Ensuring the “Go Abroad” Policy Serves China’s Domestic Priorities

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 5

The linkages between China’s domestic situation and its external affairs have become increasingly apparent and complex for Chinese leaders. “Never before has China been so closely bound up with the rest of the world as it is today,” noted China’s 2006 Defense White Paper [1]. A top priority is to ensure that Beijing’s external activities continue to support, rather than undermine, China’s domestic priorities. To this end, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) convened a Central Work Conference on Foreign Affairs (FAWC) in August 2006.

In contrast to the customary quadrennial convocation of Chinese ambassadors stationed overseas, which discusses the international situation and its challenges for Chinese diplomacy, the FAWC was aimed at addressing problems in the conduct of foreign affairs work throughout the country. In its size, scope and importance, the meeting was an unprecedented event in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Attendees included all the members of the CCP Politburo and its Standing Committee, all provincial governors and party secretaries (including municipalities with provincial-level decision-making authority), all State Council and central government ministers, approximately 60 Chinese ambassadors, officials from key state-owned enterprises and senior officials from PLA units with foreign affairs portfolios.

Approximately six months were devoted to conducting research and investigation into China’s foreign affairs work and writing the key speeches and documents for the FAWC, according to participants in the process. The CCP Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Office, headed by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Dai Bingguo, oversaw the preparatory work. Charged with summing up the “theory and practice of foreign affairs work since the 16th Party Congress,” the FAWC was an important step in the preparations for the 17th Party Congress scheduled for this fall [2].

The FAWC provides considerable evidence that Hu Jintao is indelibly putting his rhetorical imprint on China’s foreign policy. The meeting stressed that in handling foreign affairs in the new period, the party must persist in taking “Mao Zedong thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, and the important thinking of the Three Represents as a guide and comprehensively implement the scientific development concept.” The aim of Chinese foreign policy was described as promoting the “building of a harmonious world of lasting peace and prosperity.” Documents called for foreign affairs work to be “people-centered” and part of a mutually beneficial “win-win strategy of opening up” [3]. (Emphases added by author.) These are all well known Hu Jintao phrases and concepts that will likely be enshrined in party lexicon at the upcoming party congress.

A major theme of the conference was the interconnectedness of the international and domestic scenes—“guonei, guowai, liangge daju” (internal, external, the two big situations). The Xinhua account of the meeting, which according to Chinese interlocutors represents a relatively accurate, but partial summary of the internal documents, underscored that “the relationships between the country’s internal and foreign affairs have become even stronger” (Xinhua, August 23, 2006). In Hu Jintao’s speech at the conference, he stressed the “importance and urgency” of handling foreign affairs properly in the new century and at the new stage (Xinhua, August 23, 2006). Interviews with Chinese experts and officials suggest that one of the major drivers of the conference was concern about the negative consequences for China’s international image of its “zou chuqu” (go abroad) policy that encourages Chinese enterprises to compete globally. One Chinese official commented, “There have been many negative reactions to Chinese foreign policy around the world” that needed to be addressed at the highest level.

Complaints against China are on the rise in countries on China’s periphery in Asia and as far away as southern Africa. According to Chinese scholars, gripes include the dumping of Chinese products and other unfair trade practices that have led to job losses in many countries, the poor treatment of foreign workers by Chinese businessmen and the harmful effects of many Chinese activities on the environment, such as pollution and deforestation. The frenzy to secure supplies of oil and other natural resources from every corner of the world has also prompted competition among firms that has resulted in lower profit margins. Such haphazard and uncoordinated actions have undermined China’s national interests and specifically its efforts to develop “soft power.” Referring to the “go abroad” policy, a senior Chinese diplomat maintained, “Chinese businesses are going out into the world and they lack knowledge about the world. They have demonstrated bad behavior. They ignore the local conditions. People have criticized their behavior as representative of the Chinese government’s behavior.”

There is recognition among the Chinese leadership of the need to respond, within certain limits, to the growing demands placed on China by the developing world. For example, the FAWC noted that China should “increase foreign aid as appropriate as China’s power grows.” More pressing, however, is the need to assure that China’s interaction with the outside world does not harm its own domestic development and prevent the full exploitation of the strategic period of opportunity, which the leadership has identified as extending until 2020. Two Chinese scholars summed up the urgent task: “Being tied to the rest of the world, China must relieve the suspicions of other countries in order to keep developing” [4].

The lack of knowledge about and control over the explosion of activities abroad that are initiated at local levels has frustrated the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has insufficient clout to dictate to or even extract information from private and state-run companies and other local entities. To improve coordination and communication between the center and the localities, one of the decisions announced at the FAWC was the elevation of the waiban (foreign affairs offices) throughout China. These offices remain under the local government structure, but now have greater authority in the provincial hierarchy. An important consequence will be an increase in personnel exchange among the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Chinese embassies abroad and the nationwide foreign affairs office system, while facilitating central government supervision over provincial and municipal governments and their interactions overseas.

In addition to coordination problems between the center and the localities, information sharing and coordination between the civilian and military bureaucracies remain major challenges. China’s January 11 test of an anti-satellite weapon against its own weather satellite without prior consultation with the foreign ministry is just the latest faux pas of China’s flawed stove-piped decision-making system. Indoctrinating officials and party cadre with stern messages from the top is not likely to solve this problem. Some Chinese scholars continue to urge the establishment of a national security council, but bureaucratic interests are deeply entrenched and likely to oppose any encroachment on their power. In any case, any shake-up of the government/party/military system can only be considered in Hu Jintao’s second term, after the Party Congress this fall.

