China’s 11th Ambassadorial Conference Signals Continuity and Change in Foreign Policy

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 22

President Hu Jintao with Chinese diplomats

This past July the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) convened the 11th Ambassadorial Conference in Beijing. The foreign policy conclave was attended by hundreds of Chinese ambassadors, diplomats, officials responsible for foreign affairs work from the capital as well as select provinces, regions, and municipalities, and individuals from a small number of state owned enterprises. The conference served as both a working session for Chinese foreign policy professionals and an opportunity for party leaders to discuss the prevailing international environment and the future direction of Chinese foreign relations. As in previous years, the conference provided a venue for announcing new policy directions, as well as adjusting diplomatic strategy. Although widely reported in the Chinese media, the conference has received remarkably little attention from both Western and Chinese scholars.

The conference was jointly organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) and the Foreign Affairs Office under the CCP Central Committee. Key speeches were given by Premier Wen Jiabao and Dai Bingguo, and work reports were provided by Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi, and his vice minister, Wang Guangya. The conference’s centerpiece was a keynote speech by President Hu Jintao, General Secretary of the CCP Central Committee and Chairman of the Central Military Commission. Flanked by the other eight members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the CCP Central Committee, Hu paid tribute to Deng Xiaoping’s legacy, while simultaneously hinting at updates to Deng’s long-standing foreign policy guideline discouraging China from assuming an active role in shaping international affairs.  

Several of the themes in Hu’s speech recalled key ideas presented at the 10th Ambassadorial Conference (held in 2004) and the 2006 Central Work Conference on Foreign Affairs (FAWC), the two most recent major foreign policy gatherings. For example, in keeping with both of these meetings, the 11th Ambassadorial conference cited peaceful development and adherence to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence among the primary objectives of Chinese foreign policy. Hu also emphasized two major themes from the FAWC: (1) the increasing linkages between China’s external and internal situation brought about by globalization and (2) the necessity of harmonizing the management of foreign and domestic affairs in pursuing national objectives.

In addition to these continuities, Hu’s speech included three modest but significant supplements to his previous remarks on foreign policy. First, the speech demonstrated an increased emphasis on the role of “soft power” in building China’s comprehensive national power. Second, it called for foreign policy practitioners to adopt a more active diplomatic posture in select areas of foreign affairs. Third, Hu presented an unusually positive perspective on the international system’s progress toward multipolarity and a growing consensus among the party leadership on the importance of multilateralism in promoting China’s interests.

The “Four Strengths”

Introducing a notable new formulation, Hu urged diplomatic envoys and foreign policy officials to make efforts to give China “more influential power in politics, more competitiveness in the economic field, more affinity in its image,” and “more appealing force in morality” (Xinhua News Agency, July 20). The Chinese media quickly dubbed these four areas the “four strengths” (sili) [1], and discussions of the significance of Hu’s comments soon appeared in the Chinese blogosphere and the online version of the CCP mouthpiece People’s Daily. Confirming the importance of this new concept, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, in an August interview with China’s official news service, Xinhua News Agency, repeated Hu’s call to build the four strengths, accentuating the need for “diplomacy and other work … [to] promote each other and develop in a coordinated manner” (Xinhua News Agency, August 24).

Three of the four strengths (political influence, image appeal and moral suasion) fall under the category of soft power, which for many Chinese encompasses political factors and thus goes beyond Joseph Nye’s definition. This emphasis underscores growing recognition by the party leadership of soft power’s importance in promoting China’s “peaceful development” strategy. Hu first publicly stressed the value of soft power in his political report to the CCP’s 17th Party Congress, but in that speech he focused solely on its cultural dimensions, stating, “We must . . . enhance culture as part of the soft power of our country to better guarantee the people’s basic cultural rights and interests…” [2]. Hu’s statements at the 11th Ambassadorial Conference, however, were notable for addressing the importance of developing the political and moral aspects of soft power as well.

