“More ‘doing’ required”: Ding Gang brings the taoguang-yanghui debate to the South China Sea

Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping Vol III, which contains the key injunction to yousuo zuowei (“take some actions”), but not its long-suffering flipside, taoguang yanghui (“hide brightness and cherish obscurity”)

Ding Gang, senior reporter at the People’s Daily, had an opinion piece in yesterday’s Huanqiu Shibao, titled, ‘Ding Gang: more “doing” required in the South China Sea‘.

Last year Ding argued passionately for cooperation with ASEAN, for complete clarification of China’s claims and even, in the latter article, that India and Vietnam should be allowed to explore oil Blocks 128 and 129. This time, however, he argues that China has done well out of the Scarborough Shoal standoff, and the lesson is that China should kickstart more of these incidents.

Ding is tapping into a very deep pool of rhetorical capital, which is discussed after the summary translation below.


More ‘doing’ required in the South China Sea

Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times), August 29

By Ding Gang 丁刚, Senior reporter, Renmin Ribao

There is a saying in Chinese diplomacy, taoguang yanghui, yousuo zuowei. But given China’s vastly-increased national power, it’s the latter phrase, meaning “take some actions”, that may be more important — especially when it comes to the South China Sea.

The heat has gone down around Scarborough Shoal [China is effectively in control of the atoll — SSC]. Experts have said that the outcome of the Scarborough Shoal standoff shows that there is a “Huangyan Model” that China can use to solve its other problems in the SCS.

The Scarborough Shoal standoff has been good for both China and for other claimants, since they have seen that there is no point picking fights with China.

However, while there has been this positive result, it was brought about by others, not China. Is there a lesson in it for us? I’m afraid there is. We must see that while there is a positive side to the Huangyan Island issue, we were the reactive rather than the active side; it was forced upon us. If there was innovation, it was innovation after the incident had occurred, not active innovation. This shows the limitations of the Huangyan Model.

The South China Sea issue has been largely influenced by two major factors: the activities of other claimants, and interference from extra-regional powers. But there may be another element, one that we might not like to think about, and that is that for many years we have not done enough.

The major problem with the 2002 China-ASEAN DOC is that there has been little progress in “shelving differences and jointly developing resources”.

It goes without saying that if you don’t advance, others will. China is sincere in its desire to resolve the South China Sea issues through peaceful negotiation, and has always strived to maintain the status quo, [emphasis added] but others have not done the same. In the past 10 years other countries have been busy, and have rejected joint development with China, to the point where the Huangyan Island incident was created.

Engaging in some speculation, let us imagine if the Huangyan Model had been laid down 10 years ago, creating a precedent that China would take immediate and effective action to curb other countries’ activities in the disputed areas, would China be more in control of the situation?

The situation is obviously more complex than that hypothetical would suggest but what it does make clear is that only by “taking some actions yousuo zuowei” can the problem be contained and pushed in the direction we want it to go. We should under no circumstances think that if we can only stand tall and exercise forbearance then as China becomes stronger these kinds of issues will naturally resolve themselves.

Yousuo zuowei requires the application of military means, but it does not mean fighting a war at any cost, or blindly using military force to seize back the occupied islands. Yousuo zuowei is precisely the kind of strategic approach that can avoid the use of force. It implies smarter and wiser use of the combined power of politics, diplomacy and the military. It implies more active innovation. The hardest path to find is one that does not involve fighting to solve the problem.

Yousuo zuowei is highly responsible towards the interests of both China and regional countries. Without it, lasting peace in the South China Sea area will be impossible, and China will not achieve the prestige of being a peacefully-developing great power.



