The Awakening of a Lion: The Three Tenets of Chinese Power

The Chinese Flag in Shanghai

Matthew Mealin-Howlett

Matthew Mealin-Howlett recently completed a War Studies MA at King’s College London, and is currently awaiting the result. His primary areas of interest include British foreign/security policy, China, Afghanistan, and the relationship between politics and war.

3rd November 2021

Gaston Laborde


“Napoleon Bonaparte once said that China ‘is a sleeping lion and when China wakes up, the world will shake’. In fact, the lion of China has awoken, but what the world sees now, is a peaceful, amiable, civilised lion.”

Xi Jinping, 2014


Following the ascension of Deng Xiaoping to ‘Paramount Leader’ of the People’s Republic of China in 1978, the country has undergone a rise to prominence on a seismic scale, with the current head, Xi Jinping, launching China to the forefront of the global stage. This rise (which will be briefly addressed later) has left many around the world in awe; it has also left many incredibly anxious on what this rise might mean. This is not what this article is about. The fact that many Western discourses approach China with narrow apprehension on what its seemingly continuous rise will mean for the West in the future, is rather misguided. In reality, China is not rising as such; it has risen. The point of this article is to address the main tenets of this novel global power, and why understanding them are useful to us in the West. So, onto the matter at hand, Xi’s bold statement used at the beginning of this article exerts three themes: historical relevance to Chinese power, China as a force for ‘peace’, and the use of the analogy of an awakening lion to suggest the grandeur of contemporary China. These three themes roughly translate into three main tenets of Chinese power, as follows.


The first tenet is Historical Authority. This feature can be summed up with just two Mandarin characters: 中国, Zhōngguó. This is the Mandarin for ‘China’; however, its literal translation is ‘Middle Kingdom’. This is a reference to the periods of history where China enjoyed superpower status (in its known world) to the point it considered itself the centre of civilisation. Such periods include the Han Dynasty (202BC-220AD) – known for cultivating great riches in its westward trade along the Silk Road or the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644AD) – with its far-reaching tributary system, to name just two. In terms of Chinese historical pride, perhaps the jewel in the crown was the Ming-era treasure voyages commanded by Admiral Zheng He – which saw enormous fleets venture to foreign lands; stretching from Southeast Asia to the Arabian Peninsula.


This may seem a digression from the topic, but this historical authority is relevant. This is because the treasured ‘Middle Kingdom’ identity (associated with the historic tributary systems and far-reaching trade) is present in China’s current Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The BRI project is essentially an ambitious attempt to build up global infrastructure (both physical and digital) and establish far-reaching trade links, with all roads leading back to Beijing. This is clearly reminiscent of periods of Chinese history such as the Han and Ming Dynasties, as China once again sees itself as a centre of power and trade. This is added to by the strong geographic resemblance of the BRI’s trade links with that of its historical predecessors (see maps of the Ancient Silk Road, Zheng He’s Treasure Voyages and the modern BRI project). The BRI project, as well as constant reminders of China’s rich history from modern leaders (such as Hu Jintao and Xi), shows that history plays an important role in modern Chinese power.


On to the second tenet: Stability. This feature is summarised by Xi’s predecessor – Hu Jintao – through his push for a ‘harmonious world’. Although talk of this has been toned down by Xi (and perhaps replaced by his commitment to his nationalistic ‘Chinese Dream’), he has somewhat continued this in his apparent wish for a new model of major power relations between China and the US. This, as China expert Kerry Brown expresses (Brown, 2017), has the purpose of preventing the US and China from falling victim to Thucydides’ Trap; a concept referring to the 5th century BC Peloponnesian War, in which war was deemed inevitable between the hegemonic Sparta and Athens – a novel powerhouse in the Aegean. One can certainly draw parallels to US-China relations today, suggesting Xi’s push for the recalibrating of US-China relations is a way to avoid the same destructive fate that fell upon Sparta and Athens in the 5th century BC. Make of this what you will, but it certainly has some plausibility – to paraphrase the renowned scholar Wang Jisi, China’s success depends heavily on global stability. From this, it stands to reason that China has everything to lose in war and instability; yet, has everything to gain in peace and stability. However, this being said, China’s actions in the South and East China Seas and its aggressive Wolf Warrior diplomacy urges many to rightly call this into question.


