Deng Xiaoping’s "24-Character Strategy"
Deng Xiaoping’s "24-Character Strategy" first emerged in 1990 in response both to the global backlash from the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and to the CCP’s sense of alarm following the collapse of the communist states of Eastern Europe.49 The strategy provided basic principles on how China should protect its national interests while increasing its interactions with the world. The "24-Character Strategy’’ has been roughly translated as:
"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."
As stated in a 2010 essay posted on an official CCP website, "Hide our capabilities and bide our time, make some contributions" and related thoughts were put forward by Deng Xiaoping for the ‘special period’ of the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the midst of sudden changes in Eastern Europe and the collapse of the socialist camp. . . . Currently, there are people in other countries who have produced misunderstandings and distortions of ‘hide our capabilities and bide our time.’ These people believe that China’s foreign policy strategy has a long-term, undeclared content and purpose:
This is that China believes that its current strength is insufficient, and the time has not yet come to announce and implement this great strategy, and consequently must ‘Hide our capabilities and bide our time,’ concealing the true situation and waiting for the right time of opportunity. . . . However, this is . . . a serious misunderstanding and distortion of the ‘hide our capabilities and bide our time’ idea stated by Comrade Deng Xiaoping . . . the original idea of using the expression ‘hide our capabilities and bide our time’ was the strategy of ‘developing ourselves,’ and not at all to ‘seek revenge on others’ after we have developed."
CCP General Secretary Jiang Zemin continued this policy throughout the 1990s, making it a central tenet of Chinese foreign policy for more than ten years. The result was that China’s strategic orientation ‘‘demonstrate[d] unusual consistency from the 1980s through the 2000s,’’ with China’s leaders "insisting on the importance of sticking to Deng Xiaoping’s realist legacy."
The phrase tao guang yang hui, “keep a low profile" was used by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s as part of a famous description of China’s foreign policy. Zhao Qizheng, dean of the School of Journalism of Renmin University of China and formal head of State Council Information Office, argues that some foreigners misunderstand the real meaning of Deng Xiaoping’s proposal.
But some foreigners read it as advocating deception about China’s true strength. Zhao maintains that “keep a low profile" is not a trick, but an expression of a particular approach. Yet other scholars point out that in a classical context, the phrase is used to indicate a strategic ruse. But the key problem is not in which dynasty or in which book the term first appeared or whether the ancients used it in reference to strategic trickery. The core is how to understand the context in which Deng used the term.
Chinese civilization is always developing and the context of the same word or idiom is changing, and our understanding of an idiom should follow its own development and changes. No matter how scholars of various dynasties understood the term “tao guang yang hui," in the 1990s, Chinese used it to express the meaning of “maintaining a low profile," focusing on developing China.
The Chinese people have traditionally valued “enduring humiliation in order to carry out an important task, self-reliance, hard work and plain living." The Chinese like to believe they aren’t expansionist, colonial, or imperial, and don’t hit out in all directions to grab and keep territory.
The idiom tao guang yang hui could be translated as “to keep a low profile" in modern times and it could even be translated as “to be self-effacing." However, it could never be translated as “to hide one’s ability and pretend to be weak" or “hide one’s capabilities and bide one’s time" in a modern context.
After 30 years of reforming and opening-up, China experienced rapid developments in all aspects and grew into the world’s second largest economy. The building up of national defense began to be modernized and the society is more diverse. A brief study of the background of Deng's 24-character principle will give people a better understand as to the meaning of "hide our capacities and bide our time". Deng made the remarks after the drastic changes in Eastern Europe, when people in foreign countries and in China hoped China to shoulder up the great banner of socialism.
In the 24-character principle, Deng stressed "never claim leadership". He said China will never claim the leadership, never seek hegemony, never seek sphere of influence, never practice group politics, and never interfere with internal affairs of other countries even if it becomes a strong nation one day. Understanding the sentence completely, one will see "never claim leadership" is the core of China's strategy for development. Based on the strategy, the Chinese leaders of new generation set forth the concept to build a harmonious world.
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