"The Great Nations" and "What does China want?"

The question "What does China want" has been asked by western observers repeatedly, especially back in the times when "China threat" rhetoric still received some attention (i.e. before Zoellick said "China is not USSR"). In an early posting of this blog I have argued that it does not matter what China's intention is, because in the medium term (i.e. 20-50 years) it will focus on economic development (and maintaining the hope of re-uniting with Taiwan some day in future), beyond that China's leadership would have changed a few times and it won't matter what it wants now, the optimistic case is that it will probably become a democracy joining the West (or be like Singapore, if not Japan). Therefore, the major concern for the West is not what China intends to do today, but to prevent major disaster in China's path of reform and development, because that may derail the risk-averse do-nothing path it is taking currently.

Apparently the CCP leadership did form some ideas on what they want for China in the longer term (on top of the near term goal of feeding its people and playing "economic catch up"), i.e., not surprisingly, China still aspires to restore the glory it enjoyed centuries ago, and want to become a "Great Nation".

The hint comes from a recent TV documentary series of 12 episodes, "The Rise of the Great Nations"(大国崛起), which I recommend highly to those who are interested in the future of China, and in particular Chinese politics and international relations.

In terms of materials and production, the TV program is probably no different from the Discovery or BBC documentary in world history. One does not expect revolutionary academic insights from them, especially because CCTV is not yet in the same tier of BBC in general. In fact, it continues to use the notion of "combined power" along with RFGP by Paul Kennedy. Then why is this program important? and as a result believed to be a hint to China's next wave of reform by many observers? Because, if you believe it is part of the state propaganda then it would be an interesting exercise to deconstruct the messages it tries to convey, and there are many hints pointing to the allegation that the program is produced under an instruction from the Politburo
  • Explicit acknowledgement from the producer: The director (who is also the head of CCTV), Zhao Huayong, wrote in the preface (there is an accompanying book, in case the audience missed the messages) that, "The CCP Politburo attended a seminar in Nov 2003, the topic was the lessons of the development of the 9 major world powers from 1500 to today......These power has all hurted other nations, including China, in sometime on their path to great become great power, what kind of attitude and embracement should we adopt toward them? What experiences and learning should we find from their paths?" -- so even if this is not an instruction from the Politburo, the fact that CCTV dares to use the Politburo seminar in its promotion of the program tells us something. (Other interviews with the production crew here)
  • "2003年11月24日,中共中央政治局组织了一次集体学习,内容是“15世纪以来世界主要国家发展历史”。这次学习在社会上引起了广泛关注,人们在想,斯时斯地,打开尘封已久的历史,所为何来?...新中国的几代领导人反复强调:我们的发展,要吸收和借鉴全人类的文明成果。这些曾经在近现代历史上引导世界潮流的大国,在历史上或多或少都对其他国家和民族造成过伤害,包括中国。今天,在中华民族重新崛起的进程中,我们应该以什么样的胸怀和态度看待它们?中国的和平发展可以从中借鉴什么样的经验和教训?
  • Coincidence in timing: The documentary took 3 full years to produce. So it started in 2003, roughly right after the Politburo meeting. Either the CCTV director overheard the Politburo discussion and charged ahead or he received some instruction from the Politburo, as it is an unlikely coincidence in time. Since even the head of CCTV is probably not a very powerful figure compared with the Politburo, it is more likely the latter
  • Careful choice of word: The fact that the title was called "Rising", instead of "Development" explains that this documentary is for domestic consumptions. Because many Chinese citizen view the choice of the word "development" to be too weak and they still would like to see China "rising"; that it chose to use the word "great" instead of the more often used word "strong" in Chinese history is also important -- see below on definition of "Great Nation"
  • Pragmatic purpose: Regardless of the intent, the result of airing this documentary is that the Chinese citizens will get the messages conveyed in this series, and such message must not contradict the party line as otherwise it would have been banned. Therefore, for all practical purposes it is in line with the view of the Politburo (including the decision to skip the old teaching that colonialism pillaging crucially contributed to the initial stage of capitalism)
  • Heavyweight advisor team: this particular program from CCTV was able to enlist the best of the Chinese scholars, including internationally renowned scholar Wang Jisi (who was instrumental in the Hu-Zoellick meeting last year), in its advisor team. More likely, if one believes the theory that the Politburo ordered the production, Wang himself is the brain behind this series, and he probably carefully selected the messages to be conveyed in this series. In addition, Wang Jisi, together with historian Qian Shengdan who both were interviewed in the program and led discussion in the Politburo seminar, are said to be the mastermind behind this program (source).
During the production of the program a lot of interviews with prominent international scholars were conducted. The director then used these interview clips (by professors at top universities of the world, such as Paul Kennedy of Yale, and ex-politician Berezensky) to tell what it wants to tell its audience. This is a credible and low political-risk way of getting the message through. On the other hand, since it is an impossible mission to condense the lesson of a great nation into a 40 minute (in the case of Britain, Russia and USA, 80 minutes) episode of the documentary, the content has to be highly selective, so much that perhaps less than 1% fo the interviewed quotes (source) made through the final editing. Therefore, I have strong reason to believe the selection is thus highly deliberate.

