Examining China’s Foreign Policy and Global Ambitions: A Book Discussion on Dr. Suisheng Zhao’s The Dragon Roars Back

Dr. Suisheng Zhao’s book The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy (2022) gives thought-provoking visions of China’s transformational leaders and their strategies to advance foreign policy agendas in the quest for security, prosperity, and power. I spoke with Dr. Zhao to discuss the Chinese government’s political use of ideational forces, the power distribution of bureaucratic and international institutions, and how it strategically takes advantage of international norms and rules to go through its path of ascendance. From the external environment of China’s relationship with the U.S. to its domestic environment, the party-state hierarchy, Dr. Zhao explored the complexities and challenges of China’s rise as a global power.

Suisheng Zhao is Professor and Director of the Center for China-US Cooperation at Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver. He received his Ph.D. degree in political science from the University of California-San Diego. He is a founding editor of the Journal of Contemporary China. He is the author and editor of more than ten books. 

What motivates you to write this book? How do you define “transformational leaders” in the book title? What are the characteristics of “a transformational leader” in general and specifically in China?

This book traces the trajectory of China’s rise and the driving forces behind China’s transformation of foreign policy. I have been teaching Chinese foreign policy classes for many years. I have found that there has not been a comprehensive book up to date historically depth with the theoretical comprehensive to help us to understand the seventy years of the People’s Republic of China’s foreign policy trajectory up to today’s rise. Many books are working on China’s foreign policy. However, most of them are either on the bilateral relationships of China with individual countries or on specific issue areas, such as energy, diplomacy, arms control, and economic relationships. No book covers these issue areas and puts bilateral relationships in a broad historical context. So that is the empirical motivation for me to write this book.

There is another motivation for me to write this book. That is, I want to develop it from a theoretical perspective. China is now rising as a significant power. People are wondering if China will use its power. Some people predict that China will become aggressive power, just like all those rising powers. This situation is typical of what scholars call the structure realist approach. That is, when China’s relative power expands, its ambition expands, too. A rising China will inevitably become anti-status-quo power, redefine its national interest more expansively, intensify territorial disputes with its neighbors, and challenge the U.S. for regional and global dominance. However, this theory has difficulty explaining over seventy years of PRC history. During Mao’s era, China’s relative power was fragile, but China was revolutionary. China fought wars with the U.S., the former Soviet Union, India, and many countries. Therefore, the relative power of realist theory cannot explain that behavior. And then, Deng Xiaoping came to power. China’s relative power did not change that much, but China became moderate. As a result, Chinese foreign policy became less revolutionary than before. Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, continued the low- profile policy despite China being regarded as a rising power. Now Xi Jinping has come into office. I do not think China’s power has expanded much. However, China’s foreign policy behavior has changed dramatically. Xi Jinping has abandoned Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, and Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile foreign policy and has turned to a big-power foreign policy, including fighting with many of China’s neighbors and confronting the U.S. and other Western powers. some scholars even argue that under Xi’s governance, China has somehow overreached and overplayed its hands because the power is not at the level that matches its behavior. So from that perspective, structural realist theory cannot explain China’s behavior.

Another theoretical approach scholars often use is a regime-type theory, which argues that China’s aggressive foreign policy behavior has been driven by its authoritarian system. So if China changes its foreign policy behavior, it has to change the regime. However, China’s regime has been authoritarian for the last seventy years. As I described earlier, there were many turns and shifts during these seven decades, from revolutionary diplomacy and developmental diplomacy to the current big-power diplomacy. So the regime-type theory cannot explain China’s behavior either. 

There are many other theories. We do not have time to discuss this. Nevertheless, in this case, I found that those theories are insufficient to explain China’s foreign policy behavior. So in that context, I have tried to develop a new theoretical framework to go beyond realism and regime-type theories to explain China’s foreign policy.

My theoretical framework is leadership-centered. Leaders matter in all political systems. Leaders matter more in authoritarian systems, especially in the Chinese authoritarian system. Term limits, public opinions, and oppositional parties constrain political leaders in democracies. However, in the Chinese system, the emphasis has been on hierarchy, discipline, and democratic centralism. Communist leaders in China are relatively unchecked by public opinion or other forces. So leaders have the ultimate authority in making foreign and national security policies. these leaders may weaponize domestic forces to advance their vision and respond strategically to the international challenges.

