Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

Diplomatic words of wisdom

By Yang Wenchang (China Daily) Updated: 2011-10-29 08:09

Keeping a low profile is and will continue to be China's strategic thinking in handling relations with the world

Ever since former leader Deng Xiaoping made taoguang yanghui, literally "hide brightness, nourish obscurity", China's diplomatic guideline two decades ago, the phrase has been misinterpreted and misunderstood by the international community.

Some claim that it implies China is hiding the shining edge of its sword. Others waywardly link it with expressions such as: "Even 10 years is not too late to seek revenge".

A senior US diplomat who had picked up the saying, once asked me: "You are hiding your sword's bright blade under the table temporarily, when are you going to display it to the United States?"

Such distortions of the term portray China as a crouching lion that may wake up at any time and pounce and they serve as an excuse for calling China a threat. Misinterpretations such as these create an unfriendly and dangerous external environment and are frustrating for China's peaceful diplomacy.

The true meaning of the phrase is rooted deep in traditional Chinese culture. When prince Xiao Tong of the Southern Dynasty (AD 420-589) first used the term taoguang, he was referring to sages who would withdraw from public life. The first use of yanghui in the Song Dynasty (960-1279) was to describe self-cultivation in pursuit of accomplishment. Up to the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), either alone or together, the two terms were used to refer to low-profile behavior, featuring cool-headedness, intricate planning and hard work. The phrase can be applied to both adverse and victorious times, and embraces an inner belief for engaging in unostentatious but diligent efforts aimed at far-sighted goals. In this way it is a basic precondition for yousuo zuowei or "trying to amount to something". It has nothing to do with revenge or aggression.

When Deng Xiaoping first used taoguang yanghui to describe China's strategic diplomatic thinking in the early 1990s, he was asking Chinese diplomats to be calm, to attentively observe the global changes and be prepared to seize any opportunities that might arise. He was also stressing that China should not "take the lead" or "carry the flag". Yet Deng was not intending it as a provisional stand or a show of weakness, and he said on many occasions: "China is not afraid of anyone" and "China will not make an enemy of anyone".

History has already proved the perspicacity of Deng's vision and its value in helping China weather the storms of foreign affairs and guiding it onto a healthy path of development. However, as China keeps rising, new misunderstandings of the phrase have emerged. Some at home argue that China is no longer as weak as before and no longer needs to lie low, and the strategy, if not outdated, should at least be modified. Some say that a low profile absolves China of the need to act and do something worthwhile.

The former argument is a partial comprehension at best. Taoguang yanghui is applicable not only when one sails against the wind, but also when one has the wind in one's sails. The latter is simply a false interpretation, as the term itself points to no action.

The guideline is well founded to serve China's diplomacy in the new century as it combines both keeping a low profile and striving for something worthwhile. While addressing a national meeting of diplomatic envoys in July 2009, President Hu Jintao emphasized that China "insisted on taoguang yanghui and was endeavoring to amount to something".

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