JASMINE GAN introduces the November 2018 International Theme, “Through the Looking Glass: China’s International Image.” 

The English name “China” is thought to come from the Sanskrit word चीन cina, deriving from the transliteration of the Chinese 秦 Qin (pronounced “Chin”): the first dynasty of imperial China dating around 200 BC. Significantly, the Qin dynasty was the first to conquer the seven warring states to form the first unified and politically centralized state in Chinese history. For modern Chinese people, the word for China no longer contains the legacy of the Qin dynasty. In Chinese, the country is called 中国 Zhong guo, the Middle Kingdom. Usage of Zhong guo can be traced to the Zhou dynasty of West Zhou in the Warring States period preceding the Qin dynasty. The term was used as a cultural differentiator between the Huaxia people (the ancestral tribes of the region) inhabiting the “central state” and “barbarians”. After unification by Emperor Qin, there were many terms used to describe the unified state in subsequent history, including 神州 Shen zhou (“Divine Land”), 九州 Jiu zhou (“Nine States”), and 赤县 Chi xian (“Red Territory”).

Certainly the Chinese were not unique in viewing themselves as the center of world civilization, they were in good company with the Romans, Mayans and the Aztecs. Be that as it may, the Middle Kingdom is the term that has stuck around until modern day and has remained the modern term for China. To some degree, Chinese self-perception of itself at the center of modern civilization has also lingered since the Zhou dynasty. Mao Zedong adapted Marxist-Leninist beliefs to place China at the center, he believed, of the imminent world-historical proletarian revolution. Mao believed that the US-China ideological competition was the “fundamental contradiction” to be resolved by the revolution, propelling him to enact the disastrous Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution.

When Xi Jinping first introduced the “Chinese dream” in a 2012 visit to the National Museum of China, the similarity of Xi’s ideological platform to America’s favorite phrase caused a mini media flurry. Most notably, Thomas Friedman argued in a controversial New York Times op-ed that China should find its own dream. But actually, Xi Jinping was reviving an old term that predated the American concept. The only thing new was its use to promote the new movement to rejuvenate China and recapture the “lost national greatness”, as an end to the Century of Humiliation following the Opium War. Gone are the days where Deng Xiaoping advised China to “hide your strength and bide your time”, and now China is prepared to step out onto the world stage and take on the mantle of multilateral leadership.

What does this mean for Chinese foreign policy? Alastair Iain Johnston has made the case for cultural realism: China-watchers must take into account the historical and cultural context in which policies and decisions are made and executed. Foreign policy is not developed in a vacuum. And Chinese foreign policy, particularly in the Xi era, is conducted with a long view: with the view of correcting a century-long “historical anomaly”, of seeing itself at the center of a successful and thriving trade network, and with a particular pre-occupation with being seen as the center.

That’s the Chinese dream. But how close is it to becoming reality?

The dragon slayers and panda huggers have been gearing up for furious debate. The 2015 Met Gala saw the glitz and glamour of Hollywood celebrities flocking to celebrate the cultural and artistic legacies of China and paying homage through costume. However, China has run into obstacles with the CCP’s sponsorship of Confucius Institutes as vehicles for cultural exchange, with the institutions labelled as “propaganda arms” in the United States. China has been copping bad press for industrial espionage and alleged intellectual property theft in technology sectors, as well as for foreign interference in democratic nations’ elections.

On the economic front, the Belt and Road Initiative (formerly the Silk Road project) was initially innocuously framed as a connectivity project in 2013. Five years later, it has ballooned into a mammoth network set to span the globe well beyond the reach of the ancient Silk Road trading network. To what extent is BRI a neocolonialist attempt by China to reassert its influence, and how does it compare to Western imperialism and the historical exportation of Western cultural values through unequal trading relationships?

China is still classed as a developing nation in its official World Trade Organization status, despite 40 years of reform and economic opening and almost 20 since its ascension to the WTO. Historically, China has positioned itself as leader of the “third world”, but in recent times has risen up to be a key player in providing humanitarian aid to nations in Africa. There may be strategic incentives for China to retain its image as a developing nation.

Since Xi Jinping abolished the presidential term limit in May, he has taken some flak from domestic critics for styling himself as a “leader for life” in both policy and ideological thought. Deng Xiaoping’s 1990 doctrine has guided Chinese foreign policy to keep a low profile for 30 years, but this was turned over by Xi’s declaration in 2017 that China is prepared to take “center stage”. However, there may be more historical continuities from “Maoist thought” to “Xi thought” than first appears. The vast differences between the foreign policy of today’s China and the China in previous decades needs to be balanced with an appreciation for the similarities in a variety of facets: Chinese strategy in economic, cultural, and social realms.

Jasmine Gan can be contacted at jasmine.gan@yale.edu.