Sixty-four years ago the founding fathers of the People’s Republic of China stood atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing and told the rest of the world they were starting a “new China.” It took the United States government thirty years to recognize it. And the U.S. still does not see China as it claims to be. One dedicated coterie of official U.S. China watchers habitually expects its imminent collapse. Another views it as a rising power that will upend the established international order. Both create the impression China is constantly on the precipice of momentous change. Neither rings true.
This year, China’s newly installed leaders celebrated their first national day at the helm with bland words and pro-forma deeds that will probably pass unnoticed. They don’t look or sound like revolutionaries, reactionaries or revanchists, but like somnambulant defenders of the status quo. Some U.S. observers think they’re playing possum, but China’s leaders talk the same way at home as they do abroad.
President and General Secretary Xi Jinping cemented this impression in the minds of China’s governing elite at a recently convened meeting of the Politburo by chiseling the well-worn slogans of his predecessor, Hu Jintao, into the proverbial stone tablets of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) doctrine. “Scientific Development” (科学发展观) now lies beneath Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” (三个代表), “Deng Xiaoping Theory” (邓小平理论) “Mao Zedong Thought” (毛泽东思想) and “Marxism-Leninism” (马克色列宁主义) on the slowly growing list of the “guiding thoughts” of Chinese communism. U.S. observers who expect Xi to change China are likely to be disappointed. Enshrining his predecessor’s language in the party dogma suggests that any changes that might emerge during Xi’s tenure will be conceived as incremental improvements on past successes, not dramatic repudiations of past failures.
Premier Li Keqiang’s National Day address sends the same message. China’s goal remains the creation of a “moderately prosperous society” by mid century. Not exactly the language of an ambitious rising power. China’s status in the world does not figure prominently in Li’s remarks. He expresses concern about “complexity” in the international environment, but he also extends the boring reassurance that China will respond by “seeking progress in stability, achievement in stability” （稳中求进，稳中有为). The CCP appears to aim to make the existing order more efficient, not to change it. Rather than stirring nationalist sentiment on China’s most important national holiday, Li made a concerted effort to communicate a quiet confidence in staying the course.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s address to the United Nations raises questions about U.S. China watchers who argue the CCP is revanchist. His address may be entitled China at a New Starting Point, but it offers a stark repudiation of those who portray the regime as aggrieved and in search of redress. Wang meticulously repeats decades-old themes in the language of Chinese foreign policy including equality, mutual respect, mutual benefit, sustainable development and respect for international institutions, especially the United Nations. While U.S. observers may find cause to doubt the sincerity of Chinese rhetoric, there is no doubt the rhetoric remains unchanged.
Being responsible for the health and well-being of a fifth of humanity is no small challenge, but the children of China’s communist founding fathers govern a country that is more economically successful, politically stable and militarily secure than it has been since the Qing Dynasty was defeated by the British Empire in the first Opium War (1839-1842). The status quo could be better, but compared to the lives of the last six generations, contemporary Chinese are doing rather well. U.S. observers might want to consider giving greater credence to the cautious rhetoric of Chinese leaders who claim to prefer stability over change.