It’s difficult to think of a more famous piece of off-the-mark but still common wisdom about China than the idea that China’s government thinks and plans in generations, decades, or centuries, acting in its long-term interest. Today, especially in foreign affairs, China often lacks a long-term vision, while its short-term actions are sabotaging its long-term interests. But the West refuses to let go of this misunderstanding. This myth is the result of snowballing Western misconceptions over the decades, summed up in one misunderstanding during a meeting between Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger.
In 1972, Zhou Enlai, the premier of China under Mao Zedong, was asked the question: “What was the impact of the French Revolution?” His answer: “Too early to say.” The French Revolution took place almost 200 years before Zhou gave this response to Henry Kissinger. Thus Zhou cemented China’s reputation, in the eyes of West, as the country that thinks in centuries. Unfortunately the French revolution that Zhou was talking about wasn’t the well-known one in 1789, but the student uprising in Paris, in 1968, an event that had taken place only four years before, not 200 years. While after too many years, the translator of that conversation set the record straight and confirmed that Zhou was indeed talking about the 1968 “French revolution,” this misunderstanding had already become a norm.
That is why the myth about China thinking and planning its foreign policy in generations must be debunked. Although we can talk about Chinese domestic long-term planning, like the “one child policy,” “Made in China 2025,” “one country, two systems,” or even the ubiquitous five-year plans, we should take into account that many of these examples are medium-term policies. More importantly, they are internal policies stemming from China’s paramount need to keep the country functional. At the same time, many long-term “plans” and “goals” are just tools of Communist propaganda.
On the international level, China has proven over the last decade that it doesn’t have a long-term strategy and it even acts on impulse on many occasions. A good place to start is with the ultimate purported long-term strategy: the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
The Belt and Road Initiative: An Idea, Not a Strategy
Although the BRI is perceived by the West as China’s long-term strategy to take the control of the world, by amassing economic influence and geopolitical power and replacing the United States at the top of the international order, in fact the concept was originally just a fancy name proposed (and changed after a few years) by Xi Jinping in 2013, largely because it sounded good. In the good company of other Chinese slogans such as “peaceful rise,” “new type of great power relations,” “community of common destiny,” and “Chinese dream,” the aim was to create a positive and catchy story around China – but also to paint the image of a Chinese leader with innovative ideas for the world stage. And time proved that it was just an idea, not a coherent long-term strategy thought out in advance and carefully executed over the years.
This is reinforced by the fact that China took almost two years to try to define the BRI. Even today the government hasn’t succeeded in completely defining it or putting into practice the goals of the initiative as stipulated in the 2015 White Paper. Soon after the White Paper, the name in foreign languages was changed from “One Belt, One Road” to the “Belt and Road Initiative” because China realized the old name created a flawed picture.
Because of the lack of a coherent official vision, the Belt and Road Initiative was in the eye of the beholder from the very beginning. Soon after Xi’s 2013 speeches, the BRI was described in the West as an infrastructure project, with different “trillion dollar” price tags with no official source – even though, technically, Xi described it as far more than that. With China still failing to set the record straight, the BRI later came to be described as a debt trap and a ploy used by China to attract, indebt, and control countries in order to obtain international power. If that were the case, however, China wouldn’t have let the Belt and Road remain adrift for so many years, without caring that its brand was misused, many of its projects were unimplemented, and criticism was gathering. China tried to address or hit back against some of the criticism, but it didn’t implement many changes, because the Belt and Road Initiative was never a coherent mechanism in the first place, to which changes could be implemented.
But the BRI was never a coherent strategy – it is better to think of it as a branding strategy for Chinese foreign investments. Of course, as it wasn’t well planned, the Chinese government allowed this brand to be co-opted by countless private companies, even if that affected BRI’s image. Even some Chinese experts recognize that the initiative became a tool in hands of some Chinese companies, which used the Belt and Road brand to facilitate certain advantages such as loans or approvals for foreign investments.
If the Belt and Road Initiative was a cunning long-term strategy to woo and then control the world through investments, trade, and debt, we would imagine China would stick to it, instead of sabotaging the plan. But every time something bad happens to China, the government doesn’t hold fast to some long-term plan – it lets loose. One recent example is China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy.” Lately, you can’t open Twitter and scroll without seeing at least one tweet from a Chinese ambassador or diplomat criticizing different countries (sometimes the ones they are posted in). Although “wolf warrior diplomacy” has become very popular among Chinese diplomats and possibly among the Chinese public, it also works to China’s long-term disadvantage. This policy will help lots of diplomats work their way to higher positions, but it is creating future disadvantages for China by antagonizing foreign countries. Apparently in China, as in the Western world, politicians also work to their immediate benefit, instead of the long-term national interest.
Soft Power Squandered
Over the years, there have been numerous moments when one person was put above China’s long-term interest, showing that China’s foreign policy is driven more by other countries’ actions and its own internal political interests, than by a coherent long-term strategy. Let’s just think about the cases of Mongolia and the Dalai Lama, Norway and Liu Xiaobo, Sweden and Gui Minhai, and more recently, although very different, Canada and Meng Wanzhou.
Over the recent years, China has proven multiple times that keeping a low profile, biding its time, and turning the other cheek isn’t on its agenda anymore. Instead, China promotes a new philosophy: “if you slap me, I will punch you.” In other words, being more aggressive is better, regardless of the consequences. But this contradicts the ubiquitous Chinese mottos of “peaceful rise” or “community of common destiny” and shows that such slogans aren’t strategies, but empty words.
