A Conversation With State Councilor Wang Yi of China

Friday, April 23, 2021
Kim Min-hee/Reuters

State Councilor and Foreign Minister, People's Republic of China


President, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, The World: A Brief Introduction; @RichardHaass

State Councilor Wang Yi discusses China's foreign and domestic policies, including the impact of COVID-19 and the future of relations with the United States.


HAASS: Well, good morning to those here in the United States. Good evening to those in China and around the world. And let me first of all welcome you all to this special meeting of the Council on Foreign Relations. I’m Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. That is, we are honored to welcome the state councilor and foreign minister of the People's Republic of China, Wang Yi. Wang Yi and I, I should say, have known each other now for more than two decades. We have been meeting in Washington, New York, and Beijing now regularly over those twenty-plus years. I think he was first, when we did, vice minister. Now he is risen to his current responsibilities. He also is one of the—probably the leading Japan expert in his government and served as China's ambassador to Japan for several years.

So State Councilor, Mr. Minister, it's a pleasure to welcome you back to the Council on Foreign Relations. As I understand it, this is very complicated, but today's meeting is in three parts. Similar to a hockey game, I expect. The first part will be the state councilor making some opening remarks. These will be on the record. And then we will switch to a second part of the meeting where he and I will have a conversation, which will be not for attribution. And that will be followed by questions from members of the Council on Foreign Relations. And again, that part of the meeting will be not for attribution. There'll be some special instructions for members when we get to the third part of the meeting, but I will hold off communicating those until then. So I'm really supposed to say we've got an hour and a half to do this, a little bit extra time given the importance of the subject matter, which we plan to cover today. So, I will not delay. State Councilor, Mr. Minister, again, welcome back to the Council on Foreign Relations. We look forward to hearing your remarks and we look forward to a full exchange with you today.

WANG: Ambassador Haass is my old friend. As he said just now, he and I have known each other for more than two decades. I readily accepted his invitation to exchange views with friends from the Council on Foreign Relations via video link. First of all, warm congratulations on the Council's one hundredth anniversary. Over the century, CFR has witnessed the vicissitudes of the world and made important contributions to the growth of China-U.S. relations. Given the current difficulties in the relations, we hope the CFR will uphold an objective and just position and continue to play a constructive role in bringing China-U.S. relations back to the right track.

The presidents of our two countries had an important phone conversation on the eve of the Chinese New Year charting the course for bilateral relations. The Anchorage dialogue kicked off face-to-face interactions at a high level in the context of COVID-19. Our two countries, after serious discussions and communication, have recently issued an important joint statement on addressing the climate crisis and this joint statement has won recognition internationally. Yesterday, President Xi Jinping attended the Leaders’ Summit on Climate at the invitation of President Joe Biden, demonstrating the sense of responsibility of our two countries in joining hands to tackle global challenges.

At the same time, however, we have noted that the new U.S. administration has described China as its most serious competitor. On China's internal affairs, including Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong-related matters, the United States is still making coarse interference. To be frank, the United States, in shaping its China policy, has yet to walk out of the shadow of the previous administration, get over the misperception of China, and identify a right pathway to engage with China. With this in mind, I would like to share with you the following points from a strategic perspective for the reference of my old friend, Dr. Haass, and members of CFR.

First, we hope the United States will view China's development in an objective and rational way. China is committed to a path of peaceful development, one that underlines peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation with countries around the world. China never seeks global hegemony. China will blaze a path of peaceful rise, distinct from the trajectory of traditional powers. The wisdom from China's millennia of history teaches that countries going after hegemony are bound to fail, and that not all countries fight for hegemony when they grow stronger. China pursues development and rejuvenation through its own hard work, instead of aggression or expansion. In everything we do here in China, we do it for a better life for the Chinese people, rather than replace or outcompete anyone.

There is a narrative in the United States saying that China does not respect the United States anymore. As a matter of fact, it is China that values mutual respect and equality the most. We stress the importance of looking each other straight in the eye, which means standing on an equal footing, rather than look down or look up at anyone. The approach that whoever has the bigger muscles or stronger fists makes the call is not right. We don't accept that any country is superior or that any country can dictate to others from a position of strength. Be it a country or person, everyone should earn respect with their own hard work. Major countries, in particular, should uphold justice and observe norms and lead by the power of example.

The U.S. has repeatedly said that one should never bet against America. This, in fact, reflects a zero-sum mentality. China never bets against any country. We maintain a world that is a global village. We in China hope the United States will make early progress in COVID response and realize full economic recovery. The success of one side does not mean the other has to fail. The world is big enough to accommodate a more successful China and a more successful America. The United States needs to be confident—there is no need for any doubt or suspicion.

