The Communist Party of China claims that it discerns the “laws governing the development of the history of human society” (Constitution of the Communist Party of China, October 2022). In line with this claim, Party leaders orient both policy and strategy around official assessments of the material laws and historical trends at work in the world. The Maoist political program was ostensibly grounded in Mao’s judgment that “war and revolution” were the defining geopolitical trends of the 20th century; to reorient the Party towards a new focus on economic development Deng Xiaoping needed to revise this judgment. Thus in 1985 Deng Xiaoping declared that “peace and development are the theme of the times.” This assessment, restated by countless Chinese strategists and statesmen in the decades that followed, takes globalization as the defining feature of modern history. Implicit in the slogan is an injunction to treat harnessing the forces of globalization for China’s development as the CENTRAL TASK of the Party.
From Mao’s fervent belief that the Party “had to take the possibility of coming under attack as the starting point of all work” flowed many of the defining policies of Mao’s last decade in power (Meyskens, Mao’s Third Front, p. 50). These included diplomatic estrangement from the West, aid for revolutionary movements across the developing world, and the the concentration of heavy industry deep in the mountain provinces of inland China. Though these policies did not long outlive Mao’s death, the extent to which China should open its economy remained a hotly contested issue throughout the 1980s.
In the midst of debates over economic reform Deng Xiaoping informed a delegation from the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry that “peace and development are the two outstanding issues in the world today.” “Although there is still the danger of war,” he confided to the Japanese, “the forces that can deter it are growing, and we find that encouraging.” In the same address, he indicated that peace and development are “issues of global strategic significance.” Matters of peace concern “East-West relations” while matters of development concern “North-South relations.” As a war between the East and West was unlikely, prudent nations in the Global South should focus on catching up to the Global North in economic development – and such would be China’s objective in the reform and opening era (Deng Xiaoping, “Peace and Development Are the Two Outstanding Issues In the World Today,” 4 March, 1985).
Two months later Deng proceeded to free up resources for economic development by reducing the People’s Liberation Army to one million men. If previously his peace and development assessment had been associated with international trade and investment, it now carried a second connotation: Deng’s belief that military spending must be subordinate to the development of the larger economy.
These conclusions were codified as party dogma when Jiang Zemin described “peace and development are the main theme of the times” as a major component of Deng Xiaoping Theory [邓小平理论] in his 1997 report to the 15th Congress. That year’s National Defense Law would reiterate this stance, stating that China’s policy was to “strengthen national defense while focusing on economic development” (China National People’s Congress, “People’s Republic of China National Defense Law,”14 March 1997). Both Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao would restate these ideas, including the line “peace and development are the main themes of the times” in every Party Congress political report they delivered in the two decades that followed Jiang’s 1997 codification of the phrase.
Over these two decades there was only one serious challenge to the judgment that peace and development were the defining features of international politics. This occurred in 1999 after the American bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade. Over that summer the Party allowed a widespread debate among intellectuals, academics, and party theorists over whether Deng’s sunny pronouncements still described China’s international environment. The pro-globalization forces won this argument. Their victory was codified in Jiang Zemin’s declaration that “A new world war is unlikely in the foreseeable future” and “it is realistic to bring about a fairly long period of peace in the world and a favorable climate in areas around China.” To Deng’s “peace and development” line Jiang added his own theoretical formulation, urging the Party to seize the “first two decades of the 21st century” as “an important PERIOD OF STRATEGIC OPPORTUNITY” for China’s development (Jiang Zemin, “Political Report to the 16th Party Congress,” 17 November 2002). With these slogans first Jiang, and then Hu and Xi after him, endorsed the idea that globalization was the surest guarantee of China’s rise.
By Xi Jinping’s second term this no longer seemed so safe a guarantee. Setbacks in the BELT AND ROAD INITIATIVE, unfavorable election results in Taiwan, a trade war with the United States, and mounting tensions in China’s bilateral relationship with numerous democratic nations seemed to challenge rosy assessments that development remained the theme of the times. Xi did not include “peace and development” line in his 2022 political report. The closely related “period of strategic opportunity” phrasing was replaced with references to a “a period of development in which strategic opportunities, risks, and challenges are concurrent and uncertainties and unforeseen factors are rising” (Xi Jinping, “Political Report to the 20th Congress, 22 October 2022).
The practical relevance of the changed assessment is perhaps best seen in the PRC’s defense budget. In 2023 this budget grew by more than 7%—even though China’s economy was only projected to grow by 5%. The Party can no longer claim that it is “strengthening national defense while focusing on economic development.” That was a strategy of a past era, an era when peace and development were the theme of the times.
See also: GREAT CHANGES UNSEEN IN A CENTURY; GREAT REJUVENATION OF THE CHINESE NATION; PERIOD OF STRATEGIC OPPORTUNITY; PATH OF PEACEFUL DEVELOPMENT; TAKE ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT AS THE CENTRAL TASK.
Henry Yuhuai He, Dictionary of the Political Thought of the People’s Republic of China (London: Routledge, 2015); John W. Garver, China’s Quest: The History of the Foreign Relations of the People’s Republic of China (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Brock Erdhal and Daid Gitter, “China’s Uncertain Times and Fading Opportunities,” CACR Occasional Report (Washington DC: Center for Advanced China Research, 2022); David M. Finkelstein, "China Reconsiders Its National Security: “The Great Peace and Development Debate of 1999,” Report No. D0014464.A1 (Washington DC: CNA Corportation, December 2000).