The Influence of Ideology

China Table of Contents

An important influence on Chinese foreign policy that has especially affected China's interpretations of world events has been ideology, both Marxist-Leninist and Maoist. The ideological components of China's foreign policy, whose influence has varied over time, have included a belief that conflict and struggle are inevitable; a focus on opposing imperialism; the determination to advance communism throughout the world, especially through the Chinese model; and the Maoist concept of responding with flexibility while adhering to fundamental principles.

One of the most basic aspects of China's ideological worldview has been the assumption that conflict, though not necessarily military conflict, is omnipresent in the world. According to Marxist-Leninist analysis, all historical development is the result of a process of struggle, between classes within a nation, between nations themselves, or between broader forces such as socialism and imperialism. A basic tenet of Chinese leaders holds that the international situation is best understood in terms of the "principal contradictions" of the time. Once these contradictions are understood, they can be exploited in order to, as Mao said, "win over the many, oppose the few, and crush our enemies one by one." China has amplified the Leninist policy of uniting with some forces in order to oppose others more effectively in a united front. Chinese leaders have urged the formation of various united fronts as they have perceived the contradictions in the world to change over time.

Perhaps because of the belief in struggle as necessary for progress, for most of its history after 1949 China considered world war inevitable. This changed in the 1980s, when Chinese leaders began to say that the forces for peace in the world had become greater than the forces for war. One reason for growing world stability was seen in "multipolarization," that is, the growth of additional forces, such as the Third World and Europe, to counterbalance the tension between the United States and the Soviet Union. China's description of world events as a struggle between opposing forces, however, remained unchanged.

Opposition to imperialism--domination by foreign powers--is another major ideological component of Chinese foreign policy. The Leninist emphasis on the struggle against imperialism made sense to Chinese leaders, whose nationalism had evolved in part in reaction to China's exploitation by foreign powers during the nineteenth century. Although opposition to imperialism and hegemony has remained a constant, the specific target of the opposition has changed since 1949. In somewhat oversimplified terms, China focused on opposing United States imperialism in the 1950s; on opposing collusion between United States imperialism and Soviet revisionism in the 1960s; on combating Soviet social-imperialism or hegemony in the 1970s; and on opposing hegemony by either superpower in the 1980s.

The extent of China's determination to advance communism throughout the world is another component of its foreign policy that has fluctuated since 1949. In the early 1950s and during the 1960s, Chinese leaders called for worldwide armed struggle against colonialism and "reactionary" governments. China supplied revolutionary groups with rhetorical and, in some cases, material support. Central to support for leftist movements was the idea that they should take China as a model in their struggle for national liberation. Chinese leaders expressed the belief that China's experience was directly applicable to the circumstances in many other countries, but they also stressed the importance of each country's suiting its revolution to its own conditions--creating ambiguity about China's position on "exporting" revolution. For most of the time since 1949, China's dedication to encouraging revolution abroad has appeared to receive a lower priority than other foreign policy goals.

Militancy and support for worldwide revolution peaked during the Cultural Revolution, when China's outlook on liberation struggles seemed to take its cue from Lin Biao's famous 1965 essay "Long Live the Victory of People's War!" This essay predicted that the underdeveloped countries of the world would surround and overpower the industrial nations and create a new communist world order. As a result of alleged Chinese involvement in subversive activities in Indonesia and several African countries in the late 1960s, those nations broke off diplomatic relations with Beijing.

By the 1980s China had lessened or discontinued its support for most of the revolutionary and liberation movements around the world, prominent exceptions being the Palestine Liberation Organization and resistance fighters in Cambodia and Afghanistan. Despite its shift toward cultivating state-to-state relations with established governments, many other countries continued to be suspicious of China's intentions. Especially in Asia, where Beijing previously supported many local communist parties, China's image as a radical power intent on fomenting world revolution continued to affect the conduct of its foreign relations into the late 1980s.

One of the major characteristics of Chinese foreign policy since 1949 has been its claim of consistently adhering to principles while particular interpretations and policies have changed dramatically. A statement by Mao Zedong seems to summarize this apparent contradiction: "We should be firm in principle; we should also have all flexibility permissible and necessary for carrying out our principles." Although claiming that, on the whole, China has never deviated from such underlying principles as independence and safeguarding peace, Chinese leaders have made major shifts in foreign policy based on their pragmatic assessment of goals and the international situation. Aiding this interpretation of the primacy of principles in Chinese foreign policy has been the emphasis on long-term goals. According to Chinese leaders, China has pursued a long-term strategy is "definitely not swayed by expediency or anybody's instigation or provocation." In keeping with the view of Chinese foreign policy as constant and unvarying, Chinese pronouncements often describe their policy with words such as "always" and "never."

An example of how certain principles have provided a framework of continuity for Chinese foreign policy since 1949 is found in the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence embodied in an agreement signed by China and India in 1954. The five principles played an important role in the mid-1950s, when China began to cultivate the friendship of newly independent nations of Asia and Africa. By the time of the Cultural Revolution, however, China was involved in acrimonious disputes with many of these same nations, and their relations could have been described as anything but "peacefully coexistent." The Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence were reemphasized in the 1980s, were considered the basis for relations with all nations regardless of their social systems or ideology, and were made a part of the 1982 party constitution.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress