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THE CHINESE DIPLOMATIC TRADITION
This paper discusses the characteristics of the Chinese diplomatic tradition
and individuals and events that have influenced and shaped Chinese diplomacy. The
object of this article is to inform practitioners and students of diplomacy, and those
interested in transnational diplomacy about the characteristics of Chinese diplomacy.
The paper argues that in medieval times, the Chinese regarded themselves as
the geographic center of civilization and considered non-Chinese as `barbarians' who
could not have any ties with China. Further, if the `barbarians' desired to have
relations with China, their leaders could visit China, but would have to kowtow before
Chinese emperors as a sign of allegiance. China considered trade with other nations
to be an act of charity because of the view that China was self-sufficient in its
resources. This attitude changed during the First Opium War, and China became a
major player in international relations.
The Old Diplomatic Thought
The diplomatic history of China makes for an interesting study. Considering
that many events that take place in the country are not allowed to be subjected to
worldwide scrutiny, a study of the country's diplomatic traditions can give us some
insight into and perspective on the dynamics of the country and its politics (Baldauf &
China has a unique diplomatic tradition that goes back to 481221 BC
consisted of several independent states. Intrastate diplomacy in China followed a
different pattern to China's international diplomacy. The rival states vied for power,
and this rivalry required a lot of diplomacy in building alliances and signing peace
covenants among the warring states. These issues made relations between states
As a result of frequent conflicts, espionage became necessary in the
independent Chinese states, and diplomacy and espionage coexisted. At this stage,
the Chou Court ceremonials represented the formal style of diplomacy and the
Chinese conducted their diplomacy through the exchange of envoys. Toward the end
of the reign of the independent states in 220 BC, this system declined because the
levels of mistrust and violence increased, diplomatic exchanges and agreements lost
credibility, and war was imminent.
When China became a monolithic, unified empire, another pattern of
diplomacy emerged in international relations. The Chinese held the view that China
was the `Celestial Dynasty' or the `geographic center' of world civilization, with its
emperor being the leader of the civilized world. They perceived that they were the
only educated people, and the `barbarians' (uncivilized nations or non-Chinese) had
to respect them. As a result of their lack of travel, the Chinese thought that they were
the only enlightened people `under heaven,' and were not aware of other world
civilizations. This isolationist view meant that other countries were regarded as
tributaries of China under its suzerain rule. This Sinocentric attitude continues to
influence modern Chinese diplomacy (Siddique & Alam 2009, p. 18).
The Chinese looked down on other nations as `barbaric,' and did not overly
bother themselves in establishing relations with them. Chinese emperors usually did
not visit other countries because they were considered `uncivilized' tributaries of
China. If other nations so desired, their heads or envoys could visit China, but they
had to pay tribute and kowtow before the Chinese emperors as a demonstration of
their loyalty. In return, the emperor would offer more valuable gifts as a `sign of
generosity, a patent, and a seal of office, a calendar and a rank in Chinese
aristocracy' (Fitzgerald 1971, p. 23) & (Zhao 2004, p. 228).
A reluctance to travel was still evident in modern Chinese diplomacy, for
example, Chairman Mao Zedong only visited the Soviet Union once (in 1949)
(Heinzig 2004, p. 263). Mao's lack of travel reflected the traditional Chinese attitude
of overlooking the importance of other nations. It was an insult for a Chinese person
to be a diplomat in a `barbarian' land. Indeed, it was considered more honorable if a
person resigned from their position rather than accepting a `humiliating' diplomatic
task outside China. Jönsson and Zhimin (2008, p. 11) argue that the distinction
between the Chinese and the `barbarians' is one of cultural superiority, not race.
Thus, if a `barbarian' abandoned his own culture and adopted the Chinese culture,
he would be considered equal to the Chinese.
China engaged in some trade with other states, but always viewed this as an
act of charity because of the belief that China was self-sufficient in its resources.
This world view influenced China's foreign policy and diplomacy during medieval
times. Until 1840, Chinese foreign policy was dictated by its perceived moral and
intellectual superiority, and it positioned itself as a state suzerain over Southeast
The Impact of Foreign Wars
The 1839 Anglo-Chinese War proved to be a turning point in world history
when Britain, a `barbarian' state, declared war on China. For the first time, China
realized that it could no longer dictate the geopolitics of the region. As these invaders
had no respect for Chinese traditions and customs, it caused deep-rooted
resentment among the locals, which manifested in anti-Russian and anti-American
movements (Medeiros 2003).
Under Dr. Sun Yat-sen, the Chinese realized that if they were to survive, they
would have to become proficient in diplomatic norms. The Chinese also
acknowledged that they had suffered many failures as a result of their neglect of
international relations. While acknowledging the difficulty of charting a diplomatic
path, China decided to forge closer ties with friendly countries. Broadly speaking, the
opium wars of the 1840s and 1850s, the ChinaJapan war of the 1890s, the Boxer
Revolution in 1900, the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and the Second ChinaJapan
war of 19371945 impacted China's foreign relations.