However, only some leaders in the last 70 years have been able to use that power to transform Chinese foreign policy. Why? In my book, I tried to answer this question by distinguishing Chinese leaders into three types: transformational leaders, transactional leaders, and failed leaders. Transformational leaders have new visions and have been able to delegate through the jungle of power politics in the PRC. They have survived political power struggles to make their visions prevail, and mobilize those resources. Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping are three transformational leaders. Transactional leaders survive those power struggles and stay in power, but they do not have or cannot carry out a new vision. Instead, they followed the course set by their predecessors. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao were typical transactional leaders; they followed the course set by Deng Xiaoping. Finally, the failed leaders lost power in the jungle of PRC politics. Hua Guofeng, Hu Yaobang, and Zhao Ziyang are these failed leaders. They might have new visions, but they fail to survive, so they cannot make their new visions carry out. These are the framework I have developed to understand the leadership’s central role in transforming Chinese foreign policy. Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping are the focus of this book, documenting how they have changed China.

The second part of the book demonstrated the shape of the ideational and institutional conditions of Chinese people, manifested by the reconstruction of the collective memories of China’s history and popular nationalism. What are the three most crucial ideational concepts that Xi has tried to promote?

Ideational forces are those ideas, habits, and ideological forces which try to drive and shape the leaders’ visions of the world and influence public opinion. Xi has a large bunch of new ideas in terms of ideational forces. However, if you ask the most crucial three, I would say one is that he has strategically used the historical memories the century of humiliation. Chinese people are constantly told they are historically victims of Western imperialist power. So, in that case, one has to fight back and stand up. We have a moral high ground fighting those imperialist power because they always want to humiliate us. So that is a sense of historical drama, strategic use of a century of humiliation.

The second is the Chinese dream, a compelling ideational concept. He tries to remind the Chinese people that although in the last 200 years, we were humiliated by the Western powers, we did have glorious 5,000 years of history. During that period, China was in the central stage of the world, and we want to restore China’s glories and China’s historical position. So that is what the Chinese dream is. In that context, he has used the concept to unite this Chinese dream for the great rejuvenation, “伟大复兴” (“wei da fu xing”). So they say that they are trying to rejuvenate the Chinese nation. To make rejuvenation, China has to work hard under the leadership of the Communist Party because the Party has got rid of the humiliation and led Chinese people to stand up. So now it will lead Chinese people to return to the glories of its past. 

The third crucial ideational concept is nationalism. Nationalism has emphasized that we are good people and work hard to build China. However, Xi’s nationalism is an assertive nationalism that targets to give a negative evaluation of others. These “others” refer to Western powers and Western values. So in the narratives of this nationalism, these Western powers always want to undermine China’s rise, try to spark regime change in China and undermine the Communist Party leadership. Thus, this type of nationalism has emphasized what Xi Jinping talked about, trying to fight against Western “evil powers” and make China great again. I think these three concepts are most important for today’s China. 

In the book, you mentioned that Chinese transformational leaders have effectively manipulated ideational forces. These forces include constructing historical memories, advocating nostalgic futurology and national trauma, promoting a strong sense of victimization and righteousness, and exploiting popular nationalism. The ends are to rally Chinese people and shape public opinions to support Chinese foreign policy priorities. Is this manipulation effective and successful? If it is, why is Xi able to make it successful? And if it is not, why has he failed in achieving the manipulation?

It is successful and not successful on both fronts. It has been successful because Xi has continued patriotic education, starting after the Tiananmen Square Incident, after the end of the Cold War. However, at that time, patriotic education focused on “positive us.” Now it targets negate others. This patriotic education campaign has also targeted Chinese youth. Moreover, this youth target campaign has been supported by information control to use all those technologies to tell the Chinese people what they want Chinese people to know and try to get rid of all those they think harmful to the Chinese communist regime. These two techniques, youth-targeted and information-control approaches, have been very successful because the Chinese youth in the last thirty years, especially those born in the 1990s and the new millennium, have grown up when China’s reforms brought rapid economic growth. Therefore, they have had many opportunities to see much of China’s growth. They became very proud of China’s economic development accomplishments. In that case, they have been nationalistic in supporting the Chinese government’s efforts to develop the economy and make China strong. In the meantime, they have grown up under that patriotic education. All those mistakes in the past, including the “Great Cultural Revolution,” “Great Leap Forward” and the June 4th Massacre, were somehow distorted or ignored. Youth only learned how great the Chinese Communist Party is and how wonderful they have done for China. So in that context, ideational forces have been successfully brought to this generation. The ideational forces here refer to the nationalistic views and the support for the Chinese Communist Party and the government and being critical of Western countries. Meanwhile, they somehow have very negative views of the West because of the rapid development of China compared with the past. The Western countries had some problems, which have also been exaggerated in Chinese propaganda.