As Professor Joseph Nye from Harvard said, which impressed me a lot, and that is, “America must avoid exaggerated fears, which can lead to overreaction.” We have also noted that the Biden administration stated that it would prioritize domestic issues and focus on serving the American working class. Indeed, when domestic issues are effectively addressed, the United States will maintain its vitality. Shifting blame to others or even decoupling from the world's second largest economy and turning against the 1.4 billion Chinese people will not help solve America's problems. It will cause chaos in the world. The U.S. business community has made a clear point that they cannot afford to be locked out of the Chinese market.

The second point we want to make is that we hope that the United States will work with China to explore a new path of peaceful coexistence and mutually beneficial cooperation. China and the United States should uphold the spirit of no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, win-win cooperation and actively explore a way of peaceful coexistence between two major countries with different systems. The U.S. side defines China-U.S. relations as having competitive, cooperative, and adversarial aspects. Our view is that it blurs the distinction between the mainstream and substream of the bilateral relations and reflects a lack of a clear direction and goal going forward.

First, we have no intention to compete or contend with the United States. What matters to us is constant progress and self-improvement here in China. And second, playing up confrontation leads to a lose-lose situation, and clearly it should not become the orientation of the U.S.-China policy. Hence, cooperation is the only right way forward that meets the common aspirations of the two countries and the world. Cooperation should be a two-way street and mutually beneficial instead of one side upping the ante and putting its interests first.

We maintain that the right approach to China-U.S. relations is to step up dialogue, deepen cooperation, narrow differences, and avoid confrontation. China and the United States working together can make the impossible possible and steer the bilateral ties toward a direction of sound and steady development. As for areas of cooperation, the most outstanding is joint efforts to address climate change, the most pressing is a joint response to COVID-19, and the most promising is economic and trade cooperation.

China-U.S. relations, in our view, are at a new crossroad. The key is whether the United States can accept the peaceful rise of a major country with a different social system, history, and culture and in a different development stage and whether the United States can recognize the Chinese people's rights to pursue development and a better life. The future of China-U.S. relations largely hinges on the answer of the United States to these two questions.

The third point I want to make is that we hope the United States will respect and accommodate the path and system China has chosen for itself. What has happened shows that China's socialist path, with its own characteristics, has not just leveled up with the 1.4 billion Chinese people from poverty and backwardness, it also marks another major contribution of the Chinese nation to human progress. No one is entitled to negate development paths of other countries, and no country will mold its system to others’ liking. At the end of the day, it is up to the people to judge whether their country's system and path work or not. China will not copy others’ model. Neither does China export ideology or demand others to copy its way. What we advocate is that each country can choose a development path in light of its own circumstances and its people's need, and all countries should respect and learn from each other.

Recently, there has been this tendency to compare China and the United States as democracy versus authoritarianism and to draw the line along ideology and pin labels on countries. But to use an analogy, democracy is not Coca-Cola, which, with the syrup produced in the United States, tastes the same across the world. A single model and single, civilized world would be lifeless and dull. China's socialist democracy is a whole-process, most representative democracy. It embodies the will of the people, fits our country's realities, and is endorsed by the people. To label China as authoritarian or a dictatorship simply because China's democracy takes a different form than that of the United States is in itself undemocratic.

Using democracy to conduct values-oriented diplomacy, meddling in other countries’ internal affairs, or stoking division and confrontation will only lead to turmoil or even disaster. President Xi Jinping’s proposal to build a community with a shared future for mankind embodies the hope to rise above the differences in social systems, abandons the zero-sum mentality, and upholds the common values of humanity, peace, development, equity, justice, democracy, and freedom. All countries need to work together to protect Planet Earth, our one and only home, and make it a better place.

A peaceful world, in our view, should nurture diverse civilizations. A stable order should accommodate different systems. And a confident major country should be inclusive to diverse values. The most important thing that we learned from the decades of China-U.S. relations is that our difference in social systems does not prevent us from seeking common ground while shelving differences, pursuing win-win cooperation, and peaceful coexistence.

Fourth, we hope that the United States will practice true multilateralism. China has helped establish, contributed to, and upheld the existing international system. We were the first country to sign the UN Charter. Some in the United States describe China as the only country able to challenge the international system in almost all respects. We disagree. China has come to where it is within this existing international system. Why would we want to challenge a system that serves our interests or start all over again? What is deeply unsettling is the backlash against multilateralism in recent years and the danger of a divided world. I will have to say that the previous U.S. administration had willfully walked away from international organizations, commitments and responsibilities, seriously disrupting the existing international system.

We welcome the Biden administration's return to multilateralism. That said, China believes that true multilateralism is about openness, inclusiveness, rule of law, consultation, cooperation, and progress with the times. Multilateralism should not be used to form new opposing blocks or exclusive circles. Some in the United States often talk about strengthening rules-based international order. The question is based on what rules and who makes them. If it means those rules made by Western countries only, then such rules made by 12 percent of the world's population should not serve as the universal rules for all. China's view is clear. That is, we all need to uphold the UN-centered international system and the international order underpinned by international law. This represents the shared aspiration of all countries and true multilateralism in practice.