In 2010, China decided to “punch” Norway by imposing economic sanctions because, from its perspective, Norway slapped China by giving the Nobel Peace Price to Liu Xiaobo, a Chinese dissident. Whether China wanted to show its dissidents that no country can help them or to show other countries the risk of supporting such dissidents, what China really proved was that it often acts on impulse. For China, a single jailed person, largely unknown to most of the Chinese population, became more important than its global image and its future relations with an important Western country like Norway.
And this situation was replicated with Norway’s neighbor, Sweden, in 2019. After a nongovernmental organization awarded a freedom of speech prize to Gui Minhai, a Hong Kong bookseller with Swedish citizenship imprisoned in China, Sweden received threats from China that it “will suffer the consequences.” Once more, China proved not only that it doesn’t understand the idea of democracy, but that it lacks long-term strategic thinking.
The latest example is Canada, which is perhaps the most interesting story. While China could have taken advantage of United States-Canada frictions, a perfect opportunity to move closer to Canada, it decided to start a vicious fight with Ottawa over Meng Wanzhou, the CFO of Huawei. Not only did China blow its chances of befriending Canada on the political level, but it also cast itself in the eyes of the Canadian public and the world as an intrusive, undemocratic, and abusive power. China not only imposed trade sanctions against Canada, but it also arrested two Canadians in order to gain leverage to win Meng’s release. China acted impulsively, without even thinking whether a country like Canada, that prides itself on its democracy and rule of law, could interfere with judicial decisions under external pressure. While China can free the two Canadians with a snap of its fingers, Canada can’t do the same with Meng, because inside a democracy there is a separation of powers and the judiciary should remain independent.
After its arrest of the two Canadian citizens in China, some Western experts began to fear going to China. While China will one day be the world’s largest economy, how could it claim the superpower’s “mandate of heaven” when it lacks one fundamental element – trust? Even while China has tried to consolidate its soft power, improve its image, and expand its influence through some actions and initiatives, like the BRI, the 17+1 mechanism, the China-Africa forum, and others, it has lately only succeeded in turning many countries and ordinary people against it.
This pattern of Chinese reactions shows an inclination for impulsiveness, without regard for long-term strategic consequences. In many cases, China’s foreign actions were influenced by internal politics, even if the result would disadvantage China in the long term. Years’ worth of attempts and efforts to strengthen relations with a country could be undone by a simple impulsive reaction. Because of this, over time, while China’s economic and military power has grown, its influence hasn’t kept up. Instead, China is losing goodwill. And the showcase is the story of Hong Kong and Taiwan.
The Failed Strategy of “One Country, Two Systems”
The “one country, two systems” policy, as it was proposed by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s, was a long-term strategy not just to integrate Hong Kong and Macao into the People Republic of China, but to attract Taiwan by using the two as a demo. On paper, allowing an oasis of democracy and capitalism, surrounded by socialism with Chinese characteristics, to exist for at least 50 years, as a doable long-term strategy, could have facilitated the peaceful reunification with Taiwan. If China was led by a long-term vision and was thinking in decades and centuries, “one country, two systems” would have been preserved for 50 years. But it started to fall apart just 17 years later, in 2014, when the Umbrella Movement rocked Hong Kong.
With the failed extradition law of 2019 and now the national security law, China showed it didn’t have the capacity to bide its time and wait until 2047, when the 50 year commitment to an autonomous Hong Kong would expire. Now China has lost any template for the peaceful reunification of Taiwan, while also alienating much of Taiwan’s population, through its short-sighted actions in Hong Kong. Peaceful reunification is more distant today than it was in the 1980s, even though China is stronger and richer.
In this particular case, China had a long-term strategy, but failed to implement it, as its actions were dictated by the interests of one leader and not by the long-term interest of the country. And it makes sense if we look from the perspective of Xi Jinping. While waiting until 2047 would have been auspicious for China, because there would be no more international law problems and China would probably have amassed enough power to tone down criticisms about implementing its system in Hong Kong, it doesn’t work for a president that wants to go down in history as the one who rejuvenated China.
Instead of believing the hype and praising Chinese leaders for thinking in decades and generations, not four-year electoral cycles, Western politicians and analysts would better pay attention to all the ways China’s short-term actions are sabotaging its long-term goals, without a coherent, well-planned strategy to support them. While it’s easy to believe that initiatives like the Belt and Road, the 17+1 mechanism in Central and Eastern Europe, and others are carefully designed plans, they are more often just brands, slogans, or attempts to put on a show on the world stage, launched with fanfare and later improvised. The Health Silk Road, another slogan that dates back a few years and has recently been resurrected when the opportunity called for it, demonstrates how nothing much comes out of these “strategies.”
While China might set long-term goals and articulate something that might seem to resemble a long-term vision, the real benchmark should be its actions. Nobody would believe a teenager who claims he wants to become a world famous scientist but spends all his time playing video games. China’s actions often contradict even its stated goals, showing there is no long-term planning behind them, just slogans.
While a rising China might want to one day surpass the United States and become the world’s main power and some in China dream of it becoming a benevolent hegemon (wang), instead of an aggressive one (ba), China’s actions over the past few years, combined with the lack of a long-term vision, work to its disadvantage. China’s image is becoming even more negative and more countries are turning away, instead of toward it. In such a moment, it would really help China if it would have the long-term vision and strategy foreigners tend to ascribe to it.
Andreea Brînză is the vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific (RISAP), where she analyzes the geopolitics of China with a focus on the Belt and Road Initiative. You can follow her on Twitter @Andreebrin