Even in Chinese, “party speak” reads turgid and terse. The rhetoricians of Chinese communism delight in compact slogans that signify a large constellation of ideas to readers who are familiar with the history of a given phrase yet which remain opaque to everyone else. We observe the process by which these terms accrue meaning whenever a new slogan is introduced to the party lexicon. First a senior leader will introduce a phrase whose broadest meaning can be inferred from its original context, but who's finer details remain vague and hazy. Cue a bureaucratic frenzy, as officials, propagandists, and state affiliated scholars compete to fly their banner under the aegis of the new term. Some of the winners see their ideas and bureaucratic priorities incorporated into official explanations of the phrase; other winners see their ideas become part of the more informal and ambiguous web of ideas that informs the implementation of the new concept.1
Ambiguity has its uses. China is large; its conditions are diverse. Detailed diktats would reduce the flexibility cadres and officials need to respond to an evolving crisis. Capacious guidelines, in contrast, allow cadres to adapt policy directives to the specifics of their locale. Ambiguity is also useful whenever a clear declaration of the Party’s policy aims might provoke controversy or opposition. Those who have ears to hear will hear. The rest do not need to.2
Such is the case with the term “great changes unseen in a century.” The phrase, along with the other tenets of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy, was officially codified in a 2018 Central Conference on Foreign Affairs. There Xi instructed the collected leadership of China’s diplomatic corps and state security apparatus that they must
Grasp [China’s] role and its position in the evolution of the international landscape in order to scientifically formulate our state’s foreign policy. China now finds itself in the best period for development it has seen since the advent of the modern era; [simultaneously], the world faces great changes unseen in a century. These two [trends] are interwoven, advancing in lockstep; each stimulates the other. Now, and in the years to come, many advantageous international conditions exist for success in foreign affairs.3
Where Washington officialdom tends to conceptualize strategy as the art of aligning ways, means, and ends, Chinese strategic planners emphasize a fourth element. For them grand strategy begins with assessing the “overall layout” (全局) of the operational space. Planners must identify the “contradictions” (矛盾), “inherent tendencies” (大势), or “the great trends” (大趋势) of the historical moment in which they operate. The far-sighted statesman does not fight these tides of history—he rides them.4 When Xi declared that “the world faces great changes unseen in a century” he was alerting the Chinese foreign policy apparatus that the Party Center had freshly assessed the trajectory of world history, and that their actions must be informed by this assessment.5
But what exactly were the “great changes” Xi foresaw? In 2019 two state think tanks, the State Council’s Asian-African Development Research Institute and Nanjing University’s Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies, assembled a panel of prominent Chinese scholars to address the question. These scholars did not speak for the government so much as to it. Their words cannot be viewed as authoritative statements of state policy. They should be treated as representative of the range of scholarly views that inform thinking on the concept. Intellectuals who aim to shape policy must find a way to align their ideas with their understanding of the party’s position. Assumptions, perceptions, or proscriptions shared by a diverse cast of scholars point to a foreign policy consensus that these scholars either agree with or believe they must appeal to.
The six scholars are remarkably frank in their assessment of the international scene: Most explicitly identify the election of Donald Trump, Brexit, the rise of populism in Europe, and the emergence of identity politics as symptoms of Western decline. Western weakness has precedent: all six scholars see “great changes unseen in a century” as a reference to the collapse of imperial hegemony following World War I, and the concurrent rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as the predominant powers in world politics. They believe that the cycle of decline and rise now repeats: five of the six scholars juxtapose waning Western power with the vitality of the developing world. In all this their view of the world order accords with a judgment Xi Jinping would articulate two years later: “The East ascends; the West declines.”6
Yet if these panelists agree that declining American power and growing global wealth herald a new era of international relations, the six scholars offer widely different assessments of how difficult it will be for China to guide the evolution of the emerging global order towards a better future. Some, such as Jin Canrong, celebrate the opportunities this historical moment offers China; others, such as Zhu Feng, fixate instead on the risks, dangers, and uncertainties inherent to changing global order. They all agree, however, that wise foreign policy begins with the recognition that the global order is changing. Their message to the Party is that China now must carefully choose which aspects of the crumbling Western order it will preserve, and which it will overturn, on its road to national rejuvenation.
- Zhang Yunling (张蕴岭),“How to Understand the Great Changes to Come in this Century”
- Yang Guangbin (杨光斌),“How To Understand Great Changes Unseen in a Century”
- Wei Ling (魏玲),“China and the International System in the Context of the Great Changes Unseen in a Century”
- Zhu Feng (珠峰),“Characteristics of the New Cycle in the Development of International Relations”
- Jin Canrong (金灿荣), “The Uncertainty of the International Situation and the Fourth Industrial Revolution”
- Xie Tao (谢涛), “From the Rise of Populism to the Return of History”
1 Zeng Jinghan, Xiao Yuefan, and Shaun Breslin, “Securing China’s Core Interests: The State of the Debate in China,” International Affairs 91, no. 2 (2015): 245–66. See also Nadege Rollad, China’s Vision For a New World Order (Seattle, National Bureau of Asian Research, 2020), pp.25-51 for a recent study that traces this process in the field of foreign policy.
2 The classic English language studies of ambiguity in Chinese sloganeering are Michael Schoenhals, Doing Things with Words in Chinese Politics: Five Studies (Berkeley:Center for Chinese Studies, University of California, 1992), pp. 10-12 and Perry Link, An Anatomy of Chinese: Rhythm, Metaphor, Politics (Cambridge,Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 247-260.
3 习近平 Xi Jinping, 《习近平谈治国理政》 [Xi Jinping: On the Governance of China], 第三卷 [vol 3] (Beijing: Foreign Language Press [外文出版社]),2020), 428. For the official English translation of the same passage see, Xi Jinping, The Governance of China, vol 3 (Beijing, Foreign Language Press,2020), 496.
4 Tanner Greer, “The Theory of History That Guides Xi Jinping,” Palladium,8 July 2020.
5 For a discussion of the role this slogan has played in Chinese foreign policy, see Sheena Chesnut Greitens, "Internal Security & Chinese Strategy," hearing on "The United States' Strategic Competition with China," § Senate Armed Services Committee (2022); Taylor Fravel, Hearing on “US-China Relations at the Chinese Communist Party’s Centennial” § US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (2022); Rush Doshi, The Long Game: China’s Grand Strategy to Displace American Order (New York: Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 261-272.
6 In Chinese this is 东升西降. Chris Buckley, “The East Is Rising’: Xi Maps Out China’s Post-Covid Ascent,” New York Times, 4 March 2021.