With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s political authority unmatched, his sense of mission to restore what he believes is China’s natural position as a great power drives the nation’s foreign policy. When China was weak, it was subordinated to others. Now China is strong, and wants others to fall in line, at least on the issues involving what it regards as core national interests.

In The Dragon Roars Back, Suisheng Zhao weaves together complex events, processes, and players in an analysis of Chinese foreign policy transitions since the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping were and are transformational leaders who have charted unique courses of Chinese foreign policy in the quest for security, prosperity, and power.

In an interview conducted on February 15, 2023Suisheng Zhao discusses the key leaders who have shaped Chinese foreign policy with Sheena Chestnut Greitens.

About the speakers


NITAI DEITEL: My name is Nitai Deitel, senior program officer at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. I am pleased to introduce our guest for today’s interview exploring China’s transformational leaders and the unique foreign policy courses they charted in China’s quest for security, prosperity, and power, briefly, as their full bios can be found on our website. 

Suisheng Zhao is a professor and director of the Center for China-U.S. Cooperation at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies. He is the founder and editor of the Journal of Contemporary China, and the author or editor of more than two dozen books, including his most recent book, The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy

Moderating the interview today will be Sheena Chestnut Greitens, associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where she directs the Asia Policy Program. Dr. Greitens’ first book, Dictators and Their Secret Police: Coercive Institutions and State Violence, was published in 2016. And she’s now working on a book about how China thinks about national security under Xi Jinping. She is a fellow of the National Committee’s Public Intellectuals Program. Sheena, the floor is yours. 

SHEENA CHESTNUT GREITENS: Wonderful. Well, thank you so much for the opportunity to moderate the conversation today. I am really looking forward to discussing this book, which I have here if Zoom will let me show it, The Dragon Roars Back: Transformational Leaders and Dynamics of Chinese Foreign Policy. 

It’s a terrific and interesting read about three leaders, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping, and how they have transformed China’s foreign policy since the founding of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) in 1949. So, it’s really a pleasure to be able to talk to Professor Zhao today about the book. 

And I wanted to open it up by asking you a bit about the story that led to writing this book. You’ve written a number of books and worked on a number of edited volumes, and I’m always interested in the origin stories behind books that authors choose to write. And so I wondered if you could start by telling us a little bit about how you decided to write this book and why you thought it was needed in the conversation about China and Chinese foreign policy now. 

SUISHENG ZHAO: First of all, let me thank the National Committee for hosting this event and also thank Professor Sheena for moderating this event. To answer this question, I think two motivations for me to start doing research and writing the book. First, one is theoretical, the other is empirical. 

Theoretically, I have tried to find a coherent understanding of China’s rise, tried to understand the trajectory of its rise and the forces driving this rise. The most prominent theory that has been used to explain China’s rise is so-called structural realism, which argues looking at relative power. When China’s relative power expands, its ambition expands. A rise of China in terms of relative power will inevitably become aggressive power challenging the U.S. and become, I mean, anti-status quo, challenging its neighbors. 

But looking at the almost over 70 years of the PRC history, we can tell that China foreign policy has many turns and shifts. In fact, Mao Zedong, he…well, I mean, Mao Zedong had what I called revolutionary foreign policy, which was very aggressive, confrontational. But China’s relative power was very weak. China fought six wars during Mao’s time, including the war in Korea, fighting against the most powerful nation, the U.S., on the earth. And China also fighting wars with the Soviet Union-supported insurgencies all over the world. But China’s power was not that powerful. Deng Xiaoping moderated China’s foreign policy behavior while China’s relative power did not change that much. In fact, when China was rising, Deng Xiaoping’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao tried to pretend China was not a rising power, and that they continued Deng Xiaoping’s low profile and moderated [its] foreign policy. 

Now, Xi Jinping has changed Chinese foreign policy again, and his rhetoric of Chinese rising power and ambition has been really alarming to the world. But China’s relative power now, I think, has not increased that much more than the last years of Hu Jintao’s year. In fact, the China economy is looked down now. Many people now arguing that Xi Jinping has overreached and over-played his hand. So, this situation makes structure realism somehow inadequate to understand China’s foreign policy. 

Another theory used very often is called regime-type theory. They argue that China’s aggressive behavior is driven by its authoritarian system. For any change of Chinese foreign policy, you have to have regime change. But the Chinese authoritarian system has remained, but Chinese foreign policy has shifted, changed in the last 70 years. So, this theory is also problematic. 

Then there are other theories, institutional theory, and the constructivist theory. I don’t want to get into them, but none of them is sufficient. So, I try to develop a comprehensive theoretical approach that could integrate all those theories, all those forces. So, this is the theoretical motivation. 

