#07 event report: Taoguang Yanghui or not? China’s discourse on foreign policy strategy

April 26, 2011, Bridge Café (Wudaokou)

Speaker: Prof. Dr. ZHANG Qingmin 张清敏, Peking University, Center for International and Strategic Studies


Peking University Professor Zhang Qingmin addressed the Thinkin China community on the history and debates around the continued applicability of China’s Foreign policy approach of taoguang yanghui. Taoguang yanghui has various translations into English, but it is largely conceived of as China’s quiet foreign policy approach of “bide our time, build/hide our capabilities” as described in Deng Xiaoping’s 24 character foreign policy strategy of the early 1990s.

Zhang elucidated the history of the concept as a foreign policy approach in China. He notes that after the Tiananmen Incident of 1989, Deng Xiaoping directed foreign policy towards an emphasis on keeping a low profile in international affairs –an avoidance of flashy politics and grandiose demonstrations of leadership. This was incorporated an avoidance of “carrying the socialist flag” as well as an eschewing of the adoption of positions of leadership amongst developing countries despite calls from the developing world for China to adopt a predominant role. While some argue that this approach has changed its character since its inception, it remains the official foreign policy doctrine of China.

This rhetoric stands at odds with the view of many Western scholars associated with the China Threat School. Much of the misconception about this policy, argues Zhang, stems from a lack of conceptual clarity about its content and the obfuscations resulting from its translation. Some translations offered have included “hide our capabilities”, “bide our time and build our capabilities” or “hide brightness, nourish obscurity.” Some of these interpretations suggest to many Western scholars duplicity or quiet but significant rise without transparency. Zhang argues rather that it was intended to imply the adoption of a low profile and self-effacing demeanour in foreign policy dealings and is a “style” rather than a strategy.

Zhang highlighted the debates surrounding whether China should maintain this policy of quiet diplomacy or abandon it in favour of a more assertive stance. On the one hand, he notes that official policy and mainstream scholars are largely of the view that taoguang yanghui should be maintained. Proponents of this argument note that China remains a developing country and is presently not in a position to shift this policy. In addition, advocates argue that it has been a successful approach and has aided China’s development thus far and as such, it should be maintained.

Outside of the mainstream, a variety of arguments are offered in favour of abandonment of taoguang yanghui. Some critics argue that with China’s increasing power and economic muscle in the international system, it should adopt a more responsible and outspoken foreign policy. Others argue for the maintenance of the policy in practice, but the avoidance of making this policy known. Advocates of this view argue that once the continued existence of the strategy is known, the strategy loses its efficacy. A third school of thought on the matter suggests that China has already abandoned taoguang yanghui. Its increasingly active participation in international groupings such as the G20 is used as evidence in support of this claim. Further, China’s particularly assertive approach to foreign policy in 2010 –including a vociferous stance on the South China Sea Issue, the fishing boat incident and The US’s arms sales to Taiwan– lends credence to this claim.

In conclusion, Prof. Zhang offered his own interpretation on the debate. In so doing he revisited the essence of taoguang yanghui as embodied by Deng Xiaoping. He reaffirmed the notion of keeping a low profile in both international and domestic dealings as central to Deng’s approach of avoidance of high status leadership and deferral to others. He then examined the sustained salience of this low profile approach in the aftermath of Deng’s leadership arguing while approaches have been stylistically less self-effacing, the official policy remains intact.

(report by Kelly-Jo Bluen)