Such selective highlighting of the lessons tells us what the Chinese leadership (or the director of the documentary) wants to tell its people/audience, because it wants the support of the people on what where it is going to lead them to. The central question is the million dollar question for China observers and internationl relations pundits: what does China want? The message the program wants to convey is that China aspires to be a great nation, and more than that, a SUSTAINABLE great nation. If we believe in the theory that this program is part of the state propaganda, then it tried to redefine what it means by the concept of "great nation" (and what it means by "Rise") for Chinese leadership as well. The definition is that a great nation is one that brings well-being and properity to its people, and contributes to the progress of the world. This definition of "Rise" or "Greatness" is not exactly the same as what the Chinese people (and other people in the world) used to associate with "Great", which is almost synonymous with "strong" and to a lesser extent, "Rich" (as known in Shang Yang's 商鞅 "Strengthen the military by enriching the nation" 富国强兵). Therefore, the leadership feels the need to educate the people about this definition so that the people will not mis-interpret the policy (e.g. of playing the stakeholder role as advocated by Zoellick) as being "weak". The program tried to define "Great Nation" by identifying a few key properties, which are re-emphasized in its concluding episode (the Finale) "Thinking through our actions based on broad and rightful principles" (大道思行), as follows:
  1. Great Nation = Innovation and contribution to its own people and the world: innovation of Thomas Edison, Dutch shipbuilders, Japanese businesses were discussed throughout the program. In the Finale the head of Chinese Diplomatic Institute Wu jianmin was quoted as saying something like this, "Great nation contributes to the world development, innovation is essential for making such contribution, and innovation is not possible if free thinking is constrained" (一个国家要崛起,它思想得创新吧,对吧。如果全是老思想,国家能崛起吗?崛起不了。思想如果都束缚住了,能创新吗?创新不了。所以文化的作用在这里出现了。)
  2. Aggression through force is to be avoided at all costs, as demonstrated by the example of Germany and Japan:
    • It showed the picture (below) of Warsaw Kneeling along with the comment "The moment Brandt kneels down was the moment Germany stood up in the world", sending the strongest message on its view that aggression is the wrong path to building a Great Nation;
    • in addition, it carefully defined the Meiji Restoration as a 100 year process (instead of 20-40 years, ending in the wars in 1895 and 1905), ending in 1968 when Japan finanlly rose with respect from the world through its economic success, and discounting the Japan's military success as short term aberration (in the Japan episode, the conclusion for Japan's lesson is that a Great Nation should (a) Bring prosperity and happiness to its own people (b) Bring peace and security to the world
    • The Japan lesson is further reinforce when it looks back to the lessons of the Iberian powers, conluding that without building one's own ability to generate wealth the rise is short-lived, and wealth through expansion and aggression are not to be depended upon
    • thirdly, the program made it clear that the modern world order is one in which competition is by business and innovation, and contribution to humanity and scientific knowledges, not by military success.
  3. Rule of law and building of a system: in almost all episodes, especially that of UK and US, the rule of law were emphasized. It was repeated again when it discussed the rise of Germany, and a long section on Thomas Edison and that US made the protection of intellectual property into its constitution, then again on how innovation in information technology helped US to lead the world again economically
  4. Focus on internal development and building sustainable capabilities: the Iberian powers were quoted as short-lived because they did not build the system and sustainable capability with all the wealth they accumulated from the New World. furthermore, this quote from Professor Zheng Yongnian of Nottingham University is note-worthy, "一个国家外部的崛起,实际上是它内部力量的一个外延。国家内部的制度还没有健全的情况下,很难成为一个大国,即使成为一个大国,也不是可持续的。"
  5. A lot of attention is given to building a system and ensuring the fundamentals, both economically and politically: an example is that of the Dutch bank which lent to the enemy Spain during war, maintaining its independence, the other are that of the Dutch government in 1600s which were formed by capitalist merchants, the narration talks about the Dutch paintings which portray the citizen (vs nobles and religious figures in other countries) with admiration
  6. For catching up 'great nations' (e.g Germany, Japan, Russia), the government must play the leading role: This is perhaps the most controversal point in this program, IMHO, as it not only emphasized the role of government "planning", praising its contribution to the Russian industrialization in the 1920s-1930s, it also praises the Keysian economics which influenced the role fo the governement in Rosevelt administration -- my concern is that it is difficult and tempting to forget the fact that government role is needed only when the problem is so serious that the invisible hand is unable to cope with it, and Chinese bureacracts, like bureacrats elsewhere will soon forget the principle that government intervention is needed only as a last resort)
  7. Together with the government role above, the views on USSR's "worthy experiment" on socialism and planned economy is positively ambiguous. My speculation is that the Politburo could not agree on these issues and decided they will keep the conclusion open (again, this is assuming that the program is part of the state propaganda). Same can be said about when globalization will truly make aggressive war obsolete, as in the Finale it stated such time will come even though if not in the medium term.
The messages couldn't be clearer. The question is how committed and how capable the Politburo is to push them through.


