When relations between China and the West frayed in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping gave guidance that set Beijing’s course for several decades. “Hide our capacities and bide our time, be good at maintaining a low profile and never claim leadership,” he urged. As Deng and his successors opened China up to the world and avoided international conflicts, they sparked an economic miracle that propelled hundreds of millions out of poverty.
A very different attitude increasingly prevails in Beijing. With China’s economy already larger than America’s by some measures, President Xi Jinping has moved away from his predecessors’ caution. While stifling dissent at home, he has harnessed China’s new might to pose challenges to the Western-led international order—an effort that is generating both a global pushback against Chinese influence and a policy debate inside China and abroad. The protests in Hong Kong that shut down its airport this week—spurred, in part, by local frustration over Beijing’s eroding of the “one country, two systems” pledge made by Deng in the 1980s—add a fresh threat to China’s economy and prestige.
Has Mr. Xi made a mistake in asserting greater world-power status for China to match its economic might? Should the country have waited another decade or two, biding its time until China’s leading edge in technology and global trade became unassailable?
China’s assertiveness predates Mr. Xi’s ascent to power in 2012. But the 66-year-old leader has turned this new nationalism into the hallmark of his presidency. As far back as his 2013 summit meeting with President Barack Obama in California, U.S. officials were surprised by what they understood as Mr. Xi’s vision to essentially divide the world into two spheres of influence, with China overseeing Asia in exchange for not challenging U.S. dominance elsewhere.
In a 2017 speech to the Communist Party Congress, Mr. Xi celebrated the fact that China “has stood up, grown rich and is becoming strong.” Beijing’s ultimate goal, he added, was to become a “global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence.”
Such a move away from China’s previous restraint was inevitable, argues Wang Huiyao, a counselor to China’s State Council, the body that unites China’s government ministers. The world has changed so much since Deng’s times, when China’s economy wasn’t even among the world’s top 10, that the “low profile” advice no longer makes sense, he said. “China is already big in size,” he added. “China’s influence and China’s economic power is there. You cannot hide that.”
‘It’s now politically correct to bash China.’ —Wang Huiyao, counselor to China’s State Council
Still, the ferocity of the global reaction to China’s new swagger has taken many Chinese officials by surprise. “It’s now politically correct to bash China,” added Mr. Wang, who also serves as president of the Center for China and Globalization in Beijing. “China didn’t say it will conquer the world. It said it is building a community of shared future for mankind. But somehow, the message didn’t get across, and there is quite a big backlash.”
In the U.S., resistance to China’s international expansion, trade practices and military moves—highlighted by Donald Trump in his 2016 campaign—has now solidified into a bipartisan consensus. Even as the two countries meet to discuss trade issues, the trade war has escalated in recent weeks as Beijing responded to new U.S. tariffs by banning the import of American agricultural products and Washington, angered by the devaluation of the yuan, labeled China a currency manipulator. Democratic and Republican congressional leaders have also expressed support for the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, warning Beijing against a violent crackdown.
In Europe, China is now seen less as a benign power pursuing stability and prosperity than as “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance,” as the European Union declared in March.
Meanwhile, in the developing world, controversies have grown around Mr. Xi’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which is meant to seed billions of dollars in Chinese investment across the globe. From Malaysia to the Maldives, politicians have won office partly by challenging the corruption and debt surrounding many Chinese projects.
“The transition from a low-profile international strategy to all-out assertiveness and activism was premature, and China was not really prepared to embark on such a dramatic transition,” said Li Mingjiang, coordinator of the China program at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
The great question raised by China’s new posture is whether it can navigate the shift in its relative power without spiraling into an outright confrontation with the U.S. Such a clash could handicap the world’s two largest economies—and, in the worst-case scenario now being openly discussed by policy makers on both sides of the Pacific, even throw Asia into a major war.
“The rise of China’s power is not just about glory, it is also destined to be risky,” said Zhu Feng, director of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University.
When Deng took over in 1978, China was emerging from the horrors of famine and the Cultural Revolution; the country had been isolated for decades. Jettisoning much of communist dogma, he urged the Chinese to get rich and worked to integrate the country into the global market. The economy soared, and many Western leaders assumed that, over time, China’s political system would open up too.
The 2008 financial crisis, which Beijing helped to alleviate by pumping liquidity into Western markets, shook such beliefs. The crisis convinced many in China’s establishment that the Western system was about to collapse—and that the time had come for Beijing to emerge from the shadows and propose an alternative.