However, whether these ideational forces have achieved real success remains doubtful. Last year was a turning point because of the zero-COVID policy and many other policy mistakes, such as shutting up the extra curriculum education sector and shared prosperity to suppress the platform economy and the private sector. All those policies led the Chinese economy to slow down. In fact, China’s economic slowdown had already taken place before that period was structured. Now, because of policy impacts, especially last year’s lockdown of the economy imposed by the zero-COVID policy, it made many young people suffer. The economy is now in terrible shape. Meanwhile, youth unemployment was as high as 20 percent last year, and I do not see any improvement yet. So young people in that context have lost their confidence and trust in the leadership. They became suspicious of this type of propaganda and nationalist appeals. we have to see what will happen if the Chinese economy cannot return quickly and robustly. If the Chinese people continue to suffer with the slowdown of the Chinese economy, this type of patriotic education will fail.

I want to dive deeper into ideational manipulation. You pointed out in the book that the shape of ideational conditions “were flexible in tactics, subtle in strategy, and avoided appearing confrontational.” Meanwhile, a “conspiracy theory” is popular among the Chinese public: “Anyone who tells them that the Chinese government carries out brainwashing education and other ideational influences to shape their opinion is the foreign separatist forces.” Moreover, many deny that the political propaganda impacts them and think their opinions, even concerning extreme ultra-nationalism, come from their independent thinking. In this context, I wonder how we can tell the differences between “independent thinking” and “public opinion channeling” or how to discern the traces of the ideology infiltration by the West or China’s propaganda. What are the potential risks of this “public opinion channeling” or “public opinion struggle” for China’s domestic politics and U.S.-China relations, respectively? 

If you say if there is any independent thinking against the government propaganda, of course, there is. However, this voice has been suppressed in China during the last decade. Many liberal thinkers are put into jail or forced to exile from China. Moreover, information control has been tightened. The Chinese government only allows one voice to express official positions, even online. In social media, we can hardly see different views. Thus, we cannot see so-called independent thinking expressed in the Chinese media. However, the educated population in China today, especially after the failure of COVID-19 control last year, has begun to question those official positions. For example, last month, the government declared the victory of the COVID policy, saying, “A miracle in the human civilization.” You see, the public response is all making jokes about that. Therefore, critical thinking has been expressed unofficially and cannot be suppressed entirely. However,, if you look at the Chinese media now, you will see that critical thinking, especially critical comments of the Chinese government, has been very difficult to find. From that perspective, I will say that the Chinese government is not only channeling the Chinese public opinion. The Chinese government has manipulated and even successfully controlled public opinion, only allowing those voices to support the government to be expressed. For critical thinking, we can see those messages emerge from time to time, but they are suppressed quickly. They will be in big trouble if they are critical of the state policy and the leadership.

According to the book, electoral democracies must rely on the expertise of bureaucracies to crystallize their foreign policy visions, and they are subject to bureaucratic constraints. In contrast, the CCP holds direct and ultimate authority over the government and foreign policy bureaucracy. The bureaucracy’s primary role is gathering and analyzing information, making recommendations, and implementing policy for the CCP leaders. In this context, do you think the nationalist sentiments or other nationalist opinions from the bottom-up may conversely influence the quality of the decision-making from the top? How much of the state-led narratives of the positive “us” and the negative “others” should worry us about the overestimation of China’s capabilities or the underestimation of the abilities of others in foreign affairs, such as the Taiwan issue?

Even today, public opinion has always existed in China under this tightening authoritarian control. During the early years of the reform, Deng tried to liberate people’s thoughts. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao also tolerated certain types of public opinions on the foreign policy front, especially those opinions critical of foreign powers, such as the U.S. and Japan. On the Taiwan issue, they still allow some liberal expressions of “public opinion.” However, Xi has tightened up this type of public opinion. For many years, only those nationalistic views were allowed to be voiced in the Chinese public sphere.

Popular nationalism in the past was seen as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they support government policy on the foreign policy front. On the other hand, they are often very critical of the front part government but soft on some foreign policy issues, such as on the issue against Japan and U.S. Xi has now taken a very, very strong nationalist position. So, his ruling has led to what I call the convergence of popular nationalism and state nationalism. This nationalism has been very critical of foreign powers, especially Western powers, but they are also almost a hundred percent supporting the government policy.