Ding’s argument draws its intellectual and political power from the ongoing debates over the famous ‘taoguang yanghui/yousuo zuowei‘ dualism, a legacy of the “28 Character Foreign Policy Guideline” attributed to Deng Xiaoping. Its seven four-character instructions are supposed to be:

  • Observe coolly 冷静观察 lengjing guancha
  • Hold our ground 稳住阵脚 wenzhu zhenjiao
  • Respond calmly and don’t be impatient 沉着应付 chenzhuo yingfu
  • Hide brightness and cherish obscurity 韬光养晦 taoguang yanghui
  • Keep a low profile 善于守拙 shanyu shouzhuo
  • Absolutely do not take the lead 绝不当头 juebu dangtou
  • Take some actions 有所作为 yousuo zuowei

There is conjecture as to how many characters the “Guideline” really contains. In 2004 then-Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan apparently named all seven in an important work report,(1) and this article found on the CPC’s website also drops the full set. Some put the number of characters at 24, with these sources on government websites lopping off the redundant shanyu shouzhuo — but the term “24 Character Guideline” refers more commonly to a party human resource management strategy. In this Deng Xiaoping foreign policy reader on the CPC website, former diplomat and CPC Central Committee member Liu Huaqiu lists only five of the phrases, leaving out juebu dangtou and shanyu shouzhuo, as does the “20 Character Guideline” repeatedly referred to in this 2010 educational reference document on the Foreign Ministry’s website.

The only authoritative voice on these formulations is a 1998 speech in the Selected Works of Jiang Zemin Vol. II, which refers to upholding (坚持) a “strategic guideline” comprising four of the phrases in question: lengjing guancha, chenzhuo yingfu, juebu dangtou and yousuo zuowei. Jiang discussed taoguang yanghui separately in the following sentence, a point i believe may be of some significance in understanding the associated debates.

Deng only used the first three phrases in the September 1989 speech that is usually nominated as the source of the “strategic guideline”. The purpose of that speech was to summarise his prescription for how the Chinese party-state should respond to the political upheavals in the Eastern Bloc, amidst concerns about a domino effect resulting in oblivion for the CPC. This was of course just a couple of months after China’s own uprisings had culminated in the Beijing Massacre of June 3-4 of that year, which explains the title’s emphasis on stability: WITH STABLE POLICIES OF REFORM AND OPENING TO THE OUTSIDE WORLD, CHINA CAN HAVE GREAT HOPES FOR THE FUTURE.

But by far the most controversial of the four-character phrases is taoguang yanghui, which has achieved the implausible feat of attracting hardline criticism inside China at the same time as inspiring fear abroad.

The perception gulf is rooted in its various possible English translations. Until this year, for example, in its widely-read annual report to the US Congress, the US Department of Defense referred to the idiom as, “hide our capabilities and bide our time”. But critics in the PRC media and academia charge that it represents a soft, passive approach that may have been appropriate for the militarily weak state the PRC was twenty years ago, but which today prevents China from using its hard-won new capabilities to protect its legitimate interests (for a summary of these debates see this detailed piece from Dingding Chen & Jianwei Wang).

Considering the literal meaning of the characters, 韬光养晦, the term might be translated as “sheathe brilliance, cultivate darkness”. Chen & Wang have suggested “hide brightness and cherish obscurity”, which i personally think sums it up best; they also quote General Xiong Guangkai as rendering it “hiding [one’s] light” or “keeping a low profile”. The US government’s translation, with its overtones of intentional deception, actually appears to have been taken from the official Xinhua Dictionary’s English translations. The dictionary’s primary Chinese definition, however, is indeed more suggestive of modesty than deception: “To cover brilliance or talent; to restrain oneself, [prevent] tracks.”(2)

The phrase is nowhere to be found in Deng’s Selected Works Vol. III, which is usually quoted as the source of the Name-a-Number-of-Characters Guideline. But according to Chen & Wang, the official Deng Xiaoping Chronicle published in 2004 contains a quote with him purportedly saying in 1992 (their translation):

We will only become a big political power if we keep a low profile (taoguang yanghui) and work hard for some years; and we will then have more weight in international affairs.

I may be in la-la land (if i am please let me know) but to me it looks as though it was Jiang Zemin more than anyone who elevated taoguang yanghui’s strategic prominence, when he discussed it in isolation from the other four phrases in his 1998 speech mentioned above, which was titled ‘Current international circumstances and our country’s diplomatic work‘:

First, we should continue to uphold the strategic guidelines of observing coolly, acting calmly, never taking the lead, and doing some things. We should taoguang yanghui, be modest, protect ourselves, and strive for development. The comparison of our country’s condition with international powers dictates that we must do it this way.

