The Imperial Turn: Chinese Foreign Policy in the 21st Century

Why does Xi Jinping’s foreign policy appear to look backward rather than forward?

Those who fail to learn history, as George Santayana once famously stated, are doomed to repeat it. This article discusses how history has played an intrinsic role in shaping the Chinese conception of the world and how Chinese leaders consequently juxtapose their own policies with reference to this historical “image” of the external political milieu. This is important because it is within such theoretical paradigms that Chinese foreign policy is conceived and constructed. Studying the historical lenses through which Chinese leaders see the world thus provides the groundwork for understanding the mechanisms behind foreign policy and decision making, serving as a useful tool for policy analyses and providing the scope for prediction. Perhaps, the interplay between historical memory and contemporary politics is simply an example of paying lip-service to a cultural narrative which then becomes central in legitimising a certain policy direction, referred to by Elizabeth Perry as “Cultural Governance”. However, at a deeper level, this can also be seen as emblematic of the importance history plays in directing contemporary Chinese politics, no less evident in recent calls for a “rejuvenation” of the Chinese nation in line with the abstract idea of the “Chinese Dream”.  Overall, this seems to be paving the way towards the middle kingdom’s resumption of its once lost prestige and prowess on the international stage, contesting China’s new place within a bipolar world order with an assertive twist. To make sense of current politics thus, it is time to look back.


Tian Xia and the Mandate of Heaven

To understand the impetus behind contemporary Chinese foreign policy and decision making it is best to start at the beginning, around three thousand years ago. The Chinese Weltanschauung can be said to originate in the Mandate of Heaven system of the Zhou Dynasty (1100-256 BCE). This system differed in many ways from the dominant Western conception of the natural world order, based on God-given rights embodied in nobility and inherited privilege, most recognisably in the form of kings and queens. Similarly, the Chinese emperor was also bestowed the authority to rule the world (China) by a broader, impersonal deity, known as Heaven (tian) but this was checked by the emperor’s own morality and ethics, both regarded central components of good governance. Resultantly, if the emperor did not conduct himself in a moral way he would, unlike his Western counterparts, immediately lose his ruling mandate. Heaven’s dissatisfaction with the immorality of the emperor could be signified by a famine, earthquake or other natural disaster, consequently triggering a legitimacy crisis and eventual transition of power.

The Mandate of Heaven bestowed the emperor with the moral legitimacy to rule the world or, more accurately, all that which existed under the heavens (tian xia). Specifically speaking, this relationship represented earthly harmony as a type of reciprocal dependency, embodied by a symbiotic relationship between core and periphery. As a result, it is perhaps of little surprise to many that the word “China” laterally translates in English as “middle kingdom” (zhong guo). The Chinese concept of the world placed China in the centre, surrounded by various barbarian groups known as “tributary states”. These unruly regions were expected to submit to the moral authority of the emperor, who represented the unilaterally legitimate ruler of the earthly core. Correspondingly, tributary states would symbolise their submission by paying literal tributes to the emperor whilst taking part in a range of rituals and ceremonies including the three kneeling and nine prostrating ceremony (sanbai jiukou). But rather than being an exploitative expression of hard-power backed statesmanship, and in contrast to many Western conceptualisations of the natural world order, this relationship between core and periphery was in fact reciprocal by nature. In return for their submission, the core (the emperor) returned the gift giving favour, often in greater value, and further guaranteed the physical protection of the tributary state.

Centre-Periphery Map

The Shattering of Imperial Chinese Space and Thought

The First Opium War (1839–42), China’s first violent encounter with a European power, represented a head-on clash between the morally-centred Mandate of Heaven and a diametrically opposed notion of Westphalian sovereignty. As Dittmer refers to it, the Sino-Western conflict was “a system-to-system conflict, a mismatch between Western nationalism and Chinese culturalism” (qtd. in Zhao 16). Perhaps the most salient consequence of the war was how it shattered China’s self-perception with regards to its own superiority vis-à-vis the barbarian other in foreign relations. The culturalism and morality of the Mandate of Heaven stood in stark contrast to the anarchic ideas embodied by the Westphalian system, which was notable for its apparent predisposition towards discord and war. Since China regarded those living in the periphery as barbarians (to which Britain belonged) the sudden and complete annihilation of Chinese forces at the hands of the British overseas fleet thus represented a momentous humiliation of imperial Chinese space and thought

The Treaty of Nanjing (1842) was the embodiment of this humiliation, turning the Mandate of Heaven system on its head. China was forced to succumb to a vast range of territorial concessions at the hands of European powers including the French, in Guangzhou, the Germans, in Shandong, the Japanese, in southern Manchuria, and to the Russians, in northern Manchuria (Zhao 20). Most wickedly of all, the Qing court had little choice but to accept the Westphalian concept of diplomatic equality among sovereign states ergo burying any belief of China’s moral superiority. The establishment of the first Chinese foreign ministry at this time further affirmed the transformation of what had been barbarian relations to formal, Westernised diplomatic relations. This aligned China neatly into the nation-state system, a final knife in the broken back of the Mandate of Heaven. Perhaps most insultingly of all was that rather than entering this nation-state system as an equal actor, China was instead viewed as a feeble, weak nation unable to defend its sovereignty thus finding itself classed as one of the barbarian, periphery states it itself had once ruled.

