated with good fortune and a plentiful harvest. Its appearance is an auspicious sign, quite unlike that of the Western dragon.

China at first considered using the dragon as the official mascot of the 2008 Olympic Games but decided against it. It was explained that “there is a world of difference between the dragon in English and its true meaning in Chinese.”

Quite appropriately, 2006 is ending with a 12-part documentary being shown on nationwide television in China on the rise of great powers over the last 500 years. It begins with European powers, such as the Portuguese, the Spaniards, the Dutch and the British and also discusses the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union.

Mr. Zheng makes it clear that one difference between China’s rise and the rise of major powers in the past is that while those powers, especially Germany and Japan, resorted to war, China’s rise will be peaceful.

“China doesn’t want an inch of territory,” he said, “but neither will it give up an inch. China will never be a superpower.” On Taiwan, however, Mr. Zheng is adamant: Taiwan must be reunified with China, albeit the unification should be peaceful.

China is bending over backwards to tell the world of its peaceful intentions. It must be said that, at this time, there is little reason not to take China at its world.

Frank Ching is a Hong-Kong based commentator. 

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