Hu’s reference to the importance of developing political influence and moral suasion suggests Beijing’s thinking on the issue of soft power is undergoing a significant shift. Since the 1990s, China’s academic discourse on soft power has been dominated by two schools. The first defines soft power exclusively in terms of culture and emphasizes its pull factors—what Joseph Nye has described as the ability of “a country to get other countries to want what it wants” as opposed to “ordering others to do what it wants” [3]. In contrast, the second school focuses on soft power’s push factors, maintaining that its essence resides in exerting political influence [4]. Thus far, observers of Chinese politics have credited the first school with having the strongest influence on Beijing’s soft power policies. Yet, the debut of the four strengths formulation suggests the second school has boosted its sway among Chinese leaders.

A More Proactive Stance in Foreign Affairs?

Implicit in Hu’s discussion of the four strengths is a suggestion that soft power can be used as a means for actively pursuing China’s foreign policy goals. This contrasts with prior authoritative statements on soft power, which portrayed its role in Chinese foreign policy as primarily passive [5]. Following the Ambassadorial conference, commentators suggested that this more active stance on soft power signaled a departure from taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei (keep a low profile and bide our time, while also getting something accomplished), an important guideline of Chinese foreign policy introduced by Deng Xiaoping in 1989 in reaction to the dissolution of Eastern Europe’s socialist bloc [6]. For example, an editorial that appeared in the Canadian newspaper Xingdao Daily and republished on the web site of the People’s Daily claimed that Hu’s speech signaled that the taoguang yanghui concept would be discarded—this is not the case (People’s Daily Online, July 24). Following the practice of the 2006 FAWC, Deng’s eight-character phrase was included in the internal documents of the 11th Ambassadorial Conference, but excluded from public reporting [7].  

There are at least two explanations for the omission of Deng’s instructions to keep a low profile from media coverage of key leadership statements on foreign policy. First, Chinese leaders are concerned that western nations have misconstrued the essence of the phrase to the detriment of Chinese interests. Some observers in the West have interpreted the phrase to mean China is “amassing its power and hiding its true intention to dominate the world” [8]. To avoid fueling the “China threat theory,” the expression has been excluded from publicly circulated Chinese policy documents. Second, to many in China the taoguang yanghui formulation implies a passive role for China in world affairs, a position that increasingly meets disapproval from a Chinese public eager for Beijing to assert itself globally. As China’s power has grown, nationalism has risen apace, and a growing number of Chinese are disenchanted with the leadership’s unwillingness to flex its newfound muscle.  According to Chinese scholars, references to Deng’s dictum are excluded from the media to limit pressure on the leadership to more aggressively protect Chinese interests around the world.

Despite its absence from public reports, Chinese sources insist that taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei remains a fixture of intraparty discussions and internal documents and that there is a consensus to preserve it for the foreseeable future [9]. Yet, at the same time, the leadership has decided to slightly modify Deng’s axiom, signaling an emphasis on the last four characters—the importance of getting something accomplished in Chinese foreign policy. According to leading Chinese scholars, Deng’s eight-character guideline was expanded to ten characters at the 11th Ambassadorial Conference. The new version calls on China to “uphold (jianchi) keeping a low profile and bide its time, while actively (jiji) getting something accomplished.” Although the difference may seem negligible, it was reported to be the subject of heated dispute. Apparently, other formulations were proposed and rejected.  In the end, the decision to add the word “actively” was made by Hu Jintao himself [10].

Specifically, Hu called for China to “actively participate in dealing with the impact of the global financial crisis” (Xinhua News Agency, July 20). There is a growing interest in re-shaping international financial institutions to strengthen the global economy and to provide China with a bigger voice in those institutions. Other possible areas where Beijing may seek to be more assertive were hinted at by Premier Wen, who stated that China should “extensively participate in international cooperation in the nontraditional security area and … dealing with climate change” (Xinhua News Agency, July 20). This reflects the higher priority China is assigning to transnational issues, especially those resulting from globalization, such as the financial crisis, energy security and climate change. Foreign Minister Yang has referred to this new component of Chinese foreign policy as “functional diplomacy” (lingyu waijiao), which, he said, would receive greater attention as China’s comprehensive national power grows [11].