Opium War 1

Historical Lessons for Contemporary Chinese Foreign Policy and Decision Making

Such spectres of humiliation remain present in the contemporary Chinese political psyche. Today, this period is known as the “century of humiliation” but this idea obscures the ways in which history can be used to actively construct and inform popular perceptions, policies, and political decision making. Between 1947 and 1990, for example, the Chinese leadership constructed a victor narrative which stressed the strength of China, its leadership, and its resurgent global position vis-à-vis the century of humiliation. This narrative was essential in the communist historiography, lauding its victorious struggles throughout the civil war and against foreign imperialism. Indeed, testament to this narrative, no new books were published on the subject of China’s humiliation until 1990, writes Callahan (185).

But following the “Patriotic Education Campaign” of the 1990s, this narrative was transformed – seemingly overnight – by stimulating the element of victimisation within Chinese history and blaming the West for China’s suffering, slow economic development, and waning global status in the face of a new, unilateral and post-Soviet world. To a certain extent, the return of the victimisation narrative also replaced Marxism as the legitimising paradigm for Deng Xiaoping’s leadership as he shifted China away from orthodox communism in favour of gradual economic marketisation. These sudden shifts in national myth demonstrate the arbitrary way in which history can be constructed to serve political demands, shaping how a people and culture view, interpret, and react to the exogenous milieu. Indeed, the study of history therefore remains an ever-present necessity for students of contemporary Chinese foreign policy for good reason. From the fall of the Qing dynasty to the collapse of the Republic of China, for example, domestic strife had been regularly enflamed and exacerbated by foreign stimuli. Consequently, foreign policy analysts are left with little doubt as to why modern politicians and policy statements continuously stress the sanctity of non-interference in Chinese foreign policy: Leaders ultimately remain somewhat cautions of foreign meddling within the (perceived) fragility of China’s domestic political ecosystem. In this sense, the basic maxim that foreign policy tends to remain subservient (or at least an extension of) domestic politics continues to ring true, particularly in the Chinese case.

A Peaceful Rise?

As President Xi Jinping reaffirmed his power and authority this year at the Party’s 19th National Congress, he appears to be once again creating the space for an important shift in the contemporary political narrative. Diverting from China’s weakness, Xi stresses the necessity for rejuvenating China within his vision of the “Chinese Dream” (zhongguo meng). Xi’s speeches regularly recall the ancients such as Confucius as symbols of China’s great historical prestige and indicating the way forward towards a world in which China performs alongside the United States on the international stage. For scholars of Chinese foreign policy – and ergo de facto historians – this may ring surprising bells: Xi’s dream is not too dissimilar to China’s imperial past, reminiscent of the Mandate of Heaven worldview. Indeed, fuelled by a resurgent view within Chinese nationalism, not least demonstrated by China’s strong policy line in the South China Sea, China’s contemporary foreign policy is beginning to reflect past models of foreign relations, echoing the days of peace and virtue and an unequal, yet harmonious, centre-periphery relationship, albeit one in which China desires to be the core.

This “peaceful rise” argument, as it is known, is logical. Indeed nothing could undermine China’s resurgence more than a costly war which, aside from damaging its economic relationship with the world, would also invite more hostile regional relations and potential contentions with the United States and its allies. But, simultaneously, Xi’s speeches recall a mixed interpretation of the concept; as he states: “We will keep walking on the peaceful development road, but we must not forsake our legitimate rights and interests, must not sacrifice core national interests” (Xi Jinping qtd. in Jian Zhang 9). Zhang, for one, argues that “legitimate rights and interests” refers to the transition emerging within Chinese foreign policy circles from simple “security concerns” (in line with its previous non-interference policy model) to broader “development interests” in which China will increasingly extend its international reach (9). Perhaps, therefore, this assertive turn may be best viewed as story of tough-love: better to confront contentious regional issues head-on because if not, they may grow exponentially, hampering China’s peaceful rise on the international stage.

What can be said for certain is that China is rapidly adopting more outward-looking linkages with the world – but whether this will be universally well received remains another question. As the article has discussed, these linkages are however inherently bound to how Chinese leaders themselves interpret the world, itself buried within the framework of historical narratives. For imperial China, this worldview was brought down in a humiliating and terrific fashion. Whether lighting strikes twice, however, is not a question of chance. Quoting the famous turn by Napoleon Bonaparte “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world” during an event marking the 50th anniversary of Sino-French diplomatic relations, Xi remarked that: “Today, the lion has woken up. But it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised”.

Xi - Modern Foreign Policy and Tianxia


Callahan, William A. “History, Identity, and Security: Producing and Consuming Nationalism in China.” Critical Asian Studies 38.2 (2006): 179-208. Print.

Perry, Elizabeth J. ”Cultural Governance in Contemporary China:  Reorientating Party Propaganda”Harvard University. Harvard-Yenching Institute Working Paper Series.Web. 9 Mar. 2016.

Xi, Jinping. “‘Sleeping Lion’ Has Woken Up, Says Xi.” 50th Anniversary of China-France Diplomatic Relations. Paris, France. 28 Mar. 2014. South China Morning Post. Web. 2 Apr. 2016. <http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1459168/xi-says-world-has-nothing-fear-awakening-peaceful-lion&gt;.

You Ji, “The PLA and Diplomacy: Unravelling Myths About the Military Role in Foreign Policy Making”, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 23, No.86 (2014): 236-254. Print.

Zhang, Jian. “China’s New Foreign Policy under Xi Jinping: Towards ‘Peaceful Rise 2.0’?” Global Change, Peace & Security 27.1 (2015): 5-19. Print.

Benjamin Griffin is a scholar and researcher at the Yenching Academy of Peking University specialised in China and north-east Asia politics and security.

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