The second part is empirical motivation. Because I’m teaching Chinese foreign policy seminar at the graduate level for many years, I try to find a really comprehensive book that could integrate all the variables and have all those aspects and also have historical, in-depth as well as up-to-date, analysis. And strangely, I cannot find one. Most books are only country-specific, China’s relationship with certain countries or bilateral relationship, China’s foreign policy on certain issue areas such as energy or some other issue areas. And really that type of comprehensive historical, in-depths, and up-to-date, type of books [are lacking]. So, I thought maybe I should do a comprehensive book for the last 70 years other than the theoretical approach, and also have rich empirical analysis. So, those are two motivations that get me to start research on this book. 

GREITENS: That’s great. Thank you. So, the argument of your book, the core argument could, and I realize this is an oversimplification, so please forgive this, but could we actually be summed up in two words: leaders matter. And you talk about that over the course of successive chapters where you describe transformational leaders, Mao, Deng, and Xi as different from almost more custodial leaders like Jiang Zemin or Hu Jintao. And so, I wondered if you could tell us a little bit about, more about why leaders are so important in what is a single-party non-democratic political system. 

ZHAO: And this book discusses what I call the leadership-centered framework to understand the dynamics of Chinese foreign policy. As you said, I argue that leaders matter, but they matter more in authoritarian, totalitarian systems. In democratic systems, they matter for sure. But leaders are constrained by oppositional parties, public opinions, term limits, many things. 

But leaders in China, I mean, the top paramount leaders in the Chinese, Leninist one-party system, where the emphasis is on discipline and hierarchy. They are relatively unchecked, unconstrained by public opinions and they don’t have oppositional parties. And those three top, I mean, powerful, most powerful leaders, they all held lifetime tenure. 

So, the puzzle for me talking about leadership-centered research is that although all those Chinese leaders are powerful in an authoritarian system, not every leader has been able to chart a new direction, a new course for Chinese foreign policy. Why? Then I try to see who are these leaders. And I distinguish them into three types. 

One is what you mentioned, a transformational leader. These are game changers. We have new visions, and also they have political wisdoms to delegate and the jungle of PRC power politics to prevail their vision. Now, in addition, they are also able to mobilize domestic sources. That’s what I talk about, the ideation of sources and institutional sources, and also strategically respond to the international power distribution and international norms, regimes, all those other types of norms, in order to advance their agenda. So, we can see what I study in the book, Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping are transformational leaders. The second type of leaders, what you call custodian, I call the transactional leaders. And it manages to— 

GREITENS: Thank you. I mistermed it. I appreciate the correction. 

ZHAO: No problem. Maybe that’s a better term. And they survived the power jungle. But they normally will not have new visions. And they follow the course set by their predecessors. In this case, we talk about two leaders, Jiang Zemin, and Hu Jintao. They followed a step and course set by Deng Xiaoping. 

The third type of leader is what I called failed leaders. There are three failed leaders, Hua Guofeng, and Zhao Ziyang, Hu Yaobang. And they might have divisions, especially Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, but they lost power in the jungle of power struggle. So, it doesn’t matter. Who cares if you have a new vision or not? 

So, these three types of leaders determined the course of Chinese foreign policy dynamics, only those transformational leaders have been able to make changes. So, my book focused and documented on the three transformational leaders and how they have motivated resources and to prevail, to make their visions prevail. 

GREITENS: Thank you. I wanted to focus on the current leadership in China because Xi Jinping is one of these leaders that you identify as a transformational figure and a transformational leader for Chinese foreign policy. And you talk a bit in the book about how 2008 was a turning point for China’s adoption of what you call big power diplomacy, which is the approach that has really characterized Xi Jinping’s tenure thus far. And so, I wanted to ask you a little bit about why you think 2008 was such an important watershed year, and maybe implicitly, you know, why not 2012 when Xi Jinping formally came to power? What is it about 2008 that makes it such a turning point for Chinese foreign policy in your assessment? 

ZHAO: Both 2008 and 2012 were landmark years in the Chinese political development. Here we are talking about the foreign policy transition. Why 2008 was significant, because that was the year China successfully hosted the Summer Olympics. And China’s national pride surged and they thought that was a symbol of China walking out the shadow of the humiliation and the stigma of Asia, all those type of the past problems. And China was recognized by the world as the rising power or big power. 

And then following the Olympic was the financial meltdown started in the U.S. and spurted all over the world. And China weathered at that time the financial crisis relatively better than the western countries. That also raised the nationalist aspiration. But this aspiration was, however, kind of suppressed from Chinese perspective, or they were frustrated by the Western powers’ non-recognition of China’s rising power status and China’s nationalist aspiration and the Western powers tried to undermine China’s rise during the Olympics. 

