When Chinese intellectuals and Communist Party officials inveigh against “hegemonism” they invoke a term first used more than two millennia ago to refer to a ruling power that maintains its position through violence and subterfuge. The territory of ancient China was divided between a dozen warring kingdoms; for centuries the only respite from turmoil came when leaders of unusual strategic acumen used diplomatic skill and military power to overwhelm their enemies and enforce a general peace. These kings were known as bà [霸], or “hegemons.” The order of a hegemon rarely lasted past his death. Ancient Chinese thinkers often contrasted the fragile peace produced by the “way of the hegemon” with the imagined “way of a true king,” which promised a peaceful order premised not on violence, but moral suasion. When 21st century Chinese proclaim that they “oppose hegemonism” it is thus a specific style of leadership they reject–a style reminiscent of the illegitimate hegemons of Chinese antiquity.
Deng Xiaoping described the features of modern hegemonism in a blistering 1974 address to the United Nations. There he condemned the Soviet Union and the United States as
the biggest international exploiters and oppressors of today... They both possess large numbers of nuclear weapons. They carry on a keenly contested arms race, station massive forces abroad and set up military bases everywhere, threatening the independence and security of all nations. They both keep subjecting other countries to their control, subversion, interference or aggression (Deng 1974).
Deng maintained that in response to this illegitimate exercise of hegemonic power, Chinese foreign policy would focus on “strengthening the unity of the developing countries, safeguarding their national economic rights and interests, and promoting the struggle of all peoples against imperialism and hegemonism” (Deng 1974). Though Chinese diplomats would take a less confrontational stance during the era of REFORM AND OPENING, Deng continued to describe “opposing hegemonism” as a central plank of Chinese foreign policy for the rest of his life.
Chinese propagandists are still preoccupied with the ills of American hegemonism. They often pair attacks on American belligerence with a vow that China will “never seek hegemony” [永远不称霸]. When uttering this phrase, Chinese officials and diplomats are not promising to abandon China’s ADVANCE TOWARD THE CENTER OF THE WORLD STAGE. Rather, they promise that China will rise without adopting the “hegemonic” means America has relied on (such as alliance blocs, nuclear coercion, or an expansive network of global military bases) to maintain its global position.
Deng Xiaoping. 1974. “Speech By Chairman of the Delegation of the People’s Republic of China.” Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press; Garver, John. 2018. China's Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People's Republic of China. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Kim, Sungmin. 2019. Theorizing Confucian Virtue Politics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Li Kwok-Sing. 1995. A Glossary of Political Terms of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press; Wang Yueqing, Qingang Bao, and Guoxing Guan. 2020. History of Chinese Philosophy Through Its Key Terms. New York: Springer.