China's 'Harmonious World' in the Era of the Rising East

By Richard E. Poole
2014, Vol. 6 No. 10 | pg. 1/4 |

Is China building a harmonious world? In order to answer this question, it is necessary go beyond simply reviewing the official narrative of the 'harmonious world' policy and instead consider it in relation to China's international and domestic actions. Moreover, the views of China's 'unofficial' actors are crucial in understanding its so-called 'harmonious' approach to diplomacy and foreign policy.

By looking beyond the 'international bubble,' this paper aims to consider the 'harmonious world' policy anew and show the multiple, and often conflicting, future world orders and strategies that may arise as a consequence of the policy's implementation. The analysis concludes with a brief insight into what the future may hold for China's harmonious vision of world order, emphasizing that listening to ideas beyond the official lens will be more important than ever.

What is the "Harmonious World"?
This term first rose to prominence in 2005 during a UN keynote speech made by Chinese President Hu Jintao. In this speech, Hu outlined a four-point proposal advocating the following points:

  1. Multilateralism for common security;
  2. Win-win co-operation for common prosperity;
  3. Inclusiveness for the coexistence of all civilizations;
  4. UN reform to improve efficacy and maintain authority.

Almost unanimously, theorists, academics, and policy makers around the world agree that China is 'rising' (regardless of the negative/positive connotations associated with the term 'rise' itself). In 2007, the same year the 'harmonious world' policy discussed herein was further institutionalised in Hu's official "Report to the 17th Party Congress," China was the world's third largest trading partner with a GDP of $3.24 trillion dollars, and has since become the second largest, overtaking Japan (Jintao 2007; Bergsten et al 2009, pp. 209-210). Even during the recession, China was able to boast growth rates unlike any country in the world (Feldkircher and Korhonen 2012, p. 04).

It has therefore become of primary importance internationally to ask "what does China want?" and "what will China do?" with its newfound global and rising economic power, which is sure enough being translated into soft/hard power and growing political influence in major international organisations, such as the UN Security Council and the World Trade Organisation. Consequently, the emergence of the foreign policy concept of the 'harmonious world' in the mid-2000s grabbed the attention of 'China-watchers' worldwide who are concerned with China's role in international politics.

Defining the 'Harmonious World:' The Official Viewpoint

So what then is this 'harmonious world' (hexie shijie) perspective? A great place to start our analysis therefore begins with an evaluation of official discourse itself. Heralded as China's official foreign policy strategy, 'harmonious world' first rose to prominence internationally in 2005, during a keynote speech made by Hu Jintao at the UN's 60th Anniversary Summit (Jintao 2005). In this speech, Hu outlined a four-point proposal advocating (1) multilateralism for common security; (2) win-win co-operation for common prosperity; (3) inclusiveness for the coexistence of all civilizations and finally (4) UN reform, to improve efficacy and maintain authority (Jintao 2005 pp. 04-09; Dellios 2009, pp. 09-11). The details of this foreign policy approach were further reinforced in a white paper entitled "China's Peaceful Development Road" in the same year, and again reiterated in Hu's speech to the 17th National Congress of the CCP in November 2007 (Ding 2008, p. 109).

President Hu Jintao and Robert Gates
President Hu Jintao and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at the Hall of the People in Beijing (Jan 2011).

Clearly, the 'harmonious world' is here to stay. Not surprisingly, some commentators have noted that 'harmonious world' is not entirely novel, given its similarities and consistency with Mao's 'Five Principles of Peaceful Co-Existence' (Blanchard and Guo 2008, p. 07). Nonetheless, what makes the 'harmonious world' interesting is the suggested new attitude of assertiveness and activism it advocates for China in global interactions, marking a divergence away from Xiaoping's taoguang yanghui (hiding one's capacities whilst biding our time) philosophy (Tok and Zhang 2007, p. 02). But more importantly, Hu's 'harmonious' foreign policy was unique in the sense that it was China's first truly normative declaration of how the world should be ordered (Callahan 2011a, pp. 01-04).

Without a doubt, 'harmonious world' is certainly being talked about and taken seriously, and it is impossible to deny the discursive/soft power of the concepts 'harmony' and 'harmonious world' both internationally and domestically. After all, who doesn't want the 'harmony,' 'peace,' and 'mutual co-existence' as is generically stated by the Chinese leadership? For instance, "the largest database of Chinese journals shows an increase in the number of articles featuring 'harmony' in their titles from around 30 in 2003… to 6,600 in 2005" (Delury 2008, p. 05).

Internationally, 'harmonious world' has come under the scrutiny of foreign policy analysts in Australia, Japan, the UK and the USA to name only a few (Australian Senate 2006; Reilly 2008; Kwok 2011; Geis and Holt 2011; Men 2008). Nevertheless, even if one has a vague idea of the main framework of how this 'harmonious world' may be officially built, it is still no clearer as to how such a world is being created by China. In other words, how is the 'harmonious world' on paper being translating into action by the Chinese state?

One way to assess the extent to which China is building a harmonious world is therefore to empirically study its international actions and practices, and compare their 'fit' with foreign policy rhetoric. This has been one of the central ways in which intellectuals and policy analysts have taken on the task of descrambling Hu's statements. For instance, various academics have examined China's new 'harmonious' diplomacy in relation to a myriad of issue areas, such as energy security (Lheem 2008) and institutional engagement (Suzuki 2008; He 2008).

Numerous thinkers have also investigated China's 'harmonious world' vision in relation to other 'powers,' be they national, regional, international or even global. For example, this includes China's engagement with the Global South (Ding 2008); in ensuring a 'Harmonious Asia' (Dongxiao and Hwang 2010); and building harmonious relations with Africa (Jingfu and Zhaoyu 2009); to name a select few areas and authors. These commentators, amongst others, have drawn different conclusions on whether China is building a 'harmonious world,' ranging from the very positive, to the highly sceptical.

However, whilst the above is incredibly constructive and essential, this analysis still seems too narrow and simplistic. One must remember that the 'harmonious world' is not only a foreign policy strategy, but also a normative or idealistic world order and vision in China. Some authors have noted the difficulties in trying to pin down a specific meaning to the 'harmonious world' concept, and as a result, "Hu may have unwittingly made himself a hostage to his own policy idea" (Tok and Zhang 2007, p. 09; Callahan 2011b, pp. 263-264).

It is therefore insightful to analyse the concept of 'harmonious world' and 'harmony' from within China, in order to take into account the views of intellectuals, academics and wider civil society. Doing so is not an attempt to demonise or pedantically search for practices/ideas that may undermine the party's official discourse and international actions. Instead, it serves to prevent the reification of China itself by opening up and analysing Chinese foreign policy from multiple dimensions. Subsequently, it prevents the naturalisation of concepts/policies officially advocated as the 'real' perspective.

In essence, looking beyond official discourse can expand and widen our knowledge over what this 'harmonious world' may be like, who this 'harmony' may be for, and how it may be built or constructed globally. As Rigby notes, "there is nothing simple about China; and this being the case, we should be distrustful of any simple descriptors or characterisations, be they benign — China's peaceful rise, harmonious world, harmonious society — or the opposite" (Rigby 2010). Such an approach is not taken on the basis of a distrust of the Chinese state's intentions (as in China threat theory1), but in terms of a distrust of any assumed conceptual simplicity. The question can consequently be asked not what 'harmonious world' means for the globe, but what 'harmonious world' means for and within China.

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