For example, they talk about the Western tried to scrutinize China’s domestic human rights issues and boycott some countries on China. And also, I mean the torch, the Olympic torch layover, and the Tibetan issue, all those issues. The financial crisis was also a similar situation. They thought China was doing well and the U.S. was in trouble, U.S. was in decline, U.S. was supposed to respect China’s core national interest. 

In fact, that was the time that this term “core national interest” occurred [for the] first time. But they were frustrated again. U.S. did not respect China’s called national interest and did not respect China’s…those interests which are defined as non-negotiable and cannot be compromised, Taiwan issue and so-called political system and development rights, all those things. 

So, 2008 in that context become a turning point to China. Chinese people were motivated to get back China to its rightful place in the world. And so, Xi Jinping came to power 2012 to launch so-called big power diplomacy, and to present the so-called the Chinese Dream. 

In fact, the days after Xi Jinping became the general secretary of the Communist Party, November 2012, he went to the National Museum and presented that famous speech of the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation with that regime. That speech really presented himself as a strong leader, strong man to bring China back to its lost glory, and glorious position, to bring China back to the central stage of the world. In fact, that’s why 2008 was significant.  

Equally significant was 2012. At this time, Xi Jinping became the leader. In fact, he came to office and not only presented the Chinese Dream, or Chinese big power diplomacy. He formally abandoned Deng Xiaoping’s developmental moderation. In fact, in my book, I talk about Deng Xiaoping’s developmental diplomacy and presented China as a big power to somehow expand its interests. 

And 2012 was also significant in terms of his consolidation of power. Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power, I think, is driven or triggered by three developments. The first is what I mentioned, 2008 starts that kind of nationalist aspiration and frustration. The second was somehow also frustration of the Chinese elites about Hu Jintao’s weakness of his connective leadership which brought so much factional strife, and also his weakness to resist those liberal values. 

So, Xi Jinping came to office at the time and tried to launch a campaign to send him as a defender of the one-party rule. The third trigger was the scandals also during 2012, Ling Jihua and Zhou Yongkang, and Bo Xilai, those things. 

So, 2012 really presented so many new developments for Xi Jinping not only to become the general secretary of the Communist Party but also become a strong man to lead China, to chart China for a new course, both domestically and internationally. That’s why I talk about 2008 and 2012 as landmarks of the Chinese political and the foreign policy development. 

GREITENS: Thank you. That’s really helpful. I was in Beijing studying, doing language study as a graduate student in 2008. So, it was a sort of turning point in a lot of my own personal perceptions of China. But I’m not sure I realized how embedded at the time it was in some of the larger currents that are—that have been globally impactful that your book described. So, I know I appreciated that part of the book in particular. 

At one point, relatively early in the book, you talk about the intersection of external and internal security concerns, which is a particular interest of mine but also has drawn a lot of attention as China’s behavior has become more repressive politically at home and more assertive in the security aspects of its foreign policy abroad. 

And so, Beijing pays a lot of attention to this connection between internal and external security, especially, frankly, I think under Xi Jinping, with the use of the comprehensive national security concept and some of the reforms that he’s made to the national security system. And so, I wanted to ask you then how you think—you talk about China’s efforts to remold the international environment throughout the book. And I wanted to ask you how you see international security concerns shaping China’s effort to remold the global environment. 

ZHAO: When Xi Jinping came to office, he started a new direction for Chinese foreign policy, which is in the book, I use the big power and diplomacy of foreign policy, which becomes a more expansive or aggressive, try to not only abandon Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile foreign policy but also try to expand China’s interest and also proactively shape the international environment, rather than react to it. 

And in that context, you can see Xi Jinping had the so-called “wolf warrior” fighting spread and red line thinking trying to draw red lines for foreign countries. And so, a lot of new changes as a foreign policy which result caused resistance, push backs, and backlash in the international arena. So, from Xi Jinping’s perspective, he became, I think, somehow insecure and thought China’s security environment has been deteriorated internationally. 

But Xi Jinping looks at security, all China’s threat from “internal-ness” because he thought those foreign forces was not only opposing China. It’s trying to undermine Chinese communist regime and his personal power. So, he always linked at looking at the external threat in terms of their linkage to the domestic threat. So, that’s why you talked about he developed so-called 总体安全观 (zǒngtǐ ānquán guān). And I translate that into “holistic security outlook.” You can also translate it as “overall security outlook” or “comprehensive security outlook.” In fact, he also institutionally makes some responses to this. His established the State Security Commission in 2013 which is his child and grandchild because it is institution to be in charge of both domestic security and external security.  

In fact, the focus has been on his domestic security. In his first speech to the National Security Council, 2014, he presented 11 aspects of security threats. The key here is what he called political security, or political threat. It’s a code word for regime security. So, he has emphasized…I mean, he has this institution to focus on domestic security. In that case, he upgrades the foreign affairs leadership group into the Foreign Affairs Commission to focus on external security foreign policy. 

