THE CHINESE ARE BIG ON SLOGANS: "Four Modernizations," the "Three Represents," "One Country, Two Systems," and more recently, the "Three Transcends," "Building a Harmonious Society," and "Peaceful Rise." While they don't trip off the American tongue, they serve the same basic purpose as slogans from Madison Avenue. Except in Beijing's case, the product is not toothpaste, cars, or life insurance, but Communist party policies.

The intended audience is usually China's party cadres, government officials, and its billion-plus citizens, but not always. For three years now, in connection with the accession of Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao to the government's top leadership positions, the People's Republic of China has tried to alleviate growing international concerns about its increasing economic, diplomatic, and military power with the policy slogan "China's Peaceful Rise." Recently China's propagandists revised it as "China's Peaceful Development" out of a concern that even the term "rise" might spook the Americans and China's own neighbors in Asia.

Either way, the point is that China faces a decades-long program of domestic development and simply can't afford getting into a great power struggle with the United States. Hence, Chinese foreign policy will focus on economic growth, soft power, and multilateral cooperation as a member of the World Trade Organization, the United Nations, and a variety of regional forums in Asia. Beijing might not always be willing to act in concert with the United States or its allies, but it will avoid, whenever possible, acting in direct competition. Or so the argument goes.

The intellectual midwife for "peaceful rise" has been Zheng Bijian, chairman of the China Reform Forum (a Chinese think tank), a former vice president of the Central Party School, and, significantly, deputy chief of the "publicity department" of the Communist party's Central Committee for six years in the mid '90s. By most accounts, he remains a top adviser to President Hu and his deputies. Indeed, weeks after Zheng first used the phrase in a speech at a regional economic forum in late 2003, Chinese premier Wen Jiabao was employing it at an ASEAN summit and, then at Harvard, on a visit to the United States.

Predictably, Zheng and the peaceful rise thesis are trotted out whenever public attention is focused on U.S-China relations. When last fall President Hu was first scheduled to come to the United States--but had to cancel because the White House was busy with the aftermath of Katrina--Zheng published his most comprehensive account of this argument in the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs. Then, one day after President Bush finished his two-day visit to Beijing this past fall, Zheng was front and center with an essay published in the overseas edition of the People's Daily, denying that China had any intention of becoming an expansionist power in the mold of the former Soviet Union. And now, in advance of Hu's visit to the United States this past week, Zheng has surfaced again to pronounce an addendum to the peaceful rise/development thesis called the "Three Transcends." The central "transcend" argues that China will overcome "the ways that traditional great powers have emerged" in the past.

There is no doubt that Zheng is an articulate and attractive figure, with a message that is pleasing to American and Western ears. Along with some colleagues, I had the opportunity to visit with him on a recent trip to Beijing.

Like most former senior policy advisers and publicists, Zheng can talk, and talk, and talk. But it's not fluff. The core of his argument is that China can and will break the binds of history and find a totally new approach to being a rising power. China will not be like imperial Japan or imperial Germany; it won't follow the path of the former Soviet Union as it grew into a superpower; it will even avoid the imperial moment and global showboating that marked America's rise in the late 19th century. China's rise, according to Zheng, will not come at the expense of another power. Instead of butting heads with some existing hegemon, China will make its rise a "win-win" for everyone, with its economy promoting prosperity at home and abroad.

It sounded good, but there were two obvious problems with Zheng's argument. The first, as we pointed out, is Taiwan. There is no way of getting around the fact that China's position--that Taiwan is culturally Chinese, and hence must be part of China, regardless of how the Taiwanese people feel about it--smacks of the nationalism of the past. As one colleague suggested, if China really wants to be seen as having created a totally new model of a rising power, it should stop acting like a rising Germany insisting that German-speaking Alsace and Sudetenland were part of greater Germany.

The second issue revolved around the fact that, whatever China's real intentions with respect to its rise in power and world status, no one in the democratic West or in Asia is likely to accept its peaceful proclamations at face value. Until China opens up its political system and makes its decision-making process more transparent to both its own citizens and the world, it is inevitable that other states will hedge against China's growing military and economic might. Democratic India is a rising power as well, but no one in Washington or, for that matter, in the major capitals of the world is sitting in policy-planning meetings wondering about containment strategies or, worse, potential military conflict.

Zheng's response was somewhat predictable but, nevertheless, revealing. With respect to Taiwan, he noted that China had moved considerably from the days when it was bombing the offshore islands manned by Taiwan's military. Beijing is, he said, happy to accept a "one country, two systems" solution to the problem of uniting the mainland with Taiwan. But the sweetness and light didn't last. Within minutes he also made it clear that unless Taiwan accepts unification, military force is certainly in play. Like Lincoln during the American Civil War, he argued, no Chinese leader could accept this renegade province remaining outside its sovereign orbit indefinitely.

As for political reform and democracy, Zheng ignored the suggestion that a more open system might give other countries more confidence about China's intentions. He went straight into the now standard Chinese line about China finding its own way. In the past, one would often get from Chinese "thinkers" some acknowledgment that, yes, thirty or forty years from now, China would be ready for democracy, but today there is not even a pretense that this is where the country is headed. Instead, China will try to devise some form of "pragmatic" autocracy, fiddling with the current system as need be to keep the population satisfied, while maintaining the party's hold on power. Whether China's leaders can pull this off over the long term is anybody's guess. But Zheng's statements mean that we're not likely to see a leadership in Beijing anytime soon that takes it cues from the norms of global behavior set by the other great powers--all democracies, with the exception of Russia.

In truth, it doesn't take but a few minutes of discussion with Chinese officials and scholars for their pride in China's newfound power to come to the surface. Zheng might want to claim that China's rise is some "postmodern" phenomenon, but the heightened nationalism and ambition among the newly affluent Chinese suggest we'd be silly to ignore the histories of past rising powers.

Moreover, in the absence of an open system, one can only assume that Zheng's campaign to convince the world that China's rise will be benign is no more than that--a campaign. At the dawn of the 20th century, Germany's leaders believed that conflict with Britain was virtually inevitable, but, absent a buildup of its power, especially its naval power, it had to "operate so carefully, like the caterpillar before it has grown into the butterfly." So too, in the early '90s, when China first began its annual double-digit military buildup, then-Premier Deng Xiaoping put forward the "24 Character Strategy": "Observe calmly; secure our position; cope with affairs calmly; hide our capacities and bide our time; be good at maintaining a low profile; and never claim leadership."

Of course, it's easy enough to point to other Chinese statements that indicate some other policy direction. But such ambiguity just reaffirms the key fact that we don't know what's in the minds of the Chinese leaders, and, until we do, Beijing can expect the United States and its allies to make contingency plans for a not-so-benign rise. Until then, Zheng and company should expect their sloganeering to be accepted as just that, to be received in the same spirit smart consumers reserve for the promises of Madison Avenue: Caveat emptor.

Gary Schmitt is a resident scholar and director of strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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