The phrase “Great Changes Unseen in a Century,” sometimes translated by official party media as “Profound Changes Unseen in a Century,” was first used by Chinese academics following the Great Recession. The phrase is associated with the dangers and opportunities posed by American decline, and has been adopted by THE CENTER as a programmatic assessment of a changing world order.
“Great Changes” was officially elevated into the party lexicon in 2017, when then-State Councilor Yang Jiechi described it as a guiding tenet of Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy. Xi Jinping Thought on Diplomacy was formally adopted by the party in a 2018 Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference, where Xi informed the collected leadership of the Chinese diplomatic corp and state security apparatus that
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 (Xi Jinping, “Break New Ground in China’s Major-Country Diplomacy,” in Governance of China, vol III).
Xi’s comments followed a tradition laid out in innumerable Party documents, speeches, and regulations, which present declarations of policy, especially foreign policy, as following from an assessment of the “overall landscape” (全局) “inherent tendencies” (大势), or “the great trends” (大趋势) of the historical moment in which the Party finds itself. “Great changes unseen in a century” is a shorthand for the central leadership’s current assessment of the future trajectory of the international order.
The slogan invokes a slew of great changes that shook global politics one century ago: the collapse of British hegemony and the European imperial system following WWI and the concurrent rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as the predominant powers of world politics. The slogan implies that a similar power transition is now underway, with America playing the role of faltering hegemon, and China the rising power.
More substantive discussions of the slogan by Chinese academics and state affiliated scholars trace this power transition to myriad causes: the growing wealth of the developing world, the rise of right-wing populism in Western countries, the debilitating effects that neoliberalism and identity politics have on American power, the resurgence of nationalism across the globe, advances in novel technologies not pioneered by the West, and the proliferation of non-traditional security threats (such as pandemics and terrorist attacks) are all common explanations for the crumbling of the American-led international order.
Though the phrase was introduced in a rather triumphal tone, the slogan has taken on a darker valence as Sino-American relations have worsened and China has grown more isolated in the international arena. Party propagandists and Chinese academics alike now pair the phrase “great changes unforeseen in a century” with increasingly dire warnings about the unique risks and dangers China faces in the final stage of NATIONAL REJUVENATION. Thus the slogan has come to also signify a warning that China sails into uncharted waters. As Xi Jinping reported in his address to the 20th Congress:
Great changes unseen in a century are accelerating across the world… the once-in-a-century pandemic has had far-reaching effects; a backlash against globalization is rising; and unilateralism and protectionism are mounting… The world has entered a new period of turbulence and change… [where] external attempts to suppress and contain China may escalate at any time.
Our country has entered a period of development in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising... We must therefore be more mindful of potential dangers, be prepared to deal with worst-case scenarios, and be ready to withstand high winds, choppy waters, and even dangerous storms (Xi Jinping, “Political Report to the 20th Congress,” 2022).
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, 2021).