New Generation, New Voices: Debating China's International Future

August 13-14, 1999
Cartwright Hotel on Union Square
San Francisco, California

Conference Description

Managing China's power ascension on the global stage poses a challenge for both the Chinese and the international community. To defuse the China threat theory, Chinese leaders have repeatedly promised that China would not seek hegemony (ba quan) even when it has the wherewithal to do so.

In the United States, the debate over how to deal with China has rested on shaky conceptual ground. Advocates of engagement are not persuasive in demonstrating why and how engagement will work. They fail to convince skeptics (and themselves) why engaging China can ensure this round of power transition to end in peace, not a hegemonic power. Failure to answer this question opens them to being accused of appeasement.

Will China never pursue hegemony as it avowedly claims? Will China act responsibly in exercising its growing power? How are the Chinese policy and intellectual elite wrestling with issues of power and responsibility in their nation's foreign policy? These are doubtless critical issues that directly bear on global peace and security as the world enters the next millennium.

To seek an answer to these questions, this Stanley Foundation project will invite China's leading younger-generation policy scholars and think tankers to meet with their counterparts in the United States to examine the debate within China on China's rise and its international future.

Three reasons would suffice to highlight the importance of this meeting. First, the outside world still treats China as a unitary actor, ignoring the multiple voices and debates within China's policy establishment. Little attention has been paid to the fact that recently Chinese leaders have themselves exhorted Chinese policy scholars to be objective and innovative when analyzing foreign affairs.

Second, in the 1990s, unsatisfied with simply embracing Western theories, a small number of Chinese scholars have committed themselves to their own theory-building. But while the founts of China's rich historical legacies remain untapped, official Marxist ideology is rendered irrelevant. As a result, the Chinese international relations' thinkers face seemingly insurmountable obstacles to carve out their own route to theory. They continue to debate over whether and how much "Chinese characteristics" should be brought to bear in their search for an international theory. These debates about "theory" reflect uncertainties in China's national identity, worldview, and foreign policy paradigm. Unfortunately the full spate of new thinking, alternative perspectives, and contending views has not been systematically introduced to the policy and scholarly community in the United States.

Third, in the United States, the debate over China has rested on shifting intellectual foundation and has not adequately taken into consideration China's own domestic debate over its international future. The poverty of the China debate in the United States calls for such a project. With this intellectual engagement, hopefully both sides, Chinese and American, will have a better understanding as to how to interact with each other such that China's rise becomes an opportunity, not a threat.