Now we come to the final tenet, Prosperity. This has been key since Deng’s rise to power, and also throughout his successors Jiang Zemin’s and Hu Jintao’s tenures. Each of these leaders launched campaigns of: revolutionising China’s economy with ‘Four Modernisations’, a globalising ‘go-out strategy’ and an apparent push for mutual prosperity with ‘win-win diplomacy’, respectively.  Over these periods, China underwent rapid technological innovation and economic growth; perhaps most notably following China’s entry into the World Trade Organisation in 2001 – after which its economy quadrupled in size by 2012 (Brown, 2017). This is chronologically convenient as it brings us on to Xi’s rise to ‘Paramount Leader’ in the same year. From then on, Xi harnessed China’s success through programmes such as the BRI and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), to globalise (in Xi’s words of rather arrogant exceptionalism in his 2017 Party Congress address) ‘Chinese Wisdom’.


This perceived ‘Chinese Wisdom’ has become increasingly important since the Trump administration’s crusades on globalisation and multilateralism – as it somewhat left China, with Xi at the helm, the guarantor of globalisation and free trade. This highlights the importance of this tenet of Chinese power: China’s prosperity has not only made it rich and allowed it to invest across the world, but it has essentially catapulted the country into a global leadership position.


So, what does the understanding of these three tenets of Chinese power bring? Well, it helps us in the West understand China. It helps us understand its motivations and national objectives. China’s Historical Authority helps us understand why it is so important to Chinese that their nation be a centre of power and trade. The value China places on Stability helps us see that it does not want a world characterised by belligerence and volatility. The role Prosperity plays within Chinese power, both at home and abroad, shows us that China sees itself as a world leader in the global economy. From this understanding, we can navigate our competition and cooperation in a more informed manner; allowing us to be assertive yet empathetic when dealing with China.


In terms of contemporary issues, this understanding can be applied to the South China Sea conundrum. China’s domineering behaviour in this disputed area is well explained by its perceived Historical Authority over its neighbours; as a result of its historical dominance of the region. However, whilst China’s perceived entitlement to this disputed sea may intimidate its neighbours and the international community, there is room for resistance on this. China’s pursuit of Stability and Prosperity mean that the West has a lot of breathing space for competing with China on its expansion in the South China Sea. This is because a war, big or small, in the South China Sea – in which 80% of the world’s shipping passes – would be incredibly detrimental to China’s economy and regional stability. Appreciating this allows the West to adopt a non-belligerent, yet assertive stance; in which we empathise why China acts in the way it does in the South China Sea, but still stand firm beside our partners in the Indo-Pacific.


As this article has addressed, the core tenets of Chinese power are its perceived Historical Authority, underpinned by its ‘Middle Kingdom’ identity; its Stability, underpinned by its apparent push for a ‘harmonious world’ and a new model of major power relations; and its Prosperity, underpinned by various values of modernising and expanding its economy, and more currently, its newfound role in globalising this prosperity. Understanding these three tenets of Chinese power helps us appreciate the contexts and motivations of this novel global power, and, in turn, will allow us to compete and/or cooperate with China in a more informed and productive manner.




Bibliography and Further Reading

Brown, K. (2017) China’s Foreign Policy Since 2012: A Question of Communication and Clarity, China Quarterly of International Strategic Studies, 3(3), 325-342.  [Please note that this journal article is free to access for all].

Brown, K. (2017a) Chinas World: What Does China Want? London; New York, NY: Bloomsbury Publishing PLC

Economy, E. (2018) The Third Revolution: Xi Jinping and the New Chinese State. New York, NY: Oxford University Press

Khan, S.W. (2018) Haunted by Chaos: China’s Grand Strategy From Mao Zedong to Xi Jinping. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press

Xuetong, Y. (2011) Ancient Chinese Thought, Modern Chinese Power, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

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