China Power

Revising Deng’s Foreign Policy

Recent Features

China Power

Revising Deng’s Foreign Policy

Recent comments by General Ma Xiaotian suggest a shift from Deng Xiaoping’s approach to foreign policy.

At the end of December, the Jiefangjun Bao, the official paper of the People's Liberation, carried a brief article on page three of the print edition – with a small revelation about a key principle of China’s foreign policy. The article described a speech delivered by Gen. Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA, to the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, a PLA-affiliated think tank in Beijing.

As reported, Ma’s remarks contained standard boilerplate for a year-end review: “China’s overall security environment was favorable,” but “will continue to undergo complicated and profound changes.” What came next, however, was unexpected. Ma used a revised version of the last eight characters of Deng Xiaoping’s famous “24 character” guideline for China’s foreign policy from the early 1990s: “keep a low profile and achieve something” (taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei). The reformulated version states that China should “uphold (jianchi) keeping a low profile and actively (jiji) achieve something.”

Ma’s use of Deng’s revised guideline in an official Chinese newspaper is important for several reasons.

First, it provides, in print, confirmation that Deng’s long-standing guidance has, in fact, been revised. President Hu Jintao made this revision to Deng’s guideline in the summer of 2009, but because it was the subject of significant debate, the revised text rarely appears in official media sources.

Second, despite media reports of the growing influence of the military in Chinese politics, Ma’s use of the revised foreign policy guideline reveals the consensus between party and military leaders on questions of basic policy principles, including foreign policy.

Third, it highlights the problem of using only English-language media from China. Although the use of the revised phrase is quite apparent in the Chinese version of the report, it’s translated in the English version as “keeping a low profile and making a difference” – suggesting that the guideline hadn’t been revised.

(For an excellent scholarly study of Deng’s guideline, see “Lying Low No More? China's New Thinking on the Tao Guang Yang Hui Strategy,” by Chen Dingdigng and Wang Jianwei from the University of Macao in the Fall 2011 issue of China: An International Journal)

M. Taylor Fravel is an Associate Professor of Political Science and member of the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He can be followed @fravel.