Consider the context of the speech in 1998 — just two months after Bill Clinton’s visit, Jiang is believed to have still been fighting a battle against hawkish “leftists” who bitterly opposed his efforts to warm ties with the USA. This suggests that in the current debates, taoguang yanghui may be more than just a byword for conciliatory stances in PRC foreign policy circles. Within the party, discrediting taoguang yanghui could be a means of attacking Jiang Zemin and his contemporary allies.

None of the other phrases seems to have been subjected to the same scrutiny as taoguang yanghui — especially not the phrase that has been characterised as its dialectical flipsideyousuo zuowei.

In his December 1990 speech, SEIZE THE OPPORTUNITY TO DEVELOP THE ECONOMY, Deng emphasised the need for China to concentrate on domestic tasks rather than taking the role of leader of the developing world. “We absolutely cannot do that,” he said, according to the official English translation, which leaves out the flourish that followed in the (official) Chinese original: “This is a basic national policy.”(3)

Deng’s 1990 speech continues (in official translation): “Nevertheless, we cannot simply do nothing in international affairs; we have to make our contribution.”(4) Given that Deng was explicitly discussing the issue of third-world solidarity, the translation of yousuo zuowei as “make our contribution” is very appropriate indeed, yet it rarely seems to be interpreted this way in the contemporary debates.

Instead, it is invoked as a command that China should be more active in pursuing its own interests — in the case of Ding’s article, control of islands in the South China Sea.

7 Comments on ““More ‘doing’ required”: Ding Gang brings the taoguang-yanghui debate to the South China Sea”

  1. […] “More ‘doing’ required”: Ding Gang brings the taoguang-yanghui debate to the South China Sea… – Ding Gang, senior reporter at the People’s Daily, had an opinion piece in yesterday’s Huanqiu Shibao, titled, ‘Ding Gang: more “doing” required in the South China Sea‘…he seems to be arguing that while China has done well out of the Scarborough Shoal standoff, next time it should be Chinese authorities, rather than the Philippines’ navy, who kickstart the original incident…Ding’s argument draws its intellectual and political power from the ongoing debates over the famous ‘taoguang yanghui/yousuo zuowei‘ dualism, a legacy of the “28 Character Foreign Policy Guideline” attributed to Deng Xiaoping. […]

  2. ChimericaWar says:

    The beauty of Chinese is that a promise, statement or contract means – exactly what they want it to mean at that particular moment in time.

    The meaning is subject to continual change as the conditions change also.

    There is no contradiction in this as it is thoroughly accepted in China that contracts, statements or promises are dynamic living things and are not at all like the Western notion of a contract or promise, aimed at being a guiding principle across time and space.

    If you’ve ever signed a contract with anyone in China you will know that the agreement only represents their feelings at that precise moment of signing and a whole host of other factors will soon morph what you thought were concrete agreements into a confusing mess.

    Hence why Deng’s handy stanza’s serve China’s purpose so well as it develops and becomes more power hungry.

    • Good point, although i should say my experience with contracts in China extends only to rental agreements, of which my own interpretation i recall may have been subject to change across time!

      Deng’s purported advice has indeed served China well, offering the closest thing it has had to a grand strategy. But as your point also suggests, it’s really not a grand strategy at all but a path of least resistance.

  3. […] in China’s favour. The main objection to it, from People’s Daily senior reporter Ding Gang’s perspective, was that China had not initiated the incidents and was thus being “passive”. But the […]

  4. […] on domestic development, encouraging increased foreign involvement in China’s economy, and officially enshrining the low-profile taoguang-yanghui foreign policy principle more often attributed to […]

  5. […] and we can talk about it a little bit more. This is Deng Xiaoping, saying that China should “observe calmly; secure its position; cope with affairs calmly; hide its capabilities and bide its ti…”. Now I understand why never claiming leadership, that last part of the quote, might be something […]

  6. […] Southeast Asia, and stopped the expansion of NATO beyond Ukraine and Georgia. We cannot say that [Deng/Jiang's doctrine of] “lying low 韬光养晦” is incorrect, but China is unaware of how to “loot a […]

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