Is there still a Middle Way? - SOAS China Institute

//Is there still a Middle Way?

Is there still a Middle Way?

Tiananmen Square, Beijing – Photo credit: John Gittings ©

By John Gittings | 13 May 2021

Not all Chinese diplomats are wolf-warriors, and there was a time when none of them were. I have been reminded of this by revisiting two interviews I conducted with senior officials at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) when I was reporting from China for The Guardian. From them I learnt that, then at least, China much preferred to be Number Two in the world and leave the top spot to the United States. And I also learnt that the idea of China invading Taiwan was unbelievable: it was hard even to think of it unless the island actually declared independence.


My interviews were conducted in July 2000: the first was with Cui Tiankai, then head of policy planning at the MFA after a spell with the Chinese UN delegation. The second was with Sha Zukang, Director-General of the MFA’s Department of Arms Control which he had founded after serving as Ambassador for Disarmament Affairs. I had submitted two sets of detailed questions of Chinese foreign policy to them which they answered at length.


Cui was not only emphatic on China’s lack of superpower pretension but put it in a thoughtful context. I had asked what China meant by ‘hegemonism’: he replied that ‘Everyone knows that the US has superiority, but it still needs cooperation from other countries.’ There was a debate in the US, he continued, as to whether it should be ‘a lonely superpower’. That was the price the US paid for being Number One, and it was a position that China intended to avoid.


‘We believe with Confucius’, Cui concluded, ‘that the Middle Road is best, being a couple of steps away is best’. He was referring to the doctrine of the Zhongyong, one of the Four Books of the Confucian classics, which advises the enlightened person to maintain a state of equilibrium and avoid going to extremes.


On the Taiwan issue, Cui acknowledged that because of US support over the past for the Nationalists there was ‘a residue of hard feelings towards Taiwan [and] a residue – or rising – hard feelings towards the US.’ However, he added, ‘we cannot forget history but we cannot live in the past’.


As for China’s Asian neighbours, they need not worry about Chinese chauvinism, although he did not deny there was an element of it. (I knew that well, since I could detect it every day in the emerging social media). ‘As China develops it will be more self-confident not to seek dominance but equality, an ideal ever since Dr Sun Yat-sen’.

‘We cannot forget history but we cannot live in the past’.

Cui Tiankai. – Photo credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture (Flickr)

Finally, Cui admitted that China had an image problem, and that ‘we have to do a better job in presenting our true image to the outside world…’.  Yet in the end what counted was the reality of life in China, where most people were concerned with the environment, with jobs, with their kids. ‘It is counter-productive to put labels on everything’.

My questions to Sha Zukang focused mainly on the US National Missile Defence (NMD) policy and the debate over it in Washington. If taken too far it could, said Sha, ‘destroy the existing strategic stability’ and require them to respond with a new arms race. However, China appreciated US assurances that the programme was not targeted against it, and was willing to ‘give the US the benefit of the doubt’ that they would proceed cautiously with new missile development.

China was a reluctant nuclear power, Sha told me. He recalled the threats of US nuclear attack made during the Korean War, and in the early 1970s how Brezhnev seriously considered a pre-emptive strike against China. As Mao had said, nuclear weapons were ‘something you cannot eat or wear, but we must have it, just a little’. China wished to keep its nuclear forces at the lowest level possible, as a minimum deterrent, unless obliged by changes in US strategy to move beyond it.

Sha acknowledged the value of good relations with the US saying that already the two countries had ‘done so many things together’. And he went further: “We acknowledge the efforts made by the US which have contributed greatly to the peace and stability of the world, joined by other countries’. He hoped that US policy now would not ‘negate all their achievements’.

I then asked about the deployment of Chinese missiles on the coast of Fujian that was causing concern on Taiwan and more generally, with fears that China might contemplate military action against the island. Here Sha was emphatic in denying that it could ever do so except in the most extreme circumstance.

‘It is unbelievable that the mainland should use force against our brothers and sisters; we never even thought we should use force. It is hard even to think of it… There are only two scenarios where force could be used: foreign aggression or a declaration of independence.’

And, Sha reminded me, the doctrine of One Country Two Systems was ‘first advocated and intended to be used in the case of Taiwan’.

We are in a very different place from the Millennium Year when these MFA officials spoke quite freely to me. There are difficult questions about the character and ambitions of the Xi Jinping regime, underlined by its repressive actions in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Meanwhile the US clings to its insistence on world superiority, backed by a huge military budget , and there are ‘wolf warriors’ on the ‘Western’ side too. The challenge now is how to counter mutual threat perceptions, and improve relations based on a policy of critical cooperation.

Cui Tiankai is ambassador to the US, and while faithfully reflecting current policies he has refrained from wolfish utterance – in notable contrast to others such as Liu Xiaoming, ambassador till recently in the UK. Last year Cui disowned a particularly outrageous claim by an MFA spokesperson. Sha Zukang has retired but writes and speaks on foreign policy. In his latest essay he looks with cautious optimism on the Biden administration. Fu Ying, ex-vice minister of foreign affairs, has also expressed moderate views, acknowledging that worries on both sides of the US-China divide have to be addressed.

If (as I think is likely) there remains in Beijing a stratum of official opinion that would prefer the Middle Way, that is where our hopes and efforts should lie. As the Master said, ‘Harmony is the universal path which all should pursue’.

John Gittings is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.