For several decades the phrase “peaceful evolution” has been used by Chinese leaders and propagandists to describe their belief that the United States seeks to overthrow the Communist Party of China by peaceful means. Descriptions of the “peaceful evolution” threat have changed over time, but the phrase generally describes an intentional strategy of economic pressure, ideological subversion, and active support of disaffected Chinese to trigger a revolution capable of dissolving China’s communist regime.
The phrase has its roots in the pronouncements made by John Foster Dulles when he served as Secretary of State under the Eisenhower administration. Dulles rejected arguments that America was obligated to use its military power to roll back the communist advance. He told his fellow Americans that “liberation” from Soviet rule could occur through a “process short of war” (Dulles 1953), for “internal pressures are bound to alter the character of the communist regimes,” and thus American foreign policy should seek to “accelerate [this] evolution within the Sino-Soviet bloc” through peaceful means (Dulles 1958, 10-11).
Dulles’ statements had a powerful effect on communist leaders in Beijing, who were searching for an intellectual framework that might explain the source of threatening “revisionist” trends then roiling the communist bloc. As the USSR de-Stalinized and political turmoil struck both Poland and Hungary, Mao began to intensively study Dulles’ words. At a senior leadership meeting convened in 1959 to discuss the threat of “peaceful evolution” Mao concluded:
The United States not only has no intention to give up its policy of force, but also wants, as an addition to its policy of force, to pursue a ‘peaceful evolution’ strategy of infiltration and subversion in orderto avoid the prospect of its ‘being surrounded.’ The US desires to achieve the ambition of preserving itself (capitalism) and gradually defeating the enemy(socialism)” (Qian 1995).
The concept would survive Mao’s death. It would undergo a significant renaissance after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the massacre on Tiananmen Square, events that conclusively proved that there were forces far more dangerous to communist rule than American military might. Shortly after those events Deng Xiaoping would declare that the United States and its allies “engage in peaceful evolution…[and thereby] wage a world war without smoke or gunpowder” (Deng 1994).
Though party leaders and state affiliated thinkers now often frame the threat of peaceful evolution in terms of “color revolutions” or warnings that HOSTILE FORCES pose a threat to the “political security” of the standing regime, the danger they believe the United States poses to the GREAT REJUVENATION OF THE CHINESE NATION has remained remarkably consistent over time. Both in Mao's day and our own, party leaders have argued that Western powers are constitutionally averse to any great power that is not part of the liberal capitalist fold. As long as this is so, party members must remain on guard against the perils of peaceful evolution.
Deng Xiaoping. 1994. Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, Vol. 3. Beijing: Foreign Languages Press; Dulles, John Foster. 1953. U.S. Senate Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations; Dulles, John Foster. 1958. Policy for the Far East. Washington: U.S. Government Print Office; Johnson, Matthew. 2020. “Safeguarding Socialism: The Origins, Evolution and Expansion of China’s Total Security Paradigm.” Sinoposis; Ong, Russel. 2007, “‘Peaceful Evolution’, ‘Regime Change’ and China's Political Security.” Journal of Contemporary China 16 (53): 717-727; Qiang Zhai. 1995. “Mao Zedong and Dulles’s ‘Peaceful Evolution’ Strategy: Revelations from Bo Yibo’s Memories.” Cold War International History Project Bulletin (6/7): 228-232.