1) The next wave of reform and policy making?
If we believe the theory that this program tries to pave the way for the next wave of reform, this is what it tells us
2) The Taiwan problem
  • The program stated that economist Friedrich List was instrumental in the unification of Germany in 19th century, in that he advocated unification by peace, not by force, and specifically through economic integration. Prussia created a common market without tariff before it could formally unify Germany. This was cleverly done through the mouth of a Ruetlingen University Professor (where List resided). Such strategy is already in place when China deals with the Taiwan problem

1) Videos websites (1-7, 8, 9, 10, 11-12) or bittorrent. (Server hjosted in the US, run by an exile pro-democracy activist Hu Ping), alternative host at Chinesenewsnet's Wan Runnan blog.
2) script is available in Wan Runnan' blog.
3) Discussions and comments by others (the most comprehensive collection so far), Selected translation by ESWN (ESWN seems to have only translated the first 2 pages, which are mostly negative comments, while the positive comments are on the next 2 pages of the webpage he translated)
4) My post yesterday
5) HK blog "MO's notebook"
6) Sina interview with Wang Jisi and Zhou Yan (executive editor, script writer)
7) people.com interview with Ren Xue-an, Editor of the series, Tang Zhongnan (President of Japan Study), Wang yiming(Deputy Director, Macro-economic Institute, DRC).
8) Mai Tianxu (one of the producers) interview on "compromise"
The quote of Wang Jisi and Qian Chengdan in the Finale

中国北京大学历史学系 教授 钱乘旦:


Qian (Professor, Beijing University; speaker in the Politburo seminar)

Britain was the very first nation to establish the modern nation system. Take for example, political systems such as the now familiar cabinet system, monarch constitution system, 2 party system, parliament system, etc., were first established in Britain. Such kind of political system ensure the long term stability and security of this nation, it was able to maintian the stable status for a very long period of time, so that it is beneficial to its economic development

中国北京大学国际关系学院 院长 王缉思:


Wang (Director of Institute for International Relations, Beijing University -- was said to be a key advisor to Hu Jintao on international affairs, esp to US)

When European immigrants arrived at the American continent, they were building a brand new nation on this new continent. This country has a supreme "constitution", under the "constitution" there is a complete set of legal system, through such a mechanism of power checking [judiciary, excutive and legislative], the productivity of the society was pushed forward.


These two key advisors to the programs did not say anything else in the Finale,
and they made explicitly clear what they thought regarding the connection of a "political system" to "economic development"! There is reason to believe that CCP leadership got it, and we are going to witness fundamental changes in China in the coming years, not immediately, but in 3-10 years, step by step, perhaps.



Sun Bin said...

one more interesting note: at the end it talks about exploration of space. it seems china is determined to not miss the opportunity in space exploration and the moon program is definitely on high priority, if that is the lesson the leadership learned about the Iberian powers.

Sun Bin said...

One of the producers finally made a statement that there is no state instruction behind the TV series. Wang Jisi also said he is only one of the opinion leaders interviewed in the series, not the brain behind it. (He is among half a dozen people officially listed as 'advisor' though)

Anonymous said...

Great post, sun bin. I'm downloading the series now.

Sun Bin said...

i think the videos have chinese subtitles as well, so it is watchable for people studied chinese as a second language.
the scripts are also now fully available in the internet (see links above).

(the guofeng link i watched them seem to be down now, i was lucky to have watched them over the thanksgiving weekend)

Anonymous said...

I think there was an emphasis on technology and the rule of law. This bodes well for future ip protections in China. Its message can be seen as to the Chinese, protecting IP is neccessary and patriotic for the Country to be great.

While watching the American episode, I thought they were comparing Hu with FDR and Teddy Rooselvelt. However, there was too much on government intervention as a positive for my tastes.