Another important function of the FAWC was to “tongyi sixiang” (unify thinking) of the elite throughout China that engage in or oversee foreign affairs activities. Documents produced will be studied widely to educate officials at various levels on the Party’s guidelines. Through this process, consciousness will be raised on the ways in which activities in ostensible support of China’s national development are harming its foreign policy interests. The Xinhua account of the meeting calls for rank-and-file cadres and the general public to “treat peoples of all nations equally and in a friendly manner,” and “respect and consider the legitimate interests and concerns of the peoples of nations” (Xinhua, August 23, 2006). A campaign has also been launched to remind Chinese citizens that travel abroad to behave appropriately and in accordance with the laws and social conventions on the countries they are visiting. This includes not spitting or talking loudly in public places, lining up patiently and not taking pictures where photography is not permitted (China Daily, February 1). Such behaviors, officials have concluded, damage China’s global image and weakens its soft power.

Premier Wen Jiabao cautioned in his speech at the FAWC that China would remain in the initial stage of socialism for a long time to come [5]. One observer remarked that Wen’s message is that “the current stage will last longer than people expect.” In this period, the premier observed, the country must “ceaselessly increase China’s comprehensive national power, improve the people’s lives, and promote social harmony.” Hu underscored the critical importance of adhering to the road of “Peaceful Development,” creating a “Harmonious Society” and working toward the establishment of a “Harmonious World.” In Chinese, these three objectives have been described as the “three peaces” or the sanhe: heping fazhan, hexie shehui, hexie shijie.

Another purpose of the FAWC, according to Chinese experts, was to integrate China’s disparate foreign policies into a unified grand strategy. The pursuit of a series of uncoordinated policies to promote issues such as energy security, unification with Taiwan, good neighborly relations and border security are apparently a source of concern to the leadership. One Chinese scholar maintained that the adoption of a grand strategy would mark the first time since Zhou Enlai’s peaceful coexistence concept that China has had a grand strategy. It remains unclear, however, whether a consensus was reached on a more specific grand strategy extending beyond the ideal of simply constructing harmonious relations with the region and the world.

Absent from the Xinhua recap of the meeting, but apparently included in the internal documents, is a reiteration of Deng Xiaoping’s maxim from the early 1990s that China should “keep a low profile and bide its time, while also getting something accomplished” (tao guang yang hui, you suo zuo wei). Although this 8-character phrase (drawn from Deng’s original 24-character dictum) is cited, Hu Jintao’s emphasis is said to be on the first four characters [6]. Experts say that this is a reminder that China should be modest and sober-minded, focus its energies on its domestic development and not become excessively involved in issues beyond its borders. The phrase was excluded from the public version, according to Chinese researchers, because it is often interpreted as meaning that China is secretly amassing its power and hiding its true intention to dominate the world. To avoid stimulating additional concerns abroad that China will pose a threat once it becomes powerful, Deng’s maxim is deliberately excluded from publicly circulated leadership speeches and documents. For similar reasons, Chinese leaders rejected the term “peaceful rise” in favor of the less threatening term “peaceful development” in April 2004 [7].

According to the director of a leading think tank that advises government departments, “Some people say that China is getting strong, so we can do more (stressing you suo zuo wei). But China is still a developing country” and “the leaders are telling people to not be so ambitious during the transition,” he asserted. “We should not exaggerate our strength because that would harm our domestic environment.” A retired ambassador criticized Chinese scholars who advocate that China assume greater international responsibilities. “Some people are carried away by our success and think that China is already a great power,” he asserted. “But China will be a developing country for a very long time. We should always remember Deng Xiaoping’s words.”

Although the main work was completed prior to the FAWC and publicized in party documents, some follow-up work is being done. After the meeting, an intra-agency task force was established at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which has held meetings to discuss the concrete implementation of the party guidelines. Similar meetings may have been convened at other party and government departments. The Central Committee’s Foreign Affairs Office has also commissioned papers on how to improve foreign affairs efforts, suggesting that additional steps will be taken in the months ahead.

While the primary driver of the FAWC was the leadership’s perceived need to better coordinate Beijing’s external activities with its domestic priorities, the meeting was conducted against the backdrop of the broader debate in China about the country’s identity and role in world affairs. At the heart of this debate is how to strike the appropriate balance between China’s dual identities: a developing country and a regional power with global equities. Hu Jintao placed emphasis on China’s traditional identity as “the largest developing country in the world” (PTV World, November 24. 2006). But internal and external pressure on China to assume the mantle of a major power is growing. The United States, along with other countries, is pressing China to be a “responsible stakeholder” and exercise its influence on issues ranging from the elimination of the nuclear programs in North Korea and Iran to ending genocide in Darfur. Younger generation Chinese scholars are also calling for China to play a bigger regional and global role. This debate is likely to continue beyond the 17th Party Congress and will have important implications for Chinese foreign policy and international behavior in the years to come.


1. China’s National Defense in 2006, published by the Information Office of the State Council, Xinhua, December 29, 2006.

2. “Renmin Ribao August 24 Editorial: Adhere to Peaceful Development Road, Push Forward Building of Harmonious World,” Xinhua, August 23, 2006.

3. Ibid.; Xinhua, August 23, 2006.

4. “New Identity, New Interests and New Diplomacy,” by Xing Yue, Zhan Yijia, Contemporary International Relations, Vol. 16, No. 12, December 2006.

5. Xinhua, August 23, 2006 and interviews in Beijing, Jan. 22-29, 2007.

6. Deng’s original 24-character dictum 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.”

7. Bonnie S. Glaser and Evan S. Medeiros, “The Changing Ecology of Foreign Policymaking in China: the Ascension and Demise of the Theory of “Peaceful Rise,” China Quarterly, forthcoming in June 2007.