However, under Mao Zedong, foreign policy and diplomacy assumed a
secondary role in favor of national goals. The characteristics of diplomacy under Mao
largely focused on the preeminence of ideology and revolution.
The Diplomatic Shift
In the post-Mao era, there was a visible change, and Chinese leaders began
to forge active ties with other countries as they started to comprehend the need to
exercise diplomacy. With the ascendance of Deng Xiaoping, there was a change in
behavior as he tried to make China more pragmatic. China began to move away
from its traditional attitude of cultural superiority to a more moderate position (Wang
2011, p. 40).
Since the Chinese no longer perceived China as the center of civilization,
Chinese leaders began to visit foreign countries, especially from the time of Jiang
Zemin. The foreign ministry became the most important department in the Chinese
government. The Communist Party of China (CPC) remodeled itself as a protector of
Chinese nationalism, and thus foreign relations gained impetus as the CPC
positioned itself as an upholder of Chinese interests among foreign nations, thereby
preventing aggression toward China. Moreover, the CPC also developed `diplomatic
theory with Chinese characteristics' (Yang 2014, p. xv) that avoids traditional
concepts of cultural superiority.
The Chinese did not understand that diplomacy was a global communication
tool that could provide many benefits. In diplomacy, there is no superiority or
inferiority among states because they all need each other. Great powers need strong
diplomatic relations with weaker states, and vice versa. China had overlooked this
crucial point in its old diplomacy style. Acknowledging this flaw, China restructured
its foreign policy and diplomacy to boost its position in foreign affairs.
Despite such a remarkable shift in the Chinese mindset, China's traditional
military doctrine is widely reflected in modern Chinese diplomacy. The Chinese
believe that a negotiation is a form of war, and thus one needs to be as skillful as a
warrior. Chinese diplomats are among the best trained in the world, and their training
includes the art of deception. Such practical diplomatic training is one factor behind
China's contemporary achievements in international relations.
In conclusion, China has come a long way regarding its diplomacy, which now
displays considerable refinement, subtlety, and sophistication. China is well aware
that it can no longer continue to function in isolation. Moreover, China can no longer
perceive itself as the geographic center of the world surrounded by submissive
vassal states. It has realized that it inhabits a globalized world where most countries
are dependent on one another if they are to survive and prosper. Hence, China has
established links with a variety of countries, is active on the diplomatic circuit, and is
operating within the framework of the international community.
Select more than one answer when necessary.
1. China's diplomatic tradition goes back to:
a. 481-221 BC
b. 490-482 BC
c. 580-481 BC
2. Before China became a unified empire, its diplomacy was characterized by:
a. Rivalry for power
b. Competition for conquest among each other
c. Increased trade
3. The art of diplomacy was highly skilled among the Chinese states to:
a. Build alliances
b. Signing peace covenants among the warring states
c. Unite the states
4. In China, the formal style of diplomacy based on:
a. The Chou Court ceremonials
b. Qing Court ceremonials
c. Dang Court ceremonials
5. Chinese held the view that China is:
a. The celestial dynasty of the world
b. The geographic center
c. The civilized in the world
d. Sufficient in resources
e. Asians are vassal states of China
6. When foreign leaders kowtowed before the Chinese emperors, the emperors
would give gifts as a sign of:
c. Seal of office
d. Calendar and a rank in Chinese aristocracy
7. During the Cold War, Mao Zedong traveled to:
a. Washington DC
c. East Germany
d. None of the above
8. The first Anglo-Chinese War was fought in:
9. Sun Yat-Sen did not understand the importance of international diplomacy.
10. The old Chinese diplomatic thought did not influence Mao Zedong.
11. Which event impacted foreign relations of China?
a. The opium wars
b. The China-Japan
c. The Boxer Revolution
d. The Treaty of Versailles
e. The Korean war
12. The opium wars were fought in:
a. The 1840s and 1850s
b. The 1860s and 1870s
c. The 1820s and 1830s
13. Which one is correct?
a. The China-Japan war was fought in the 1890s
b. The Boxer Revolution was fought in 1901
c. None of the above
14. Which one is correct?
a. The Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1918
b. The Second China-Japan war was fought in 1937-1945
c. None of the above
15. China adjusted its foreign ties in the equation to:
b. Soviet Union
c. United States
d. United Kingdom
16. Chinese leaders began forging active ties with other countries during:
a. Mao Zedong
b. Deng Xiaoping
c. Jiang Zemin
17. The Communist Party of China:
a. Remodeled itself as a protector of Chinese nationalism
b. Positioned itself contrary to the Chinese interests
c. Developed the diplomatic theory with Chinese characteristics
18. Chinese view negotiation as:
a. A type of war
b. A peaceful art
c. A matter of trust
19. During the old world, it was a pride for a Chinese to be a diplomat in the foreign
20. The most important Ministry in the Chinese government:
a. Defence Ministry
b. Foreign Ministry
c. Energy Ministry
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