Authors: Wang Li & Yang Yi-zhong
In a survey of China’s politics since 1949, Premier Zhou Enlai is an undisputedly great statesman as he took charge of state affairs for 26 years (1949-1976) including his vital roles in policy-making, strategic maneuver and all talks with the former Soviet Union, France, the United States, Japan and many other states. Henry Kissinger recalled that “during his 60 years of public life, I have encountered no more compelling figure than Zhou Enlai. He dominated by exceptional intelligence and capacity to intuit the intangibles of the psychology of his opposite numbers.” True, he was well-known for his talent to persuade or outmaneuver opposition.
Last week (on March 1), the ruling elite of China (CPC) held a symposium to commemorate the 120th birthday of late Premier Zhou Enlai in Beijing. President Xi Jin -ping attended the meeting where he reiterated that Zhou was an outstanding role model who remained true to the original aspiration and kept the faith. In China Zhou’s name has been closely related toits modernization drive which highlights going global economically, open and inclusive socially and culturally and pursuing world peace and justice. Although he did not mention the specific case of Zhou’s legacy in diplomacy, Xi’s remark is clear enough to demonstrate that the route of socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era has been made and China’s century-long advancement to the great national rejuvenation that had been in Zhou’s mind from his early age will be fully achieved in the near future.
As a passionate nationalist, Zhou had dedicated himself to Chinese struggle for national independence and then state-reconstruction. Due to this, Zhou who served as Chinese premier for 26 years, became known as one of the key designers of the blueprint for China’s rise. Equally, as a cosmopolitan, foreign-educated advocate for pragmatic engagement with the West, Zhou was content to exploit the world issues through negotiation. He held the validity of diplomacy that it is necessary to the well-being of the state to negotiate ceaselessly, either openly or secretly, and in all places, even in those from which no present fruits are reaped and even still more in those for which no future prospects as yet seem likely. In light of this, he directed the Sino-U.S. ambassadorial-level talks in Warsaw which lasted for 15 years and is called the longest marathon in diplomatic history. Eventually, China and the United States came to their rapprochement until 1972. Today China as a rising power has steadily developed into its final stage of becoming a strong power. Inspired by Zhou’s discourse on diplomacy, Xi has reiterated that China declines to accept the “Thucydides’ Trap” which deems the conflict between the ruling power and the rising power inevitable; instead arguing that “the Pacific is large enough to accommodate China and the United States along with all others involved” in terms of new type of great powers relationship.
In addition to his emphasis upon China’s relationship with the great powers like the United States and the former Soviet Union, Zhou was well-aware of the importance of its neighbors to China’s security, development and long-term stability. Considering the issues caused by the past memories, modern ideologies and border disputes, Zhou saw the necessity of conducting Chinese diplomacy with an emphasis on personal relationships that often goes beyond the tactical. He put it that common sense teaches us the key to the success: “mutual trust and mutual respect”. It grew into the well-known “Five principles of peaceful co-existence” among nations with diverse cultures, ethnics and ideologies. During his tenure as the premier, China was able to maintain good relations with most of its neighbors in general terms, except the border conflicts between China and India in 1962. Now China under President Xi has continuously emphasized the good-neighbor relations in light of win-win doctrine.
During the Cold War, China was illegally excluded from the United Nations for 22 years, during which Zhou had entirely and eagerly worked for Beijing’s legitimate right in the U.N. and in the world as well. He smartly responded to China’s semi-isolated reality with “people’s diplomacy” aiming to project China to the world public that it is a peace-loving rather than a trouble-maker country in the international community. He vividly used a metaphor to describe China’s diplomacy as a bird with twin–wings, the government was the main body of the bird and “people’s diplomacy” acting as two wings, one was economic aid; other cultural exchanges. Both aims to attract and co-opt, rather than by coercion (hard power). That is exactly what it has been termed of the public diplomacy based upon soft power: the ability to shape the preferences of others through appeal and attraction. Hence Zhou alongside other Chinese leaders considered continuity of relationships as important task and perhaps more important than formal documents. Nowadays, President Xihas appeared greeting foreign dignitaries or the interlocutors like President Trump and many others as if the friendship are already an established fact between them.
Since China can’t be in isolation from the world for the sake of its modernization and also as a rising power that has steadily moved to the center of the world theatre, what kind of Zhou’s legacy inherited by the new generation of Chinese leaders in Xi’s era is still an open discussion. Recently, Xi noted that Zhou is an outstanding example as he sought self-improvement, dared to shoulder responsibility, fully dedicated himself to missions and stuck firmly to discipline. Here is the point that Zhou used to claim a special moral quality that had evolved under Confucianism and now ascribed to communism: China would maintain a unique approach to international affairs that eschewed the traditional power politics. At the same time, that China’s aspiration for a great power is no more than a logical claim for an equality among the great powers in view of its capacity and responsibility, although it is not easy to achieve in short period.
This is the very reason why it is necessary to approach Zhou’s legacy in order to better understand China’s diplomacy today.