This situation is evident in the Taiwan issue. For many years, China has constantly emphasized sovereignty unification and determination and said that it does not give up the use of force. However, at the same time, China has emphasized peaceful unification and tried to buy the minds and hearts of the Taiwanese people, and they never set a timetable. Nevertheless, in the last decade, this situation has changed. China has increasingly emphasized the military threat while still discussing peaceful unification. China has also implicitly set a timetable and showed an attitude that they cannot allow this issue to be passed from generation to generation. So, the Chinese people now have a high expectation for the Chinese government to take decisive actions. I do not know how much this will influence policymaking, but it becomes a factor that conversely influences the leaders’ thinking on the Taiwan issue.

You explored the roles of different Chinese leaders during P.R.C. history. What are the consistencies and reverses of Xi’s diplomatic strategies compared with his predecessors?

The Chinese leaders, ever since the last century (and even back to the 19th century), all dream of making China strong, wealthy, and prosperous. All the communist leaders, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Xi Jinping, Hu Jintao, and Jiang Zemin, have shared that dream in P.R.C. history. However, they have adopted different approaches to accomplish these objectives. when China was relatively weak and vulnerable to the containment of the imperial power, the priority of foreign policy was regime and border security. Mao Zedong had a so-called revolutionary foreign policy, fighting wars and trying to launch revolutions in third-world countries and defend China’s regime and border security. My book talks about “keeping the wolves off the door.” However, Xi tried to make China strong, powerful, and prosperous by emphasizing China’s economic modernization. So, his foreign policy became an instrument to serve economic modernization. His founding policy was less confrontational and more moderate, which still served the objective. Xi has emphasized the big power dream, the Chinese Dream, the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation, and making China great again. By making a lot of confrontational policies against the U.S., Chinese diplomats have become warriors fighting diplomatic battles to win. Chinese foreign policy behavior changes over time because of these leaders.

The book argues that Xi has taken a strong personal interest and devoted equal time and energy to foreign affairs. Can you further describe Xi’s interest in foreign affairs and how it evolved after taking power in China?

Xi has spent much more time on foreign affairs than his predecessor Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin, and Deng Xiaoping. Before the pandemic, Xi traveled all over the world more than his predecessors. From 2018 to 2019, he traveled more miles than the U.S. president and became the most-traveled world leader. Even during the pandemic, he conducted virtual diplomatic meetings, which are called “云外交” (“yun wai jiao”) and talked to different international leaders. Meanwhile, China mediated between Iran and Saudi Arabia, a huge deal to make China an active international player. Moreover, on the foreign policy front, Xi has proposed many new ideas, including the Chinese Dream, the great rejuvenation, a new type of great power relationship, and Belt and Road Initiatives making anti-hegemonic coalitions with Russia and Iran. Now he is talking about GDI, the Global Development Initiative, and G.S.I., the Global Security Initiative. For the Chinese diplomats, not only has he encouraged them to become “wolf warriors,” but he also has given a new concept, “Bottom-Line Thinking,” “底线思维” (“di xian si wei”) in Chinese. There are many new ideas and policy initiatives in today’s China. So, this is why he has been the most internationally active China leader in P.R.C. history.

You argue that Xi has advocated “big power diplomacy,” which initially appeared in the 1990s but was reluctantly endorsed by Xi’s predecessors. As Xi started to demonstrate the big power’s thinking, the term “wolf warrior” to describe Chinese diplomats’ fighting spirit was popularized on social media. In the meantime, there is another term, “peace,” I noticed emphasized frequently by the Chinese government, including the keynote speech concentrated on “The Path of Peaceful Development Has Worked and Worked Well” by Wang Yi and China’s peace proposal for the Ukraine War. Is the combative style of Chinese diplomacy in Xi’s era hindering the government’s messaging on global and regional peace? Is it paradoxical?

It is not paradoxical. Of course, the Chinese leaders want a peaceful international environment, and they all also talk about peace. However, how can they accomplish and achieve peace? That is a different story. Xi has seen the international environment as the most threatening. That is what the 20th Parties’ Congress has talked about, and that is how the Chinese leaders and diplomats have become so combative in the conduct of foreign policy. In the 20th Parties’ Congress report, Xi dropped the first two phrases used in the past. One is that peace and development. The second is the window of opportunity for development. He dropped these two phrases, which meant China would work with other countries to accomplish and maintain economic development and peace. At the same time, Chinese leaders’ emphasis has been on the regime and national security. So, peace has become rhetoric. A security concern and fighting spirit has become an operational principle. Every country has those two types of codes. One is symbolic; one is operational.

