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World China turns to proverbs for legitimacy as it seeks greater global role

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi speaks to the media in Beijing on March 8, 2018.


From the perspective of China's top diplomats, the world has suddenly grown hostile.

Foreign leaders are publicly pushing back at suspicions of Chinese influence. Other countries are blocking Chinese investment. International commentators have disparaged China's wielding of "sharp power" and its backslide into imperial governance as its President dispatches with term limits. The White House looks ready to set off a trade war.

On Thursday, amid continuing meetings of China's rubber-stamp parliament, Foreign Minister Wang Yi spent two hours shooting back.

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In the event of a trade war with the United States, China "will make a justified and necessary response," he said.

But it was a tepid warning, tempered by lessons from the past and hopes that things will turn out differently, as Mr. Wang strikes a conciliatory new tone for China.

"History teaches that a trade war is never the right solution," he said. And the largest economies on earth "must bear in mind not just the interest of our own people, but also the well-being of the world."

Mr. Wang has earned a reputation for fighting fire with fury. In Ottawa in 2016, he railed at a Canadian journalist who asked about human rights in China. In 2017, in front of those gathered for his annual spring meeting with the press in Beijing, he called on the European Union to grow up, suggested Taiwan had "no future" and positioned China as a mediator to help solve problems between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A year later, Mr. Wang was back on the podium Thursday. This time, though, he tried his best to use smile over snarl – to be a sage, not a scold. He was not entirely successfully, snipping at a Japanese reporter to work on his Chinese language skills and sneering at Japanese sympathizers as "the scumbags of China."

But Mr. Wang's overarching aim was to soothe, an ambition perhaps most evident in the string of Chinese proverbs and allusions he employed.

"An ancient Chinese classic teaches that when justice prevails, the world will be one community," he said at one point.

There were many others: "not even mountains or oceans can separate those with a shared goal." And: "the Chinese dragon and the Indian elephant must not fight each other, but dance with each other." And: "The party that has locked the door must unlock it." And: "Of course it takes more than one cold day to freeze three feet of ice." And: "green hills cannot stop the river flowing to the vast ocean."

It was language designed to cast China as possessed of the depth and grounding to fashion calm out of global chaos.

"Always in Chinese intellectual discourse, the skillful and appropriate use of idioms is a mark of erudition," said David Moser, a Chinese studies scholar and author of A Billion Voices: China's Search for a Common Language. Idioms are seen as possessing "a kind of mythic force, filled with wisdom."

Indeed, one of the modern Chinese terms is "China wisdom," words meant to demonstrate how Beijing's approach to its own governance and to foreign affairs alike draws on millenniums of careful philosophical consideration.

One of Mr. Wang's sayings, a call to "never forget why you started, and you can accomplish your mission," is a formulation that echoes Tang dynasty poetry and Buddhist philosophy. It is plastered on billboards across China today. Mr. Wang's boss, President Xi Jinping, has layered his speech with classical references, which he has occasionally mangled. But the point is to "bolster his legitimacy," Mr. Moser said, and to "link the current regime with the imperial past."

"This is part of the new strategy to bring back Confucius, bring back traditional Chinese values and to cement the association of the modern party with the 5,000-year Chinese history."

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It comes at a time China is taking a more interventionist global role, motivated by its own economic interests and a desire to assert itself as an equal to the United States. China is building overseas military assets and has actively sought to mediate in difficult situations involving Myanmar, North Korea, the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mr. Wang acknowledged the change, saying "We are ready to play our part. Indeed, the world expects no less from us."

But, he said, "in helping to settle various flashpoints, we follow a distinctly Chinese approach," one "rooted in traditional Chinese culture."

He was similarly dulcet-toned over concerns about China's use of "sharp power" to achieve its aims. "Those who do not have bias or practise double standards will see in China not a threat, but plenty of opportunities," he said. China's revitalization is "unstoppable," he said, but "it has no need or intention to displace America."

He gave as an example China's Belt and Road Initiative, a sweeping plan to export China's capital, corporate capacity and development model. "There is no winner takes all," he said.

"China will put the greater good before its self-interest and oppose the practice of the big and strong bullying the small and weak," he added.

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There is evidence to the contrary. China has used its economic might to punish foreign critics and attempt to bend smaller countries to its will. In the South China Sea, which Beijing once said it "did not intend" to militarize, China has built reinforced hangars big enough for bombers, installed missile launch sites and dispatched troop transport ships to islands of its own creation, in territory claimed by other countries.

China's Belt and Road Initiative, too, does not involve an egalitarian spreading of rewards. A January report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that 89 per cent of contractors on Belt and Road-related projects are Chinese; only 7.6 per cent were local.

Nonetheless, China's attempts to project thoughtful competence have succeeded in at least one way: the country commands growing global respect. A recent Gallup poll showed that 53 per cent of Americans now have a favourable opinion of China, the highest since the massacre at Tiananmen Square.

In Canada, too, half of those surveyed by the Asia Pacific Foundation support strengthening economic ties with China, while two-thirds believe Beijing is ready to be a global leader on economic matters.

Still, at least one critic urged caution about Beijing's new tone. In fact, human rights activist Yaxue Cao had her own idiom at the ready: "mouth honey, belly sword" – which means to play a double game.

"It's on display in China's foreign relations all the time," Ms. Cao said. "With the U.S., China is harsh and unreasonable at one moment, and soft and reconciliatory at another, all depending on what serves its immediate interests best."

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China's Foreign Minister said Beijing will respond as necessary in the event of a trade war with the United States, and warned such a war would only harm all sides. Ryan Brooks reports. Reuters
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