No, China Doesn’t Think Decades Ahead in Its Diplomacy

Andreea Brinza | 10 October 2020

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

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).

Photo Credits: The Forbidden City in Beijing (RISAP)

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Andreea Brinza

Andreea Brinza is a researcher and the Vice President of RISAP. Her interests are related to the geopolitics, geostrategy and geoeconomics of the Asia-Pacific region and especially China. Her research focuses on the Belt and Road Initiative.

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