Sun Bin said...


i agree. the emphasis of government "lead" and "planning" is something that concerns me. i think great leading can also mean knowing when and what not to do.

when discussing about queen victoria, they did slipped in the message that victoria led by doing nothing and achieve great. but this was soon overwhelmed by the message that late-comers needs stronger lead, which although i don't disagree, i would still like to add that leading means knowing what decision to leave to the people/market as well.

nanheyangrouchuan said...

Those long term plans and realization s are all well and good, but the CCP just can't get past the idea that a future democratic, open china will not need constant CCP "shepherding" and that a federalist China is almost inevitable.

Sun Bin said...

according DRC's wang yimin, the lessons are 王一鸣:

Anonymous said...

Sun Bin,

I enjoyed reading your article, and I agree with what Dan (of the China Law Blog) says: that China's progress towards the development of democratic institutions and practices and the "rule of law" has been, up till now, generally a case of "two steps forward, one step back". Some China watchers do in fact believe that the country already is marching towards the establishment of a multi-party system though. "China will become a democracy around the year 2015," predicts Henry Rowen, who is Professor Emeritus of the Graduate School of Business. "China's grassroots progress toward democracy," he says, "is comparable to that which took place in the early 1970s in Taiwan, when per capita income reached about $2,500, similar to China's income today."

"Growing wealth," he points out, "is accompanied by increased education, the building of business and government institutions with some autonomy, and the formation of attitudes that enable democratic governments to survive when they have a chance at power. If China's economic growth continues at today's rates, it will reach mean incomes of $7,000 to $8,000 by 2015. Spain, Portugal, Chile and Argentina, in addition to Taiwan and South Korea, all made the transition to democracy while they were within this income range."

This is an interesting prediction, but I personally have some doubts, as I expressed in an article I wrote on my site on the nature of China's governance and society - if you're interested, you can find it at:

What is more essential, as you point out in your article Sun Bin, is that China first increases the autonomy of its media, and creates a generally more open society, and with a more refined legal system. I see plenty of evidence, as I explain in my article, that China is moving in this direction, and at a much greater pace than I think most Western observers realise.

Mark Anthony Jones

Anonymous said...

I'm a first time reader of your site. I've read a lot of discussion of this series in Chinese (for example http://group.hexun.com/cage/default.html ), and it's good to read something in English too.
Personally, I would be a little less optimistic. Here's what one poster has said on the above site:


If this series is supposed to forecast the way ahead, then what does an episode on the Soviet Union with no great famine, no reign of terror, no Soviet Empire or Imperial collapse, and no discussion of the end of Communism spell? Even Mao proclaimed Stalin to be only 70% good and 30% bad (the judgement that Deng was referring to when he made his own judgement of Mao). The Stalin of the series seems to me a lot more than only 70%. My feeling is that this was one of the key episodes in the series and to neglect it would be to neglect one of the key messages of the series.

Sun Bin said...


the USSR episode is only one of the 12 in total, we should focus on what they discuss not what they omit.

we are not trying to get a comprehensive report from a 40 minute program, and we could not care about 'political correctness' of 'balancing stalin's crimes'. after all, this is a CCTV program and there are still political sensitivities the producers need to watch out for.

there are some valid argument on the soviet model, and personally i disagree with the role of the 'gov't'. but this does represent the view in CCP and perahps in China in general, that a strong leadership is required to move through such diffciult time in a hostile environment. i do not think this changes the overal message a lot -- i.e. there are more objective (and non-ideological view) on history and lessons of history, and that they are surprisingly positive on the UK/US model (and in general positive on most foreign models).

p.s. the complain from the 'left' is that RGN omitted the crime of the European colonists pre-1900 century. so in this sense the producers are treating UK and USSR "equally and fairly".

p.s.2. i read the USSR comments, it was actually also translated by ESWN in a link i included.

Sun Bin said...

Now you can watch them on Youtube

Anonymous said...

hi. its pretty well known that the CCP is trying to make export in 'culture' at the top of the 'foreign propaganda' council's list. while the CCP might not have MADE the film, it's been subsidizing sales pitches for a good long while now. as in, the CCP officials have been instructed to go around looking for television producers and writers to "produce" so that foreigners will "buy Chinese" media. [you know, soap operas...etc...] Reading anything china-made from the last 5 years is like reading a propaganda leaflet with a whole new slogan. it's totally cool (weird) to see that sort of thing in our modern era. keep up the good work - your article was highly interesting - but its not a 'theory' - ITS THE TRUTH! The Chinese government wants to look like this big unagressive benevolent country - and you know - I hope it really IS.

Sun Bin said...

things are indeed evolving.
see recent essay by wen, and poem quote