Even as Chinese leaders agreed to stress the importance of making achievements in China’s foreign policy, they cautioned that China should eschew adopting a leadership role on international issues. The 11th Ambassadorial conference apparently reiterated admonishments to “not take the lead” and “not raise banners,” which Premier Wen Jiabao had made at the FAWC, echoing language Deng used in 1989 (Xinhua News Agency, February 26, 2007). The leadership remains wary of being entangled in overseas predicaments that could divert the country from its main task of development. Indeed, President Hu Jintao placed even greater weight than in the past on the importance of China’s interest in domestic development and the essential need for foreign policy to serve the interests of that development, stating:

The relations between diplomatic work and national development have become closer. We must rely on development, serve development, promote development, and earnestly safeguard China’s development interests (Xinhua News Agency, July 20).

A Multipolar International System is Emerging, but Hasn’t Arrived

In addition to introducing the four strengths, the 11th Ambassadorial Conference was also notable for Hu’s positive assessment of the international system’s progress towards multipolarity. In his speech, Hu suggested that damage to U.S. reputation might help move the international system closer to ‘true’ multipolarity, a situation that most Chinese believe will benefit their national interests. “The prospect of global multipolarization has become clearer (minglang),” Hu remarked, a formulation that significantly differed from his statements at the FAWC, where he described the path toward multipolarity as “tortuous” (Xinhua News Agency, July 16; August 23, 2006). This assessment reflects a general trend in China’s perception of the international system that was signaled earlier in the year in China’s 2008 defense white paper, which referred to multipolarity as “gaining momentum (shenru fazhan)” [12].

In accordance with this positive outlook, Hu emphasized the increased importance of multilateral diplomacy, stating, China must “actively advocate multilateralism [and] promote democratization of international relations” (Xinhua News Agency, July 20). This change is indicative of the positive lessons Beijing has drawn from its participation in multilateral diplomacy in recent years and demonstrates an increased willingness to enhance China’s role in international organizations. Nevertheless, multilateralism remains positioned in fourth place in China’s diplomacy, after relations with the major powers, the neighboring countries and developing countries, unchanged from the 10th Ambassadorial Conference (Xinhua News Agency, August 29, 2004).

Although the Chinese view the process of multipolarization as more conspicuous, they are not ready to declare an end to the unipolar world dominated by the United States. Considerable controversy persists in Chinese debates over whether U.S. power is, in fact, in decline (China Brief, July 9). While a growing number of Chinese experts have taken this position, no such official judgment has been made, and financial decision makers are reputed to believe reports of the U.S.’s demise are greatly exaggerated [13].

Implications for China’s Foreign Policy

Rather than indicating a sea change in China’s foreign policy, as suggested by some commentators, the 11th Ambassadorial Conference is best described as an adjustment (tiaozheng) that affirms the trend toward China’s more active involvement in select issues that are crucial to the country’s national interests.

It is notable that the leadership rejected a proposal by the foreign ministry to hold another large-scale FAWC this year instead of the ambassadorial conference. According to several sources, Chinese leaders concluded that the international situation had not changed dramatically in the three years since the last FAWC, and therefore a more extensive review of Chinese foreign policy was unnecessary [14].

China’s foreign policy continues to serve domestic interests. Yet it is no longer sufficient for foreign policy to create a stable external environment to support China’s internal reforms, as Deng instructed three decades ago. Now, foreign policy must actively aid in the development of Chinese comprehensive national power. Domestic growth, for example, requires a more pro-active diplomacy to secure resources, markets, and technology.