So, he has an entire institution arrangement try to deal with the secure linkage between domestic threat and international threat. Domestic threat here, not only those kind of protests of discontent among Chinese people, but here he talks about those threat ending to foreign threat. Mostly it’s a Hong Kong issue, Xinjiang issue, and Tibet issue. Those are typical issues linking domestic threat and external threat. He has spent so much time on those issues and also made significant policy shift on those issues. Without Xi Jinping, we’ll not see Hong Kong change that much in the last several years. 

GREITENS: Well, there have been many changes in Hong Kong, no question, over the course of Xi Jinping’s tenure. I wanted to ask you as we near the end of our time here, I wanted to ask you a bit about what your book tells us looking forward at the future direction of China’s foreign policy and its global diplomacy. 

In the past year, China has announced a global development initiative. Last April, Xi Jinping announced this global security initiative. And China has also had to respond to the global pandemic as well as the Russian invasion and war in Ukraine. And so, I wanted to ask you a bit about how you think these policies fit under the framework of big power diplomacy, and where is Xi Jinping’s foreign policy likely headed in the next five years, in the remainder of his third term? 

ZHAO: Xi Jinping has met a lot of new initiatives since he came to office. On the foreign policy front before 2011, when you mentioned the Global Development Initiative, the most important initiative people talked mostly was Belt and Road Initiative and maybe also the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But those were mostly at a regional level and also economic issue-focused. I mean, several years after, those initiatives have not really done well.  

And 2021 Xi Jinping proposed the so-called Global Development Initiative in the UN. And then the next year, as you said, last year, he proposed the Global Security Initiative. And these initiatives are much broader than the Belt and Road Initiative, although at this moment, they have not gone beyond the abstract concept. We don’t see many specific policy contents among those initiatives. 

But that reflects Xi Jinping’s, I should say, his foreign policy aspiration. One of them is to reshape global order, which has been constructed under the U.S. leadership. And the U.S. has been dominant in this system. So, he thought those U.S. dominant order, those norms, everything, disadvantaged emerging powers, particularly China. 

So, China wanted to reform, in his words, reform those orders. So, these initiatives are parts of his efforts to reform global governance and international order. Among these two initiatives you mentioned, I thought the Global Security Initiative was more catching eyes because it targets directly on the U.S. alliance partner system. 

And among these initiatives, there is a term which I think is really interesting, “invisible security.” In other words, typical to Chinese thinking, you cannot keep your own security at expense of other states’ security. Here he’s talking about you cannot interfere, intervene in my domestic affairs. And this is also behind Xi Jinping’s thinking to support Russia. You talk about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine because the rationale here was NATO expansion damaged Russian security. And China in that context supported to have security concepts against the U.S.-dominant alliances and partner system. 

Another thing you mentioned was China’s partnerships with Russia and now also the Iranian president just visited China and Xi Jinping agreed to have a return visit to Iran. This is also China’s efforts in confrontation with the United States. In fact, in my book, I mentioned that Xi Jinping’s foreign big power policy, the essence was in confrontation with the United States. So, this country shared China’s grievance against the U.S. dominance in the world. So, China has been worked with these countries, which I don’t know if they could really get what they want. So, those are the problems. And the pandemic and any other issues, also China has tried to use this to promote the China model, which I don’t think is successful. 

So, China has tried to reform, rewrite the rules of global order, and also to undermine the U.S. predominance in the world, tried to reestablish China’s centrality in the world stage. So, that’s what I think big power diplomacy is. How far China can go, I don’t know. There are many concerns now, Xi Jinping’s power concentration, in my book, I talk about how it may lead China to disasters, in fact. And also his power concentration has led to a lot of uncertainties of China’s future. And so, because of the time limit, I will not go further details on those issues. So, many interesting developments worth our attention. 

GREITENS: There are so many more, and I have a long list of questions that I could continue to ask you. But I’ve really enjoyed the chance to talk to you about this book and would encourage everyone to take a look at the full book and to read each of its chapters. There’s a lot there to unpack. And I really appreciate you taking the time today to share the insights and the arguments from the book with us. So, thank you again for joining us, and best of luck with sharing the book’s message and the insights that you have with all of us. Thank you. 

ZHAO: Thank you, Sheena, for such a wonderful job to moderate this event. Thank you. 

DEITEL: Fantastic. Well, thank you both so much for sharing your thoughts and insights with us today. I’d also like to thank the National Committee staff members behind the scenes who have made today’s interview possible. I would hope those who have tuned in found the interview both interesting and informative and are ready to continue to pull the thread on Dr. Zhao’s book and hope that you’ll join us for future National Committee programming. Thank you all again, and have a great day. 

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.