Let us look at Xi’s reversed course on the zero-Covid policy last December. According to the book, the supreme leader “does not want to admit any mistakes or hear anything that contradicts his views.” People who refuse to compromise this “principle,” that is, those who dare to criticize or disagree, would be labeled as “arbitrarily against the center” and punished. How do you view the stunning turnabout of the zero-Covid policy only after a few days of the Blank Paper Protest in Beijing and Shanghai? Is it paradoxical to the argument mentioned above? In other words, would the supreme leader make a compromise when his legitimacy as leader was threatened? 

Because Xi has been a supreme leader and established a very strong personal authority, he would punish those who do not follow his lines. As the book mentions, those who disagree with him, critical of his policy, or comment on the central policy, so-called “妄议中央” (“wang yi zhong yang”) would be punished. So, nobody around him would tell him the truth. Everybody would only want to tell him the things he wants to hear. That condition makes the decision-making environment very unhealthy because he lives in a bubble and only hears the praise of his policy, even if these policies may go in the wrong direction. 

There have been three years since the implementation of the zero-COVID policy. By early last year, the Shanghai lockdown had made almost everybody understand that it could not be sustainable. It should be changed. However, nobody dared to tell the fact until the end of the year, November, the students protested. And that protest, I think, shocked him and the entire leadership. That is why he made a sudden U-turn on a zero-COVID policy without any preparation for warning the Chinese people, creating such a chaotic situation for a few months. So that is the problem. It is not paradoxical. Instead, it is precisely the problem in the Chinese decision-making process.

Regarding the U-turn on the zero-COVID policy, it was also noted that there were several changes in China’s December economic work conference report, which was less ideological and more supportive of market vitality and creativity than the previous year. Besides, you note in the book that Xi has asserted his authority over the bureaucratic institutions and personalized China’s diplomacy. In this context of policymaking uncertainty and the party leadership’s intense personal interest, are any disasters looming over China’s domestic environment? Could the abrupt reversal of policy enforced with unprecedented brutality also be applied to diplomatic situations, take the Taiwan issue, for instance? 

That is precisely the concern people and the international community have today. Just like Vladimir Putin made the wrong decision to invade Ukraine, where he thought he could defeat Ukraine in a week and Ukrainian people would welcome the Russian military on the streets. That was totally, totally misinformation. Moreover, his generals, intelligence officers, and policy advisors dared not tell him the truth. So, Putin made a wrong decision, which has been a disaster for Russia. This war has lasted for over a year, and Russia has sunk into it. We do not know how long it will last and exhaust its resources and how much the sanctions from the Western countries will be put. Xi today is in a very similar situation in a policymaking environment because all those “yes men” have surrounded him. They are not there to tell him what he would not wish to hear. Just like the zero-COVID policy. Everybody knew it was not sustainable, but they still put it as an excellent policy that accomplished so much for China. So, Xi insisted on the COVID policy until the end of November, until the demonstration took place in China, then suddenly changed it. He could also face this type of misinformation on the foreign policy front, especially on the Taiwan issue, as you mentioned. I do not think China is ready to overtake Taiwan by force. However, I do not know how much his military officers would tell him the truth. If he asked the military to modernize to become the first-class military by 2027, the hundredth anniversary of the foundation of the People’s Liberation Army, the military officers would have to tell him, “We will do everything to be ready by 2027.” They might have to tell him, “We are ready,” because the top leader tells them they must be ready. In that context, China could take a foreign policy adventure of no return, just like Russia has been doing today, which will be a disaster for China, the Chinese people, and even the Chinese Communist Party itself.

What lessons should the U.S. government learn to deal with U.S.-China relations from this unpredictable decision-making?

The U.S. government’s policy has been totally in the wrong direction. The attempts to fight a Cold War against China, contain China’s rise, and emphasize their competition, have yet to respond to the shared interests with China to accommodate China’s legitimate requests. Washington should communicate with China and assure China that if it follows the rules and works with the international committee, including the U.S., the U.S. would respect and accommodate its legitimate interests. The U.S. is not in a position to change the regime in China, no matter how it dislikes it. Only Chinese people can do that. Also, the U.S. should have to work with the Chinese government, no matter how it dislikes it, to maintain the rule-based international order. In the meantime, the U.S. should be ready to contain China’s aggression if there is. The most crucial part for China and the U.S. is minding your own business. China’s enemy is not the U.S. Instead, China’s enemy is China itself. If China makes all the above-discussed mistakes, it will be in big trouble. Similarly, the U.S. enemy is not China but the U.S. itself. If the U.S. could put its own house in order and increase its competitiveness and maintain its political and economic strengths, China cannot overtake it. Here is how these two countries could compete while making those mutual assurances and competition. That is the thing that the U.S. government should keep in mind.