The decisions taken at the 11th Ambassadorial Conference demonstrate the party leadership’s increased interest in building and actively implementing Chinese soft power, as well as desire to deepen involvement in multilateral institutions. The new focus on functional diplomacy recognizes that China’s expanding interests require going beyond its traditional emphasis on bilateral relations. The Conference also signals an intention to use China’s economic weight, financial resources and growing geopolitical influence to expand its say in designing any future international and economic system. This suggests a new assertiveness in areas where the Chinese see a close internal-external linkage.

Given the conference’s emphasis on the four strengths, soft power can be expected to play a more prominent role in China’s foreign policy. Although soft power has long been a hot topic in Chinese intellectual and policy circles, Beijing has not yet articulated a comprehensive strategy for its development and use. Thus far, the development of China’s soft power has depended less on the central government than on such disparate actors as state owned enterprises and provincial-level governments. Hu’s call to build the four strengths is a natural extension of the FAWC’s emphasis on coordinating the activities of Chinese actors overseas to ensure that they serve domestic interests; there are concrete indications that efforts to develop a more comprehensive approach to managing China’s soft power are already underway. Xinhua’s recent plans to increase the presence of its foreign language networks overseas highlight Beijing’s determination to improve its image abroad (The Malaysian Insider, July 23). Wen Jiabao has also called for an expansion of China’s “going out” (zouchuqu) strategy, which encourages Chinese firms to expand overseas with the explicit, albeit secondary, purpose of strengthening ties with other nations.

The internal debate over the modest reformulation of Deng Xiaoping’s taoguang yanghui dictum suggests that even though China is willing to become more involved on the global stage, it will do so cautiously and selectively. Although Beijing appears to now be willing to “actively get something accomplished” in certain areas that directly impact domestic stability and development, it is not prepared to abandon its policy of avoiding excessive involvement in overseas commitments. China is not merely paying lip service to Deng’s guidance to “keep a low profile;” it remains a central part of China’s approach to foreign affairs. Despite calls by Obama administration officials for China to assume a leadership role on critical regional and global security issues, Beijing is likely to remain reluctant to heed this call.


1. Depending on the publication, the four strengths have also been referred to as si ge li and si ge geng youli.
2. Report to the Seventeenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 15, 2007,
3. J. S Nye Jr, “Soft power,” Foreign Policy (1990): 153–171.
4. Glaser, Bonnie and Melissa E. Murphy in Carola McGiffert, Chinese Soft Power and Its Implications for the United States (CSIS, 2009), 13.
5. Li Mingjiang, “Soft Power in Chinese Discourse: Popularity, Parameter, and Prospect,” Chinese Journal of International Politics (2008).
6. Four of the eight characters are from a longer 24-character expression that is attributed to Deng Xiaoping. The original phrase called for China to “Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capabilities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership.” See, for example, Ding Guangen “Speech at the Third Chinese National Deng Xiaoping Building Socialism with Chinese Characteristics Theory Research Conference” (zai quanguo disanci Deng Xiaoping jianshe you zhongguo tese shehuizhuyi lilun yantaohui shang de jianghua), People’s Daily, December 24, 1996.
7. Interviews with PRC officials and scholars in Beijing and Washington. August, September, and October 2009.
8. Department of Defense, Annual Report to Congress: Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007 (Department of Defense, 2007), 7.
9. For a dissenting view, see Shulong Chu and Yuli Guo, “China’s "Peaceful Development" Strategy and Model (Zhongguo "Heping Fazhan" Zhanlue Ji Moshi), no. 002 (2008): 1–9.  
10. Interviews with PRC officials and scholars in Beijing and Washington. August, September, October, 2009.
11. Yang Jiechi, “Safeguard World Peace, Promote Common Development – Commemorate the 60th Anniversary of New China’s Diplomacy,” Qiushi Online, no. 19, Oct. 1, 2009, Open Source Center, CPP20091005710001.
12. Beijing, “China’s National Defense in 2008,” January 2009.
13. Interview with leading Chinese scholar August 29, 2009, Beijing.
14. Interviews with PRC officials and scholars in Beijing and Washington. August, September, and October  2009.