A Comparative Study: Chinese Foreign
Policies under Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping
The 20th century has witnessed China’s
rise from a weak, economically backward country to an important actor in the
international system. In 1949, Mao Zedong attempted to break the bipolar system
and make China an independent and important strategic power. The reform and
opening to the outside world policy program, also known as China’s second
revolution, initiated by Deng Xiaoping in late 1978, laid the foundation for
China’s spectacular economic growth and enabled it to become an effective actor
in the international system.
view of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European bloc in the
late 1980s and early 1990s, a rising China has become more significant yet more
vulnerable, as the US emerged as the sole superpower in the post-Cold War era.
Talks about the so-called China Threat in fact reflect a recognition of China
as an emerging great power.
While Xi Jinping has been considered as
China’s most powerful leader since Mao Zedong after a new body of political
thought carrying his name was added to the Communist party’s constitution. Xi
Jinping was the son of Xi Zhongxun, a veteran revolutionary of the CCP and former
vice premier of the State Council. 1
This paper will introduce and compare
foreign policies of China under Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping from two
perspectives: difference in international systems and policy orientations.
Policies during Mao era
In the era of Mao Zedong, the focous of
Chinese foreign relations strategy shifted between the Soviet Union and the
???yibiandao (leaning to one side) strategy
From the founding of the PRC in 1949 to
the end of the 1950s, the basic characteristics of Chinese foreign policy was
that China struggled against a US-led imperialist camp through the Sino-Soviet
alliance established in the 1950s. China signed the Sino-Soviet Treaty of
Friendship in February 1950. The leaning to one side strategy laid out the
basic structure of Chinese foreign relations strategy in the 1950s: cooperating
with the Soviet Union to struggle against the US, thus positioning China as a
key member of the socialist bloc against the imperialist camp in the bipolar
Cold War era. The leaning to one side strategy did not mean that China would lose
its independence and become a satellite state of the Soviet Union. As a matter
of fact, the leaning to one side was just a strategy for survival, which was to
guarantee China?s security, sovereignty and independence as it was in no
position to deter the US alone. In many
ways, the leaning to one side strategy was a security-oriented strategy with a
??????liangge quantou daren (fighting with two
In the 1960s, China adopted an
anti-imperialist (US) and antirevisionist (Soviet Union) international united
front strategy which was known domestically as the liangge daren strategy, or
the liangtiao xian (two united fronts) strategy, or the shijie geming (world
revolution) strategy. The Sino-Soviet split, as well as the Sino-American
confrontation, led to the adoption of this strategy by the Chinese leadership.
By the end of the 1950s, Nikita Krushchev, the Soviet leader, was perceived to
be ready to cooperate with the US to control the world and impose many
unreasonable demands on China?s sovereignty. When Mao Zedong and other Chinese
leaders opposed the Soviet stand, Moscow then took a number of steps to
threaten China politically, economically and militarily. As a result, the
relationship between China and the Soviet Union sharply deteriorated. On the
other hand, the Sino-American confrontation had not shown any signs of
Under such circumstances, the fighting
with two fists strategy pushed China to confront the two superpowers at the
???yitiaoxian (one united front) strategy
In view of the deterioration of
Sino-Soviet relations, especially the armed conflicts along the Sino-Soviet
border in 1969, the Chinese leadership realized that China’s biggest threat came
from the north. China’s very survival was at stake, and China had to change its
fighting with the two fists strategy to escape from this strategically
disadvantageous position. In preparation for the increasing military threats
from the Soviet Union, Mao Zedong called for preparation for war, for famine
and for the people,” while looking for allies to deter the Soviet Union.