Fifth, we hope that the United States will not interfere in China's internal affairs. Sovereignty and territorial integrity involve a country's core interests. Like any other country, China has no room for compromise on such a major issue of principle. The United States cannot repeatedly challenge China's rights and interests on issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong while expecting China to cooperate with it on issues it cares about. The Taiwan question is the most important and sensitive issue in China-U.S. relations. Many of you have long been engaged in China-U.S. relations and know all too well about the historical circumstances.

Adhering to the one-China principle, opposing Taiwan independence, and safeguarding peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is also in the strategic interests of the United States, too. I can say this very frankly that playing the Taiwan card is a dangerous move, like playing with fire. Reunification is an overarching trend of history. We will continue to work with the greatest sincerity and utmost efforts to achieve peaceful reunification. At the same time, we firmly oppose any separatist activities for any form of Taiwan independence. We hope that the United States will abide by the one-China principle and the three China-U.S. joint communiques, and not send any wrong signals to the Taiwan independence elements or try to challenge, still less cross, China's policy red line.

The Xinjiang-related issues are not about human rights, ethnicity, or religion. From the very beginning, they are about fighting violent terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Faced with a grave situation of violent terrorism in Xinjiang a few years ago, the Chinese government acted to strike down on terrorist activities in accordance with law and took a series of deradicalization measures. We have been using education to root out terrorism and such efforts have paid off. There hasn't been a single terrorist attack in Xinjiang for over four years. People of all ethnic groups, including the Uighurs, now live a safe and happy life in Xinjiang. The claims of so-called genocide or forced labor are pure lies driven by political motives.

During the U.S. war on terror, it regarded China as a partner and China has given the U.S. strong support. China and the United States agreed to designate the East Turkistan Islamic Movement—ETIM—as a terrorist organization designated by the UN Security Council. It is unfortunate to see that in the latter half of the previous administration, the U.S. has dramatically changed its position and removed the ETIM from its list. Such double standards and willfulness leave the international community questioning if the United States still has principles. We welcome American friends to visit Xinjiang so that they can see for themselves what it is really like there and not fall for lies and rumors.

With regard to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, be it the law on Safeguarding National Security in Hong Kong enacted last year or the decision to improve Hong Kong's electoral system this year, both serve to improve “one country, two systems,” ensure its sound and steady implementation, and achieve long-term security in Hong Kong. The revision of the electoral system is designed to implement the basic principle of patriots administering Hong Kong, which was put forward by Mr. Deng Xiaoping before Hong Kong's return as a political safeguard for advancing “one country, two systems.”

Also, I think you all will agree that administration by patriots who joined the country's governance team is also universal political ethics and a common practice. In other words, those who betray their own country and trumpet independence should not be allowed on the country's governance team. This principle applies also for Hong Kong. As the central government's policies for administering Hong Kong have been steadily implemented on the ground, Hong Kong has seen a major shift from chaos to stability with its democratic system further improved. We hope that the United States will respect the Chinese government's efforts to implement “one country, two systems.”

Some in the United States talk about China's so-called coercive diplomacy. We hear that a lot. That is pretty bewildering. The truth is, China in history fell prey to foreign coercion, even aggression. One should not do unto others what oneself doesn't want to go through. This is a line of wisdom of the Chinese people two thousand years ago. A long-running feature of China's foreign policy is that all countries are equal regardless of their size. We do not act in a coercive way and we oppose any country doing so.

That said, when China's national sovereignty and dignity are being undermined, we have to respond with reasonable and lawful actions to safeguard our legitimate rights and interests as well as international equity and justice. China never threatens other countries with the use of force, build military alliances, export ideology, stir up trouble in other countries’ doorsteps, or meddle in their affairs. Neither has China ever started a trade war or wantonly come after foreign companies. We are prepared to work with other countries against any act of coercion in our world.

We hope that in developing the bilateral relations, China and the United States will send out more confidence during this warm spring, plant more seeds of cooperation for the benefit of people in our two countries and beyond, and reap harvests of global stability and development. We sincerely hope that all of you at this critical moment will continue to speak out for objectivity and reason and contribute your wisdom and strength to promoting China-U.S. cooperation and upholding world peace.

So those are some opening remarks from myself. As Dr. Haass asked, I may have run longer than fifteen minutes. I'm sorry for that. It might be a complex agenda today but I believe, though, out of the very hard efforts of our working teams, I hope this dialogue can be an open one. And I would be happy to take any questions that you may have on your mind. I think our dialogue is based on equality and aimed at enhancing a mutual understanding. I can see that many of you are my good and old friends. And some of you may be the first time joining such a dialogue. I hope that with today's dialogue, you can have a better understanding of China. Thank you, Dr. Haass.

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