“In 2008, socialism with Chinese characteristics saved capitalism,” said Hu Angang, dean of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing and an influential voice in China’s hawkish policy circles. “Before 2008, many Chinese economists saw the U.S. as the best model for macroeconomic regulation. But the financial crisis broke their perceptions.”
In parallel with a popular crackdown on widespread corruption, Mr. Xi has reasserted Communist Party control over China’s society and economy, including private enterprises. He has eliminated term limits for his own rule, accelerated China’s military buildup and authorized the draconian repression of Muslims in the western Xinjiang region.
Criticism of Mr. Xi’s harder line is rare in China’s tightly controlled press and censored social media. But many influential liberal voices in the country’s foreign-policy establishment, as well as among its business elites, continue to warn of the perils ahead—and to call for a course correction.
“China should now use a new type of taking a low profile, should use at least five-six years to make a sufficient strategic retrenchment,” said Shi Yinhong, another adviser to the State Council and a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “China, together with its strong achievements, jumped too fast and too quickly on the strategic front.” Deng Xiaoping’s elderly son, Deng Pufang, made a similar point in a November speech, warning that China “should keep a sober mind and know our own place.”
How much Mr. Xi is listening to advice to slow down isn’t clear. “Xi Jinping has a tight grip of control over the Chinese system, but he has to be attentive,” said Ryan Hass, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who worked on China policy at the National Security Council from 2013-17. “There is definitely grumbling and some discontent about the direction where China is headed at the moment. I don’t think it has yet reached the point where it will compel the leadership to adjust the direction where they are headed, but it is not insignificant.”
The voices of doves in China’s policy community, state-run think tanks and private businesses are at least partially offset by the cries of nationalist hawks. The latter group includes retired generals who have recently urged Beijing to take an even more aggressive approach, including invading Taiwan and sinking U.S. aircraft carriers. In a June speech at a conference attended by his U.S. counterpart, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe vowed that Beijing wouldn’t succumb to American pressure. “The more severe the pressure and difficulties are, the stronger and braver the Chinese people become. Adversity only brings our nation greater solidarity and strength,” Gen. Wei said. “As for what the general public of China says these days: A talk? Welcome. A fight? Ready. Bully us? No way.”
As trade tensions with Washington intensified this summer, many editorials in Beijing’s government publications zeroed in on so-called “capitulators” who argue for a softer stance toward the U.S. and a less assertive foreign policy, accusing them of lacking faith in China’s abilities and of betraying the country’s national interests. “Yes, the elites are being cautious—but if you talk to people on the street, that’s very different,” a senior Chinese military official said. “They want more.”
But China’s power has limits. The Chinese military, while rapidly modernizing, lacks combat experience. The new, more muscular posture adopted by China’s diplomatic service has led to several blunders; recent attempts by Chinese embassies from Moscow to Rome to bully local media backfired badly. And despite historic strides in development—including new airports, railroads and highways that often put America’s decaying infrastructure to shame—China remains a middle-income country, with a per capita GDP roughly the same as Mexico’s.
Moreover, while China is a leader in some industries of the future, such as 5G and artificial intelligence, the country remains dependent on technology flows from the U.S. and other Western countries. Recent measures taken by Washington and its allies against two Chinese telecommunications firms, Huawei Technologies Co. and ZTE Corp. , have fostered fears that the West seeks to choke off China’s path to further technological advances.
“China needs reasonable space for its development,” said Ni Jianjun of CICIR, a think tank affiliated with China’s Ministry of State Security. “China initially hoped to find a comfortable spot in the existing international system, but it is finding it to be more and more difficult, with more and more resistance.”
Many countries are suspicious of China’s intentions because Beijing has been deliberately vague about how it sees its new role in the world. China gives assurances about “win-win” cooperation and its commitment to avoiding hegemony even as it increasingly tries to intimidate smaller countries.
‘China has never been a world leader. It’s a totally new challenge for China.’ —Cheng Xiaohe, Renmin University
“China isn’t a world leader. China has never been a world leader. It’s a totally new challenge for China,” said Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international studies at Renmin University. “There is a number of things China needs to think about: whether the international community or at least the majority of it welcomes China’s leadership, and whether China’s political system can sustain world leadership.”
Throughout history, China’s relationship with the world—when the country wasn’t enduring foreign invasions itself—was often that of a central empire surrounded by friendly vassal states, which lived by their own rules as long as they paid tribute and complied with China’s aims. In some ways, this seems to be Beijing’s aspiration today, at least when it comes to China’s own neighborhood.
“China is not seeking to change the way Australia or Britain is governed. What it wants is