The best choice obviously was the US, the only country that could stand up to
the Soviet militarily. Hence China had to improve its relations with the US. As
a result, Mao declared that: “We must win over one of the two superpowers,
never fight with two fists, we can take advantage of the contradiction between
the two superpowers, and that is our policy.”2
Based on the common interest of deterring
the Soviet Union, China and US normalized their relations in February 1972. China
greatly benefited from the yitiaoxian strategy. Not only had China realized its
security benefits, but the Sino-US rapprochement also promoted China”s
relations with many other countries, especially Western countries. As a result, China emerged from its isolation
to the world community and laid a solid foundation for the next phase of
In summary, the goals of Chinese foreign
relations strategies under Mao may be listed as follows: 1) to safeguard
national security; 2) to guarantee China’s hard-won state sovereignty and
territorial integrity; and 3) to enhance China’s international status. In this
sense, the foreign relations strategies under Mao displayed caution and
pragmatism, for they were basically for survival and were security oriented
Xiaoping’s reform and foreign policies under Xi Jinping admininstration
Chinese foreign relations strategies
under Deng covered both the Cold War and the post-Cold War era, during which
China had a broad agenda including economic construction and opening to the
outside world, national reunification, securing global and regional security,
and the establishment of a new political and economic order.
After Deng Xiaoping’s economic reform
starting from the 1980s, for nearly three decades, China’s annual GDP rose by
more than 10 percent, while now, according to some conservative estimates, it
has dropped to just 5 percent. Given the lack of the former economic success
that somehow substantiated the legitimacy of the Party’s staying in power, Xi
Jinping will have to place a stake on new mechanisms to ensure the loyalty of
the population. Beijing has made a choice in favor of nationalism and even
building Xi’s cult of personality.
Chinese leaders have long bemoaned their
country’s “Century of Humiliation,” which spans from China’s 1839 defeat in the
Opium Wars to the birth of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Xi promised
to achieve the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” and restore China to
its rightful great power status by 2049 — the centennial of the PRC’s founding.
speech on the 19th Party Congress announced China’s renewed focus on “global
combat capabilities” and declared a new “era that will see China move closer to
the center of the world” stage.
Launched in 2013, the One Belt One Road
Initiative (OBOR or BRI) is a Chinese foreign policy of a transnational
economic belt. The scale of the initiative is astonishing for it is so far the
largest of its kind launched by one single country. The OBOR is consisted of two
parts: The Silk Road Economic Belt, historically it was a route for ancient
China to communicate and trade with Central Asia and the Middle East over 2000
years ago, with the first record of the Silk Road can be dated from Han
dynasty, when emperor Wudi send Zhang Qian from west China to the Middle East.
Another segment is the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which is a maritime
route that goes around Southeast Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Horn of
Africa. In summary, more than two thirds of world population and more than one
third of global economic output will be involved in the initiative, and could
involve Chinese investments that total up to $4 trillion.
But despite the huge economic influence
of the BRI, the initiative was described as a “response” to the new
geopolitical situation marked by the U.S. “rebalance to Asia,” Japan’s
accelerated “steps toward normalization,” India’s rapid economic growth, and
increasing worries toward a stronger China among China’s “neighboring Asian
countries.” From this geopolitical
perspective, the One Belt, One Road initiative can be seen as a new kind of
“strategy” designed to support the larger effort announced by Xi Jinping, to
strengthen Beijing’s periphery diplomacy and create a “new type of major
From a foreign relations perspective,
Under Xi China has taken a more critical stance on North Korea, while improving
relationships with South Korea. China-Japan relations became worse under Xi’s
administration and there’s still a territeorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu
islands. Xi Jinping called the China–US relations in the contemporary world a
“new type of great-power relations”, and he said, “If China and the
United States are in confrontation, it would surely spell disaster for both
countries”. Xi has cultivated stronger relations with Russia, particularly in
the wake of the Ukraine crisis of 2014, and Xi seems to have developed a strong
personal relationship with Putin, given the fact that they are both viewed as
strong leaders with a nationalist orientation.
In conclusion, goals of Chinese foreign
relations strategies under Xi Jinping are mostly economic-oriented, and could
represent a bold attempt to be actively engaged in the construction of new
global economic and financial institutions, which can promote the establishment
of the new international political and economic order. From a security
perspective, Xi Jinping’s policies project a more nationalistic and assertive
China on the world stage.
of International Orders
During Mao era, China was among one
of the less developed countries in the world, especially economically. Beginning
in the early 1950s economic planning was introduced in China that was modeled
after the planning system of the Soviet Union. It was in 1978 that China
started to abandon the planning system gradually and return to a more market-oriented
economy and now it has become the second largest economy in the world.
According to prediction, it will become the world’s largest economy succeeding the
U.S. in the 2030s.
Based on data from China Data Online (All China Data Center, 2011).
China’s nineteenth and early twentieth century
was a long and humiliating history for the Chinese people. There were a whole
series of internal rebellions which were difficult and costly to suppress and
there were domestic and invading wars into China launched by the Japanese. China
had been the world’s biggest economy for nearly two millennia, but in the 1890s
this position was taken by the United States. The record under the various
Republican regimes (1912–49) was also dismal. Chinese GDP per capita was lower
in 1952 than in 1820, in stark contrast with experience elsewhere in the world
economy. China’s share of world GDP fell from a third to one twentieth. Its
real per capita income fell from parity to a quarter of the world average.3
The establishment of the People’s
Republic marked a sharp change in China’s political elite and mode of
governance. The degree of central control was much greater than under the Qing
dynasty or the KMT. During the Cold War, the world was under a bipolar
international system, with two superpowers, which were the United States and
the Soviet Union. Therefore, China during the Maoist era had to stand with the
Soviet Union in order to defend itself.
In contrast, China under Xi Jinping’s
rule is now the second largest economy in the world, though the GDP growth
slowed down after Xi’s coming to power in 2013, it still remains over 6%
annually, which is still relatively high compared to developed economies such
as the US and Japan. Nowadays, China is playing the role of a “superpower” on
the international stage, which is completely different from the Maoist era.
From a perspective of policy
orientation, it is obvious that Mao’s foreign policies were mainly
security-oriented due to the bipolar international system, with a great emphasize
of communist ideology. Mao was a revolutionary figure, which means that
ideology was one of the significant factors for the legitimacy of him and the
Communist Party. From 1949 to the early 1970s, his policies were basically strategy
and ideology oriented, but from 1972, since the normalization of the US-China
relations, there was some subtle transformation within his policy. One example
was the yitiaoxian strategy, which was strategy-oriented, but not
On the other hand, after Deng Xiaoping’s
reform in China starting from 1978, ideology was no longer a barrier for China
to develop its economy. For Xi Jinping, though some strategic reasons still
influence his policy-making process, such as the Sino-Russian ally against the
US, but his foreign policy priorities such as FTAs, the One Belt One Road
Initiative, and the Asian Development Bank, even focus on economic development
more than ever.
In conclusion, although similarities can
be found in both Mao and Xi’s personalities, for they were both leaders who
believe they could control China through power, and thus increase the domestic
pressure, it is obvious that their foreign policy priorities differ on the
issue of economic development, due to different international systems and
1. Zhiyue BO (2012) China’ Fifth Generation
Leadership: Characteristics and Policies. China: pp. 7-13.
Wankun Franklin. 1998. China’s foreign relations strategies under Mao and Deng:
a systematic comparative analysis. Hong Kong: Dept. of Public and Social
Administration, City University of Hong Kong.
3. Maddison, Angus. Chinese economic
performance in the long run. Paris: OECD, 2007.
1 Zhiyue BO (2012) China’ Fifth Generation
Leadership: Characteristics and Policies. China: pp. 7-13.
2 Zhang, Wankun Franklin. 1998. China’s
foreign relations strategies under Mao and Deng: a systematic comparative
analysis. Hong Kong: Dept. of Public and Social Administration, City University
of Hong Kong.
3 Maddison, Angus. Chinese economic
performance in the long run. Paris: OECD, 2007.